It’s a Hard Rock Life

From Nothing by Ken Goldstein
From Nothing, my third and most personal novel, has moved from my ownership to yours. I hope it will mean something to you. It certainly has been an odyssey for me. The book is rock and roll, the process of performing it no less so.

As I write these words, I am preparing a number of public book talks, thinking about what I want to say about this story beyond letting it speak for itself. That’s always hard, and particularly difficult this time because I did choose each word in the book carefully. My dear editor and publisher at The Story Plant might say I deliberated on them too carefully, which is why this one took so long, but hey, that’s who I am. Spontaneity for me is a highly composed orchestration that only sounds top of mind when recited.

Since the majority of my readers won’t hear me speak on this book, I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you. I also want to be extremely careful not to give away any spoilers, which is quite a task when I want to tell you everything. I will do my best to restrain myself.

I have an eclectic process I use to write a novel. It begins years before I write a single line of expository or dialogue. I usually have a protagonist identified and a very rough roadmap of a plot that will deliver that character’s arc, but even before I begin the detailed process of outlining, I start a page of ideas I call “collecting.” That can take a decade, or in the case of this book, several decades, because this book began as a long abandoned screenplay treatment I wrote in my 20s.

I share with you here some of the ideas and concepts I wanted to explore that landed over the years on that collecting page. Some of these have been transcribed directly from the many scraps of paper that got stuffed into my project folder.

It all started with the notion of the soundtrack of our livesto be fully confessional, the soundtrack of my life. I believe our music carries us through the bad times and encodes the good times. Each of us has a unique soundtrack depending on our years alive, but most of them overlap. I wanted to build a story sitting atop that premise.

That became the conflicted tale of Victor Selo, a onetime cover band guitarist become corporate refugee become cover band artist anew with remarkably higher stakes. Music both holds him together and tears him apart. His flight from the big bucks technology arena is meant to be an escape, where songs of the classic rock generation guide along the plot like a jukebox musical, but his personal history looms forever large. He trades one stage for another, large to small to ascending, not better, mostly different, equally pernicious.

I began framing his quest with a number of lyrical quotes, from The Beatles and The Who, and one special song from another band which would be a spoiler so I’ll have to let you discover that. The book’s title already hints at a giveaway. I wanted these lyrics to punch through the chapters, which you’ll discover are not chapters at all, but tracks from a concept album. Oops, another spoiler. I better quit while I’m ahead, or very soon thereafter.

I wanted to explore how we find the courage to do the right thing, especially when the choices are not clear, and the most obvious choice could easily have the most deleterious repercussions. We want what we think we want. We want what we think we deserve. We are usually wrong about both. We are not alone in enduring the consequences of what we bring on ourselves.

I wanted to explore the necessity of constantly starting over in life as a creative process. This might seem a bit counter-intuitive when applied to the building blocks of one’s personal growth, but it’s not really. We think a career is about piling one success upon another and hiding away the failures. Once you reach a certain age, you realize how wrong you were to think that’s how things work. Back to The Who in Quadrophenia (1973):

You were under the impression
That when you were walking forward
That you’d end up further onward
But things ain’t quite that simple.

When we begin from an empty palettefrom a hollow toolbox and an arsenal of absencewe have the unblemished opportunity to reassert our individuality and purpose. We sing the song of ourselves. We embrace the courage to risk exposure. We realize the comfort zone of complacency is the strangling curse of the zombie. We slay the zombie in ourselves before it forces us to wander the earth in purgatory sameness.

Good people can be corrupted under stealth compliance when they prioritize the essence of survival over the illusive ideal of needing to thrive. We all do it. We have to do it. There are hidden crossroads in our lives we can only see in hindsight. We have to choose at the fork in the road with the clock ticking, but we seldom see there is a real choice until after we have chosen. That’s when fate throws a party and the booze is bad.

I wanted to explore the full magilla of a Tyson-like knockout. You know Iron Mike’s saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When you’re lying on the mat looking up at the referee counting you out in a fog, how do you come back? How do you fight a different way?

It all circles back to creative destruction. We are dying to be reborn. It’s nearly impossible to figure out how until crisis strikes like a demon tornado on the bountiful plains.

If you peak too early, you can fall pretty far, pretty fast, and never find the net below the trapeze. When your dreams die, what do you do next?

While we’re at it, how do we combat the forces of mediocrity, the entrenched entitled protecting themselves from sharing the spotlight with a new voice? Can we courageously take on the sins of self-propelling governance, the greed and avarice of short-term thinking, the material byproducts of genuine innovation that create conflict where instead there should be celebration?

I wanted to wrap all that in the conceit of a song cycle, a hard rock concept album that holds together on theme. I wanted to pick an argument with eternity, crawling toward faith where it hides in our sorrowful fears.

In the end for a storyteller there is only relevance and irrelevance. Anne Lamott explained it in the simplest of all statements: “No once cares if you write, so you have to care.”

I care a lot. I hope you see that in this unusual trek through multiple backdrops and the obstacles we overcome in the search for ourselves. If you want to read a more detailed synopsis or a few brief excerpts from the text you can link to that here.

I’ll see you at the after-party. I’m told the top shelf will be pouring in the green room. I’ll be tuning Victor’s guitaror maybe carrying his practice amp to a late night no-cover lounge in Vegas.

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The Emergent Miracle of 50

Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?

How about songs from 1928 in 1978?

Or songs from 1938 in 1988?

So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?

Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:

“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).

“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).

“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).

“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).

I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.

Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.

The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band.  You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”

So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.

Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”

Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.

It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.

It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.

We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.

Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.

That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.

It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.

Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.

