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.

WHO SAW HIM LAST?

These were the shoes he wore. Notice the soles are thin. He’d walked many miles in these trying to get ahead.

This was his favourite jacket. He felt wealthy when he wore it. Even though it had holes in the pockets.

This is the shirt he called his lucky one. He always wore it to important meetings and although nothing ever came of them he felt this shirt would bring him luck. Someday.

These were his favourite pants – he’d been married in them. Twice.

This was the hat he wore everyday. It shielded his head from the rain and the wind and the sun. And if he pulled the brim down, from everyone.

This is the map he lost just before he lost his way.

These are the tears he cried when he had nowhere to go.

This is the heart you broke and you didn’t even know.

These are your letters he kept when he believed in you.

This is the photo of his mother who thought he was precious.

Where are the friends he helped instead of helping himself?

This is his favourite song that he played every night.

This is the movie he said changed his life.

These are the books he loved now all packed away.

Who saw him last?

(C) Frank Howson 2019

WHERE DID WE LEAVE THE STORY?

Where did we leave the story?
Oh, that’s right, you left me
Were we out of our minds
To ever think we’d be free?
What’s the name of that street?
No, wait, it’ll come to me
Did we throw away our good fortune
Whilst searching for destiny?

“I knew a man who went to sea
And left the shore behind him
I knew that man for he was me
And now I cannot find him”
You once sang me that song
On our way to the gym
I think it’s about a legless man
And how it was he could still swim

Where did we leave the glory
We’d fought so hard to win?
Perhaps God was insulted
And deemed it a sin
What is that condition
When we’re too scared to win?
But perhaps we can’t blame it on theories
The truth is we’re made of tin

Where did we leave those tablets
That got us through the night?
Who said we had a chance
And that we were in the right?
You know me so you know
When I glow in the light
I don’t give up till I’ve given my all
Although this time I just might

Why did you leave our story
Just when things had worked out?
Were you afraid to express
All of the things that you felt?
Well it snowed this Christmas
Alone I watched it melt
Then I toasted us with aged whiskey
Although our drink is stout

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE DEAD AND THE DYING

The heavy decrepit bodies of the great and not so, mingled with their offsprings, children too young to realise that this too would be their fate. Pathetic men way past their glory days paraded pretending that they still had it, while bored defeated women looked on knowing they didn’t.

It was another day at the enclosed perfectly temperatured salt baths. The warmth was comforting to the skin and the soul and made old bones and muscles feel rejuvenated. The inhabitants floated safe in this maternal womb away from the business deals that no longer mattered in a world that no longer cared and was on its last legs. Some old guys studied the racing form while younger middle-aged men preferred the stock market. Some gambled with their own money while others ventured with what they had married into, or had inherited. All in all there’d be few winners that day. There were no more lucky numbers to be had, or surprise gold and mineral funds in a world that had been looted, raped and gang banged so many times there was nothing left. Certainly not energy for outrage. Only resentment from natives who had been trampled under foot and squashed by the invaders who destroyed paradise without ever having taken the time to truly look around and realise the greatest wealth was above the ground. But like rats they burrowed lower and lower into darkness desperate for any shiny morsel of opportunity. Never thinking any further ahead than that.

We had destroyed the world without realising that such an abomination also destroyed ourselves. What we project outwards also implodes us. Given time.

I stood in the warm salt water as the floating bodies of the dead and the dying circled me.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Sketch by Frank Howson.

A WALK IN THE RAIN

He aged within the silences of our stilted conversation. His eyes were those of a man who’d seen his kingdoms fall and the survival mechanisms of such pain had turned him into a statue. Although he was outwardly pleasant and patient there was no one there. He was a ghost haunted by himself but chained to a place that had been familiar in his real life. I wondered if like other theories of ghostlore he was doomed to act out his past mistakes over and over again until they revealed something he hadn’t known before. And replayed to the incessant drumbeat of “If only I’d done this. If only I’d done that. If only…If only…

The dark circles beneath his eyes told me he didn’t sleep much and that the night was rarely his friend. To him there was no morning, afternoon or evening only awake time and dozing time.

It was those eyes that still haunt me to this day. They told me they knew the secrets of this life and that the knowing of such things begats a penalty far beyond any pain most humans experience.

He said his best writing came to him at 3am which was God’s favourite time to speak through us, when the night is still and the silence is that of eternity. The world at momentary peace with itself and you feel you can hear God’s breath within the comforting embrace of darkness. Such were the fleetingly magic moments when inspiration struck him.

