Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Monthly Archives: March 2017

How Do You Define Failure?

Let’s examine this rationally – how we define failure will be specific to the goal we are seeking. The thing is, sometimes we think we are working towards one goal, only to later find out that perhaps that wasn’t the goal all along. If the goal is a passing grade in school, there is no gray area – you either pass or fail. But most goals in life aren’t so black and white…

For a long time I thought I was making records and creating music for a large audience, and that the yardstick for measuring success was how many people bought my music and the recognition it would bring. I wanted some kind of confirmation that what I was doing was somehow special and important. By those metrics, I failed. The problem is, that failure didn’t stop my desire to keep creating. Which led me to a dilemma – if I still felt compelled to do this after I had seemingly failed, what did that mean? What was the purpose?

I think, for me, the answer is that the act of creating IS the goal, and that whatever happens to the stuff I create after it’s done is incidental. By those metrics, everything I have created has been a success. I couldn’t feed or clothe myself or find shelter from the sales of my art. But I don’t need to – I have a great and fulfilling job that gives me satisfaction and allows me to live. Now, I understand that to most people this will probably make no sense at all. That’s OK. But if you are one of those people who wish to nurture their inner desire to express themselves, try to understand this concept. It might save you a lot of pain on your journey.

When you are expressing your humanity through making art, YOU must be the final and sole judge of it’s worth. Everything else is superfluous.

By Any Means Necessary Part 1

Sometimes life doesn’t give you the option of saying no. It presents you with a problem NOW. You may want to say no, but choosing not to make a decision is in itself a decision. And choosing not to deal with a problem is ALWAYS the wrong decision.

So how do you handle a problem that seems beyond your capabilities?

By any means necessary…

Creating Art: Selfish or Selfless?

As I have gotten older and become more aware of the limited time I have left, I sometimes wrestle with the amount of time I spend thinking about and making art. Is it selfish for me to do this, when I am not sure it is really helping anyone else? Is it enough to express yourself through creating things because you are compelled to? What does that even mean? On a personal level, I keep coming back to this idea of living one’s life just trying to do the right thing every moment of each day. Treating other people and the world around us with respect. Having empathy for the struggles of others. Not hating. Creating art. Giving back and having gratitude for what we have and who we are. Do any of these things change the world? Probably not, but it’s something I have control over and it’s at least a start.

I came across this provocative, short article where seven different artists discuss why they make art. I love (and completely agree with) Harrell Fletcher’s definition of art: Anything anyone calls art is art. I believe it is the intent that makes it so. But I would go even further and say that ultimately it is the observer who is the final arbiter, because anyone who has explored “folk art,” “art brut,” or “outsider art,” clearly recognizes this stuff as art, even if its creators didn’t. Google Morton Bartlett – I still remember seeing (at an outsider art exhibit in NYC in the 1990s) some of the eerily life like yet other worldly wooden sculptures of children he made, dressed up, photographed and posed – for who? He apparently made them only for himself. They were “discovered” by an antiques dealer after he died. Even though he made these figures only for himself, by a quirk of fate I saw them and they certainly had a profound effect on me.

Maybe the act of making things to express oneself and interpret what it means to be alive is a uniquely human trait. Sometimes it is a compulsion that we don’t understand. Perhaps we shouldn’t question it

A Beautiful Day in New York City Part 1

Late afternoon, walking east on Central Park South. I’m on my way to my dentist and lost in my thoughts. Every time I’m walking around NYC, or taking the subway, I just feel like I’m home. There’s something stimulating everywhere you look – people, architecture, art, trash. I love the feeling of drifting along in this sea of anonymous humanity where no one really knows anyone else. And yet we are all together, in close proximity, in this magnificent place. All races, ethnicities, genders, ages, sexual orientations, political beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds and glorious fucking variations of humanity. It was a beautiful day in late winter, and I could’ve pointed my phone anywhere and taken a great shot. I stop at the southeast corner, look up and snap this…


Being a charge nurse in an inner-city ER can, on a busy day with high acuity patients, begin to feel a bit like what I imagine leading a field disaster unit might. You are literally running the whole show; controlling who gets seen and when, assigning patients to nurses and doctors, determining the course of action for each case – you are the last word and assume complete responsibility for everyone who walks through the door. Some of them go home, some are admitted, and some of them die. Sometimes you are triaging patients and making preliminary diagnoses guiding their care at the same time.

