So. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Not only am I in a band, I’m writing a Middle Mojo-themed column for the New York Times. It’s called The Creative Mid-Life and it works like this: I call an artist, ask them questions about the impact of aging on their creative lives, and our conversation goes in the New York Times. Neat. I had an interesting talk with Tori Amos, who has some thoughts about anger and discipline and motherhood and taking a different route to the coffee shop. Read all about it.
Middle age is confusing. As years go by I care less about other people judging me and at the same time seem to have developed a severe case of self-consciousness. It’s like arriving at the point on the graph where acquired wisdom collides with declining relevance. I’m bold! I’m old! It’s an inconvenient truth, especially when you’re trying to do something new, something that requires openness and spontaneity. Something like collaborating on a song.
The plan was this: Gary and I would put our guitars in the car, drive to a lake with a beach and a snack bar, and write a tune. People do this sort of thing all the time. It seemed doable. We swam for a while and then sat in the sand talking about ideas for song titles. There were families barbecuing on the lawn and some rowdy Italian guys hauling kayaks into the water and a couple of teenage girls in gold bikinis whipping their hair around to get the water out. Gary said, “How about ‘Skin’?” We were surrounded by it. I said yes. The guitars came out and I sat on top of a picnic table holding the Danelectro. Gary tuned his low E string down to D and started pacing and picking out drony little riffs. He came up with a cool one and tried to teach it to me but I couldn’t play it, so he dumbed it down until I could.
The rest of the story is humiliating so I’ll make it brief: things that were supposed to happen next — the coming up with a melody and the calling out of lyrics and the choosing of chords — didn’t. I choked. Mojo, it turns out, is a finicky friend. It demands a small room with a closed door. After a strained hour of nothingness I told Gary I was too insecure to work with him and that I would take his riff and write the thing by myself.
Fact: Playing with others is instructive, illuminating, fruitful, and fun.
Fact: Playing alone feels safe.
Here’s a sketch of a song that sounds like failure.
I just finished reading Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. The book is about a 40-something former rock ‘n roll wunderkind, Nik, a recluse who keeps making brilliant music, and his sister, Denise. It’s about true obsession and tenuous family bonds and time passing. It’s about how everyone and everything is shaped by the confounding feedback loops between memory and identity and art and life and authenticity and invention. The story takes place at the intersection of what might have been and what really is, a place you won’t be able to locate with GPS but where you will almost certainly find yourself on a dark night, at which time you may, like Denise, conclude that you have “in middle age become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously.”
I’ve never quite framed it in those terms, but I think the prospect of turning into that person is the reason I decided to stop writing about songs and start writing songs. I spent so many years on the outside looking in. Here’s how it’s been with me and music: like falling in love and following the guy around for a couple of decades and writing about him in your journal (or the newspaper) without ever introducing yourself, or going on a date, or kissing.
I grew weary of being an observer. I grew frightened of the creeping sense of detachment. I wanted to say less and do more. A lot of people think those deep emotional moments Spiotta writes about are the province of the young. We’re supposed to grow up and out of it. Adults are supposed to value familiarity over novelty, practicality over passion, stabililty over adventure. To which I say, bullshit.