“Creativity is not a solitary invention but a collaborative creation.”
It was the late 1990s. John Frusciante had been in rehabilitation, finally embracing a huge turnaround after hitting rock bottom in his long battle with heroin addiction. Now he was again a committed member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, even though he had lost his chops at this point. He made his rustiness work anyway, as he developed a minimalist style in his guitar playing.
He came up with a new tune every day, and singer Anthony Kiedis always had his notebook filled with lyrics that he wanted to turn into songs. It had been many years since they last worked together, but the chemistry was still going strong.
“He’d play me a complicated, weird instrumental piece of music that he had stayed up all night recording,” Kiedis said. “And I’d be like ‘Oh yeah, I know exactly what I’m supposed to do with that.”
One of the first songs Frusciante and Kiedis worked on during those sessions was called Californication. Kiedis had conceived the lyrics on his earlier travels in some of the world’s exotic locations. Sauntering through the villages of Thailand and the bazaars of Indonesia, he marveled at how Western culture had seeped into these places, even to the extent that bootlegged Chili Peppers T-shirts were being sold. When he was in Auckland, he encountered a crazy lady on the street who was ranting about psychic spies in China. With that phrase and concept stuck in his mind, he started writing the lyrics.
Kiedis showed Californication to Frusciante, and they immediately tried out tons of different arrangements and choruses for the song. But nothing was good enough. At least they had other songs easily pouring out of their brains, and they decided to shelf Californication.
Weeks passed, and the record was wrapping up. Still, that one song kept Kiedis feeling restless. Everyone in the studio would tell him, “We’ve got twenty-five other songs recorded. We don’t need another one.”
But Kiedis was adamant. “We have to have this,” he said. “This is the anchor of the whole record. It’s as good a lyric as I’ve written in a long time. It has to be a song.”
In the very last moments of working on the record, Frusciante rushed into the studio with a Gretsch White Falcon and said, “I’ve got it! I’ve got Californication!” He set up his guitar, played a series of sparse, melancholy notes, and sang the lyrics. He taught the song to bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith, and they quickly rehearsed and recorded it.
The rest is music history.
An incredibly fascinating facet of the Chili Peppers is the near-seamless chemistry that the members have. They have been able to churn out brilliant ideas on the spot, like a well-oiled machine, and communicate through music, as though they are telepathically connected with one another.
On another occasion, Frusciante originated a riff on his acoustic guitar after coming back from surfing. In amazement, Kiedis asked, “What’s that?”, to which Frusciante responded, “Oh it’s nothing, just something I made up.”
Flea then started playing the notes A-B-C-D on his bass. Frusciante simply said, “Oh!” and came up with another part of the song that matched Flea’s notes. The same chain of eureka moments persisted, and that song pieced together to become Road Trippin’, also from the Californication album.
Reflecting on the band’s remarkable chemistry, Kiedis wrote, “I’d realize that music was an act of telepathy, that if you were standing next to your soul mate with a guitar in your hand and he with a bass, you could know what the other guy was thinking and communicate that through playing.”
We’re often tempted to think that art, especially the “solitary” ones, as the ingenious stroke of a single individual. But in reality, the best art out there are commonly borne out of collaboration — Sometimes this fact might not present itself in the most obvious forms like playing in a band, but there’s no mistaking it.
In picking up a book, for example, you might only notice the author’s name on the cover. But the unsung heroes are the editors and agents, and the publishing crew that the author worked with, who were just as responsible in the process of bringing that book to life.
J.R.R Tolkien, who seemed to dream up by himself entirely new languages and writings in his Lord of the Rings universe, actually had his best friend, C.S. Lewis, with whom he loved to exchange ideas. Not to mention that both of these great writers were part of a small literary group called The Inklings, that regularly held meetings for decades, in which they stayed up late, discussed and read out their works-in-progress over tea and pipe smoke. As Lewis himself said, “The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are.”
Other than that, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land probably wouldn’t have been a masterpiece of modern poetry if it weren’t for his friendship with fellow poet Ezra Pound. They both shared common ground in their redefinition of poetic possibilities, and they strongly influenced as well as gave valuable criticism to one another. In the preface to The Waste Land, Eliot credits, “To Ezra Pound, the better craftsman”, reflecting his belief that it was Pound who had “done so much to turn The Waste Land from a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem.”
Even in the case of this blog, many of the articles I write here are products of almost daily rambles to my closest friends about ideas I’ve learned. From those incessant rambles, I’ve been able to get feedback on certain angles that I should focus on in the articles I write. So I guess I could slip in a thank you note here. To Aslam, especially, for patiently listening to my stories for six years now. As my friends in boarding school used to say, “Di mana ada Aslam, di situ ada Izzat (Wherever Aslam is, that’s where Izzat is too)”. If you’re reading this, thanks for sticking with this bookish nerd all these years, pal.
Anyway, don’t shy away from collaboration. As Jeff Goins wrote in his book Real Artists Don’t Starve, “The best artists, or the smart ones at least, tend to involve other people ‘because,’ as Diana Glyer told me, ‘the life of an artist, any kind of creator, is fraught with discouragement. You need people to correct your path.’ ”
Collaboration is valuable in that it opens you up to your blind spots and the necessary improvements that you need to make, because it’s always hard to truly view your own work dispassionately. But also, by collaborating with others, you’re able to pool together different worldviews, skills, and experiences in your work — Creating something utterly new and unique that you wouldn’t be able to on your own.
Have that in mind whenever you come across a great art. Just as Henry Kissinger said to reporters during the Middle East shuttle missions in the 1970s, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.”
In this creative life that’s “fraught with discouragement”, find people that you share a great chemistry with. Your experience with the arts would be so much richer when you have other people to involve, and to share it with.