How David Lynch Got Creative Inspiration? By Drinking a Milkshake at Bob’s Big Boy, Every Single Day, for Seven Straight Years

“It is no secret that David Lynch, the writer-direc­tor-com­pos­er-painter, has an unusu­al rela­tion­ship with Bob’s Big Boy,” begins a 1999 Los Ange­les Times arti­cle on the auteur of films like Eraser­head and Blue Vel­vet. “For sev­en years in the 1980s he ate lunch there every day, order­ing cup after cup of over-sweet­ened cof­fee and a sin­gle choco­late milk­shake while scrib­bling notes on Bob’s lit­tle square nap­kins.” He took pains, notes reporter Amy Wal­lace, “to arrive at Bob’s at pre­cise­ly 2:30 p.m. each day. The rea­son: It increased the odds that he would encounter per­fec­tion.”

“If you go ear­li­er, at lunchtime, they’re mak­ing a lot of choco­late milk­shakes. The mix­ture has to cool in a machine, but if it does­n’t sit in there long enough — when they’re serv­ing a lot of them — it’s run­ny,” Wal­lace quotes Lynch as say­ing. “At 2:30, the milk­shake mix­ture has­n’t been sit­ting there too long, but you’ve got a chance for it to be just great.”

For his pains, he received “only three per­fect milk­shakes out of more than 2,500. But that was­n’t the point. For Lynch, it was enough to know he had set the stage for excel­lence to occur,” believ­ing that “whether with milk­shakes or movies,” one “must make room for inspi­ra­tion to strike — to lay the prop­er ground­work for great­ness to take hold.”

When the 1980s British tele­vi­sion series The Incred­i­bly Strange Film Show devot­ed an episode to Lynch, it nat­u­ral­ly went to Los Ange­les not just to inter­view him but to shoot some footage at Bob’s, the sacred space itself. In the clip at the top of the post, you can see host Jonathan Ross, seat­ed in one of the retro din­er’s booths and Lynchi­an­ly dressed in a white shirt but­toned all the way up, describe how, after an “all-Amer­i­can lunch,” the direc­tor would embark on “marathon cof­fee-drink­ing ses­sions. Fueled by the caf­feine and his exces­sive sug­ar intake, he’d then spend the after­noon writ­ing down ideas for movies on the nap­kins help­ful­ly pro­vid­ed by Bob.”

In the inter­view that fol­lows, Lynch him­self con­firms all this. “I was into Bob’s halfway through Eraser­head,” he says, estab­lish­ing the chronol­o­gy. “The end of Dune” — his trau­mat­ic, failed expe­ri­ence with big-bud­get stu­dio pro­duc­tion — “was pret­ty much the end of Bob’s.” Even Lynch’s daugh­ter Jen­nifer, for a time her father’s Bob’s-going com­pan­ion, rem­i­nisces about “the draw­ing on nap­kins” and the “tons of cof­fee with lots of sug­ar.” In this late-80s inter­view, Lynch describes him­self as “heav­i­ly into sug­ar. I call it ‘gran­u­lat­ed hap­pi­ness.’ It’s just a great help, a friend.”

Lynch’s rep­u­ta­tion for drink­ing Bob’s milk­shakes long out­last­ed his actu­al habit. Char­lie Rose makes a point of ask­ing about it in the clip in the mid­dle of the post, prompt­ing Lynch to explain the rea­son­ing behind his dai­ly trips — both lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly, since when Rose asks if all the sug­ar got him high, Lynch admits that “it is like a drug, I sup­pose, because it revs you up.” Though by all accounts still a prodi­gious drinker of cof­fee and smok­er of cig­a­rettes, Lynch has grown more health-con­scious in recent years, a shift that may well have begun when, for rea­sons of his own, he went behind his beloved Bob’s and climbed into its dump­ster. “I found one of these car­tons that milk­shakes came from,” says Lynch in the more recent inter­view clip above. “Every ingre­di­ent end­ed in ‑zene or ‑ate. There was noth­ing nat­ur­al any­where near that car­ton.”

