I've Got It Good (and That Ain't Bad)

My friends call me a snob. Not about everything, mind you; mostly about food. I love my coffee but prefer water over Yuban, and I'll have a Gigante Frappukeroseno

My friends call me a snob. Not about everything, mind you; mostly about food. I love my coffee but prefer water over Yuban, and I'll have a Gigante Frappukeroseno at the Evil S only when it's the only choice within miles. I don't turn up my nose at AmeriCorporate Beer; I turn away altogether. Even tostada salads must pass muster.

I don't mind the reputation; in fact, it pleases me. The way I see it, I'm simply differentiating between good and bad food, and if that constitutes snobbery, then I'm snob No. 1.

The difference between good and bad is a dangerous topic because someone will always disagree with your valuation. It's even difficult to get people to agree on a basis for judging good and bad. And yet, being willing to make that judgment is crucial to the creative act.

Knowing the difference in your own mind between good and bad creates the context within which a great work can be fashioned, while failure to recognize the difference leads to — well, are there any TV listings nearby?

We all know that deciding between good and bad can be very complicated. There are many shades of “good” and of “bad”: a vocal take might be good, but is it good enough? I've often seen this question arise in sessions and open the door to rampaging perfectionism that thrashes a track until all perspective is lost and the best take is gone with it.

On the flip side, have you ever seen a movie so bad, it was good? Or gone to a concert that was “not bad”?

For me, this usually comes down to Mr. Right Brain leaping forward with an intuitive assertion of good or bad and Mr. Left Brain following behind, closely analyzing the ground for corroborating or disproving evidence. Mr. Left Brain's inquiry is almost always centered around why I find the thing in question good or bad.

For instance, I think Jerry Garcia's singing was good. His tone was thin and reedy, his pitch, um, less than reliable, and he forgot lyrics. What in the world makes me think he sang well? In my opinion, Garcia's greatest strength in all musical areas was his expressiveness, and through that, the thin tone became plaintive, the wobbly pitch was the sound of years of hard life experience, and the loss of words was, um, strong drugs. (Okay, two out of three were strengths.)

Of course, there are plenty of people who didn't hear it that way. That's because they were using different criteria to judge good and bad, which is what gives the world variety.

Mr. Right Brain, as good as his leaping record is, has been known to receive an education from time to time. On more than one occasion, friends have insisted some music was good that I thought was bad. Because I respect my friends' opinions, I engaged them in discussion about it and was won over to their way of thinking. A new door opened for me.

In the end, knowing the difference between good and bad is not the hardest part for me. The hardest part is deciding when to stick to my guns when all around me disagree, persisting with my vision until I bring it to fruition in spite of all criticism, and when to keep an open mind and allow myself to be swayed.

It's all very easy when it's a question of coffee and beer, because bad food just makes me feel lousy. But music and creative activity can really keep me on my toes. Some things can even be bad in spite of being good, like perfectly executed and entirely soulless “music,” a syndrome I refer to as “CBU”: Competent but Uninspired.

I'm not bothered by the challenge of figuring out what's good and bad or when to be persuaded and when to be bullheaded. I find it invigorating in much the same way as the creative act itself, keeping my brain and heart in a lively dance whose objective is the pursuit of truth and beauty. And that ain't bad.