THE MEANING OF SUCCESS.

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. 

 

(c) Frank Howson 2020

photograph by Vanessa Allan.

THE MAN IN QUESTION

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.

 

(C) Frank Howson 2020.

HOPE, LOVE & LIFE

As long as there’s hope
We can still see the light
It’s shinin’ there
In the darkest of night
As long as there’s hope
As long as there’s hope
We’ll be fine

As long as there’s love
We got nothin’ to fear
In the drivin’ rain
Our road will be clear
As long as there’s love
As long as there’s love
We’ll get there

Life’s always tempting you
One thing or another
Betraying your friend
Your sister or brother
But don’t you dare
No, don’t you dare
What do we have
If not ourself?
And the will to care?
As long as there’s life
I will not feel alone
These times are tough
When you’re all on your own
But you’ve got hope
And as long as there’s hope
You’re not alone….

Hope, love and life
You’re not alone…

 

by Frank Howson. 2020

THE NEW VIRUS SPEAK.

Now is the hour of our incontinence made glory-holed by sons of Michael Yorke. “Bark” the Hells Angels sing. It is a Far East bitter thing I do now than I have ever dung. And on the bend the milk we shake is a quill to the love we break. Frankly, my deer, I don’t give a ram. And in the cruel, cruel, cruel of Jehovah, tell ‘em I’ll be bare. To flee or not to flee that is the equator. Four scored ears of men, our country assed us, “Do not ask what your country has done to you. Ask what you have done to your country.” And on the eighth day, God created mini-golf. These are a few of my Fahrenheit rings. Either this wallpaper blows or I do. “Right,” said Ted, are you having a larf?” At the third stroke, it will be a felony. Once I had a putrid glove. Love me Fender, love it tuned, all my screams are billed. When the goanna gets rough, get stuffed I’m goin’. Our father’s art is in heaven, Howard be thy blame. Twice upon a crime, a gem with windy hair lost her head in mime, and sad she loved me show. But that was ice above my lime, mammy months too low. Mammaries fight the confines of the blind. All clothed mystery mammaries of the day we stir. I luv you and dunce you regret it. It is the evening of the summer of the mourning that whence we came. The midget you fell through the floor, I could pee you were a mad ol’ distemper, a reel pig bender. I’m dreamin’ of a wide bagel, with hairy gals I sow. Fairy flossed da mercy. M-m-m-my Corona. Th-th-that’s Paul, yokes!

 

(c) Frank Howson 2020

FROM THE NEW UNDERGROUND

The emptiness of night followed me through a maze of situations that could’ve only been conceived by a drunk. 

There were rivers of regret that sprang from my life. But they were not things one could’ve sensed at the time would turn to swamp. Having crocodiles biting at my heels from an early age readied me for what would become my life. Once my parents were gone I felt like an orphan on the run. Perhaps, from myself. Sometimes heading here. Sometimes heading there. Sometimes resting my head on your breast for comfort until the dawn called me on, to face another confrontation. Another battle. Another disappointment in the human condition. Shedding skin after skin, always evolving into the person you see here today.

It’s painful when one realises that today the only truth is found in TV commercials. Everything else is a lie. At least the advertisements are honest about what they are. And what they want. We now have a Scared New World where material possessions are becoming less and less important as we’re forced to look inward for our satisfaction(s). For some of us, perhaps a first time visit to the inner world. It will be a confronting experience for quite a few who’ve filled their outer lives up with frivolous people and trinkets to distract from the reality of who they are. The bullies will discover that they’re actually scared little boys who’ve, for some time, avoided responsibility by targeting the lives of others. Some will hit a brick wall with the harsh reality that they’re not the nice, kind, giving people they have publicly projected without any actions that live up to their invented persona. This will irreparably break many and they’ll never be the same. Some will suicide rather than living with the hell of who they really are. Leaders will realise their old tried and true ways do not work, and become followers. Out of the flock will rise real leaders who’ll command not from ego, but from a true inherent spiritual wisdom.

Some will grow through adversity. It has been that way throughout history. Plagues and wars and disasters have thrown up heroes from the ranks of the ordinary.

Some will die. But this was already written, as all deaths are. Lives come to an end. It’s just a matter of when and how. Others will live on, because it was not their time.

