Monday, May 9, 2011

There Is No Destination

When I was sixteen I started jamming with a friend in his parent’s basement, where he had his drums set up. I would bring my Strat and my little Fender amp over, and we’d play the songs I was writing. We’d have a blast. He encouraged me with my songs, and we decided to start a band. We brought a friend of ours in on bass, and a kid in our class started recording us. We started playing out, at community centers, at this odd warehouse venue where The Locals, an Oakland band I was crazy about, threw shows. That may have been the most fun I’ve ever had. It was magic. I suddenly had the confidence to talk to girls, kids at school apologized for having ignored me or put me down before. The world was full of hope and importance. Music was this vehicle for us to be heard, this force that was going to bring us out of the clamped jaws of high school angst, a very real depression for me, and into the arms of acceptance, of happiness.

From there ambition took a hold. We all went off to college, but the real goal was to be professionals, and as time went on, the incredible moments of music and performing began to fall into the shadows of the desired destination. New goals would form before old ones were attained, so I began to appreciate the achievement of them less and less. I dropped out of college. I put in the work, I played the shows, I wrote the songs, I made the record, I signed to Capitol Records, I went on tour, opened for big bands, played shows to thousands of people, and though I feel like I sucked all of those experiences dry and appreciated them as much as I could, I still wanted more. I had so many nervous breakdowns that anxiety became the norm. And through that process I lost all of those old friends, including that drummer and our friend that recorded us. In a way, they were casualties of managers and lawyers and the opinions of other people, but also largely of my own ambition, of their ambition, of the abstract destination, the etherial solution that lay in front of us somewhere. Only recently did I begin to ask what I was looking to solve in the first place.

I made decisions to distance myself from my past. I chose a team of business-people that I knew deep down didn’t care for me as much as status and money and I impressed upon them my old patterns. I was accepted by the world now in so many ways, but I continued to find people who wouldn’t accept me for who I am, and would eventually only let me down.

Capitol had a merger and fell apart before our record got promoted. The band broke up. I made a new album on my own, and I still had the drive, I still had the energy to push and push. When I finished the album and had downtime, I helped run the Oakland office for the Obama campaign, and when the economy had collapsed, when no labels were clearly interested in even listening to my new record, one of my managers had an idea. I should move to New York, where she was based, and get my name out over there. She would be there to work with me, to find me opportunities.

When I made the decision to pack my Honda Accord and drive across the United States through the ice and snow, I knew I was following the advice of a woman who would openly berate me to a state of tears, and I wouldn’t fight back. But I still felt that I had to try. I had to get to that place, that place I’d been longing to get since those days in my buddy’s basement. I got to New York, slept on couches, and sloshed through the snowy gutters in Brooklyn to find a place to live. I stretched duct tape over the broken windows in my vandalized car, and I tried to get a hold of my manager.

She wouldn’t pick up her phone. I’d sometimes get a quick text back, and when I’d try to schedule a time to meet, she would disappear form the conversation. When my first show came, I stared at the door in the back of the room as I played, but the set ended and she had never walked in.

When I’d called the head of the company angrily, when I’d confronted her via email, we finally got coffee. I was shaking. I was afraid to show my anxiety around her because she’d always used it against me. I addressed what was happening in as calm a tone as I could, and she responded indignantly, “You’re not making me any money!”

She was on salary, and the company had seen a really nice chunk of cash from my old band’s record deal...

When they asked to work with me, I was told that it was because they loved my music and believed in me, but at the same time I had a major label bidding war, and of course this was what it was all about. And there I was spending my own savings to live in the ghetto in Brooklyn, risking my life and my mental health (whatever was left of it...) to make these epic drives alone in the middle of winter, often in the middle of the night, and I had no support. These business-people, that I had been trying to believe were invested in me and my music, became so transparent.

I tried to switch to a different manager within the company, and I waited in my apartment, in the cold, depressed, alone, for an answer. I started releasing my album online, song by song, I played a lot of guitar, I wrote a lot, read a lot of books, tried to get out to some museums, but I was in so much pain and so tired of the cold. I didn't want to be there except to further my career. I’d go up to the roof of the building and look out at the city stretching to the horizon on all sides. No one gave a fuck about me. No one would care if I was splattered on the sidewalk below.

After days and weeks I still had no answer. Every few days I’d call again and the receptionist at the office in San Francisco would tell me that the head of the management company was “In a meeting” or “on a conference call” or “just stepped out,” and I’d never hear back. The shows they had helped me book had run out so I put together some gigs for myself, but they usually didn’t pay, and I was playing a lot of the time for just the sound man.

After almost two months of this, I flew back to San Francisco for a couple shows and managed to pin down the head guy for a meeting. I knew what was coming. The company dropped me. I had so much of my life invested in my relationship with them, so much of my self worth came from knowing I was being handled by the same people that handled these famous bands that I looked up to so much, a reality that is difficult to look back at. I left the meeting with hug and a “thank you.” Sometimes, laying awake at night, I wish I had flipped a desk over, smashed some windows, but what difference would it have made? That wouldn’t have changed all the pain I had already been through.

Back in New York, the city was still iced over. I waited another two months for my girlfriend to graduate from college so I wouldn’t have to drive back to California alone. When we finally made the drive, a rainstorm lifted as we passed through Reno. And as we crossed the border into my home state, a flood of sunshine broke through the drenched pines. I felt tears of relief streaming down my face.

That experience broke me. I’ve stuttered again and again in the last two years trying to keep my music career going, but I’ve hardly been treading water. I’m barely afloat financially, and I'm struggling to stay at all interested in the business aspects of it - which are a necessary evil, I guess. But this is largely because I’ve spent a great bulk of my time getting to the bottom of the illusions that led me to believe that pushing to the ends of the earth for some surface ambition was going to get me anywhere I really wanted to be. I’d been so many places, but always brought with me all of the baggage that had always weighed me down. This period in my life has been such a fulfilling endeavor. I’ve spent the time getting to know myself, my history, my family’s history, and the way my body and my mind work, the way our society, our world, works. Now I understand what happened. I’m just glad to be alive.

Last night I picked up my drummer friend from the airport. We’ve reconnected after all these years, and he was flying home from a European tour. After telling me about performing for these massive crowds over there and talking about all of the various projects he has his hands in now that he’s home, we started talking about real life.

He and I had already been incredibly successful at sixteen: we were having fun and expressing ourselves to the best of our ability. And we still do that, which is the best part! Everything else that has happened since then has been about other, more deeply rooted, desires and issues.

We agreed that we are in a similar place, that we’ve seen enough to know that the best of what life has to offer is there for you in any simple moment, that all of the eyes of the world staring at you with admiration would still feel like shit if you have no love for yourself.
Ambition is good in moderation. It gets you out of bed, allows you to survive, to do the things you want, but it can be compulsive just like anything else. We agreed that there is no destination anymore, there is only now, and if you can’t appreciate your ‘now’ - you need to figure out why that is.

I’m working on a new record, and a lot of the lyrical content is driven by this experience. I still make music because I love to write songs and sing them, because they help me to put my life and my feelings into some sort of structure and hear them played back. I write because I have something to say, and because the creativity keeps me challenged in a healthy manner. This has always been true, but it was submerged under so much desperation, such an irrational need to be accepted by the world, when the reality was, I was never accepted by my own self.