Laugh When You Fall

Photo credit: Wayne Hile

One recent Sunday afternoon, the unthinkable happened: I stumbled and fell onstage in front of a large audience. I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Foolish. But I recovered by owning my mistake with a laugh instead of pretending nothing happened.

For context: on summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. I portray a pompous barrister and guild master Nicolas Wright, who is one of the residents guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are my stage.

One of the day’s highlights is the Queen’s Parade, which occurs shortly before 1:00 p.m. Marching in the parade is an honor that requires the cast to sing, wave, and shout praises to Queen Elizabeth as we walk through the dusty streets in a choreographed procession. I never grow tired of marching in the parade through the front gates and into the crowded streets, where the crowds lining the parade route create an electric feeling with their own cheering and shouting.

On July 16, I was marching alongside my fellow cast mates on Guild Hall Row, a narrow stretch of road flanked by shops and trees. I was prancing and preening as Nicolas Wright always does when I came upon a makeshift hopscotch court formed by flowers in the middle of the parade route. The egotistical Nicolas Wright just had to jump through the hopscotch court, with an exaggerated twist and twirl of his large green-and-black surcoat. Somehow while leaping around on one foot, I caught my foot in my billowy trousers and lost my balance. One moment I was soaring in the air, and the next moment I found myself on the ground, a tangled mass of surcoat, dirt-covered pants and shirt, and stunned ego.

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Keith Richards: The Old Man Keeps Growing

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Keith Richards is a crotchety old man. He hates new music. He gives the stink eye to some famous old music, too (he told Esquire that Sgt. Peppers was “rubbish”). He told Billboard recently that he seldom gets out anymore at age 71, and he ignores modern technology. But he’s not your typical 71-year-old man grandfather. He is still touring and still making music, including Crosseyed Heart, his new album. He is also the subject of a new documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, directed by Morgan Neville. The Keith Richards in Under the Influence shows us that growing old does not mean you stop growing, even if you get a little crotchety.

If you’re hoping for a story about a 71-year-old hell raiser, Under the Influence will disappoint you. Instead, the documentary unfolds casually. We follow Keith around as he visits sources of the music that has influenced him for 50 years: places such as Chess Records in Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Along the way, he recalls the great artists who shaped his career, including Howlin’ Wolf and, famously, Muddy Waters. (An interviewer in the documentary notes that having worshipped old blues mainstays all his life, Keith has become an old mainstay.)

The “Keith on the Road” moments have a staged look about them, such as when he’s shooting pool with Buddy Guy, but the road has always been a stage for Keith Richards. By contrast, he seems relaxed and at ease during the scenes that take place in his home, where he plays blues on his turntable and spins oft-told yarns familiar to Rolling Stones fans. He speaks in half sentences that dissolve into a series of grunts and chuckles that recall Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the Penguin in Batman. He comes across like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving.

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He often reflects on the passage of time. As the camera follows Richards walking barefoot in the grass, his voice is heard saying, “You’re not grown up until the day they put you six feet under. You’re never grown up.” Later, he muses, “Life’s a funny thing. Nobody wants to get old, but they don’t want to die young, either.”

Keith Richards deals with getting old by creating. In the movie’s most powerful moments, he hangs out in the record studio as he and his bandmates make Crosseyed Heart. He sounds unpolished. His singing makes Bob Dylan sound like Luciano Pavarotti in his prime, belying the smoother and more polished sound of Crosseyed Heart, which is a soulful and inspired like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving. work I have already listened to several times.

The studio scenes are bold and brave because you hear a draft of a work in progress — a glimpse at Keith while he’s still figuring out the songs. But those scenes are the heart of the movie. He looks happy as he lives in the moment, jamming with ease.

“I love recording in any studio,” he says. “I feel totally at home.”

Studio2

Richards speaks of the music he creates with the bewilderment of a boy who is just learning how to play the guitar. “Music is the center of everything,” he says. “It’s undefinable, and nobody’s ever going to have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring.” When he speaks of music, he sounds youthful.

I believe the truth of Under the Influence reveals itself during those scenes when Keith Richards is in the studio, creating music. This crotchety old man may sound like he has many miles on his voice, but he is not working. He is playing. And I think a sense of play is the secret to his creating and growing at age 71. How about you? Do you inject a sense of play into your life no matter what you do to earn a living?

Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

1985 Ken Regan (Weekly FM Japan June 3-16 1985) preview 300

Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:

jimi-hendrix-at-the-fillmore-east-march-1968-photo-ken-regan

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How Louis Vuitton Appeals to Upscale Baby Boomers with Music

Bowie

Louis Vuitton knows how to target an audience with rock celebrities. The iconic luxury brand is working with another iconic brand, David Bowie, to produce the second television spot ever aired in the company’s 160-year history. The ad, an installment in Louis Vuitton’s “L’Invitation au Voyage” series, will feature the Thin White Duke in an as-yet undefined role. But given Bowie’s well-known sense of style and visual storytelling, you can be sure the ad will be memorable — and another smart musical pairing that positions Louis Vuitton as a classic, upscale choice for the affluent Baby Boomer generation.

