The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it’s said, but going in straight lines never got me anywhere.
Suppose you wanted to start a punk rock band. Your version of a “straight line” might be to live in a city full of like-minded individuals, to hang around clubs where punk rock bands played, and to ask everyone you meet if they want to play music with you.
I tried that. For years. In the late 70s and early 80s, when the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living at the time, was one of the two or three hottest punk rock scenes on the planet.
The result was zilch. Nada. A long, wearying succession of people who didn’t show up for practice, who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the songs or write better ones of their own, of police pounding on the door with noise complaints, and an evergrowing number of friends and not-so-friends telling me, “Punk? Isn’t that kind of passé?”
Something needed to change, but my next step was not one you’d find in your How To Start A Punk Rock Band manual. I said the hell with everything and moved to an off-the-grid mountain wilderness without phones or electricity, where the nearest neighbor was a mile away, and nobody had the slightest interest in punk rock, if they’d even heard of it.
That would be where I’d find two kids to start a band with, one of whom would go on to be among the most famous drummers in the world. I’d start a magazine, powered, like the band, by primitive solar panels, and a record label that would sell millions of records and put a whole new scene and style of music on the map. Go figure, right?
Not in a million years, of course, could I have planned it that way. If I were to spend the rest of my life moving to one far-flung wilderness after another, the chances of the same sort of lightning striking again would never rise much beyond zero. So why this particular time, on that particular mountain? You got me, pal.
What about when, at the height of the Vietnam War, the bunch of lunkheads I hung out with decided we were all going to enlist in the Marines and “kick some commie butt.” We got some beer to celebrate our last night of freedom, and I, as per usual, drank twice as much as everyone else. The next morning, when everyone else went down to the recruiting office, I was dead to the world. “Man, you totally missed out,” they told me when I showed up on the corner again. Only two of them would make it back from the war in one piece.
But while drunkenness served me well on that occasion (and maybe on a couple of others that I can’t seem to recall at the moment), drinking myself into blackouts couldn’t normally be counted on to produce such positive results.
In fact – and here’s what sets me apart from my more conventionally successful friends – nothing I ever did or tried could be counted on. I’d go from looking like a lunatic to looking like a genius and back to lunacy again: wash, rinse, repeat and you have the story of my life.
Other people graduate high school, enroll in college, pick a field of study and a profession, and spend the rest of their lives pursuing and reaping the rewards of their dream. I’d been kicked out of college four times before it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was doing there in the first place.
“Bright enough, but lacks stick-to-it-iveness,” an early report card informed my parents, and that teacher had my number. If it had been 30 years later they’d have diagnosed me with ADHD and stuck me on Adderall, but neither of those things had been invented yet.
So instead I was fated to wander and blunder my way through school and life, frequently tripping over my own two left feet, but occasionally stumbling over and into something truly amazing and wonderful.
“You want to hear God laugh?” my Irish friend Paul always used to say, “Tell him your plans.”
“Plans?” I’d answer. “What gave you the idea I ever had one?”