Music is a harsh mistress. She gives, She takes; I’d have it no other way. But if you’re considering a career on Her wild technicolor carnival ride, you should understand that you don’t choose Her, She chooses you. If you feel like you even have a choice, then breathe a sigh of relief, call it well and good. You can do something else and have a life…keep Her at arm’s length as a hobby. She’ll be a wonderful source of grace and of beauty in your life.
But if She chooses you, you have no say-so in the matter and no recourse but to obediently join the other helpless drooling victims stumbling and lurching along Her road, hands outstretched toward Her promised land, that glimmering distant shore of musical perfection that never gets any closer, upon whose golden sands no musician has ever trod. Like all my brethren, I’ve longed to squish that sand between my toes my entire life—just one perfect note, that’s all I ask— but it will never know my footprint. Though We The Helpless know exactly who and what we are, we will never know perfection.
And we pay a very real price.
It’s typically a poverty-laden life, driven by bare-knuckled determination getting you through the darkness to the fleeting moments of light and exaltation that can’t be experienced any other way. She’ll give you just enough of a win to get you through the next tunnel to the next light and glorious joy. You’d better enjoy surfing on those wild waves into which She transforms your life, because your loved ones won’t. I sometimes hear her casual laughter from somewhere in another room as my best laid plans go tumbling into the abyss. You may think that the most important thing one needs to survive on Her road is talent, but ’tain’t so. It’s a deep, abiding, somewhat dark and sardonic sense of humor.
On Her road there is harshness and danger, loneliness and challenge—and many, MANY long years of solitary practice. You’ll get used to healing yourself when you need a doctor, giving gear precedence over decent furniture or a decent car, and the concept of a vacation will be alien to you. You’ll spend the winter holidays away from your family and miss important gatherings like weddings. They’ll neither understand nor approve.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of us never find a happy relationship…the Mistress demands too much for most non-musicians to abide living under Her rule. Most non-musicians can’t wrap their mind around the concept of never being able to call in sick or take a vacation, whereas to most musicians, taking sick days and deliberately taking time off work seems alien, absurd and dangerously frivolous.
I was on a cruise ship gig when my daughter had her sweet 16; I missed being by my Mother’s side with my brothers when she passed; I walked around for 12 years with two undiagnosed compression fractures in my cervical spine, causing neuropathic mayhem until it got sorted out by two fusion surgeries and two more procedures down my right arm; just one of a multitude of injuries that didn’t heal they way they would have had I had a ‘normal’ person’s health care. This sounds like griping, but it’s not (if you read my other pieces you’ll know how glad I am to be alive)…I just want to make it clear to you in case you’re entertaining The Notion: This is a toll road. There is a price.
Depending on the terrain, while performing our services We The Helpless may be tolerated and may even be adored, but as soon as services are rendered, we’re undesirables. We spend so much of our lives occupying society’s ‘undesirable’ echelon that it’s difficult not to buy into it. Every great musician I’ve ever known has a bit of that scrappy scavenger just under that shiny, silky professional exterior; superpower-like skills betraying a finely-tuned predatory machine or maybe a slightly nervous air…and no matter how good our year is going, we’re never far from the specter of desperate times. That shadow figure is always lurking there in the corner.
With all that said, the drawbacks and pitfalls of being a musician are nonetheless offset by awe-inspiring rewards that are simply unobtainable to the non-musician. A few hours ago, I enjoyed the enthusiastic standing applause of a couple of thousand people after the last chord of my guitar-hero feature in a show, from the height of a large and well-run stage, as the sun set to my right.
Just another day at work? Yes.
Should I regard it that way?
Hell, no. She gives and She takes…We The Helpless have to enjoy our moments in the light.
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First time I read this AND am I am not reduced to a pool of tears at the same time.…
Outstanding writing! Look for the light...always.