There is no slowing down for Livingston Taylor.
If he isn’t cruising on his vintage BMW (with a sider car) or flying high above the clouds in his 1964 Cessna 205, six-passenger, single-engine—whoa, only one; he’s likely to be in a classroom at Berklee, scaring the hell out of newbies, who hope to learn the business of music from the master performer.
But it doesn’t end there; Liv Taylor, the not so laid-back-guy audiences love, usually occupies a stratosphere above conventional words and wisdom. For those seeking the bliss of self-actualization, allow me to share; he found it years ago. All kidding aside, Taylor is not shy about anything, and within minutes of meeting him, you soon learn that he can laser-focus and discuss any subject.
For the generations who don’t know Livingston Taylor, I’ll give you a short history lesson; then, we’ll get on with the show. According to his bio—something he seems to refrain from discussing in interviews, probably because he knows it well, and he doesn’t seem to enjoy spending time in the past—we learn that Taylor started jamming at 13 years-old. Raised in North Carolina, with a pack of siblings (you may have heard of them: Alex, James, Kate, and Hugh), music came easy to the clan.
At 18, realizing he could earn money with his talent, he began a career that includes scores of original songs about life, love, good times—and all the rest.
Taylor’s range crosses all genres: folk, pop, gospel, and jazz; he also performs with full orchestras. Having such talent means that he can probably create a song about a cup of coffee at a moment’s notice. (Sidebar: he makes a fabulous cup and is a great host).
Since his first paid performance, he always kept his eye on the future. From dark, cool coffee-houses of another era, to sharing the stage with artists, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Buffet and Tull, Taylor’s schedule never ends. If he isn’t teaching, performing, or working on a PBS special, (scheduled for 2020), he’s organizing a retreat for aspiring musicians and performers.
As a full professor at the world-famous Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Stage Performance (since 1989), few if any people in the business can keep pace with this youthful 69 year-old.
What makes Taylor unique and able to excel in everything he does is related to his clear understanding of people. His relaxed, on-stage presence, tames audiences; with a natural smile and warm personality, he owns the house. Using stories and anecdotes that build a long lasting bond, he has multi-generational families following his life and appearances.
You might be wondering what we talked about, well—just about everything. To keep it simple and on task, here is a small part of our free-flowing conversation.
Steven: To start, how is everyone?
Steven: I want to share with you that Carly was my first news assignment; I saw her at a concert on the Vineyard a long time ago.
Liv: She’s lovely, sweet.
Steven: And, Ben and James?, How are they? (Ben is the son of Carly Simon and James Taylor).
Liv: Good, very good...(trails off) Ben’s not married, no children. Just a very—it’s a good life.
Steven: To get started, why don’t we discuss art as it relates to all disciplines.
Liv: I don’t have to tell you what the internet did to digitizable creativity, in terms of writing, photography, in terms of all of it. It’s so fully decimating it.
Steven: Not so much an art form anymore—less organic?
Liv: Here’s the problem; great art is the result of wealth concentrating talent. What the internet did was, it didn’t eviscerate the artists. They’re still there. People are still here. What it eviscerated are the gatekeepers.
Liv: Who brought artists together? Great art is the result of wealth concentrating talent, period.
Steven: That’s amazing because people call things that are not close to art “art.”
Liv: It may or may not be, it becomes an art form when a gatekeeper/gallery owner says to you, “You spray paint that? Listen, you see what you did there in that section, I want you to start doing that on canvas. Don’t give me this crap over here because I don’t want it. Give me that there. Never making them bigger, and give me 50 of them, and I’ll have a show. By the way, be advised, you do all the work, you bring it by. I’m going to take 60 percent of the money.” “That’s not right,” [claims the artist]; and the gallery owner says, “That is right, and here’s why it’s right. It’s right because I know the people who will buy this and they’re buying it because I’m selling it.” Period.
So this notion that somehow without gatekeepers, somebody can find your writing or other things—as I’m fond of saying to my students—what makes you good is when you are gathered with four or five others, and you all do the same thing, and one of those five writers gets a call from Random House, gets an advance of half a million dollars and they’re going to publish their book; you’re gracious, you say congratulations, well done. Then you go back to your room and look at yourself in the mirror and you promise to whatever God will listen, that you will never feel this way again.
Now you go to work on your writing, on your guitar playing, on your photography--
Steven: Is this what motivates you?
Liv: It motivates everybody early on, if somebody’s getting the job that you want, and they’re kicking your ass, and you don’t like the way it feels, you have two options. You can either walk away, which many do, or some people just say, “You know, I think I’m going to up my game. I’m going to kick them back. I don’t like the way I feel when I don’t get this.”
Steven: Is that the formula for success?
Liv: That plus tenacity. Success is tenacity and good fortune. It’s not talent. The talent--
Steven: There’s a lot of talent available.
