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A Musical Tribute to Failure

I was gonna change the world…
But I’m not gonna change the world…
I was gonna change my ways…
But I have not changed…

I try not to dwell on feelings of failure, which is difficult considering the heady combination of low self-esteem and poor decisions that guides my life. It’s easy to beat on myself for laying out goals and falling short of them, but there’s something to be said for putting forth the effort, even if I don’t achieve what I want in the exact way that I want it.

Let’s have a seat on the porch while I grab my whittlin’ stick and tell you how things were back in Granpappy Bates’s day. I grew up right on the cusp of the touchy-feely era of the blandly supportive “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. When I was a kid and played sports, and sucked at them, I didn’t get a trophy. I didn’t have a cheerful coach saying, “Good effort!” in an upbeat, sing-songy way. I got yelled at by the coaches, ridiculed by my teammates, and ashamed looks from my dad. That’s the way things are supposed to be. Because it undoubtedly contributed to the kneecapping of my self-esteem, but it also helped me deal with rejection, failure, and the abject humiliation of the hilariously incompetent. It motivated me to find areas where I could excel, such as writing terrible grunge songs and beating the shit out of people who were 1-2% nerdier than I was. I miss junior high.

It also taught me not to give up. What started as me desperately wanting to quit but not being allowed to (until I forced their hand by breaking my arm) evolved into me coming to understand the twin powers of perseverance and determination. Over the past five years, I’ve written and rewritten six screenplays and a novel, all in pretty decent shape. The goal: gain representation and/or sell one or more of them. I haven’t met that goal (yet?), but that doesn’t detract from the sense of accomplishment I feel for having an arsenal of material at my disposal. It doesn’t detract from the feeling that, with every word I write, I get better at my craft.

I didn’t want to quit The Parallax Review, but the figurative broken-arm I call my emotional health forced my hand. Matt and I had a modest goal: earn enough ad revenue to cover our costs and pay our writers a decent weekly stipend. When we failed to make a significant dent in the armor known as terrible Internet film reviewing, it drove me to a pretty dark place. Maybe it’s naïve to think The People are clamoring for quality, but at a certain point you have to realize that showing off you basketball skills in a pickup two-on-two game is much different than leading an NBA team to the championships. You could be the next Michael Jordan, but that doesn’t matter much if nobody sees you play.

The point I think I’m trying to make is a pretty big cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s good to have goals, but it’s not good to obsess over the probability of meeting them. And I don’t know if you noticed, but I have a fair amount of obsessive tendencies. You just need to keep doing, because the reward is in the pursuit of the goal. I’ve realized this is a thematic underpinning to the majority of my creative work, although I haven’t necessarily thought about it consciously. I originally gave Going Home Again the esoteric title Finish Line Fades, a reference to a song by the wonderful Kathryn Musilek, but also a reference to the narrative progression of that story. Everyone in it has a goal, but by the end, none of them have met any of the original goals. Their journey through the story has caused their priorities to change, and it makes them better people regardless of their “failure.”

So that’s where I’m at, I guess. I’ve made my fair share of poor decisions since college (and during college, and before college), but I’ve also accomplished a lot of my more modest goals. I made a living (sort of) as a script reader. I’ve written a half-dozen scripts that I can say, with as much objectivity as possible, are a whole lot better than most of the shit I read professionally. I’ve written and recorded songs that may be weird, disturbing, and cheerfully offensive, but it’s music I’d actually listen to. I mean, nobody wants to be that guy — the one who sits there rereading his old stuff, listening to his music, and saying, “Yeah, man, I fuckin’ rule” — because that seems really arrogant. It’s not that I rest on my laurels. Everything I’ve ever produced, be creative or gastrointestinal, I wish could be better. But it’s not bad, and at a certain point you just have to declare something finished and put it out in the world, warts and all. If I didn’t force myself to do that, everything I’ve ever done would be secreted away in boxes and on hard drives, and nobody would know about any of it until long after I’ve hanged myself. I think I’m paraphrasing something Francis Ford Coppola or David Lean said, but the fact that it’s not an original sentiment doesn’t make it less true.

So it sort of took me aback when my musical idol, Ms. Juliana Hatfield, released the digital version of her new album to the unwashed PledgeMusic masses. Every song on the album hits on various sorts of failure. Some I can relate to personally (“Candy Wrappers” is about binge-eating to compensate for unmanageable feelings, twisting into a metaphor for indulgence in things we consciously know are bad but cannot resist; “Thousands of Guitars,” a poignant closer that left me misty-eyed, is about the many people who buy guitars with lofty expectations, only to be forced to pawn them, but it doesn’t necessarily matter because music is everywhere — dreams die, guitars don’t); the opener, “Change the World,” is a profoundly upsetting ode to the realization that we can’t change ourselves any more than we can change ourselves). The others I can empathize with (“Taxicab,” the rockin’-est song on the album, describes a dispiriting journey into the unknown from the foggy point of view of the intoxicated, sort of a boozy Kafka story).

I griped to Tarini about feeling like the sort of failure depicted in “Thousands of Guitars,” because I’ve never fulfilled my dreams of rock-stardom (I almost typed “cock-stardom,” which about sums up those dreams), and I’ve never been as skillful a player as I want to be, but she reminded me of two things: (1) I still play regularly, and (2) I’ve written and recorded songs. I may not be Bruce Springsteen, or even his little cousin Wayne, but I’m also nowhere close to selling a guitar I never exactly learned to play. And that’s what I’m driving at. I didn’t expect this album to be so intensely devoted to one topic, and I can relate to all the feelings contained therein — I think anybody can; anybody who hasn’t, at one time or another, experienced failure or felt like one is either delusional or a sociopath — but it’s not me. I haven’t achieved everything I want to — not yet, and maybe not ever — but I’ve achieved, and I’m simultaneously too stubborn and too convinced of my own genius to give up. Because, as Murry Wilson barked at his young son during the oddly tense “Help Me, Ronda” sessions: “Brian, I’m a genius, too.”

It’s easy to accuse “And Again,” which is basically an alternate take of “Candy Wrappers,” of album filler. For me, though, it’s the most profound moment on the album. Because if I’ve learned anything about my failure to control my compulsive tendencies, it’s that it’s an extraordinarily repetitive, cyclical process. What happened once will happen again, often in the exact same way and for the exact same reasons. Depressing, yet true. This may not have been Ms. Hatfield’s intention, but if I’ve learned one thing from the French surrealists, it’s that artistic intention doesn’t mean shit — it’s all about how the art is interpreted by others.

Posted by D. B. Bates on August 2, 2011 9:31 AM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Blog Posts, Become What You Are, Pop Culture Rants

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