David Bowie provided a lesson in risk-taking when he turned a 1983 interview with MTV veejay Mark Goodman into an opportunity to question the network’s lack of airtime for African-American artists.
Like 90 percent of you, I watched bits of the 2016 Olympics. Personal favorite: women’s beach volleyball. Second: Thiago Braz da Silva competing in the pole vault, an undeniably terrifying sport ranked among the most dangerous. Thiago missed early vaults and had never cleared higher than 5.93 meters in his life, but in front of 30 million people, he raised the bar to 6.03 meters, grabbed a bigger pole then he’d ever held, ran full speed down the track, and launched himself skyward to defy death and win the gold in his hometown.
Thiago Braz da Silva’s inspiring performance reminded me of something Bowie said in a 1997 interview: “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further in the water than you feel you’re capable of being in—go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
Bowie is not a bad source for advice on achieving greatness. He had a wildly successful career in a cutthroat business for 53 years, staying relevant up until the end—a nearly impossible feat in this fickle, youth-driven industry. Bowie managed to sustain the public’s interest for over a half-century because he remained fearless. Por ejemplo: In a 1983 MTV interview to plug Let’s Dance, Bowie ignored self-promotion and used the live TV time as a platform to confront the network for ignoring black artists.
You can imagine the EMI promotion team squirming as much as dazed interviewer Mark Goodman when Bowie courageously called out the media giant. The label sent Bowie there to kiss MTV’s ass, not kick it, yet by going off script, the Thin White Duke turned a vapid conversation into a civil rights lesson and an incredibly engaging bit of television. In spite of this public bitch slapping, MTV kept Bowie in heavy rotation and Let’s Dance became his biggest album. This album also changed guitardom forever because Bowie took a chance on an obscure Texas blues guitarist to add anachronistic Albert King sting to his ’80s synth-driven, pop-dance-disco tracks.
At the time, Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed an unlikely combination. But now, when you hear those thick strings rolling like thunder out of the 15” speaker of SRV’s Vibroverb, it’s hard to imagine the tracks any other way. You actually hear Vaughan’s fearlessness. The only way to get that tone is by digging in hard with unbridled confidence and beating that Strat like it owes you money. It’s a reminder that great guitarists take risks and play fearlessly.
So, if the essential ingredient for being a great guitarist is bold risk-taking, why do most of us play it safe? Because we’re afraid of making mistakes.
When I’m playing and that killjoy doubt begins whispering in my ear, I immediately stop having fun and start inserting easy parts that I know I can pull off. If our Brazilian pole-vaulting friend, Thiago Braz da Silva, had been like me and stuck with what he knew he could do, he would be an obscure footnote instead of a national hero. Could you imagine how boring the Olympics would be if those competing only did what they had done before? Fortune favors the bold.
Great artists live with fear and risk, but proceed like confident gamblers. Sometimes they win and sometimes they end up on the blooper real. But any gambler will tell you, the best thing in life is to gamble and win, and the second best is to gamble and lose. That’s where all the most engaging stuff is. I’d rather hear or see something reckless, even if it’s riddled with blunders. Hendrix, Van Halen, Django, and Beck made tons of flubs. What kind of puritanical Poindexter would complain about that?
I’m not a great guitarist and I’m pretty sure I never will be. Regardless, every now and then I play something great—usually by accident. I only do it when I’m not thinking and not entirely sure where I’m going. These accidents make me want to go off-script more often just to see what happens. When it comes to art, if you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much space. This may sound like a motivational poster you’d see in a guidance counselor’s office, but it’s true, so what the hell: If you want greatness, set the bar higher than you’ve ever gone.