Over at the PPMB somebody started a thread asking people to name the five best Lookout Records releases. It's actually part of a spate of "Five best..." silliness, but it elicited quite a few comments to the effect of, "There's no way I could name just 5" and "What a great label this used to be," and I felt, well, kind of touched.
And then reading through the lists of records set off a wave of nostalgia as well. Could it really have been true that we unleashed so many great records (yes, I know there were a few turkeys too, but that's not really the point here) in such a fleeting handful of years? The thing is, you're never fully aware of the magnitude of what you're doing when you're right in the middle of it, whether it be a business or artistic enterprise, a love affair, or even something seemingly mundane like going to college or moving to a new city.
In fact most things we do, even the ones we most remember or are remembered by, are pretty mundane at the time. I know that during what some people, myself included, now refer to as Lookout's "golden years," I didn't jump out of bed brimming over with excitement at the prospect of making punk rock history or releasing classic records by the most exciting young artists of the day. On the contrary, I was more likely to drag myself out of bed (or, more accurately, the crumpled morass of blankets on the floor in the corner of our "office") thinking, "Hoo boy, another day of adding up interminable rows of numbers and arguing with people over whose names go first on the album credits."
And no, it wasn't all like that, either, and yes, there were moments of genuine magic and excitement, instances where it suddenly occurred to me that I was going to remember this show or conversation or recording session for the rest of my life. But they were just moments, too, interspersed with yawning gaps of tedium and time-killing, and, not quite occasionally enough, redemptive bits of leavening: a new, non-jaded band, a heart-quickening (or heart-stopping) crush, the sudden, albeit ephemeral release from care as we hit the road at the beginning of a new tour.
I hardly ever meet anyone from the music scene who doesn't ask me some version of "Why did you leave Lookout?" and I don't think I've yet succeeded in delivering a reasonable answer, either to them or myself. At times it represent one of the greatest regrets of my life, especially in light of what was to happen to the label and especially to the bands who were left holding the bag. On the other hand, I've often thought that if I hadn't left when I did, I probably wouldn't be here today.
That might sound a little melodramatic, even - at this remove - to myself. There's no denying that I was morbidly depressed and stressed out at the time I jumped ship, but really, what was the problem? We were making money hand over fist, virtually every record we put out was successful enough to make a profit just on the strength of being a Lookout release, I could go to just about any party or show I wanted to, anywhere in North America or Europe, just for the asking, and hardly a day went by without somebody or several somebodies telling me how wonderful I was.
Yet it wasn't enough. Or it was too much. Or it was something: all I knew was that I could no longer cope with it, and I felt deeply ashamed to have to admit it. In retrospect, there were other, less drastic measures I could have taken. Quitting drinking, for example - which I would ultimately do anyway - or seeking some kind of therapy or counseling. I could - and should - also have taken more responsibility for dealing with people and situations, both inside and outside the label, who were causing me grief.
But talk is cheap and hindsight 20-20 all these years after the fact. Just as I had no idea how big and how rapidly Lookout would grow when we started it in 1987, I had no idea how quickly those magic moments would pass and how much I would miss them when they were gone. I have no idea if I'll ever be involved with anything again that's that successful or that exciting, but I'd like to imagine that if it should come to pass, I'll be better prepared to both safeguard and savor my good fortune. On the other hand, I can't help remembering the plaque my grandfather had on his wall: "We grow too soon old and too late smart." Hegel more famously opined that it was only in the gathering twilight that the owl of wisdom began its flight, but either way you slice it, we live and learn, too quickly in the first instance, and far too slowly in the latter.