Creativity; The Greatest Light from the Darkest Place.
Courage to Create is a little red book, by an existential psychologist called Rollo May. As its name suggests, this little red book recognises that creative acts often require courage. Creativity is often born out of dark places. Sometimes we are at our creative peak when we are at our lowest ebb.
Last week I watched a documentary on the rock band, U2. From The Sky Down, tells the story of how U2 forged their pivotal album Achtung Baby from the fires of their own personal hell. It offers a rare insight into the creative process in rock music. For me though, it reveals something greater. It shows how to find solutions where there don’t seem to be any and how we can generate our greatest moments of genius from our darkest hours.
In the 1980’s, U2 had become a global success. The critically acclaimed Joshua Tree album had been followed up with a stadium tour in America. However, success may have come too quickly. The band found themselves under-prepared and out of their depth. In their words, they were not proficient enough to be consistent. The stadium tour was like a white knuckle ride. They felt vulnerable. They knew that they were not quite good enough but could not make up the ground quickly enough. “Shit happened, and it kept on happening. There were some huge challenges and they were not getting any easier”. As a result the band became overly protective. Bono recalls that his wife told him one day that he’d become so serious…’where has the mischief gone…where’s the madness?’
Just for interest, have you seen this happen in other teams?
As I read it, the band reacted to this in an attempt to find some solace. They started a journey into American music. That journey gave birth to the album Rattle & Hum. As the band describe it, the music was new to them but not to America. “It looked like we were trying to introduce American music to America”. The album was panned by the critics, who saw U2 as a band struggling to find an identity. “We’d become an overgrown American show band…and we weren’t very good at it. It didn’t become us: the band we’d become. Had we become the enemy?”. “It’s a dangerous place, when your public image is so different from your private reality”.
To me, it sounds as if they’d become inauthentic and lost themselves in their search for a song.
In their final live performance of the Rattle & Hum tour, Bono announced that it was the end of something for U2 and that they were going away to ‘dream it all up again’. Their answer was to strip it all back to nothing and start again. In Bono’s words, “You have to reject one expression of the band first, before you get to the next expression. In between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all”.
Rollo May recognises that to create something that is genuinely new, we invariably destroy something that previously existed. It can leave you in a state of limbo, having destroyed the old, but not created the new. That ‘rootless state’ is a place of anxiety; the anxiety of nothingness. Creative people strive at that point to find meaning from meaninglessness, being from non-being, music from silence.
U2 found nothingness. They took time out to find a new direction. Bono and lead guitarist ‘The Edge’ tried to find new rhythms and new sounds. They explored the dynamic newly emerging culture of early 90’s Europe, at the fall of the Berlin Wall. A rift seemed to appear between the melody of the band (singer and lead guitarist) and the rhythm (bass guitarist and drummer). Bass guitarist, Adam, described it as ‘abandonment’. When the band took themselves Berlin, to the Hansa Studios in Berlin, all was not well. Hansa Studios had been the birthplace of many great musical creations of the past. The band went in expecting the magic of the place to somehow infect them…but it seemed the magic had left the building. They went in believing in improvisation. They would play together and look for the magic moments, but the quartet were on completely different pages. In Adam’s words, “We’d go in and bash it out, hour after hour and listen back and not like anything we were doing. It was grim, very grim”. And it was unexpected. They had gone in with some good ideas but none of them were working.
Behind all of this, Edge’s marriage had broken up. “We’re a tight community. We’d all grown up together. These were the first cracks in a beautiful porcelain jug that was our community and our music”. They tried to harness this emotion in the music but it still wasn’t working. The band were going down a lot of blind alleys. There was friction and tension, arguments about where they were going and the direction. They didn’t know where each other was coming from. That sense of doubt changed the environment. The conversations were different, the interaction was different. In Bono’s words, “it was a long cold existence”.
“You can fail at any moment. That’s the whole beauty of it. If you’re prepared to remove the safety net and expose yourself. Your pursuit is of the magic moment, those moments you would never have imagined”, Flood (Producer).
Edge recalls that, “I started to focus my mind to solve musical problems”. Gradually snippets started to emerge and come into focus. As producer, Brain Eno says, “The act of making music is spread over months. You add, you take away. It’s not a single performance. The band always know it’s difficult and if it’s not difficult they don’t trust it”. Bits came in, bits went out, some moved, some were used elsewhere. “Some moments started to offer some uplifting, joyful melodies. We tried linking disparate pieces together”. Bono explains that when he was young, his Granny had a piano. Although he couldn’t see the keyboard, he could reach it and make a sound with the keys. He explains that when he played a note his instinct was always to find another note to follow it, which felt good. That process gives life to a melody. In writing lyrics. Bono explains that he searches for the vocabulary of the melody through sounds. He is searching for the feeling and emotion of the melody and tries to express this with his voice. The result is often gobbledygook. As he explains, it’s a strange existence, trying to build something from the sky down. It’s no place for an intellectually vain man, listening to yourself singing gobbledygook. However, from sounds come thoughts, words and eventually lyrics.
As this happened in Hansa Studios, a sense of momentum started to build. “Suddenly, something powerful began to happen in the room, we’d have one of those ‘hairs on the back of your neck’ moments”. “We started to move the chords, looking for that fertile ground; melodically”. Bass guitarist, Adam, tells how the band would listen to what Bono was doing on the microphone. “He was looking for a new place to go melodically, and we’d go with him dynamically”. There were little sparks, new angles that engaged them all and made them come alive.
Bono explains, “The way out of writers block is to be truthful. We wrote a song about division, a bittersweet song about disunity. It took a long time to come to terms with”. In Adam’s words, “We found a spiritual identity before we found the sonic identity. To do that, we had to be truthful with each other”. “We were looking for something that we could not find outside of ourselves. There was no magic to it. We had to just put in the work, figure out the ideas and hone those ideas down”. “It is important to be able to challenge other people, be challenged, you don’t have to agree with each other”.
The result was a reinvention. The album, Achtung Baby was accompanied by a live show phenomena called Zoo TV. Both were ground-breaking. Both were revolutionary. At the heart of their creation was a movement back towards mischief, madness and fun.
It sounds a little like play to me!
The stark black and white imagery gave way to bright lights, colours and vibrancy. “We started to explore again. We explored the media, TV, modern culture and the contradictions of our world. We started to explore the different parts of us”.
That sounds a little like play too.
Rollo May describes true creativity requiring an encounter between a person and their reality. That encounter itself requires intensity, absorption, complete engagement and complete involvement. Our whole self needs to be engaged in that encounter.
Humm, that also sounds like play to me.
As I watched the documentary, I saw a band looking for a song. To find the song, they first had to find themselves and to find each other. They had to find their truth and what they stood for. Then they found their rhythms, their melodies and eventually the vocabulary of those melodies. They found an identity and the music that was authentically theirs. We could say that it was forged from the fires of their personal hell. Actually, it seems it was born out of themselves.