He felt he was no longer a person, but a vessel. He had worn himself out in his search for a lasting kind of love and knew now that it was not written as part of his destiny. Hence he no longer sought it for it only carried disappointment in its train. and such disappointment sometimes took years to wash away. A penalty for those who cared too deeply. Furthermore he now feared he no longer contained the capacity to feel the emotions of normal people, and wondered why God had spared him and taken so many others. Sometimes it crossed his mind that the lucky ones died young, still hopeful with dreams intact. He mused that perhaps that old saying was true, “God calls home first those he loves the most.”

These days he liked to walk in the rain. It made him feel something.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

Photo by Raija Reissenberger.

THIS PRISON HAS NO BARS

From the mansions of sadness
To the bums on the street
From the highways of loneliness
To the halls of defeat
I’ve watched your ascendance
The road I never took
Girl, you’ve come a long way
On a smile and a look

From the poolside of stardom
To the kids on the run
From the mountains of compassion
To the things never done
I’ve watched your progression
With an assassin’s eye
I could have been there too
But my heart doesn’t lie

There are stars in cars on every corner of this town
You’re gonna need a lot of help
When you finally come down
You’re slept with the Caesars
And you’ve dined with the Czars
But none of them told you why
This prison has no bars

From the towers of power
To a broken man’s plea
From the face on the magazine
To the girl you used to be
I’m waiting for some answers
Beneath the falling stars
Wish I could’ve warned you
This prison has no bars

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE MEANING OF LIFE

He came with love in his heart for every living thing. His innocence had been untouched and his light force shone so bright that crowds gathered to see him but, more importantly, to feel his warmth. By gazing upon him they were somehow changed. “Was this the Messiah?” they mumbled to each other in hushed tones lest they be deemed blasphemous by some. For some can find darkness in every hope, every wish, every prayer.

And when this man spoke it brought some to their knees, others to tears. It was as if the calmness in his voice could heal every hurt and fear that had weighed them down and they were now somehow lighter.

The taking away of such anguish even brought back sight to the blind. As if all they had needed was to believe in something and were being granted the ability to see the world anew. Men who had walked too many lonely dead end loveless roads and were now crippled, found that they could walk again. And after those first awkward unsure steps they inched closer and closer to him growing more confident and accepted with each one until they were in his arms, and the safety and strength  of unconditional love made them sob for the joy of each precious moment. Time that they had, until now, misinterpreted and cursed for their burdens, and wasted, was now rediscovered and rejoiced over. All things were possible again.

In his face they saw no judgement, no impatience, no pity, only love. And his love became contagious among the people and they sang his praises.

He had not come to destroy the Romans, or hand out weapons, or preach hate. He was here to give meaning to our lives. What was the meaning of life? Love. For love opens the door to joy. And its light extinguishes all shadows.

But there were those, the shadow people, who were angered by us learning the meaning of existence and saw that this teaching could undermine their power over us. For they ruled by fear and threats, both of which were rendered insignificant when the masses walked proudly in the sun again unchained from their own mental limitations.

So they arrested this man, this dangerous man, beat him, whipped him, ridiculed him and his suffering, and sentenced him to an agonising death for the crime of telling us to love and forgive each other.

And in his final conscious moments he forgave those who had plotted his death, and the ignorant who had killed him. To this day it remains the greatest triumph of the human spirit.

Perhaps he was drawing evil into the light so that the world could recognise its face?

 
(C) Frank Howson 2019

Painting by Frank Howson (c) 2019

MY VALENTINE LOVER

My Valentine lover
I’m coming home
I’ve been away
But now I’ve done my time
There’s little left to hold me here
I’m leaving it all behind
I’m coming home
My Valentine

I’d never been in love
Always too scared
Kept my heart to myself
Pretending that I didn’t care
We dream out in the dark
Behind enemy lines
Now I’m counting every sunset
Till I make you mine

My Valentine lover
I’m coming home
Been away
But now I’ve done my time
There’s little left to keep me here
I’m gonna leave it all behind
I’m coming home
My Valentine

Far away from you
I was makin’ my way
Breaking rocks in the field
So one day we could play
I planned my great escape
Then one day you busted me free
I was danglin’ on the gallows
Until you rescued me

My Valentine lover
I’m coming home
Been away
But now I’ve done my time
There’s nothing left to hold me here
I’m gonna leave it all behind
Take me home
My Valentine

Recorded by Stephen Housden.

(c) Frank Howson 2013