The year I turned 22 my then-girlfriend insisted on throwing me a birthday party, even though I repeatedly said I didn’t want one. For weeks she demanded that I give a list of people to invite; I told her – truthfully enough – that I couldn’t think of anybody.
Granted, I was being a bit petulant and nihilistic, even more than should be tolerated in a generically petulant and nihilistic 22-year-old, but my guess that any such party would be poorly if at all attended was basically correct.
I’d spent the previous year “underground,” as we called it in the 1960s, careening from coast to coast, from commune to crash pad, to avoid dealing with certain authority figures – namely the DA and the police – who had a fairly substantial bone to pick with me.
When I’d left town, the local hippies and radicals still functioned as an extended family, not always a happy one, but drug-addled enough to fake it, and they’d show up for anything or anyone. But by late 1969 people were moving on to jobs, marriages, hard drugs and the like. By the time it was safe for me to come home, there was no one to throw a ticker-tape parade for me, or even greet me with more than a quizzical “Oh, are you back in town?”
My disappointment eventually gave way to disinterest. All I cared about was getting back to California before another Midwestern winter set in, something I couldn’t do until my probation officer gave the go-ahead. In the meantime, I saw no point in making friends or hosting parties, my girlfriend’s determination to mold me into a “normal” boyfriend notwithstanding.
Having got no cooperation from me, she took charge of the guest list. Two people showed up, both friends of hers. One of them was more or less my arch-nemesis, the guy who’d replaced me as Big Hippie Around Town after I’d been forced to hit the road.
“Uh, are more people coming?” he asked with a grimace, making it clear he didn’t want to be there any more than I did. We dealt with the awkwardness the way hippies always did: passing the ritual joint, which made everyone more catatonic.
The silence grew almost physically painful; desperate to break it, I asked him if it was true that in Vietnam he and his fellow GIs (he was the only member of our hippie gang who’d failed to escape the draft) used to drop acid, then call in air strikes so they could trip on the colors and explosions.
“Yeah, we did that a lot when things got boring.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder if people were getting blown up and incinerated while you were watching the light show?”
He looked briefly taken aback. His eyes flickered between contemplation and annoyance.
“Yeah, I guess that might have happened,” he acknowledged. His voice trailed off, then came back to life. “But man, the colors were so far out…”
He and his friend soon made their excuses and left, after which my girlfriend berated me for “ruining” the party. The icing on the cake – I can’t remember if there was one or not – would have been my learning that he and my girlfriend had been having sex most afternoons while I was sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets to pay the bills, but that news wouldn’t come through until a few weeks later.
I’ve never been a fan of birthday parties since then. My own, that is; I have no problem attending other people’s. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had another one for myself, though a couple years later, while I was, as they say nowadays, experiencing homelessness in Akron, Ohio, a birthday celebration of sorts got grafted onto a Halloween party being thrown by the couple who were temporarily letting me sleep on their basement floor.
I’m not doing a sour grapes number here. I genuinely don’t mind. A couple times, when passing milestone birthdays like 50 and 60, there was consideration given to throwing some huge event with music by the various Lookout bands I’d worked with, but it seemed like too much trouble By the time I turned 70, most of the bands had broken up or were too busy playing amphitheaters and stadiums, so I settled (once again, happily) for a 30-mile, five-borough walk around New York City.
I’ve still got a few years to come up with something to top that for my 80th, but in the meantime, most of my birthdays have been spent in far-flung places, often where I didn’t know anyone. Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong: all provided splendid birthday backdrops, but once I discovered Guilin in southern China, which to my mind is one of the most beautiful places on earth, I resolved never to spend my birthdays anywhere else.
The pandemic put an end to that. There are worse places to be stranded than New York, it’s true, but it doesn’t put me in a festive mood. When people asked how I was going to celebrate this year, I had a list prepared: get a Covid test (I’m not sick; it’s for a long-delayed trip that’s finally become possible), clean, mop, and vacuum my apartment, followed by a midnight jaunt to the laundry room (when it’s least likely to be occupied by a maskless mouth-breather).
None of this was meant as a cry for help or a hallmark of depression, though I can understand why some might see it that way. There are people who can’t fathom doing anything alone – eating, going to a movie, even taking a walk. I’m not one of them. I enjoy company – well, some company – but I’m perfectly fine without it, too.
I wasn’t always that way. In my youth and well into middle age, even though I had a hard time making friends or getting along with people, I was desperate for attention and approval, and seldom satisfied even when I got it. I could never have imagined there’d come a time when I was thoroughly content with life, regardless of who was or wasn’t in it.
That being said, although I don’t see a lot of people, I know thousands of them. I get reminded of this every year when I’m overwhelmed with birthday greetings via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. You might scoff, claiming social media connections aren’t “real” friends, but though I haven’t met all of them in person, the fact that they’re willing to take a couple moments out of their day to tell me that I matter to them does in fact mean quite a lot. Why, I’d bet that at least a few of them – maybe even a few dozen – would be willing to come to my party in the unlikely event that I ever have one.
Maybe it’s because I’ve kept a higher social media profile lately, having appeared in a bunch of podcasts and interviews, but this year’s haul of greetings was the biggest ever. Realizing it would take weeks to reply to them all in person, I decided to send out a collective thank you, which is what this out to be.
