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The Flame That Never Dies

Fire Within

Look to your left.

       No, not way over there, that’s too far.

Come back this way a bit.         Now, stop...

       Stay here, on your screen.

              You still with me?          Good.

Right there... just an inch or so over...

              a little to the edge, off to the side...

Yeah, there... you see the gal in that picture there?

The one with the giant set of lungs and the mouth stretched wide enough to absorb a grapefruit?  The one with long raven locks dewy and wild with the passion of performance glistening amethyst in the hot blue spotlight?  The one decked out in crimson velvet and ebony satin and leather?  The one positioned in a battle stance, thrust forward, bending to the crowd and writhing with the rhythm of the moment?

Yeah, that one.

That’s me.

I guess you could say I’m a closet
rockstar.  Or at least, I was, once... a lifetime ago.  That photo was taken a dozen years back, at the widely renowned Fine Line Music Café, and originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

That guy there in the background on guitar is
Mike Ruekburg, formerly of Rex Daisy.  He’s since gone on to doing bigger and better things out in L.A.  In the case of this event, where I was making a regular guest appearance, former members of the defunct foursome had come together with some other mildly crazy folks to create the slough band, “Two Tickets To Paradise,” because they just missed the stage.  Their one album, the only big name label record ever produced for the group, hadn’t given them quite the career in rock and roll they’d hoped for, but they were always a lot more fun live than in the studio, anyway.  Just feed them shots of Jagermeister, and watch the magic happen.

But I’m not writing about those guys.  We had some good times together, sure, but this is about me.


I’ll be honest, I’d always planned at some point in my life to come “out of the closet,” so to speak.  But I’m forty years old, now, and I haven’t found the door yet.  In fact, I’m not even sure I’m still looking for it.  If I’m being realistic, I don’t know that I ever really was.  There are people who spend their lives “chasing the dream,” and I guess I just never wanted to be that nuts.  I wanted some semblance of a normal life, in the meantime.  Making music has always been an integral part of what makes me who I am, but I try not to let it be the only thing that defines me.

I know it doesn’t mean that much to you for me to say here, but I am good at this.  Actually, it’s probably the one thing in my life I could say I’m great at.  I could downplay it somewhat, since you’d have to take my word for it in this environment, anyway, but, I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own.

In musical theater and choral environments, I’ve won every part or role I’ve ever auditioned for.  I was one of only 3 singers from my region to make All-State, 2 years running.  I was a featured soloist at
Dorian Festival, before several thousand of my peers – other highly trained, exceptionally skilled musicians.  I’ve soloed for an International Conference on Global Warming at the General Assembly in the Headquarters of the United Nations.  I once met Donny Osmond, whose mid 90s sendup of the title role in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat impressed me, and who graciously acknowledged me as a noteworthy talent for my performance as The Narrator in a local production of that same show.  He was so gracious, he made me blush.

I’ve had quite a few other accomplishments along those lines to my name... I could go on about them.  But it doesn’t really matter now.  That was decades ago, and back then, I was in my prime.  I was the vocal equivalent of an Olympic athlete.  But now, I’m vocally out-of-shape, like
Arnold Schwarzenegger pushing into his mid 60s.  Sure, you still wouldn’t want to mess with the former Governor in a back alley, but he’s certainly no Mister Universe anymore.  That ship sailed a long time ago.  Don’t get me wrong, just like “AH-nuhld” could still kick your ass, I can still belt out a tune.  Perhaps I might not quite hold my own anymore in the Die Fledermaus opera aria, Adele’s Laughing Song, as I once did, but I can still make people smile, and maybe even drop a few jaws.

These days, I don’t have a whole lot of outlets for expressing this aspect of my talent, and certainly not to the educated, cultured audiences I once commanded.  Now, when I get the chance to perform, it’s mostly for drunks in bars.  But, still, people who’ve heard me sing — mostly folks who don’t know me that well — even today — often ask me why I haven’t gone on shows like
American Idol.  The answer I give is easy enough to come by, and usually shuts most inquiring minds up, but it’s not entirely the whole story.

