Holidays come in blues – as well as reds and greens. Meaning there are many ways and many shades to ring in the season and the New Year. No – I’m not speaking about blues meaning the Jewish celebration of Hanukah and reds and greens being the Christian holiday of Christmas. The latter has somehow been modified, modernized and appropriated by societies at large – including this Jew – though I do have a special out if called on that because I live with an Italian Catholic.
Actually, the blues I’m addressing are the kind that Miles Davis played with his horn; the type that Billie Holliday and all the great jazz singers crooned about; and the genre that even disco songs like “I Will Survive” spoke about.
Just what are the blues? Definition please:
- A state of depression or melancholy. Often used with The.
- A style of music that evolved from southern African-American secular songs and is usually distinguished by a strong 4/4 rhythm, flatted thirds and sevenths, a 12-bar structure, and lyrics in a three-line stanza in which the second line repeats the first. Or has B.B. King has said: “The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation.”
But the correct answer is more that that. Ideally the correct answer is: I know them when YOU have them. (Because who really wants the blues, right?)
Common wisdom used to be that artistic and creative people had a particular penchant towards the blues. We’re more sensitive, more troubled, feel things more deeply. I bought into that for a while – okay, most of my life -until I opened my eyes a bit more into how everyone handles “this condition” in their own way.
- Drugs & Alcohol (or any combination thereof)
- Feeling it
- Other ways I don’t understand (e.g. pretending it doesn’t exist; taking it out on others; becoming a nasty, mean bitter person in the moment or for a whole lifetime)
Artists do have one edge – to use it as a fuel for our work. If you can lift yourself off the couch – or bed – or even floor. Also known as “making lemons into lemonade,” so to speak. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that two of the biggest CDs of the last few years (in both sales AND artistic achievement) are Adele’s “21” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” – both written in hibernation by their young singers after particularly devastating breakups. As was Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” from the “Jagged Little Pill“ CD a decade before. And back through time. (Choose song or other cultural touchstone based on your age and contemporary media platform of choice).
But — it is also interesting to note: Stephen Gaghan wrote “Traffic” from the personal experience of his own drug addiction and James Frey made up a bestseller (or two?) based on the same, except he exaggerated his own real life for dramatic effect (Uh, as most artists do. And as ALL writers also do) and passed it off as real. And don’t forget James Baldwin’s great and seminal non-fiction work of being Black in America, “Notes of a Native Son,” that does not paint a very pretty picture of said condition, or that Alice Walker, blinded in one eye as a girl by a BB gun accident and dealing with early depression, eventually went on to write something you might now know as, well, “The Color Purple.”
This month’s crop of holiday movies (yes – even “New Year’s Eve” included) mostly come out of some sort of adversity/conflict, which I (or anyone with a brain) would say since drama (and comedy) is all about conflict. Particularly this year – look at “War Horse,” “The Descendants,” even “My Week With Marilyn” to some extent. The Blues is sadness and often conflict – outer and inner. But that is simply only one emotion in the course of a day and can easily turn, often by WORKING through it Literally.
Note: Woody Allen uniformly does this by working all the time – adhering to the adage “a busy mind is a healthy mind” – lest he ever have time to think his own dark thoughts that are right around the corner
From “Annie Hall”
Young Alvy (Woody) at 9: The universe is expanding.
Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?
Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?!!
I relate to this. For years I was haunted by the ending of the original “Planet of the Apes” because my young self wisely reasoned if it’s thousands of years later and the planet is just apes that means…none of us will be here???? Boy, what a scary thought that was (and sometimes continues to be) for pre-teenage Steven Ginsberg. However, it did provide what I always thought was one of the best moments my young alter ego had in my 1993 “loosely autobiographical” movie, “Family Prayers.”
I am not saying you have to have the blues to create. Certainly not. (I mean, Julianne Hough can’t be unhappy these days and look at the brilliance of her and the film of the new “Footloose” AND the upcoming trailer for “Rock of Ages!”
But if you do find yourself in that position (the Blues, not Julianne Hough-soon-to-be-Seacrest) during this holiday season there is stuff you can do.
- Start a project – any project – but one you can complete. Not one that will be (is) half finished. (advice: there is some joy in any kind of completion).
- Admire a piece of art by someone who had it worse than you and use the fantasy to fuel your imagination into something better or different while everyone is charging up their credit cards in reality.
- Eat cheese, as Liz Lemon says on “30 Rock.” (Note: Substitute food and/or vice of your choice, but be careful).
Bottom line – use the blues to your advantage – don’t let them use you. I’m tempted to say even celebrate them. That doesn’t mean be happy about having them. But just recognizing they’re there and hanging them out to dry in the light of day (or night, if you’re anything like me) can turn them not necessarily into a nice large cup of lemonade, but something of a holiday surprise. The kind of gift that those of us who like to create (that’s really all of us) long for, but can only truly give ourselves.