Charlotte Roche, Mick Jagger, creativity

Charlotte Roche introduces her interview with Mick Jagger in German, then talks with him in English.

Charlotte Roche is the author of Wetlands, a novel, according to The Guardian, that “makes the Vagina Monologues sound tame,” and which has been a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany, where the author lives. I’d heard about it and how disgusting it is, but hadn’t read it until recently, intrigued by a student’s struggle to review it on campus for a literary journal.

And I can confirm: Wetlands is uber gross.

It’s also a genuine work of art. Just don’t plan to eat while you’re reading it—the student’s warning, now mine.  The story involves a teenage girl, one Helen Memel, who is in the hospital for rectal surgery, necessary due to an infection acquired from a shaving mishap. And that situation, as graphic as it becomes, isn’t one of the book’s particularly newsworthy bits, although the story flows, as it were, from it. Roche sets the tone in the novel’s first sentence:

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had hemorrhoids.

Helen’s intimate habits, as revealed by her behavior in the hospital and in her inner musings and flashbacks, are truly nauseating—I can’t bear even to summarize them. But as the novel unfolds, we learn why she’s disturbed. Thankfully her voice, which narrates Wetlands, is sane and funny. I was impressed how one character’s voice and viewpoint could so easily carry the 229-page novel, as could its one setting and limited time frame: the book opens with Helen about to go under the knife and proceeds through her recovery and her intentional setback, a bloody self injury harrowing to read.

Roche was born to British parents, who moved her to Germany when she was eight, and she became a popular talk show host in Germany. She has said she doesn’t read much, herself, and that Helen is her alter ego; they share a few details in common, but Helen is largely a feminist device. What if women, instead of being the prudent and cleanliness-obsessed gender, were precisely the opposite? Roche conducted research for Wetlands, partly by going to brothels and interviewing prostitutes.

Her ten-year-old interview with Mick Jagger on YouTube is fascinating partly because she’s so young—ten years before Wetlands—and partly because, while Jagger was old even then, at least compared with her, his youthful freshness when he talks about writing is compelling. Now, I’m not the biggest Stones/Jagger fan—I’m a Beatles guy—but, hey, give the devil his due, or at least show some sympathy. Jagger notes that he at first wrote only lyrics and that Keith Richards wrote the “tunes.” As for writing itself: “The thing about writing, whether you’ve writing a book or a song, is you don’t need a lot of equipment. You need a pad and a pencil. And then you can get ideas. I like to go somewhere for like two weeks and just concentrate every day, a little disciplined.”

For instance, to write an album he makes himself start work at three o’clock in the afternoon and goes until seven, and then after a break he labors from eight o’clock to two a.m. He’s talking specifically about writing his solo 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway but his method seems codified. (His neighbor Pete Townsend and his buddy Bono sing with him on “Joy.” Roche notes that his song “Gun” on the album is “The nasty one,” and Jagger says, “Very nasty—they can’t all be nice.” Roche seems utterly delighted—as she does throughout.)

But here’s what struck me, beyond Jagger’s creative joy and craftsmanship: “After you go like this for two weeks you have a lot of stuff. At first it’s worrying, you never know if you’re going to get anything, but it always tends to come.”

Yes—art takes a lot of stuff because it takes selection. This is one of the secrets of a book-length work, I think, having a lot of material, to move around, to select from, to jettison. In the second part of the interview, Jagger mentions another writing phenomenon: how unplanned, surprising, personal, and even edgy stuff can surface in the process:

When you’re doing it you don’t realize what you’re writing, to be honest. That’s the good thing—because if you start realizing it, then you can say, “Oh, I don’t want to write about that.” And then you write it and say, “Do I really think that? I must probably think something of that.” Sometimes it comes out, a subconscious thing. It’s a revelation sometimes. You might not want anyone to know that about yourself, so you don’t have to put it out. There’s a song [on this album] called “Gun” and I didn’t really like the sentiments in it [about someone begging a woman to shoot him in the heart, since she’s breaking it anyway], I must admit. I don’t like guns. But in the end, I really quite liked the song— it’s tough. Sometimes you surprise yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell takes a detour to discuss Jagger’s creativity in his latest New Yorker article (May 16) “Creation Myth,” which discusses the tension between innovation and tried-and-true business products at Xerox and Apple in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Gladwell cites psychologist Dean Simonton saying genius comes from fecundity—lots of ideas, many bad—not just from having only great ideas: “Quality,” Simonton writes, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

In regard to Jagger, Gladwell goes to the authority: Keith Richards, who in his new memoir says the making of the classic Exile on Main Street album was an ordeal because the Rolling Stones had too many ideas—from Jagger, who scribbled down classics like “Brown Sugar” on a yellow legal pad and also lots of mediocre songs. Gladwell writes:

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.” Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

This reminds me of the recent documentary The Promise, about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bruce didn’t have anyone to shut him down; what he had was a magic book of lyrics, as fat as your grandmother’s photo album, and bandmates who stood mute before his genius. They could only shake their heads as he threw out obvious hit after hit in search of the tone and thematic unity he sought. Darkness probably should have been a double album—and now is, and more, since the thirtieth anniversary edition, released last November. It now features twenty-one songs recorded in the studio sessions but dropped from the immortal original.

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5 Comments

Filed under fiction, NOTED, working method

5 responses to “Charlotte Roche, Mick Jagger, creativity

  1. David C. Bailey

    Richard,
    What a fun, peripatetic romp through what you’ve been reading lately and how it’s jelled in your mind. Thanks.

  2. That is some opening!

  3. Richard, the relationship between quantity and quality in creative endeavors interests me. With writing I can begin in a free-flowing uncensored sort of way, selecting later. I haven’t come to that place with my painting. Too much censoring, even as I begin. Your interviews nudge me forward.

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