“Keep a good head, and always carry a light bulb.”
“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.”
Bob Dylan had just turned 24-years old when he wrote the song Like a Rolling Stone, a song Rolling Stone magazine decades later called The Greatest Song of All Time.
The beginnings of “Like a Rolling Stone” can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don’t Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost/For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost.” Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for “Like a Rolling Stone,” connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
500 Greatest Songs of All Time/Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan’s Brain happens to be the title of the first chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve listened to that chapter on CD twice as Lehrer unpacks the neurons that were firing in Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote Like a Rolling Stone back in ’65 in a small rural cabin in Woodstock, New York:
“He grabbed a pencil and started to scribble. Once Dylan began, his hand didn’t stop for the next several hours. ‘I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,’ Dylan said. ‘I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.’ Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight, that flow of associations that can’t be held back. ‘I don’t know where my songs come from,’ Dylan said. ‘It’s like a ghost is writing the song. It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.’ Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”
But the important thing for you to realize is the flow of association didn’t come out of thin air. What Lehrer called Dylan’s “diversity of influences” came from his time as a youth listening to a mix of music on AM radio while growing up (with long winters) in Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. His influences were the books and poems he read. His early influences include his brief college career in Minneapolis and taking part in the music scene in Dinkytown. It was actually his time in the Twin Cities in 1959 when he shifted from a rock and roll to a folk emphasis.
“I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
By 1961 Dylan was playing in folk clubs around Greenwich Village in New York. In ’63 he had a hit with Blowin’ in the Wind, and just a couple of years later, Dylan had already played throughout the U.S. and Europe. He was successful and popular, yet it was Like a Rolling Stone that proved his real breakthrough as an artist.
“Listening to these ambiguous lyrics, we can hear his mental blender at work, as he effortlessly mixes together scraps of Arthur Rimbaud, Fellini, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Johnson. There’s some Delta blues and ‘La Bamba’ but also plenty of Beat poetry, Ledbetter, and the Beatles. The song is modernist and pre-modern, avant garde and county & western. What Dylan did— and this is why he’s Bob Dylan—was find the strange thread connecting those despairing voices. During those frantic first minutes of writing, his right hemisphere found a way to find something new out of this incongruous list of influences, drawing them together into a catchy song”
Imagine: How Creativity Works
In many ways, Lehrer is building on what Arthur Koestler wrote in his 1964 book The Act of Creation and legendary designer Milton Glaser later did in Art is Work. It’s what I touched on back in ’08 in one of my all-time favorite posts, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). But Lehrer’s writing is more accessible that Koestler’s and he brings many fresh examples to how the creative process works.
Looking at Dylan’s influences, it’s no surprise that the song Like a Rolling Stone was the leading hit off the album titled Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 being that road that runs up and down the gut of the United States. A road that wanders along the Mississippi River from Duluth in northern Minnesota down through the Delta Blues country in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. An area that has been tremendously influential musically in places like St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and the famed Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi where blue great Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.
This is the heart of this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Sure books, blogs, seminars and schools can be helpful on one level—but don’t get caught up in playing follow the leader. While few will have the genius of Dylan, we all come from somewhere, from someplace. The real gold is what’s kicking around in your head and heart. You have your own unique life experiences.You have your own unique blender of influences kicking around into your brain. Tap into that and hope that the ghost pays you a visit.
August 1, 2012 Update: Los Angeles Times/Joanah Lehrer’s Bob Dylan quotes lead to resigination.