Two lions of music, Merle Travis and Johnny Mercer tell us what to do when our brains turn off.
A long time friend, a brilliant artist, designer and illustrator wrote the other day and said she was having a crisis. She was on deadline for a project and stumped about what should go into it.
Well, art is art. And for decades, I’ve been telling a story to people who complain they have writer’s block. Here’s the current version:
I first heard this many years ago from a person whom I trusted and who said he was in the room when it happened.
It is a conversation between two good-ole'-boys, one from Georgia and the other from Kentucky. Both were legends or icons in the music industry.
The first was Johnny Mercer who wrote many of the songs that made up the music of an earlier time: "One for My Baby," "Blues in the Night," "Something's Gotta Give," etc.
The second was Merle Travis who more than 25 years after his death remains one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century. Travis also wrote and first recorded the Ernie Ford hit "16 Tons."
At the time of this conversation which I have dramatized because, of course, I wasn't there myself, Mercer was co-founder and president of Capitol Records, one of the biggest major labels of the era. He was a notorious drunk and a truly unlikable person.
Travis was a staff lyricist at Capitol and also a notorious drunk. He approached Mercer one day in their famed Hollywood tower (look it up if you don't know the building. You'll recognize it instantly.)
Travis: Johnny, I'm on deadline for a song for Sinatra and I've got writer's block.
Mercer: Merle, let's say you have a dripping faucet in your kitchen and you call the plumber and he looks at it and says "gee, I wish I could fix that today, but right now, I have plumbers' block."
Your plumber would never tell you that. He'd fix the leak and leave. If next morning the leak returned and you called him in a rage demanding that he fix it again at no charge. And what would he do?
What he'd do is come back and fix it.
So, Merle, said Mercer, go write something. And in the morning, if I don't like it, I'll visit your office in a rage and demand that you fix it. And you will. And it'll be fine.
He did. It was
Writer's block, "creative block," "artist's block," "plumber's block," and all that affect teachers and tailors, designers and sailors, salesmen and hitmen, and every pro athlete whoever lost a tournament or led his or her team to disaster one night on national television.
The business of commercial artists is business. We're paid to produce. And produce we will. It was who Dali and Hemingway were. And it was Jake the Plumber. And Edward R. Murrow and Rembrandt. And Gilda Radner. And Leslie Nielsen. And evil men like Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. And great men like Babe Ruth who had plenty of bad at-bats. And Albert Einstein when he had algebra block. And millions of nobodies galore.
Now stop crabbing and go to work. Go home. Have a cocktail. Play with your dog. Then fix the leak in the morning.
With great sadness, I report the death of my long-time acquaintance, B. Smith. She started as a model. Opened nice restaurants. Wrote books, did TV shows. She once said she wanted to be “the black Martha Stewart.” I’d told her one Martha was more than enough. Just be Barbara. Alzheimer’s got its ugly and unrelenting claws into her years ago. B. Smith was 70.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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