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MJ THE SOLO PERFORMER: Had Enough?

Thoughts On Perseverence


Written by
Michael Johnson

I am out here bouncing around in the wind, out of balance, slipping. Not practicing what I preach: not warming up, showing up late, preoccupied. I've been foolishly busy with writing, scheduling, rehearsing, performing and booking. I've not been keeping my guitar and voice in shape—crummy health habits—road food—not resting—tired all the time.

Back home, off the road, I've been spending my days putting out fires but not really moving forward, just trying to find the top of my desk. It builds up while you're gone and it can be overwhelming. So now, once again, it's my turn to think about hangin' it all up. Quitting. The long overdue end of a childish dream. They say you're only young once but you can be immature the rest of your life. Well maybe I've been a kid too long. Maybe I've done my best work. Maybe . . .

I am scared about money. My chances of winning the lottery would only be a little better if I actually entered, but I guess it's probably not gonna happen anyway. (I deserve it though, I'd give some to you too. You'd be OK.) I'm tired of the stress of living on commissions and promises but no guarantees—the "We're definitely penciled in for Thursday" kind of commitments that you hear on the phone.

I know, we all have our horror stories—but they do accumulate. You get tired of things going wrong. Like driving home from the airport after a trip and, unbelievably forgetting to close the passenger door to my Karmann Ghia and watching the guitar slide out and under the wheels (soft case—felt like I hit a big rabbit—totaled my Kohno). Fighting the loneliness—battling the hormone fairy on the road. (Someday, when I really do let go of all this, I'll tell you about the Code of the Road, but for now it's the little secret I share with the boys in the band.)

During past rites of passage such as this, I have several times left the guitar leaning against the wall outside a hotel room door all night. I have forgotten to get paid. Once I flew across country with an empty case. I have lost my wallet, glasses, sunglasses, car keys and daybook several times. Locked myself out of a running rental car (catching my coat in the door in sub-zero weather in the bargain). Laughable. To a point. I feel like a secret agent with amnesia. I have been leading at least a double life. (Funny—these things don't seem like omens until you see them on the page.) I walk upstairs and say "Now what was I gonna do up here?" Alzheimer's? No. Just road burn.

So why is it that now, when everything is so up in the air, so generally trashed, that music is singing so clearly and directly to me—giving herself to me? Caught between the moonlight and the morning, and in my own current personal upheaval, I believe without a speck of melodrama, that music has been saving my ass lately.

There really isn't one aspect of the business that I can't get into, but when I get overwhelmed like this I feel like I'm suffering from my own personal time famine. It's hard to begin any one thing, and then once I'm into it, it's hard to stop. Too many different kinds of work—it's hard to put down the guitar to answer the telephone. Then it's hard to put down the phone. Then it's time to enter the new names into the mailing list. I will never be able to keep all the balls in the air.

So I quit. I have had enough.

No, I don't quit. I persevere. I focus. I plan and project, and dream and try to learn to delegate.

When I first started playing, I didn't really care about forever, or broken bones or lost loves or things I still have trouble forgiving myself for. Then, in my 20s, I'd make deals with myself like, "I'll perform in these bars until I'm 28, then I'll decide." I'd wake up at thirty, remember my pact and resolve to make a mature, big person decision by 34 . . ., then one day I just said, "This must be what I do." I didn't decide to be a musician, I just have to keep deciding to stay one.

Oh, I'd have great reasons for getting out. There is a saying: "To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty." Everybody's a goddamn poet when they're twenty. Well I'm not twenty anymore and singing love songs to adolescents doesn't appeal to me. (Maybe if it worked?. . .nah.) I have become such a cynic about lyrics. I'm repulsed by the pop philosophy of new age/country/acoustic/alternative gushing from almost all quarters in radio music. Then there's the music of the X generation—kids pretending to be homeless, ("We're all doomed, so let's fuck.") So, like many musicians, I listen to public radio—it often wins by default. There's just nothing else on.

It's a tough time to be a recording artist; playing the radio game—the "keeping the format in mind" kind of thing, seems more rigid and limiting all the time. There are far too many artists, and radio and the label people don't really want to break any new ground, they just dress like they do.

Times have changed too. I've been privileged to play with some great artists in some famous clubs over the years. People and places I thought would last forever are gone now. My previous peers have become adults with real jobs, some trying to stay close to performing, have gone into publishing, or working at the labels; some have become full time non-performing writers with publishing deals. Nashville is the home of the frustrated artist-become-songwriter because they can't get arrested out there. There are too many people on the road. They do the occasional guest set but otherwise stay close to home. They often say how much they miss performing.

And the clubs: Mother Blues, The Quiet Knight, The Second Fret, The Exodus, The Earl of Old Town,—somebody's probably selling plumbing fixtures in those buildings now.

So I quit.

No, I do not quit.

When I pick up the guitar after not having played a week or two, I am always surprised to find how much I need it and have missed it without even knowing. I find comfort and take pride in myself as an artist, and so I get to feel really lousy when I let myself down . . . abandon the muse, walk out on the idea, don't write it down or practice or don't do whatever the next right thing is. So I promise myself that I'll get back on the bicycle—try to focus again. (Why is it that when I find the things that truly help me in my life, I don't do them? Meditation, exercise, friends.)

I could teach. I'd be a good teacher, because I like people and I really have something to say and I know how to do that. Yeah, I'll be a teacher.

Not yet. In spite of it all I still like the life. The traveling and connecting with old friends and discovering what has occurred to them over the years since we last saw each other. I'd surely miss the late nights and the magic. And, always, the music.

It's more than hard to give up. It is more than an addiction. I wouldn't insult it by calling it an addiction. It shows me who I am. So I won't quit. not yet. Maybe someday, maybe even soon, but not yet. I love it and so I do it.

Hell, I'll be performing until I fall and break my hip. As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, I was probably at this when you were still in the booster chair and I will be doing this long after you pack up and head on back to dental school, Bubba. In fact, I'll be working even after I break my hip. And let me tell you this, creep, if you think you can waltz in here with your little "Love-lite" world view and take my gig away from me, you're out of your mind.

See you in the nursing home.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 3, Issue 17 - March/April 1996

After Perseverance - January/February 1998

More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns



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