Book Excerpt:  It’s Not Only Rock ‘N’ Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity

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Videos by American Songwriter

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Musical Rebels

Traditional social conventions were not the only things Eric and some others described overcoming. Many artists resisted the limitations imposed by formal music or art lessons as well, feeling the need to break free of all limitations. Julian Lennon, for example, found piano lessons detrimental to his own self-expression: “I had one piano lesson, but I hit the wrong chord and got whacked over the hand with a ruler, so I thought, this isn’t the way to learn music. At about 11 or 12, I started writing bizarre sorts of songs. By teaching yourself, you can find things that people who are taught wouldn’t normally find, like playing inversions of chords, which normally people wouldn’t play. I guess that’s how I came along with my own style. I just stuck to the weird stuff that people don’t usually play, and they’d say, ‘how do you play that?’ Then they realised it’s the same chord just played a totally different way, because I have no knowledge. I still don’t know what I’m playing, but as long as it sounds right, that’s all that matters. Finding the weirdest chords and trying to make a song out of them gave me the drive to keep playing music.”

Steve Winwood extricated himself from a stifling and uninspiring music education: “Shortly after I turned five or six, I had some [music] lessons, but I fooled the teacher by doing things by ear instead of reading. That didn’t last long, and I didn’t really have any training until I was 14. Then I got into the Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music as a part-time music student while I was still at school. I did that for about a year and a half before I got kicked out for playing rock ’n’ roll and jazz, which, of course, was not acceptable. They made me make the choice – so they kicked me out.”

Singer and songwriter Peter Gabriel also broke loose from the restrictions of lessons – both musically and educationally: “I used to sing in the choir when I was very little and always loved music. My parents bought me a couple of records, and I started listening to the radio and taping things off the broadcast, and then dancing. I stopped piano classes when I was young because I hated all my lessons. Then I started relearning it when I was 12 or 13, picking out a note one finger at a time. At school there was a sense that I could cut through the repression, just letting my hair down and dancing and screaming. It was physical and emotional and intellectual all at once.”

Beginning in childhood, singer, songwriter and Genesis drummer Phil Collins did not follow a traditional path, preferring his drum kit to toys. During adolescence he became dissatisfied with his successful career on the British stage when he discovered he could not express himself honestly through drama. Phil’s musical drive was so great that he gave up acting to play music professionally although it meant disappointing his parents, who had encouraged him in the theatre. He recalled: “I had a pretty normal upbringing. My dad used to have a little boat, and he belonged to the yacht club with about one hundred other people who had boats. Because of that, they used to put on dinners and dances, and a couple of times a year they’d put on pantomimes, and I would play in them, usually as Humpty Dumpty. Apparently I was given a little drum when I was three and took to it. When I was five, my uncle made me a small drum kit that fit in a suitcase. I would play these shows, and so I was exposed to that kind of thing from very early on until I was 11 or 12. My mum started an agency to book kids for commercials and TV, so I started going to auditions. When I was 14, I got the part of the Artful Dodger in Oliver! That’s when I moved from my grammar school to stage school.”

“All along, though, I didn’t want to do anything else but play the drums. I’d bypassed all the train sets and stuff. I knew from a very early age that I didn’t want to do anything but that. I used to come home from school and just practice and play, although I realised I couldn’t do that professionally until I was grown up. Other kids would be playing football more than I did. All I wanted to do was sit at the drum kit upstairs and play along with my records.”

“At the time, that was a lot different from my friends, who had no interest in music at all. I used to be in my own little world. I always used to play in front of the mirror because I had read that it was good to watch yourself play so you don’t look down at what you are doing. I would put the record player on as loud as it would go and play along with it. It must have sounded terrible downstairs where they were trying to watch television. I remember sitting in the living room and playing along with the television while everyone else was trying to watch it. When I was 14, I started drum lessons – I’d taught myself from the age of five – thinking that as this was what I wanted to do in my life, I should try and do it properly. I decided I’d do the pop group thing when I was old enough, then after that finished, I’d probably do sessions or go into a big band – that seemed like the kind of thing to do in your late twenties, early thirties – and then I’d end my days in a pit
band, like an orchestra pit.”

“I used to go home with all the orchestra musicians in Oliver! I was in the show on the West End for seven months, then I started being asked to do other things. At the point when I was 16 or 17, I told them I didn’t want to do any more acting. I just wanted to play the drums and I was finally old enough to get into a professional band. My mum and dad weren’t very happy about that, especially my dad, because he liked showing me off at the office – ‘My son’s in the West End stage!’ as opposed to being in a rock group. There was deathly silence around the house for a couple of weeks.”