Even though that dis­cov­ery put an end to Lynch’s 2:30 appear­ances, all his cof­fee-soaked, sug­ar-sat­u­rat­ed after­noons spent at Bob’s had already filled him with ideas. One day, for exam­ple, “I saw a man come in. He came to the counter, and that’s all I remem­ber of this man, but from see­ing him came a feel­ing, and that’s where Frank Booth came from.” Blue Vel­vet’s psy­chot­ic, gas-huff­ing, Den­nis Hop­per-por­trayed vil­lain aside, Lynch fans who make their own pil­grim­age to Bob’s Big Boy even today will under­stand how well its sen­si­bil­i­ty may have res­onat­ed with the film­mak­er’s obvi­ous attrac­tion to mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cana. But as we’ve learned from his life as well as his work, it’s best not to go around back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­re­al Film­mak­ing of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

The Incred­i­bly Strange Film Show: Revis­it 1980s Doc­u­men­taries on David Lynch, John Waters, Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky & Oth­er Film­mak­ers

An Ani­mat­ed David Lynch Explains Where He Gets His Ideas

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Boosts Our Cre­ativ­i­ty (Plus Free Resources to Help You Start Med­i­tat­ing)

Hear David Lynch Read from His New Mem­oir Room to Dream, and Browse His New Online T‑Shirt Store

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What English Would Sound Like If It Was Pronounced Phonetically

The Eng­lish lan­guage presents itself to stu­dents and non-native speak­ers as an almost cru­el­ly capri­cious enti­ty, its irreg­u­lar­i­ties of spelling and con­ju­ga­tion impos­si­ble to explain with­out an advanced degree. It wasn’t until grad­u­ate school that I came to under­stand how spellings like “rough” and “knight” sur­vived sev­er­al hun­dreds of years of lin­guis­tic change, and pre­served ves­tiges of pho­net­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tions that had long since dis­ap­peared in his­toric upheavals like the Great Vow­el Shift and sub­se­quent spelling wars.

The impor­ta­tion of huge num­bers of loan words from oth­er lan­guages, and expor­ta­tion of Eng­lish to the world, has made it a poly­glot tongue that con­tains a mul­ti­tude of spellings and pro­nun­ci­a­tions, to the con­ster­na­tion of every­one. Unlike French, which has a cen­tral­ized body that adju­di­cates lan­guage change, Eng­lish grows and evolves wild­ly. Dic­tio­nar­ies and lin­guis­tics depart­ments strug­gle to keep up.

One almost wants to apol­o­gize to non-native speak­ers for the fol­low­ing sen­tence: “Though I coughed rough­ly and hic­coughed through­out the lec­ture, I still thought I could plough through the rest of it.” As Aaron Alon, nar­ra­tor of the video above, points out, the “incred­i­ble incon­sis­ten­cy” of words with “ough” in them “can make Eng­lish incred­i­bly hard to mas­ter.” What if a gov­ern­ing body of Eng­lish lan­guage schol­ars, like the Académie française, came togeth­er to pre­scribe a pho­net­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent pro­nun­ci­a­tion?

For one thing, they would have to deal with the diver­si­ty of vow­el sounds—like the “a” in “father,” “ape,” and “apple.” As the video pro­ceeds, we hear these reg­u­lar­ized in the narrator’s speech. Stu­dents of the lan­guage’s his­to­ry might imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize some­thing like the sound of Shake­speare’s Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish, which did have a more pho­net­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Soon the sounds of Romance languages—French, Span­ish, Ital­ian, Romanian—and the accents speak­ers of those lan­guages bring to Eng­lish, start to emerge.

By the time Alon has reg­u­lar­ized the vow­el sounds, and launched into a recita­tion of Hamlet’s famous solil­o­quy, his pro­nun­ci­a­tion begins to sound like Chaucer’s Mid­dle Eng­lish, which you can hear pro­nounced above in a read­ing of The Can­ter­bury Tales. If we hear the accent this way, the exer­cise shows that Eng­lish once made far more pho­net­ic sense (and had a more pleas­ing musi­cal lilt) than it does today. Alter­nate­ly, we may hear, as Jason Kot­tke does, an accent that “sounds a lit­tle like Wern­er Her­zog doing an impres­sion of some­one from Wales doing an impres­sion of an Ital­ian who doesn’t speak Eng­lish that well.” Which, he writes, “makes sense because that’s pret­ty much how the lan­guage came togeth­er in the first place!” More or less….

