Lessons from Rock Stars

I enjoyed Dave Grohl’s keynote from this year’s SxSW Music conference in Austin. I loved last year’s from Bruce Springsteen even more — he’s The Boss for a reason. But Dave Grohl’s talk is chock full of practical wisdom on making music, and by extension, any kind of art. Over the last year-and-change I have been extremely fortunate to make music on a regular basis, so the lessons I can take away from these kinds of talks aren’t merely academic, they actually apply to my work as a musician.  Because I’m a musician now, there, I said it.

My education is in fine arts, I have a degree in Painting and Drawing. That sounds ridiculous in retrospect, I know, like the most impractical thing you can ever earn a degree in, but it’s not, and to parents who are wringing their hands over their art school bound kids or kids who struggling with rationalizing art school as a choice, I’m here to tell you that I use my education every single day in my work.

And if I’m not an art star (or a writing star or a rock star) it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. I was in downtown Seattle one day and I ran into a senior creative director I know. He lamented the state of the interns coming from the local design program, he said they had specific skills — they could do tasks — but they didn’t have  ideas. “I don’t know what to tell you, I went to art school,” I said. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he said. “We need more art thinkers, any one can learn tools.”

I did not always call myself an artist, and sometimes, I feel a little weird about it given that I don’t do a lot of visual art lately, but I actually have the license to prove it. And it’s surprisingly in demand, art school is not a dead end that leads to living like some character from the cast of Girls, not quite destitute, but not really living a great life, either. It’s a springboard, it teaches you that every problem is new and maybe, everything you learned before is irrelevant to this thing you’re doing now, so get to work.

Shortly after I moved to Seattle I took a writing class at the University of Washington extension program. I did not finish it, it was a fiction writing class and about six weeks in I realized I did not want to write fiction, but I did learn things from that class that I carry around with me to this day.

On our second week of class, the teacher told us that our homework was to start calling ourselves writers, that we should be in the mindset that writing was what we did. I have always been a writer, there was never a time that I can remember not being a writer, and while I come to music late and art by choice, writing is in my DNA. This is one of the things I enjoyed about Dave Grohl’s talk, I liked the way he referred to his earlier self. He was a kid who always wanted to make music, I was a kid who always did stuff with words. It was easy for me to call myself a writer. I was one, I had been one for as long as I can remember. Having a career as a writer, however, that was a different story.

A “career” in music never seemed possible to me. It just seemed too good to be true. Surely the faces on my Kiss posters weren’t getting PAID to do this! Gene Simmons? Imagine! But that never mattered to me. Because I had finally found MY VOICE. And that was all I needed to survive from now on. — Dave Grohl

I get that.

I’ve had modest success at all the kinds of art I’ve put my hands to. While I was exhibiting my paintings regularly, I sold them regularly — not enough to make a living but enough to occasionally ease the economic stress of working retail. I make most of my living now as a writer, not always doing creative work, but I pay my bills by writing. And music, well, I hitched my wagon to an unlikely comet and I get paid to make music regularly too. All of these things never cease to amaze me. It’s not that I think my work sucks, I know it doesn’t, but I can relate to Dave Grohl saying, “surely they weren’t getting paid to this!”

I believe in the value of art, but I’m a realist, I also know that being an artist does not equal being a surgeon or a farmer or a firefighter. We no longer live in the times of great patronage, when royalty and the church and the wealthy will generously fund the creative in order to save souls and ensure their place in heaven. Most artists are hungry or compromised or both. The artists I know — regardless of medium — struggle daily to find the balance that allows them to make work they believe in and still have a warm dry place to sleep.

I had the good fortune to choose Seattle as my home at a time when “creatives” were wildly in demand. I was able to make decent money doing work I did not hate. I was also able to make my own schedule and avoid the nine to five that deadens a lot of artists by taking away their most valuable resource: time. I had a nine month stint where I had a Real Job and all the trappings — health insurance and sick days and a retirement plan. I took it on a gamble, I was genuinely hoping to get rich. That didn’t happen, plus, I was unhappy, I am ill-suited for routine. Even though I did not end up with tech wealth, I feel satisfied with the way things have evened out. I have a long term relationship with a freelance client. They pay me well and have advanced my career — rare in the land of contract work. Because I have stayed contract, I am still free to travel at will and turn work down to focus on becoming a rock star — or a writing star — or whatever sets me on fire for the moment.

Let’s be clear: I know I’m not a rock star. I don’t “deserve” any of this, I just work at it and try to be true to doing not just good work, but better work every time. This is thing thing I loved about Bruce Springsteen’s talk — it embodies all the ambivalence and false bravado and doubt that it takes to truly be an artist, to be a rock star.

So, rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt – it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck! — Bruce Springsteen

I would like to be a rock star, sure, why not? That would be a fun and wild ride. But I want to be awake and alert in doubt or amazed by the fact that this thing is real at all. The people I respect most as writers — as artists of any kind — share not just a sense of self awareness, but a feeling that art is a gift given to their care. Don’t mistake this for them not being hard workers, but there is a difference between earning what they have and feeling they deserve what they do not yet have. A false sense of entitlement makes for ugly art and a feeling of certainty leaves no room for growth and learning. And if the desire to be a rock star supersedes the need to just make work, everything unravels — the work isn’t just ugly, it’s false and has no soul. If I’m going to be a rock star at all, I don’t want to waste my shot on having TMZ make fun of my behavior. I want to hear Springsteen’s words in my head, no matter what kind of art I’m making.  I want the art to keep me honest.

Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage on tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. And then remember, it’s only rock and roll. — Bruce Springsteen

Yeah, it’s only rock and roll. But I like it.

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5 thoughts on “Lessons from Rock Stars

  1. It’s true: today’s graduates are very task oriented, often to the detriment of the task itself. They RARELY ask why, and to what purpose of the act that they are asked to do. This lack of critical thinking, even curiosity scares me.

  2. I can relate to this post… I’m a jeweler, a crafter, an artist, a writer. I feel pulled in so many directions at once sometimes that I never know where the focus is! Do you feel the same sometimes? I DO NOT make music though, well other than singing in the shower! Do you have any of your art on your site?

    • Well, I’ve got photography everywhere. And I used to stress more about being fractured, but my husband said this to me once, and I chilled: It’s all art. It’s what you’re doing now. Relax.

  3. The closing idea of “Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times.” reminded me of something I heard (can’t remember where) that when promoting yourself you should act like you can walk on water, but don’t believe you actually can. It was actually in regards to consultants, but seems like it could apply here as well.

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