The Will to Shine

One sunny day a few years ago, I was driving through a fairly scummy district here in Los Angeles…the type of ‘hood where the locals don’t enjoy a lot of upward mobility. I was looking around feeling grateful that I didn’t live there, and wondering what my life would look like if I did, and how I’d feel about it.

Then I pulled up at a red light next to an old man on the corner, obviously local, sitting on a bicycle, and he was as proud a display of humanity as I’ve seen anywhere. He had to be around eighty.

His bike was highly customized and blinged out to the max, tires armor-alled and gleaming, chromed doodads everywhere, polished and blazing in the sun, not one speck of dust or rust to be seen.

He was dressed in the finest traditional threads of his culture, boots polished to a mirror sheen, embroidered slacks pleated and studded, his shirt, vest, blazer, and hat festooned with regalia, a gorgeous bolo at his neck. His creased and weathered face was more manicured than simply shaved; he was as wonderful a spectacle of human finery as I’ve seen anywhere in all my travels.

And I wondered what drives this man—limited to this ‘hood and to a bike, surrounded by cars, smog and the hustle-bustle of a somewhat crass society—to care SO MUCH about his presentation? He’s had decades more time than me to become jaded and cynical, yet look at the effort he puts in. I’ve gone onstage in front of millions of viewers with less preening.

The light changed and I drove on. I don’t remember any of the shops I went into that day, nor the people I met and spoke with…that’s all subdued colors, gray memories. But I’ll always remember that man, and his will, shining so bright that it almost hurt to look at him. He was magnificent.

As an avowed functionalist, I was in my late 30s before I admitted that as a musician, form is a part OF my function. And even so, I only agreed because poverty had both barrels pointed right at my head. So I put a fresh coat of paint on my guitar and started dressing a bit better on gigs, and hey presto: My phone started ringing more. Who’da thunk.

I can only wonder what it might be like to be wired that way…to love really suiting up—to put a bright, shiny boot forward, even when I go out for errands. Wear a tux to the supermarket. Actually feel enthused about it.

The thing is, in my professional circle, preening like that is usually done by posers, who can’t really hang.

On the other hand, not only do I remember that guy on his bike; he inspired me to write this piece.

And Zappa DID say, “People know good music when they see it.”

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