Regular followers of my diseased ravings (or even consumers of last week’s loosely constructed cup o’crazy) may have picked up on a pervasive theme revolving around lack of personal restraint and the need for moderation in all areas of experience. Certainly we don’t always practice what we preach; if I followed my own advice then there wouldn’t be those gratuitous parenthetical tangents about gimp-legged polar bears and indecent exposure that you folks have come to know and love (or at least never explicitly protested).

It’s not even as if excess is always unequivocally destructive. After all, it was my high school obsession with a certain Robert Zimmerman that spurred me to take up the old six-string, providing me with one of my most rewarding creative outlets and a hell of an effective stress reliever. Tentative noodling in the privacy of my bedroom gave way to open mics and talent shows, eventually leading me to dabble in the songwriting game. It all traces back to those dozens upon dozens of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde play-throughs.

This is not to imply there weren’t any road bumps along the way. There’s a wire-thin line between taking inspiration from an artist and descending into thoughtless hero worship, and I gleefully crossed into the latter zone in the early stages of my apprenticeship. My father (a singer-songwriter himself), pleased by my newfound musical inclinations and knowing not what he unleashed, granted me access to his eight-track and helped me record an album’s worth of Dylan covers. The result was a seemingly interminable assemblage of nasal wailing, herky-jerky strumming and the occasional histrionic, melodically-deficient harmonica solo. I seemed to have missed the memo that effective covers establish some means of distinction from the original. Besides this, it’s basically suicide to consciously imitate a voice and style as iconic as Bob Dylan’s. Even Dylan probably doesn’t want to sound like Dylan and just works with what he’s got.

Ever since this highly instructive calamity it’s been a struggle to respectfully incorporate my influences without allowing them to submerge my individual voice and identity, and I haven’t always come out on the winning side. For a time I became infatuated with the gritty, matter-of-fact stylings of such luminaries as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, although I can’t pull off the sarcastic, self-mutilating junkie shtick too credibly, so this fizzled. Those who’ve heard me play or who know me will most likely have detected a borderline-unhealthy preoccupation with Elliott Smith, manifested right down to my fingerstyle tendencies and often-hushed vocals.

Indeed, the feeling that I’d lapsed into uninspired mimicry caused me to lose interest altogether for a time. While this lack of dedication might partially be chalked up to a shortage of free time over the past year or so, I could and would have squeezed music into the equation if I really wanted to (just another procrastination outlet among countless others). I simply couldn’t shake the notion that I’d become an amalgamation of my inspirations without that necessary spark of uniqueness.

Yet I’ve since come to realize that it’s this kind of synthesis that produces the spark. Dylan’s a textbook example: having founded his early career on what essentially amounted to a thinly-veiled Woody Guthrie impression, he proceeded to fuse the lyrical thoughtfulness of folk with the transcendent energy of the rockers and bluesmen he admired, a move that (while controversial at the time) produced some of the greatest albums in the popular canon. Likewise, Smith’s unlikely melding of his love for such super-melodic acts as The Beatles and Big Star with the no-nonsense, bare-bones aggression of the punk rock scene in which he came of age led to one of the most singular (and still criminally underappreciated) sounds in recent decades.

There is, after all, no such thing as complete originality. All creative activity founds itself on some kind of history or tradition, however implicit. The determining factor rests in how one makes use of these materials, whether this entails building on them, consciously reacting against them, or somewhere in between. The trick isn’t to build something from scratch but rather take what’s in front of us and make something interesting from it.

Maybe I’ve been delving into more cultural theory than my mental well-being can stand, maybe I’m just elaborately rationalizing my own hackery, but this all seems to make a fair amount of sense to me. As such, I intend on once again taking up my totally undeserved $800 Taylor (a birthday gift from my parents; ah, the perks of only child-dom) and doing my damndest to come up with something at least semi-listenable. I can only urge you to shed any trace of self-doubt and do the same for your passion, whatever it might be.


Justin Levesque can be contacted


Share and Enjoy !