I recently came across a painter’s cap, which I wore years ago when I was a tennis pro at a club in Chicago.
One night I came off the courts late. The club was closed, the members long gone. When I turned the corner to the row of my locker, a massive guy blocked my path. He turned out to be Mick Jagger’s bodyguard-trainer. I knew this because standing behind him, in his underwear, was Mick Jagger. The Stones were in town. The two of them had just finished a work-out.
I gave my best ‘no big deal, seen my share of rock legends’ hello. A more gregarious person would have embraced the moment, but honestly I didn’t even know where to look. I politely retreated to the steam room. I got the steam cranking and was just settling in when the door opened and the two of them strolled in. What the hell do you say to Mick Jagger in a sauna? I had no previous like-kind experience to help guide me.
A bit of backstory: I’d taken the tennis job while I was putting my book together to get into advertising. Whenever I wasn’t on the court I was working on my portfolio. But I’d hit a wall and was desperate for inspiration. There were no ad schools in Chicago back then. I took my learning wherever I could get it.
So I said some kind of blah blah blah, and then I asked him, “How do you write songs?” The instant I said it, I knew it was a dumb-ass question. A few agonizing seconds went by. I couldn’t see his face through the steam. Was he rolling his eyes, mustering up the energy to give some kind of response?
Then, without any trace of annoyance, he said, “I don’t write songs. I tell stories.” He paused, as if to consider further, and said, “…. using poems that I put musical notes behind. That’s what they are. Little stories with music.” Of course they are. Little stories. I knew that! Who wouldn’t?!
But that moment re-framed things for me in my own work. It recast my approach. Of course! Just tell a great little story around the problem that needs solving. Or tell a story that reveals a human behavior, POV or misconception that sheds light on the product or the world that surrounds it.
And so I started over. Hours and hours of work. I changed everything. I told lots of little stories. Even in my headlines. One TV spot in particular, went over well. It was for silver polish. A knigh shines his armor really bright to get the attention of the damsels of the court. And he gets it, lots of flirtatious smiles. But when he smiles back, we reveal he has really, really bad British teeth. Five weeks later I started my first job at Foote Cone.
So I’m giving Mr. Jagger a long overdue thanks for his insight, for helping me get my first job, and for letting me hang out in the sauna with him.