Life Lessons from Patti Smith & Keith Richards: Passion, Persistence, & People

Ideas and Issues

pattkeithNew Orleans Nice thing about taking a vacation this time of the year is that most everything slows down enough that even half-stepping, it’s not that hard to keep up and it’s easier to justify taking your eyes off the grape for a minute.  One of my treats has been reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids last week for a minute and now enjoying Keith Richards’ Life. Both of these are good reads and not in a People magazine or fan-boy sense, but for real solid life lessons.  To even think of life lessons and Keith Richards in the same paragraph brings a smile to my face, but, hey, I’m being serious here people!

Reading Richards you have to get your head around the fact that despite his posture as part scoundrel and part rebel, he was a Boy Scout, wrote his family funny and engaging letters as a callow teenager on his own, and literally kept a diary during the early founding days of the Rolling Stones .  Really!  Believe it or not, this is not the classic rock-and-roll story of “your money for nothing and your chicks for free,” but a tale of driving passion, and not simply passion in a relentless driven ambition way, but something almost religious and evangelical.  Richards paints a vivid picture of himself, Mick Jagger, and the early band members living in a hovel of a London flat with virtually no heat and less food cadging records from blues players in Chicago and Mississippi, deconstructing the pieces of each song, and practicing constantly in order to be able to master the material and push it out to people in the early 1960’s.  It was all about the music, and so much so that even now in the book there are pages that must have driven the editors crazy where he shares how to position your fingers and construct the sounds in what he admits at one point is a “guitar workshop.”  This is his life it turns out and he will tell the stories, but clearly he still wants to get the information out to anyone out there who cares about the music.

Life Lesson One:  there has to be passion for the work.  Life Lesson Two:  it takes practice and persistence to succeed and lots of it!

Patti Smith tells her story a different way, because she is trying to construct a lot of it as a testimonial to her friendship and partnership with Robert Mapplethorpe, the now famous photographer who died of AIDS some years ago, so she presents a lot of her success as almost haphazard and coincidental, as if she somehow simply got lucky.  Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t?  She would not have been the artist, musician, and poet/writer that she has become without breaks certainly, but she likely understates the drive and persistence.  Nonetheless, the story she tells so vividly is the importance of people, friendship, and loyalty in life and work all of which are vastly different than simply social networking and that’s an important life lesson to remember isn’t it?  Her entire book is a testimonial to her uncompromising, unquestioning, and total commitment to that special friendship and is meaning to her and her art.  She knocks on the door of something there almost deeper than love, and makes you think differently about relationships and their weight.

Richards is also surprising about people in quite another way.  He is eternally gracious, charitable, and generous about people.  The caveat there is that his warmth is largely to people who are musicians as opposed to random blokes outside of the work.  He also is unstinting in his willingness to give and share credit, especially about the early, heroic period of the band.  None of this is done in a 12-step making amends way, but in total good spirited sincerity.  In the space of a couple of pages he talks about what a great rhythm guitar player Don Everly (of the Everly Brothers) was and then shares appreciatively how Bobbie Goldsboro taught him how to do some amazing finger moves on the guitar that he had not been able to figure out from huge effort in listening to Jimmy Reed, one of their idols.

Life Lesson Three:  no one stands alone and makes it without the huge and boundless help of other people.  We all stand on other shoulders.  We all learn from others and have obligations to pass it on.  People are everything!

New Year’s Day.  A time for thinking and resolutions, and regarding for the work – and life – ahead.  I thought I would start mine new year sharing some of what some unlikely teachers, Patti Smith and Keith Richards, have been giving me in odd moments in recent days.

Good luck with this!