The word success is almost impossible to define, as it means something different to just about everyone. It’s much too large than a single word can contain, because it’s a concept. A floating concept that bends and morphs and matures as we do. What we think it means at the beginning of our journey, may be vastly different to what it means at the end. It’s a dream that, once it’s seemingly fulfilled, may be considered a burden. A curse. A prison cell. A nightmare.
Perhaps it’s God’s sneakiest joke on us all. Giving us what we think we want, in order to find out first hand how hollow it ultimately becomes.
McCartney hit it on the head, simplifying it to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” A record we could dance to, even if the concept was way beyond our comprehension at the time. Perhaps Paul was starting to understand how restrictive a “successful” life can be.
One of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou Shalt Not Worship False Gods.”I have interpreted that to include money = success. For I’ve seen first hand people worship it at the expense of their family, friends, colleagues, ethics, talent and own life.Their “concept” of success was so delusional it eventually devalued every thing of true value in their life.
I was once privileged to have had a song of mine selected for inclusion on the Ferrets’ second album “Fame At Any Price.” I loved that album title then, as I love it now. It was prophetically apt for a band that self-combusted shortly after its release. Perhaps from the pressure of having to follow-up a Number One single and a Gold debut album “Dreams of a Love,” which incidentally also featured a song of mine entitled “Killing Ourselves.” A lyric about the friends of mine who were falling in action during the Melbourne heroin epidemic of the Seventies. That song proved prophetic for the band too.
It’s one thing to crave success. It’s another to have the stomach for it. People take drugs like heroin to numb themselves to the world around them. Isn’t it bizarre that when many performers finally break through and achieve the success they’ve craved, they reach out to self-medicate themselves to…what? The pain of it? The disappointment that the concept of success was so much more thrilling than the reality? Or is it their fear that they, mere mortals, are suddenly treated like gods, and know they can’t sustain this facade for long without publicly falling? False prophets for a false society.
It says a lot about our society that Elvis Presley, the most famous and desired man in the world, died of loneliness. Photographs of him towards the end show a man who is dull-eyed, self-medicated to the point of not knowing where he is, and clearly not having a good time. He even mocks himself in his final heartbreaking performances as if all his dignity is gone. Pity the man who inherits the world, but loses his soul?
We are fed the “Dream” to keep us productive, and striving day to night to achieve our goal, so we can be happy. But, what if, as Judy found out, there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow except burnt-out, broken, despairing suckers?
I always thought the rainbow ended on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western. It almost did for me one night, but that’s another story. And there are millions of stories in the naked city.
My father worked his guts out from 6am until 5pm every day in a thankless job that paid him nowhere near his worth. Then he’d come home and drink. Do you blame him? I sure as hell didn’t. He dreamed of reaching retirement age and getting a big payout. He didn’t make it. In one of the final lines in Arthur Miller’s cathartic play Death of a Salesman, “…No one dast blame this man…He just had the wrong dreams. All wrong.”
How much of our lives are wasted chasing the wrong dreams? “When I get a nice new car I’ll be happy!”…”When I get married I’ll be happy!”…”When I get a nice house I’ll be happy!”…”When I have a child I’ll be happy!”…”When I get divorced I’ll be happy!”… “When I can retire and live as I want I’ll be happy!” etc., etc. The truth is, we’re not happy to begin with. One thing I’ve learnt from my own experience is that money and success won’t make you happy. In fact, they will just amplify the painful reality that you aren’t.In order to enjoy money and success, you must be happy within yourself before you obtain them. Otherwise they are weights around your neck that’ll drag you down to the bottom of the ocean.
Bob Dylan once said that “a successful man is someone who gets up in the morning and goes to bed each night and in between does exactly what he wants.” So, there you have it. Real success is freedom. The freedom to be who you are, and do what you want to do.
I’ve always admired people who are good at what they do. That’s probably a working class respect I inherited from my parents who much admired skilled tradespeople.