Louis Vuitton’s advertising relationship with musicians is somewhat complicated. On the one hand, hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa have name-checked the company in their song lyrics. West is a self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don and designed his own line of Louis Vuitton sneakers. In fact, the 2000s have been cited as “the decade of Louis Vuitton” in the hip-hop music industry, so often have hip-hop artists attempted to appropriate the brand in very public ways.

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But just because hip-hop loves Louis Vuitton, it doesn’t mean Louis Vuitton loves hip-hop. In 2008, the company (along with Gucci) stopped rapper TI from releasing a video for the song “Swing Ya Rag,” because the TI used the company’s products in the video without Continue reading

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Technology for the Rolling Stones

How do rock and roll bad boys stay relevant when they grow older and less dangerous?

The Rolling Stones no longer symbolize youthful rebellion and decadence as they did 50 years ago. So like a smart business that refines its brand, the Stones now focus on one core asset: their rock legacy. As the Rolling Stones celebrate their 50th anniversary with a limited-run tour that came to the United States December 8, the four principal band members (average age: 68) have assumed the role of the blues greats who inspired them to become the Rolling Stones in the first place:  playing their music onstage until they drop. And the Stones are innovating with digital technology to share that legacy. In doing so, the Rolling Stones provide a lesson for marketers on how to update your brand and find new ways to create a valuable audience experience.

The recent 50 and Counting Tour concerts in London and New York, drawing upon a catalog of songs such as “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint It, Black,” have reminded fans and critics of the band’s musical legacy. And you simply cannot overstate what the Stones have accomplished in their storied career. Especially in their first 10 years, the group created music that was by turns brutal, beautiful, threatening, and galvanizing. Their most well known songs and albums routinely rank near or at the top of critics’ lists of the greatest and most influential works in rock history.

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Getting a Life

The two people outside my family who read my blog regularly know that occasionally I find lessons for marketers from pop culture, especially music and books. I don’t read books or listen to music in order to become a better marketer; rather, the learnings just come to me from what I naturally read, watch, or hear.

Lately I’ve been plowing through the sprawling Keith Richards autobiography Life, which is a droll and sometimes surprising reflection on the journey of a confirmed rebel, libertine, and one of the greatest guitarists ever. Among the surprises: as a youth, Richards was fond of the Boy Scouts. He credits the Scouts for helping him learn how to organize a band (although he did get kicked out of the Boy Scouts eventually).

Along with the amusing anecdotes come moments of insight that inspire me. For instance, there’s this passage explaining how he became well known as something of a fashion icon in the late 1960s for his eclectic and unpredictable clothing style:

  • “Anita [Pallenberg — his one-time lover] had a huge influence on the style of the times. She could put anything together and look good. I was beginning to wear her clothes most of the time. I would wake up and put on what was lying around . . . Otherwise, it was plunder, loot that I wore — whatever was thrown at me onstage or what I picked up off stage and happened to fit. I would say to somebody, I like that shirt, and for some reason they felt obliged to give it to me. I used to dress myself by taking clothes off other people.”

I love that: a guy becomes a fashion icon by wearing whatever is lying around or whatever anyone gives him. So why do I care? Because I think you can become a better writer, creative thinker, and marketer if you adopt just a bit of Keith’s open-mindedness in the way you go about your job — not necessarily in the way you dress (unless your sartorial choice is a legitimate part of your job) but in how you formulate ideas.

Fashion icons

Here’s an exercise in taking suggestions and running with them, Keith Richards-style. Next time you’re stumped for a blog post idea or are trying to figure out a theme for a special event you might be planning, visit the largest news stand you can find, or if you don’t have access to one, go to a library. Then start walking up and down the aisle where the magazines are located and visit every type of magazine you can. Take care to find titles that you normally don’t read, especially anything outside your comfort zone. If you hate mechanical things, seek out Popular Mechanics. If you don’t have any children, find magazines for kids like Kiki or Muse. If you’re a guy, grab a copy of O. Thumb through them all. Don’t feel like you must read the articles very closely. Just get main themes.

Required reading for guys

Don’t worry about what may or may not be resonating with you, but if you are so inspired, jot down the name of an idea or a theme that sticks with you. Then clear your head, get back to your work assignment, and just let the ideas work through you. Run with the ideas that stick. (Later you can always vet them with someone else if you need to do so.)

