It’s getting to be that hour when you start dragging out the heavy equipment: meaning; desire; love; hate; good; evil; life; death. Meaning’s a good one. File under The One That Got Away. You silently pine for it like a dead pet. It certainly can’t be found in or anywhere near your guitar playing tonight. Mostly it just feels good to sit and be with your machine; the foreclosed farmer sat alone in his shut harvester with no crop to thresh.
You were after a specific attack character achievable only with the use of a certain super-thin plectrum blasted against some .013 round wounds. You really needed that sound. You scoured the place up, down, and sideways, but still could not find a single pick in any of the usual crannies. It seems like just a week or so ago, you couldn’t get away from the dizzy things. They’d go flying from your pockets into the lawn as you pulled out your house keys, or you’d find them used as bookmarks, or in the clothes dryer, or the silverware drawer. You got annoyed seeing them everywhere, but now you wish you could locate even one. A collar stay could almost work; but no…maybe there’s one in the guitar case, but you look, and there isn’t.
You take your usual spot on the third step from the landing and play with your thumb instead. You strum, thump, pluck, mute, detune, re-tune, and then hobble through a few scales ’til your ass gets tired. There’s the usual pet shapes, maybe a part of something you loftily refer to as a composition that you’ve been working on for a lifetime now (taxonomy-depending, we could be talking several lifetimes). The notes produced are exactly opposite of what you were after — chubby and warm, yet devoid of soul coal. Indeed, at best, there’s a few scant cinders yielding barely enough heat to barre a chord. Even your muscle memories are growing spotty.
Not much doing tonight, is there kid? Not much doing on a lot of nights lately. Thousands, probably. It’s been a real bad spell.
When was the last time you replaced the strings? You sit there, actually trying to pinpoint the exact night you were in that awful music shop, knowing all the while that it’s that other stringed machine that’s fucking you up tonight. Lately, you are more physically aware of this other machine than you have ever before been. It’s been clocking some real hard mileage on some very bad fuel over the last year or so. Blaming your guitar strings for your playing would be like taking an open-wheel racer across the Baja peninsula and then blaming a bad shave for why everything came apart after mile one.
You hurt, and the hurt is so deep as to border on the unreal. It is actually bizarre to hurt so much. Lately, whenever you hear the word heartache in a song or read it someplace, it’s like you’re unfolding a series of hidden wrinkles within the word itself, its true dimensions fanning out like some phantasmagorical blueprint replete with detailed footnotes and exploded views. All the references you’ve heard over the years become clear after finally sitting down and reading the codex. Don Covay; Roy Orbison; Barry Gibb; Doc Pomus; Charles Aznavour…all of them contributing architects.
If you make it through this, you know you’ll look back at the brink in awe of how close you were. Maybe some humid night several thousand nights from this one, you’ll be slouched in one of those injection-molded Adirondack chairs in some old buddy’s carport, listening to some Capcity sides and glugging some good suds as you compare scars from all your exit wounds. Someone’s flirty half-sister’ll light some fireworks at the end of the drive; cheap thrills will ensue. You’ll remain plopped there, delighting in your own dumbness, staring at the half-sister’s perfect little ass through the sulfur fog banks plaiting around the old street lamps. And it is in that instant, lungs full of mossy midnight air, that you will realize that you feel just about as close to fine as you’ll ever get. You contrive and fixate on various such banal scenes evermore frequently and in evermore detail, as though they might represent the zenith of the human experience. Could be they do.
You put the guitar up and go put the sprinkler out. With this machine, you have better luck.
As an undiscovered artist, (I loitered on that for sometime before commiting to self-referencing as such), I sometimes/often get hit up by friends with some variant of the following with regards to my work: Yeah, but when’re you gonna DO something with it? Knowing their hearts are in the right place, I never openly bristle. Truth be told, it actually provides my starved ego with a healthy – if oblique bit of flattery to gnaw on. It helps to be reminded that I am capable of doing anything worth doing *something* with. So, thank you, (goddammit).
Obligatory background: As a kid, my father openly and regularly reviled my creative side. We’re talking from maybe 7 or 8 all the way up until I moved out, just before my 18th birthday. Besides the daily acid baths, he made scarce any kind of paper, pens or pencils in the house, including the fuck-it bucket full of derelict crayons and the office stationery he’d swiped from the supply closet at work. Cruel interdiction was followed by strategic raids on my bedroom in order to uncover any pieces of artwork I’d ferreted away; whatever he’d find he’d subsequently burn in the fireplace alongside his canceled checks.