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Where Did the Eng­lish Lan­guage Come From?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

NASA Creates a Visualization That Sets Breathtaking Footage of the Moon to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight)

From NASA’s Ernie Wright comes “Moon­light (Clair de Lune),” a visu­al­iza­tion that takes beau­ti­ful images of the lunar ter­rain and sets them to Claude Debussy’s 1905 com­po­si­tion, Clair de Lune (1905). Here’s how Wright describes the project:

This visu­al­iza­tion attempts to cap­ture the mood of Claude Debussy’s best-known com­po­si­tion, Clair de Lune (moon­light in French). The piece was pub­lished in 1905 as the third of four move­ments in the com­poser’s Suite Berga­masque, and unlike the oth­er parts of this work, Clair is qui­et, con­tem­pla­tive, and slight­ly melan­choly, evok­ing the feel­ing of a soli­tary walk through a moon­lit gar­den. The visu­als were com­posed like a nature doc­u­men­tary, with clean cuts and a most­ly sta­tion­ary vir­tu­al cam­era. The view­er fol­lows the Sun through­out a lunar day, see­ing sun­ris­es and then sun­sets over promi­nent fea­tures on the Moon. The sprawl­ing ray sys­tem sur­round­ing Coper­ni­cus crater, for exam­ple, is revealed beneath reced­ing shad­ows at sun­rise and lat­er slips back into dark­ness as night encroach­es. The visu­al­iza­tion was cre­at­ed to accom­pa­ny a per­for­mance of Clair de Lune by the Nation­al Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra Pops, led by con­duc­tor Emil de Cou, at the Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Wash­ing­ton, DC, on June 1 and 2, 2018, as part of a cel­e­bra­tion of NASA’s 60th anniver­sary. The visu­al­iza­tion uses a dig­i­tal 3D mod­el of the Moon built from Lunar Recon­nais­sance Orbiter glob­al ele­va­tion maps and image mosaics. The light­ing is derived from actu­al Sun angles dur­ing lunar days in 2018.


via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Debussy Play Debussy: A Vin­tage Record­ing from 1913

Pianist Plays Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Rav­el & Debussy for Blind Ele­phants in Thai­land

Watch Clas­si­cal Music Come to Life in Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Scores: Stravin­sky, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart & More

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How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema: A Video Essay on How the Greatest Rule-Breaker in Film Made His Name

Few can think of the very con­cept of the auteur with­out think­ing of Jean-Luc Godard. That goes for those of us exhil­a­rat­ed by his movies, those of us amused by them, those of us frus­trat­ed by them, and those of us who expe­ri­ence any com­bi­na­tion of those emo­tions and more. Godard­’s ear­ly audi­ences, at the dawn of the French New Wave in the late 1950s and the decade or so there­after, react­ed in all those ways, and some­how time has­n’t drained his work in that peri­od of its pow­er.

“How Jean-Luc Godard Lib­er­at­ed Cin­e­ma,” the video essay from The Dis­card­ed Image above, shows us how a young film­mak­er in mid-cen­tu­ry France, work­ing under severe­ly lim­it­ed envi­ron­ments and in a whole new post­war real­i­ty — cul­tur­al as well as eco­nom­ic — imbued them with that pow­er. Start­ing with a bang, his 1959 fea­ture debut Breath­less, Godard took cin­e­ma, says Dis­card­ed Image cre­ator Julian Palmer, and “tore through its foun­da­tions, rein­vent­ing the form and rein­vent­ing him­self, pic­ture by pic­ture.” This entailed “a hap­haz­ard ethos toward edit­ing” as well as oscil­la­tion between “genre and the every­day, actors and non-pro­fes­sion­als, black and white and col­or.”

Godard “found the mod­ern world, engulfed with com­mer­cial­ism, both appeal­ing in its pop-art aes­thet­ic, but also repel­lent,” and his ear­ly films vivid­ly express both halves of that world­view. All the while he “toys with the con­ven­tions of cin­e­ma,” for exam­ple by sev­er­ing the “umbil­i­cal cord” of the musi­cal score, “mak­ing you aware of how you’re being manip­u­lat­ed by his medi­um,” and lit­ter­ing the frame with text, “often with abstract phras­es, pos­si­bly just to pro­voke a reac­tion” — or, as some Godard enthu­si­asts might put it, def­i­nite­ly just to pro­voke a reac­tion.

