Developing a career as an artist is often a very complicated and heartbreaking choice in how you are going to live your life. We see too many examples of the worst manifestation of selfishness and ruthless behavior amongst the ranks of “Divas in Training” and the “Men who wish they could.” It is that ugly self centered, self-centered side that is found in has been veterans and up and coming youth that reminds us of the needy desperate measures people go through to be noticed.
Clearly those same attributes are present in Bank Presidents, Doctors and just plain ole folk. But struggling artists often sacrifice years of a quality of life, marriage, children, and financial stability for the “high” associated with being “famous.” Many go for years without the comforts of a good bed, predictable access to a good meal and confidence that in times of an emergency that will be able to access cash stowed away to make a relative’s funeral.
Artist often live a gypsy life even when they are considered famous by standards of great disposable income, exciting travel and an abundance of illicit love affairs. Most at one point can become vulnerable to alcoholism, drug abuse and sex addiction. If you are “lucky” enough to get a seat on that fast train, everything and everyone is at your disposal. You sacrifice friendships, your offspring, your wives, husband’s lovers and parents chasing the next “gig”. Friends and family learn often the hard way to adjust their lives to have a semblance of a healthy relationship with these people they love who are always off to the next “opportunity’.” Flying all over the world, but never leaving the hotel until it is time for the sound check or the next meal. Running from audition to audition, party to party hoping in the bathroom you may spot someone of importance and your break will come. You become no more than a slot machine player, but rather than quarters you are playing with your life.
They have been at it so long they cannot stop now when “gold” and the “jackpot” may be right around the corner. They have also lied so badly, everyone back home believes they are just one heart beat away from “making it “ and often they never do because they ran out of youth and the make up does not cover the grief in their souls.
We observers see this in each other and the most famous and we default to denial. Anyone who saw Whitney Houston, Prince and Luther Vandross in those last days witnessed that as rich and famous as they were there was a void. In the case of some they faced us now talentless, others spewed religious rhetoric or lived a lie that showed up in their face or waistline. They were so busy “doing it”, worshipped by their families and friends, few dared to throw down the gauntlet and say “You are sick !”
You would think that young artists today would take a few lessons from these tragic stories but they seem to be following the same path of destruction with one major difference. They have not committed themselves to the study and the hard work it takes to surpass the standard of the trailblazers that paved the road before them . They are so committed to “sampling” and mimicking they have not answered the primary questions “Who are you ?” “What makes you special?” “How old are you?” Do you love this so much that you are willing to do it for the next twenty years with modest income and a whole lot of sacrifice and disappointments? You almost feel resentment when you in good faith and love try to pull their “coat tail” and plead that they get a grip and start the “dance.” Sadly they keep playing the slot machine as the years come and go. It is a life of sacrifices, perpetual rehearsals and being responsible for the lives of hundreds of people. In other words, you may be tired and want to take off a travel on a world vacation for four months, but you cannot because you have fifty people on your payroll and if you do that they cannot pay their rent or the hospital bill for their child.
I have often, over the years, received harsh blow back from artists who resented my dual life that I eventually merged in to one professional life. I decided many years ago that I did not love artistry enough to wash dishes in a 24-hour diner all night “dive” to make an audition the next morning . It was not a cop out it was a realization who I was and who I was not. I observed those who had no choice but to do that, because pure performance was in their blood, but I did not have the capacity to make that sacrifice. I instead chose a life where I could enjoy both.
I realized that music was one of the vehicles I could use to fulfill my life’s work. There were others as well and all of them brought me great satisfaction. I felt blessed that I was not afflicted with the drive I saw in others. For me it would have been an affliction for them I hope it is nirvana.
I was not offended when a mega record producer at the request of a friend told me my musical work was solid but she then said “ We already have one fat singer and that is Luther.” Wow it was her honesty and her assessment and all I needed to do was take “the best and leave the rest. “ I would take this information and study my craft and study the culture of commercial music. I soon realized that I was not a commercial singer and I was also now older. I could perform and enjoy the profession without participating in a dog race where I was not the most competitive. I was ok with that and so I pursued a healthier life.
My studies demonstrated that artists in previous centuries went unknown until after their death. The neo famous indulgence we see today, as many try to emulate the great legends is a manifestation of the perverse aftermath and residue of a capitalistic system particular to America. Someone is on the top and special. The masses suffer but their fame captures the attention of a lot of fools who think soon someone will come and sweep them up on the same carriage not realizing that talent is no longer at the center of the game.
The most sad and pathetic observation one can make is witnessing a “hasbeen “ or a “never was”- someone who had “a moment in time” and won’t let anyone forget that tour they did. They break out the photo albums and scrapbook showing you the evidence. And what is most frustrating is today’s musicians tension span is only five years at most. We are always polite as they recount their war stories while on the “tour”. You tolerate it because you love them and it is not worth it to give them a reality check. And you end up paying for lunch or dinner. You also realize that they only contact you when they need something. That is how they have been accustomed to operating all of their lives.
I decided to write this piece because it is Black History Month. Frustrated by what I observe with young artists today, I thought what might I say to capture the attention of a few serious artists taking in all the flash associated with music and not the substantive lessons associated with leading and living as healthy as possible. I remain disappointed with sloppy young folks who make excuses for their incompetence. I remain disappointed by those who only contact you when they need something from you. I remain shocked that many of them gravitate or relocate to cities that have become cutthroat ghettos for opportunist artists who really believe they have the good and they have not participated in the same training of the icons they worship. I watch folks partying and running from event to event as if youthfulness is infinite and do not recognize that their competitors are shedding so when the moment arrives they will be prepared. Those who have only been on the earth twenty plus years and speak of the dues they have paid underwhelm me. And lastly the cowards of my generation who allow them to be this indulgent because they won’t out themselves and address their failures because they allow their egos to control sound judgments and decisions. . Young and old models, actors, dancers, painters, and singers can never be your friend. We make a horrible mistake when we allow them to hurt our feelings by expecting anymore than a parasitic relationship. These are not friends. These are people who make up the ranks of driven, self-absorbed individuals that will deplete your energy and creative bank pursuing stardom and fame. There interaction with you in tentative. Teachers, Ministers, Doctors are especially vulnerable confusing these often intellectually and emotionally packed bonds and misjudging the recipients of your plentiful exchange.
So in my old age I have learned the hard way to reserve my gifts and sharing for the most deserving and even in that process “remember me.” Remember that “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Remember how many people wrote to you or called you to just say hello or to check on you. Remember when those who nurtured you as a child got sick, how many reached out to show love and support. And remember most of all that anything you do is done with the full understanding that you expect no reciprocation but it is wonderful when it unexpectedly arrives at your door.
I am excited about the future but I am mindful of the past. I have learned all those lessons well and that gives me a cushion to collapse on when I determine that on occasion I have erred because I care. I don’t regret that. I just wish those who do the exploiting would recognize that one day they would be on the other end of that kind of indifferent behavior.
Each day I am thankful for my unique journey and my ability to move forward in spite of obstacles and those who smile and before their face muscles have relaxed you are an afterthought. In the midst of my own little crisis here and there, I had a dear friend to visit me last week and she shared some valuable advice. She committed herself to saying “NO” for an entire month. I am in my second week.