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was also encouraged by her parents to be creative, until they no longer approved of her means of expression and withdrew their support. By this time, Joni, like Phil, trusted her inner resolve enough that she was undaunted by her family’s disapproval, and she continued to follow her creative path. Ostracised by her peers since her early years, she was already accustomed to being different from what people expected and to heeding her inner voice. Joni described her youth in a small Canadian village: “In my early childhood because I was creative – I was a painter always – I had difficulty playing with the other children in the neighbourhood, just because they couldn’t get in on my games. The town I lived in was a small third-world town; the mail still came at Christmas on open wagons drawn by horses with sleigh runners. There were a lot of music lessons taking place in the town. Since mainly the kids were athletic, they were sticks- and stonethrowers; they were hardy, robust, physical, not very creative. The creative people in the town generally studied classical piano or classical voice, so I had a lot of friends who were considered the singers. I was always considered the painter, but I was in association with child musicians. I spent a little time in the church choir.”

“At seven, I begged for a piano – I used to have dreams that I could play an instrument – so I was given piano lessons. The lessons used to coincide with the television broadcast of Wild Bill Hickok; this was bad timing [since it was a favourite show], plus the piano teacher used to rap my knuckles because I could memorise and play by ear quicker than I could read. So she made the education process extremely unpleasant. So I quit, but I still used to sit down and compose my own little melodies; that’s what I wanted to do, to compose. In that town, it was unheard of, considered inferior. The thing was to learn the masters and play them. I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up, but I knew I could make up music; I heard it in my head. I always could do it, but it was discouraged. So when I quit piano lessons in my teens, my parents weren’t supportive about my wanting to buy a guitar. Since they weren’t really supportive, I had to buy my first instrument myself.”

Joni managed to overcome the disapproval of her peers her teacher and her parents to pursue her own creative dreams. She seems the perfect example of the intrepid creative person, unafraid of what others think, as described by Maslow: “Perhaps more important, however, [is] their lack of fear of their own insides, of their own impulses, emotions, thoughts. They [are] more self-accepting than the average. This approval and acceptance of their deeper selves then [makes] it more possible to perceive bravely the real nature of the world and also [makes] their behaviour more spontaneous.” Maslow pointed out that these people are less afraid of their own thoughts, considered by others as “nutty or silly or crazy. They [are] less afraid of being laughed at or of being disapproved of.”

Rich Inner Lives

Science cannot tell us whether some people are simply born with a more vivid imagination or whether certain individuals are more adept at maintaining it and tapping into it. What is certain, though, is that imagination is important in motivating artistic individuals to create. Many musicians described having extraordinary fantasy lives as children and/or teenagers. Graham Nash, for example, spoke of realistic recurring dreams and “hallucinations:” “I once saw a golden city in the clouds from my bedroom window. I remember sitting at the window that faced the street – it was a stormy day – the clouds opened, and I saw what I thought was a golden city. It was very fleeting. I used to hallucinate a lot when I was a child: the cracks in the ceiling would turn into railroad tracks, ocean liners. I would make animals out of the folds in the bedspread, for instance. I always saw faces in shadows, crocodiles in the clouds. But the golden city struck very deep – it must have been a five second thing – and I often wonder what it was.”

“Whenever I was ill as a child and had a fever, I had two recurring dreams that I must have had a dozen times. One, I’m floating above my classroom watching myself being taught, observing this whole scene. The other one is of a huge truck, and on the back of it is a roll of brown paper that is 20 feet in diameter. The truck pulls forward and the brown paper rolls off, starts rolling towards me, which I start running away from, and it gets faster and faster. And it’s unrolling as it’s moving so it gets smaller, but it never gets small enough to stop rolling. All my life, I’ve been chased by this roll of brown paper.”

The extra sensitivity that is often characteristic of a creative person leaves an individual more open for the experience of such phenomena as Graham described. Of course, along with this added dimension to one’s life comes the fear of being “strange” or different from others. In the case of singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, these experiences transcended simple imagination: “I’ve had psychic experiences from the time I was a baby. I saw people that weren’t there. They call those “imaginary friends” but they were very real to me. I had dreams that came true continuously. Some of this sounds pretty weird – it kind of makes me sound like I was a total looney! I’ve never told anybody this except my husband and a few close friends. I always did have dreams that came true and saw and heard people and knew that there was another world just beyond what I could see. And sometimes I could see through the veil. It still happens; it’s not stopped. It frightened me for a while. It didn’t frighten me when I was a child, but then it started frightening me when I was a teenager and in my twenties. Now it doesn’t frighten me anymore.”

