Ep. 175 – Rich Cohen: The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger fooled around with Keith Richards’ girlfriend. I wouldn’t be able to work with someone after that.

But maybe that’s why I’m an author. And not a rockstar.

The Rolling Stones became a new band every 5-7 years. They were “perpetual amateurs.”

That’s one of the keys to staying alive as an artist.

Or as an entrepreneur.

Or staying alive at all… “Remain the same but different.”

And be “open to influence,” Rich Cohen said. He wrote “The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones,” an incredible book about the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time and the art of reinventing yourself.

It was “the gig of a century:” touring with The Rolling Stones the summer of ‘94. Then Rich worked with Mick Jagger on the HBO series “Vinyl.”

But this story isn’t just about The Rolling Stones. It’s about creation, corruption and reinvention.

And the 9 ways you can reinvent yourself today:


1. Use your frustration

Rich Cohen became an artist out of anger. So did The Rolling Stones.

Growing up, Rich’s father told him “blood-soaked bedtime stories” about the Jewish gangs of New York.

“There was this idea where I grew up that if you were Jewish, certain possibilities were foreclosed to you.”

He wrote “Tough Jews,” which heavily influenced the movie “Goodfellas,” and later led to more mob media like “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos.”

Frustration is fuel for reinvention. Someone without problems won’t create. They’ll count money. And wonder where their smile went.

Frustration wrote, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” the song that Mick Jagger says “prevented us from being just another good band with a nice run.”

“There was this whole soap opera,” Rich said, “A rock band not only has this great blues base… They also have someone who’s addicted to something. And they’ve got this weird relationship between the lead singer and the guitar player. They love and hate each other. And they’re like brothers.”

The Rolling Stones worked these tensions through the music.

And Rich worked his through writing. “I was interested in this idea of expanding what it means to be Jewish and making it more complete,” he said. “And also the stories are so great.”

He wrote “Sweet and Low” about his grandfather who invented the famously pink sugar packet out of desperation.

He saw a single-sided stereotype about Jews. A good stereotype. “But still a stereotype,” he said.

You have to find your frustrations.

And invent from annoyance.


2. Remain open

Mick Jagger went to dance clubs in his fifties.

“We’d go out and have dinner or whatever,” Rich said, “And then you go home. But he would go out… mostly because he wanted to see what was making kids dance.”

“A lot it’s driven by what goes on inside a person.” But it’s also about:

  1. “remaining open”
  2. “and willing to be astonished by new things“

That’s influence. And inspiration.

I read to write.

The Rolling Stones “started out as record collectors with the best taste.”

Look at what you love and then…


3. Ignore the myth of age and wisdom.

Rich’s dad is 83. And he (generally) only accepts opinions from people his age.

“Listen,” Rich tells his dad, “you’re gonna run out of people you can listen to because there’s only a couple million of them left on the whole planet.”

“If something’s huge and people love it, I want to read it to see what the hell’s going on.”

If you hold your breath against change, your mind will cripple with your body.

Look at people 20 years younger than you.

See what they’re doing and…


4. Rip off the best stuff

OR…


6. Be the anti-

Everybody knew they’d get “love from The Beatles and sex from The Rolling Stones.”


5. Liberate yourself

I put step six before five.

You don’t have to go in order. Rules are only as real as you make them. Follow your own rules. Reinvent them.

And you can start small.

Do your morning routine in reverse. Change the temperature of your shower. Order dessert first. I don’t care.

Just let yourself let go of the little habits.


7. Chase something

Jagger would go to Lennon’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Leave him notes. And rarely hear back.

“Everybody has someone they want to hang out with who won’t hang out with them,” Rich said.

Reinvention is a mystery.

“A lot of it is driven by anger and openness. And being willing to be astonished by new things. One good way to keep reinventing yourself is not to be too successful, actually,” Rich said.

You have to “feel like you’re chasing something all the time… [something] you can get but just can’t quite get.”

I asked Rich, “Do you think John Lennon liked Mick Jagger?”

It doesn’t seem like John Lennon would like Mick Jagger.

[Listen at 26:45]

Their relationship is weird. But familiar.


8. Go from fan to imitator to original

“A lot of musicians starts with a song,” Rich said. “The Rolling Stones started with an idea.”

But they needed help transitioning from fans to imitators to originals.

So Lennon and McCartney wrote The Rolling Stones’ first “original” song.

[Listen at 22:15 for the full story]


9. Never stop re-inventing

In the beginning, they ripped off blues bands.