America used to have a healthy competitive pride whereby whatever job you had, people wanted to be the best at it. Whether it was driving a cab, being a shoeshine boy, a bellboy, a clerk, a hot dog vendor, etc.
I’ve seen waiters in Los Angeles, old guys who had made a career of it, and they were perfection personified. It was riveting to observe their attention to detail, manners, diplomacy, professionalism, and so on. The top guys made a fortune in tips and deserved every dime. But more than the money, they prided themselves on being the best. Some, were legends. I was in awe of them and paid them great respect.
So, what is success? Is it determined by money? Or by your ability? Or what others think of you? Or how loved you are by your family? Or how many people know your name? Or how many of your peers respect you? Or how fulfilled you are within yourself?
Because, if we don’t know the answer to that, it means most of us have been striving for something that is so elusive, it is even beyond us. And, if we don’t know what we’re seeking, how can we expect to find it? Or ever be content?
I like to walk a lot and, when I do, observe people. You could say it’s part of my job. And in my journeys into the outside world, I have from time to time passed many happy people. The happy family man. The happy young girl walking hand-in-hand with her love. The happy little boy who puts his protective arm around his younger sister and smiles at her. The happy busker who has a captive audience and a hat full of money. The happy taxi driver who loves to chat with his passengers and treat each as a new friend. And so on. To me, all these types are successful people. In the truest sense of the word. They are happy within themselves and thus radiate happiness outward. They have not been shackled by expectations. Either of our own making, or of others.
I have also seen and met some of the wealthiest, most powerful and famous people in the world whilst I lived in L.A, and quite a few were utterly miserable, and made everyone in their presence feel the same.
In the some of the final lines of the classic movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it is stated, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
I believe that. I have some very true, loyal friends. Their rock solid friendship make me feel successful, happy and content for having found them. No matter what I do professionally, or don’t do, or they do or don’t, we have achieved something rare, precious and beautiful. Something real.
I looked into the man’s face. It was etched with suffering. He had no doubt fallen many times in his battles with Life. It looked to me like the greatest pain had not come due to the falls, but from the effort required to rise, and rise again. I also observed the deep laugh lines that’d gathered around each eye resembling a spider’s web. Yes, this man had lived life to the full. He had triumphed many times and learnt nothing from it. That’s because the recipe for success changes frequently. No. It was from his failures he’d learnt everything. And the reason for them had been simple – he’d gone against his instinct.
He’d survived many things in his life. Wars, plagues, floods, marriages, injury, slander, lawsuits, success, failure, gambling, death threats, betrayals, great wealth, poverty, love, broken hearts, rejection, addiction, vicious dogs, adultery, asthma, poisoning, tightrope walking, gangsters, drive-by shooters, merchant bankers, and long debates with actors. As such, these days, it was difficult to get him excited much, or fearful at all.
He’d beaten his demons, and was proud of it. But it’d been some of his friends who’d done him the most damage. They’d posed as friends but were really opportunistic spiritual vampires, sucking off his life force in order to live through him. And when they’d been found out and cut like a cancer out of his life, they had flayed about like dying sharks biting at his reputation with lies, exaggerations and groundless accusations. Most of what they accused him of were acts they’d done. The fact that they were so blatantly hypocritical was what hurt most of all. And from then on, he’d rationed his loyalty to those who’d proved theirs to him.
Now, he spent much of his time looking for things he hadn’t found. It made him as expectant as Jungle Jim on a safari.
He’d once stopped a cab and gotten out to wander through a desolate, ravaged field that beheld the remains of what’d once been a theatre. The taxi driver was bewildered as to what his frantic passenger was looking for. Whatever had been here was long gone, he thought, as his meter ticked away. But his forlorn travelling companion was searching for something only he could see. His youth.
