Success is Relative: Thoughts inspired by Alan Lee Brackett’s “Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love”
As co-founder of a ’60s rock outfit named the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Alan Lee Brackett got closer than most of us will likely ever get to the Big Time. He shared billing with Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, and the Doors. He cut two albums (The Peanut Butter Conspiracy is Spreading and The Great Conspiracy) with much-venerated Columbia Records in 1967. He also got LSD directly from acid-guru Owsley Stanley and witnessed Jim Morrison get so drunk that he vomited on a groupie.
Like so many bands of that (or any) era, however, Brackett and the PBC petered out before getting to the mountaintop. The band had been built around the Hippie drug-culture aesthetic, so the breaking of the psychedelic wave may have been particularly hard on them.
When I interviewed Brackett last year, he also cast some blame on famed concert promoter Bill Graham.
But, when we did a gig back in Jersey with the Airplane and got a better review than they did, that’s when Bill Graham said “no more gigs with Peanut Butter,” so we got aced out of Monterey Pop festival, Woodstock, all the gigs with the West Coast psychedelic thing. “No more gigs with Peanut Butter.” I didn’t appreciate that very much. Just because we got a better review.
— Alan Lee Brackett (Songfacts interview)
Regardless of which factors were the cause, the end result was that the PBC dissolved. Their singer Barbara Robison (the lone female in the group) went on to some of her own success with the musical Hair. Brackett found his own niche making music for movie soundtracks.
It’s the sort of story that would cause many folks to moan. How must it feel to be within grasping distance of the Big Time, and then slide back down to the bottom of the mountain? People (including me) assume that it must be an embittering, resentment-filled experience. That’s not how Brackett’s seen it, though, and his memoir isn’t at all laced with those negative emotions.
Actually, his memoir is filled with happiness and gratitude. He’s got a ton of stories to tell.
As the Almost Famous title of the memoir suggests, Brackett seems fully aware that his story may be defined as others by what he didn’t get—namely, the Big Time. That entire position, though, is a matter of perspective and not objective reality.
A funny thing about people who make fun of “one hit wonders” is that they usually have zero hits of their own. In the same way, the people that would deride Brackett for being only “almost” famous are probably the ones who never even had the guts to leave the starting gate.
Brackett has lived a hell of a life. He made music for a major label and performed during one of the most mythologized periods of music history. He made it further in music than the vast majority of musicians ever get to, but that’s not even the real point. What really matters is that he had a hell of a journey—a life worth basing a book or a movie on.
Reading Almost Famous and talking with Brackett got me to thinking about my own life. I’m still nowhere near where I intend to be with my writing goals, but I’m a hell of a lot further along than five years ago. On top of that, I have had some great experiences and lived some great stories over the course of the journey. For that, I’m happy and grateful.
That’s the main lesson I took away from Almost Famous. It’s good to strive for the heights of our fields, but we need to keep perspective. In the end, the journey is a hell of a lot more interesting than the destination or the failure to reach the destination.
In the end, our lives take shapes far more interesting than arrows going straight up or straight down. We’re lucky to live them. We’re lucky for our time.
What song does Brackett want played at his funeral? “Living Loving Life.” It goes:
“Hasn’t it been nice?
Living, loving life”
— Living, Loving Life by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy
That sounds like a damn good way of looking at life.
Friends, on the way to the top, to the bottom, to any points in between or outside, remember to give thanks for whatever gifts you get along the way.
Go for the dreams you believe in and trust that even if it doesn’t lead you to the Big Time, the story in hindsight will be a hell of a lot more interesting than the one about you sitting on your ass for forty years. Trust me, that story sucks.