One of the strangest and most resonant encounters I’ve had in the last few years was with the legendary music producer, Rick Rubin. I had never even heard of Rick when HBO contacted me and asked if I could come to Malibu to have a conversation with him for a documentary they were filming. Who’s going to say “no” to that, even though I didn’t have a clue who Rick Rubin was?
What I did know is that when I mentioned his name to people, their eyes got wide and their tones got hushed and they whispered, almost reverentially, “Rick Rubin? You’re going to meet Rick Rubin?” I hadn’t gotten that type of response since my meeting years ago with Robert Plant. One person even went so far as to say, “Robert Plant. That was great. But Rick Rubin. . . I mean, that’s amazing.” I thought they were going to fall to their knees and touch my sleeve for the mere fact that they were in the presence of someone who was going to meet a man who clearly sat at the right hand of God if, indeed, was not actually God himself.
Well, I went, got filmed walking and talking with Rick along the Malibu headlands, received about an eye blink of time in the documentary, and returned to my private and anonymous life with little further thought about the encounter beyond an occasional reminiscence about what it had been like to dip my toe in the waters of the Malibu lifestyle of the truly rich and famous.
But the encounter continues to resonate. I had been brought down to Malibu because Rick had been intrigued by Dancing with the Gods (later put out in paperback as The Artist’s Journey). Though we were from different artistic planets, our thinking on creativity and the artistic journey was surprisingly similar. It turns out he had asked for my participation in the documentary precisely for that reason.
Well, Dancing with the Gods/The Artist’s Journey, became the proverbial tree falling unheard in the forest. But Rick has just put out a book entitled The Creative Act which is rocketing to the top of the New York Times best seller list. This was to be expected. Kent Nerburn is Kent Nerburn and Rick Rubin is Rick Rubin. And I spent my entire book making references to Michelangelo and Bach and T.S. Eliot (much to the chagrin of my publisher, who pleaded, “What about people like Banksy?”). Rick’s world is Def Jam Records, Public Enemy, and a Who’s Who of contemporary musicians and creatives. (Listen to the astonishing rendition of “Hurt” sung by Johnny Cash that Rick pulled forth from him at a time when Johnny thought he was done.) My readership is, shall we say, ahem, “selective”, while his is almost universal.
I mention this because I’ve been digging into Rick’s book and it is a reminder to me of how the creative experience, though infinitely varied in its forms, has a common core that crosses generations, genres, and lifestyles. Though Dancing with the Gods/The Artist’s Journey is built upon an honoring of the past and The Creative Act is a call to arms to the creators of the future, they beat with the same heart.
As the world is awaking from the pandemic, and the movement for people to speak in their own voices is surging, I hope all of you who have said, “I’d love to write a book” or “I’d love to learn to play the guitar” or some other long deferred or abandoned artistic aspiration will realize, “If not now, when?” We all have a story or a song within us, and we all long to have it be heard. The challenge is how to overcome our reticence or sense of inadequacy or simple lethargy in order to get it out into the world. I’ll write a bit more about this in the future, but, for now, take the counsel of two very different men from very different places in life, creatively, culturally, and geographically: You have something unique to say, and no one else can say it. If you don’t say it, the world loses it.
As Lao Tzu, one of my spiritual mentors says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Time to get walking.