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George Lois Chats With Ricky Powell About His Damn Good Advice and Why Mad Men Is a 'Piss-Ass Show'

DSC03769.jpgRicky "Rickster" Powell is a street photographer and local downtown legend who first achieved fame as the "fourth Beastie Boy," immortalized by the Paul's Boutique raunchy couplet, "Homeboy throw in the towel, Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell." George Lois is the legendary ad man and art director responsible for some of the most ubiquitous branding of our time, including his iconic Esquire covers from the '60s and '70s and his "I Want My MTV" campaign, which helped launch the channel. Powell is a longtime fan of Lois, and we got the two together for lunch recently. They had a lot to talk about (our transcript of their interview was 62 pages long). Here, Powell writes a little about the experience and includes some of their chat.
I recently met George Lois, one of the illest white boys to come off the basketball playgrounds of NYC. That's what I like about George Lois first and foremost, 'cause that was my thing for a couple of decades. I love his passion. George is a tough cookie, which I know from reading and hearing about his street-fighting ways in the Bronx, where he grew up in a rough neighborhood, and in Harlem, where he went to the High School of Music and Art.
Now 80, and officially retired, Lois continues to work on select projects, including a new book: Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!). Among other pearls of wisdom, the influential art director and the master of "Big Idea" advertising (which put as much emphasis on words as it did visuals), advises a "healthy paranoia" to protect a creative person's work; "to keep the big boys honest, speak truth to power"; and to "never eat shit."
Lois is also still hip. Extremely hip. I'm tellin' ya, this guy's got snaps. He's got a million stories, and, as a history kook, I was fascinated by them all. I'm sure a lot of people will also be fascinated when this book jumps off. Here's a bit from our conversation:

RP: I've been tearing this book apart, dude. I'm all up in this book.

GL: Oh yeah? Good. Keep it clean.

RP: Alright, I will. Yo, let me just tell you, everywhere I go I've been busting your book out and people are just bugging. This book, to me, is a blueprint for success on and off the court. How did you set about writing it?
GL: I get a phone call from an editor in England and she says, 'I'm very excited to talk to you.' I said, 'Yeah?' She said, 'Did you ever see a book that we did called It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be?' I said, 'Yeah?' It was written by the creative director of one of those English fucking agencies, you know, the art collector? What's his name?
RP: Saatchi?
GL: Yeah, Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency. I said, 'Yeah, that was a terrible book.' She's like, 'Well, what do you mean? We sold almost two million copies.' I said, 'I don't give a shit if you sold ten million, the advice that bum gave basically teaches kids how to be phonies.'
RP: Oh, shit!

GL: I mean, if you read it, there's about ten things there that make you want to punch the guy out for telling kids. Stuff like, 'Hey do you want to get along in this world? Make sure you have a card that makes you important.' There's also points like, 'When you create work, never do your best effort. Show something that's good, but not that great, because if they turn it down you're dead.'

RP: That's bullshit.
GL: Anyway, so I said to this woman on the phone, 'It's disgraceful. I'm embarrassed to be talking to you.' And she said, 'Stop! I'm calling because we wanted you to do a book like that, but your way.' At that point I said, 'That's interesting. If you can keep it down to ten dollars a book we'll sell 2 million of them.' It's not only that it's great stuff, but every kid in the world, instead of eating a fucking Big Mac that day, they can buy a book.
RP: What would you say is your number one piece of 'Damn Good Advice' for kids?
GL: What I tell kids is simple: Go to the Museum of Modern Art every Sunday if you can. Read the New York Times. Go to old black and white movies, get involved in the culture, understand the culture. What's exciting about my world is that I understand the culture so I know when I'm ahead of it. How are you going to know if you're ahead of things if you don't understand what happened before you? It's impossible.
RP: Check this out. I walk around like, 'Shit is weak, shit is wack.' I'm kind of walking around bitter. I don't like the way things have gone, especially around my neighborhood. It's all new jacks. Nobody says hello, everyone's on a bullshit tip. Instead of folding and taking myself out, I'm trying to work with the new times, incorporating the old school with the new school like on my Facebook page.
GL: Yeah, one of the first points of advice I've got in my book is to be true to who you are, whether you're gay, Hispanic, Greek. No matter where you're from, don't apologize. Be proud of who you are. It starts with that.
RP: When I do a live presentation [of my work], I kind of go into Dean Martin/ Red Foxx mode and I just present. I have a drink and I don't try to present my show in a way that I think will be satisfactory for the audience. I do it the way I do it and they've got to adjust. Whether they're with it or not, I'm sticking to me.
GL: Right. I'm not trying to convert anybody I'm just saying, 'Be honest, work your ass off, be truthful, talk truth to power when you find the talent that you have.' Talent without passion...
RP: They go hand in hand.
GL: Talent without passion doesn't work.
RP: I love how you give props to your mentors in your book. Who are some of your early mentors?