This did have an effect on Rosanne’s feelings about herself, adding to her sense of aloneness. During her childhood, Rosanne’s father, Johnny Cash, was always on the road, and then he and Rosanne’s mother split up. Rosanne explained how she discovered her creativeness herself without anyone’s help nurturing it along. “I wasn’t encouraged as a child to be artistic. In fact, I got angry about that [later in life] as I realised it. Nobody recognised it, that I had artistic tendencies or that I was the creative type. I don’t feel like I was encouraged at all. There was no room for it at school; outside of school, it just wasn’t focused. I felt I was very strange. The kind of forums I wanted to work in were unacceptable or unexplainable. So, I became very passionate about music. It inspired me continuously. I listened to music all the time. I was very passionate about what I listened to, beginning with the Beatles. I wanted to be a writer, and I always wrote. I always kept journals and wrote really bad poetry. Then I started writing songs when I was 18.”

Silvano Arieti described the effect an active inner life coupled with a lack of creative outlets can have on a child: “Whereas the average person very early in life learns to check his own imagination and to pay more attention to the requirements of reality than to his inner experiences, the creative person follows a different course. He feels himself to be in a state of turmoil, restlessness, deprivation, emptiness, and unbearable frustration unless he expresses his inner life in one or another creative way.” Such seems to have been the case with Rosanne.

This also appears to have been a motivating factor in the early life of Pink Floyd founding member Roger Waters, now a solo artist. Like Rosanne Cash, Roger did not recall having his creativeness nurtured at home. His very active imagination enabled him, however, to thwart his mother’s expectations of normalcy, as well as those of other authority figures. Although he didn’t start playing music seriously until college, he sustained his individuality throughout childhood and adolescence, chiefly through his inventive rebelliousness. Roger’s description of his school illustrates how the traditional educational process seems designed to squash creativeness, a theme that he later explored artistically in his work The Wall: “My father was killed in the war when I was three months old, and I was brought up in Cambridge by my mother, a schoolteacher. She didn’t encourage my creativity. She claimed to be tone deaf – whatever that means – and had no interest in music and art or anything like that, and was only interested in politics. I didn’t really have a happy childhood.”

“I loathed school, particularly after I went to grammar school. Apart from games, which I loved, I loathed every single second of it. Maybe towards the end when I was a teenager, going to school was just an “us and them” confrontation between me and a few friends who formed a rather violent and revolutionary clique. That was alright, and I enjoyed the violence of smashing up the school property. The grammar school mentality at that time had very much lagged behind the way young people’s minds were working in the late fifties, and it took them a long time to catch up. In a way, grammar schools were still being run on prewar lines, where you bloody well did as you were told and kept your mouth shut, and we weren’t prepared for any of that. It erupted into a very organised clandestine property violence against the school, with bombs, though nobody ever got hurt.”

“I remember one night about 10 of us went out, because we had decided that one guy – the man in charge of gardening – needed a lesson. He had one particular tree of Golden Delicious apples that was his pride and joy, which he would protect at all costs. We went into the orchard with stepladders and ate every single apple on the tree without removing any. So the next morning there were just apple cores. That morning was just wonderful; we were terribly tired but filled with a real sense of achievement.”

“Syd Barrett [the cofounder of Pink Floyd with Roger], who was a couple of years younger, and I first became friends in Cambridge. We both had similar interests – rock ’n’ roll, danger, and sex, and drugs, probably in that order. I had a motorbike before I left home, and we used to go on mad rides out into the country. We would have races at night, incredibly dangerous, which we survived somehow. Those days – 1959 to 1960 – were heady times. There was a lot of flirtation with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation of the American poets. Because Cambridge was a university town, there was a very strong pseudo-intellectual but Beat vibe. It was just when the depression of the postwar was beginning to wear off and we were beginning to go into some kind of economic upgrade. And just at the beginning of the sixties there was a real flirtation with prewar romanticism, which I got involved with in a way, and it was that feeling that pushed me towards being in a band. I used to go with friends on journeys around Europe and the Middle East, which in those days was a reasonably safe place. How much all that experience had to do with my eventually starting to write, I’ve no idea.”

“The encouragement to play my guitar came from a man who was head of my first year at architecture school at Regent Street Polytechnic, in London. He encouraged me to bring the guitar into the classroom. If I wanted to sit in the corner and play guitar during periods that were set aside for design work and architecture, he thought that was perfectly alright. It was my first feeling of encouragement. Earlier, I had made one or two feeble attempts to learn to play the guitar when I was around 14 but gave up because it was so difficult. It hurt my fingers, and I found it much too hard. I couldn’t handle it. At the Polytechnic I got involved with people who played in bands, although I couldn’t play very well. I sang a little and played the harmonica and guitar a bit. Syd and I had always vowed that when he came up to art school – which he inevitably would do, being a very good painter – he and I would start a band in London. In fact, I was already in a band, so he joined that.”

Creativity Spawned by Loneliness

The sense of aloneness and alienation in childhood was a common thread in many interviews. In some cases it was caused by events beyond the child’s control; in others it was self-imposed. In both situations this sense was partially responsible for pushing the young musicians to find something within themselves to bring pleasure to their lives, since it could not be found externally. Rather than sublimating their vivid imaginations during adolescence, as most young people do, they held on to theirs and nurtured them. It became their companion.

American singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop had a childhood that aptly illustrates this concept. Like Rosanne Cash and Roger Waters, Stephen received little encouragement at home to be creative or to pursue his passion – rock ’n’ roll music. Unlike Roger, Stephen had no partners in creative crime and thus depended on his own ingenuity to keep himself company: “When I was five my father and mother broke up. My mother was very much into religion; she was an orthodox Christian Scientist. I was about eight when she remarried.” Stephen described his stepfather as someone who inadvertently spurred on his creativity. “He became very strong in the story of my life because I guess he was the catalyst in an inverted way: I was almost forced into being creative. He moved our family away from San Diego, where I had tons of friends and where things were always going on and I could walk to anywhere, to an area near the freeway.”

“Ironically enough, our new home was right next to Kiddieland, an amusement park where I’d always wanted to stop but had been told by my folks that it was too far out of the way. I was 10 and had already been thinking of getting into music, wanting to play an instrument. Before that, I’d never thought of music; my brain cells were on a lounge chair watching Gilligan’s Island. My stepfather bought me a clarinet, of all things. I started to learn to play it, and in a short time I could play it on my own. But I was very sad. I was forced into creativity because I didn’t have any friends and I was very lonely. I would make a sword out of orange crates and have sword fights with a tree – that was the big highlight. I wound up being really resourceful; my loneliness and the situation made me creative.”

“I started to make my own little comic books to amuse myself. My name at that point was Earl – I changed it in fifth grade to Stephen – and everybody at school called me Earl the Squirl. So I made Earl the Squirl the character in my comic books. I’d make up his adventures one after the other. Right in front of our house was the freeway off ramp, so next to it I built a shack out of orange crates, with a little roof and a bench. I would sit out there every day after school and wait for somebody to stop and buy my Earl the Squirl magazines. As well as playing the clarinet, I began to write little poems. I started being creative at that time, but it came out of loneliness. I don’t think people realise that creativity can be your best friend, because it’s a part of you.”

“The advent of the Beatles really helped me creatively. They inspired me like no one else. I started playing Beatle melodies on my clarinet. My stepfather didn’t dig this; he just hated the Beatles, and he hated rock ’n’ roll and long hair. He hated change – it scared him. He wanted me to keep playing the clarinet, but I was on to bigger and better things. Pretty soon I begged my brother, who’s nine years older, to get me a guitar, and he did. He got me an electric guitar and made an amplifier out of a stereo. It was exciting creating then because it was such a no-no. It was like having Mamie Van Doren in my closet.”

“My stepfather’s hatred of it all fuelled my desire, fired my creativity. I’d hear him talking to my mom, ‘he’s playing that damned rock music.’ I was allowed to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan only if I cleaned up the yard every day for a year. They represented an energy my stepfather didn’t want to look at. He was very discouraging. When I got two Ds in junior high, my mom wouldn’t let me play my guitar for six months. That was pretty heavy because I was totally in love with my guitar. I would take it into my bedroom closet, which was quiet, to write songs. I would be in there working on an idea for the verse, really into it, and then all of a sudden the door would jerk open and there he’d be: ‘Look at you! You’re just banging on that thing, look at you!’ I’d be scared because he was very forceful. He would never let up. My creativity was just bubbling; in some ways it was kept down, but in others it was just fuelled by him. Writing songs really became exciting to me; I’d have to hurry up and write a song before he came home from work. This went on for years until I finally started a band, which he was always putting down. I had to keep it under cover.”

After spending the afternoon with Stephen, I realised that the childlike part of his nature is still very much alive. Stephen seems to relish devising inventive ways of amusing himself. That day, for example, he showed me his music room, his toys, and then had me listen to his telephone answering machine message. He loved concocting different personalities and imitating the voices of film stars to produce a scenario on his answering machine. He also enjoyed putting together eclectic mix tapes. While I was there, he pulled out numerous photo albums filled with pictures from long ago, as well as everything he had ever written, including his very first song, childhood stories he’d penned, and comic strips he’d drawn. Stephen reminded me of a creative little boy, making up games, skipping from one to the other with such enthusiasm.

Robert Burke Warren explained that part of his youth he has kept alive is his solitary nature: “When I was around 12, I used to stay up all night. When everyone else went to sleep and the world shut down, I was able to hear things and commune with things without distraction – just walk around and not have a goal. I’d get on my bicycle and ride through the night on deserted streets; I was very content doing that. I spent an inordinate amount of time alone as a kid, and I got to know myself better. The core of everything is just to know yourself, to know who you are. The only way to do that is to spend time alone and experiment with your environment. I did that a lot.”

