I never thought of Harpo Marx as a personal inspiration until recently. And this jumpin’ jack flash of insight hit me with a revelation that also explained my fascination with the genius of Keith Richards. Let me explain.
The other day I happened to see Harpo Marx make a guest appearance on a rerun of his brother Groucho’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.”
Harpo, of course, did not “say the magic word” and therefore did not win $100.
He did honk, smile, and nod all the while promoting his then-just-published autobiography “Harpo Speaks.”
After looking for a copy at the Best Used Bookstore in Connecticut, Niantic’s Book Barn, I did the next best thing: I requested it from the public library system.
Two days later I couldn’t stop reading it. From second grade on, when he dropped out after tossed from the first floor window of his school, Harpo, like his other brother Chico, could do nothing less than follow his own inner voice. He proudly describes a lifetime of gags, antics, practical jokes, imitating other people, teaching himself how to play the harp … all while becoming the best comedic mime of the 20th century.
The book is a tribute to damning convention and having fun while everyone else is, metaphorically at least, wearing a tie to work every day. (When Harpo has to wear a tie in order to get into a Monte Carlo casino he takes off his sock and fashions it into a bow tie.)
What does this have to do with the better half of the Glimmer Twins?
Since he learned to play guitar, Keith Richards never wanted to do anything else but play rock & roll. He didn’t pay much attention to social conventions, or follow anything close to a traditional path. Yes, it nearly killed him, but that isn’t the point. It also led to blending R&B, blues, country and British Invasion pop to creating one of the greatest bodies of work in popular music history.
Now here’s a quote from Keith Richards, from the easy-reading oral history, “According to theRolling Stones”:
“I’ve always felt totally blessed. I’ve never said ‘yes sir’ since I left school and people have paid me to do it. Sometimes you feel like you’ve been given this license to lead a life that everybody else wants to lead or thinks they want to lead if they could …”
Genius is like that. When I was in high school my father used to go to meetings on Wall Street wearing inside-out t-shirts. They were leftovers from my brother’s cast-offs of rock & roll swag. (The one I remember best had a photo of Paul Anka with the tag “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone.”) Then he got so successful he felt like he had to dress the part. I always felt a little sad about that.
Harpo would have, too.