GL: People who don't talk about their mentors aren't good. I had two mentors. First, I'm at public school and my teacher Ms. Angle comes up to me and says, 'George do you have 10 cents?' [I say,] 'For what?' [She says,] 'To go on the subway to 135th St and Convent Avenue. You're going to take a test at the High School of Music and Arts. You have to be there at 10:30 this morning.' Then she tells me, 'You have to bring drawings with you,' and she had one of those black straight portfolios. I opened it up and there was about 100 of my drawings from the time I was 7 or 8 years old to the time I was 14.
RP: She kept them.
GL: She kept them. Then, later, I go to Pratt and I meet this teacher my second year. He says, 'What in the world are you doing in school?' I say, 'I'm trying to...' He says, 'Forget it,' gives me a phone number, and says, 'Ask for this woman. She'll hire you.' And, boom, I'm working.
RP: Before that, you were working for your dad's floral business?
GL: Yeah. When I graduated high school my father expected me to continue working in the florist and in another five years, when I'm in my twenties or something, I would take over the store.
RP: And art was a weird thing for him.
GL: Art was a weird thing. He never said anything about it but, later, I met a woman by the name of Valerie Salembier, who was a publisher at Harper's Bazaar. She said, 'My father and your father were good friends,' her father was a wholesale florist, and she said, 'My father once told me that your father said to him, 'Robert, my son draws all the time. Is that a good thing?' My father was a great man but he just didn't understand.
Anyway, instead I go to Pratt. September comes and it's the first day of class and my dad comes into my room at four o'clock in the morning and he says, 'George. Flower market today, we got to go.' And I said, 'Papa, I'm starting college today.
RP: Oh shit!
GL: He says, 'College? What college?' I say, 'I'm going to Pratt institute in Brooklyn Art College. [He says,] 'Did you have to pay?' I say, 'Yeah,' [he says,] 'How much?' I say, 'Three hundred something.' [He says,] "Where'd you get the money?' I say, "Papa, I've been putting my tip money in the bank since I was 8 or 9 years old." He goes, "OK, boy." And he turned around and he walked out like..
RP: He didn't know what to think.
GL: What the fuck, a couple hours later I'm at Pratt taking attendance and I meet my wife. It's a class of maybe 30 kids and they're calling out the names and you're supposed to say where you're from. So it gets to L and Lewandowski and I hear this blond about four rows in front of me. I didn't see her face but she says, 'Saracuse' in that fucking accent. And like an asshole wise guy I call out, "Saracuse.'
RP: You were goofing her.
GL: She turns around half way and I say, 'Whoa, who's that?' So we finish class and everybody gets up and I'm sitting with three guys and she starts walking up the stair case and I go, 'Whoa!' Then I look at her legs and go, 'Whoa!' and I look at the guys and say, 'She's mine.' I got up and I walked over with this guy Artie Stevens and I say, 'Artie take a picture.' He takes a picture. I've got a picture of us five minutes after meeting.
RP: That photo's in the book. I also love that there's a shot of you wearing Adidas in the book.
GL: That photograph was taken by the New York Times. They were doing a story in 1970 or something about the way people at ad agencies weren't dressing in suits. They were asking around and they say, 'Hey you've got to talk to that hot-shot art director George Lois because he's been walking around in funny looking shoes for a couple of months.' I bought the Adidas shoes in Paris or something. They weren't even really here yet. I'd wear them and people would be like 'What the fuck are those?'
RP: Those are nice. Those look like the top tens.
GL: Six months later they were selling them all over the place. That's why I got the picture with my feet up.
RP: You're setting new standards. I love it. So Mad Men is coming back. I don't watch it. I never watch it. It looks like bullshit to me. What do you think of it?
GL: It's OK to do a show like that, but when they announced that the show was going to be about 'the incredible period of the advertising industry in the 1960s,' everybody thought it was going to be about me. All over the world I'm called 'the original Mad man.' My bitch about it is the fact that it's a show about a bunch of scum bags. All they do is screw the secretaries, drink themselves to death, smoke themselves to death and produce piss advertising. And this is happening during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and women's liberation? All the important things going on in the world and they've got that piss-ass show?

Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!) is out now via Phaidon.

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