14 February 2006

My Years In The Wilderness

The spring that I was 20 I got involved in a bit of bother with the police over an illegal drug deal. Much to my surprise, they seemed inclined to make a rather large deal of it, and informed me that I was facing 20 years to life for the various charges arrayed against me. The only alternative, I was told, was to testify against the hapless grad student who'd sold me the drugs, which would put him instead of me in prison for the next couple of decades.

Nothing much was going on in my life at the time apart from sleeping on the floor of a squalid hippie commune and taking LSD nearly every day, so I decided that the best course of action would be to make a run for it. I spent most of the following year living under a succession of fake names in a succession of hippie/revolutionary hot spots like New York's East Village, Kent, Ohio, and Berkeley, California. It was a great adventure, full of suspense and narrow escapes, like the time the FBI came calling at the Flatbush brownstone where I was hiding but were put off the scent by someone's tough-talking Jewish mother, or when we were hauled off the freight train we'd hopped in Ogden, Utah by a sheriff's posse on horseback who threatened to shoot us but didn't bother to run a warrant check.

And it all had a (relatively) happy ending: eventually things had cooled down back home, and I was able to come back, turn myself in, and end up serving only a week in jail and a couple years' probation. It hadn't been the first time, and certainly wouldn't be the last, that running away would appear to be the best available option.

In the years to come I would do a lot of bouncing around the States and eventually the larger world, often, though not always, in hopes of extricating myself from an awkward romantic or legal or financial situation. Eventually my life stabilised sufficiently that such hasty exits became far less frequent, but, as if to compensate, they became far more dramatic.

My last two great escapes were doozies, even though I was not fleeing irate lovers, policemen, or bailiffs. In fact in both cases, I was mainly running away from myself, even if I was not quite capable of seeing that at the time.

The first came at the beginning of the 1980s, when I left a comfortable suburban life in green and leafy Marin County to become a homesteader in the rural wilds of Northern Mendocino. My rationale at the time was that big city life (although I lived in Marin, I spent most of my time on the party circuit in San Francisco) had become too decadent, depraved and dangerous, and that I needed to get back to the land and nature before the apocalypse came down upon us. The reality, as would become clear much later on, was that I was doing so many drugs that I was in danger of complete physical and mental collapse. In other words, I was projecting my own decadence and depravity onto the Bay Area in particular and western civilisation in general.

It was a very costly move in some ways; for example, if I'd stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have ended up buying the home I was living in at the time for about $35,000. The last I heard, it was valued at around $1,000,000. It also meant losing touch with many of the people I'd known for the past ten years or more, eventually breaking up with the only woman I ever came very close to marrying, and finding myself, five years later, pretty much completely broke and alone in the world and sitting on top of a mountain 18 miles from the nearest gas station.

So I lost a lot, but had I stayed in the Bay Area, it's pretty likely I would have ended up dead before too long, so, as they say, everything has its tradeoffs. And, ironically, it was up in that mountain wilderness that I started my punk rock fanzine and punk rock band and punk rock record label, all of which made it possible, inevitable, even, for me to return to civilisation and something passing for society.

That society mainly consisted of the burgeoning East Bay punk rock scene centred around Gilman Street and, before too long, Lookout Records. From being almost completely isolated, I had gone in a matter of a couple years to being at the very epicentre of one of the most exciting adventures of my life, and like the Rancid song goes, "No, no premonition coulda seen this."

Fast forward a few more years and I knew more people, had been more places, and was exerting more influence than I had ever thought possible. For a egotist with an inferiority complex like myself, it was heady stuff, but it was also scary as hell. First dozens, then eventually hundreds of people were relying on me to at least some extent for their jobs or their artistic careers. Considering that I didn't have that great a track record of looking after myself, let alone other people, I worried a lot about whether I'd be able to cope. On the other hand, most things I touched seemed to turn to gold, the records kept selling and the money kept rolling in. Maybe I was a genius after all, as I'd read in the occasional fanzine article. Or was I an unscrupulous bastard, as some other fanzines would have it?