 

Tribal Ways and Open Doors

 

Few of us will ever have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time on an Indian reservation. If you don’t live or work there, it’s just not something you’re likely to do. You might drive onto native lands for a festival or to buy some crafts, or you might enjoy some vacation time at an Indian casino. If you ever do have the invitation to fully immerse yourself in the culture of tribal ways, I recommend you walk through the open door.

If you embrace the opening of that door, you will be changed.

My wife and I recently spent a week volunteering at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation that sits at the three-way intersection of California, Arizona, and Nevada. We were there for a week as part of an alumni service project from my college with a group of about 50 like-minded souls. We were divided into three groups focused on construction, education, and business projects. Our construction group built an outdoor shelter where children from the school could study outside in the shade. My wife helped teach music and art in the preschool. I helped teach basic business and entrepreneurial skills to adults.

It is difficult to bridge the gap between what one might expect signing up for a week on Native American lands and what one would actually experience. The key learning for me was getting past what I thought I might accomplish in advance of our arrival and giving myself over to the experience itself — of bonding with people who otherwise would have remained strangers in my life. What struck me as particularly resonant was how building a bridge of trust to a few people one person at a time could open all of our eyes to the language of possibility.

Let’s start with some basics. Even though few people will have the opportunity to spend a week in a place they might not have known was there, a week is a fragment of time too brief to overestimate in scope. That means that every moment shared was a moment that mattered, with an intense focus on listening and learning rather than articulating strategies and solutions. Time may be limited, even precious, but if you try to rush things in cultural immersion, the mistakes of the past can swiftly swell to unintended repetition. There is no doubt that there is a prolonged history of inexcusable abuses perpetrated against the indigenous residents of our nation, but that can’t be repaired in a lifetime of cooperation, let alone a week’s visit. We were not there for any more reason than to be good listeners, good citizens, and hopefully ongoing good friends.

We learned immediately that in the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, each individual is a part of his or her past. We introduce ourselves to each other by talking about our families, initially to see if there are points of intersection in our histories, but more to establish a common ground of respect for the elders who have taught us and the esteemed leaders who will guide us.

As we listen to each other’s lineage, the table is set for sharing what matters in our lives. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all have experienced pain. When we look into each other’s eyes with focus and listen to the authenticity in the words a new acquaintance chooses to share, human connection begins. It doesn’t fix what has come before, but it does gracefully establish a framework for what could happen next.

This is what I mean when I talk about possibility. What might be possible will only be possible if trust replaces suspicion, if curiosity replaces fear, and if hope is elevated from slogan to shared ideal.

I spent the majority of my week working with one entrepreneur. He was slightly older than me. We connected early in the week by chance almost serendipitously around a shared love of music. We both play guitar and are avid classic rock enthusiasts, but he still plays in a party band and I haven’t done that in decades. Beyond teaching himself musicianship in his high school days, he was trained long ago in a skilled trade and made his living at it, but it wasn’t taking him to the economic freedom he desired.

We wrote a brief business plan together, one bullet at a time, from creating a statement of purpose to stepping through the mechanics of daily tasks and completion milestones. We talked about always present competition, nagging administrative needs, and one-to-one marketing opportunities. He didn’t have a website, but with a bit of nagging from me he realized he had a younger relative who had learned some internet basics in school and could help him launch a single online page with his contact information that would cost him nothing. The more we brainstormed the web page, the more ideas he had for posting customer endorsements and project photos that might attract local attention. We documented everything we discussed, and as the pages began to take shape, the candor in our dialogue took on that feeling of lift you experience when the wheels leave the runway below you.

Let me return to the notion of expectation and result. As I suggested, prior to arriving at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, I had developed a tailored curriculum of lessons I would lead on defining mission, vision, strategy, tactics, finance, and sustainable growth. It was a solid teaching plan, and I was only hopeful I could get through all of it in the short week allowed. By noon on the first day, I had abandoned it. It did not apply to the situation at hand. Had I attacked it with the same pragmatism and vigor I normally tackle goals, my week on tribal lands might have been finished by lunch.

No, there was no way I was going to get through that lesson plan, no way I was going to cover all the things that would surely make businesses better for all in attendance. Something else happened, something much better, something that mattered. On the final day of working with my partner, he offered to share the financials of his business. He trusted me enough to show me the material trends in his business — the actual numbers with dollar signs — and we incorporated a sliding scale forecast into our business plan. Together we found the leverage in his operating plan that actually could take him to economic independence in the years ahead.

He didn’t have to change what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He had to make a few changes in how he was doing it. He saw that tangible possibility for the first time in the words and numbers we wrote together.

It was a true aha moment. It was a breakthrough. It was everything I could have hoped for as a result of a week’s dedication, and not a moment of it was anything I had planned. The only thing that could have been harder for me than jettisoning my syllabus and going with the flow was my partner’s unhindered willingness to improvise with a stranger.

We pulled it off together. There was no other way it was going to happen. First the bridge, then the embrace, then the hard work, then the roadmap. We had to do it in that order, and we had to do it together.

The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe lives on the banks of the Colorado River. They live by the words of their ancestors: “Water is life.” They teach that core principle of sustenance to their children and they taught that to us. The water flows with divine intention and with it comes possibility. The water sustains our bodies. The water lets crops grow from the desert floor. The water is a transit mechanism that carries the adventurous from their river home to faraway places of promise. The water is shared with strangers who can become friends if the possibility is identified. That possibility has everything to do with mutual empathy and only becomes activated when a door is opened. Doors open when listening is pure.

If a tribal door is opened to you, walk through it. Leave your plans on the other side of the door. Open your heart to tribal ways, and in a single week you might change a single life. It likely will be yours.

______________________

Photo: Yale Alumni Service Corps