Liv: It doesn’t matter. Of course, you’re talented. By the way, you go to graduate school, of course, you can read a book. Talent is like that. It’s so low on the assumed knowledge scale.
Not artists. The artists will be financed by those they need, sons of bitches who we don’t like; we love hating them. I sell you pictures, when you don’t like them you tell me to get out, do them again.
Steven: So, artists becomes slaves?
Liv: No, that’s not slavery. You can quit anytime. That’s not slavery.
Steven: Does jealousy follow talented artists—those who succeed?
Liv: It does all the time. You hear that all the time. When some of my musician friends talk about Kenny G. and whether its real music. By the way, he’s got a real bank account. He’s got real money in it.
Liv: I am all about selling art. Don’t talk to me about being an artist. Talk to me about selling it because what selling represents is—selling your work represents that you have made work that is of service to others. That’s what your job is. Being able to sell it, learning how to sell it is very, very important.
Money is a representation of service. It is what we use as a commonly agreed upon, the repository of goods and services. It’s also transferrable. It allows you to be paid as a writer because you were of service, and then hire a great mural designer to do something in your living room. I say to my students all the time, above all else, I want you to be happy but if you can’t be happy, I want you to be rich. Under no circumstance do I want you poor and miserable. I want you to—what money allows you to do is to concentrate talent.
One of my favorite things to do is to play a John Williams piece from Schindler’s List. De do de de, be boo de do, do do do do do. Itzhak Perlman was playing with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m telling you, it’s good and it wasn’t done for free.
Liv: The real question, particularly with the internet, is, how are we going to get a revenue stream for the internet transfer of digitized creativity? Because it is now possible to have—you can record a song within—you can write and record a song and have it available to four billion people literally in minutes.
Steven: But where is the money if everyone gets it for free? That’s the issue.
Liv: Here’s what I would do—were it up to me—I would have a broad base tax on the internet. It would cost all of us about 10 dollars a month additional. I would take that money, and I would escrow that money. That would be turning it into dozens of billions of dollars. I would escrow that money and then I would transfer it to artists.
For instance, if you are writing or you are piecing together a magazine, an editor might come to you, and she would say, “You know, I like what you’re writing. I like your content. I will distribute your magazine but I want all your internet rights to do it. I’ll pay you a salary.” You think to yourself gosh, I’ve got a mortgage to pay and I’ve got things to do. I’d like a regular salary. That’s what a record contract was. I will take your music.
I will pay you five percent.
I’ll pay you five percent of the royalty stream. I’ll take the rest of it, and if it does well, by the way, you can renegotiate the contract when the contract is up. So, it’s a very—this is a solvable problem.
I think that our internet dilemma—the internet is so fascinating because it’s so new. It’s 20 years-old. The transformation is so stunning. We’re going to go through a time of real confusion as we work through what the internet is and what it should be.
Steven: To take that outside of creating art, what do you think about the privacy issues? The social implications?
Liv: Again, it is all a brave new world. What we have is we have certain levels in our lives that like to be seen and certain levels that we like to keep private. It changes for different people. The internet will come to reflect who we are, in spite of these absolute, silly people out in California who sit there in San Francisco, and they actually believe that this is as important as the roof over our heads.
Again, they’ve gotten a little full of themselves. We tend to avoid that in Boston, and the reason why is that we are four hours from New York City, and when we get a little full of ourselves, New York City comes up here and kicks our ass. That’s what happens and they don’t have that out in San Francisco. They’re just in there thinking they absolutely hung the moon.
I love artificial intelligence. What does that mean? First off, I’ve got some news for you. You’re as bright as the dumbest person in your group, period. Because if you don’t cater to them, you’re going to leave them behind. If you have a stomach to leave them behind, fine, but you want to be careful about that. You want to leave people behind with great forethought. You don’t want them to know how bright you are. You’re as bright as they are. This whole concept of artificial intelligence is to manipulate information so quickly and with such facility that you will be the only person who knows about it, and you can rob—you can use it to steal money. Yeah. There’s nothing new about that—as they say, you can’t fool all the people, all the time. So no, I’m bemused by just the humorous arrogance of this.
Steven: Good segue to my next question; your audience is multi-generational. I’m sure your fans have grandchildren who listen to you, I was wondering what the public don’t know about you?
Liv: First off, there is a stunning quality that most people don’t know about public people. They don’t know what type of underwear I like to use. They don’t know what kind of deodorant. There are personal--
Steven: Something you want them to know that they don’t know.
Liv: The answer is that I don’t want them to know anything about me. A life well-lived is boring. When you live life, and I say this to my students all the time, if you live a life that’s exciting enough to be of interest to other people, it’s going
to whip you. You’re going to be miserable. It’s exhausting to live that life. A life well-lived is a life that is boring and of service to others. It is not about you. As I’m fond of saying to my students, you go on stage, not to be seen. You go so you can see. You don’t make music to be heard. You make music so you can hear, so you can organize and have people still, and can tell you how broken their heart is, or how much joy they have, how much pain they have.
