“You still playing music?”
Occasionally, a person who knew me in my teens, twenties, or early thirties will cross my path again in real life. I see them squaring two versions of me. Perhaps they recall the affable, energetic guy always in a band, walking the sidewalks with an instrument slung on his back, leather jacket squeaking as he totes an amp into a dive, hissy demo tape in his breast pocket. There he is with his Kinko’s-made postcards and flyers. Here comes his spiral-bound mailing list. There he goes, en route from his sure-to-be-temporary bartender gig to a rehearsal space. Behold another young dreamer come to Manhattan, rolling the dice like a drunken gambler, betting the farm, laughing at the odds.
Before them is a graying, fifty-two-year-old man, decidedly not famous, healthy if not wealthy (actually technically poor), shoulders not quite so high, clearly settled into domestic life in rural Catskills obscurity, well-worn sensible shoes, utilitarian duds, limited options, no corona of celebrity glowing around his head, no evidence he has been sharing studios, stages, agents, and accountants with his heroes, as he creatively visualized in the 80s and 90s. Not a star.
So: do I still play music?
“Oh yeah,” I tell them. “Always. I will always play music. I’m a Lifer.”
“Of course,” they reply, often with discomfort, like they’ve accidentally insulted me. “Of course. That’s great.”
I get it. Perhaps they think the letdown of unfulfilled aspirations killed my desire to play. It happens. I know a few who dreamed with similar blind, public ferocity, and who, like me, ultimately didn’t make pro, at least not for the long haul. Persistent bitterness poisons their creativity well, they sell their gear, distance themselves from music like a recovering alcoholic avoids bars. They listen only to talk radio. Not pretty. The passion killing can be especially complete if a musician had a real taste of The Life, as I did. I spent a cumulative total of about eight years in which I stood in spotlights, garnered great press, toured internationally, and, through several income streams, made a living wage or better as a musician/performer. For various reasons – some of which I do not actually know – I did not sustain my membership in this small club.
But here’s the thing: now that it’s mainly for pleasure (but also for much-needed supplemental cash) and less an attempt at a kind of lifestyle, playing music is, in some ways, more enjoyable. And wouldn’t you know it? With the fame chase removed, I am a better musician, writer, and a far better singer. Can I thrash around for marathon sets, (try to) imitate Townshend, Springsteen, Cobain, Westerberg, et al, go home drenched in sweat, and bounce out of bed the next day to lather, rinse, repeat? I cannot. At least not without designer drugs and an on-call chiropractor. But I would pay more money to see me now than in the 80s and 90s, when my ace wasn’t necessarily skill, but energy.
That erstwhile me was certainly having fun deep inside a sweaty, amped-up groove, singing too high into a dented, beery microphone, leaving bloodstains on my pick guard, but… are the record company folks here? Or some other impresario? Or a bullshit artist claiming to be an impresario? Is tonight the night I meet my “Idolmaker”? My Brian Epstein (Beatles), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M.), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), David Geffen (Eagles), or Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)? Is a powerful person going to fall in love with me, and/or see dollar signs, and help ferry me to the far shore? (Spoiler alert: no.)
I do not miss that element at all. My heyday was the pre-file sharing era, when giants roamed the earth. Record companies were still enjoying a revenue windfall from folks re-buying albums on CD. They were more flush than they would ever be again, Goliaths swimming in money, dispatching expense-accounted emissaries to all manner of venues to find the next _________. I cringe at memories of time wasted desperate for attention from these scouts, indulging dudes in satin jackets emblazoned with a record company logo, or some such sartorial ridiculousness. Kissing ass. Yeah, I did it, and it did me no good. Regret number 27.
I did indeed join a group signed to Island (home of U2), and we made an album (never released) at the Jimi Hendrix-designed Electric Lady Studios, but I quit soon thereafter because oh my god, y’all, the manager and singer were a couple of the biggest assholes I ever met. Ever. And their kind of assholery was not uncommon in “the music scene.” On the contrary.
