Licks and Riffs

Lately I have been listening to music and reading books…a lot. The early darkness of winter combined with an avoidance of American television news programs, my main viewing habit, requires that I alter my activities a bit.  Also, I have been reading a lot more because Stephen King wrote, in his book I just read – “On Writing” – that writers should always read. Now, I don’t know if I am a writer or not. The process of writing is painful to me, but I  am trying to find out as I consider the next phase of my life…assuming it has some length to it.

In all of this listening and reading, I have noticed some commonality. In particular, the relationship between professionalship and the final work. In music, I noticed that often the musicianship of the artist overwhelms the message of the artist. Superb guitar players seem to risk demonstrating their skill set, their “licks,” at the expense of the listener’s experience. I think that might be part of the genius of the Rolling Stones, their riffs complemented their songs. Musically, the Stones’ riffs are not extremely complicated, but are so memorable.  They can even uniquely identify a particular time or era in your life when you first heard their riffs. The Stones remind us that just because you can play it doesn’t mean you should play it.

Vocal harmonies also can be too complicated, even if musically correct. It can begin sounding like noise, drowning out the melody.  The best examples of harmonies that enhance songs come from the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkle, and the Beach Boys. With the Beach Boys, I think The Sloop of John B. and Good Vibrations are the best examples of harmonies that are, like Goldilocks said, “Just right.”

Novelists also let their abilities overtake the story. Some are so gifted with language skills that their riffs get in the way of the story. Elmore Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” among so many other great mystery and western novels, wrote directly into the action of the story, not a word wasted. In doing so, his stories are fast paced and so is the reading of them. They are highly entertaining. Stephen King stories, although not stripped down like Elmore’s are, also avoids unnecessary complicated grammatical licks. I think Charles Dickens, particular for his era, focused on the story too… and they live on.

Another art form that wouldn’t often come to mind in this discussion is photography. Some photographers seem to have the eye to capture the essence of and all  the potential of the subject. There are licks and riffs within the captured image, but only as they support the subject matter. I don’t know how they do this, but Suzy Haywood is one of those that does know how.

In American politics, and one reason I had to cut back on watching the so-called news, is that the entire message is nothing but licks and riffs. There is no melody. The melody is where one compromises, choosing one note over the other, in an effort to create a listenable, and perhaps enjoyable, melody. American politics seems to have no room for compromise and in that void, we can’t create a national melody.

If I ever do decide to write the great American novel, I think it would serve me well to keep these lessons in mind. It is the melody that touches the heart. The licks and riffs should only support the melody.

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