So to all of you who wrote or sent something, my heartfelt thanks. At the risk of sounding like Ted Lasso, I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
But I also want to apologize, because I feel I haven’t been keeping up my end of the bargain. When I left Lookout Records almost 25 years ago, the idea was that I was going to pursue my own artistic endeavors. To some extent, I have. I’ve written a couple of books and God only knows how many articles and commentaries, a lot of which can be found here on this blog (I know, nobody reads blogs anymore, but they’re here if anyone wants them).
Lately, though, I’ve been slacking off far too much. My third book was going great guns and was almost half finished when I hit some kind of mind bump and it’s been languishing in the back pages of my computer ever since. Months, many months, go by without my posting anything on this website, even though I regularly get letters to the effect of “What’s up, dude, are you ever going to write anything again?”
So what, you might say? Write, don’t write, do whatever you feel like. But to me, this is kind of my job, even if I only occasionally get paid for it. I spent a huge part of my life goofing off, being an ill-tempered and self-pitying SOB, convinced that the world owed me a living. Despite my best efforts to sabotage everything, the world did in fact treat me pretty well, handing me opportunities to do things that teenage or twenty-something me couldn’t possibly have dreamed of.
It’s more than a small miracle that I’m alive, let alone in reasonably good physical and mental health. Prison, an insane asylum, or an early grave would have been far likelier destinations, but somehow I survived long enough for life to turn from a living (and largely self-imposed) hell into a glorious adventure.
I’d be an idiot if I weren’t enormously grateful for that, and sharing what I’ve learned (okay, what I think I’ve learned) is part of how I’m determined to show that. I feel like kind of a useless bum when I don’t.
Lately, as some of you know, I’ve been spending much of my time learning Chinese (and dabbling in a few other languages). Why? I don’t know. It’s extraordinarily hard, and apart from traveling in China (if it’s ever allowed again) and reading Chinese history and media in their original form, I don’t have any obvious use for it.
But it feels terribly important that I do it, in much the same way that at another point in my life it was terribly important to hear as much music and attend as many shows and meet as many musicians as possible. There was no rhyme and reason to that, either, until after about twenty years, it all came together in the form of Lookout Records.
So am I destined to do some major Chinese-related thing? I guess I’ll have to wait and see, because I haven’t the faintest idea what it might be. Maybe I’ll wind up sitting on a mountain with a long white beard writing poems and practicing calligraphy. Maybe memorizing a few thousand characters will restructure my synapses and finally kick my brain into high gear. Maybe I’ll just discover new and obscure varieties of spicy noodles.
It’s not mine to question why, as the old poem goes, merely to do or die, and I mean that literally. It’s been decades since I paid serious attention to anything Bob Dylan said, but I’ll never forget the first time – more than half a century ago now – that I heard him snarl “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
On the afternoon of my birthday, I got my Covid test (update: I passed). Bounding up the stairs like a gazelle (probably more like a short-necked giraffe, but you get the picture), I was greeted by a lab technician who, after checking my chart, realized it was my birthday and remarked on how impressive it was that I’d come there on my own.
“How else would I come?” I wondered. He told me about his dad, who, once he hit his 60s, lost interest in doing anything or going anywhere, and plopped himself in front of the TV until he fell over and died while still quite a bit younger than I am now.
“A lot of people your age have trouble getting out and about on their own, but you seem to be managing all right.”
I thought about my own dad, who was tearing around town in much the way that I do until, at 88, he took a careless or hasty step off a curb in downtown Berkeley, shattered his hip, and sank into an agonizing terminal decline that lasted three years, and during much of which he was only vaguely aware of who or where he was.
My mother moved at a more careful and measured pace, and was still of sound mind and body when she checked out three days shy of her 97th birthday. I’d been on the phone with her that afternoon, planning her birthday party (see, I told you it’s only my own that I have an aversion to). A couple hours later, while I was on stage for the book launch of How To Ru(i)n A Record Label, she fell asleep for the last time. “A blessed death,” my doctor said when I told her about it.
I say this none of this to be morbid, but to remind myself – and my friends and loved ones – that this will end. Or, more specifically, I will end. Maybe not today, probably not tomorrow, either. I might even have a couple dozen years ahead of me, time to do a lot of work and have some more amazing adventures. But be it sooner or later, it’s obvious – barring medical science making some spectacular breakthroughs in the immortality department – that the end is a lot nearer than the beginning.
I never made it down to the laundry room. Instead, my wonderful Italian neighbors Stefano and Bea turned up with a torta di mele (that’s a “cake of apples” for you gringos) that Bea had baked. We sat talking about Chinese and technology and punk rock and academia. Bea planted a single candle (74 would have been an extremely tight fit), lit it, and ordered me to make a wish and blow it out while they sang “Tanti auguri.”
The damnedest thing – sign of age, perhaps – is that I can’t remember what I wished for. At the time I knew exactly what my wish and was equally certain it was going to come true, but now it’s completely slipped my mind. I still expect it will happen, but I guess it will turn up the way much of my life has: as a lovely surprise.