Many years ago, while I was in the process of flunking out of college, John Stewart gave a lecture about nothing in particular and everything in general: his life, songwriting, cars, women, performing. This was only a few years after his hit song Gold, so it was surprising that not many more than a hundred people were in attendance. I had something else that I had to get to, so I knew that I was going to have to slip out of the lecture half-way through. Stewart did not allow me to do this unnoticed, however. He was very friendly throughout; cheerfully chiding me for missing his pearls of wisdom.
After I was done with my thing and he was done with his thing, we happened to run into each other. He remembered me: it had only been two hours and I was, after all, the guy who walked out on him. We walked to his car, which, if I remember correctly was some piece of junk. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember two things he told me. First, he said, never listen to what your friends and family tell you about your work. He said, everyone told him that he sucked—until he sold his first hit and made $50,000 on it (in the early 1960s, I think); people who don’t know you are the only ones who can really see your talent. The second thing he told me was that art was whatever the hell you make it. He had an example: Happiness is a Warm Gun. Now here is a song that is just four song fragments pasted together. By traditional standards, it’s a piece of shit; but as we all know, it is great.
Not long after that, I was playing in band whose name I would prefer to forget because it was pathetic. It consisted of me (who could kind of play and wrote all the songs), Will (who could scream really well), and Roger (who was a very good keyboard player). Roger was about ten years older than Will and me, and he thought he knew music much better than we did (and in a way he did). One day I brought in a song called “Do You Like Life?” I was very pleased with how we did the song, but Roger had a real problem with it. You see, the song had no chorus; it had a bridge kind of thing, but it was really just a chant. Roger said, as he often did, “You can’t do that!”
A couple of weeks later, Will and I meet up with Roger and he is very excited: he wants to play a song for us. It was Lovers By Rote off the first Jules and the Polar Bears album Got No Breeding. In the song, Jules Shear does something similar to what I was doing (admittedly, what I was doing was more extreme). His “bridge” went:
All you really gotta do is tug a little leash to find yourself constricted
All you really gotta do is think about the crime to find yourself convicted
And Roger relented, “I guess you can do that!” I know that people said the same thing about Beethoven’s First Symphony. “You can’t start a symphony with a dominant seventh chord!” Who do these people think they are? How do they think any field of art progresses?
Or maybe it is all about me. Beethoven was established. John Lennon was established. I was not. But in general, innovation comes from those who are not established. I think that John Stewart was keenly aware of that. And as for Jules Shear and me: I don’t think either of us care.