In ERs in the U. S., there is no limit to the number of patients we admit (mind you, I strongly believe this is a just law). We are bound by federally mandated legislation to accept everyone who walks in through the door (or is brought in by EMS). This can create some very dangerous and stressful dilemmas – you quickly run out of resources and then my friend, you are flying on your own. And it is a lonely flight – you spend every moment expecting and preparing for the next disaster and putting out fires.

Right now I feel like I’ve been beaten with a stick, like my brain is cotten candy, like I am so tired I can’t go to sleep. Today I was charge.

I am grateful and privileged to have my job, and I’m happy with every opportunity I have to help someone. I think we are all capable of rising to this level, whether we think so or not.

Charge – it’s a state of mind…

No Fear

What if you had no fear, no shame, and no self- consciousness about expressing yourself completely in your art and life? There is something powerfully compelling and charismatic about people who can do this. Think of Iggy Pop – I am still trying to process what he did, and as I get older I find it ever more mysterious and interesting. I was never a fan when I was younger, probably because I just didn’t get it. I was into music, and the Stooges were so primitive and raw, their records just sounded awful to me. But I think to really begin to understand Iggy and his art, you have to see it live. My first and only experience with this was in 1994 when he was touring after recording the “American Caesar” album. He was probably around 47 when I saw his band play at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC, and it was one of the most thrilling live rock concerts I had ever seen. I mean the energy level and sense of danger were just palpable, I had never seen anything quite like it, certainly not from a man of his age. Mind you, at the time I had been a professional musician for 20 years, and had seen (and been a part of) a lot of extreme musical expression. But this was just something entirely different – a true “what the fuck?!” moment…

In defense of the early Stooges records, there are some musical experiences that are just impossible to capture on a recording. There is something else altogether happening during the performance – something that involves the direct exchange of energy between the performers and the audience. It’s like Sufi trance dancing, where the performer becomes a conduit for tapping into some deeper form of energy, transferring that energy to other people in the direct environment, who in turn transform it into something else. It can be powerful and scary and exhilarating to see this happening, to be a part of it. You don’t know where it is going, the air is just crackling with possibility and building energy and it seems as though anything can happen. I remember being almost giddy; I’m sure I had that kind of smile plastered on my face during the whole show where you are having so much fun you just don’t want the experience to stop.

So how does this happen? What makes a boy who grew up in a trailer park in Ypsilanti, Michigan (with very supportive parents) do this? What made him think he could do this?

What made him have no fear?

There Is No Such Thing as Writers Block…

I just listened to a podcast where Brian Koppelman interviewed Seth Godin, and while it was clear that they were friends and had a huge mutual respect for each other, they absolutely did not agree on this topic. I love listening to two smart people disagreeing on something, with each side arguing their case – it’s a wonderful thing that creates this rich environment for considering other possibilities beyond what you (think you) already know.

I’m not quite sure which side of the fence I fall on, but (and I’m paraphrasing) here was Seth’s position:

“There is no such thing as writers block – there is only not writing…”

Now, we all know how to write our thoughts down in words; the reason we become “stuck” is that it is a better story to tell ourselves that we have writers block rather than write something that might not be good. But that is not how it works – it is only the act of actually doing something that allows one to become good (and hopefully great) at it. We don’t have to look far to see evidence of this – most great artists were prolific and not everything they did was great. They just kept doing it…

Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Andy Warhol, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Steven King, Isaac Asimov, and Prince come immediately to mind. They each created an enormous body of work, some of which was undeniably transcendent. But not all of their work, even to their fans, was that great. Usually interesting, but sometimes you can just feel that they were reaching for something and not always finding it. But they just kept showing up and doing the work. Day in and day out. Making stuff.

So Seth’s point was that it’s easier and more comfortable for us to say we’re working on something, because as long as we are just working on it, there is no chance of failure. And if we have writers block, all the better. Now we can say (to ourselves) that we are capable of transcendent work, if only we didn’t have this writers block…

It usually takes a long time to become really good at something, and it is really hard to make things. Failure is a painful part of the process. But the only chance we have of really expressing whatever it is we are trying to say in an artful way is to do it. A lot. And not be afraid to fail.

Perception of Loudness: A Paradigm Shift?