Sometimes, late at night, he wished he was dead. But there was a safety net in knowing God never granted his wishes. This knowledge scared him with the recurring nightmare that he may live forever. And that’d be his punishment for having lived too well for a few years at the peak of his success, when he was too young and too busy to have enjoyed it. He’d once had immense power and never abused it. He’d also held the key to many vulnerable hearts and never used it. The facts, as opposed to the gossip, would show that his integrity was never bought. So God took these opportunities away and seduced someone else with them.
In exchange, the man in question, was given a rented studio apartment and enough food to get by. He was also granted the solitude to reflect on the follies of life, and write about them with a rich appreciation of God’s sense of humour.
He’d figured out the secret to God – He is passive. Having granted us free will he sits back and watches what we do with it. If you wanted action, you had to consult his competitive estranged brother, Satan. But that loan shark had interest rates that’d severely cripple your life, and could never be repaid due to the compounding penalties given only passing mention in the very small print.
And if you accepted that deal, you’d end up worse than alone.
The man who sat in front of me, felt many things.But he’d given up feeling what didn’t matter anymore. He told himself that he had enough heart left for one more great love. But she’d have to be an extraordinary woman, and he now suspected that such a perfect match only existed in dreams. Or delusions. He wasn’t sure what the correct word was anymore. All he knew was that God loved to tease him with possibilities that went nowhere that only foolish younger men or, those older bodies on the brink of madness, pursued.
He laughed out loud at how younger women now delighted in taunting him. They took so much but gave very little in return. They knew the art of getting away Scott free, and would only be able to get away with it a few more years before they too ended up alone. It was all about the promise and how much could be taken in the shadow of that. While one could. He knew all their tricks now and that rendered the game too predictable to hold his attention long. They hadn’t known him in his prime, nor would they’ve had the opportunity to. But these were different times. There were very few who could see past surface layers to find true love. Soul to soul.
How much do you have to hurt before you feel nothing anymore?
How much do you have to love before it means nothing anymore?
This man hasn’t aged from living. He’d aged from giving. And now all those who’d taken from him could celebrate the fact that there was nothing left.
They’d conquered something that felt important to them, but they couldn’t analyse what it was, or why they’d felt such compulsion to deplete it.
After all, they were good people, weren’t they? I mean, they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
The man now, each day, felt his spirit leaving his body and wondered what kind of life his shell would have. He thought, perhaps, he might be more socially accepted in this zombie-like state.
But who knew such things? And who the hell would even think about it? Other than a man with too much time on his hands, who’d stopped momentarily at the crossroads.
That was when I realised I’d been observing myself and the extraction had been successful.
I remember you
Even more painful, where and when
You told me when it was over
That you'd find me again
So you searched all the hostels
Inhabiting lonely men
I was killed by your mouth
You were killed by my pen
I told you I liked chocolates
So you bought me a cigar
You have a cruel talent
For pushing me too far
I remember walking miles
While you passed me in your car
The same one I'd bought you
When you became my star
Now the years are conspiring
To drive me insane
Along with some of my friends
Who only deal in pain
So let me spell it out
To you nice and plain
My dance is slowly fading
And it failed to bring you rain
I'll soon be gone like Jesus
To never come again
You nailed me to your cross
And made me watch you with other men
They all hurt and manhandled you
And I shed tears for my precious friend
But you stood with them and mocked me
I should've known how it would end
(c) Frank Howson 2019
I begin this story in the deep state of insanity, God knows where it will end. It is your fault as much as mine, that it has happened. For, you see, I was the one who came knocking all those nights you chose not to answer the door. But I have waited, without thanks or encouragement. Good things come to those who wait, my mother once told me. So here I sat, in this darkness, waiting for you to acknowledge me.
You didn’t kill me with your slings and arrows. Or your bullets and blades. No. You were crueler. You ignored me to death. I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive you. For you knew what you did. I bled in pain and, finally exhausted from hanging on too long, I suffocated.
I was taken down from my cross by the few who loved me, wrapped in cloth, and buried behind a rock to make sure I didn’t keep coming back like Judy Garland.
