A few years ago, I posted Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read that post to see all of them, but this week I wanted to take some time to comment on them a few at a time. HIs list is different than most “how to be creative” lists because it’s a poem, a magic spell and yet it still has very practical advice embedded in it.
Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) was an outsider musician famous for his unique sensibilities, intensity and for doing things like kicking a drummer of out of his band for being unable to follow the instruction to “play a strawberry.” Instead of struggling to be original, he seemed instead to be trying to find a way to make his endless creativity intersect with the rest of the world.
I am giving my imperfect interpretations below. Please leave your take in the comments.
Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing
1. Listen to the birds
That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.
He’s not saying to mimic the songs of the birds, which you might assume since this list is about music, but to look at their method. Their music is not something they decide to do, it’s part of who they are. Birds don’t sit in front of a piano feeling anxiety about being able to write a top ten hit or a perfect love song. They don’t struggle to come up with something to sing, they know where it comes from so they have to let it out. They don’t make mistakes because it’s not possible for them to sing something that they wouldn’t sing. They just keep going with their endless song.
“Birds know everything” because they have no presuppositions about how their music should sound. There is nothing to know. Our knowing how it should sound or directing it to sound like we want gets in the way. Listen to the bird, don’t critique the bird or try and convince the bird to sing something else.
And, don’t forget the hummingbirds going full speed even when they aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t waiting for inspiration. Their effort is not based on a destination or a goal. While listening to the bird is wonderful, don’t forget to take action.
Constant effort based on your true self is his first commandment.
“Listen to the birds” could be read to mean, figure out who you are and put all your effort into being that thing without pretense or judgment.
2. Your guitar is not really a guitar
Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.
Never mistake the tools of your art for the art itself. Your word processor is not a word processor. Your paintbrush is not a paintbrush. Your ballet shoes are not ballet shoes. They are tools that take the spirits in the other world and transform them into something in the real world. They are what you use to find the ideas you need.
It’s interesting that Captain Beefheart also uses a magical example and a real-world example for this one. A divining rod, or dowsing rod, was a forked stick that you could use to find water underground using spiritual or pseudo-scientific means. So, both a fishing pole and a dowsing rod are used by a person above a giant hidden space to try and discern what’s underneath.
Is that space the subconscious mind? Other people think so. But, it doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. The important thing is to find the tool you need explore that space to get access to the ideas you need.
David Lynch also talks about ideas as catching fish, but his fishing pole is a camera and a paintbrush. In his book on creativity Lynch extends the fish metaphor, but I think it lines up nicely with what Captain Beefheart is saying. For example, Lynch says, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
What is your divining rod? What is your metaphor for the place where the ideas reside?