Richard Thompson said he was also a loner as a child and spent his time listening to records and learning to play guitar. Richard was one of many musicians who told me of their childhood affinity for early rockers like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley: “I found rock ’n’ roll very exciting, even at the age of seven or eight. I wanted to play the guitar as long as I can remember, because Elvis had a guitar and Buddy Holly had a guitar. I actually got my hands on one when I was 10.”

‘I was very introverted and shy, so often instead of having friends, I’d sit at home and play guitar. I felt like a social misfit all through school. Guitar might have been a kind of revenge: ‘Well, at least I can do this; they think I’m nothing.’ I was going to show them. It wasn’t the whole thing, but there was some element of trying to acquire acceptance and respectability by playing the guitar.”

Initial Inspirations

A strong admiration of other artists inspired many young musicians to learn to play their instruments. In fact, for some it seems as though their guitar or drum kit gave them the companionship they lacked, as well as giving them a means of expression. Albert Lee, the guitarist who has played with Eric Clapton and Emmylou Harris, among others, described how he came under his guitar’s spell: “When I was about 13 or 14, a friend’s brother lent me his guitar. I learned to play the basics on it, and from then on the piano [which I’d been learning to play] took a backseat. I was really crazy about the guitar. I used to borrow guitars from various friends; in fact I played for two years before actually owned one. I taught myself just listening to records– Lonnie Donegan, then all the early rock ’n’ roll that came along, Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. As far as guitar players go, I guess it was the guitar player with Gene Vincent [Cliff Gallup] that really made me want to play, to really learn about guitar. I learned a lot from him, just copying his solos. They were very intricate and jazzy and had a lot of scales. It was a good way to practise, learning the scales.”

“I left school when I was 15, and all I wanted to do was play music. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I wanted to do something with music. When I left school I wasn’t quite good enough to go professional, but a year later I was. At 16, I did my first tour, and I’ve been on the road ever since. Once I discovered the guitar, I really didn’t have any other interests.”

The late blues singer Koko Taylor, who spent her youth in Memphis and Chicago, found her heart’s desire in the music of those cities. “I grew up listening to older blues singers like Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf – people like that – and that’s where I got my greatest influence from. Of course, back in those days, singing the blues was really all we knew. Also gospel. So during that time I was singing gospel and I was also singing blues. I was not getting paid to sing; I was singing for my own enjoyment, and this was all I knew to do at that time.”

The late blues guitarist, songwriter and singer John Lee Hooker was greatly inspired by his stepfather and other musicians from the Mississippi Delta where he grew up: “I was aware of my music when I was about 12. My stepfather [Will Moore] was a musician and he taught me how to play guitar in the style he played in. He played stuff that I’m playing now. My stepfather was playing with people like Blind Blake, Charlie Patton and Leroy Cobb. He would go out and play in these house parties that I couldn’t go to; I heard the records. My stepfather had one of those old machines that you wind up. I heard their music and I really liked what they did. I knew I wanted to be a musician and I was determined not to be a farmer.”

Steve Jordan, who has played drums with such artists as Keith Richards and Neil Young, was one of the many musicians who named the Beatles as a major influence on his musical life: “My parents started giving me records really young. Before I could read, they had given me an extensive record collection. I used to identify them by the label. I heard a lot of Miles Davis: I was very inspired by Tony Williams and Art Blakey. I remember dancing in 1962, when I was six years old, to the original “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers at my aunt and uncle’s house. I was always dancing.”

“My favourite artists were James Brown and the Beatles. They really are the essence of all the things that I think are important to me musically – everything else is an offshoot from that. The Stones have been very influential, Al Green, as well as Sly and the Family Stone, but that was a little later. The Motown sound: James Jamerson – hearing the sound of that bass – and Benny Benjamin, the drums on that, it’s a part of the way I breathe. Listening to [Donald] ‘Duck’ Dunn and Al Jackson play together – their Memphis sound was very important. Those things inspired me the most.”

Peter Frampton explained that his initial drive to perfect his musicianship was his desire to emulate the playing style of Hank B Marvin, leader of the Shadows, a popular band of the late fifties and early sixties. “It was really exciting learning to play. It was something I did very well, very quickly. It came easily, and so I worked long hours at it. It was my hobby, and I was obsessed with being as good as Hank Marvin.”

“I have always had a challenge to meet, whether it was to be successful and recognised for my craft or to maintain the success, or just to please myself and grow as a musician, which is the most important thing to me. In my home studio I still go and enjoy myself, and if I play or write something new, it fuels the drive that I have always had to break new ground. There’s nothing like coming up with a new piece of music to spur you on to do more.”