The Godard films on which this video essay focus­es — the for­mi­da­ble stretch from Breath­less to 1967’s Week-end, with pic­tures like Vivre sa vieCon­tempt, and Alphav­ille in-between —  also draw deeply from cin­e­ma itself. “Movies sur­round these char­ac­ters’ lives, pro­vid­ing a con­trast to their exis­tence,” says Palmer. “This fan­ta­sy can allow them to momen­tar­i­ly escape their real­i­ty.” But as the 1960s became the 1970s, “like a film com­ing off its pro­jec­tor, Godard him­self was com­ing off track. He was increas­ing­ly dis­gust­ed by con­sumer cul­ture, which was only becom­ing more dom­i­nant.”

There­after, as some crit­ics see it, the del­i­cate bal­ance between Godard­’s pol­i­tics and his aes­thet­ics was over­turned by the for­mer, but his ini­tial “man­ic peri­od of fer­tile cre­ation is still unmatched to this day, and Godard­’s influ­ence is immea­sur­able.” We should not only be thank­ful that Godard still makes films (his lat­est, The Image Book, won the very first “Spe­cial Palme d’Or” at this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val), but also hope that the next gen­er­a­tion of film­mak­ers con­tin­ues to look to his exam­ple. Godard may have lib­er­at­ed cin­e­ma, but it always and every­where threat­ens to put itself back in chains.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Jean-Luc Godard Takes Cannes’ Rejec­tion of Breath­less in Stride in 1960 Inter­view

The Entire­ty of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less Art­ful­ly Com­pressed Into a 3 Minute Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria: An Animated Introduction

The demise of the Library of Alexan­dria has for cen­turies been cast as one of history’s great­est tragedies, an incal­cu­la­ble and sense­less loss of ancient knowl­edge in an act of war. “Once the largest library in the ancient world,” writes Bri­an Haughton at Ancient His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia, “con­tain­ing works by the great­est thinkers and writ­ers of antiq­ui­ty, includ­ing Homer, Pla­to, Socrates and many more, the Library of Alexan­dria, north­ern Egypt, is pop­u­lar­ly believed to have been destroyed in a huge fire around 2000 years ago and its volu­mi­nous works lost.”

Ancient accounts, includ­ing those of Julius Cae­sar him­self, that detail the mul­ti­ple burn­ings of Alexan­dria seem to sup­port this sto­ry. But in truth, the Library’s dis­ap­pear­ance has been a his­tor­i­cal mys­tery, “per­pet­u­at­ed by the fact that no archi­tec­tur­al remains or archae­o­log­i­cal finds that can def­i­nite­ly be attrib­uted to the ancient Library have ever been recov­ered.” The TED-Ed les­son above tells the sto­ry of the Library’s rise and fall, which is, as his­to­ry tends to be, “much more com­plex.”

Built 2300 years ago by Alexan­der the Great’s suc­ces­sor, Ptole­my I, the Library was intend­ed to rival any schol­ar­ly insti­tu­tion in Athens, and by all accounts, it did. Alexandria’s rulers attempt­ed to col­lect a copy of every man­u­script in the world. Any ship that docked in the city had to “turn over its books for copy­ing.” Book hunters were sent all over the Mediter­ranean. The Library was in fact, notes Haughton, “two or more libraries,” one of them named the “Tem­ple of the Mus­es,” or “the Musaeum,” (Greek, Mou­seion), from which the mod­ern word “muse­um” derives.

As a cul­tur­al cen­ter, it was unusu­al­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic. “Unlike the many pri­vate libraries that exist­ed in the palaces of the wealthy in the ancient world,” writes Annalee Newitz at io9, “the library at Alexan­dria was open to any­one who could prove them­selves a wor­thy schol­ar.” Among them were Cal­li­machus of Cyrene, who cre­at­ed the first library cat­a­log to help nav­i­gate the vast col­lec­tion, and Eratos­thenes, one of the Library’s direc­tors, who cal­cu­lat­ed the Earth’s cir­cum­fer­ence and diam­e­ter (and knew that it was round) with­in only a few miles of their actu­al size.

