As a culture, we're obsessed with the idea of creative genius. From a huddled Beethoven scribbling by candlelight to Einstein and his apple, we label individuals as "geniuses" with a sort of romantic fascination. However, as entranced as we are with the idea of the individual genius, some of the most influential creators have come in pairs. Whether considering John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, or Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it has been proven time and time again that two heads are better than one.
Author Joshua Wolf Shenk explores the success of duos in his new book, Powers Of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Shenk discusses the musical aspect of creative partnerships like John and Paul, and Crosby and Nash, and helps us parse out whether opposites really do attract.
Joshua Wolf Shenk on what's so special about duos:
"Its an unusual unit, the pair... because it's a social unit, and we are social creatures; we need to be in relation in some way with another person. And yet, its immensely fluid and flexible. You can take roles, you can switch roles, you can have solitude, you can have connection."
Shenk on the duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney:
"John was full of swagger and energy and wanted to make things his own, and Paul was much more meticulous, so they had these points of tension from the very beginning and this really profound alignment. They were both extremely ambitious and wanted to be big characters in the world. You have this really spine-tingling sense of two guys who are totally alone and totally together all the while, and that's one of the magical things about a pair: it allows for enormous solitude and enormous individuality and still this possibility for connection."
The Beatles, "With A Little Help From My Friends" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Shenk, on how Lennon and McCartney's competitive aspect elevated them creatively:
"They were enormously meshed both in the time they spent together and in the way they were up in each other's heads. They didn't have to be in a room together or even in the same part of London to be affecting each other and competing with each other. So you have John do "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Paul came back with "Penny Lane." And later John did "Revolution," and Paul came back with "Blackbird." It was Lennon versus McCartney, but with a lot of love."
The Beatles, "Blackbird" from The Beatles (The White Album)
Shenk on creative tension in pairs and the breaking point of David Crosby and Graham Nash:
"Nash loved that Crosby was the kinda guy that would say 'screw you' to the world and didn't care what other people thought, and he opened [Nash] up and he loosened him up. And Nash [created] the pure perfect pop structure of those songs- he brought that to the partnership. But Crosby got really strung out, and Nash put up with it as long as he could."
Shenk on the breaking point during a recording session in which Crosby's crack pipe fell off a speaker and broke, causing Crosby to stop the jam and try to put the pipe back together.
"Nash said 'That was it, I knew we were done, and I cant work with this guy any more.' It wasn't an exasperation with Crosby himself, which of course [Nash] felt. It was that the music had always been sacred between the two of them; that they were about something bigger than either one of them. And if Crosby didn't have faith in that, and couldn't serve that, and let the the two of them to serve it together, then Nash was done."
"Barrel of Pain" - Crosby, Stills & Nash
This segment originally aired on August 12, 2014.