The Intense Drive to Create

Peter Frampton described the fulfillment he attains by playing music, almost as if he has no choice. It reminded me of something Jung wrote: “True productivity is a spring that can never be stopped up … Creative power is mightier than its possessor.” This was reiterated by jazz drummer Robin Horn: “If you are a creative person, you must have an outlet. I’ve had the experience of not letting it out, like not practising for a week, and I start to become a real uptight son of a bitch. Now I clearly see that the artistry has to come out, and if you don’t let it, it starts screaming at you. It has to be satisfied and nurtured. I have a really strong inner drive. It’s like an inner voice that nags at me. When I’ve finished playing, after about an hour, I feel a thousand times better.”

Similarly, American singer and songwriter Edie Brickell observed, “you feel like a prisoner if you don’t create; you’re jailed up inside of yourself. You’ve got to let that out. It’s there and it just needs to come out. It’s freedom, the desire for freedom.”

Bluesman Buddy Guy talked about slipping away from other activities to fulfill a demanding need – to make music: “I’ve been aware of my love of music ever since I was big enough to know I could take rubber bands and put two nails in the wall and just stretch them. The sound the rubber bands gave was exciting to me. I was doing something like that as far back as I can remember. I recall I was just a normal kid like anybody else, only I would always wander off from the crowd and wind up trying to get some kind of sound out of something.”

Keith Strickland, too, was powerfully drawn to creative expression beginning at an early age, and this force has stayed with him throughout his life: “I’ve always had a very strong drive to create, even before it became a career. I started very early, just experimenting, by expressing myself in creative ways. I’ve always drawn and painted. I have a very strong urge to create, but I’m not quite sure where that comes from. I’ve always played instruments, dabbled with anything. If there’s an instrument around, even a saxophone, I’d be inclined to pick it up and see what I can do with it and not be afraid of it. I think a lot of it is just stating your intention to yourself like, ‘okay, I’m going to play it.’ That’s a large percentage of doing it. The whole creative process for me is just discovery – discovering what the instrument does, and what you can do, too.”

For some artists, musical role models triggered their drive to create; for others, their first contact with a certain instrument sparked their desire to play. My late husband Ian Wallace initially found inspiration through seeing a drum kit in all its glory during a concert. From that moment on, nothing could derail his determination to play the drums: “I didn’t know what I was going to be until I was 14. I was really into music then; I got a guitar, but I didn’t know how to tune it. When I was about 15, I joined the school jazz society, and they had a local outing to the cinema where Acker Bilk was playing. We sat in the back, the stage was all set up, then the ice cream lady came up the aisle. I went down to get an ice cream and as I stood in line, I looked up at the drum kit and it was like the heavens opened and choirs started singing, and Jesus’ rays came down on the drum kit. I knew then what I wanted to do. The next day I got all my albums and my guitar – without telling my mother – and took them to the local music store and traded them in for a little snare drum. I used to sit at home with cardboard boxes and things and a pair of sticks and play to old jazz records. I knew I wanted to play the drums. After that, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Dedicated Hard Work

Like Ian, many musicians told me that the drive to create led to their immersing themselves completely in learning to play their instrument. What for some would have been hard work became a joy to these fledgling artists. Maslow described this aspect of creative people’s attitude towards working at their art form: “Duty [becomes] pleasure, and pleasure merge[s] with duty. The distinction between work and play [becomes] shadowy.” Several artists described intensive learning periods, in which they pushed themselves to master their instrument, either despite or mindless of the physical pain.

Producer Jeff Lynne, founder of Electric Light Orchestra and a member of the Traveling Wilburys, discussed overcoming “technical difficulties” while learning to play: “I started out with my friend who had a plastic guitar, and it had only one string on it, and I said ‘ooh, can I borrow that?” I borrowed it, and I learned “Guitar Tango” by The Shadows, by playing on one string. That’s how I learned. Then one day, my dad bought me a secondhand Spanish guitar for two quid, and then I got some strings. Someone taught me how to tune up, but they taught me wrong. I didn’t know that, so when I used a book to learn to form chords, it sounded terrible. I thought I was useless, and then a few weeks later someone told me about the real tuning. I was about 14. I didn’t like school very much, and so when this guitar thing came about, even the one string, I realised I’d found something I’d like to do. And once I got the Spanish guitar, that’s all I did – just played it for five or six hours a day. I loved it so much I didn’t need anything else at all. I was good at it, fortunately. I could pick it up quickly, so I thought, maybe I’m good at this.”

The hard work and determination Jeff put into learning to play his guitar has been a constant throughout his career as a successful songwriter and producer. His tenacity at overcoming a challenge has remained an intricate part of his craft: “Sometimes you can just work on a tune forever. You work it to death. You still don’t like it, but you won’t give up on it – you just keep trying and trying. Even on some of my big hits, it’s been butchered in the end. I know it’s there, but I can’t find it. So I’ll try a thousand alternatives to make it a bit better. And I won’t give up on it, because if I’ve got a feeling that there’s something there in the first place, it must still be right really. I don’t give up very easily. You can get the first few chords as an inspiration and you don’t know where they come from. The hard bit then, is making the verse and chorus and nice words. There’s a million people who can come up with little bits and that’s all it is – it’s a bit. The hard work is making it into something that is a performance. When you come up with an original riff, you can suddenly hear if it’s good. You can hear it going into a verse or a chorus. You can imagine it. Then you’ve got to find what you can imagine.”

