The Tortured Artist

An ethos may be true for one person and yet may be false for another.

I’m decidedly a moody guy, not always a ball of good cheer. To some extent, it’s how my body works — though I’ve developed a number of strategies for dealing with it over the years. Still, I’ve had some major, uh, mood issues in the course of my life. When I was young, I suppose I even had the proverbial existential crisis. You know: Why bother… why not just…? But I didn’t. I wasn’t ‘ready’ — in fact, I was just depressed over what at the time seemed a cascade of failures and broken ‘dreams.’ I slowly rebuilt my life around ‘everyday pleasures’ — years later I’d discover that I’d more or less rediscovered what is often called Epicureanism, but mixed it with a blend of Taoism and Zen. (They all fit pretty well, to my thinking.) But, living strategies notwithstanding, the endocrine system of a ‘moody guy’ can be a cruel master at times.

I offer that perhaps-dreary bit of autobiography largely to establish my bona fides as someone who has been down, way down — and whose physical self seems to occasionally conspire to drag him back down some of those same dark avenues from time to time.

Now, maybe it’s because I was a frustrated wannabe growing up — always on the outside of music, looking in, frustrated every time I tried to do more than noodle on a piano, driven to distraction by the simple task of learning to tune a guitar. (Terrible sense of pitch at first, couldn’t tell up from down within a fifth or so; and don’t even talk to me about rhythm. I’m surprised I had enough rhythm to walk.) But I often found solace in listening to music… it was my refuge, even, at times a bit of a cure, sometimes expressing for me pains I couldn’t confront directly, and sometimes just lifting me with mind-blanking cheerfulness. (Sappy or not, the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” was, at a certain point when I was a kid — a point when I really needed it — a bitter mood lift than I could have got in any pill.)

So, maybe it was because I came to making music — at 20 — with almost no expectations… I’d failed to pierce the veil of music-making before (despite the theoretically positive example of my ‘natural’ musician father) and I wasn’t at all certain I would get any farther than I had in the past — but I also felt like it was now or never, do or die. And with the encouragement of my then-GF and my very patient and kind roommate (who was a fine musician and is now a big deal behind the glass), I finally was able to pound away until, one day, months after starting, I thought, if I kind of screwed up my ears a little, it sounded kind of, every so faintly, like music.

I’ll admit, after I’d been playing a while and felt growing confidence in the songs I was writing, that I sometimes got that ‘if only someone would discover me’ feeling… but I had a realistic enough grip on what was actually coming out that I kept those feelings in check. And, then, since most of my friends were by then much more experienced musicians, I had the wise-up experience of seeing my musical betters strung along, played, and then, almost always, discarded by the music biz — so I began to think that, no matter what, the one thing I didn’t want to do with music was get caught up thinking it would take me somewhere (somewhere, you know, fabulous [and I use the term ‘fabulous’ with broad knowledge of its connotations]).

That was, indeed, why, when an opportunity to move behind the glass presented itself, I jumped. It seemed to combine my lifelong love of tape recorders and various tech gizmos with music — even while taking the ‘artistic pressure’ off my music.

Ironically, maybe, the less I’ve felt pushed by forces extrinsic to love of music — like career ambition, fantasies of a life where I ‘didn’t have to do anything but make music’ — or the desire for adulation/admiration — the easier it’s been for me to write better-crafted songs.

Perhaps it’s a little like a love relationship…

The less you ‘need’ from the relationship — the less you try to get what you think you want, simply engaging directly with what you love with few/no expectations and no thought of rewards or return — the more that relationship may seem to ‘give’ you. Or, just maybe, by actively engaging with who/what you love, you are actually creating those eventual rewards.

At any rate, maybe there are those who MUST ‘suffer for their art’ — who are so driven that that relationship becomes a love-hate struggle. I don’t want to suggest there are not.

But I’ve seen a lot of folks who seem to ‘burn out’ ‘on music’ — but, oftentimes, from my perspective, it’s seemed like they were really looking for something more: societal value, a sense of personal ‘worth,’ approbation, or just some sense of ‘confirmation’ that it was ‘all worth it.’

I guess, in some sense, I’m lucky. For me, that sense of confirmation often comes when I pick up my guitar and play something that maybe I’ve struggled with in the past but that this time just kind of falls into place.

And sometimes that sense of ‘worth it all’ comes just from sitting in a spot of sunshine and strumming a few chords. Growing up as part of the first ‘TV generation,’ it only occurred to me after I started playing music that I now had the ability to entertain myself. (For free. With no commercials.)

There’s a notion of ‘grace’ in some religious and mystical traditions. In my mind it seems almost inextricably entwined with ‘mystical’ interpretations of the musical experience. Whether we want to talk about angels or muses or the hidden reaches of our own bio-electro-chemical neural systems, to me, the gift of music is a form of grace. In whatever paradigm one wants to contextualize it.