The other night a good friend came back to town with his band after a successful mini-tour around the Northeast and Midwest. A bunch of us came out for their homecoming show, and while the music was as good as always, things got a little weird when he delivered a self-lacerating diatribe about how lame and stupid shows in New York City were, and how he knew we’d all rather be home watching TV or sitting around talking than participating in a pop-punk show. It was especially strange because almost everybody in the audience was both a friend and a fan, and because he and his band are among the most popular musicians in our little scene.
I won’t pretend to know what was going on in his head, but I know what was going on in mine when I pulled similar stunts. Some of my worst on-stage meltdowns are mercifully lost or at least majorly blurred to memory, thanks to the copious quantities of whiskey (only whiskey; beer seemed to have the opposite effect) I used to need to consume in order to find the confidence to get up and play music in front of people.
Sometimes–about 60% of the time, I’d estimate–I’d get the chemical and psychological balance close enough to put on a creditable performance, but even then it wouldn’t be enough. I’d still come off stage berating myself or (more likely) the other musicians, my equipment, the club’s sound system, the audience, or the alignment of the stars for ruining what should have been a triumphant step toward my much-deserved superstardom.
In judging my own abilities, I’d also oscillate between arrogance and shame: one minute I’d be the misunderstood genius who only fate and an aggregation of haters were stopping from achieving the recognition he deserved, the next I’d be the embarrassing klutz who could barely manage more than a few chords on an out-of-tune guitar. What I wasn’t getting, and what it took me almost ten years away from playing shows to begin to understand, was that the real origin of all my troubles was an unhealthy self-obsession, a bizarre belief that the universe itself hung in the balance every time I opened my mouth to sing some silly punk rock song.
It’s not that I’ve completely stopped caring what people think about me or my music–maybe some day, but as of now, I’m still human–but in preparing for and playing the recent Potatomen show, I experienced the sort of freedom from worry and self-doubt that I could only have dreamed of in the old days. It wasn’t that I didn’t want the audience to like us–and, of course, me–and it wasn’t that I didn’t work very hard practicing and preparing for the show. But when it came down to it, I fell back on the hard-learned precept that what other people think about me is none of my business.
The reason I was up on that stage was not to convince people that I’m wonderful or to become a rich and famous rock star–not that I’m actively resisting either outcome–but simply to play music that I love. More than 40 years after first picking up a guitar I’d finally arrived at the realization that music was simply a part of me, as much as eating and sleeping and breathing: something I’d be doing whether or not I wanted to for the rest of my life, and that I might as well learn to enjoy.