Brain Pickings

Happy Birthday, Keith Richards: The Rock Icon on Success, Creativity, and the Art of Observation

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“The radar is on whether you know it or not.”

In any creative discipline, commercial success is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it activates “the winner effect,” the well-documented psychological phenomenon wherein success breeds more success, or, as Michael Lewis put it, “commercial success makes [things easier], and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success”; on the other hand, it tips the scales of productivity and presence in an unfavorable direction, catalyzing the compulsion to produce yet more work in order to maintain the already-attained success and gain more, in the process withering the capacity to actually enjoy it. Reconciling these opposing forces and finding in them fuel for creativity rather than suffocating exhaust fumes is always among the artist’s greatest challenges and most important tasks. Rock icon and legendary songwriter Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, born 70 years ago today, articulates this beautifully in a passage from his altogether excellent memoir, Life (public library):

One hit requires another, very quickly, or you fast start to lose altitude. At that time you were expected to churn them out. ‘Satisfaction’ is suddenly number one all over the world, and Mick and I are looking at each other, saying, “This is nice.” Then bang bang bang at the door, “Where’s the follow-up? We need it in four weeks.” And we were on the road doing two shows a day. You needed a new single every two months; you had to have another one all ready to shoot. And you needed a new sound. If we’d come along with another fuzz riff after “Satisfaction,” we’d have been dead in the water, repeating with the law of diminishing returns. Many a band has faltered and foundered on that rock. “Get Off of My Cloud” was a reaction to the record companies’ demands for more — leave me alone — and it was an attack from another direction. And it flew as well.

So we’re the song factory. We start to think like songwriters, and once you get that habit, it stays with you all your life. It motors along in your subconscious, in the way you listen. Our songs were taking on some kind of edge in the lyrics, or at least they were beginning to sound like the image projected onto us. Cynical, nasty, skeptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time. There was trouble in America; all these young American kids, they were being drafted to Vietnam. Which is why you have “Satisfaction” in Apocalypse Now. Because the nutters took us with them.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Winterland in San Francisco in 1972. (Photograph: Larry Rogers)

And yet out of this commercial pressure grew the singular cultural aesthetic of the Stones:

The lyrics and the mood of the songs fitted with the kids’ disenchantment with the grown-up world of America, and for a while we seemed to be the only provider, the soundtrack for the rumbling of rebellion, touching on those social nerves. I wouldn’t say we were the first, but a lot of that mood had an English idiom, through our songs, despite their being highly American influenced. We were taking the piss in the old English tradition.

But the greatest benefit of this fast-paced production was that it triggered a kind of virtuous cycle of creativity, putting Richards in a trance-like creative state of flow, in which he unwittingly mastered the art of observation and was suddenly more attentive to the world and better able to draw from it raw material for songwriting — in other words, it fine-tuned his combinatorial creativity or what Einstein termed “combinatory play.” Richards writes:

Because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be “Oh! That’s the bridge!” And there’s nothing you can do; you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just can’t stand you anymore”… That’s a song. It just flows in. And also … to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You start looking round, and everything’s a subject for a song. The banal phrase, which is the one that makes it. And you say, I can’t believe nobody hooked up on that one before! Luckily there are more phrases than songwriters, just about.

Life is deadly-terrific in its entirety. Complement it with the best memoirs of 2013.

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