I have to confess to a guilty pleasure. I love reading biographies and autobiographies of rock stars. I think it’s because I lead such a normal, controlled life. I experience such vicarious pleasure reading about people who go totally berserk. Yes, they crash and burn in the end. But what a ride!
Right now I’m almost done with Keith Richard’s Life. Well worth the read for anyone who loves the Stones. My favorite part wasn’t the drugs and the groupies. Actually, the book came to life for me when Keef talks about discovering how to get the blues sound he’s been searching for and could never find. The old blues guys didn’t know how to play the guitar, but they could play the banjo. So they dropped the bass string and tuned the other five like a banjo, in the common open G tuning. That was the secret. As Keef tells it, once he had his guitar set up that way, the rest followed. It was like discovering the key to a room filled with treasures.
I only know three guitar chords, but I do play 5-string banjo, so I knew exactly what he was talking about. This also proves something I’ve long felt about writing. It’s an idea I share with beginning writers of all ages. There are no rules! You do what you need to do to get the effect you want. Don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s okay to copy. We all do it one way or another. If you admire something in another person’s writing, try it in your own. See if it works for you. It either will or it won’t. If it works, no one can tell you not to do it. Do what Keef does. Tell ‘em, “Bugger off!”
Since I was almost finished with Life, I started looking for another book. I found a winner in our local library. It’s Sam Cutler’s autobiography of the days when he managed The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead. Sam managed the tour that culminated with the fiasco at Altamont. I saw the Stones that year when they performed at the University of Illinois. Sam’s observations are certainly worth reading for anyone who remembers that era.
In between all the gossip and the drugs and the groupies and the money and the slick deals and the betrayals is one gem that I had to write down so I wouldn’t forget it. Sam asks Jerry Garcia of the Dead what the Dead are all about. He’s trying hard to figure out what the Dead family is supposed to mean and he can’t quite grasp it. They’re the loosey-goosey ramshackle anything goes yin to the Stones tightly controlled yang. Jerry replies:
“In the great forest of music, you, the listener, explore and wander between the trees, until by happy accident you stumble upon a forest glade. There in a beautiful clearing in the woods spread with verdant grass in the sunlight, you stand in awe as the birds sing. Walking carefully toward the center of the clearing you notice an isolated group of delicate small flowers radiant in their perfection and perfect in their radiance. Those flowers, so fragile and insubstantial, so manifest and yet so vulnerable, are the Grateful Dead.”
I believe that those words describe any encounter with the arts. A play, a song, a painting, a poem, a book. It also applies to writing. We wander around, not really knowing where we’re going or what we’re supposed to do. Then suddenly an idea appears, manifest yet vulnerable, that we have to cherish and nurture. These precious, delicate encounters lie at the root of the creative process.
Thanks, Jerry. Thanks, Sam.
Sam’s book, by the way, is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, published by ECW Press in Canada. Click HERE for the link.