The Library thrived for around 300 years before it went into a very long peri­od of decline. Though Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexan­dria in 45 BCE has been blamed for its destruc­tion, and may have dec­i­mat­ed part of its col­lec­tion, we know that it sur­vived and that schol­ars con­tin­ued to vis­it it for sev­er­al hun­dred more years. Its last record­ed direc­tor was schol­ar and math­e­mati­cian Theon, father of famed female philoso­pher Hypa­tia, who was mur­dered by a Chris­t­ian mob in 415 CE. As the city became ruled by a suc­ces­sion of empires—Greek, Roman, Chris­t­ian, and Muslim—the Library seemed increas­ing­ly to pose a threat to its rulers.

The TED-Ed video impli­cates the rav­ages of time and the fear of knowl­edge as his­tor­i­cal cul­prits in the Library’s demise. Newitz points to a much more mun­dane cause, bud­get cuts. She quotes library his­to­ri­an Heather Phillips’ expla­na­tion of its down­fall as “grad­ual, often bureau­crat­ic, and by com­par­i­son to our cul­tur­al imag­in­ings, some­what pet­ty.” The caus­es of its fall includ­ed abol­ish­ing stipends and expelling for­eign schol­ars. While we have imag­ined the Library burn­ing down or torn to pieces by reli­gious fanat­ics, the truth may be that it slow­ly fell vic­tim to oth­er ancient ills: insti­tu­tion­al­ized greed, short-sight­ed­ness, big­otry, and igno­rance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

Carl Sagan Explains How the Ancient Greeks, Using Rea­son and Math, Fig­ured Out the Earth Isn’t Flat, Over 2,000 Years Ago

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Did Lennon or McCartney Write the Beatles 1965 Song “In My Life”? A Math Professor, Using Statistics, Solves the Decades-Old Mystery

In 2009, gui­tarist Randy Bach­man of the Guess Who and Bach­man-Turn­er Over­drive had the rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear the indi­vid­ual tracks that make up that myth­ic open­ing chord in the Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” an enig­ma that has baf­fled musi­cians for decades. Bach­man found that it’s actu­al­ly made up of a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent chords played all at once by George, John, and Paul. The dis­cov­ery made for a great sto­ry, and Bach­man told it the fol­low­ing year on his CBC radio show. Unbe­knownst to him, it seems, anoth­er Cana­di­an Bea­t­les lover, Dal­housie Uni­ver­si­ty math pro­fes­sor Jason Brown, claimed he had cracked the code the pre­vi­ous year, with­out set­ting foot in Abbey Road.

Instead, Brown used what is called a Fouri­er Analy­sis, based on work done in the 1820s by French sci­en­tist Joseph Fouri­er, which reduces sounds into their “con­stituent sine or cosine waves.” The prob­lem with Bachman’s expla­na­tion, as Eliot Van Buskirk notes at Wired, is that the chord “con­tains a note that would be impos­si­ble for the Bea­t­les’ two gui­tarists and bassist to play in one take.” Since there was no over­dub­bing involved, some­thing else must have been hap­pen­ing. Through his math­e­mat­i­cal analy­sis, Brown deter­mined that some­thing else to have been five notes played on the piano, appar­ent­ly by George Mar­tin, “who is known to have dou­bled on piano George Harrison’s solo on the track.”

After ten years of work, Brown has returned with the solu­tion to anoth­er long­time Bea­t­les mys­tery, this time with a lit­tle help from his col­leagues, Har­vard math­e­mati­cians Mark Glick­man and Ryan Song. The prob­lem: who wrote the melody for “In My Life,” Rub­ber Soul’s nos­tal­gic bal­lad? The song is cred­it­ed to the crack team of Lennon-McCart­ney, but while the two agreed that Lennon penned the lyrics, both sep­a­rate­ly claimed in inter­views to have writ­ten the music. Brown and his col­lab­o­ra­tors used sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods to deter­mine that it was, in fact, Lennon who wrote the whole song.