I’d like to think that I’m not always right, and more importantly, that I’m always willing and able to view a subject from a fresh perspective. Otherwise your thinking becomes calcified and you can suffer from the dreaded “old geezer” syndrome. Sheesh, I really don’t want to go there. So I’ve been thinking about my earlier post on (what I view) as the destructive influence of digital limiting on dynamics and the relentless pursuit of achieving ever-higher loudness levels in modern recordings. And I started to think about this issue from a younger person’s perspective – perhaps there is a generational paradigm shift happening here…

What if this hyper-compressed sound was all you ever knew? I mean, suppose you were six years old in 1995, the year I referenced in my earlier post as ground zero for this phenomenon. So today you are around 28 years old, and what you grew up hearing were these bricks of aural noise. Maybe you grew to really love music, and perhaps in your teenage years you began to investigate albums recorded before 1989, the year you were born. We know that our brains are forming neurological responses based on input throughout our lives, but the years from 8 to 18 are particularly powerful for shaping our perceptions of the world around us. So what might you make of these older records with actual dynamics?

They might sound very odd to you, and I’m willing to concede that they might not sound as “powerful” as the records that your brain used to set the “standard” of what a recording should sound like. This is a somewhat disturbing situation for me to fully accept, but I’m willing to at least consider it as a possibility. The part of this argument that I have difficulty understanding is that I believe our brains are inherently wired to find dynamics pleasurable. The aural variation that dynamics create sets up an unpredictable listening experience that our brains find novel, rewarding us with little bursts of dopamine. The hyper-limited slabs of sound that our hypothetical young person has grown up listening to offer no element of surprise at all. As a listening experience they are like bursts of white noise, offering little stimulation for our brains…

Now, there are some genres of modern music that can handle this form of hyper-compression better than others, but I’ll save that for another post. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that there are other points of view, and try to understand them. I would also like to make it clear that I love the sound of artfully applied compression – I am not an advocate of recording without using all of the tools at our disposal to realize the sounds in our heads. But that is not the issue I am addressing here. The hyper-limited crush I am talking about is applied on the master bus and then wielded like a sledgehammer in “mastering.”

But hey, that’s just my opinion. And I accept that there are others that might be just as valid. I’d also like to keep an open mind to try and continue to grow

Declaring Your Identity

Leee Black Childers recalled finding himself at the Factory, the Andy Warhol studio that had become a gathering place for artists and musicians. He told Warhol that he aspired to be a photographer; in that case, Warhol told him, he should just call himself one.

“He said, ‘Say you’re a photographer, and you’re a photographer,’ ” Mr. Childers recalled in an online interview. “And he pointed across the Factory to Candy Darling, who was one of the great drag queens, and he said: ‘Look at her. She says she’s a woman. She is.’ So from that moment on, I was a photographer.”

The Best Thing About Being a Nurse

The whole purpose of my job is to help people. No matter how shitty things are – in my life or in the world – I get to go to work knowing that I am part of the solution and not part of the problem. I get paid to do the one thing that is virtually guaranteed to make you feel better.

Make no mistake, it is an almost impossibly difficult and exhausting job. And really dirty where one has constant intimate contact with every possible fluid, tissue, odor and substance that can come out of a human body. In the ER there’s constant yelling, alarms, physical threats, death, and verbal abuse. But I love being the person who is not phased by any of it – because I am on a mission. If you truly need help, I’m your guy.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Did I mention that I also get to work with a team of really smart and dedicated people?

Is Art Free?

I’m being serious here – and the specific art I am talking about is music. I think it’s safe to say that most people who consume music no longer feel it’s necessary to pay for it. I’m not making judgments here, just being real. It is what it is. The web both giveth and taketh away. And boy, did it take – recorded music went from being the most profitable segment of the entertainment industry to being virtually worthless almost overnight. That ship sailed a long, long time ago. Books could be written about the circumstances that caused this to happen; I’m not really interested in exploring that subject here. What does interest me though is this: if recorded music is worthless, and yet artists still feel compelled to create in this medium, it seems to put them a somewhat uncomfortable position. Are they expected to just give it away? Should they just give it away? And if they don’t, then what? Is it just for them to create and then disappear into the void? Is the process itself the whole point for the individual, and the final artifact disposable? Is creating art serving some compulsive need for self expression that has been part of humanity from the beginning, and the idea that is was “worth” something just a modern construct?

Who Gave Frank Zappa Permission?

Who told him that he could create a new kind of art? (Frank wouldn’t refer to what he did as “art” – but I can). The correct answer is Frank Zappa.

