When I woke up this morning, the clock was quick to correct me. It was already after noon, and I had once again slept the slumber of the artist: long and leisurely, hair tossed asunder, still dressed in yesterday’s garb. I stumbled into the bathroom, and with one look at my unshaven face, I knew it must be September.
The month prior had been a fascinating one, full of new adventures and exotic locales. And the very fact that I could distinguish it was telling; most months bleed one into another in the unstructured life of an artist. But August was different. Very different.
Let me backtrack a little…
The Federal government has long been a supporter of the arts, directing a significant portion of the Canadian tax dollar to fund and foster artistic pursuit. A number of grants are in place to help new artists launch their careers and to lend some financial stability to those of us who have been at it a while. Of late, however, a number of private citizen’s groups have inquired and complained about a perceived work ethic problem amongst the beneficiaries of these grants. They suggest that we artists are goalless: unmotivated and driven only by our own social interests.
My colleagues and I were aghast at the accusation, and spent days upon days discussing it over coffee. We were a prolific bunch, so what matter the process?
In an attempt to appease the critics, the government decided to conduct an experiment; throughout the month of August, a group of volunteer artists would be asked to do their work in a normal, ‘9 to 5’ office environment. I was quick to volunteer for the program, entitled “Operation Normalize”, because I have always been devoted to self-analysis, and because I am the one who made this story up.
On August 1st, I was to dress in a suit and report to the tenth floor of the Toronto Walcott Tower by 9AM sharp. I did not have a suit, so on the evening prior, my lady friend helped make one using old bandanas and pages of manuscript. I used a guitar strap for a necktie, and set an alarm for the first time in my adult life.
Most days, I wake up with a melody in my head. But on August 1st, it was a relentless beeping that sprung me to consciousness. Michelle had prepared a meal for me that she called ‘breakfast’, and as she ushered me out the door, she handed me my lunch in a paper bag! Mornings are odd, I thought, as I hopped on my bike and headed to the office.
Most days, I come up with new rhythms while I am riding around on my bike. But on August 1st, my focus was solely on survival. Cars move very fast on the Expressway, and morning commuters are a surly bunch. When I arrived at the Walcott Tower, I rode the elevator up to the tenth floor with the most antisocial group of people. Everyone stared straight ahead, and nobody joined in on anything that I sang.
The office itself was incredible, though. The government had secured two floors of the building for our purposes, and when I arrived on August 1st, the air was abuzz with efficiency; things were ringing, stuff was being printed, other things were being filed away. It was very easy to tell the artists from those who had been hired by the government to oversee the operation: the office workers went about their business with a capable strut, while the artists clung to the lobby walls as though on skates for the first time.
Each wing of the office was dedicated to a different art, and myself and the other songwriters were ushered off to the Music Department, where we would ply our trade over the next month. My assistant’s name was Vera, and by the time we met, she had already organized my back catalogue according to lyrical content and date of release. Vera showed me how to adjust the height of my desk chair, and as I gaily bobbed up and down in my seat, she outlined the details of her job:
“I am here to facilitate and regulate your creative energies, and to shield you from all distractions. We want to set a ‘song-a-day’ pace, Robbie, so whatever you need to make that happen, I will have at the ready: from a new guitar string to that elusive rhyme.”
“Wow…” I exclaimed.
“And how!” Vera replied with a smile.
Most days, a smile from a pretty girl would impel me to start writing. But on August 1st, my creativity seemed suddenly hijacked: held captive by a threatening song-a-day pace. I lowered my desk chair and hopped off, certain that a walk would clear my mind. But to no avail…offices are typically stripped of anything not central to production. Doors were closed and blinds pulled shut. Nobody stopped to make idle chatter by the water cooler, as time was no longer a mere triviality. I wandered by the copy room in the hopes of xeroxing my bum, but I was informed that the copy room was off limits to the volunteer artists.
There was little option but to write. Even my adjustable desk chair had been glued steady. I would pace the empty office corridors through much of the month, desperate for diversion, and weighed down by the ever-looming ‘deadline’. I sought out salvation in the company of colleagues…long lunches where we might commiserate or toss around new song ideas. But the lunch break was a brief one, and the daily quotas kept us all tight-lipped and unwilling to share.
Offices are odd, I thought, as August crawled by. I did manage to learn a few things over the course of the study: like what ‘punching the clock’ really means…and what not to put in a paper shredder. I also learned how to meet a deadline, writing a song–a-day, no matter how saccharine and corporate the result. And according to the report, the sculptors and painters fared much the same, with their work drained of its uniqueness and spark.
In the end, maybe we artists are driven by distraction. But I like to think we’re all just in search of a little inspiration.
I stared at my unshaven face in the mirror, and wondered how I might kill the hours in the day before my first date with Vera. Suddenly, a beautiful melody popped into my head…
I end this week’s Blog with another interesting musical fact:

- If you are tone deaf, and physically awkward when performing in front of a crowd, you are ineligible to win Canadian Idol for a second time -


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