Though I ultimately refused to share space with them, I admit I was fascinated by and occasionally envious of my enfant terrible peers. When an enfant terrible ascended, I originally thought belligerence was their key more than objective talent, and wished I too could so brazenly unleash my Id on bandmates and music biz folk. But while a compelling bad attitude didn’t hamper a trip down the garden path, it alone didn’t always keep one off the streets. (The aforementioned band, for instance, was summarily dropped by Island not long after I quit. A common story.) Those who matriculated to music (or acting, visual art, writing, et al) as a career, and remained there, were special, lucky, resilient, and tenacious. If they have one thing common, it was an allegiance with a simpatico soul who believed in them and took risks, an advocate who put their money where their mouth was. Assholery alone did not guarantee longevity, which is kind of a relief. More often than not, the few who “made it” were just consistently better in some way than most – including me – or at least more salable. And they had representation.
Naturally, these people are the minority of musicians I have known. The far greater percentage, like me, retained or eventually returned to day jobs, exiled from, or denied entrance to the big(ger) leagues. Shall we discuss why? Bad idea. Frankly, going down imaginary roads not taken, second-guessing and/or revising pivotal moments, doing the woulda coulda shoulda, makes for tedious conversation. (I would know.) No one but a paid therapist wants to hear it, and my guess is even they don’t.
Point is, years rolled by, and most of my music making, dreaming-out-loud peers, my fellow rock star wannabes, moved forward. As the writing on the wall became ever clearer, we abandoned hunting the white stag of fame, moved on to marriages, degrees, jobs, families, mortgages, layoffs, unspeakable losses, divorces, accidents, yard work, reversals, joys and sorrows, diagnoses, prescriptions, raises, pay cuts, et cetera.
In the warp and weft of these lives, my tribe of also-rans, I am very happy to say, just could not stop making music. Crushing disappointment, bearing witness to people at their worst, an obscene lack of appreciation for our kind from the world at large, and the cruelty of time could not vanquish our collective mojo. We say fuck you to all of the above, and make our music. Barring something unforeseen, we will continue to do so. We are Lifers.
Like me, most of my Lifer peers got into music to be rock stars of some stripe, whether of the Led Zeppelin variety, the Nirvana/R.E.M. variety, or some other version, even the versions who disdain the term “rock star.” A few pals say that was not their intention, but I don’t believe them. To be sure, it is an absurd ambition to admit to. It bespeaks insecurity, a need for extravagant affirmation from unknown fans, delusions of grandeur, and an irresponsible tendency toward risk. But there you have it.
Having said all of that, if rock stardom were offered me today, I would take it. At fifty-two, with my son off at college, I am now ready. I am much more comfortable with saying fuck you to an asshole. Just putting that out there.
In truth, it may sound like sour grapes, but I often think being denied and/or turning away from The Life in my younger days was a good thing. The life I have made, while not without challenges, is pretty swell, and as years accrue and I stay vertical, I often feel very fortunate. One of the best aspects of this life is making music with no eye on a potential “big break.”
My fellow players come into rehearsal talking about their kids, spouses, car, the dumbass at work, aging parents, illness, their friend’s illness, the man who is putting down a new floor in their half bath, the horror of politics. But then we play, and all of that recedes. Amps buzz companionably, beers slake parched throats, pets wander in, laughter punctuates gossip. And the music is fun, even thrilling at times. No talk of recording a demo, making a CD, inviting the right people to a gig in the hope of advancement. We discuss the songs, the endless fascination of how our individual parts mesh; we compliment each other, and we argue a little. Time flies. We leave exhausted in the best way, and click back into our individual timelines with the heightened awareness music offers.
Recently, a rehearsal in a friend’s outbuilding went especially well. We’d locked in, and created joyful music destined to make local folk dance, sing, and be happy. At the end of a great rock and roll song, I looked around at my Lifer companions. Some had dreamed the Big Dream, and, like me, subsequently made peace with failure, and moved on.
“We are totally getting signed,” I said.
Everybody laughed loud, and joined in making fun of our ambitious erstwhile selves. I, for one, know youngster me would be aghast to witness his future in decidedly unglamorous circumstances. But I would encourage him to look closer, in the hope he would see not the failure he feared, but a seasoned musician surrounded by very cool, if obscure, fellow players, artists of great soul, skill, and generosity. Broken dreams and foiled plans cannot deter these people from making music. The young me would have no idea how precious and enriching such a life is. But lucky for him, he will learn.