They present their research in a paper titled “Assess­ing Author­ship of Bea­t­les Songs from Musi­cal Con­tent: Bayesian Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Mod­el­ing from Bags-Of-Words Rep­re­sen­ta­tions.” In the NPR Week­end Edi­tion inter­view above, you can hear Stan­ford math­e­mati­cian Kei­th Devlin break down the terms of their project, includ­ing that odd phrase “bags-of-words rep­re­sen­ta­tions,” which “actu­al­ly goes back to the 1950s,” he says. “Bags-of-words”—like the word clouds we now see on websites—take text, “ignore the gram­mar” and word order and pro­duce a col­lec­tion of words. The method was used to gen­er­ate the first spam fil­ters. Rather than use words, how­ev­er, the math­e­mati­cians decon­tex­tu­al­ized snip­pets of sound.

In an analy­sis of “about 70 songs from Lennon and McCart­ney… they found there were 149 very dis­tinct tran­si­tions between notes and chords.” These are unique to one or the oth­er song­writ­ers. “When you do the math,” Devlin says, it turns out “the prob­a­bil­i­ty that McCart­ney wrote it was .o18—that’s essen­tial­ly zero.” Why might Paul have mis­re­mem­bered this—even say­ing specif­i­cal­ly in a 1984 Play­boy inter­view that he recalled “going off for half an hour and sit­ting with a Mel­lotron… writ­ing the tune”? Who knows. Mash­able has reached out to McCartney’s pub­li­cist for com­ment. But in the final analy­sis, says Devlin, “I would go with math­e­mat­ics” over faulty human mem­o­ry.

via NPR

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gui­tarist Randy Bach­man Demys­ti­fies the Open­ing Chord of The Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night”

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Pro­gram Tries to Write a Bea­t­les Song: Lis­ten to “Daddy’s Car”

The Bea­t­les “While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” Gets a Dreamy New Music Video from Cirque du Soleil

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

How Leonard Cohen Wrote a Love Song

So many songs take love as their top­ic, almost by default, that we hard­ly even think of the “love song” as a dis­tinct type of musi­cal work any­more. And when we do, we often do it out of a desire for alter­na­tives: lyrics and com­po­si­tions of a more com­plex, cere­bral, and icon­ic nature, escapes from the sim­ple paeans to infat­u­a­tion, romance, and cou­ple­hood with which we can eas­i­ly feel fed up. Few singer-song­writ­ers in recent his­to­ry would seem more capa­ble of pro­vid­ing such escapes than Leonard Cohen, who nev­er shied away from look­ing at life (and when the time came, death) straight on, refus­ing to shrink from its infi­nite emo­tion­al chiaroscuro.

But Leonard Cohen, too, wrote love songs now and again. In “How Leonard Cohen Writes a Love Song,” the video essay from Poly­phon­ic above, we learn just how he tack­led that most com­mon of all musi­cal sub­jects with­out aban­don­ing his inim­itable sen­si­bil­i­ty. It first exam­ines Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” which has its ori­gins in a poem he wrote in 1966 and appeared on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen the fol­low­ing year. Unlike almost all love songs, “Suzanne” deals with a Pla­ton­ic rela­tion­ship, in this case the one between Cohen and a woman with whom he reg­u­lar­ly drank tea and took walks around his native Mon­tre­al.

From “Suzanne” the analy­sis moves on to “Famous Blue Rain­coat” from Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate. The nec­es­sary bal­ance between those forces implied in the album’s title reflects Cohen’s world­view, which in the 1970s led him into an involve­ment with Bud­dhism. But he’d also looked into Sci­en­tol­ogy, which explains the song’s then-cryp­tic ques­tion “Did you ever go clear?” That counts as only one of the many cul­tur­al ref­er­ences with which Cohen lay­ers “Famous Blue Rain­coat,” as he lay­ered so much of his work; even a song osten­si­bly about love was also about much else in the world besides love.

