Unconventional research and writing with Sam Cooke

Guest post by Colin Fleming

The way in which I wrote my book on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square, 1963, and maybe a few pieces of advice, but they are not very draconian, as advice sometimes can be.

Back again here to close out my stint as a 33 1/3 guest blogger, throwing some supplementary materials at you pertaining to my book on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. We’ve come the last number! Thank you, as they say, for coming out…

I have a blog over on my site, that was launched in the summer of 2018, which is now this massive record made up of 1200+ entries, and what I discuss a lot is writing. How things are made. How we can think about writing. And reading.

I talk about everything I write there, just about. Of course, that included this book, as I was doing it. I thought what we could do now, is pick through some shop talk.

I would wager that the way I wrote my 33 1/3 book was a lot different than how anyone else has written theirs. We tend to get scared at such a prospect. When we compare ourselves to others. The Way Things Are Normally Done.

People who write often think there are rules that you more or less have to follow. Or should follow. I see a lot made of how much time people spent on their book, and their heaps and heaps of research. I guess maybe I should start by saying that the time in which I wrote the book probably didn’t much resemble the time frames of most other writers.

I go into the official breakdown of all of that on my own blog, and I confess, it feels a touch like telling tales out of school here. The specifics don’t really matter, either. What matters is, a book finds us. Just as characters finds us. When it’s the right book, the right characters. We can get downright anxious—neurotic, even—looking at how other people do things.

I have this buddy, for instance. And he wrote a book I really like in this series. The way we met was, I reviewed his book for the New York Times Book Review. They sent me like twenty music books, and said pick six of them, or whatever it was, and I’d do this big round-up piece. I went with this guy’s book based on his title, and it was the best of the bunch.

He reached out to me later, and he’s a great guy, and we developed a relationship. In fact, he’s in my Inner Circle. What I mean by that is, when I write something—which is every day—I share what it is I wrote—it’s usually a finished product—with the members of my IC.

This guy is a researcher. He talks about it. He’ll spend six months, or a year, or more, writing a book. He comes by his information—when we’re talking of the factual and anecdotal variety—quite differently than I do. He wrote his book in a totally different way than I wrote mine. His was the more “regular” way. But that doesn’t matter either. We get caught up in these things.

Get caught up in the work, is what I’d suggest to someone. Let the work dictate what the process will be. It changes from work to work, even if certain themes, trends, persist. Look at you. Look at your book. Look at your talent. Don’t look at others.

I wouldn’t say this if I wasn’t confident in what my book is. I have an editor at JazzTimes, and what he said one time was, “What you do, Colin, is you create art about art.” I thought that was so well-said. When I am writing nonfiction about art, that’s definitely the plan. The goal. The expectation. I don’t think someone would necessarily even believe aspects of my process. That’s fine. That’s one reason why my own blog exists. If you do read that blog—and I invite you to do and sign up for notifications—I think you’d believe me readily enough. What I’m trying to say to you is, find your own way. That’s always going to be the best way for the best book.

There’s a fetishization I’ve noticed for research. Here’s another bomb of sorts—I didn’t do any research.

I know exactly how a person would take that, if they haven’t seen the book, they don’t know my work, and they encounter that bald statement. You’d probably think it’s some crazy, gonzo personal memoir-y type of thing, the Lester Bangs approach, maybe.

But I think if you read it, you’ll see that the book is encyclopedic in its knowledge. How facts are presented. Then facts and a rigorous grounding in history are augmented by ideas, by assessments, explanations. Explorations. There are themes, connective strands. A narrative takes shape. An argument. Arguments within arguments.

I’m sharing this because I don’t think you should be intimidated by a project you do. People help to intimidate each other. The irony is that the way I do things, is probably more intimidating. But it needn’t be.

When I say I don’t do research, what I mean is, I already know. I know going in. I study everything. It’s all I do. My entire life is centered on knowledge and art-making. There is literally nothing else in my life that goes to anything else. I don’t just sit and watch a game. I don’t veg out. I don’t “binge.”

What that means is that for years and years and years—decades—I learned about Sam Cooke. For a long time, I kept a Daily Log of everything I listened to, read, watched on a given day. Everything I wrote.

So for me, knowledge becomes conversational. Applicable. Part of who I am. How I talk. How I think. How I see one aspect of life, or art—or both—against another. It’s also why I can l listen to a Bach fugue, listen to Sam Cooke in the live arena, watch a hockey game of Wayne Gretzky in his prime, read a Tolstoy story, hear a solo bass clarinet piece by Eric Dolphy, and find and discuss—and write—about commonality. Ideas become more powerful when they’re not locked in one historic place. Or one temporal place. The best ideas peregrinate.