Artists don’t ask permission to create. They just do it. What happens to it after they make it is secondary to the process itself. Some are good at marketing what they do, others aren’t. Sometimes their art resonates with the zeitgeist of the time, often it doesn’t. In the old (but still fairly recent) paradigm, there were “gatekeepers” who determined what the public would see or hear – publishers, record labels, gallery owners, movie studios, etc. Today those gatekeepers have been have been rendered less and less important, replaced by the democratization of the web and the public’s ability to seek out and find what interests them. There are pros and some very big cons with this new paradigm, but that’s for another post.

My point here is this: Don’t wait for some affirmation from an outside force to give you permission to create something. Just do it.

Happiness is a Warm Gun

I’ve been listening to and reading about the Beatles quite a bit lately. There’s just nothing about this band that’s not interesting. I’ll go through phases where I become fascinated with different aspects of what they did, and recently I’ve been re-examining some of their songwriting. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a John Lennon song from the “White Album,” and everything about this tune just kills me (pun not intended).

First of all, it’s 2:43 long. In that small space of time John fits what sounds like four different songs – or at least four different sections of one song, none of which has anything to do with the other, into one cohesive piece. It shouldn’t work but it does. If you read much about the Beatles one thing you’re struck by is how much pressure they were under to constantly come up with new material. Most bands (or artists) would break under this strain, but somehow they didn’t. I think it partly had to do with how close they were (even though I don’t think they particularly liked each other after a certain point). But they continued to believe in one another until the end. And this support, along with their innate gifts, allowed them to keep cranking out new material.

One device Lennon used to write was incorporating everything he came across that caught his eye (or ear) into his tunes (hmm – see Jarmusch post), and part of his genius was the very artful way he did it. This tune is a great example. But before I go any further, we have to admire the sheer balls and audaciousness of a band, ANY band, doing a song called “Happiness is a Warm Gun!” WTF! Two years prior they were singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand!

This tune has a ridiculous amount of time changes crammed into its 2 plus minutes. Depending on how you count it, we have 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, and 6/8. The title apparently came from a magazine article John saw. It just has everything: little details constantly shifting and changing, very evocative lyrics, and a great vocal from John Lennon – one of the great vocalists from any era. The “Bang bang shoot shoot” background vocals when Lennon sings the title at the end provides the perfect whimsical counterpart to what otherwise would be a menacing refrain. They always seemed to find the perfect balance…

The Fragility of Life

Believe it or not, quite a few of the residual effects of surviving cancer are positive. But one negative (maybe I just haven’t evolved enough yet to see it as a positive), is that one becomes acutely aware of just how fragile and temporary our health (defined as the absence of disease) is… You are constantly aware that your current phase of health is transient. It will end. And you’ll eventually be sick and back in the hospital (I’m sorry folks, but this is coming for all of us). And when you are there, you’ll desperately wish for the time you had when you weren’t sick. I know, because I’ve been there. I guess it’s kind of a blessing in a way. Most people are blissfully unaware of what’s coming, which I suppose is as it should be. It’s a protective mechanism. But once you’ve had to reckon with the very real possibility of your imminent diseased deterioration and death, had that dreadful moment when your oncologist says “I’m sorry, but the news isn’t good,” everything changes. You become more grateful for your time, but more acutely and painfully aware that it won’t last. It’s a gift and a curse.

I guess I’m just saying, be grateful for every minute you’ve got. The reality is that it’s eventually coming to an end.

Better get busy…

You Can’t Kill a Good Song

I found this amazing performance of (what I thought was) an R&B tune called “Changes,” sung by Charles Bradley. I’m listening to it and just mesmerized by his palpably heartfelt and visceral rendition of this beautifully simple arrangement. It’s an incredibly great and authentic retro-soul mix of a Daptone Records production – the players are nailing it and Charles is just KILLING IT. Wow…

Then I find out “Changes” was written by Black Sabbath and recorded for their 4th album in 1972. It’s really interesting to hear these different versions back to back. First of all, my hat’s off to whoever thought it would be a good idea for Charles to sing this – just brilliant! But listening to Sabbath’s version really drives home the mysterious strength of a great tune. Ozzy sounds hauntingly plaintive, and the 1972 track just works. Sabbath were obviously one of the great proto-metal bands, but on this track there is no guitar in sight. Instead we have a really skeletal piano part with a Mellotron string arrangement. I am always a little awed by the mystery of a song this simple – how, and more importantly, why, does it work? It’s one of those piano parts that only uses the white keys – you can almost see a musician who doesn’t play piano (in this case Tony Iommi, Sabbath’s guitar player) fooling around and coming up with this. The whole is truly greater than the sum of it’s parts.

