I took a hiatus from business books this holiday. They are all starting to read the same to me. For instance, the narrative opening has become a cliche: “Bill Fredericks entered the CEO office for the first time since his surprise promotion and considered how he’d spend his first day in the long-coveted role. The WonderLam PR debacle was entering its third month….” etc. etc.
Anyway, I’m reading a very non-business book: Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.” It’s a great read, as you might imagine. Richards is very candid with his views on his own behavior and that of his compatriots. There’s also amazing in-depth discussion of how to write songs and how to play guitar, Richards-style.
But for the purposes of this blog, Richards’ amazing skill at collaboration stands out. Besides playing with the same core group of musicians for more than 40 years (a collaboration feat that impresses all on its own), Richards also has worked with this list of artists:
Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare
See what I mean?
What did Richards have that made him reach out to so many, and be sought out as well?
Eye on the goal
Richards (at least as he sees it) is totally focused on music. He couldn’t have cared less about the business aspect of the band. From his teenage years, he absorbed records and others’ performances. He thought about music all the time; dreamed it, even.
With this singular focus (let’s put aside the years when music shared his attention with another mistress, heroin), ego and band politics were left aside. About the only conniving Richards admits to involved sneaking a great sax player whom MIck didn’t approve of back on the bandstand.
Being absorbed by music made Richards attractive to others who shared his passion. He might be in the biggest band in the world, but if you had an opinion to offer on, say, Buddy Holly’s singing technique, he would probably have a discussion with you.
Humility and willingness to learn
Richards never seems to feel he masters the guitar. He always has things to learn from others. And when he meets a set of musicians, rather than talk a lot, he seems to spend hours (days, even), playing music with them.
He’s also aware of his limitations. Here he discusses an unexpected call from songwriter Hoagy Carmichael:
He’d heard a version I’d done of the song “The Nearness of You,” which I’d given to our lawyer Peter Parcher. Peter liked my record and the piano playing and he’d sent it to Hoagy. My treatment of it is barrelhouse; it really flips the song on its back, deliberately so. I can’t play piano well and I was improvising to say the least, just sort of making do. And here’s Carmichael on the phone, and he says, “Hey, man, when I heard that version, shit, that’s the way I was hearing it when I was writing it.”… I couldn’t believe it when he rang and said he’d liked the way I’d done it.
And finally to humility, here is Richards’ on the Stones’ initial ambitions: “Our first aim as the Rolling Stones was to be the best rhythm and blues band in London, with regular gigs every week.”
Talent and willingness to teach
Despite his acknowledged limitations, Richards is obviously talented. Soon after he begins absorbing blues music, he is in a band. And soon that band is indeed the “best rhythm and blues band in London.” Then come the songs, and the records, and tours, etc. People wanted to collaborate with Richards because of what he had done. And unlike the comic fearful of getting his jokes stolen, he was happy to share what he knew. Waddy Wachtel writes this in one of “LIfe”’s many sections contributed by Richards collaborators:
I remember when I discovered this weird tuning–as it seemed to me then–that Keith had adopted. In the early ’70’s, I went to England [touring] with Linda Ronstadt. And we was led into Keith’s house in London and there’s this Strat sitting on a stand with five strings on it.And I’m like, “What happened to that thing? What’s wrong with that?” And he goes, “That’s my whole deal….The five-string! The five string open-G tuning.” …Growing up and playing guitar, you’re learning Stones songs to play in bars, but you know something’s wrong, you’re not playing them right…. So when he said that to me, I said, “Is that why I can’t do it right?”
Here’s Richards on collaboration:
After that I decided, fuck it, I want a band…. So I called in guys I’d always wanted to work with, and I knew the man to start with. You could almost say a collaboration had begun between me and [drummer] Steve Jordan even back in Paris during the making of Dirty Work. Steve encouraged me; he heard something in my voice that he thought could make records. If I had a melody I was working on, I’d get him to sing it. And I thrive on collaboration–I need a reaction to think anything I’ve done is any good. So back in New York we started to hang, and we wrote a lot of songs together. Then, with his buddy and collaborator Charley Drayton, mainly a bass player but also another superbly gifted drummer, we started to jam at Woody [Wachtel]’s house.
So if you want to be a better collaborator, rather than look in the business section for advice, you may want to borrow a few pages from a less-likely source, Keef.