Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Am I an Artist?

I had better get these ideas out of my head before they fall out and into oblivion of their own accord, as my best ideas tend to do. 

Your humble scribe in Seattle in 2019

I was just reading an article about folksinger, Phil Ochs, on The Guardian's website. Phil died in 1976 by his own hand. He enjoyed brushes with fame because he was a damned good songwriter, singer, and performer, but never had managed to grab the brass ring as many of his contemporaries did—folks such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. 

Out of a sense of required full-disclosure, Phil's sister, Sonny, is a dear friend who has, as a concert promoter and folk music DJ, promoted my own music on many occasions, has offered my tired butt accommodations in her guest room more times than I can count, and has even appeared as a guest on my radio show.

According to the article, Phil suffered with undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, which is completely plausible from what I know, but the post-mortem diagnosis of people who've been dead for 45 years with psychiatric conditions or cluster-B personality disorders doesn't really seem like sound practice to me, so I leave that to the unabashed armchair diagnosticians with whom I have very little in common. From what I know of Phil, which is admittedly all second hand, he was incredibly smart and took his role in the world very seriously. He was an introvert who could be withdrawn but loved the stage and entertaining and, as a songwriter, had a lot to say. He took no shortcuts to fame and fortune. He wanted to be known for what he did and how well he did it, not because he had a stellar haircut or a cunning sense of fashion—both of which may also have been true.

Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs on stage (courtesy www.sonnyochs.com)

Admittedly, everything I have to say here could merely be part of the mystique—the illusion that Phil built around himself. He was a film buff, followed pop culture very closely, and seemed to be drawn to the larger-than-life tragedy that was James Dean. He also, apparently, very much enjoyed Elvis Presley's jumpsuit-fat-pants period, and though Phil predeceased Elvis by more than a year, I have little doubt he also would've approved of how the King's story ended on a high-end, Memphis commode.

Still, as a folksinger, songwriter, and entertainer myself, I can't help but identify with Phil. I have been searching for my niche for well over 30 years. I have managed to make a living, but never a truly good one. I have managed to gain some acclaim, but never a steady stream of the kind of recognition and performing work that truly fuels my soul. Playing gin mills wore thin decades ago, but it seems to be where my repeat business is most easily found.

My dad was a performer as well in a well-known folk trio. We had a band together for the last decade of his life—we were his "other band." He died at 53, leaving me to figure it out on my own. You'd think that would be a leg up. It wasn't. His fans kind of wanted me to become him after he passed, and while some of them appreciated me for who I am, others never really well-hid their disappointment that I didn't just jump into his other, more-popular band to pick up where he left off. It never seems to even occur to them that I was never offered that opportunity and couldn't have assumed the position without an invitation as though it were my birthright—it wasn't. Even when my father was still alive, I played for about three years backing up a singer-songwriter who described my position in the music industry as "Livingston Taylor Syndrome." I leave it to you to figure out what he meant by that—though I don't deny the implication. Suffice it to say, the music business has teased me. It's lead me to the blurry fringe of success enough times to give me the illusion that I might actually mean something to it, but it has jerked it away every damned time. I clearly lack either the talent or savvy to push further, and I'm pretty sure it's the latter.

Mind you, unlike my muse for this essay, I'm not bi-polar nor suicidal, so please don't send the men in white coats. I'm just trying to figure this all out on your time. My partner for nearly the last decade of this journey, Stacey, tells me that I need to stop telling the truth the way I do. She references an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Marge's boss at the real estate office makes the point to her that there's "the truth" and then there's "the TRUTH." One is unvarnished and unabashedly, nakedly forthright, and the other is its rosy, obfuscated, fraternal twin. The scene somewhat defies description in a simple paragraph such as this, so enjoy it here: 

Suffice it to say, it appears by this short cartoon snippet that I might also suck at selling real estate. I'm on my own path to fulfillment, and I'm taking a handful of people along with me who genuinely love my music and chosen path. I am constantly trying to figure out how to bring my music and story in front of a larger audience, and the modern, soundbite-driven, 24-hour-news-cycle, Kardashian-obsessed, narcissistic, Twittering, Facebooking, Instagramming, attention-deficited world we now live in has no use for an artist who, as a matter or principle, intentionally defies narrow definition.

I'm living this way for the love of it, not for the money I may make. If it was about the money, I would've gone to law school or done something far less creative and far more lucrative with my life. On the other hand, being able to eat with relative frequency is kind of high on my to-do list, so it would be nice to be able to pull enough money out of my chosen path to be able to meet my basic needs as a human being without having to worry on a daily basis as to how that might happen. That is a luxury I have never once in my adult life enjoyed.

I don't know what's next or how this ends. I don't know when the next fork in the road will present itself and force me to entertain a Robert Frost moment. I just know that today, mere months from a birthday that will mark a half century on this mortal coil, I don't know how much longer I can carry on as I have, and I'm not sure I want to. I'd love to continue as I have with some semblance of security that I have heretofore not known.

Like anyone who might deign to attach their very identity to what they do for work, I have had a lot of ups and downs through the years. Like Phil Ochs, I'm an introvert entertainer. I live in my head. I'm not a particularly gregarious or outwardly social creature. More than that, I am truthful to a fault. If I am near the CD sales table after a show, I'm more often than not talking people out of buying my CDs because I know the shortcomings of my own work. I'm not the great champion of my recordings that I certainly should be. I'm brutally honest about who and what I am, and if I detect that I might not be your cup of tea, I'll probably tell you so, and why. The worst part is that I have no control over any of that. As Popeye said in nearly every eponymous cartoon, "I yam what I yam."

In reading the article in The Guardian, I was struck in ancillary fashion that Phil may have also been possessed of a similar kind of brutalist self-effacing (delusional?) honesty. It came out as self-deprecation, veiled sarcasm, or questionable decisions, such as to ironically wear a gold-lamé suit similar to Elvis Presley while performing his own deadly-honest original songs dealing with politics, societal issues, and personal-yet-universal themes. Was he perhaps trying to tell people who he was by presenting himself as an ironic caricature when honesty proved fruitless? It was clearly an artistic decision. His last album was called "Greatest Hits," and it contained all new material. These are perhaps not the sane decisions of a businessman trying to convince you to buy his work, but almost certainly the musings of a perfectly-sane artist (a likely oxymoron) who is intent upon presenting his life as a role on the grand stage. Perhaps he'd lost perspective on how ridiculous and often meaningless life can also seem, or perhaps that was his ultimate point. He's lamentably not here to ask. 

I fear I might suffer a similar malady—Art (with a capital "A"). Not truly commercially viable in life—at least not so far. I may well never make a living at this game. Then again, you may love me once I'm dead and gone and some PR-genius-champion latches onto my back catalog, and perhaps that is the definition of "artist." For now, I'll continue to captain this boat that I live on and play the occasional gig on a desperate search for some elusive brass ring to dangle within reach. I am loving every minute when I can afford to—and that's the "TRUTH."

No comments:

Post a Comment