And of course it has a great chorus: “I’m going through changes” – who can’t relate to that?

Tools of Distraction

I get distracted by tools. Everything a music producer/musician uses to help create a transcendent recording is a tool of some sort. Trust me – that’s a lot of tools. And in order to use a tool effectively, you must understand how it works and what it is capable of. This takes time – sometimes quite a bit of time. But learning how to use a tool is not the same thing as making something. Important distinction.

Now, it is perfectly valid to explore and learn your tools if creative ideas aren’t flowing. And it’s also true that in order to achieve certain sounds, you need to have (and know how to use) certain tools. This is one of the things I love about music – it presents a never-ending learning curve.

But tools can also become a distraction – a rabbit hole into which you drop only to resurface a few hours later going “WTF!?” and realize you didn’t make anything. It’s like those camera guys who get obsessed with lenses but never get around to actually making cool pictures. Sometimes I feel like I’m heading down that rabbit hole… Like I’m spending too much time playing with and learning how to use my tools and not enough time actually making music. Ouch – that hurts to say.

Sometimes the truth fucking hurts, but if we don’t face it we can’t grow

Look – we live in an amazing time, tools are being invented to solve problems we didn’t even know existed. But I’ve got to remember that the tools are there to help me get somewhere…


Jim Jarmusch

OK, time for an inspirational and thought provoking quote from the great film director Jim Jarmusch:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. . And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

I found this quote after I watched “Dead Man,” an utterly astounding and unique film – seriously, I am really into film (a love I’m sure will begin to reveal itself over time in this blog), and I can honestly say that this appears to be one of those movies for which there is no real precedent. And yet here is this quote from Jarmusch…

This black and white surreal expression of some very deep existential themes is, of course, not going to be for everyone. But I found it just mind-blowing. It seemed to be about the birth of America, a meditation on violence, life and death, the struggle to find meaning in a brutal and harsh world, the beauty and absurdity of life, the idea that reality is a moving construct, the exploration of everything in life that is unknowable but yet we somehow sense is real, and what (if anything) lies beyond death. Add to this an absolutely haunting soundtrack that was apparently improvised by Neil Young – a single, beautifully distorted electric guitar – and you get a film that seems to be an uncategorizable statement of stunning originality.

So what are we to make of Jarmusch’s quote?

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent…”

What Are You Afraid Of?

I’m addressing myself here – specifically about writing music. Or rather, my current difficulty in doing so. One of the purposes this blog serves is to try to understand myself better, to achieve clarity of thought. Often just the act of writing down your thoughts exposes distorted or nonsensical thinking. So if I’m having difficulty writing and completing pieces of music, is it because I’m afraid? If so, what am I afraid of? Fear of not having anything to say? That seems kind of crazy since the last few years have been a rich source of personal growth.

Fear of not producing something I think is great and excites me? OK, this might hit a little closer to home.  Fear of not doing something original? Maybe this should be rephrased to “Fear of repeating myself.” Oy, that’s close. Definitely afraid of that.

Let’s keep going… I’ve effectively removed “Fear of success” since I’ve established I’m really just doing this for me. Am I afraid that if it’s just for me it has no importance and therefore isn’t worth doing? Just stream of consciousness rambling here folks. If I’m boring you feel free to move on. But I’m really trying to figure this out.

I found this great quote from Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.” This is kind of painful and obvious, and assumes that the work is going to be good, but I get that without at least attempting to create something, you’re obviously not going to make anything great. Is it about lack of discipline? I kind of touched on this in an earlier post, but perhaps it bears further scrutiny. In order to be disciplined, there has to be a specific goal. You have to know what you are being disciplined about, otherwise you are just floundering.

I find it somewhat interesting that I am not really having difficulty coming up with something to write about in this blog every day. I don’t really think too much about it – I JUST DO IT. Hmm… The thing is, I am not a writer, therefore I have no expectations of whether this will be easy or hard – or even “good.” I also haven’t studied writing to the degree where I am comparing myself to some “gold” standard. I AM SIMPLY EXPRESSING MYSELF.

I might be onto something here…