Almost famous cont’d

Rock and Roll in the 70’s wasn’t just about the music. It was a culture, an identity. Right up there with your social status, your Zodiac and other aspects of identity was the omnipresent “what bands are you into?” It was a powerful statement about who you were and what you were into.
A lot of 70’s parents didn’t get that. The cool ones did or at least tried. It was key to getting along with your kids, at least understanding them.
My parents didn’t like the music, but they understood that it meant a lot to me even if they didn’t understand it. They certainly didn’t understand what would make me sit in my room for hours on end, a stack of LP’s scattered in front of me, admiring the album cover art and dwelling on the lyrics as my head bobbed and swayed to the music. The music was my friend during the difficult adolescent years. Often it was my only friend. That my parents understood.
There were plenty who didn’t. The parents who failed to recognize the societal and cultural impact of the music on the youth, and instead focused on the sometimes-unfortunate accompanying drug use, rebellion, promiscuity and other factors that made them feel that they were losing their kids, they didn’t get it. To us, it was all about the music. The parents didn’t have to get it. It wasn’t for them. It was ours.

Enter 2000’s Almost Famous, the movie about Rock that brilliantly depicted the Rock N Roll landscape of the 70’s.

William’s oldest sister has had enough of her overbearing mother. They fought constantly about her lifestyle. She was too free, too rebellious, too sexual and too into “that music.” The sister moved out. Before she hopped into her boyfriend’s Z28 she took young William aside and told him, “Someday, you’ll be cool. Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.”

Under young William’s bed was a bag stuffed with vinyl. The Beach Boys, Zeppelin, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Stones, Hendrix, The Who. Some of the greatest of all time. There was a note.
Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your future. His sister was a student, a disciple of the sound and William had just had the torch passed to him.

Flash forward a few years and William is now 15 and an aspiring Rock writer. Through his work for Creem, he scores an opportunity to do a piece on Black Sabbath by his DJ Guru Lester Bangs, brilliantly played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But William can’t get into the backstage door and by a chance of fate meets Penny Lane, a presumed groupie, that gets him in the door. Penny Lane is a “Band Aid”. We quickly learn from Penny, portrayed by the uber-adorable Kate Hudson, that the Band Aids are not groupies, just dedicated lovers of the music that travel with the band as fans.
“Groupies have intercourse with the bands to feel close to someone famous. We travel with them as fans, as lovers of the music. We inspire them.”
A noble distinction indeed.

Penny Lane, who eventually forms a powerful, sexually charged but never consummated relationship with William, introduces him to the band Stillwater and a connection is made with the lead singer (Jason Lee) and the guitarist (Billy Crudup, a very underappreciated talent IMO). The band is suspicious of William, to them the critic and the journalist are the enemy and the Devil. But they like him and reluctantly invite William to go on tour with them. William turns this into an opportunity, and he solicits Rolling Stone, the bible of the music scene, to commission him for 3000 words on the up-and-coming (almost famous) Stillwater. The stage is set. All he has to do to get the interview with Russell is get permission from the same overbearing mother that drove his sister out of the house. Not an easy task.

William embarks on a journey, a quest for the interview that will make him a journalist. An interview with a band that wants fame and all that comes with it. What unfolds as William travels from city to city, constantly badgered by his despondent mother (the brilliant Frances McDormand) and her omnipresent insistence that he “not do drugs” is a familiar story to me; the dynamics of the bandmates, the players (Band Aids) and the forces that inevitably seek to divide them played out before me as a teen as Superband after Superband disbanded after experiencing the collateral damage of fame. They are of course differing artistic visions, conflicts over who is in charge or the biggest star, drug and alcohol abuse, all the stuff that any fan of music has witnessed. Stillwater sees what is happening to them. They are hyper-aware that they are on the precipice of fame. They are also very aware of the elements that broke up other big bands and are present enough to recognize each incident as such and acknowledge it openly. They are at a point where their star could rise exponentially or crash into obscurity. Add to the mix their skepticism yet tacit acceptance of William, the 15-year-old “devil” could either be the best thing that ever happened to them in their quest for fame, or he could destroy them. Not unlike passing a car wreck, you can’t look away.

If you do, you will miss the real.

Almost Famous

Every once in a while you see a movie that not only gets under your skin, but penetrates your soul. I know, strong words. But strong emotions require strong words. Music, especially the music of my formative years, evokes powerful feelings in me. The soundtrack of my formative years was the Rock and Roll of the 70’s and 80’s. Post Motown and R&B and pre Disco and the New Wave synthesizer-laden shit of the 80’s were the Super and almost but not quite super groups of the 70’s. Groups that put out amazing efforts of exhaustively complex, soulful and often life-changing music with less regard for commercial success but instead a quest to create something that would transform, inspire awe, and stand upright longer than a few radio cycles but instead stand the ultimate test of time. Music that packed arenas and penetrated basement dwellings, house parties and the comfortable confines of adolescent bedrooms where legions of kids found a connection, a soulmate in the music. For many, it was life-changing.