My whole life as a creative person has prepared me for this seclusion. As a boy I’d withdraw from the world into my room to write, draw, play records and dream. I’d been born with the affliction of feeling things too deeply. A curse for my personal life, although a great bonus for my work. Where others saw beauty, I saw horror. Where others saw ugliness I saw splendour. Where some saw only desolation, I saw possibilities.

In my times of moral dilemma when one is confused as to what is the right decision, not only for you but taking into account its effect on those around you, I have sometimes thought of my literary heroes, both real and fictional, and wondered what decision they would’ve made. I’ve also thought of my historical heroes both political and spiritual for guidance. There are some decisions that are right at that moment but time eats their skin and fat away like a vulture and leaves only ugly bones that do not tell the whole picture. Yes, to fully understand, you had to be there. In that lonely moment. Yet, other decisions, thought foolish at the time, grow in rightfulness through the years, like a fine wine ripens to reveal its many magical textures until it reaches its optimum year to be savoured and appreciated.

I wonder what went through the minds of the passengers on the Titanic on that fateful, icy night when they realised there were not enough lifeboats. No doubt amongst many there’d have been panic, anger, frustration  and fear. Yet, in others I believe there would’ve been that silent resolution, and acceptance,  that this was it. The great mystery solved, and their ending revealed, as they stood motionless amidst the fanfare of screams and cries that encircled them. I imagine that quite a few would’ve looked around at the manic hysterical scene being performed all around them, and its contrast of the band calmly playing their scheduled after dinner musical programme, then, perhaps, noticing the moon and stars and night for the very first time. I mean, really seeing them. Sometimes we have to be shaken awake by tragedy to see things right under our nose that we’d never fully comprehended before. Sadly, we go through life in a half-dream state, following our standard daily motions and emotions like a blind person seeks the darkness as a level playing ground.

Sometimes we don’t even see the ones who truly love us. Such is our desperate rush to and fro seeking love in all the wrong people, as if purposely inviting disappointment to await us at each schedule stop upon our runaway train.

So, back to our time of solitary confinement. A time of soul searching (for some that won’t take long) and re-evaluation as to what we really need (now that the opium of bullshit in the material world has been stripped from us), to go forward into a new world. Hopefully. Now that the present Scared New World is ebbing, let’s hope it will be replaced by a Kind New World.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, we pass each other on the street wearing masks to protect us from the invisible enemy. We can’t tell whether the person approaching us is smiling behind their mask, or grumpy. To define that, we have to look into their eyes for the truth. But I guess that was always the case. Anyone can fool you with a smile. It’s hidden many broken hearts in the past. So, it’s the eyes that tell the real story.

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yes Paul, look at them. Perhaps you’re one of them tonight. Ain’t life strange?

 

(C) Frank Howson 2020.

STAR

The thing about a star is, you can take that person and drop them into obscurity in some remote place that doesn’t know who they are, and given time, they will shine again. Stars do that. They are made tough by their early lives of not fitting in. But that very thing later became their strength and the foundation of their originality. They are conceived in darkness and magic. Pain and grit. Dreams and horrors.

Some grow a hard exterior to protect their extreme sensitivity. And most will misjudge them. Their guards are invisible to the eye, but shield the kindness that has been taken advantage of by far too many. They learn to save the very best of themselves for their work. So it is in the work that they truly live, and with some luck, live on. They appear to be social creatures but in truth are hermits. Existing only fully in the deepest, safest refuge of the soul. It is this situation that leads many observers to ponder why they are wiser in their work than they are in real life.

It is a lonely place being caught in the spotlight. There are no safety nets, no parents, no friends, no protection whatsoever, only pure sweat and talent. But it is only there, in that lonely space that has become their only world that means anything, that they know who they are. The rest of life is just hanging around and waiting. Some die from hanging too long.

The dream and the curse walk hand in hand in Lonesome Town, where the streets are deserted, and the bums possess all the knowledge of Life. The fortune tellers, having glimpsed the future, left in the dead of night. And the terminally bewildered wander aimlessly along that fine line between delusion and someone’s personal view of reality. It is a dangerous journey, without road signs, and lined with an endless array of fire-breathing windmills that will break a million Don Quixotes.

Once you have purchased your ticket for this merry-go-round, there is no getting off. You can attempt to stop what you do, but that will only create a bigger hunger for those wanting to gate-crash your fake death with more ill-informed opinions and senseless questions. There are no answers. That’s what Art teaches  us.

All there is, is a long road. A road you once tried to find love on in order to have a travelling companion.

