The Shape of a Musical Life
This week, a friend of mine is nominating me for an artistic achievement award sponsored by one of our much-loved government arts institutions. I was very happy to hear that she wanted to nominate me, and we’ve spent the last few weeks pulling all the required information together; CV’s, letters of recommendation, blood samples, etc. (okay, that last one is a stretch, but you get the idea.) The whole process has left me very reflective, nostalgic about my music career and the various success and failures (professional and personal) along the way.
I’m forty-three, it’s not old by any means, but it’s enough distance to look back and understand a few things about the shape of a life, about luck and what it can mean for a music career. A part of me believes we create our own luck. If we put ourselves out there enough times, something good is bound to happen, right? A teacher once told me, “When you stick your head up above the fray, someone will try and take a shot at it.” Looking back, I guess that may have been the case. Perhaps I was willing to take a hit more than your average musical bear.
But I can’t help wonder. Who is this Chris Tarry guy who did all this stuff? If I’m being honest, I barely recognize him. I don’t know this person on the CV, this dude who looks good on paper. Chris Tarry who? Never heard of him, and take a look at the guy’s hair, hombre looks like he needs a nap.
I feel like I’ve worked hard, but not hard enough. I feel like I’ve practiced hard, but not hard enough. I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time watching TV, going to bed early, and eating pizza at three-in-the-afternoon in front of a soap opera. If I’ve taken anything away from this week of reflection, it’s that success is made up of tiny moments. A chance here, a break there. Luck from somewhere unexpected. You keep moving forward, not in large leaps or in search of that fifteen-seconds of fame, but in tiny deliberate choices; sticking your head up everyday, un-afraid.
There is no denying youthful exuberance. Sometimes I listen to my first record (recorded over twenty years ago now), and think that it’s my best work. There’s a recklessness to it, a limitless feeling to the music I can still remember, still taste. When I was young, I used to wonder about artists like Billy Joel, or Elton John. Why weren’t they able to write music like they once did? I feel like I understand them better now, as an artist, as a father. Is greatness wasted on youth? Is it that young abandonment that pushes us forward in the early days of a career, willing to accept the small steps in favor of big ones? Maybe small victories seems larger when you’re young. Then you grow up, and it’s like walking into your high school and noticing how small the lockers have become.
As I get older, I find myself craving the big steps more and more, the one-shot-deal where so-and-so calls me up and offers the million dollar recording contract, because, “Damn it kid, you bloody well deserve it!” That makes sense, I guess. I’m tired. It’s been a long haul, as they say. You spend your life taking a million small steps, it would be nice if someone carried you over the finish line. But what I realize when I stop long enough to think about it (as I’m doing in this essay) is that the big steps are in themselves made up of small practicalities. None of us would be where we are without the pants we put on one-leg-at-a-time, every single day.
I’ve had the great fortune of winning four Juno awards (the Canadian Grammy), a big career achievement to be sure. But sometimes I stare at those Juno’s on my shelf like they’re from outrer space. “Honey,” I want to say to my wife, “who do these belong to?” Because sometimes it’s like I can’t remember. They belong to the guy in the CV, that fearless kid who looks so good on paper. The guy (if the CV is to be believed) who seemed to have it figured out from the beginning. The Juno’s represent slightly out-of-focus moments in my life. Their details obscured by a forest of smaller instances much easier to recollect. Moments populated by the person I know I am. The guy I meet everyday in front of the TV with his legs propped up on the cat.
I’m realizing now that it’s okay to eat Cheetos in front of your favorite movie, or to take a walk, or to do absolutely nothing, because part of what awaits the aging artist is the realization that man can not live on art alone. That it’s okay if he continues, as Goethe says, “To never rush, and to never rest” (artistically). That if he does this, the next great moments in his career will take care of themselves, and if he’s lucky, small steps will continue to transform him into the artist he knows he will one day meet.