You’ve probably gathered that I am a music lover. Most certainly. But I am a larger fan of the era, the culture that rock and roll created. I have always been a student of the cultural events that led to the inception of the music, it’s impact and most importantly the link to an actual identity. The late 50’s and early 60’s marked the first time in history that the youth of America had their own music. The days of listening to Mom and Dad’s music was over. It was the final piece of the puzzle that was the cultural revolution of the second half of the 20th century. The youth of America had asserted themselves as a cultural force, a separate and powerful demographic that demanded to be heard but had formerly lacked an identity outside of the umbrella of the nuclear family. They rebelled against the puritanical Patriarchy and demanded to be heard. At first it was Chuck Berry and drive-ins and carhops. The parents tolerated it but called it harmless. Then came the 60’s and Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the massive music festival Woodstock became the voices and symbols of the counter- culture. The patriarchy became concerned. The once (somewhat) obedient youth of America had begun to rebel and the Poet Laureates with guitars provided the soundtrack of the new generation. Once Vietnam dominated the cultural Zeitgeist the divide was nearly complete as the youth of America rejected the thinking of the previous generation about so many aspects of society. It was a us vs. them. By the 70’s the generational divide was established. But behind the political and cultural impact there was the music.

In 1977 I was 14 years old. 14 is the age often cited by those in the know as one of the formative years of development and it is theorized that the music you enjoyed at that age would be the music you would love forever. At 14 I was a lost soul. An only child that didn’t understand the world around me. Desperate for guidance (I always wished I had an older brother) and hungry for acceptance I needed something, anything to identify with. I was an awkward kid. I was bullied. I dressed badly. My hygiene needed work to say the least.
I loved to read but hated school. Still, I was considered smart. I was offered a double promotion in 5th grade. My family said no because I was already young for my grade and skipping 6th grade would have made me the youngest 7th grader by far and my parents (correctly) concluded that the bullying would only get worse. Subjecting me prematurely to even bigger kids was not a winning proposition. It didn’t matter in the end. Regardless of my age, the bullying in middle school was as predicted by my parents. My school day consisted of being slammed into lockers and having my books dumped in the hallway.
But I was still considered smart. But that also put a target on my back in my school. The mouth-breathing Neanderthals that bullied me resented those of us that could count past 11 without taking our shoes and underwear off and they lashed out. So, I withdrew academically. Once a B plus to A minus student in elementary school, I became a C and D student. I was frightened and angry and my grades suffered terribly. I would never really recover. Not that I was ever destined for academic greatness, but I never reached my full potential. I became sullen and withdrawn. Good enough to get by was my mantra.

Enter Rock music…one of the only companions I could count on in life.

In 1977 I joined the Columbia Music record club. Remember that? Buy 8 records or tapes for 1 dollar with a commitment of one at full price per month. And no-one ever paid. I chose to let them send me the selections of the month. My music collection to that point was oldies. I always loved the 50’s music of doo wop. I even enjoyed to a degree the surfing shit by the Beach Boys. But I had never really gotten into 60’s and 70’s Rock. The first shipment contained 5 albums. Boston’s original album, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Doobie Brothers’ greatest hits, Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, and Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell. I had found my muse.
I’m not sure why I didn’t listen to the radio that much but it was clear to me that this music had been around for a while but I had never really listened to it. I was too busy reading. Suffice to say that I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of the driving drums, guitars and production of Boston, the fusion of pop influences and original compositions of the music of the Doobies, the ethereal vocals of Christin McVie and Stevie Nicks (I also fell in love with Stevie Nicks for other reasons typical of the hormonal teenage boy), the folksy but eternal harmonies and lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel. As for Meatloaf, I really don’t have words. That album was like nothing anyone had ever heard. From that moment on, if I was awake, I was listening to music. If I wasn’t home I carried a Transistor radio(remember them?) and later a Boom Box. I spent every penny I had on music and all of my time immersed in it. My journey had begun.

My friend Marc and I spent a lot of time hanging out. He was way ahead of me on his musical journey and had a formidable knowledge of it as well as a very repectable record collection. He played for me Rush, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and The Who, just to name a few. We sat transfixed in his basement bedroom as we absorbed the lyrics and played epic air guitar solos, slowly grooved to intros and solos that tantalized the senses, often building to orgasmic levels. We were there, eyes closed and hanging on every note. To say that it was transformative is a true understatement. Music was so much more than just simple entertainment. It was my haven, my escape, it spoke to me. It would become the music that I would love for the rest of my life.

