I love Bill Withers’ music so much. I cried a little when I heard he died and made him this little garden in my diary later in the day.
He seemed to be that rare artist who was as beautiful a man as he was a singer and songwriter. My friend Brian Braiker told this story of growing up across the street from him:
I knew Bill. I grew up across the street from him in LA. Carpooled with his kids. Bill was a genius, yes. A poet. He was also unreasonably kind and generous. Gentle but with a sadness. Once I baked him a thank-you pie with apples from my dad’s tree — he had given me tickets to some thing at the Greek. When I showed up with the pie he said “oh shit, Red baked me a pie!” (He called me Red.) Then he invited me inside and we talked for maybe two hours. He was a talker. He loved to tell stories. My mom called looking for me and he said “you can’t have him back!” And I kvelled. When I was little I only knew him as the guy who sang “Just the Two of Us,” a song I didn’t really have any feelings for either way. When I studied abroad my junior year, I found “Still Bill” at a thrift store. Then I got his greatest hits. I was HOOKED. I came back from Europe (it would have been 1995) and was excited to tell him I had gotten really into his music. He said, “Man, Red had to go all the way to France to discover me! I was across the street the whole time.”
It’s incredible, when you look at the words on the page, how he spun great songs out of such simple, everyday language:
Lean on me
when you’re not strong
and I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
for it won’t be long
’til I’m gonna need
somebody to lean on
“Sellout… I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care if you own a furniture store or whatever—the best sign you can put up is SOLD OUT.”
There are a bunch of other quotes I could’ve used. In fact, I’m surprised I never used this one:
It’s okay to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through Alright, and when you get to Alright, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.
Thoreau said most men live lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.
There’s also an incredible 2013 interview on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn that I’ve listened to several times. In fact, I have transcribed the ending in full, below. (Thorn told me yesterday that it was “the most powerful thing anyone has ever said on my show.”)
My father was this coal miner, but he was always interested in reading. Never got a chance to go to school. But he read. And, you know, dignity was very important to him. The first thing that I had to resolve in my life and the one thing that was very important to me, I had to sort this out: ‘Can I go into this thing and avoid the minstrel-ness of it?’ This is a business. And you got some cold pimps that will mail you out until you die in your grave. You got as many thieves in this stuff… There’s a life you have to run. And you do the best you can. And hopefully, as a human being, you improve. I’m 70-years-old. I’m not some kind of mindless troubadour. You know? I have an intellect I have to manage, I have some thoughts I have to manage, I have a life I have to maintain. I want to know where my stuff is. You know? I want to know who I am. I don’t want to be some simple-minded blues boy. You can bleep this out: ‘Kiss my ass with that shit.’ So I’m doing the best I can. To grow and improve my lineage as a species. So I got some responsibilities that require that I be available. I never had the benefit of a formal education, but I’ve always wanted to better myself. I can speak the language. I can write it, make it rhyme for you, if you want to. You know what I mean? Somebody said, “Education is the sum total of what you know.” That’s everything from tying your shoe to whether you can do quadratic equations or not. So, I’m not saying this should be a template for everybody, but that’s just the kind of person that makes sense for me to be. Hopefully the music that I made is useful to somebody. I mean, I get nice letters from people that say, ‘Hey man, my grandmother died, and the song helped me.’ I like that kind of stuff. As a result, it was important to me, as best I could, to try to wind up with a life that had some stability and some dignity in it… I made some choices earlier… that I wanted to be a whole person. Not just this entertainer thing. It doesn’t fill up my plate. I love it — who wouldn’t like it? But it doesn’t fill up my plate.
So long, Bill. You fill up my plate.
Happy Friday here’s me trying to learn Aphex Twin pic.twitter.com/MTeAJKKOmg
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 10, 2020
I’ll let you know how it goes. (So far, I’m not sure the copying part is adding that much to the practicing part.)
Here is one of my all-time favorite performances: The Who doing “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” in 1968 as part of The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, uploaded in HD quality last month to their official YouTube account:
From Aquarium Drunkard:
Though no official story ever seems to have been given, rock legend has it that the above video is what kept Jagger from handing the tapes over to the BBC. While the Stones had been off the road and were out of practice, the Who were white hot, turning in a showstopping version of “A Quick One While He’s Away.” The song was their first attempt at rock opera, a seven-and-a-half minute medley whose “Dang!/Dang!/Dang!” bridge went on to score Max Fischer and Herman Blume’s acts of romantic terrorism in Rushmore. Here the group tear through the song’s six parts, Keith Moon decorating his bashing with stick-twirls and Pete Townshend whipping furious windmills as the song pushes its way downhill. Keith Richards, decked out in top-hat and eyepatch, gleefully invites us to “Dig the Who,” and it doesn’t take long to see that his bandmates needn’t have worried so much about their inability to top their openers: Very little has ever been better than this.
I dig the entirety of Rock And Roll Circus. I love the ramshackle quality of the Stones performances: the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is good and nasty (with the slightly sinister “and now…” intro from John Lennon) and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is nice and stripped-down.
But back to The Who: Maybe it’s the season, but what gives me the goosebumps at the end of “A Quick One” is the ending: “You are forgiven.” Over and over and over. “You are forgiven.” (At the end of this performance Pete Townshend yells, “You’re all forgiven!” In the Live at Leeds performance, it’s “We’re all forgiven!” which I like even more.)
I’m now reminded of the ending of one of my favorite movies, Amadeus: “Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you.”
Shall I repeat myself? Yes:
Problems of output are problems of input.
No input, no output.
