Give Up Singing?
Maybe I’m just not a rockstar!
It’s 1:00am and I’m seriously considering whether or not I should give up singing, maybe not for good but for five years, say, though I’ve got a song or two more to record at the very least, so maybe for five years from when they’re recorded — but let’s not quibble over details. Singing, much as — at times — I love it, has failed me. I am not a good singer, at least not consistently. But I write songs — old-fashioned songs, with words and melodies. And though I’ve hardly performed in public for five years and at most only sporadically before that, I believe I have (to some degree, at least) the “stardust”, the sparkle, the quality that draws an audience’s eyes on stage, that imparts drama; I “come alive” on stage, maybe because it’s such a foreign place for me to be — I’m generally introverted — yet a natural place, a place I feel comfortable, no matter what stress and worry I’ve felt beforehand.
Still, singing is a struggle and one I feel decreasingly inclined to engage in. I suspect I ruined my voice long ago with cigarettes and shouting, and it was never strong to begin with. (Cigarettes have wrought damage on my voice since I was a child — all that passive smoking.) Of course as a teenager my first singing hero was Bernard Sumner (New Order), so it’s easy to see how my weak voice would not have discouraged me. (From Sumner I progressed to Jim and William Reid of the Jesus & Mary Chain, and though Jim’s range was probably always slightly beyond my grasp, I could turn in effective renditions of William’s songs and probably still can.) Other role models: Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed. (Lou! Ugh, speaking of the deleterious effects of smoking! He had the most beautiful voice till about 1970.) The point is, I wasn’t aiming high, not in terms of technique or range, and I think there was a time when my voice fulfilled those aims. And sure, it even sounds okay these days in certain contexts, but it has suffered. And ultimately, I’m tired of suffering with it.
I thought tonight (as I often do) of how I might possibly hope to promote my most recent recording project, Light Traveller. Two years of recording, another two years before that writing/arranging and scheming on how to record it, and another several years before that amassing ideas — surely next I “take it on the road”, don’t I, if I’m adhering to the Rock Guidebook? But I don’t have a band; I don’t like to leave my wife for long periods; I don’t like the venues in which — at my level — rock is generally played; but worst of all, I don’t like singing — not, in any case, night after night in venues where no sooner have I left the stage than I end up shout-talking over the next band and very likely drinking alcohol. (My kind of gig, I thought earlier, is a “rock recital” in a church or concert hall, loud in parts but sinking to gentle reverie in between. Maybe the thought of that kind of gig can spur me on, can help me overcome this urge to give up?)
One problem: my throat hurts. I could feel it before, as I lay in bed: it’s subtle, a little pain-spot — a nodule, I’ve often suspected, but then I banish the thought, because nodules require surgery, and I’ve already spent so much money on my MacBook and audio gear (all of it, except the laptop, entry-level, but it adds up). But that attitude is what thrashes my voice: just pretend nothing’s wrong and keep straining it. And when I say it’s hurting now, keep in mind I haven’t sung for months — I don’t even have a guitar here. Which seems to suggest I really am tired of singing, or open to changing my relationship with music, and definitely not expecting to promote my music here with gigging, much as that would adhere to the guidelines of the Rock Guidebook, this being London (a Rock Capital) after all.
But it’s late — getting on for 2:00 now — and I had some heavy news to impart. For one thing, I just lay in bed wide awake for two hours thinking about failure and lifelong (or 25-year) ambitions, ostensibly because before bed my wife and I discussed professionalism and whether either of our bodies of work consistently reaches that standard, and my wife told me — shyly, for the first time, at least explicitly — that only my singing seemed sometimes to fall below that level. But I’d thought she loved my singing! I mean, I’m sure she does sometimes, but she’s right: it’s inconsistent, and I don’t think — given my cheap microphone, and the difficulty of my singing/recording at home (since I’m so shy, and so rarely alone), and the (embarrassing) fact that I took up smoking again, on and off, throughout the recording process — I’ve captured it at its best. So immediately I fall to thinking of how to fix my EP “Same Stars Shine”, which was the occasion of this conversation and which, worryingly, I’ve already had mastered, obviously for a fee. (The problem, I think, is I write these songs for my ideal vocal range; I write them, often, in a whisper, without a band, then arrange a band-like backing over which I have to make myself heard.)