The only thing that I would come to love as much as music was movies. Imagine my joy when I discovered a movie that would help me rediscover my love and passion for music, and the impact of it on my life.

Enter Almost Famous. The movie that just plain fucking NAILED it.

to be continued…

Turning the corner

It took a while, but I think I have turned a major corner in my ability to get along with well, myself. If you have been following my recent posts you know that despite my nothing-less-than-miraculous Kidney Transplant which restored my former physical vitality almost entirely, I have been battling some emotional demons along the way.
This is nothing new, I have been at battle with myself as long as I can remember. I have always marveled at how I could stand up to almost anyone and anything and fight with the resolve of ten men, yet my own fucked-up thinking would get me in an “arm-bar” every time. Despite everyone close to me in my life, including several bloggers on this site, telling me that I need to let go of the past (the wise and prescient Steve Markesich comes to mind) I continued to fall into the trap of negative thought. In particular, I struggled with past mistakes and established a dangerous precedent of linking them together and calling it a pattern instead of what they really were. Isolated (a little more frequent than I would like) incidents that, at face value were really not the biggest deal.
What I came up with is that I’m trying to be perfect. My ideals are too high. I can’t be nice all the time, I can’t always say the right thing, and I can’t help everyone. All I can do is put the best version of myself forward every day and hope that I do better each day. I changed my thinking. FINALLY. I gave myself a break also and that didn’t hurt as well.

I have been oddly Zen lately. I’ve been rolling with things. I’ve been less neurotic and overthinking things less. I’ve stopped trying to be nice and pleasant and instead allowed it to flow naturally. The results have been palpable. I’m on a course to establish a lifetime goal.
To be comfortable in my own skin.
To do so requires you to acknowledge that skin is a reflection of mortality. I am human after all and I need to allow myself to be just that. It’s easier than I thought.
I truly hope I can stay the course and keep my thinking on track. I have a wonderful opportunity right now. I’m healthy, feeling amazing actually. I’m working again. I have an amazing support network of family, friends and the brothers of my amazing fraternity. All of these are pieces of the puzzle that is happiness. I believe that I have rarely been truly happy, or even content. But for the first time in a long time, I see being happy as achievable.

I can build on that.

Do better

I was nose deep in a book yesterday when Mom entered the room and dropped a envelope in front of me.
“Look what I found. Your thank you letter to us for your Graduation Party.”
I looked at the envelope, there was the unmistakable and easily recognized bad handwriting. Jesus, I wrote that in 1992.

I immediately read all 3 pages. It was as if I was opening a time capsule. With the exception of some very genuine and sincere acknowledgements of my parents (of all the negative stuff I talk about one positive about my life is that I have great parents), the rest of it was classic me. Regrets, apologies, some introspection and a lot of remorse about mistakes made, opportunities wasted, time lost, and promises to do better. It could have been written last week.
After reading all of that I concluded that in 30 years I haven’t changed a bit. I’m still a fucked-up mess that is barely comfortable in his own skin. I just have a different set of things to be neurotic about now. I guess some things will never change. Not until I change the way I think.

I’m making progress on that front. I recently published a post about my troubling propensity to be really hard on myself and a couple of readers made comments that really helped me drill down on it. I opened myself to the option of just letting shit go and just do better. One blogger said that I am only trying to put the best version of me out there, that I am just dedicated to self-improvement. I think that is accurate. I may hold myself to a very high standard, but if my goal is just to be the best version of me that I can be, what is so bad about that?
I just need to find a healthy way to do it.

You see, the usual standards for everyone do not apply to me. I am in my late 50’s and I still try to look like I did as a 31 year old gym rat. Biology doesn’t cooperate with such notions but I consistently deny that. The good thing is that it drives me to work out, which is never a bad thing at my age. But I still don’t like what I see in the mirror so that is decidedly unhealthy. Part of me should be asking what exactly a 56 year old man who battled renal disease for most of his lofe, has had a nearly fatal motorcycle accident, cancer, 3 staph infections, sepsis, dialysis and two kidney transplants should even look like. In that light, I should give myself a break. Right? Nope.

I guess what matters, and I wish I knew this when I wrote that letter 30 (wow) years ago, is that the answer is to just do better. To stop the toxic behavior and stop sabotaging myself. To use the windshield more than the rear view because one is big and the other small for a reason. If I don’t learn to think like that I’ll never grow. It amazes me that I know what to do and yet fail to do it. What has changed is my determination to keep the positive at the forefront of my thinking, not have the typical epiphany after beating the shit out of myself for days about some verbal misstep or behavioral gaffe.