If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
It was put beautifully by writer Ted Gioia (one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter and author of, most recently, Music: A Subversive History) on an episode of the Conversations With Tyler podcast:
I think the most important skill anyone can develop is time management skills. How you use your day. But there is one principle I want to stress because this is very important to me. When people ask me for advice — and once again, this cuts across all fields — but this is the advice I give:
In your life, you will be evaluated on your output. Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.
But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output.
The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consume.
But I know for a fact I could not do what I do if I was not zealous in managing high-quality inputs into my mind every day of my life. That’s why I spend maybe two hours a day writing. I’m a writer. I spend two hours a day writing, but I spend three to four hours a day reading and two to three hours a day listening to music.
People think that that’s creating a problem in my schedule, but in fact, I say, “No, no, this is the reason why I’m able to do this. Because I have constant good-quality input.” That is the only reason why I can maintain the output.
Pay attention to that ratio. Double to triple time spent on input vs. output. (I remember the first time I read Stephen King’s On Writing as a young writer and being blown away by the fact that he writes in the morning and after lunch he spends all afternoon reading.)
As far as maintaining that high-quality input, Gioia says one other thing I want to highlight: getting outside of your comfort zone and being exposed to new experiences is a human effort, best conducted outside of the algorithm. (“More search, less feed.”)
[T]hese amazing curated playlists are just a feedback loop. They’ll tell you what to listen to next week based on what you listened to last week. And because they’re a feedback loop, they won’t show you anything new or interesting.
So what you need to do, if you really want to broaden your horizons as a listener, is to get exposed to new things. Pick somebody. It doesn’t have to be me…. Find somebody who you trust as a guide, and let them open your ears to these new experiences.
If you do that, you will be rewarded infinitely…
Filed under: input and output
Here is the song in its entirety:
Well, you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started
sitting in your little room!
A perfect 50 seconds. I’ve never heard it put more succinctly.
Here’s Meg and Jack doing the song on Letterman with “Fell in Love with a Girl”:
It’s autobiographical, obviously: The first two White Stripes records were recorded in Jack White’s living room in Detroit. For White Blood Cells, they traveled to Memphis to record in an actual studio. (A bigger room.)
In this brilliant clip from the 2010 documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, Jack White talks about the “secret” of the White Stripes: Constraints.
One part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself to do it, because I know something good can come out of it, if I really work inside it…. Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want — that just kills creativity.
(You might recognize that quote from chapter 10 of Steal Like An Artist.)
Related reading: “Suckcess.”
Yesterday, before I even heard the British election results, I was driving around listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
There’s a 1965 Canadian documentary called Ladies and Gentleman… Mr. Leonard Cohen, which follows the poet and songwriter around at the age of 30. At one point they show him having this irreverent exchange during a TV interview (this clip really reminds me of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, which was shot around the same time):
INTERVIEWER: How can you write poetry if you’re not bothered by something?
COHEN: I’m bothered. When I get up in the morning, my real concern is to discover whether or not I’m in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation and discover that I’m not in a state of grace, I try to go to bed.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by a state of grace?
COHEN: A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you. It’s not a matter of resolving the chaos, because there’s something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order.
Later in the day, I was talking to a friend on the phone about the cognitive dissonance between the long-term prospects of civilization, which are grim, and the present-day experiences of our day-to-day lives, which are quite good.
“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Just half an hour ago, Sam Sifton posted his mother’s obituary. Elizabeth Sifton said this about The Serenity Prayer, which was popularized by her father, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
Every single day one has to think, ‘Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change?’ That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.
Filed under: grace
This part of his story could’ve been straight out of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book:
Beck stopped attending school when it grew too dangerous….. He started taking the bus downtown each day, to the Central Library. There was an entire room of musical scores, so he taught himself how to read music…. In 1986, when Beck was fifteen, the Central Library caught fire. “Probably the saddest day of my childhood was watching the downtown library burn down,” he said. “That was the moment I thought, I have to leave L.A.—I have nothing here. It was the only place that I could go. I didn’t even have money to go to a coffee shop. I was supposed to be in school.”
Interesting to compare Beck’s childhood to a much younger musician who grew up in Los Angeles outside of school: At home with Finneas.
Yesterday I was on the phone with a music producer I know. He’s starting an interview series with other producers and wanted to know if I had ideas for good kinds of questions to ask them.
I thought this was an interesting question itself: Is there a set of questions for creative people that are always interesting?
Much depends, I think, on the audience, and whenever I interview someone, I try to find some Venn diagram of what I’m interested in that the interviewee would be interested in that the audience would also be interested in.
Some things I came up with:
2. Storage and retrieval: How do they capture and keep track of ideas? Do they keep a notebook? Voice memos? (I recently read that Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes ideas down in a big draft email on her phone.)
3. Daily practice: What their day-to-day routine is like, any rituals they have, favorite tools, etc. (See: Daily Rituals.)
4. Troubleshooting: Overcoming block, what people do when things aren’t working. Weird tricks and constraints they come up with. (Example: Oblique Strategies.)
5. Hobbies: What people are interested in outside of work, how they recharge, how they spend their time away from the studio.
6. Personal life: What their parents did, how they grew up, did they go to school, did they like it, what they wanted to be when they were younger, etc.
7. Collaboration: I’m not much of a collaborator, honestly, so I’m interested in how people warm up to each other, the balance between making things comfortable and getting people “out of their comfort zone,” how much of your own aesthetic and ideas you inject into a project.
This last item was particularly funny in hindsight because this morning my son, Owen, who’s a budding music producer at the age of seven, asked if he could listen to a piano track he asked me to add to one of my songs.
“Yes, but I’m not sure if it’s any good,” I said.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “If it’s not good, I’ll make it good.”