NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com
I am part Native American, so I have always been very interested in Native American culture and philosophies. That being said, I am going to start this week’s blog with one of my favorite Cherokee stories. Fittingly, I learned of this one from perhaps the most famous living man of Cherokee descent, Willie Nelson.
The Cherokee believed that within each person was a battle between two wolves. Sitting with his grandson, a grandfather explained that one wolf was evil and driven by anger, envy, regret, ego and the worship of war. The other wolf was good, and was driven by love, hope, compassion, and the promise of peace. Thinking about the wolves already growing within him the boy asked, ‘Grandfather, which wolf wins?’
And the old man replied, ‘The one you feed’…”
I love that story. LOVE it. But, strangely enough, I think it addresses a great paradox that all good songwriters and musicians have to face. Most great musicians and songwriters do what they do out of some sort of need. You hear story after story about famous musicians with difficult childhoods, not fitting in, or the like. There was some void that music filled in their lives. In his SXSW keynote speech, Dave Grohl called it “finding your voice.”
There is another Native American philosophy that speaks of taking the thing you hated most about your childhood and therein you will find your life’s purpose. For example, a lot of Bruce Springsteen’s most compelling work centers around his difficult relationship with his father and his desire to escape his working class roots. He didn’t just make that shit up.
Another example: At one point in the 1970’s, Keith Richards was living in Switzerland. To dry out I presume. Surrounded by members of the Swiss rich and elite, they asked him how they could become rock stars like him. He replied, “Uh, I don’t know. Why don’t you try STARVING?!?” Case in point. Nice Keef.
Anyway, that material comes from the first wolf. You have to allow yourself to feel anger, regret, sadness…whatever the emotion is. Wherever it came from. You have to spend some time with it to bring it into tangible form. i.e. A song.
Songwriters are moody people. They have to be to be good. They have to sit around and obsess over things that others would just let go. Happy go lucky, “whistle while you work” types don’t make good songwriters.
Great songwriters have egos. They get pissed off. They are sometimes petty and non-communicative. They can be opinionated assholes when they need to be. They say the things others are thinking but are too scared or complacent to say.
All these things are the first wolf’s specialty. A necessary evil. I think you can understand why songwriters need that first wolf to do what they do. However, I think you could also see where those traits would make for a very unsuccessful businessperson and human being.
Musicians read too many stories and watch too many documentaries about how this and that rock star was a complete screw up and someone “discovered” their amazing talent and the rest is history. That’s a fairy tale. It happens, yes. But for every Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose there are 50,000 “what’s his name’s” crying in their beer somewhere about how much the music business blows. When in reality they blew it for themselves based on some romantic notion.
That’s where the second wolf comes in.
I think it is safe to say that no one ever built a monument to honor a pessimist. You may be able to make some great art by wallowing in gloom, but no one wants to be in business with such a person.
So if you are one of the aforementioned songwriters or musicians, you are going to have to be able to snap out of it to succeed. You’ll have to show up on time, compromise, and boost the morale of your bandmates from time to time. Put on a happy face. Sometimes you’ll have to (horror of horrors) keep your mouth shut. Or, believe it or not, you’re gonna have to trust someone. In my experience, these types of things derail more musicians’ careers than lack of talent or opportunity ever does.
In a round about way, you’re going to have to become “the man”. Which might mean contradicting the very reason you got in the music biz in the first place. But this is the paradox of making music your livelihood. To a point you will have to dance with the establishment you criticize.
There is an old saying (no Native Americans this time):
>blockquote>There are 3 stages of a man’s life: 1. He believes in Santa Claus 2. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and 3. He is Santa Claus…”
Truer words were never spoken.
So maybe what we need now is more of a new type of rock star. A new type of hero. A guy that can take both wolves for a walk on a leash made for two. A guy that can scream in anger at the top of his lungs AND read a profit and loss statement. A guy that can have a beer with the drunk in the front row AND make an intelligent pitch to a room full of investors. A guy that can rail against “the man” while realizing that some of “the man” lies within him.
A guy that can burn without burning out….. and still not fade away.
Leave the fairy tales to the dreamers. To quote The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride, “We are men of action, lies do not become us.” So you are going to have to feed both those wolves from time to time…if you want them to keep pulling your cart down the road.
Just make sure the second one is in front.
Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.
The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. March 29, 2013