Ron Wood started performing when he was just a kid and through his immense drive has continued to perfect his musicianship throughout his life: “I first went onstage at the age of nine, playing washboard at the local cinema with my two brothers in a skiffle group. But even before that, I was lent a guitar, and a couple of members of the band – the guitarist and the banjo player – used to give me chord sheets. They used to write out easy chords for me to learn when I was about seven or eight. Then I took it a bit more seriously up to the age of 10. The guy who lent me the guitar took it back, so I had a gap of a couple of years. Then my brother saved up and bought me my own guitar. I was about 12 then.”

“I didn’t ever see any reason to stop playing just because my fingers hurt. I was never impaired by the physical side of it. I thought it was something I had to do. It still goes for today. You can never sit back and rest on your laurels, because the moment that feeling hits you – if you stop playing, then it’s all over. You have to keep playing and get better. I’m playing for someone higher than me. Maybe it’s that person in the crowd, God, or Eric Clapton! I never lose my ambitious drive; I’m always striving.”

Vernon Reid described how the difficulties of learning to play almost prevented him from continuing with the guitar, but his drive to create enabled him to overcome these stumbling blocks: “I stopped playing for about six months because my first guitar was an acoustic, an old Gibson with a very high action and thick strings. I was skinny, so it was really painful to hold down the strings. At the end of six months, I said to myself that I’m really going to hang with this and not let it defeat me. I remember having that feeling.”

George Harrison’s desire to play the guitar was so great that he literally did nothing else but master his playing skills and seek out fellow musicians. “I put a lot of time into playing the guitar, learning how to clamp down on those strings while my fingers were hurting and how to change the chords, moving my fingers without the music stopping. I played a lot, even though it was just simple stuff, laboring on until I got it, even if just to play a skiffle tune or “Peggy Sue”. It was something I didn’t think about; I just did it. It was something that I liked. I just liked music and I loved guitars, so it was a labor of love, really.”

‘When I was 11, we moved from our neighbourhood into one of the new housing estates on the outskirts of Liverpool, and just after that, I also moved to the new grammar school. That was a big change in my life, because it was around the time I got my new guitar, and that’s the school where Paul McCartney came into my life. There were also other people I met who were guitarists. I would hang out with anybody who had a guitar in those days, either they would come to my house or I would go to theirs. The guitar and music were the first things I was interested in. I didn’t like school most of the time; it was much too serious. I didn’t have a clue of what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be anything. The only thing that held my interest was music and the guitar and how to get out of getting a proper job. If it hadn’t been for the band, I would have just been a bum.”

Drummer Steve Jordan also discovered his creative impulse as a young child. He told me how he persevered through the learning process even though his initial impressions of learning to play were a far cry from reality: “When I was little I banged on everything. I used to get the coffee cans with plastic lids – that was my kit. It sounded good. I got my first drum when I was eight, with the provision that I take lessons at the local music store. The first time I went, the guy sat me behind this great set of Gretsch drums – blue sparkle. I felt just fantastic sitting behind this kit. The guy said, ‘do you really want to practice and put the time in? It isn’t going to be easy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ I couldn’t wait to get down and play. They didn’t give me any sticks or anything, just let me sit behind it and said, ‘come back next week.’ I couldn’t wait, every night I was dreaming about the kit. So the next week I walked in the same room and there was this piece of wood with a slab of rubber on it, and there were no drums in the room at all. It was a practice pad! I was crushed, but I had to start there.”

Striving Against the Odds

Choosing to be a professional musician certainly could not be described as a “safe” choice. It is characteristic, though, of another of Maslow’s descriptions of creative people: “[They] do not cling to the familiar, nor is their quest for the truth a catastrophic need for certainty, safety, definiteness, and order.”

As I listened to the various stories of how these musicians struggled to succeed in their careers, I was struck by the amount of courage and determination necessary to surmount the uncertainties. I remembered when Fleetwood Mac first met Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Although the two had recorded an album together, they were still struggling to make ends meet. Stevie was waitressing long hours to cover her expenses as a musician. In our interview, she recalled those tough times, along with the obsession she had to be a musician: “I wrote my first song on my sixteenth birthday. I finished that song hysterically crying, and I was hooked. From that day forward when I was in my room playing my guitar, nobody would come in without knocking, nobody disturbed me. My parents were very supportive and wouldn’t let anyone disturb me until I came out. They’d even let me miss dinner if necessary, it was that important. They could hear that I was working, at 16 years old, and they would leave me alone. I started singing in assemblies at school and in folk groups. I sang whenever I could, for whatever I could possibly find to do; if it had anything to do with singing or music I did it.”