Steven: Is that a unique talent, are you able to keep your privacy, and I don’t want to use the word manipulate, but control your audience?
Liv: No. Who would be so insecure that they would want to manipulate others?
Steven: If you look at current music stars, they all have a tendency to advance social agendas. They’re not just creating music as you mentioned, they’re doing it with an ulterior motive at times. Is that something new?
Liv: I certainly think that with the anti-war movement of my generation, Crosby Stills and Nash, Almost Cut my Hair, there are lots of speaking your mind, again, I can’t speak for other artists. What I do say to my students is that there are artists out there who are so pathologically desperate to be seen, that they will do anything to attract your attention.
Steven: Is that to get them off their talent, because they might be insecure about their skills?
Liv: They’re insecure about their lives. Excuse me; they don’t have talent.
If you want a career where you have underpinnings of talent and good looks, use them for service. The career that is the great career is basking in the light, being seen as the result of the reflected light of other people you have made glow. Do you want Steven Spielberg’s career or John Williams’ career? Do you want Cher’s career or do you want Carol King’s career?
I loved seeing that HBO special on Steven Spielberg. You listen to it, and it’s all the music of John Williams. The whole thing is his music. It’s all about Stevenn but it’s nothing but John Williams. Here’s Steven with three odd billion dollars, good for him. Poor John only has 900 million. How cruel the fates. Please.
Steven: I’d like to go back, at 13 you were playing music, then at 17, you were performing and well on your way. Was there a particular artist that influenced you—that affected your success?
The two greatest influences on me were first, my oldest brother, Alex. Alex, A-L-E-X, was skilled in the commerce of music. He had a band and they got paid. That made a big impression on me. I remember at 12 or 13, he came back from playing a frat house at the University of North Carolina and he had like 20 dollars. I went okay, got it. Then my beautiful brother, James, who taught me how to play guitar, who is a really fantastic musician, James, is a terrific guitar player, singer and arranger. Those are his greatest skills.
Steven: Tell me more about your teaching.
Liv: I was with Steven Tyler; he was doing a lecture for me at the Berklee College of Music. At the end of the lecture, people were taking his picture, and he had the ability to know where every camera was in that room and when they were going to push the shutter and he posed for every one of those pictures. Literally, in a series. It was a stunning talent. It’s better than I’ve—it was the most skillful delivery I’ve ever seen.
Carly Simon knows where a camera is. She knows where they are, where they exist; she looks for cues. You’re making eye contact and using non-verbal communication says—I’m competent here. You can either engage me or not engage me. I suggest you engage me and we get this right. That’s the statement you’re making and they go “I agree” with a nod—done.
Steven: I find that eye contact works.
Liv: Yeah, but it is—what you’re saying visually, you’re still, and looking. You’ve got a camera, and it’s a real camera. You’re not coming with an iPhone. You’ve got a real camera and it has bulk and it has mass. It is expensive and it tells the people that you’ve paid money for this. When they look at you, what you’re saying to them visually is not only did I pay money for it, I paid money for a reason. I can drive it. At which point, they give you what you want because they know that there’s a chance that you will get this into something other than a crumby post on Facebook. You might get it published.
People know; this is one of the reasons why you’re a celebrity—it’s to know where the heck cameras are.
Steven: Is this part of your curriculum? Do you talk about the media and the performer?
Liv: I do in stage performance-II more. But in stage performance-I, we’re worried about other things. Trust me, in stage performance-I, nobody starting a career, has anyone wanting to take their picture. What I say to them in stage performance-I is that you’re going to need great musicians and great photographers. That’s right. You can’t afford great musicians and you can’t afford great photographers. What will you ever do? What you will do is you will write songs that make good musicians sound great, and you will be a model that makes an adequate photographer into a great photographer. That’s how you get greatness early in a career. Not by finding Annie Leibovitz; she isn’t coming over and taking your picture. No. You’ve got to find the kid and know how to pose your band. Know how to get that editor that puts you above the fold on the front page of the entertainment section, period.
Steven: What’s most satisfying about teaching and educating these students?
Liv: My favorite student is the student when I walk in; they’re in the back of the class. They’re sitting back there. The student at the back of the class, two-thirds of the way back, able to escape. They’re sitting there and they’re smoking a cigarette—metaphorically. You can’t smoke in school. But if you could, they would be. What they’re doing is looking at me, thinking what the hell am I doing here? Are you going to waste my time? You’ve already wasted my money. Now you’re going to waste my time. Is there any information here?
I look at these kids and I’m like this kid is going to kick my ass the whole semester. I love it.
Steven: Thanks for the insight.
Liv: You’re welcome.
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