A conversation yesterday prompted me to think about time and loss in a personal way.
Think about it: as a musician, it seems like one is always surrounded by greatness in terms of performances and songs. Upon close examination, you find yourself watching a recent Neil Young concert documentary where he’s playing songs like “I Am A Child,” “Old Man,” or “Down by the River.” You see the Beatles on TV doing some of their great songs, or Paul McCartney in concert within the past few years, and you hear “Yesterday”, “Let It Be” or “Helter Skelter.” Put on Hank Williams record.
What do these artists and songs have in common? Age.
All the Beatles recordings were made before John, Paul and George were 30 years old. Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ian Curtis, etc., etc. wrote and performed their best (in some cases, only) work in young adulthood. The Rolling Stones were in their prime in their 20s and 30s. Steve Winwood was 15 to 17, for heaven’s sake, in the Spencer Davis Group.
How does this relate to me, you may wonder?
I’ve been writing songs and playing music since I was eight years old. In the 30+ years since then, I’ve written probably 600 complete songs, composed countless additional melodies, and crafted lyrics for hundreds of songs that are still awaiting melodies. Many of these were captured on fragments of paper, journals, napkins, dozens of cassettes, a couple of CDs, and existed in NO OTHER FORM. It’s the rare song, and usually one from within the past 10 or fifteen years, that exists in digital recording form (MP3) or whose lyrics still exist – usually because I posted this information on my journal.
Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, any extant documentation in written or recorded form is lost forever. That means that my musical output that correlates to that of John Lennon, Hank Williams, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan from the ages of 8 to 35 may as well have never existed.
Imagine if John Fogerty, for example, had to start at age 40 writing songs and had never composed “Run Through the Jungle”. Or if Jimmie Rodgers had never written “Blue Yodel #5”.
There were some great songs in my younger days. From a perspective that I don’t have anymore. Because I’m 42, not 18 or 23 or 27. I’ll never fall in love for the first time again. Or a lot of other things for the first time. Or be as politically angry and energetic enough to scream about it. Or have a four octave range, for that matter. And just because you may have never heard those songs, doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth missing, or wondering about.
I suppose it’s the equivalent of having spent 30 years writing a 1,000 page manuscript, never making a copy, and suddenly having only pages 899 through 937. How do you recreate it?
How many great songs does a songwriter have? How many poems? Would W.B. Yeats have the same cultural significance if the only thing he could prove he’d written was “The Wild Swans at Coole” or “The Stolen Child”?
I used to think that my legacy would be the documentation of a life in art – from cradle to grave as a writer, musician, philosopher, bard. But instead, I find myself in a kind of reverse Rimbaud. Arthur, you’ll remember, gave up poetry at 19 to become a businessman, and never wrote another verse. I can only prove I started out at about 28. Elvis died at 42 – the age I am now. Where would he have gone had he lived, without having had those years from 17 to 41 documented and memorialized so thoroughly?
So many words, melodies, pictures, and recordings make up a true artist’s magnum opus.
Sometimes I feel as if I’ve suffered a literal and figurative lobotomy.