I awoke this morning in a somewhat reflective nature. I was looking into the fire that I was stoking from the embers of the night before. The den was cold and my shoulders ached. I looked over into my dark studio as I do almost every morning. This morning, however, I didn’t turn on the task lamp and power up the equipment. Any time I stand there thinking long enough, things take on a philosophical bent.
The phrase from Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be, that is the question,” passed through my mind at some point or the other during this frame of mind. I shuddered at the naked honesty of the question.
I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and in some respect or the other, have been since my early twenties. I recall not being able to wait until I could make my mark. I told myself that if I practiced hard and studied my craft tirelessly, I would one day take my place among the Jimmy Webbs and the Dianne Warrens of the world. I envisioned ASCAP Songwriter of the Year awards lined up across my fireplace mantle, and having famous producers and vocalists’ managers calling me up, inquiring as to whether I that that I may have a song suitable for their artists upcoming and sure to be platinum record. I saved money for equipment and purused music catalogues not unlike a teenager ogling his dad’s Playboy.
At one point, I even owned a 1961 Martin 00-18. My head was full of hair, I was twenty-five and my songs were popular among my peers. My goal must surely be in sight, I reasoned. I opened for popular local bands, was asked to sit in on gigs, and people knew me when they saw me. It was all very satisfying.
For a time, I toyed with the idea of winging it as a live performer, but it’s a tough row to hoe. I quickly realised that I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin onstage. I didn’t ‘play to the crowd’ by shucking it up, acquiring freakish looking postures or gritting my teeth to play an E chord. Being more than just a bit of a control freak, I’d wince whenever a mistake was made, and being plagued within by ADHD and OCD tendencies, I could never loosen up enough to get into that ‘zone’ in a live setting. It eventually became more than I could bear so I left the idea behind in order to pursue songwriting exclusively. I knew that this would raise the stakes considerably.
There were a few years where money was tight and my energies were scattered, but I was always able to keep my callouses built up on my fingertips. I worked at record stores and met lots of label reps but somehow never got to meet the ‘right one’ through whom I could get ‘hooked up’. In a word, I knew lots of people, but nobody…at least no real body…knew me yet. I wrote letters and mailed out cassette demos. I paid visits to publishing houses, talking shop with the clientele. I made myself seen. It seemed that I was doing everything that was required of a budding songwriter to get a leg up, so to speak. But it was as if I wasn’t even there.
The ninties found me working in a musical instruments retail store. The chance I’d been waiting for. I could buy gear at 10% over cost. With renewed vigor, I decided to build my own in-home studio and spend all of my time writing, producing and recording the best ‘finished’ demos that I could muster. Dissatisfied and begrudgingly unfamiliar with the digital technology that was slowly consuming the new, younger artists, I opted for a good old analogue studio when I began my purchases. Eight tracks would do for The Beatles so who was I to require more in order to do the job?
My studio was done just in time; my Muse had begun to jump out of our collective skin. All of the tedious hours I’d spent with practice, the repetitive scalar runs, the incessant clicking of the metronome and the days and days of discecting production styles had paid off. More importantly, I was coming into my own. I had shaken off the last remnants of those who had initially inspired my journey; I was no longer writing with the intention of being the next whomever, at last, I was me.
I’d by then enlisted the services of a good-natured drummer to assist me with the rhythmic and percussive duties. He had tremendous work ethic, but my overbearing nature finally made him uneasy. He gracefully withdrew his input and moved to Atlanta but with good cause. Before departing, he came by the house and handed me a Roland TD5 programmable drum module as a parting gift. “Here,” he said, “I’ve got plenty of these. I know that you already hear what you want. Use your keyboard MIDI out to activate the kits. I know you, you’ll fuck around with it until you figure it out.”
What a guy. Turns out he knew me pretty well.
I had decent equipment, good songwriting sensibilities, a home studio which filled my needs nicely, and I was in possession of the knowledge required to make it all work. The only quality that I drew into question was my singing voice. I never thought it particularly good, but from another standpoint, it was as good as Bob Dylan’s. Besides, every song that came to me was in a vocal style that I wasn’t altogether familiar with. In other words, I never heard myself singing the tunes, so it was simply a matter of bucking up and trying to do the best impression I could of what I heard. The tunes began popping into my head and I would hurry off into my den studio with every good intention of nailing the tune while it was freshly composing itself in my mind. I decided that the name Good Intentions Studio was a fitting one, and added it to my business cards.
However, I had reached the age of fifty years by now. I was now completely out of touch with the bass-laden, drop-D tuning that seemingly every band had to grind into their mixes. A lot of the music was distastefully negative. I secretly wondered if it wasn’t because the digital technology. I no longer recognised the names of any of the producers nor of the artists, for that matter. Many of my colleagues had by now relinquished their craft and their talents in favour of families, homes, and cars. Many of those who had inspired me in my early days had already died, not of a drug overdose, but of age. I felt alone and out of touch. I had spent over half of my life arriving at where I stood.
How had this happened? Here I was still aiming for my goal in life, going at it like a trouper, making a name for myself …and then suddenly, after all of the time invested, and the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars spent on the crisp, new strings alone; I found myself, once again, not knowing anyone or having any ‘connections’. Just an inspired yet unsuccessful and aging song-writing machine, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
As I kneeled at the hearth, staring into the fire, I looked up at the bare mantle. I turned my gaze into the darkness of the studio, and couldn’t help wondering while caught in the middle of my dreams and the reality that surrounded them: Was I a has-been or an ain’t-been?
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/publisher going through mid-life crisis without gray hair OR a sports car.