“There were times when I was between 20 and 27 – before I joined Fleetwood Mac – that my dad would say, ‘how long are you going to do this? You have no money, you’re not happy, you work constantly, you work at restaurants, you clean houses, you get sick very easily, you’re living in Los Angeles, you don’t have any friends, why are you doing this?” And I would just say, ‘because it’s just what I came here to do.'”

Ravi Shankar also sacrificed many things while he worked towards becoming a sitar master, including his glamorous life touring Europe and America with the family’s performing company. “In 1935 my brother hired one of the greatest musicians in India as a soloist in our troupe. When he joined, I had never seen such a great musician; I was bowled over. He looked very ordinary, but there was some inner fire in him that felt like a volcano.”

“I became his guide because I could speak French, German and Italian. He liked me because he missed his son, so he took me as his son and loved me very much. He stayed with the troupe only about 10-and-a-half months, but within that period he changed the course of my life. I was so spoiled by then. I was more of a dancer [than a musician], wearing the best clothes, staying in five-star hotels. I was having a lot of fun, singing, writing poetry, painting. Everything I did, people would say ‘wonderful!’ but he was the first one who said to me, ‘you are nothing; you can never do anything like this; you are like a butterfly; you are like a jack-of-all-trades; you have to do one thing properly, and I will teach you if you leave everything and come with me.’ I couldn’t decide what to do, for at that time I was well known for my dancing. I choreographed a solo myself, which was a great success. Becoming a young man, I was really having a lot of fun with the glitter and glamour of the whole thing.”

“It took me a year and a half, but finally I decided to go to him. He lived in a small town in India, near Benares. He couldn’t believe it when he saw me – I was now 18 – his eyes almost popped out. I had shaved my head; I wanted to please him, and I did. That’s how it started, and I stayed with him for seven-and-a-half years, living the life of a hermit almost, which was very difficult for me. I lived in the house next door to him, a very creaky old house with flies, scorpions, snakes, and even wolves at night. It was so uncomfortable, and I suffered very much. But he was my inspiration and was the one man I saw in my life who lived whatever way he preached.”

“And so I learned the sitar. After seven years he told me to give programmes, perform at different festivals and on the radio. I was earning a little bit, but not very much. With his permission I went to Bombay, and then I really got into giving programmes and writing music for films, ballet and opera. Very quickly I became well known, in three or four years.”

Guitarist Rick Vito, formerly with Fleetwood Mac and now a solo artist, pursued his musical dreams, which required him to pull up stakes and move across the country. He explained where he thought his drive originated: “In regard to playing, I could never not do it. I don’t know what has made me stick this out through lean years when nothing much was happening. I think there’s a little voice that tells you if you’re special in some way, a little voice that reminds you not to forget about it. A certain amount of drive comes from being inspired by other people’s work and wanting to achieve something that you’re proud of and that other people will be respectful of.”

“When I was about 16 or 17, I started thinking that I would play music professionally, not just on weekends in bars around Philadelphia, near where I lived. But I never made a firm stand on that until I was 20, when I heard the early Delaney and Bonnie records. I thought they were really saying something in a rock ’n’ roll way that nobody else was at the time. I was determined to introduce myself to these people, and somehow I got backstage at one of their shows and met them. They were very encouraging, and so the second time they came back they invited me to play with them onstage, so I sat in with them. It was one of those things that brought the house down; it was amazing. Delaney told me that if I really wanted to get in the business I should move to L.A. From then on I made up my mind that nothing was going to be more important than that, so I moved to the West Coast.”

Like Rick Vito, several musicians feel that a strong belief in their self-worth is related to their own intense drive to create. This seems to verify the high degree of self-acceptance found in creative people. As Koko Taylor explained: “The drive comes from you. You’re the one that motivates the drive; it has to be in you. You have to have that spark to say, ‘I feel good about myself. I feel good about what I’m doing.’ And that keeps the energy up, that keeps the drive going.”

Don Henley also mentioned the importance of drive and the belief in oneself to attain creative success: “I don’t want to discount talent and ability, but I still maintain that a lot of it is just sheer desire. You’ve got to want it more than anything else in the world and be able to do whatever it takes. Most of all, you must believe in yourself – believe you can do it.”

I found Don’s thoughts on artistic drive inspirational. To prevail against the many societal forces that can shatter one’s convictions, there must be a powerful faith in one’s self. That belief in oneself is truly the core essence of the creative drive. And it is their innermost essence, that part of the psyche known as the unconscious, to which artists truly connect through the creative act.

excerpted from “IT’S NOT ONLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity” Available from John Blake Publishing Ltd., London, England


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