You wonder whether you said the wrong thing, or gave too much, or gave too little. But, as already stated, there are no answers. Only questions. And these questions will surely drive you into madness.

Your torture for having finally amassed so much wisdom, is to have no one to share it with. That’s ironic.

But, that’s Life.

 

(C) Frank Howson 2020

ONCE I WAS A CHILD

Once I was a child
And the world was beautiful
And frightening
Loving and cruel
Simple
And complex
Much bigger than me
I looked up to everyone
Seeking guidance
Wisdom
A smile
Some grownups didn’t like children
You could tell by how they looked at you
Perhaps they didn’t like fellow grownups either
But I didn’t know that
I was just a child
I liked to play with little soldier figures
That I collected until I had my own army
Then I started collecting an army for them to fight
They like to hook boys on war as soon as possible
My army won every battle
But none of them got really hurt
They just pretended to be to satisfy my scenario
That’s a grownup word for story
Grownups like to show off
I also liked to listen to the radio
My mum said I could identify every singer
Just from hearing a few bars of their voices
My dad worked every week day
And sometimes he took me with him
I was made a fuss of by his workmates
Because I was a child
Sometimes my mum worked at night
I didn’t like that
I would sit on my dad’s knee
Listening to the radio
Eagerly awaiting her return
I wished that we had a TV set
And then one day Steele’s department store
Delivered one by accident
We never told them
And they never came back
My parents thought it was luck
I knew it was magic
And my wish had come true
But what did I know?
I was a child
Sometimes my much older sisters were nice to me
Most times they weren’t
I grew to accept that
I must have done something wrong to them
And they were paying me back
Or else they knew I was worthless
I should’ve thanked them for bringing this to my attention
But I was just a child
I liked watching things on TV
In those days shows always had a happy ending
And the cast would smile as the credits rolled
Sometimes they’d wave at me while they smiled
And I waved back
Before they faded out
I wished that I could be on TV
And then I was
My parents called it luck
But I knew it was magic
My wish had come true
Again
One day my mum took me to see a pantomime
At the Tivoli Theatre
It looked magical to me
And everyone seemed to be having fun
I wished I could be up there on the stage
And one day I was
My parents called it luck
But I knew much more
You see, I was a child
And for a time my wishes came true
Then I grew up
And I wished I hadn’t
But as much as I wished
Nothing happened
And I couldn’t go back
Ever again
Then my dad went to heaven
He said he’d had enough
So I got married
Because that’s what grownups do
When you replace grownups
And take on responsibilities
And it all begins again
And I got to learn grownup secrets
Like
There are not always
Happy endings
And that wishes rarely come true and it’s more to do with luck
The older you get
The more selective you become about what you wish for
One day my wife took me to dinner
And told me a happy occasion was coming
And soon we had a child of our own
I always knelt so as to not look down on him
No matter what he asked
I always smiled and gave him
Guidance
And what wisdom I had
I tried to make him feel he was worth
Everything
To me
Then one day it was all taken away
But that’s a long story
I guess I’d forgotten in my joy
To say thank you
To the one who grants the wishes
Or luck
And he can be a hard God at times
My mother didn’t want to leave me
Alone
So she hung on a long time
But finally she got so tired
She had to go
Sometimes people ask me what I want
And I answer that I want what I had
A long time ago
When there were heroes
Before the press tore them down
Back when my family and I gathered around
Our hot TV
And watched our favourites
And laughed as one
Cried as one
And cheered as one
When I was a child
And the world was new
Once
When wishes came true
And
If you were lucky
Stayed true
But now I’ve been cast as the kindly old man
And seek signs of affection
In the eyes
Of those I pass in the street
As I did when I was a child
But people’s eyes are cold these days
And they don’t see others
For they are only looking inward
I also smile at children
Remembering when I was one
But they confirm that I am now invisible
For they’ve been taught to ignore strangers
I’m no longer in the club
Expelled for growing too tall
Too grey
Even though my heart remains young
And open
And child-like
The deserted alleyways of night
Sometimes
Are the only friends one can confide in
Walk it away
Walk it away
Around the next corner there is no light
Anymore
And you can lose yourself
Quite easily
Sometimes I am seen
Looking lost
Frantic
Anxious
Searching for my youth
In the recycling bins
Trying to find one little toy soldier
Who might stand up for me
Take my side
Fight the good fight
And guide me
Home

(C) Frank Howson 2019