Originality is overrated.

We don’t exist in a vacuum. Even the most isolated artist has her influences. For some this is a source of anxiety, as the critic Harold Bloom has made much of. He took what seems to me to be a hyper-Freudian stance that creators fear the power of their artistic “fathers” which manifests as “influence.” Bloom put an Oedipal spin on it with “son” killing father by breaking free of his influence.

I take another view, perhaps influenced by sitting on the Jungian side of the aisle. I celebrate those whose work or life – consciously or not – has shaped my own. I see myself as part of a continuum, a community that stretches beyond the boundaries of time, space and culture.

We create our identities from myriad sources. And we who live now have a dizzying abundance of music, literature, performance forms, imagery and story available at the click of the mouse. (a phrase that would have been incomprehensible twenty years ago.) A few minutes ago I wanted to add some links to people I mentioned below with websites related to them and within seconds I was listening to voices of the dead and the music of an old friend I haven’t seen in years.

In 1965 my roommate (who went on to become an accomplished composer and brilliant guitarist, Daniel Maya, left) and I became enchanted by an album called Inventions by American guitarist Sandy Bull. It was the first instance of “fusion” or “world” music that we had ever heard. Bull was perhaps the first western musician working in a popular context to bring Indian and Middle-Eastern musical forms into his music which was equally inspired by American folk and traditional blues. Years before Ry Cooder’s and Paul Simon’s brilliant collaborations with musicians from different cultures, Sandy Bull was learning to play the oud from Hamza Al Din, who was still, at the time, an obscure Nubian oud player. By the time of his death in 2006, he had become the most famous master of his instrument worldwide, had records produced by luminaries like Mickey Hart and was an inspiration to an entire generation of young guitarists.

At the same time that I was listening to Sandy Bull, I was also pursuing my passion for experimental theatre. I came across the writings of Antonin Artaud, early twentieth century prototypical “mad genius” theatre visionary who had an epiphany while seeing performances of Balinese theatre at an exposition in Paris in the 1920s. After several years of theatre-making in Paris, His quest led him to Mexico and Native peyote rituals. Shortly after his return to Paris, he was arrested and incarcerated in a mental hospital. Friends had him transferred to Rodez a facility in unoccupied, Vichy France. (self-portrait, left, done in Rodez) He was released in 1947 and after a spurt of new activity, he died. Artaud ‘s life was mostly a grim struggle against his own demons, opiate addiction, depression, episodes of schizophrenia. For a time he was embraced by the avant-garde, but even then, he couldn’t quite manage to “fit in.” In 1926, he was officially expelled from the Surrealists. Since childhood he had been in and out of mental institutions, had been treated with electroshock and more drugs. Though he never came close to realizing his vision for the theatre during his life, his influence on future artists is incalculable. Without Artaud, we probably would not have had Peter Brook’s groundbreaking production of Marat/Sade. Almost all the experimental theatres of the sixties took something from him. Members of the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, The Wooster Group and many more, had, at one time or another read Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double. One of my most important mentors in theatre, Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theatre, cited Artaud as a formative influence. It was, perhaps, in the early work in Poland by Jerzy Grotowski, that Artaud’s hope for a theatre that made no attempt to imitate “reality” but, rather, created a new language and cracked open the fragile shell of bourgeois societal facades came closest to being realized.

When I started UCLA in 1962, a chain-smoking, intense, slightly older fellow theatre student named Saul introduced me to Artaud and his sufferings. For years, I puzzled over his opaque writings and joined others in a basement below UCLA’s Royce Hall to invent exercises we hoped would crack open our own bourgeois facades. I still feel great affection for the clueless young man I was in my early twenties. Perhaps not so clueless as a matter of fact. After all, he was willing to descend into that basement and hang out in the unknown with something like patient resolve.

(left: Deena Metzger, the writer who first gave me a sense of what that was all about.)

What this says to me about influence is that it need not be literal or direct. The theatre I eventually started making – the work that one day bore fruit in Traveling Jewish Theatre – was not particularly “Artaud-like” in any way, yet had Artaud and his writings not existed, that work would not have been the same. It was in the encounter with his texts that the energy resided.

This, for me, is the most important quality of what we variously call culture, community, even civilization. Or, even better, commons. Commons can mean either land owned by the community (common-union, communion) or the rights to use land owned by another for grazing or fishing. An artist owns his work, but the community has rights to fish for inspiration in her waters. Sometimes one’s influence on another is simply to show that it is possible, it can be done.

I’ve just finished recording a new hybrid spoken-word/song/rap/blues piece that is an unapologetic homage to Bob Dylan, who, along with Leonard Cohen, Walt Whitman, Grace Paley, Phillip Roth, Joni Mitchell, Blake, Shakespeare, Peter Brook, Rilke, Bill Wilson, Laura Simms and hundreds of others, I claim as models, teachers, sources of inspiration and whose works have altered the way I produce mine.

2 thoughts on “Originality is overrated.

  1. This is such a radical ‘rooted’ reflection. It brings me back to Norman O. Brown’s work, cobbling together the fragments of history and literature to waken us to the present: “trying to stay alive in history: improvising a raft after shipwreck, out of whatever materials are available: bits of books, the fragments we shore up against our ruin.” Alone, we drown in the tidal surges. Don Hanlon Johnson

  2. Hey Corey, I loved the song, and really loved the archival footage you juxtaposed between you and Bobby Z back in the day, up to today!!.Very powerful and highly interactive, Go Corey!!

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