But I did. Many didn’t recognise me as I stepped into the spotlight on the stage of Carnegie Hall. But there I was. Transformed. In living colour. “At the top of his game,” wrote one critic, a friend of the producer. “He’s a laughter machine,” wrote another. “What the Fuck?” was the headline of the New York Times. That last review killed me. Again.
I wasn’t used to the warmth of the spotlight so my face hurt from smiling. My hand hurt from shaking others. My back from being slapped by strangers. And stabbed by a few friends. The crazier I became, the louder they laughed. My jokes were all at my expense, hence my well-publicised bankruptcy. I had no idea where I was going, so that became my plan. It has been emulated by many since, and they’ve all ended up in the toilet. Some of us have been in the toilet so long, people are talking.
Your love only gave me cancer. You kept begging me for closure, but you were really nagging me to death. I see it all now. For in death, we all become safe, don’t we? And then others are free to rewrite their memories so they can live with them. And you become enjoyable dinner party chat (gossip that, now you’re dead, becomes safe enough to become fact), to sophisticated listeners on their own way to the big fade-out.
I have kept on living just to spite you. You stole the joy from my life so that I could be as miserable as you. You paid me back for having friends. For having a future. For having a past. For having a positive attitude. For having bothered to put up with you.
I knew that by falling in love with you I’d be destroyed, so I only have myself to blame on that count.
You have more in common with those you detest than you realise.
The years I spent with you weren’t wasted as I learnt more money needs to be spent on mental health.
I’ve been on the streets and caught its madness. Even the traffic lights are wrong. Yesterday the TV lied to me. The toaster has the shits about something. The bathroom has turned right wing. And the refrigerator no longer engages in late-night conversations about literature.
I loitered on the corners of Dream and Nightmare, where I died waiting for a handout. A leg up. A racing tip. A sporting result. A kind word. A smile. A passing ex-wife. Anything.
“Live The Life You’ve Dreamed” was a framed quote on the wall of the local drug dealer.
I have found Life to be quite addictive. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, you keep wondering what’s next.
I can’t afford to travel as much as I used to, so I spend my days going up and down in the elevators of tall buildings. Besides, it does you no good to get away I’ve discovered. Jesus knew that.
I can’t go home any more because too many strangers are living there. And I’ve been away so long nobody remembers me.
I spend most of my days gathering food for the homeless. I call it lunch.
We know what got into Chet Baker’s arm, but what got into his head? Have you noticed that nobody seems to care about the important stuff once they have their headline?
Where is that black girl who showed me that Life was meaningless? She said the less you cared, the more luck you got. I have some questions for her. But I think I may have lost her by confessing that I loved her.
My father always told me that if Hitler had been able to get out of bed each day before noon, he’d have won the war. I’ve not been quite sure what I was supposed to have deducted from that advice. So, subsequently I’ve forced myself to be an early riser for fear of becoming a lazy fascist.
My dear ol’ dad took things to extremes, and no matter what time of the day or night I got out of bed, my father was always awake. I suspect he feared that if he slept in it could lead to him invading Poland. A terrible burden for a man to carry to his early grave. But so you have it. That’s all I was left with.
But what do I know?
It came as quite a shock to me when I was asked to write a book and share my wisdom with the world. I was also somewhat confused when I delivered the finished manuscript to my publisher and he laughed out loud at all the places I’d cried whilst writing it. When I inquired as to why this was, he laughed so hard he fell off his chair and shrieked, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright!” And collapsed in hysterics again on his expensive carpet. I had to step over him to get to the door.
Later that day I returned to his offices to pick up my hat (I’d left it behind), and was told that a board meeting was in progress discussing my book and it’d been going for hours and I couldn’t interrupt it. I listened at the door and heard many people squealing with laughter, and gasping for breath.
I cried all the way home.
But no one noticed me. Anyway, I see nothing in the eyes of strangers I pass on the street. Nothing. Just an abyss that goes so deep you can’t scramble back from it. I have found myself on occasion, falling. But then, I always lost me again. So I’ve kept falling over and over and over in search of something familiar. In the end, the falling became my life.