By 1995, when Lookout Records was at the peak of its power, I was completely miserable and spending way too much of my time hiding out in my office when I should have been out having a blast, signing new bands, and basking in my success. Instead I was busily composing what may have turned out to be the longest suicide note in history; I've often thought that my long-windedness and grandiosity - after all, someone like me couldn't leave a mediocre or grammatically flawed suicide note, could he? - were all that kept me from snuffing myself. Even still, I came perilously close to it one dismal Sunday when I overdid the whiskey-and-codeine combo that had been my staple diet for sometime.

It was also in 1995 that I decided I had to leave Lookout Records, on the grounds that the job was killing me. Or so I told myself; in reality, the only thing that was killing me was me, and I could have stopped anytime if I'd only had a clue what the booze and pills were doing. As it turned out, I didn't find the guts to walk away for almost another two years, and when I finally did, I was shocked and disappointed to find that things didn't really get much better. In some ways, they got worse.

Once again I'd exiled myself into the wilderness, not a physical wilderness this time, but an emotional one. I hadn't intended to cut myself off from all the people I'd known and worked with, but living thousands of miles away and no longer involved in the music business that had been my life, that was the effective result. I kept in touch with a few people, and a few others tried to keep in touch with me, but compared with what I was used to, I might as well have been living back on my mountain top.

This morning I woke up, half dreaming, half imagining, that I'd never left, that I had continued to live in Berkeley and run Lookout these past nine years. In this alternative reality, things had gone great, Lookout was more prosperous than ever, our old bands were happily selling loads of records and we'd signed some of the most exciting and successful new bands as well. And I was having the time of my life, making plenty of money, still playing and touring with my band, travelling and meeting fascinating people. All the stuff, in other words, that had been completely unable to make or keep me happy when it was actually happening.

By now I'd woken up completely and the cold, hard reality intruded: just as I probably would have been dead from drugs or AIDS or violence if I hadn't left the city when I did in 1981, so too would I have probably been dead from alcohol or a broken heart if I hadn't left my punk rock life behind in 1997. Going to the country in the 80s enabled me to kick drugs; leaving the country enabled me to kick alcohol in the new millennium. Yeah, it's frustrating that I had to do things the hard and expensive way; if I'd been able to recognise what I was doing to myself and to take action to change my ways, I could have had a great life with far less trauma and dislocation. But then what the hell would I write about?

Anyway, the gist of all this is that, just as when I was sitting alone on my mountain top wondering what was going to become of me, I'm beginning to feel that it's time to come out of the wilderness, to become involved again. When I was on the mountain having these feelings, I had no idea where they would be leading me (for example, going back to Berkeley was the last thing on my mind), and the same is true today. I don't know where I'll be living six months or a year from now, I don't know what kind of work - if any - I'll be doing. It's entirely possible I'll still be sitting in my flat in London logging on to the internet and watching the world go by, seemingly without me. But every time I've had this feeling in the past, things have changed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but always inexorably. It just occurred to me that the first step I took toward leaving my mountain wilderness was founding Lookout magazine. Maybe this blog is serving a similar role in paving the way out of my current wilderness of the soul. Watch this space and we shall see.


Anonymous said...

can't run from everything, my dear friend. if you do, those scars will never, ever heal.

JAB Seattle said...

Many of us are still around if you need us.

Spoke said...

I hate running, running makes me mad! Physical or cognitive...
It takes balls to face our fears and problems, no one can tell us they're not legit! I'm not frightened of water for instance, spiders are a different thing though!!
I ran all my life. I stopped when I ran into Jesus...now He runs for me.

Holly said...

Larry you have the most interesting life; the most elaborate writer couldn't make that stuff up! I love reading about it. I think you should get back into the business, who knows maybe you are a musical genius? There are amazingly talented bands out there just waiting to be discovered.

kristykrause said...

I think it takes a lot of strength to reflect inward and realize the pattern's that occur in one's life...hopefully your new move(s) will be steps that lead you to a place that you are happy with yourself and what you are doing.