Then I essentially write twenty hours a day. 365 days a year. Even when it’s in my head. So, I can go on a ten-mile walk, for example, and write a 2500 word chapter and a 5000 word story in my head, and ten pitches to editors, and so forth. And keep the words there.

What I’m trying to say is, that’s my process. Or it can be. Everything is potentially different. There was a time in my career when I’d be panicked if I had to write a short Rolling Stone piece the day it was due. Which I now look back on as quaint and funny. Work your tail off at something, provided you have the talent to begin with, and everything gets easier. You can do more. You can do more by straining less. You can really range in your thoughts, your language, your ideas, what you ultimately create.

I think people glorify binge research because it’s seen as “want to” work, if you will, rather than talent work. People are terrified of the blank page. It’s easier for them to say, “For the last three weeks, I’ve read these four books, made these copious notes.” There’s less risk in that work. Less thinking.

I did it, in a way. But I did it all along the way of my life. And then I remember everything. If it either 1. Interests me or 2. I know on some level that it is going to play a part potentially—even if it’s thirty years later—in what I do as an artist. There is a part of me that just knows with that second thing. I don’t try to explain it. I have no need to. I just know I have that part.

Many books—I’m not really talking 33 1/3 books—of the nonfiction variety go one of two ways. They’re memoir-y, but in a narcissistic way. Or they’re “Okay, these are the facts, here come a lot of them.”

The former is too soupy for my tastes—it can be like drowning in spoiled gazpacho—and the latter too wooden. I want life. But I want life beyond one person’s life. You can absolutely share from your own life. You can dig deep. But what I’d say is that what you’re sharing, what you’re exhuming, can’t be primarily about you. It has to be about “this.” What is this? Well, that can be so much. But the “this” has to be beyond just you. When we write about music, the “this” ties back into it in a way that is universal.

When we do the binge research routine, it’s like we’re saying it’s fine not to learn during the rest of our lives. I can’t imagine that for myself. I’ve been learning about Sam Cooke since I was fifteen-years-old. To name one subject. That knowledge is part of me. That knowledge is revisited, it’s added to, sometimes parts of it are corrected. But that was my research.

It is, naturally, far, far, far more work than the research-binge. At the same time, though, when someone wants to get the nitty-gritty on your research process, they’re not looking for an answer like the one I have. But I’ve lived my whole life in the work of Sam Cooke! And thousands and thousands of other things. When you do this, you can also see how things are inter-related. You’re not just bound by the “standard” modes of research, thinking, learning, scholarship.

I think Sam Cooke made music this way. In his way. Just like Melville wrote this way, and Dylan morphed this way, and the Beatles. James Joyce wrote this way. I mean, James Joyce and Sam Cooke wrote in kind of similar ways, with different results for different ends. But they both utilized a fantastic eye for the details of life, and you’ll experience that in both Ulysses and “Having a Party.” It’s just a thought. That one is not in the book. But different variations on that thought are.

I feel like I’ve gone on here quite a bit, with these five guests blogs, which are like 10,000 words in length—or, if you’re scoring at home, about 1/3 the length of a 33 1/3 book!—but I definitely enjoyed sharing some other thoughts about Sam Cooke, pulling back the curtain on one man’s writing process—well, two men, really—and I do hope you get yourself a copy of my book in this series. Because it meant a lot to me doing it, which I think comes through in the text.

I’ll leave you with this. And it’s not something people think about often. But Sam Cooke understood it, and it’s also a great, wise thing for writers to understand. And readers.

Energy is huge. Energy has to explode from the speakers, explode from the page. Explode from you into your efforts. I don’t mean volume. I don’t mean rah-rah. I don’t mean lots of notes. I don’t mean lots of words. “Energy” often becomes this left-handed compliment. “The writing had nice energy.” Which means it sucked, really, right? But there was an earnest spirit.

Forget all of that. The power anything has is in direct proportion to the energy it gives. I think, more than anything, that’s what I ferreted out with Cooke so long ago. His energy. Then there came a day when I discovered one of the ultimate energy works of art in Live at the Harlem Square Club. Then another day and time when I gave all of my energy, and my soul, and my heart, and my years and years of work and development, to writing a book about it. Energy. It’s all the stuff of the best relationships, and self-awareness, and change. Underline that last word.

Anyway. Thanks for letting me spend some time with you in these pages. Happy listening to all of you, happy writing to those of you who write, happy reading, and Godspeed…

We’re havin’ a party
Dancin’ to the music
Played by the DJ
On the radio
The Cokes are in the icebox
Popcorn’s on the table
Me and my baby
We’re out here on the floor

Sam Cooke, “Having a Party”
Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

Colin Fleming writes about music, and has written about soul, jazz, and blues for dozens of venues including The Atlantic,The New YorkerThe GuardianRolling StoneVanity FairThe Washington PostMOJODownBeat, and many others. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition

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