Grown-ups should read this

Sometimes you’ll find this process of collecting ideas to be a waste of time. But there will also be times when you’ll be glad you did.

Even asleep he looks cool

What have you heard, read, or seen lately that surprised and inspired you? Do you find ideas lying around like Keith Richards finds his clothing? If not, what works for you? I would love to know.

Old bands, great brands shine in 2010

There seems to be no end to the merchandising of so-called legacy rock stars, and 2010 was no exception:

  • Elder rockers ranging from Robert Plant to Roger Waters made headlines with new music (in Plant’s case) and an updating of a rock classic via a stunning tour (Waters).

As I’ve blogged before, legacy rockers (sometimes from the grave) provide a relatively young art form (rock) the gift of perspective as they come to terms with their past and chart a course for the future. What did they say about themselves in 2010? Here’s my take:

  • “The king is dead. Long live the king.” God bless Robert Plant. After re-uniting with three quarters of Led Zeppelin to perform at London’s O2 arena in 2007, Plant endured tremendous pressure to tour again with his old band mates under the Led Zeppelin banner. But Plant would have none of that. Instead in 2008 he toured with Alison Krauss to promote their celebrated Raising Sand. In 2010, Plant continued to firmly keep Led Zeppelin in his rear-view mirror by releasing his latest solo album, Band of Joy (the name is a reference to one of his bands prior to Zeppelin). Anyone hoping for a Zeppelin reincarnation was disappointed. He chose a quirky mix of Americana covers spanning folk and rock (recorded with lesser known musicians) and embarked on a modest tour in places like the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career.

  • “Remember us.” The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones kept their names in the public eye without releasing any new music. Amid much hoopla, including a weeklong celebration on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Rolling Stones unveiled the remastered Exile on Main St. Months later, Keith Richards, surprising fans with a still-intact and lucid memory, published his 565-page autobiography, Life. In August, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog was released via a massive 30-CD box set retailing for more than $700 — and in an era in which CDs are supposed to be dead, the first-edition limited release sold out. In October, Sony released mono CD editions of Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings from the 1960s (the box set included a thoughtful essay by noted rock historian Greil Marcus). I think that Dylan, the Stones, and the caretakers of Elvis’s brand essentially were re-establishing their places in history for newer generations of rock critics (and it sounds like John Jurgensen at The Wall Street Journal wasn’t convinced). None of them technically released new material (the previously unreleased Exile tracks date back to the making of the original album). Instead, they continued to keep their past achievements relevant (even to the point of the Stones successfully licensing “Gimme Shelter” for use in a video game). I think it’s also significant that the Beatles finally made their music available digitally through iTunes. I don’t think the move was about generating sales (although sales did result) but rather passing the band’s legacy down to digital generations both today and tomorrow.

  • “I am an artist!” It’s no secret that Roger Waters and his ex-Pink Floyd band mates have fought bitterly over who is the rightful owner of the Pink Floyd legacy. In 2010, Waters made a statement in the best way possible: performing the 1979 Pink Floyd classic The Wall as a high-concept solo tour, replete with the construction of a giant wall in the elaborate stage act (as Pink Floyd with Waters did via a limited series of concerts decades ago). So how was The Wall tour different from the re-release of Exile on Main St.? Because Waters re-interpreted and updated the music he wrote in the 1970s as a modern-day statement against corporate greed and bellicose governments (the U.S. war in Iraq among the topics he explored with the modern-day performance of his songs). And having attended one of The Wall concerts, I think he suceeded.

In 2010, we also heard from many other legacy rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and later, in the year, the king of pop, Michael Jackson. I expect 2011 to bring more of the same. And I have mixed feelings about what’s happening here. I think we should give the giants of rock history their due just as newer generations of readers should continue to buy books by Hemingway or pay admission to see the works of Picasso. But for every dollar we spend honoring the gods, rock fans need to be supporting new music financially. How many new and emerging artists have you supported lately by actually paying money to enjoy their music (whether recorded or in concert)?

I hope you’ll make a commitment in 2011 to both the old guard and the vanguard.

Skip the ad? Skip the story

Whoever complained about intrusive advertising hasn’t read the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, where the advertising eclipses the content. If you need any convincing, I give you the opening sentences of a head-scratching cover profile of Madonna:

“The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa. To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast.”

And the writing gets worse. Here’s what VF says about Madonna’s adoption of a child from Malawi:

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Skip the ad? Skip the story

Whoever complained about intrusive advertising hasn’t read the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, where the advertising eclipses the content. If you need any convincing, I give you the opening sentences of a head-scratching cover profile of Madonna:

“The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa. To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast.”

And the writing gets worse. Here’s what VF says about Madonna’s adoption of a child from Malawi:

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