I turned forty 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 fifteen indifferents. Lisa, who was at the wheel, noted that her car's clock showed 12:01AM 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 what I've come to realize was my bottoming out on the lifestyle I'd led since 1976. I spent years as a struggling musician in the Northeast, and I'd always envisioned my return to the area after a long absence to be that of the prodigal son, but in reality, it was more like a setting sun. They didn't care all that much about me up there, and it was a massive ego trauma every time the band hit the stage. Upon returning to California, that horrible sinking feeling that has been with me like a chronic infection set in: I'm a forty-year old man whose dreams aren't gonna come true. I've been chasing my tail. And I don't know what I'm going to do to fill the void.
Twenty years of me throwing the amp in the back of the van, twenty years of ''40% of the door'', twenty years of charming waitresses, strippers and college girls, cursing club-owners, bullying writers (I've gotten mine karmically back, believe me), and dodging landlords and day-jobs. And here I sit in Lisa's Honda as tapped out as the crook of a junkie's arm.
I've had laughs and great times a plenty, even when things appeared to be full-on dog-shite. I remember gigs where I'd deliberately prostrate myself across tables flailing like a beached shark, the audience thinking it was a frenzied catharsis, but in fact was my way of shaking their tips onto the floor so my girlfriend could scoop up beer money. Or hanging upside down from water pipes in basement dives while playing a thousand-mile an hour rants, then splitting my pants and giving the assembled an unwitting hello to Johnny Jr. That was a ball. But approaching B-town up Route One, those days are fading away fast. I wasn't angry anymore,I felt like crying on Lisa's shoulder.
Most of my peers, the ones whose lives have peripherally or directly relied upon the arts, be they poets, performers, writers, actors and other musicians, seem to be facing this same dilemma, albeit not in the front seat of a car. It's a peculiar inversion of the "mid-life crisis," that's always touted as the major reason 42-year old office types suddenly develop the need for fitness, tit-jobs and Corvettes.
Those folks appear to be searching for their lost youth, but we've been marooned on the opposite end of this problem: We've never grown up, and now we have to. The imperative is either financial (as is the case with those newly blessed/cursed with children), or in my case, spiritual. I began to feel like a bonehead, van-touring the U.S. for no good reason, whereas the adventure of the excursion itself used to be a hard-on New cities, new markets, well, truth up, new drugs and new pussy. Sober, married, I felt like a toupee headed dildo in his convertible every time I stepped out onstage at the end, I could no more relate to club-goers circa 1996 than I could to the Jehovah's Witnesses camped out in our 'hood. Old and silly, there's a combo that'll head you towards sharp objects and Golden Gate bridges!
Lo and behold, many of my peers are presently aboard the SS Middle Age as well. B.A. has just completed a six-week tour drumming with a punk band that netted him a grand total of 600 dollars, and is now talking about bidding farewell to the road. R.C. has decided that new head-shots/new agent aren't a career route he wants to take after twenty years acting, and has taken a strictly production based gig. M.C. told me that it was preposterous to him to be "one of those 'I gotta rock' types after 40, and has become an independent contractor. And those are the just the ones who care to be named by initials.
One writer friend pleaded out even with a pseudonym, because the idea of Her abandoning her long-held visions was still unfaceable.
L.A. is without doubt a repository for every aspiring star of every stripe from everywhere else on earth. The Pan syndrome disguised as long-term Bohemian idealism runs rampant here. It's a crime to grow up here, I think it carries the same penalty as jay-walking. I had one friend who told me she loved it here because, "Everywhere you go, from the laundromat to Lucky's, there are washed-up character actors and has-been musicians doing their daily shit." She added: "It's sick." And it's us; it's me; it's the people I hang out with. The punk-rock stardom carrot was dangled in front of my face for two decades and I kept snapping. Me real good horsie, shit, real dumb horsie, no one to blame but me horsie. So I have no right to snob and snub anyone else. And I really tip my cap in earnestness to my comrades who still labor away, eye on whatever prize, no matter how far or hard. For those of us who've gotten sick and tired of this illusory treadmill, we need something else. We must recover from Bohemianism.
I'm convinced now that I was as addicted to the idea of rebellion as actually rebelling, and felt that my lifestyle had to reflect this. But what can be less rebellious than wanting to be a rock star, every other kid since the dawn of Presley has had that fantasy. Most of them were smart enough to lose the notion after their first band caved in. Not I. Outlaw Johnny laughs at the squares, Outlaw Johnny pisses in society's face, Outlaw Johnny lives fast and dies young. Uh-oh. Now, Outlaw Johnny is in a precarious position; having failed to kill himself before forty as planned, he must learn how to live in the world with the rest of the human race.
Now what, you ask ? Stranded without hope, and depressed out of my mind, I had to take drastic action. So I devised a new manifesto for me and all of the rest of us on the Jersey side of the big Four-O. Ten suggestions for recovery from carcinomic Bohemianism that begins presumably after you've started making a little bread doing something semi-responsible. Nobody said you have to don suit and tie and shuffle off to a downtown high-rise abbatoir, but if you live in the realm you gotta start valuing its coin. Applying those guerrilla skills you've gleaned from useless tours and failed openings and never-seen art-films comes in handy when you use them to actually earn a living. If I can (and I do) you can! So, for openers:
It's a start. No one says you have to become the hated enemy of all right-thinkers, the Westside yupp slummer type who valets his Beemer at Spaceland and soaks up the ''atmosphere" whilst slurping the over-priced potables and ogling trendy GenX alties. Perish the thought. But why would you continue to do things that are of dubious value in the first place, either? Most of the behavior on the list is affected, unless your parents were hippies, you weren't raised to do those things. I wasn't. And what could be less of the true "boho" or even ''punk'' spirit than to do what you're supposed to do, even as an outsider. You eventually become a caricature, just like the Euro-trash you ridicule over caff at Millie's.
As I look back on that epiphany I had in New England two years ago this June, I have to smile at the irony. The first step towards becoming a real adult occurred not five miles from where I was born, even though I had to go around a metaphorical world to get there. In 12-step programs, it says that if you really recover from your disease, you will not regret your past nor shut the door on it. I can finally look at mine and say that twenty years of punk-rock craziness didn't kill me, just made me stronger and wiser and ready to face part two of Angel-life heads up.