We can’t all write hits like Bowie or play guitar like Prince, but Phil Beadle reckons pop culture’s late, great rule-breakers still have a thing or two to teach us…
Bear failure like David Bowie
In the early stages of a creative life, it can be hard to realise that success and failure are interlinked. But Bowie knew that to succeed properly you have to fail properly, by reaching for things that exceed your grasp. The 1987 Glass Spider tour, where he performed heavily choreographed routines beneath a 60ft tall inflatable spider, wasn’t as good as it sounds. His ’90s rock band Tin Machine met critical derision. But the same bravery that caused these failures also produced the devastating spoken-word intro of 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’, 1995’s left-field ‘Outside’ album, and finally ‘Blackstar’: a near 10-minute single featuring atonal saxophones with a dying man singing in the voice of the death that would take him.
Croon like Leonard Cohen
While one of Leonard Cohen’s numbers, 1988’s ‘Tower Of Song’, reports him as having been “born with the gift of a golden voice”, in reality his range was just four or five notes. But, like Cohen, never let the fact that you can’t sing stop you from singing. We may seek to be virtuosic but might well not have the tubes for this. Often, it’s the frailty of a voice that can’t do much technically that we respond to most. It’s a joy listening to a singer as fluid as Marvin Gaye but, equally, it’s the lack of musicality in former Sex Pistol John Lydon’s sneer that, when combined with his snarling disrespect for the sacred, makes him worth listening to.
Practise like Prince
If you want to see a performer so on top of his game that he’s rewriting what is possible, watch Prince live on YouTube and learn that he didn’t come out of the womb singing, playing and dancing to that degree of brilliance. If you want to work in the field of performance, there’s no other way of getting better than doing it regularly. So get on stage as often as you can. Make mistakes in front of small audiences. It’s said becoming an expert takes 10,000 hours (20 hours a week for 10 years). It’s only once you’ve got to this point you’ll realise Prince did 10 times this.
Rebel like Lou Reed
That an ex-junkie who could play few chords and narrated words in an unmusical New York drawl should be lauded as a great seems unlikely. But what the Velvet Underground frontman had was a vision that was distinctly his own. He saw what the accepted path was and went in the opposite direction. It’s this decision that will make you an artist and lead to a fulfilling creative life. What Reed realised is that to be an original, you cannot be too influenced by bland others. Find out what sells and do the opposite. Reduce commercial art or perceived best practice to a paste, sieve it, throw the remnants in the bin. Remember the stink. Then, write down the rules of the form you work in, learn them; now write down their exact opposite. This is your manifesto.
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Bounce back like Carrie Fisher
A young star of a major blockbuster might well have spent her life dissipated by the regret of never again hitting the heights of fame she experienced in the Star Wars trilogy. She might have become the discarded plaything; she might have concluded the path she’d started towards booze-soaked oblivion. Instead, Carrie Fisher got sober and constructed a life as the most waspishly witty of memoirists. Understand, like Fisher, that not everything goes right, but if you believe in the path you’ve chosen, then advice from people who are not experts is merely white noise from which you will learn nothing.
Phil Beadle is an award-winning teacher, author and broadcaster. His new book Rules For Mavericks – A Manifesto For Dissident Creatives is out now, published by Crown House Publishing, £9.99