Tilting at Windmills: A Thanksgiving Tribute [Single White Nerd]
James appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s. Tall, dark skinned, gregarious and clearly passionate about music. Very passionate. He talked to me for over 40 minutes about music. He expounded upon the importance of craft and how young musicians nowadays had none. Upon the mediocratization of music that had happened since the advent of the super-producer and vocalists who rely on computers to enhance their talent. He extolled the virtues of Elton John, Billy Joel, The Beatles—musicians who had no gimmicks. Just their talent and passion. That was real music, man.
He spoke about his own work. The mysterious power that he, as a musician, had over women. How he sought to emulate his idols, perfect his craft or at least get better every day. About being a studio musician and craving the interplay between craftsmen. He made me want to pick up an instrument and become, if not a maestro, then at least reasonably proficient so that I, too, could experience that camaraderie and power over women.
By the time he finished speaking, I was looking forward to seeing him perform. Surely someone that passionate would at least be interesting to watch.
Two hours later, James took the stage. He sat at the piano and gave an impassioned introduction to the songs he was about to play. He beamed at the audience, letting all of us know that he was about to share something powerfully personal with us. Then he played.
And it was awful.
Tone deaf. He pounded on the piano without nuance and sang in a resonant voice that reach for, but seldom found, the right notes. He aped the gestures of Elton John and his other idols, stretching his arms out to the ceiling as if willing lightning bolts of talent to stream into his body from the heavens. His performance had none of the passion he’d conveyed, no indication that he felt the upwelling of profound feelings he had spoken of so eloquently and with such conviction.
After his performance, James sought me out. Perspiring and glowing from his performance, he said, with no hint of irony: ”Now you get it, people hear me talk about music, but until you see me perform, you don’t get it. Now you do.”
I said nothing, just smiled at him and reciprocated his bro hug. But I didn’t get it.
How could someone love something so much and not realize that…they’re simply not very good at it? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe James, at some point, made a decision. He loved music. Therefore, he would pursue music. And so he has, chasing it with a singularity of purpose that has shaped his life. Like Don Quixote who attacked windmills he could never defeat (because, you know, they’re windmills), he, day after day, attacks music with all the passion and love he can muster. Music, like the windmills, doesn’t care. It bears the brunt of his passion with the grace only exhibited by inanimate objects, abstract concepts, and art.
Driving home from the bar, I couldn’t get James out of my head. He had, in a weird way, inspired me. Despite his, and there’s no way to put this gently, lack of musical talent, he had shown true passion and purity of purpose. To show that kind of passion when you receive positive reinforcement, people saying you’re brilliant and throwing money at you. . .that’s one thing. But to preserve passion and generosity of spirit in the face of constant adversity, to remain dedicated even when pushing a three ton boulder up an infinite hill–well, that’s inspiring. A little nuts, but most inspiring things are.
So, this year I’m grateful for the windmill chasers. All those folks who pursue their passion, maybe semi-delusionally, with purity, focus and dedication. Maybe one day I’ll join you. Until then: you’re inspiring. Thank you.
Happy Thanksgiving, Nerds!
Come see Michael Kass tilt at his own windmills as his spits some story at TMI Live on November 22.
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featured image credit: mafleen