“You’re quitting music? Are you NUTS?”
That was the unspoken reaction on their faces when I told them, after 20 years of chasing the music biz brass ring, that I was so over jumping through hoops. No more Photoshopped promo photos. No more self-penned artist bios liberally gilded with fool’s gold. Never again the swap of sweat for glory, tears for clown-face, pride for a tip jar. Never again to wake up in the deep valley of an aged motel room bed, drive all day and arrive to discover the venue’s utter absence of any happy combination of the following: promotion, soundman, sound system, decent coffee, food, digs or audience. Never again to close my eyes in the middle of chaos, to rock out from the guts in defiance of it all and look up to find an audience rapt with catharsis, realizing - this is what makes it all worthwhile.
OK, I am nuts. But that’s what everybody said when I got INTO this business. At some point, every committed artist has to choose between common sense and a dream. We pity those who choose the nine-to-five life - the benefits, the retirement plan, the permanent place of residence. We live in service to the holy muse. Besides, we’re going to be rich and famous. We are driven – inspired – and broke.
It’s been a couple of years since my last show to promote “Nobody’s Baby” - my fourth and possibly final studio release. One night, deep into the tour, everything was clicking: the room, the sound, the set-list, the patter. The audience was clapping and laughing on cue, the promoter happy and CD sales good. After a couple hundred shows over the course of a year, I had it down to a fine art. Except it didn’t feel like art. It felt like a machine. I realized that I wasn’t playing music any more. I was acting, and doing a pretty damn good job of it.
And that’s not why I came to music. I came because music made me feel real. Myself and my fellow songwriters and musicians, a circle of the blind leading the blind, learning chords off each other and stealing melodies from the greats. Busking on the seawall. Playing at open mikes. Braving blues jams with our acoustic guitars. We hungered for greatness, despaired at our poverty, waited for buses in the rain. I wouldn’t have missed it.
It wasn’t until years later, listening to the cassette recordings I sent home to impress my family, when I realized just how naive I was. Blissfully unaware of how lousy my meter, pitch, tone or craft actually was, I blasted into the microphone with all the exuberance of a toddler in a pile of pots and pans. How my poor parents must have shuddered, my musical offerings having the exact opposite of their intended effect. My brother used to ask how my “career” was going with two fingers waggling quotation marks on either side of his smug, mocking cop-face. I persevered on smatterings of kindly applause, audiences also blissfully unaware of how my pitiful ego would magnify the sounds of those few hands clapping.
Fifteen years and countless shows later, the critic’s writing is there on the wall of the Internet, if anyone cared to Google it. (I confess. In my darker moments, I have Googled myself. Pathetic!) But as Leisel said in the Sound of Music, I must have done something good, because “they” said so. Some of them, anyway. Regardless, the true measure of my success were those moments, in studio, onstage, or most often when writing, when the universe flowed through me, connecting my heartbeat with the pulse of all life. Those times sustained me later as I stood humiliated before an empty venue, a deserted merch booth, and a plummeting bottom line. Songwriting took me from addiction to sobriety, from solitude to community, from marriage to divorce, from the promise of life to the finality of death. Maybe the real story lies there. I need a new life.
Somewhere between the joy of creation and sharing it with the world, I turned into an office worker. The drudgery of writing grants, booking shows, designing promo, stuffing envelopes, and maintaining a presence on the web came to dominate my life. The worst was the financial necessity of polishing my image, which simultaneously squashed my spirit. Roughly 10 percent of my time was spent on music: the rest was about getting the gig. And no matter what I achieved, it was less than I’d aimed for. My contemporaries raced past me on the charts and festival circuits, more talented, better looking, better connected, or perhaps spending less time contemplating their navels than I. Ouch. But even for artists with the kind of “buzz” I could only dream of, the financial rewards of the music business are less than stellar. That leaves ego gratification and the music itself as the primary motivators. For me, the pursuit of one conflicts with the other, reducing the chance of success on any level.
So much time spent trying to attract attention and not on enough on worthwhile living. Too exhausted to feel the songs I was bringing and too bereft of spirit to write anything new worth sharing. A new life? I would make a bang-up publicist, artist manager, graphic designer, booking agent or grant writer. These are valid skills learned at the temple of my muse. Some people make good money that way, lots of them ex-performers. However, I never worked music for money, and I’m not about to start now.
So I’ve gone out and found myself a new muse: Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, who hopefully will lead me someplace where I can be sure of the hours, the workload, and the benefits, which will not include rider, spotlights, or backstage passes. She assures me there will be no glory, but I will no longer have to stump for it, and may make some small but real difference in someone’s quality of life.
Nobody is going to roll over and die if they never hear another song from Leslie Alexander. But if they’re about to, I will be doubly equipped. “The Singing Nurse,” a label intoned by not a few friends in embarrassed “support” for my decision, calls to mind Sally Field, ridiculous in a wind-blown habit, utterly lacking the dignity I seek. I appreciate the thought. I doubt very much I’ll be lugging my guitar with me on rounds, but I do believe it will have a place in my toolkit.
Witness my last New Years Eve gig: an audience of two. The woman, bedridden with MS. Her husband, dying of cancer. Me, singing my heart out. The last time they’d heard a live acoustic guitar was years ago, in their old farmhouse kitchen, before a monsoon of bad luck hit them. The last time I’d played was for an audience of three hundred, with a fruit plate and free beer back in the green room.
“Oh, don’t make me leave here, give me today, give me tomorrow . . .
Cause I’ve got a message for my Maker
Please don’t take me ‘til I’m not afraid to go.”
I sang for them, but also for me. I am not afraid to go. What I am afraid of is stagnation. I must find a life that’s worth writing about. One that doesn’t include the preening, parading and self-promotion being a full-time independent recording artist requires.
Will I perform or record again? I don’t know. My guitar is calling to me again, not to practice, but to play. Melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions are creeping back into my biology, demanding expression. When they insist maybe I’ll let them loose. But I will choose my venues and listeners with my heart, on my own time, on my own terms.
Times without number, an audience member has said to me with longing, “I’ve always wanted to play music.” Somewhere along the line, they bought the idea that you have to be a virtuoso to share in that joy. In the old days, before TV and the Internet, everybody played. There were no superstars; music was part of the community fabric. Today, everyone brandishing a guitar must be either a potential “idol” or a deluded failure. I suggest that music belongs not just in a concert hall but at the kitchen table. That those who love it, don’t just buy it, but play it. Music can enhance, not consume, one’s existence. So I say to all the wanna-be’s out there – professional, amateur, or totally green - take out your earbuds, invite some friends over and bust out the ukuleles. The muse is waiting. Let’s jam.