It was Ernest Hemingway who was once observed ‘there’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein’, an interesting analogy given that he himself ended his days by opening as many veins as his own shotgun would allow. Yet despite its grisly allusion to his own suicide, I reckon Hemingway got it just about right; the trick, I suppose, is knowing precisely when to staunch the bleeding. Over the last year of ‘lockdown’ life I’ve written more words than I thought myself capable of, responding to commissions with an alacrity that might suggest to those wishing to extend the arterial reference further that I’ve become some literary self-harmer. Actually, there probably is a deeper psychological concern running skin-deep beneath the twin demands of commerce and sanity. Yes, putting pen to paper (albeit digitally) had helped enormously in a fiscal sense over the past fourteen or so months, given that what I used to do (play gigs) has been firmly off limits. But now, with the glimmer of a musical comeback on all our horizons, I can’t help feeling a little like one of those hostages who succumb to the odd condition known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, wherein they actually develop feelings of affection and dependence upon the very persons who’ve entrapped them. With me, the captor has in no way abused the captive; in fact, writing has been my best friend of late, providing me with a lifeline to an outside world that, in my other guise of musical ignoramus, otherwise completely foxes me these days (see my last blog entry).
To that end, I guess you might even call this entry a continuation of the train of thought captured in that last piece, or, if you really want to spot a connective thread between all these blog articles, a leitmotif established in my very first entry way back in February. In that opener I made an impassioned confession that, after so much shilly-shallying, I was about the embrace the writer in me fully. Oddly enough, rereading my words the other day, they seem rather less like a mission statement than a sort of mantra, albeit a reasonably eloquent one, in which I repeat time and again how I’m happy to morph from saxophonist to scribe. What strikes me now is how premature was my own musical obituary; or to put it more bluntly how I, reeking of something close to desperation, was prepared to sacrifice my dreams on the altar of intimidation.
Let me explain; those of you who may have read some of my Facebook posts over the two and a bit years in which I’ve featured on that platform may recognise my struggle with the self. Those who know me perhaps better will certainly find familiar the theme of musical self-doubt. Yesterdays post about the glossy new wave of online jazz educators was strongly connected with this sentiment, its argument being that these flash harrys are actually doing harm to those of us who don’t possess either their ability or their impervious line in self-belief. Actually, these kind of operators are just the tip of an imposing iceberg of modern day impediments fast convincing me that my onward course as a musician is almost certainly doomed to fail. Why? Well, look at it this way; imagine, if you can, that you’ve more or less slept walk through one job for a quarter of a century – you turn up, you do what you do well enough to be employable and gain a wage, yet you’ve never really been convinced you had what it took to stay the course. Every day you arrive for work expecting the tin tack and every day you miraculously, some might even say chicanerously, manage to avoid the invitation to take a walk. What might happen if, following some shake up further up the corporate chain, you find the business you’ve been in for all these years suddenly under new management, their regime demanding that you prove your worth as an employee by addressing all sorts of criteria you’d forgotten years ago. What might you do, faced with the prospect of being caught out as, at best, a makeweight, or, at worst, a genuine imposter?
Well, that’s how I feel right now about music. The new management is, I guess, the new generation who have far more rigorous training and, I feel, far less understanding or empathy with those who don’t. However, they aren’t the real issue; that is with those you know as colleagues and who, when you admit it, you’ve known all along you shouldn’t be sharing a band stand with. They know their instruments inside out – you don’t; they practice endlessly because it’s ‘what I do’; you faff about writing sleeve notes, posting photos of second hand CDs and collecting dusty British jazz ephemera; they’ve got it together for the big comeback after lockdown whereas you are close to soiling yourself over a pub back room blow. It feels, in summary, as if you’ve finally realised that your ‘level’ was one not of executive ability and talent but one of nerve and bloodymindedness. You are, in fact, that genuine imposter (if that oxymoron is permissible?)
And that’s how I see it. The only difference between pre-lockdown and now is that I no longer have the public distractions of gigs with which to mask the awkward truth of the matter. And just as I can’t hide behind a superficially impressive list of not really that important small gigs, I can’t hide from the glaring truth that, having sustained this exhausting charade for over half my life, I no longer feel I have the energy to do so.
