When I'm not writing deathless prose, I'm writing and recording songs, an enterprise that for five weeks in the summer of 2014 took me to The Netherlands to perform in clubs, living rooms, and on the radio.
While there, I met and engaged in conversations with a number of musicians almost young enough to be my grandchildren. What struck me as both unusual and refreshing was no one asked what type of guitar strings I use, who my influences are, or my opinion of other performers. Instead, they were interested in knowing how I kept writing, recording and performing after so many years despite a lack of critical or commercial success. To be honest, I'd never given it much thought, because the answer was simple: it's what I do. But realizing a bit more depth might be required, I opened up, figuring if things went well I'd at least leave them with something to think about later.
In a rather large nutshell, what follows was the gist of my “message”:
How you define success is a very personal matter, and unless you have a firm understanding of yourself and your true needs, you may find yourself like a child in the wilderness, with no direction home. My father, through years of hard work, hustling, and wheeling and dealing, had risen to the top of his field. He wasn't rich, but was far removed from living paycheck to paycheck. There was a home with a swimming pool, nice cars, motorcycles, Christmas vacations in London, and a loving wife with her own career. By most standards, Dad had it all, but inside he was on his way to becoming one of the saddest people I've ever known.
Having given his all to meet challenges and exceed expectations set by others – which he'd once believed were his, as well - he'd found the “success” they'd required and which he'd achieved, “living the dream” as the saying goes, was just that: a dream. In the end, he was left with little he truly valued amid melancholic thoughts of what might have been done differently. The lesson I took from this was to not let others determine my personal success, though I will be the first to admit that's easier said than done.
(Before going further, be advised I only ever speak for myself, of what I have observed, of what has – or hasn't - worked for me. That is the most anyone can do with any certainty, because while we may all be one in the cosmic sense, we aren't all the same.)
When speaking with my new Dutch friends,I didn't deny I'd probably breathe a bit easier if I had a five- or six-figure bank account, with people clamoring to record my songs, and my time committed to all things BP instead of to a job where I was an insignificant cog in a very large wheel. In fact, though, the songs that had opened the door to The Netherlands were written under circumstances which were polar opposites to those ideal situations I'd given. And I still had a day job.
Even so, and most importantly, nearly five decades after joining my first band I was still writing, recording, and performing and had lived to not only tell the tale from the stage but to pass along what I'd learned to a new generation of players and writers: being able to do what is in your heart – in any capacity – is its own reward. Anything that may come from it is a bonus.
In his memoir Words Without Music (Liveright Publishing Company, 2015), composer Philip Glass writes of having an “I don't care what you think” gene, which he considers a necessity for anyone pursuing a career in The Arts. I would take this a step further and say it's a necessity for anyone pursuing not only a career but a life in which they have the final say on whether or not they are, at the end of the day, successful.
Do you have the “I don't care what you think” gene? Only a look inside yourself will answer that question, along with what your true needs are and how you will ultimately define success.