After an unpromis­ing ini­tial release in 1984, “Hal­lelu­jah,” would go on to become Cohen’s sig­na­ture song. (Mal­colm Glad­well tells the sto­ry on his pod­cast Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry). Despite the reli­gious themes on its sur­face, “Hal­lelu­jah” has a deep­er mean­ing, so the video reveals, as a love song, albeit a love song of a mul­ti­va­lent kind. Last comes “I’m Your Man,” the title track from Cohen’s unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly syn­the­siz­er-heavy 1988 album, and itself an unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly love song-like love song. But, in the words of Pitch­fork’s Dori­an Lynksey, it takes its “sen­ti­men­tal clichés — I’m addict­ed to love, I’ll do any­thing for love — to bru­tal extremes.” Though Cohen ulti­mate­ly had to admit his inabil­i­ty to ful­ly under­stand, much less tame, the forces of love, nev­er did he give up try­ing to mas­ter it in song, approach­ing it in all the ways typ­i­cal love songs teach us nev­er to expect.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hal­lelu­jah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist (1967–2016)

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

Say Good­bye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hal­lelu­jah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Oth­er Tracks

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Inter­view: Record­ed by David Rem­nick of The New York­er

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Lis­ten to Nick Cave’s Lec­ture on the Art of Writ­ing Sub­lime Love Songs (1999)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Aretha Franklin’s Most Powerful Early Performances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Little Prayer” & More

Sure­ly you’ve heard, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is grave­ly ill with ter­mi­nal can­cer and has been moved to hos­pice care. The news has brought tear­ful trib­utes from celebri­ties and fans; lengthy ret­ro­spec­tives of her almost six­ty-year career will fol­low. In a life as rich, trou­bled, and glam­orous as hers, with so many intense highs and lows, it’s almost impos­si­ble to know where to begin, though a num­ber of biog­ra­phers have already told her story—or sto­ries. She kept many of the details of her life pri­vate for years, and denied the sen­sa­tion­al details in a recent biog­ra­phy by David Ritz, who col­lab­o­rat­ed with her on an ear­li­er bio, 1999’s Aretha: From These Roots.

Her strug­gles with alco­hol and overeat­ing, preg­nan­cies at 12 and 14 years old, tumul­tuous and abu­sive rela­tion­ships… describ­ing her chal­lenges and her wilder times, claims Ritz in his defense, throws her incred­i­ble tal­ent and suc­cess into even high­er relief. It prob­a­bly won’t hurt sales, either. In any case, there’s no doubt that Aretha is a sur­vivor. She sang anthems of self-reliance like “Respect” and “Think” from deep wells of per­son­al feel­ing and expe­ri­ence. Music, she told Essence mag­a­zine in 1973, “is my way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing that part of me I can get out front and share. It’s what I have to give; my way of say­ing, ‘Let’s find one anoth­er.’”

A musi­cal prodi­gy as a singer and pianist, America’s reign­ing diva “grew up sur­round­ed by gospel greats,” notes, “such as Mahalia Jack­son, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward, as well as civ­il rights icons includ­ing Mar­tin Luther King Jr.,” whom she mourned in song at his funer­al. She’s won 18 Gram­mys, sung at the inau­gu­ra­tion of three pres­i­dents, became the first woman induct­ed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, had 43 sin­gles in the top 40 charts… this list of accom­plish­ments seems to just scratch the sur­face. What mat­ters in the end, and what will endure, are not the hon­ors, awards, and chart posi­tions, but her incred­i­ble musi­cian­ship and voice. Her gospel roots drove every per­for­mance, giv­ing even the light­est of songs, like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Lit­tle Prayer,” a stir­ring pow­er and con­vic­tion.

As mil­lions around the world offer prayers for Aretha, revis­it some of the finest live moments in her ear­ly career in the clips here— “Respect” in 1967, at the top, the year she won her first Gram­my for best R&B record­ing. See her per­form “Chain of Fools” in 1968—the year she appeared on the cov­er of Time mag­a­zine under the head­line “The Sound of Soul”—and “Say a Lit­tle Prayer” on The Cliff Richard Show in 1970. Just above, catch a stun­ning per­for­mance of one of her most beloved hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Nat­ur­al Woman.” And below, see her soul­ful take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Trou­bled Water” at the Fill­more West in 1971. Our thoughts are with Aretha and her fam­i­ly. May she con­tin­ue to inspire new gen­er­a­tions for many decades more after she leaves us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Women of the Blues: Hear a Playlist of Great Blues Singers, from Bessie Smith & Etta James, to Bil­lie Hol­i­day & Janis Joplin

Hear Mar­vin Gaye Sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” A Capel­la: The Haunt­ing Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track

Reli­gious Songs That Sec­u­lar Peo­ple Can Love: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, John­ny Cash & Your Favorites

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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