I was shunned by everybody and then told to make my own way. I wasn’t in the club. I hadn’t gone to the right schools. My parents were poor. I’d read about universities but didn’t know where they were. This was in the dim dark days before Google Maps. When the Labour Party believed in who they were. And so did we. Everything I learnt I achieved by doing, and not from some academic book. So, I became the eternal outsider. Always looking in on others easy-come good times. Watching them through the window as they munched on expensive Government funded finger-food and sipping vintage French Champagne. Some of the organisers saw me standing outside in the rain, looking in, and felt sorry for me. They said I could come in if I promised to dry off and only have a cup of tea with the kitchen staff. But such treatment only made me stronger. And hungrier. So I developed the necessary resistance to haunt them. Eventually they thought they should give me an award as my alienation was becoming obvious. So, they gave me an award nobody had ever heard of but it had my name on it. It lasted a few years before it fell apart. Beating me by a few months. But while I was somewhat together, it got me a few easy lays and a social disease. And, for a time, it felt good to be noticed. It reminded me that I was alive.
It’s best summed up in the words of Ballsack who once said, “There is something out there that stems from something that makes no sense whatsoever to anything other than the something you may attach meaning to.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
I do sometimes remember to look around at the exquisite beauty of nature and am filled with humbling wonderment as well as contrasting anger at man’s obsession with destroying anything he hasn’t had a hand in. Such is our envy. Such is our insecurity. Such is our shortsightedness. Such is our spiteful will to bring about our own destruction. Although, in those last despairing moments of our self-inflicted demise we will cry and whimper like the true cowards we are. And shake our fists at our mothers for bringing creation to us and thus sentencing us to death.
Exist-tense, if we stick with it, rewards us with a present. A gift, if you will. But that can only be fully appreciated if we turn our backs on the past because what happened then was just a series of presents that we initially devalued but either gained from or lost our minds over, and here we are. At the crossroads, going forward or being pulled back into the abyss of “What if?” or “Why?”
People with rooms to spare won’t take in a friend who is homeless. Why not? Because they’re afraid you won’t leave. They don’t mind killing you as long as you don’t die on their premises. And once you do depart this life, there are so many stories they can twist to elevate themselves.
I recently saw workers erecting a monument to someone. It wasn’t finished yet so I couldn’t define who the subject was. But the shoes looked a lot like mine. I wondered whether this monument was a tribute to me and my life. A life in which everything I had ever loved I’d reduced to ruins.
We tried to live a simple life in a complex world. Surrounded by all the dangers, temptations, frustrations and good intentions gone south. We had a simple love, in that sweet naive time before the reptilians took over and the war designed to have no end began.
All I knew was that I loved you, and you loved me. Nothing much else mattered. And if the world we knew came to an end, I’d love you in the next too.
Your beautiful face and inner joy were the only drugs I needed to keep going. You made me smile. You made me dance. You made me hope for more when I’d given up hoping.
Each day we’d plow the fields, sowing for the harvest that would keep us full during the winter months.
Life was good and the people we knew were fun. Until they weren’t anymore. But they weren’t as lucky as us and life made them bitter.
Sometimes I’d whisper your name in a reverential prayer when my road narrowed andthe nights became too dark to see ahead.
Some people became envious of our joy and sought to steal it, foolishly thinking they could replicate the recipe, but they burnt the base.
They burnt us too.
These days I don’t punish myself by thinking of love, and have accepted my life of solitude. Sometimes we have to sacrifice joy to obtain wisdom. Sometimes I long to be a happy fool again. For there is a penalty in knowing too much.
My wisdom has told me that angels must leave. They weren’t meant to be chained to this mortal earth, or to us flawed humans. And so, it is as it should be. Fly on, my darling, fly on. It was all my fault, dreaming that I could keep you.
But perhaps our time will come. Again. And I’ll not awaken my wisdom, and instead, pretend I don’t know the ending.