A Songwriter Hits the Wall
Solo Touring at the age of 62, day by day by day….
*these are notes from the road. I intend to keep the time I spend writing them to a minimum. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy them. They are subject to editing and deletion and susceptible to self-importance. If you like them, consider becoming a paid subscriber to the songwriting essays.
10/14/2022 Day Three - Marathons, Kanye, and I’ve got steel in these boots
Taylor Music Center at Union College. I forgot to take a picture of the fabulous small auditorium where the evening’s show took place.
My brother in law just ran his second marathon. It would seem that people everywhere are running, and running marathons, but the truth is that if you run and finish a marathon you have entered into a very exclusive club. Running two reduces the number of members in the club by quite a bit.
For the runner competing to win a marathon, it’s a race like any other, just longer. They run at the edge of unsustainable discomfort. But, ironically, the race is mentally easier for them than it is for a commoner. They are usually out there less than half as long. Legendary Tour de France winner, the cyclist Greg Lemond said that as you got fitter, climbing mountains didn’t hurt less, it was just over with faster.
The same goes for marathon running. I’ve run one marathon, and it took me 3 and 1/2 hours. I was absolutely fine until the last hour, in fact I was fast enough to consider that I might run close to a 3 hour marathon….until the last 6 miles. They call what happened to me at that instant as “hitting the wall.” The last 6 miles felt like 600. Marathons are painful and boring for people like us. And it’s not so much a wall. It’s more like somebody ran up and put ankle weights on you. Each step feels heavier and heavier.
My hat is off to my brother in law. What he did is a hell of a thing.
I love this door in the Art building at Union College. I walked past it as I came and went from the auditorium. It was a good reminder to resist in some way, everywhere. A marathon can be one long act of resistance because sooner or later the narrator suggests stopping as a mighty fine idea.
Tonight’s show had the potential to feel like the last hour of that marathon for me, with the boredom replaced by terror.
This post Covid recovery thing is no damn joke. In fact, it’s so much not a joke that after sound check I warned my hosts that I may have had to break the show up into two short sets, or even stop the show early.
This is something I have NEVER done before. But I had barely survived the 15 minute sound check and was starting to think that coffee wasn’t going to help this time.
It would have been very embarrassing for me. I’ve played shows with the flu, a week of shows with a serious sinus infection, and several shows with a broken finger.
Quitting in the middle would have been a first in an entire career.
I wouldn’t have started off writing about marathons if I didn’t play, right?
I played 90 minutes. I’m comfortable that the audience didn’t know that I hit the wall with 30 to go. One note after another, one song after another.
A marathon was easier. Nobody was watching a 3:30 marathoner struggle home.
If I hadn’t finished the show, I wouldn’t mention how at every race I ever ran the starting line was full of runners almost too injured to run, complaining about injuries that had settled in and ruined their training. All were certain that they would take a few steps and collapse as if shot.
The finish area was filled with the same runners who had just run personal bests and couldn’t remember a race where they felt so good.
Fear of failure is a constant for most runners.
I’ve written about how only in my 50’s and 60’s have I developed any fear of failure regarding playing music in front of a crowd. And that makes me think of Kanye West.
What does my anxiety have to do with Kanye West?
Kanye has made one stupid move and comment after another. None of them in any way a reflection of the talented communicator and artist that I suspect he still can be.
I think Kanye has lost his bearings because once upon a time he was brilliant, so brilliant that he became somebody who could do no wrong. And that makes a real musician anxious. And young Kanye West, who created truly original beats out of samples culled from everyday sounds, who had a poetic edge deserving of comparison to Gil Scot Heron, that Kanye still has to get older, he still had to become the guy who was NOT the young Kanye West.
When Kanye started slowing down, having to work harder to stay in the pack, he couldn’t handle it.
Boxers know when they are slowing down but they rarely quit because they don’t really know how to get older, how to find something in life that isn’t reflective of their youth, and their youthful triumphs. They fight stupid fights, refuse to retire.
That’s Kanye. He’s afraid. Afraid that he’ll be a shadow of the Kanye everybody would follow over hot coals. So, he’s killing off his career, one idiotic moment after another.
I understand the urge.The only thing scarier than playing a show is playing a show when you’re an old musician.
The movies have no idea how to portray older, accomplished musicians, especially male, older musicians. If they aren’t alcoholic burnt out once-upon-a-time stars, they are insecure, Svengali like creeps, unwilling to allow their younger proteges time in the spotlight. They are almost never just guys working into their old age, like James Taylor, Tom Rush, Chris Smither, and the impossibly young-voiced Elton John.
Sometimes they are curiosities, like the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, or Bob Dylan, receiving many pats on the head and “good jobs” from people who can clearly recognize that what was once music is now a theater of endurance. This music makes a lot of people happy, and I hope it goes on and on. But it takes a lot of compensations to keep the show on stage.
Eubie Blake could still play the hell out of the piano in his late 80’s, but his appearances were still treated with a kind of awe not at his skill as a player, but solely because he was old and old people don’t keep doing things. My bet is he needed the money. But maybe he just needed to know that he wasn’t done yet.
The producers and directors who make these stories that include an older musician don’t seem capable of imagining a successful musician who just stops one day, just goes on living life, defined by who he loves and who loves him.
I guess that’s only interesting to the lucky man living that life.
Another boots and guitar picture.
I can imagine a day when I can’t remember words without a prompter, can’t play the faster, more exacting passages except on my very best nights, or can’t quite hit the higher notes that come easily now.
I can’t imagine staying on stage when that happens. I’m too damn hard on myself as it is. But who knows?
Sometimes, like tonight, something as simple as lacing up my red wing boots reminds me that none of this is getting easier, but I can feel the weight of the steel in the soles and in the toes when I walk on stage. It’s comforting, because I’ll think, “a guy who wears serious boots like these must be able to do serious things.”
The narrator always says this in a serious tone, reminiscent of the voice-over from a black and white film about men who work in steel mills.
Because this is serious stuff, the kind of stuff that somebody should make a movie about, where the protagonist has a sober work ethic, a sense of responsibility, a love of reaching down to younger, less fortunate musicians, who just gets it done on the nights when it feels like the last hour of a marathon, but because he’s done it so long, and because he’s a serious man, nobody but him knows how much effort it is taking to step forward, play one more song, stretch for one more riff, sing pieces of his heart into the dark beyond the stage lights.
Because he’s a working man, dammit. With steel in his boots.
And he’s not done yet.
But not yet.
I Don’t Do This For Love (Homage to the Songwriter) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.