One For The Money

Even The Greatest Paintings Are Flat

“Take no prisoners!” That’s what legendary singer Billy Paul used to tell his band right before going on stage.

I’ve been a performer all my life, singer, poet, comedian, lecturer, maniacal street celebrity. (HIDEOUS DETAILS AVAILABLE HERE).

For much of what I laughingly refer to as “my career” I regarded assassins as the apex of professionalism – heartless and methodical, all business, all technique.

Over the years my attitude about performance has transformed, closely tracking my recovery.

At first I thought of “the act” as a mask I clung onto with white knuckles, until one could not tell where it ended and my face began.

As I became more comfortable and facile in front of a crowd, moving with glib, even condescending confidence, I polished the mask until it shone so brightly even the people sitting in the very last row needed sunglasses.

Then something happened, I grew more confident still and suddenly craft and “art” became less fascinating.

I must credit a few very special people for carrying me across the river; by watching these world class artists perform I discovered that craft is only a tool.

Real art, I came to understand, lies in opening up your true self and sharing what you have, whatever it is that makes you special, whatever it is that’s unavailable anywhere else.

Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, Keith Jarrett, Sarah Vaughan, Sun Ra, and Jimi Hendrix.

When these people left the stage they didn’t take anything with them, they gave it all. All of them shared one essential quality; fearless generosity.

Craft is just something you internalize until you can forget it altogether and be yourself – cool, relaxed, smile on your face – bathing in the spotlight’s unforgiving chill.

I Was Wrong

wrong way

Infallible people never have to apologize, why would they? These are the folks of whom it is said, “Been there, done that, has a medal to prove it.”

My own father was one of these blessed individuals, and he constantly reasserted his infallibility by mercilessly bludgeoning anyone who disagreed with him. I cannot recall him ever apologizing. Indeed, apologizing is one of many skills he neglected to teach me.

My own pantomime of infallibility, a sort of homage to dad, depended on a careful balance of arrogance, gullible audiences, and tap dancing. Lacking the big guy’s prodigious powers of prestidigitation I could only keep the illusion alive for a while. Fortunately, when cracks began appearing in the shiny veneer – well – new, less discriminating audiences were always waiting.

Worshiping at the altar of perfection, imagining a model of humanity superior to all others, I naturally came to regard apologies as anathema. To apologize was to admit fault, to shine the unforgiving spotlight on a hideous blemish, either deed – or worse – attribute of character.

Two things happened.

First, I completely abandoned what I call “the myth of perfection” which I regard as a toxic lie responsible for an almost unimaginable amount of misery. I accepted myself as an imperfect entity.

Next, I came to understand mistakes as essential to the human experience.

Edison observed that his latest experiment hadn’t failed; he had simply found another way to not do what he was trying to do. Ultimately, I came to realize, the only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who don’t do anything. (Ironically, this is the biggest mistake of all, since it wastes a life.)

Now, instead of feeling diminished by apologizing, I feel empowered. To apologize is to cease hiding and take ownership of something you have done. It is also to acknowledge the effect one has had on others; it validates them and puts their needs above yours.

Apologizing is yet another skill I learned in the damp basements of my program, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it is one of the few activities in life one cannot do too often. If you have made a hurtful mistake, own it, face it, deal with it. Bow.