"Art is not meant to feel good," he said. "It's a way of life."
And then I woke up. I'd been dreaming I was hanging out with a classmate from high school. He was one of those prodigies, the one in a thousand, the kid with freakish vision and command of technique belying his age. I hadn't thought about him in 25 years, yet there he was in my dream doling out advice. And sagely advice at that: pointing out that art is a way, a path, a discipline, a manner in which to engage life and view the world.
In the years since that dream, I've wrestled somewhat with the bit about art not being meant to feel good. Here's this memory of someone I'd known who had achieved a level of mastery. If characters in our dreams can be regarded as aspects of our own consciousness revealing themselves, it would seem that I thought there might be an element of suffering involved with acquiring great skill. But upon final analysis, I understand the message to mean something akin to delayed gratification. That is, to forego the pleasurable to gain the beneficial.
The more exponents I meet and dialogue with, the more it becomes clear that the core to mastery in the arts, much less any endevour, is to make it a part of a regular day-to-day routine. Something that I just do, no big deal, with no ostentation, as natural and essential as eating and sleeping. As Aristotle said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit."
Speaking of quotes, here's the one that first opened my eyes to the whole daily discipline thing: "If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it." -- Ignacy Paderewski, Pianist
"Humor is your winning formula."
So said an encouraging friend after listening to my album Welcome to Purgatory.
From the get go, I have not shied from including humor in my work. I was regularly recording improvised comedy skits as a kid, and the first song I put together, at age eleven, was as much a parody as it was a song. 40 years later I'm often playing in the same sandbox.
When I look back on the influences that have shaped my sensibilities, I include titans in comedy at the top of the list: Monty Python, the Goodies, Steve Martin, as well as the many artists with veins of humor -- or it's more subdued cousin, playfulness -- in their work. Visual artists like Marcel Duchamp, Renee Magritte, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali; writer and raconteur Garrison Keillor; composers like Carl Stalling (Looney Tunes) and Michael Torke; musicians like Beck Hanson, Tom Waits, Dean Wareham, and Frank Zappa.
Regarding the influence of Steve Martin: one rainy day during the summer I turned 16, I walked to a bookstore and found his book of shorts, Cruel Shoes. This collection of half page vignettes had a mock enigmatic quality to them, at once celebrating and chiding artistic high mindedness. I immediately began to write -- having never considered doing so previously -- looking to get a piece of the tone he'd laid out. Immediately I was drawn into the meditative space that the act of writing can generate. That you could write with a broad stroke and not be limited to linear storytelling! I recall the excitement of this very liberating discovery.
Humor is not only the ends but often the means, a cornerstone of the artistic process for me. I'll be working through a piece and will get jammed up on a choice of word, groove, chord or style. The piece will be in the neighborhood of "there" but not quite "there" -- usually during that part of the editing process when the initial kernel of inspiration and improvisation is long past. And I'll start throwing stuff at the wall, trying to get out of editor mind and back into inspired mind. Backing off mentation usually yields a good result, given time. Walking away to do an unrelated activity like a simple chore or taking a shower is great for this. Somehow a space is created for inspired mind to reboot. Then a sound byte, usually playful or humorous in nature, will pop up in non-sequitur fashion and I'll laugh. A eureka moment. So these days my benchmark for the right edit is: "does it make me laugh?" -- sometimes simply the kind of laugh that comes when a couple of things come together in an unexpected way.
"You're one of us now," said Stevie.
I really didn't start thinking of myself as a musician until my thirties, having focused more on visual art and poetry in the years previous, and it wasn't until my early forties that I pushed through enough barriers to be able to craft solid, finished songs. There was no end to my catalog of minute-long improvised riffs. I could hear the song in them struggling to emerge, yet …
And bringing together score and verse -- a whole separate matter -- took years to resolve. As the protagonist in my song A Killing Joke pines:
I'm just trying to find the pieces of the puzzle
Trying to scream my language through a muzzle
And I got no coffee in my coffee pot again
But caffeine deprivation aside, I kept at it. And in 2006, without much effort, came the song Naysayer, which at the time seemed like such an aberration in the ease with which it came to fruition. Fueled by that success, I kept plugging away, and within a few years I had enough command of the process to be able to bring a song together at will. Around that time I had a series of dreams where I visited with a few of the heavyweights in the music industry.
In one dream I'm hanging out with Billy Joel in his all white, double height living room while he noodles around on the piano.
In another dream, I'm eating lunch in a cafeteria when Mick Jagger walks up to my table and asks "What about the band?" and then proceeds to sit and talk with me like we're old friends. By the end of the conversation I've bought into that, and we're sharing jokes and stories. Then I say to him, "You know, I think most people think of you as more of a performer than anything else. But I can see you are really passionate about the music as well." He seems moved and thanks me for recognizing that about him. Later in the day, while telling my wife about the dream, it occurred to me: "He was a lot shorter than I expected."
Finally, there was this dream with Stevie Wonder. To give some backstory to its significance, I spent most of my life singing like I was sitting in a wooden pew in church. To be more specific, singing like my father did in church, which was sort of an obligatory mumble, because somewhere along the line, Italian-American men decided that singing was not a manly endeavour. How that became a thing is beyond me, because one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in my life was a Sicilian man singing opera while riding a Vespa. It was during a visit to the ruin of a 4th century BC fort in Syracuse, Sicily. I was listening to my history professor describe a fierce battle that had taken place there and meanwhile caught wind of this dude navigating the windy road through the valley below. He had the bike and his voice at full throttle, bringing alive the surrounding travertine like it was some ancient Greek hillside theatre.
Anyway, it was through my wife, Patty, that I came to appreciate Stevie Wonder -- our wedding dance was to his Ribbon in the Sky -- and R&B at large. And at some point I opened up the vocal throttle and traded in my mumble for an R&B rumble. I remember the visceral experience of connecting my voice to emotion. It was like that movie Pleasantville when the characters go from living in a world of black and white to living in one of color.
But back to the dream with Stevie: I'm visiting my parent's house on some holiday like Easter. The doorbell rings and in walks Stevie, with his signature shades, but able to navigate around on his own as if his blindness is of no hindrance. He walks over and greets me like I'm a long lost friend, then gives me a bear hug and declares: "You're one of us now."
You're one of us now. I don't think it gets any cooler than that. All in all these dreams left me with a sense of having been initiated into an inner circle of sorts. Bottom line, they were an expression of a sense of accomplishment at having worked through barriers and having acquired new skills.
Thank you for reading. As per Garrison Keillor, in his series the Writer's Almanac: "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."
This is Week 23 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Jim’s story today. To connect with him and listen to his music, please visit the following links:
Photo credits: Angelica Pastor, Steve Walsh, Joe Gioglio, Paul Middleton