Billy Joel says that every time he sings “Just The Way You Are” he starts thinking, “I wonder if I should have steak or chicken tonight for dinner.” The audience is enrapt in one of Joel’s greatest hits, assuming he is crooning his heart out about the only woman he has ever loved, and he is quietly planning his menu.
Joel sings “Just The Way” because it’s what the ticket buyers want to hear and, equally important, because he can no longer write great music to top it. Joel can sell memories but his days of creating powerful music are a thing of the pre-Brinkley past.
Billy is hardly alone. It has always intrigued me how people can create extraordinary things, often in the early stages of their lives, and then become empty vessels until the day they die. Their exceptionalism disappears and the marketing takes over. They are celebrated for what they did as opposed to what they can still do.
It was true of Einstein, who had the most extraordinary ephiphany in history and then went silent. Princeton hired scribes to follow the great man as he walked around the campus after his move to the US, in hopes of capturing gems in the mumbling he was known for. The notes are still available for review. Don’t bother. There is nothing there of value.
Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, yes, but his greatest achievement was writing one of the most exceptional plays in history, “Death Of A Salesman.” Miller wrote other plays, some of them celebrated, but that’s the marketing machine at work. The truth is, Arthur could never top, or even come close to, Death Of A Salesman.
JD Salinger knew he could never come close to “Catcher In The Rye,” so soon after he wrote the masterwork, he disappeared, lives the life of a hermit and writes but allows no one to read his manuscripts. He likely knows he’s lost it. Why confirm the secret.
If John Lennon had not been shot down by a lunatic, he’d be close to 70 years old. It is highly unlikely he could replicate “Imagine.” The odds are greater that he would be playing perhaps the most wonderful popular song of all time and thinking of his dinner while the Vegas crowds, moved by the marketing machine, was certain he was clinging to his dream of a utopian world. Or would he?
Why do human beings, even the legends among us, lose their creativity and find themselves unable to reconnect with it? Why do they wind up in oldies concerts or starring in CSI offshoots?
I don’t know. I don’t know why Bobby Fisher went from chess genius to pathetic freak. Why Aretha Franklin can’t have a hit song again. Why Jonas Salk couldn’t do a repeat and find a cure for AIDS.
I do know, that the ability to stay innovative, to push the envelope, to find a way to reinvent ourselves throughout our lives so that we are capable of powerful new ideas, songs, equations, formulas, paintings, business models–well, that is so vital to remaining truly alive.
All too often we accept that the passing of the period of greatness is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be. And we cannot let it. As long as we live, there must be a second act, a third and a forth.
I am happy I don’t have to witness the spectre of John Lennon mumbling Imagine at Ceasers Palace. Something tells me I wouldn’t have to. Lennon dropped out and came back with a new tour de force right before he was assasinated. He went away to reconnect. He made a conscious decision to reinvent himself.