I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives
Somewhere in the summer of 1994, I picked up the booklet from Green Day’s 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and read some of the lyrics.
By that time Lookout Records had sold at least a hundred thousand copies of the CD, maybe even two hundred thousand, so you’d think I’d be pretty familiar with it, but I found myself saying, “Hey, these lyrics are pretty good” as though I’d never read them before.
Which, it turned out, I hadn’t. I’d been singing along to Green Day records and shows for five, almost six years, and except for some of the main riffs and choruses, had no idea what the words were. How, I wondered, was that possible?
Simple, really. I’d bellow out the first line or two of the song, such as “Here we go again, infatuation something-something just when I thought it would something-something,” only in place of the “something-somethings” I’d throw in some oohs and ahs and whoas and ohs, and nobody – myself included – ever noticed the difference.
You’d think that from then I’d make a point of familiarizing myself with the lyrics whenever a new record came out, but you’d be wrong. From the time I heard it blaring out of a convertible rumbling down the Euston Road on the first glorious spring day of 2005, “Holiday” has been one of my favorite songs. I’ve been singing along to it ever since, but when I decided I wanted to write something about holidays and thought that maybe the lyrics would provide a good lead-in, I discovered – surprise, surprise – that once again I had not a clue as to what they were.
So all right, I’m kind of an airhead, but now I’ve looked up the lyrics and discovered that yes, they fit quite nicely into my theme. Which is, roughly speaking, the relationship between work and, well, not working. With considerably more emphasis on the latter.
As regular readers will have noticed, my output here at larrylivermore.com has been sporadic at best. I especially feel for those of you who’ve been waiting since January for the next installment of Spy Rock Memories (I mean, yes, I’m frustrated, too, but at least I have the advantage of already knowing how it comes out). And my novel, which was just rocketing along last summer, has been gathering dust (cyber-dust, anyway) ever since. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems my work ethic has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
It’s not for lack of trying, at least if “trying” can be defined as forcing oneself to sit in front of the computer for several hours each day while searching out every conceivable means of avoiding any actual writing. But even that’s not true: I probably do churn out at least one or two thousand words a day, a creditable total by many standards, but unfortunately most of them take the form of inane arguments and diatribes on Facebook or the PPMB. I have no trouble crafting artful replies and dissents to every crackpot opinion I encounter on the internet, but when it comes to the work that I’ve decided is truly important to me, scarcely a word seems to get written.
Perhaps the operative words here are “I’ve decided.” More than a few people, on hearing me make excuses or turn down invitations because “I have to work,” have asked, “Why? Is someone paying you? Are you on some kind of deadline?” And I have to acknowledge that, no, most of the time I have no obligations at all other than self-imposed ones, and those are precisely the ones I always seem to be falling short on.
It’s been over 13 years now since I left what was at the time a very successful and highly profitable place at Lookout Records in order to pursue “my own” projects. I felt I’d done enough to help other people get their art out to the public and that now it was my turn. It was a poorly thought out decision on a variety of fronts as it turned out, but it did leave me with a lot of time on my hands, time I had expected to fill with writing books and playing music.
It’s not as though I didn’t do any of that – I finished one book-length manuscript and started a couple others – but compared with what I had accomplished in previous years when I was building the record label AND publishing a magazine AND getting a degree from Berkeley, my output has been distinctly underwhelming. In fact, I can get pretty hard on myself, some days expending more energy on calling myself a lazy bum than it would have taken to do some actual work.
Things came to a head a few weeks ago: I’d spent another two days plopped down in front of the computer without a single word to show for it. Two more gloriously sunny days slipping past my window, two more days of the summer I’d been looking forward to for so long and which now seemed to be passing in my absence. I thought back to when I was a schoolboy counting down the days till summer vacation, and the unrelenting joy with which I went rocketing out into the world when the bell rang for the final time .
It would only be ten weeks until school resumed in September, but at that age ten weeks was an eternity. There would be days, ever so many of them, for hanging around at the creek, for long, meandering bike rides, for building forts in the woods, for trips downtown and to the beach, and even when all that was done, still more days for simply lounging around reading comic books or staring at the sky. Even the occasional parental request to cut the grass or clean the basement could be indulged because, really, there would be so much time that I might even run out of things to fill it with.
This illusion began to vanish as I got older: summers meant tedious minimum wage jobs so I could save money for the college I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend anyway. And when at 18 I found myself working year round at the auto plant with what looked like no respite in sight until I turned 65, I was overwhelmed with bitterness at the cruel hand life seemed to have dealt me.
My grim forebodings at 18 turned out to be as misplaced as my childish anticipation a few years earlier: my stints in the auto factories and steel mills were short-lived; in fact, from age 22 onwards, I never again worked for anyone other than myself, and despite some setbacks and one or two bouts of homelessness, did well enough that I was able to contemplate retirement before I was 50. Hallelujah, right? I mean, that’s got to be exhilarating to look ahead to the rest of your life with the knowledge that you’ll never have to go to work again if you don’t want to.
