We Are What We Pretend To Be
“There’s a palm tree highway right outside my door. Bikes and boats they glide along the shore. There’s a sun-streaked blue-green sea –breaking on the reef, spreading endlessly. Beautiful Island — paradise to me.”
I had occasion to meet one of my musical heroes a few decades ago following a concert in Seattle. No matter what you may know or think about Jimmy Buffett’s songs and impact on American culture, for a guy like me that always yearned to throw a guitar strap over his shoulder and show off in front of a worshiping crowd, he served as a reasonable mentor.
Most folks my age are familiar with “Margaritaville” and his party-themed sellout shows. But his lesser-known folk/country/Caribbean ballads of the seventies and eighties are honest, uncomplicated and lasting tributes to the simple, insightful, carefree lifestyle he celebrates. On probably no more than six guitar chords, he made a bazillion dollars. More than that though, when I was ready to start a ‘musical destiny’ late in life, you couldn’t find more playable tunes to impress your friends and neighbors quickly. (Like before they leave the room.)
When we shook hands, it’s not like Mr. Buffett slapped me on the back and said, “Take it from here, kid!” But I do remember sitting around a rather unstylish motel room at the Edgewater Hotel after the show and being impressed and inspired as he and his band mates crafted a song for the next album while sitting on the two double beds. Bill, Barry and I perched on the floor as Bill’s wife Robin, whose pretty, pleading eyes scored the road manager’s invitation, worked the room and kept the conversation going.
As mentioned in an earlier story, I lacked the credibility (not to mention talent and ambition) to be a big star like Jimmy Buffett, having not grown up in the South, smuggled dope, or busked night after night in Nashville, but I had feelings and a story to tell. As do we all. And so I did.
Humanistic psychology suggests that we all hold the capacity to attain impressive individual awareness and self-actualization – the expression of our best abilities and creativity. I have accepted that we are inwardly motivated to craft our minds, bodies, spirits and psyches to reach our highest potential.
When I set about looking for myself at age fifty, the list of dream jobs came calling. One thing I grasped was that Callings must be honored, or at least honestly attempted. No way was I going to tolerate regret in my later years. Or (said while chuckling) whether the gift of dementia might solve the problem of remorse for me.
Spiritual privilege is a term which has been assigned to our generation for having had access to the knowledge, culture, social networks, time and financial resources to explore the many worlds of the mind and soul. Those of us that were raised in educated, upper middle class, white, mid-century households amid a youth impacted by social upheaval and the liberalization of religious institutions were perfectly positioned to accept, integrate and design our own personal brand of alternative spirituality.
So it is that many of us are inclined to go deep and perhaps a little goofy. We may be materially blessed, but remain unsettled bohemians at heart. We fan the flames of our neglected creative fire and seek the big answers to bigger questions. We pick up our pens, cameras, carpentry tools, and paint brushes. We pray, meditate, study and experiment.
Some of us aging seekers will shuffle along our path with songs in our head that just might bring forgiveness to the madness of day to day life. We become determined to climb Maslow’s self-actualization pyramid with an open heart in one arthritic hand and an out-of-tune guitar in the other. We commit to the certainty that six-string music, which has played the soundtrack of our upbringing, can provide musical accompanyment to our self-realization.
The Palm Tree Highway
And so I began my awkward quest to sing my life. Thinking 20 years ago that…
1. I would master any musical instrument easily as of course I had the hands of a trained surgeon,
2. I could write a song every bit as listenable and likable as Jimmy Buffett’s, and
3. I would bravely stand tall in front of 6, 60 or 60,000 people and be spot-on with voice and instrument while cleverly playing the crowd and stunning them with my sensitivity and wisdom in all things essential to a purposeful, feel-good life.
At the outset of the journey, along with purchasing a guitar and a series of lessons from ‘Betsy — Olympia’s Blues Woman,’ I bought a book titled “Guitar – An American Life” by Tim Brookes. In the introduction to his story about the legendary significance and iconic status of this simple wood instrument was the following deflating jab at what I had proudly thought was a unique and sacred pursuit:
“Guitar makers have single word for baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-that-dream: ‘Dentists’. ”
I did not make that up.
The author’s condescending opinion would be worth a rant if it weren’t somewhat true. But it seemed more tame to have a midlife-crisis affair with a stringed instrument instead of some seductive minx with borderline personality who would really give me something to sing the blues about.
I learned all the old folk songs, figured out how to fingerpick Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, stepped up in song circles with my wife’s three perfectly harmonizing sisters, and stepped out on the stage at a quite a few open mics. Alas, I am not now, nor ever will be, a master musician or even close. I learned that due to my uneven playing, an inability to keep a beat, and chronic stage fright in my fingers, I was no kinda performer. Though indeed I tried. But actually not very hard.
However, I did impress myself, and maybe few others, with the songs I personally wrote. Before long I was scribbling anthems of love, truth and glory. (It didn’t take me long to learn that melody and lyrics, despite a common myth, do not merely manifest fully-written while you sleep.) As an example of my early success, the second epic tune I composed was titled, “If You Won’t Leave Me Alone, I’ll Find Someone Who Will.” I was on my way, right?
America’s Got Talent. Me – Not So Much
I never completely stopped doubting that I was but a phone call away from stardom. I submitted songs to country, pop, and Americana songwriting contests, attended serious workshops, read books and studied YouTube demonstrations. I set up a cheap home studio. After hours of confusion and frustration, I figured out how to record capably enough to hire online studio musicians and producers to cobble together some of my “hits”.
I wrote about love, revenge, old age longing, and New Age spirit. And laziness, peace of mind, beaches, past girlfriends, present wives, the open road and coal trains. I made music videos, opened websites and promoted in social media pages. It was, and still is, a fulfilling distraction. And to this day I’m still my biggest fan.
As promised, this creative melodic outpouring of opinion and emotion has truly helped in my pursuit of authenticity and perspective. Not to mention humility and self-empathy.
Though I still wince when I listen to much of my homemade music, I have to insist that Jimmy Buffett missed out big time when he never returned my email inviting him to record “Beautiful Island”. If my captivating story of the tropics and finding your peace and joy wherever you are doesn’t out-Margaritaville his Margaritaville, it comes damn close. Just my opinion. Take it with a lost shaker of salt.
4 thoughts on “Beautiful Island”
Love reading about your journey. Its poetic, believable, sensitive , with a mixture of art and science. You tell a story hopefully aware how many you touch others. Love your song. I feel, and I think you bring out some hidden feelings of others that may be hidden. I deeply thankyou for this post. It made my evening.
I am grateful you took the time to read the piece and leave such an eloquent response. Comments and corrections are appreciated too. Do feel welcome to share with others that may enjoy. Best. JD
These insights into your deepest self are really gold, John. They are unflinching, self deprecating, wise and brave. And true. But what do I know??
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Ah! Always a good question for a gifted thinker and teacher as yourself to ask!