Monday, 10 September 2007

Mr. Bad Example

Tonight I have little to offer save a cautionary tale - a story of underachievement and insufficient ambition, of arriving at an apparent dead-end through deliberately ignoring the regular and prominent warning signs. It may contain the odd spark of usefulness for younger musicians, (or anyone with kids), whereas the more "experienced" among us may simply tut, shake their greying heads (like mine - bald[ing] is also a valid option), and mutter "silly sod" under their breath before returning to their crosswords and knitting plectrum-cosies (mine are tartan - subtle, muted shades, mind - but definitely tartan).

In short, this is a heavily-abridged, highly-biased, and occasionally censored account of the personal failings that got me where I am today, musically. It's also going to be relatively light in the humour department. Sorry 'bout that. Normal disservice should be resumed later.

There are two key flaws to my character that I've embraced far too willingly and often over the last 20 years or so, and they complement each other perfectly when it comes to performing acts of self-sabotage.

Firstly, with the one exception of the Citizen Cain album, I've never fully committed myself to any musical project I've been involved with - this is, to some extent anyway, my parents' fault. (Ah! See how he blames the parents! Cuts his poor mother's heart with the sharp end of a vegetable-peeler it does! Can't face up to taking the responsibilty for himself, that's what it really is, you mark my, wait a minute, I don't have a 'Yiddishe Mama'...). *

When I was 17, (it was 1986, and a very average year as I recall), my over-riding ambition was to be a classical singer. I genuinely had the voice (well, the makings of a good enough voice - males don't reach vocal maturity until they're about 26 or so), but I'd had a sensible Scottish middle-class upbringing, and the advantages that came with attending a good "independent" school, so believed in all the usual (highly sensible) advice about "always having something to fall back on".

Except it's not in any way "sensible". It's nonsense. 'Received wisdom' of the worst order, because unless you're one of the world's most single-mindedly determined (and not in the slightest bit apathetic) teenagers, and can resist it's blandishments, you're infected with it's uncertainties at an age when you haven't yet developed the faculties you need to see through it. If anyone out there is thinking about taking the same course I did, and postponing your musical dreams until you've gone to university and achieved a sensible degree that'll make you more employable (hah!), should your ragtime-punk tuba style not get very far, then DON'T!! And if you're a parent who's trying to talk their child out of their goal, however ridiculous it almost certainly is, well, shame on you. There aren't many things I truly regret about my life (some of my friends may be surprised by that statement), but giving-up that ambition is definitely the biggest one.

Now, I fully appreciate that we all need to earn money to survive, etc, so having a "proper" job is a necessary evil to support our musical habits, so long as we recognise it for what it is - a means to an end. As soon as it becomes any more than that, then we have a potential conflict of interests. Work night out (karaoke ahoy!) vs. intense band rehearsal...ahhh, but it's only this once. The other guys won't mind... and of course, the same goes double for the bewildering array of other distractions and amusing diversions that can present themselves on a daily basis.

I've been in a couple of bands that were good, but could have been so much better if there had simply been a small increase in my (and a few others') commitment to what we were doing. And ultimately, once you start slacking on rehearsals, not pushing yourself to learn so much (any?!) new material, not chasing gigs quite so hard, things can go downhill faster than Jethro Tull's eponymous "Fat Man".

Which is all compounded if you, like me, suffer from a desperate tendency to spread-yourself-too-thin. Personally, I love sport. At one point I was training 26 hours a week for my masochism-of-choice, rowing. I was incredibly fit, (which felt pretty damn good), but it was taking up more than an entire day per week of my life! Now, that's fine if all you want to do is to get to the Olympics (I didn't even come close), but when you try to mix that with music, theatre, comedy - oh, and getting a degree (a 2:1, thanks for asking, although I've no idea how I scraped that in the amount of time I actually devoted to studying, except to say it wasn't exactly bio-chemistry or applied physics), you're not very likely to reach your potential in any of them. And when you stumble out of the cosseted undergraduate-student lifestyle, trying to be the great "all-rounder" is well-nigh impossible.

That, however, is precisely what I tried to do until 2003, when I took on the role of full-time house-bloke-daddy, the ceilidh-come-whatever band fell apart (two-thirds of the band moved away, in opposite directions), and I gradually stopped doing...well, everything, unfortunately. Up until then, I kept on shifting my attention - getting involved in amateur dramatics (as previously partially documented), trying to learn new instruments rather than focus on improving what I already knew, taking up olympic-style weightlifting, writing & performing live comedy on radio - (after a couple of years of odds and ends I was booked for a 4-show run of hour-long live broadcasts [anchored by Dougie Vipond, no less...] one summer, but inevitably the 2nd show clashed with a band gig, and replacing me would have cost the guys a double wage - bass & ceilidh 'caller', which would have been unfair on them,so I went with the band. And promptly got dropped by radio scotland for my "lack of commitment").

Add a couple of part-time jobs into the mix, and all you have there is a sure-fire recipe for not-getting-anywhere fast. Oh, and during my time in Citizen Cain, having a long-term relationship crash and burn spectacularly to boot. (Happened to two of the band members at about the same time, as I recall. One of the unspoken dangers of prog rock...!).

But please, don't think for a moment that I'm moaning or complaining about my record of grand musical underachievement (right now my mental state can be summed-up by combining 2 songs from Pink Floyd's Division Bell - see if you can guess which ones?). I was fully aware of my decisions, and I've had some fantastic times, shared with great people that I'm proud to call my friends, every (mis)step of the way. And it's perfectly plausible that I would never have had any greater "success" even if I'd knuckled-down and gone for every opportunity that came my way. I'd just hate to see anyone else repeating my all-too-simple-and-obvious mistakes.

And who knows what the future may still hold? I mean, it's not like I'm 40 or anything. Yet.

*To be fair to my folks, they came from the era when having a degree was like holding a magical "job-of-your-choosing-for-life" ticket, when employers were prepared to spend money on actually training people to do jobs, and Britain still had a fair chunk of an empire to bolster its delusions of national grandeur. They couldn't possibly have predicted the changes and upheavals of the 1980's, and beyond, so I'm quite happy to take responsibility for my own cock-ups, really. Now the job market's only eager to devour anyone willing to work in a call centre and my degree's worth spit. Who'd a thunk it?


Zornhau said...

Actually, I've started measuring success against large bloated no hoper school contempories I occasionally bump into.

Martin Lennon said...

Well, it's definitely not 'lost for words'... ;)

Hurmm... possibly 'Marooned' and 'Take It Back', but I hope it's 'High Hopes' and 'Coming Back To Life'.

From a personal and deeply selfish point of view, I'm glad your path led you away from Pavarotti style success and into the realms of "Vagrant scum in a tinkers' van". That route wouldn't have been NEARLY as wonderful, enlightening and hysterically funny (sometimes) as it was for me, without you and your big bottom end, mate.

Andy Gilmour said...

Z - ah, but one thing that "discipline" or "perfection" sports like rowing & weightlifting (or your swordwork, yes?) certainly teach you is that, ultimately, the only competition you have that matters is yourself.

Martin - PF quiz - nope,nope,yep,nope :-)

And yer dead right, mate - "Vagrant Scum In A Tinker's Van" was a strangely empowering identity, wasn't it?

So much more weird & silly nonsense from that era to be dredged up!


Andy Gilmour said...

p.s. I was talking about the Division Bell songs lyrically, not just as titles...

sorry. Should have made that obvious...