But I never got the exhilaration, and never stopped feeling as though I needed to work. Money wasn’t an issue, and though it’s become more of one now, thanks to the recession and bad luck/poor management on my part, it’s still not a big deal. If I’m willing to make sufficient economies and provided Social Security doesn’t go bankrupt, I might be able to get by for the rest of my life (provided science doesn’t become too much more successful at extending life spans).
So why work? Even more to the point, why make myself miserable over the work I’m not doing? Catholic guilt, perhaps? The psychological legacy of two working class parents who’d been hit with the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Second World War? The persistent notion, however misbegotten, that I have something of vital importance to say to the world? All three are factors, I suspect, but as time marches on, their motive force begins to dwindle.
At any rate, I finally reached what felt like a breaking point, where I found myself ready to say the hell with everything. On second thought, that sounds a little, shall we say, negative? What I really felt like was that kid who couldn’t wait for school to get out on the last day before summer vacation. Or, more to the point, that’s what I wanted to feel like again. I was ready, I decided, to go on holiday for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t as though I was giving up writing or music or any other of my projects, I reasoned, just that I no longer had to consider myself a failure if I didn’t do them. If I felt like writing something, or playing a tune, or, for that matter, climbing Mt. Everest, there was nothing stopping me from doing so. But in the meantime, I would devote myself to doing exactly what I wanted, nothing more and nothing less.
Easier said than done, it turns out. Many of the appealing aspects of my childhood summers no longer hold the same allure, even if there were a crawdad-catching creek down at the end of my block, and while I still enjoy long bike rides, they’re not quite the same without that kidlike conviction that something fascinating, wonderful, or terrifying is most likely waiting around every corner.
I asked myself what I would do if tomorrow were a day in which I was free to do whatever I wanted, and then got up the next morning and walked to Queens. Yes, pretty prosaic, I reckon, if not downright pathetic (and no slight intended to the fine people of Queens, either), but it’s what I wanted to do. I walked right out Greenpoint Avenue until I got to Sunnyside, where I stopped at the Passalacqua Pizzeria (Green Day fans will recognize the connection, though they spell it with one less “s”), then kept on into Woodside, Jackson Heights (a place I can never think of, let alone visit, without hearing the refrain about the traffic jam from “Car 54, Where Are You?”), Elmhurst, and Corona.
During most of this jaunt I followed Roosevelt Avenue, which turned out to be fascinating and wonderful, though not especially terrifying. I was astounded at how much (most of it, actually) I’d never seen before, and how, for the price of a subway ride (or in my case, for no charge at all) one could simultaneously visit half a dozen Latin American, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. When I described my adventures to a friend later that night, he said that Roosevelt Avenue always put him in mind of the Interzone envisioned by William Burroughs.
I hadn’t had any destination in mind when I started out, intending simply to cover as much of Queens as I could before returning to the city for a meeting, but the more ground I covered, the more it seemed like a good idea to walk right out to Flushing, a place where I hadn’t spent any significant amount of time since the 1964 World’s Fair. Unfortunately, I’d got too late a start on this expedition, and only made it to Citifield, the Mets’ new-ish stadium before hopping onto a 7 train and gliding back into Manhattan.
And what did I learn? Well, that Queens is an even more exotic place than I had suspected, that it’s not only possible, but enjoyable, to cover great swathes of the city on foot, and that going on permanent holiday is not as easy as it seems.
Because before I’d even completed the first half mile of my journey, my mind was already calculating what I was going to write about it when I got home, and I was sorely tempted to abandon the walk then and there so that I could rush back and get started. However, the fact that at least two – or is it three? – weeks have since elapsed should make it clear that I successfully resisted any such impulses.
I’d like to tell you that I’ve been on a dozen more outings since then, but such is not the case. I finally made it to the fabled Isle of Staten the other day, and I seem to recall bumbling around one park or another on some sultry summer evening, but apart from that, I’ve continued to have trouble prising myself away from the computer, or, having reconciled myself to sitting there, to put it to any constructive use. Maybe I should clean the house, I think, or at least sort out this rat pile of debris and mementos cascading across my desk top. It’s not surprising your mind is a disorderly premise, I tell myself, considering that you insist on inhabiting one.
Maybe a trip to the gym, or a quick jog across the Williamsburg Bridge and back would whip me into shape? But then comes this news, that no matter how much exercise you do and how healthily you live, sitting in front of a computer will kill you anyway, or at least turn you into a paunchy schlump. With that in mind, let’s review: on my to-do list, in addition to cleaning and fixing up the apartment, running, biking, working out at the gym and doing t’ai chi, getting my financial affairs in order, visiting my mother and finding some sense of purpose in life, the computer is also waiting impatiently on one novel, one memoir (actually, make that two), four blog posts, two interviews, and a small infinity of Twitter updates (I really don’t have anything to say, but I’ve somehow acquired 610 followers who I feel I’m letting down on a daily basis).
Oh, and play the piano and practice my guitar and singing, and maybe, just maybe, finally get around to writing a few new songs or at least finishing the ones I started 10 or 15 years ago. Did I mention the possibility of reading a book? It’s all I can do to keep up with the New Yorker and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Tomorrow I’ll wake up early and start getting caught up on some of this stuff, I swear. On second thought, to hell with it. I’m going to the beach.