So after a long streak of no change and cycles that seem incapable of being broken I think I have the tools now to get my entire being on the same page. It took a 30 year old letter to see this clearly but it really makes sense now.

Giving myself a break

I don’t make resolutions. If I don’t like something about myself, I don’t wait until a cold December night to start to implement change. Yet, I do sometimes get caught up in the season and compile a rudimentary list of shit to work on. This New Year it was really a matter of timing. As the Baby New Year assumed his tiny throne and dug in for a year of unprecedented chaos, I was already taking a hard look at myself and assessing areas of potential improvement.

As great as things are going for me right now happiness still eludes me. Feeling physically strong and healthy is a wonderful and refreshing feeling but my newfound vitality is still only part of me, the emotional baggage never went away. It only stood second in line to my physical limitations and to a large degree was explained away by my illness. But now that I have conquered the physical, my neuroses and fatal flaws are now under my spotlight and frankly, I’m goddamn sick of them.

I don’t even know where to start. For as long as I can remember I have been dealing with feeling chronically misunderstood. As if “mansplaining” is the only way to make others understand me. Sometimes it is just not having a filter on my mouth, and I just say something stupid. Other times it is my body language or facial expressions. What can I say, I’m not responsible for what my face says. Other times I just get neurotic or insecure and it comes out in comments that I make. Both of these fatal flaws undermine what I consider to be my greatest strength, my confidence. 95% of the time my confidence; in my abilities, my work ethic, my ability to withstand adversity, is unshakeable. But that other 5% of the time I become markedly un-confident. And the darkness that those moments cause do an astounding amount of damage despite their infrequent appearances.

Employers and women have one major thing in common…both desire confidence. My new employer saw a moment of weakness on my part the other day and now he may be having issues with his confidence in me. This is partly speculation at this point, I think I’m more worried about the admittedly minor incident than he may be. Over thinking is another fatal flaw.
Having been broken up with twice in a year, my confidence in the romance department is shaky at best. I don’t deal with rejection well. In both instances I was taken back and caught unaware, and it hurt. I thought I was above getting hurt. Both breakups left me searching for answers and very down.

Which brings me to my biggest fatal flaw, the one that I really hope to lose this year in true resolution form. I invariably blame myself entirely. Why is that? Is it even possible that it may not be me? Looking back on my life and as I rehash every time that I sat nursing a rejection or a failed relationship it never once occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t entirely my doing. It is possible that there were other considerations and factors. This one just has to go.

I need to give myself a goddamn break once in a while. If I don’t I will never, ever be happy.

Doubt

Hi, my name is Bill, and my life didn’t turn out as I planned. There, that wasn’t so hard I suppose. Too bad they’re just words, false ones at that. The very reason that I have the life that I do is because I failed to have a plan. And I largely view myself, minor exceptions excluded, as a failure because of it.

My dreams are often uneventful. But last night I had a dream encounter with a character that I have yet to identify. For the sake of this conversation, that doesn’t matter. What he said to me does. I was in a bar yet to be identified for reasons yet to be determined, nursing a Crown Royal when the stranger engaged me in conversation. The details are muddy but his final words to me snapped me from my edible-induced deep sleep.
“Bill, you don’t know who you are, what you’re doing or what you want. Until you figure that out you’ll never be happy.”

I guess that I’m going to break my “New Year’s Resolutions are bullshit” mantra and make one. To dig down on this “revelation” and see if some good, or maybe just some clarity, comes as a result of it. I have to get to the bottom of this, because I know there is some truth to the dream and I feel motivated to take the initiative to dig down on it.

I’ve always had a “man in the mirror” mentality. As long as I can look at that man staring back at me and make eye contact then I am living a good life. And for the most part I like who I am as a person. I try to be kind, charitable, respectful and pleasant to be around. I have a traditional understanding of what a good man is and I endeavor to be one every day. I embrace simplicity, honesty, and integrity because I know they work. Simplicity keeps things easy to define and sort. Honesty allows me to avoid the pitfalls and memory gaffes that bring down liars. Integrity above all else because it is the ONLY thing that is a common denominator in every man of respect you will meet. Integrity is always doing the right thing, no matter if no one sees or knows about it.
So why am I so concerned about being full of shit?
I mean, I don’t think I am but I worry about it too often and it concerns me. Clearly, the self-doubt that has plagued me for most of my life is still with me and I really need to lose it. But how?

Until I get to the bottom of that question I really will not know who I am or what I want and I will never be happy.