Lockdown has, of course, made many of us face demons we’d dodged for years, outwitting them behind the facade of a ‘busy life’. Staring them cold in the face is not an easy thing to do, especially when you know they’ve been stalking your every move, despite your to all intents and purposes breezy disregard. And this leads inevitably to the decision facing anyone who has come this far to realise that, in effect, their life’s sat-nav has been set to the wrong destination. For me, I feel that, after decades of trying to fool myself, I should just admit I was wrong – I didn’t have what it took to be a first class musician, ever, and I should just now forget the whole stupid scheme and head elsewhere. Four years off fifty, I’m simply too old to continue trying to keep up the game face. There have been signs of this sort of thing for years now; I don’t record because I know full well the albums I did make showed every limitation and delusion in unsparing clarity. I fought overly hard each unsolicited You Tube clip because I knew ridicule and disdain would be heaped upon it by viewers comparing my efforts with more proficient performers; I reacted like a sulking child when a certain legendary UK guitarist rounded on me for sounding ‘like a student’ in one interview, all the while knowing that the accusation stung because it was 100% accurate; I even let a former bassist in one of my bands pull out of a gig saying I was ‘shit’ because I knew he was right; next to the people he worked with I was and there was no countering the fact.
This all takes me back to writing – the muse which has held me prisoner for much of the last year. It suits me just fine; it’s a solitary business – just me, my keyboard and the blood pumping through my veins – requiring all but the minimum of human interaction. I can create, tinker, correct, delete, polish to my heart’s content free from the imposing presence of people expecting me to ‘contribute’ something at the drop of a hat. I don’t have to share stages with insincere souls who tolerate my narrow abilities, or deal with the endless game of comparison which jazz in the early 21st century appears to now be. I’m not expected to be ‘killing’ or be able to play ‘Giant Steps’ in all twelve keys, or represent some long dead musical giant whose boots I’m not even fit to buff up let alone stride purposefully about in. I don’t have to pretend, big myself up or be the ‘oh never mind, we’ve got so and so next week’ dep. I don’t have to be the lowest supported livestream act of the season (‘sorry, we didn’t do so well this week’) or silently face endless reminders that jazz is a popularity contest won repeatedly by the same names (many of them no nearer jazz than I am to Bulgarian folk music). I don’t have to sit on stages feeling totally cowed, overwhelmed, intimidated, outclassed, outgunned and decimated by persons allegedly sharing the same ethos as me. In fact, I don’t have to do any of it.
Yet the thing is, I probably will, despite the fact I know all the limitations, all the excuses and all the drawbacks of my own performance. Why? Because I’m still, somewhere inside, foolishly fascinated by the thing called jazz, just as I was over thirty years ago when the love affair began. My problems started not with that passion but with the naive thoughts that I could make music my living. ‘I’d like you to get into NYJO’ my saxophone tutor told me soon after I’d begun my studies. I knew it’d never happen; I just wasn’t hungry enough for that sort of goal. Nor was I dedicated enough to pursue the various opportunities that landed in my lap after some lucky punches a decade or so later; I fouled up two recording contracts, pooh-poohed offers of work from some truly legendary British jazz figures (I knew they’d smell a rat) and generally made a bad fist of the public relations side of the business. Instead of riding my luck, working hard and making friends, I did the exact opposite, left wondering why I was suddenly playing £40 pub gigs in Southend two decades after I first started. No, music is a wonderful thing to me, but it should NEVER have been my profession; I’m neither gregarious enough, nor committed enough, nor, when all’s said and done, do I understand it enough to call it my life’s work. Being around those who are has shown this in no uncertain manner.
And so it is that I’ve become the thing I feared I’d become most; the jazz critic who plays a bit of saxophone, a level of expertise comparable to a theatre critic who occasionally directs some parochial am-dram. The next decision, having established this truth, will be one of whether to continue to be around a music I love but am a ham-fisted exponent of or to just drift off somewhere into the sort of profession I should have had all along; singular, self-contained, hermetic, where the only competition I need face is that of myself. One thing’s for sure; I can’t face much more of the other stuff – it really does feel like a place where I’m no longer at home.
Photo: bleeding heart: Ernest Hemingway prepares for surgery