Keith Richards, Firestones and the Persevering Artist (How Sensitive Creators Can Best Bring Their Work Into the World)

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(Sussman Lawrence Band 1981)
“You’re too emotional,” my friend’s been telling me, “hyper-sensitive.” He says that’s why I got replaced as the composer for a hit TV show several years ago. He says that’s what compelled me to escape my record contract with Sony on a legal loophole in the early 90’s. I could go on and on about all the reasons he’s wrong, but I won’t. The truth is, I am hypersensitive. I haven’t made a scientific study of it, but I’d say my antenna is several degrees more ticklish than most.

But to be successful at making art, you need an extra measure of sensitivity. Beyond the technical skills, like the ability to play the piano or draw, the artist’s superpower is the capacity to feel acutely. The empathic intake of the emotionality of living makes up the building blocks of art. But here’s the paradox: to achieve commercial success we also need a gift for shutting off that emotionality at will.

There are three basic stages to the creation of commercially viable art: You conceive the idea, you develop it and then you bring it to the marketplace. The marketplace is the tough one because it demands that you shut down the excess emotion.

If I were selling Firestone tires, for example, it would be so much easier than selling the wares of my inner-life. When someone says they approve of the music I write and record, it makes me happy, when they don’t, it can be depressing. It can make me feel like the essence of who I am, (which I believe my music is) is unlovable.

I’m not sure that makes me an anomaly among creative people. Being thin-skinned to the world and steeled to the hard realities of making art a commercial endeavor is a paradox that’s painful and difficult to sustain. Some people try to alleviate the sting by offering platitudes.

“You’re so much more than what you create.” That’s trying to get me to disentangle my art from who I am. But I can’t. That statement is total bullshit to the one who is doing the creating.

“No one can make you feel bad about yourself except you.” Talk about blaming the victim. And it’s a lie if there ever was one. People can and do make you feel bad.

Then there is this famously unhelpful one: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” C’mon, Nietzsche, it can also leave you weeping in a fetal ball.

What about stopping being so empathic altogether? Perhaps the way out of the paradox is to stop considering refracted emotional verities and start thinking in quantitative terms from the get-go — until it’s all just higher Twitter numbers and Facebook fans. To hell with poetry and empathy! To the dogs with love and truth! That way we can churn out art the same way they make Firestone tires; scientifically, dispassionately and with a mind toward selling as many as humanly possible (and hey, my Firestones are damn good tires). Of course none of that’s gonna be possible, at least not for some of us. The real issue is how to manage the paradox of art and commerce. How to soldier on.

Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, which I read recently, pointed me to this conclusion:

Managing the paradox is all about being part of a collaborative experience, being part of a band.

Reading it got me thinking back to a gig that my old band Sussman Lawrence performed one night at a college bar in Ames, Iowa in ’81.

The place was packed and so we assumed that everyone was there to see us. It turns out they were there for the free beer. Five minutes into our set, the pitchers of Miller had emptied and so had the club. We played to no one but ourselves that night and the beautiful thing was, not one of the five of us gave a damn, we had one another. The support and friendship of fellow creators is what bolsters us and gives us the strength to persevere.

Being in the company of people who are knowledgeable about the costs of making things, of bringing the fruits of their imaginations into the world, is how we can best keep going forward. It sounds simple, but it’s a step many of us neglect to take, especially given how many ways there currently are to work in total seclusion. I know for a fact that it is possible to compose music for an entire season of television without ever having to work with another musician. Just as there are photographic and graphic arts tools that allow a user to never have to leave their apartment and see another living soul.

This is a sad byproduct of all our great new technology. We can create cheaply and efficiently, without the bother of having to deal with other people’s opinions. You no longer have to be concerned with what the bass player thinks because you can play the part yourself. You don’t need to consider what the guy at the color-correction lab thinks about your photograph because you can make your own adjustments in Photoshop. We gain speed and cost effectiveness sure, but it’s easy to forget what we lose from the isolation.

The way ahead is easy. Call a sensitive-antenna-ed friend and have a conversation about love, meaning and empathy over lunch. And next time you choose to isolate yourself, make sure you’re doing it because it’s an aesthetic decision, not merely a choice of convenience. Your art will be better for it and the talons of the marketplace will feel a lot less sharp.

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