Heavy Fact #2: I’d been talking to my wife, before the professionalism conversation, about how I feared I might have to “give up part of myself” in the coming months, maybe a part that I’d felt was central to my identity. After all, if having spent much of five years on artistic pursuits I return to Byron Shire, Australia (something I’m dreading, but we’ve promised the kids we’ll go back), and still can’t make money from it, then I may have to reconfigure somehow. But more than that, if I can’t find an audience (beyond the probably 20–50-strong audience I have at the moment) then what reason do I have to go on?
The thing is, of course I’ll “go on” — as a writer, as a musician: I can’t give up. But tonight it strikes me, I mostly listen to instrumental music anyway, and my song-structures have veered further and further from rock-based. I’d like to explore the “post-rock” direction. (But my mind fights it, throws up memories of me as frontman — some of which are not memories, but imaginary pictures of myself on which I’d built my identity.) And you know what? Hell, if I was just a guitarist I could easily get on stage in a loud pub and delight in ramping up the volume. But what would that make Light Traveller? A message in a bottle, to maybe be discovered in five years, say, when I’ve found enough of an audience (as a novelist, or soundtrack-maker, or post-rock guitarist) to stage a magical comeback something like the hero in the 80s sci-fi film Future Cop (AKA Trancers): “Jack Deth is back, and he’s never even been here before.”
But this is getting too lighthearted…
Heavy Fact #3: I put out my right shoulder recently — on Monday night, after a four-hour stint on an uncomfortable chair at the British Library, working on the laptop. Though I have to say it seemed an extreme reaction, and since I’ve put shoulders — and ribs — out before in response to emotional crises (strange as that may sound), I wondered if anything deeper was going on. Meanwhile, given a number of such injuries recently (foot, wrist, now shoulder), not to mention over the past few years (lower back, left glute/hamstring), I’d fallen to thinking, long and hard, on my mortality. I almost cried at pilates class this evening in response to a feeling of beaten-down semi-helplessness; I feel fairly weak and tired in general (certainly as compared to how I felt when I trained karate two years ago, for eg); and even getting my pocket picked in such bizarre fashion in Berlin (see “Wounded Pride”, handwritten May 15th-23rd) seemed a new development, something that mightn’t have happened to a fitter, younger me — a sign, maybe, that I’m getting old.
Which leads me to the thought — ridiculous but recurrent — that I’m just not a rockstar anymore, not even an inchoate one: I missed my chance! (I’m not a karate master either, and never will be, but I hadn’t banked on being one either.) No doubt it’s positive to have this egoism beaten out of me, especially if I’m one day going to “be a novelist” again — the role I defaulted to the last time my rock dreams were dashed at age 20. (I tell myself Robert Walser originally wanted to be an actor, not a writer; then I remember he died a pauper, in an asylum.)
God, I’m sick of these morbid trains of thought! But until I can get my health in order (and really it hasn’t been so, to my satisfaction, since I hurt my left hamstring and thus discovered my chronic lumbar problem at karate two years ago) they’re a fact of life, I think. And probably the biggest single challenge to my health lately is sitting at the computer. Which makes me realise, maybe I just can’t be both a writer and a home-recordist. If I write a novel, I don’t make an album, not by myself anyway. I go out and jam, or perform, or do something active. I get fit again, or it’s downhill from here.
I think of a line in my novel Liadhen, which I wrote at age 19: “It’s like a tower, and you climb it, but it gets smaller as you go up — ” (the character, a frustrated artist, was describing ambition and growing older) “ — you have to leave so much of yourself behind.” (I’m paraphrasing; I can’t quote my own books from memory.)
And I think of my recordings, almost all (if not all) of them flawed or faulty in some aspect, because I knew too little about recording, or the engineer did, or my equipment was too cheap or my performance too hurried, or my collaborators too indifferent or unrehearsed. Or my voice — it wasn’t right, wasn’t professional, wasn’t strong. But… But… But surely many albums were rushed and done on the cheap and slightly amateurish, and still they have that “something” that makes them classic. I just have to let go. I must have 60 songs now — more, maybe — almost finished on the hard-drive. Yes, they’re far from perfect, no doubt, but I have to move on. If nothing else they’re my musical notation, my scores, my documentation. But ultimately I don’t know if I’ve got the strength to hawk them around. Maybe I’ve spent enough time on them; they stand or fall. And if people find that “x-factor” in them, and wonder if maybe their performer had the stardust, they can seek me out and request an appearance.
(Handwritten London June 22nd 2017)