It’s maybe not surprising to any slob with even a vague concept of what passion is that my old man’s hostility toward anything remotely sophisticated or artistic in nature only intensified my pursuit of said. When I finally got free of that environment, I felt so intoxicated by my new freedoms that I’d literally let out a howl now & then. I was mystified by friends who frittered away their basic liberties on stuff like beer or pot or video games. For me, being able to sit up until 4AM working on an idea out in the open…at the kitchen table…with the lights on! Just the idea that I could leave a project out when I went to bed and discover it still sitting there in the morning was better than any chemical buzz or fantasy for me. I was free to produce, and that freedom was at once humbling and euphoric. I stayed high on those fumes for a long time.
However, heaven, like all things, comes in monthly installments. My creative bent once again grew fallow, only this time in favor of full-time employment for to afford my half of the rent and the modest sundries pursuant to a decent standard of living. Enter the vicious cycle/consumer trap/rat race, etc. It took only a few years time before the fourteen hour shifts left me feeling so exsanguinated and cynical that I feared I’d reached a premature cul-de-sac in life. I can readily detect that sense of defeat in the photographs of me from those days, and even the few drawings I managed to knock out back then, which appear heavy and frenetic, like they might be the last things I’d ever do. Instead of allowing the electricity to flow through my traces the way I had been blueprinted, I was jury rigging my circuits in order just to survive in a world that I didn’t always feel inspired nor equipped to live in. Indeed, my ideal workplace resembled something more like a vast hangar where I toiled away the days while someone slipped basic nourishment under the front door in the form of protein, water and pussy. Whenever I’d see a film or something where some spaced-out gimper was going at a canvas on the bucolic grounds of some expansive sanitarium, I’d think to myself — that lucky fuck! Am I really supposed to feel bad for him?! Recently, when I watched Franco Nero’s character at the end of A Quiet Place in the Country, I felt a little of that same old envy.
Fortunately for me, around this same time, e-commerce was in its incipience, and I discovered I was able to scrape just enough bread together dealing in various trash/treasure each month to cover my end of the bills. I never realized consistently huge returns, but that was also never my goal; the goal was to be able to make exactly enough to maintain that thin buffer between myself and certain dispossession, so that I could stop clocking in and start developing some of the ideas I’d been woodshedding. This is around the time I started the first draft of my first novel-length fiction manuscript, Soundtrack to a Dull Moment in Nowheresville, a boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl yarn spun from the scraps of paper and napkins I’d been amassing with little ideas scribbled down on them whenever work was slow. As I toiled eight hours each night at my book, I began noticing changes in myself: I started to shed certain nervous habits without even trying, like biting my nails, which I had done since boyhood; feelings of diffidence and anxiety which had plagued me throughout my teens and early twenties gradually gave way to a sense of fastness and cool. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking, “so this is the terrain this chassis was designed for.” That was enough for me. I just wanted to sustain that for as long as possible.
Which brings me back to that original question: when am I gonna do something with it? Never-mind just feeling alright — where is my validation? My audience? What if no-one out there will ever give a shit? Over the years, I’ve had to force myself not to think in these terms in order to grow and to produce, because the compliance imposed by even the vaguest expectations — be they my own or those of an audience (real, imagined or hoped-for) is truly binding; and that is death to an artist. I strive to create for the sake of creating something I think is beautiful and no other reason. As far as I’m concerned, any material considerations outside of that feat are glorified clerical matters. Don’t get me wrong — money isn’t funny; but all the tenacity and hustling and networking and internet exposure in the world still can’t guarantee market relevance or saleability. If I become consumed with that end of things, again, I’m dead.
There was a (possibly mythical) musical contributor behind the mysterious and inscrutable art ensemble known as The Residents by the nom de guerre of N. Senada. He had a creative philosophy he called his Theory of Obscurity, according to which, an artist can only produce pure content when completely sealed off from outside expectations and influences. I’ve loosely adhered to this philosophy even before being aware of it. Expanding on this premise is psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in this clip from his ridiculously excellent BBC program on Art and Insanity. It is very very much worth watching in its entirety, but the eureka moment for me was in the fifth and final segment, between minute 8:21 and 10:25, when Dr. Phillips elucidates his final analysis on the artist’s quandary.
Finally, of course, nature abhors a vacuum. My ultimate hope is to contribute something with my work. If any of my sloppy magic is at all useable by another human being — if anything I can do reaches someone and helps them to want to get out of bed and keep on going past breakfast, then I have to do whatever I can to make that magic as readily available as I possibly can. After all, where would I be without all the colors and shapes and sounds my heroes supplied me?