“And then in the ‘70s, they kind of turn and get into reggae. And it’s a whole new thing”

“Then Mick Jagger goes to Studio 54 and discovers disco. And suddenly they have this album that’s like a fight between disco and the blues caught on vinyl and that’s ‘Some Girls.’”

Rich said that was their last great album. They stopped reinventing themselves. It’s the death of every good artist. Your skill withers. Your brain atrophies and your fans move on.

Without you.


I don’t plan on being a legend. 

Or getting any satisfaction…

Listen now to hear half a dozen more stories about rock ‘n’ roll, reinvention, influence and inspiration. And comment below with your insights from the interview. I’ll re-share my favorites.


Resource and Links:

Also mentioned:

  • Life” by Keith Richards
  • One of my favorite HBO sereies: “Vinyl
  • Movies to watch: “Kundun” about the Dalai Lama, “The Big Knife,” “Gangs of New York
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Beatles
  • Muddy Waters
  • The Yard Brothers
  • Duke Ellington
  • Phil Spector
  • Mel Wicks

    I think I’ll just become a rock star. Much easier than this blogging gig!

  • jamboman

    Become a rapper is much easier. Just wear baggy pants to hold up with one hand and shout hostile nursery rhymes while swallowing the mic. Maybe swing your arms like a gorilla occasionally for extra dramatic effect. ( : $$$$

  • Stuart Johnstone

    Great interview. I still run around Central Park listening to The Rolling Stones Now and 12 x 5, their 3rd and 2nd albums. When they came out I had the obligatory Beatles haircut, but played the grooves off of all those great Stones records.

  • Brilliant insights into the icons of the rock world!

  • Solo500

    Altucher! Great post & inspirational podcast. You got Cohen off message to connect the dots between the Sweet and Low family drama and Stones… the part where he talks about how estranged family members are the only ones who come from an old country together is moving.

    NITPICKER ALERT: Fix this typo though:
    “He wrote ‘Tough Jews,’ which heavily influenced <>the movie ‘Goodfellas,’ ”
    Goodfellas was 1990, Tough Jews 1998.

    It matters because the collaboration with Scorcese that Cohen describes is intertwined with the mutual give and take of influences.

  • I’m all about the Beatles…but man I’m gonna have to read this book about the Stones. I liked the insights about what it meant that John/Paul wrote the first Rolling Stone original song. good stuff.

  • James Buechler

    This is quite a production, and I thank you! You give a synopsis, then links and resources, etc., I ordered Rich’s book yesterday, as i write this I am listening to Aftermath, their fifth record. I see I don’t like it much anymore, and I used to own it and play it all summer long.

    Lots of points made in you’alls talk, much to take issue with, like who had the better string of records. And if it’s five records, or four records, so what, plus, who gets to decide what’s a great record. Rich sides with the Stones. I don’t get it. How do you compare the Beatles with the Stones? You don’t, apples and oranges, does one band have to be “better” than the other?

    Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home (1965), then Highway 61 Revisited (with Like a Rolling Stone), and Blonde on Blonde all within fourteen months. Some critics claim that was his golden era, except for Blood on the Tracks. Other writers extol his records of the 90’s and 00’s.

    Far as Mick the musician, why doesn’t being a great vocalist (and prime mover) qualify as musicianship. By the way, he is an extraordinary blues harpist (please see their live hour-long concert, Stripped, Mick plays on Like a Rolling Stone).

    Anyway, thank you, Gentlemen for what you do! Ordered Rich’ book, plowing slowly through your pods, James. Btw, my energy galpal is coming over later to assess my living arrangement and placement of objects. I told her you’re down to fifteen possessions. My brother alerted me, forwarded the NYT piece on that of recent days. Don’t you miss your library, I have a great one of books I don’t look at anymore, and may never. Even mastering one of those books is out of the question, unfortunately.

    “Goin’ Home” (eleven minutes long) is playing, which finishes Aftermath. It’s my favorite cut on Aftermath.

  • Bob Lyle

    One of THE BEST Altucher interviews. This guy Rich Cohen is Super Smart and so interesting to listen to. Wow and triple wow; interview bends your mind. The Stones, Scorcese, The Sopranos, Sweet and Low, Sammy the Bull Gravano.. what an interview.

  • Lawrence Beer

    Just got around to listening to the Rich Cohen interview, and loved it, but it left me with a question I wish you’d asked: his side of the family was disinherited but he said his uncle “eventually did the right thing.” So did any of his grandfather’s money eventually come his way, and did that cushion give him freedom to pursue life as a freelance writer? I think many great creative talents might get their start with an unacknowledged leg up in life.