I turned 40 years old on the road between Providence and Boston. My band, Creeps in Exile, was on its final tour, one month before dissolving, and this night had seen us before a crowd of 15 indifferents, which creates a feeling not unlike a root canal if you’re the lead singer. Lisa, who was at the wheel, noted that her car’s clock showed 12:01 a.m. and crowed with real joy, “Happy birthday, Johnny.” I didn’t know whether to kiss her or kill her.
That tour was the beginning of the end for the struggling-musician lifestyle I’d led since 1976. I’d always envisioned my return to the Northeast, after a long absence, like that of a triumphal prodigal son. Setting sun is more like it.
Upon returning to California, a long-developing horrible feeling enveloped me: I’m a 40-year-old man whose dreams aren’t gonna come true. I’ve been chasing my tail. Twenty years of throwing the amp in the back of the van; 20 years of “40 percent of the door”; 20 years of charming waitresses, strippers and college girls — and cursing club owners and bullying writers. (I’ve gotten mine karmically back, believe me.) And here I sit, as tapped out as the crook of a junkie’s arm.
I feel like an old geezer as I recount stunts I used to pull, the things that made me the envy of the settled set: like when I climaxed my act by hanging upside down from water pipes in basement dives while playing a punky, inept guitar solo over one of our thousand-mile-an-hour rants. After these, I would dive like a beached shark across the tops of candlelit tables. Applause, applause.
The first stunt — the pipe hang — sometimes resulted in splitting my pants, giving the assembled an unwitting hello to Johnny Jr. Even for me, that could be embarrassing. The table flop, in fact, was part ruse. I always dived near the end of dinner, after patrons had laid their tips on the table. My girlfriend followed stealthily after me, nabbing the change that fell to the floor. Man, it was a pain to get that candle wax off my clothes.
In those times the joy of total abandon onstage compensated for any miseries. Now I’m more likely to dwell on the downside, like two weeks ago, when my beaten-up van blew a wheel bearing and spindle on the I-5 to San Fran. I had booked a pair of gigs that seemed like lucrative larks. (Short-term memory-loss alert: There are no such things.) Broken down in the middle of nowhere — if Firebaugh qualifies as nowhere — I could no longer pump myself up by recalling my mission in life: to rock.
All you daydreaming stockbrokers out there: Are you envious of my life yet?
My particular problem is an inversion of the “midlife crisis,” and it’s also afflicted most of my peers, be they poets or performers. For us, it’s a different phenomenon from the one that moves 42-year-old office types to develop the need for fitness, tit jobs and Corvettes.
Those folks appear to be reaching for lost youth; we’re marooned at the opposite end of the spectrum: We’ve never grown up, and now (gasp) we may have to. For some the imperative is financial (especially those newly blessed/cursed with children). In my case, despite my relative poverty, the issue is spiritual. I just began to feel like a bonehead, van-touring the U.S. for no good reason. Geez, for years just the adventure of the excursion itself was a hard-on: new cities, new markets — well, new drugs and new pussy. Now, sober and married, I can no more relate to clubgoers circa 1996 than I can to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My fellow travelers and I have been suffering a near-lethal, peculiarly L.A. malady: a Pan syndrome disguised as eternal bohemian idealism. It keeps us forever in waitress gigs or messenger jobs — and so far out of the loop that the Business section of the Times may as well be in fucking Sanskrit.
This reality is indeed the last laugh for those who told us to “learn a trade” because music (or acting, or poetry, or visual arts) was a “crap shoot.” And that we’d “better have something to fall back on.”
I’m not alone aboard the S.S. Titanic (a.k.a. middle age). B.A. has just completed a six-week tour drumming with a punk band that netted him $600, and now talks of bidding farewell to the road. R.C. has decided that new head shots/new agent are no longer a career route after 20 years of unnoticed acting; he’s taken a strictly production-based gig. M.C. tells me that it’s preposterous to be an “I gotta rock” type after 40; he morphed into an independent contractor. And those are just the ones who dare to be named by initials.
It isn’t strictly a financial matter for us; we’ve subsisted on nothing for so long anyway. For me, this life crisis comes from a feeling of impotence that creeps in when I compare myself to others, when I recognize that I’m basically clueless.
Face it, when you ask yourself why you’re not further along, that’s the beginning of the end for bohos. A true rebel couldn’t care less. It’s sticking it to society’s mores that counts. In my case, I was addicted to the idea of rebellion and felt that my lifestyle had to reflect this. Yet most of my behavior was affected. I wasn’t raised that way. Nor were my spiritual peers, unless their parents happened to be hippies. In the end, what could be less “boho” or even “punk” than adopting a pose, even the pose of an outsider?
Looking back, what could possibly be less rebellious than wanting to be a rock star; every other kid since the dawn of E. Presley has carried that fantasy. Most are smart enough to lose the notion after their first band caves in. Not I. Outlaw Johnny laughs at the squares; Outlaw Johnny pisses in society’s face; Outlaw Johnny lives fast and dies young.
Now, Outlaw Johnny finds himself in a precarious position. Having failed to kill myself before 40 as planned, I must now make some adjustments.
So, I will:
• Sleep on no more futons unless it serves to correct
a disc problem rather than cause one.
• Drink from glasses, not bottles, and eat from plates.
• Eat no ramen noodles unless I’m on a diet or un-
dernourished in sodium.
• Begin to recognize the difference between “vintage”
• Never again consider a Mohawk. It’s the wrong re-
sponse to a receding hairline. I won’t even try the
IN ADDITION, I UNDERSTAND:
• That it’s wrong to steal the neighbor’s cable.
• That the verb “to go” will refer to a meal, not a
• That it’s ill-advised to rationalize mice and roaches as household pets.
• That the first of the month and the 15th aren’t in- terchangeable dates.
• That clove cigarettes and cigars taste like they smell.
• That iron, as in iron that shirt, is not a four-letter word (well, it is but . . .).
I tell myself that I’m not really selling out. Hell, I’m angrier today at the state of my world than I was as a post-teen punk stomping on Eagles discs — and these days I’m more well-informed about the particulars than I ever was then. I’m also angry about the seeming bitter reality that nothing ever changes (as Fleetwood Mac mania circa 1997 attests to). But as drinking and drugs didn’t kill me, then neither will stubbornly clinging to boho for the sake of boho.
I don’t want to don the dull grays of downtown and shuffle off to a high-rise abattoir, but I do want very much to rise from my futon and start having a real impact. If I can just apply my guerrilla skills toward making a living, I might have enough energy left for some idealistic service. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And that’s a start.