A man who has more Number 1 records to his credit than I can list here quickly, once told me the difference between a great musician who had “made it” and a musician of equal talent who hadn’t was easily summed up in one word: drive. In this case, drive is the ability give up anything resembling a normal life to focus solely on the goal of making great music.
We really don’t produce rock stars anymore even though we still produce fabulous musicians who are capable of changing the world. To be a rock star that transcends generations you have to touch people through emotion and not just make them stare uncomfortably at your ass. To be clear, J-Lo and Mariah Carey stuffed into sequined leotards with their lady parts hanging out as their vocal track is controlled by some dork behind a computer DO NOT constitute rock stars, regardless of what Nick Cannon tells you. Nevertheless, we here at The 145 feel it is our civic obligation to help the next generation of musicians create great music, whether they become rock stars or not.
To become a rock star, unless you’re contracted to some corporate behemoth record label where bean-counters package you up with the right clothes, right dance moves and Friday morning slots on the Today Show, you’re going to have to create music people connect with emotionally. And by people, I don’t mean 12 year-old girls. It’s not that 12 year-old girls aren’t people, it’s just that maybe society shouldn’t look exclusively to them for guidance on what’s hot and what’s not. Twelve year-old girls gave us Justin Beiber, David Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Tiffany, Hanson and the Jonas Brothers. Our job as non-twelve-year-old girls is to discern the difference between kiddy pop and music with substance.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger grew up among the rubble and poverty of post-World War II London, as did David Bowie and all of those English rock stars who came up in the 60s and 70s. Bruce Springsteen grew up in a dysfunctional family that managed by minor degrees to stay just ahead of the poverty line.
Great art comes from dysfunction, unhappiness, a life-long struggle to be either normal or successful. Great art comes from pain and sadness. Even happy songs come from the artist’s internal struggle to understand the difference between pain and joy. America treated an entire race of people as sub-human for generations. What we were given in return was the Blues, jazz, and church-rooted R&B. Society at-large was the beneficiary of an unfair trade.
To be fair, America has produced a lot of great musicians who came from middle class roots – Glenn Frey, Donald Fagan, Lindsay Buckingham for example – but they all had one thing in common: a singular focus on music joined with a do-whatever-it-takes attitude (sometimes referred to as an eff-you attitude). The Clash’s Joe Strummer was born the son of a diplomat and his upbringing was one of ease and comfort. Joe Strummer then spent his short life turning his back on society’s status quo. You might say he purposely eschewed comfort for the artist’s life of struggle and examination. Of course, the middle class also produced Vanilla Ice, Imagine Dragons and Florida-Georgia Line, so it’s a mixed message of artistic worth.
America treated an entire race of people as sub-human for generations. What we were given in return was the Blues, jazz, and church-rooted R&B. Society at-large was the beneficiary of an unfair trade.
Maybe the music industry should look at who they sign and promote instead of gnashing their teeth at the music buying public for letting them down. Maybe the music industry needs to stop taking the easy route and start supporting musicians with a message we can actually connect with.
We can also help the future of music by following this bit of advice I’m about to offer.
At this point, anyone over fourteen can go back to looking at kitty pictures on their phones because I’m going to speak directly to the kids out there who have music coursing through their veins.
Don’t Let Your Mom Be Your Agent
Now don’t get me wrong – a little parental support is a good thing, but it needs to be limited. I was a rock star in-training during my teenaged years and my mother and father carted me and my drums in the old Country Squire station wagon around the suburbs of New Jersey to the various Knights of Columbus, high school gyms and VFW halls aspiring rock stars played back then. They also put up with a rogue’s gallery of Brick Township New Jersey’s finest collection of teenage vagrants, stoners, tough guys, loose women and other assorted nefarious characters invading the family rumpus room every Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon for the entirety of my high school career, just so my various bands would have a place to rehearse. My father actually got into a near-brawl with a cranky neighbor who frowned upon all of this activity and noise. My five foot tall mother kicked out the toughest kid in our school because he was smoking a cigarette and gave her a mild stink-eye when she told him to put it out. She tolerated as best she could.
But that was the extent of their involvement. Rock & roll was my thing and as long as I wasn’t in the hospital or jail, it stayed my thing.
Nowadays my Facebook timeline is choked with an entire generation of aging virtual cat ladies (of both sexes), raging political posts and constant exhortations for me to visit the local live music venue to catch the latest up and coming adolescent rock sensations. Of course, these exhortations are not posted by the adolescent rock sensations themselves, they’re being posted by their moms. This is not a good thing.
I recently caught a show by a 17 year-old guitar phenomenon who is beginning to get some
national notice. His drummer was not very good at all, but his bass player was fabulous and the main attraction kid blew me away. That is, until his mom came into the room about halfway through the show. There were about 50 people in the audience and we were all digging on the blues and Hendrix-inspired guitar licks until the band took a break and the kid’s mom took the stage and spoke for 15 minutes. She spoke about being a single mom, raising a prodigy, her tough journey to get junior to where he was. The result of all of this was the kid was the opening act and the mom was the star. The show was over for me. I paid to see a guitar legend in the making and all I got was a glimpse of genius and a self-serving mom-rant. I can get mom-rants for free, why did I have to pay forty bucks for one?
If your mom is loading up the Lexus on weekends and carting you and your gear to a gig – your mom is awesome and go clean your room. If your mom is the loudest person cheering for you during your gig, you may have a tough time earning any rock & roll cred. If your mom is doing all of that and she’s sharing the spotlight with you by being your agent, PR director, manager and/or musical director, you need to talk to your mom about this or you need to give up music and take up scrapbooking.
When talking to your mom, if you are not able to say the F word or mention the uncomfortable love-thoughts you have about that awesomely cute object of your affection sitting next to you in Geometry, then you absolutely, unequivocally, cannot be in the rock and roll business with her. Never, ever, let your mom rehearse with you in your garage. If your mom wants to write songs with you, gouge your ears out and pretend the conversation never happened. Even if your mom is Patti Smith or Patti Smyth, you mustn’t do this (although I’d like to believe either would be loath to write songs with their kids anyway).
None of this applies if your last name is Hanson or Jonas. In that case, your mom will at least help you make enough money to pay for all of those shrink bills you’re going to have until your mid-forties.
If you want to be a rock star AND create something of value that lasts longer than six months, give up the cushy Lexus equipment van, give up the help your loving (yet possibly over-bearing) parents are offering you, give up your love-objects, give up lacrosse and karate and soccer and all of the other 18 things your parents make you do every week as they broaden your horizons and make themselves feel competent. Go concentrate on your craft. Your mom can absolutely be your best friend but she cannot be your musical partner. Live life outside of the cocoon. Live life outside of the protective coating of mom love and wrack up some scars and desires of your own. Then go write and make music and post it to my Facebook timeline because I’ll be the first person to download your music.