13 December 2007

It's A Wonderful Life

I woke up this morning to the sight of a thick coat of hoarfrost covering the fields and rooftops (P.S. I had to look it up, but now I know: "hoarfrost" is not just some poncey word that poets use when they need two syllables to keep up the meter or to impress their audience with just how literary and eloquent they are; it is an actual, meaningful word that describes, well, the kind of frost I saw this morning.)

The dazzling whiteness, albeit spread out beneath a royal blue sky and kissed by a lemon-flavored sun slung low in the southern sky, made it clear that winter had finally arrived in London. It also meant - not the fact that it was cold and frosty, but that the sun had come up - that it was time for me to leave.

I might have stayed longer if I could; I had an invitation to the Rough Trade Christmas party and about half a dozen things going on over the weekend. But tomorrow's the day the airfares go up by a whopping $500 or more per ticket, and I couldn't think of any party that was worth that kind of money. Besides, I've got work to do at home: music to be played, books or articles to be written, muscles to be exercised, and demons to be sent packing.

My last day in London was really yesterday, since there was little more to today than getting dressed and hauling myself to the airport. But yesterday I took Flat Sally for an outing that saw us cover a good little stretch of the Thames, from Pimlico to the Houses of Parliament. Along the way I stopped in at the Tate Britain, something I've been meaning to do for years, and found a real treasure trove of British painting from the past 500 years. I also found myself getting mildly outraged that the Tate Modern gets all the attention and media hype when, apart from its magnificent structure and setting, the Modern contains little more than (in some cases literally) a load of old, erm, new rubbish.

Like all state museums, the Tate Britain is free, and worth every penny. No, seriously, I'd even pay (within reason) to see this collection, despite the post-modern contextualization that seems to have recently been attached to the walls, purporting to show how each painting illuminated the social and class struggles of Great Britain. No sir, no just plain pretty pictures hanging about here: these paintings were on a mission.

On the plane home today, one of the movies on offer was the Frank Capra classic It's A Wonderful Life. "Wouldn't be Christmas without it, mate, would it?" said my seatmate. I shushed him and settled in to watch it for the fourth or fifth time.

It turned out to be better than ever, and as it has unfailingly done every time I've seen it, had me in tears by the end. As all but a handful of you probably know, the film revolves around a suicidally depressed man who love of life and living is brought back when he's given the opportunity to see what the world would have been like had he been granted his wish to have never been born.

"You left an awful big hole where you would have been," says his guardian angel, Clarence, so of course I reacted by trying to look at my own life and seeing what if anything I'd accomplished or changed for the better. Maybe not even for the better: just looking to see what kind of impact I'd had on the world and wondering if it mattered anyway. Most people live quiet and reasonably content lives; is it necessary that we do "great" things if we want our lives to be judged worthwhile?

Obviously I helped create jobs for quite a few people. Not just musicians, but also those in ancillary trades: recording engineers, CD manufacturers, t-shirt printers, journalists and PR agents, and any contribution to the economy on that scale is not to be sneezed at (though based on your opinion of some of the bands we put records out for, "contribution" might be far too generous a description.

But who wants to be remembered mainly as a generator of income and sparkplug for a new business plan? I know at the time I was doing/being just that, I went through all sorts of typical 20-something angst (which wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been in my 40s at the time) over the idea that I should be doing something "bigger" or "greater" with my life.

Most of these somewhat bitter fantasies revolved around me being the artist or musician or writer myself instead of spending my days helping others to achieve those dreams, and eventually I became convinced that the only way I'd ever achieve such a change of course was to commit what was essentially career suicide. Earlier in the 90s, I'd seriously - hell, obsessively - contemplated actual suicide, in fact going so far as to begin compiling what I was to eventually dub the longest suicide note in history.

It had reached something like 428 pages before a) Green Day's new record went multi-platinum, resulting in such an explosion of business for Lookout Records that I no longer had enough spare time to finish and polish my suicide note to the standard I deemed necessary; and b) it occurred to me that suicide, even the elegantly planned version that I had mapped out, might not be the best career move, at least not if I wanted to be there to savor artistic triumphs I was anticipating.

So, by the end of the century my suicide note, now grown to over a thousand pages, had gradually transformed itself into a journal and/or chronicle of miseries and self-pity and I had decided, more or less by default, to live. By then I'd also left my position as head and chief owner of Lookout Records, a position which I'd come to blame for all my sorrows and shortcomings in life.

Funnily enough, it turned out that being a highly successful and highly paid record mogul hadn't been the problem at all, because after a year or two of unemployment, I realized that I still had all the same problems I'd had before, minus the one of what to do with all the money I was no longer earning. The whole affair reminded me of a similar incident back in 1970 when I'd flushed my entire dope stash down the toilet in the middle of the night under the feverish delusion that it was creating bad karma for me, and that by wiping out what essentially amounted to my life savings at the time, I would purify myself and be cured of the illness I was suffering from.

I woke up the next morning sicker (and broker than ever), and while the hepatitis that had produced those feverish delusions passed in a couple weeks, my newfound poverty was to hang around for a couple years. Some years later, another friend, who'd accumulated a fair-sized fortune through hashish smuggling, went down a similar route: a gypsy fortuneteller persuaded him that the ill-gotten money was the source of all his misfortunes and that the only way to reverse his situation was to hand over all the money to her so that she could perform an exorcism of sorts by burning it in a graveyard at midnight.

Not only did his misfortunes not cease as a result of this; they greatly increased, since much of the money he'd given the gypsy actually didn't belong to him at all, but was the property of some very cross and unpleasant dope dealers who made it their mission in life to hunt him down and perform severe depredations on his person. "It is an odd thing," Oscar Wilde said, "but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco," and indeed, that's the last place I saw him, but indeed I digress rather far afield here.

My main point, of course, was to celebrate a happy and successful trip to London and an even happier and safe return home. Quite a few years - nearly 11, in fact - have passed since I lay down the mantle of commerce and set out to find myself and/or my destiny. Both still seem to be doing a good job of eluding me, but gradually I'm becoming more accepting and content with what I do have and more appreciative of what my life has embodied so far.

I'd still like to write a great book or (this is one of my not so commonly known ambitions, but a deeply felt one) compose a timelessly enduring Christmas carol, but increasingly I'm all right with whatever happens, and grateful, even, for all I've seen and done and been a party to. I've been given more than my fair share of splendid opportunities, and casually or gratuitously spurned most of them, but hey, like the man said, it's life and life only, and despite all my bellyaching and complaining, it's been a pretty damn grand affair so far.

1 comment:

Fly on the Wall said...

great post larry.