To strangers, I’m only willing to confess that, when that reality bomb first hit US broadcasts, the age restriction was limited to 18 – 24-year-olds only, and they were very specifically looking for a “pop” star.  But I’m not one of those sorts who mistakenly believes I can do anything.  I have my strengths, and in my element, I generally find myself at the top of my class, but I do know my limitations.  I am no Mariah Carey, nor would I want to be... that’s just not who I am.  Besides, by that time I was 27, and that sort of thing was not my cup of tea.  A few years later, it seemed they were more willing to consider other music genres, and they’d expanded their age limit from 14 – 28.  But, of course, by then, I was already 29.  That’s usually enough of a response to satisfy most drunks in a bar.

The reality, though, is a little more complex.  The thing is, when I do catch shows like that from time to time, I always see people regurgitating the same tired soundbytes.

“This means everything to me!”

“It would change my whole world!”

“Music is all I’ve ever been good at!”

“Singing is all I ever dreamed of!”

“I just want to be able to prove that dreams really can come true!”

It’s like someone gives them all the same script, and they have to be able to read from it, convincingly — preferably with tears — in order to land the job.  And I can’t help but to think, how sad for them that they couldn’t find a life outside this singular obsession... how tragic that they couldn’t be fulfilled in any other fashion.  But, still, I must admit, even so, I do understand that drive, that endless aching need, that hunger that cannot be assuaged with anything else.

And yet, somehow, it must be.  Because if we all only did the only thing we ever really wanted to do, then the whole world would be filled with ballerinas, firemen, astronauts, basketball players, actors, singers, and 314 Presidents of the United States... all at once.  (Plus maybe a few mad scientists here and there, thrown in for good measure... those 314 Presidents are going to need something to do to keep them busy.)

Of course, I’m not saying I’m going to abandon the notion of “making it” because I don’t think it’s a realistic possibility.  But at the same time, I also know, it’s never going to become a realistic possibility unless a make it one... so where does that leave me?


There was a time in my youth when I wanted fame and fortune under the spotlight.  I wanted it all, and I’d have taken it, if it had been handed to me.  I remember when I first watched that movie “Rock Star” in my mid-20s, and I initially found the ending wholly unbelievable.  No way!  No way would Mark Wahlberg just walk away from everything he’d ever wanted, after working so hard to get it.  And then, life happened to me.  Years rolled by, age came upon me, experience altered my perspective, and a different understanding changed my way of thinking.  I saw it again, some time later, and suddenly it all made sense, and for the first time, I finally “got” it.

That deeper comprehension of what that feeling must have been like to have given up the dream brought to mind a line from a U2 song,

          “I gave you everything you ever wanted... it wasn’t what you wanted.”


I could never handle going on some cheap network drama delivery vehicle as one starry eyed hopeful among thousands, desperate to be given a golden ticket that would make all my dreams come true.  I’m too much of a control freak for that.  I don’t want anyone to hand me a shiny wrapped package filled with their interpretation of everything I ever wanted, along with all the strings that would come attached with it.  Maybe when I was a kid, sure, when I knew I was that good, and that was all I knew.  Mind you, I'm not saying I’m not that good now, I’m just saying I know so much more now, and that’s not all that matters to me anymore.  I could have been handed everything I’d ever wanted, and I'd have become someone else.  And if I had, I wouldn’t have become someone I would have liked very much.  But I don’t want to be anyone else anymore.  I want to be me.  I’ve spent a long time figuring out how to be me, and how to like who I am.  And I'm hanging onto that.  If I’m ever going to do this, I want to have worked for it, and to do it on my own.


I knew by then that I had lost some portion of my younger days to trying to “be somebody.”  It was an obsession, and it was unhealthy.  At that stage in life, I didn’t care enough about so much of what was going on with me, so much of what was in front of me, because the future was my focus.  Some long distant mirage in the desert, across an empty, dark chasm of the unknown between my life in the now, and what I longed for.  I was writing (music) prolifically, then.  Probably 3 – 4 really incredible strokes of creative genius a week, at least... still some of my best work, to this date.  But I had no life, or what I had was falling apart.  And when it would get bad enough that I would have to fix it, because it was so in my face that I had no other choice, then I’d be forced to repurpose my attention into “saving” myself from whatever predicament my lack of attention had dragged me into.

But maybe that’s always how it has to be with great artists.  Maybe that’s what it means to have to “suffer” for your art.  In many ways, I think of that song as being sung by a man with a broken heart, but I don’t imagine the object of his unrequited affections to be a woman... it’s his art, his passion, his creative muse.  It’s said that one definition of insanity is continuously repeating the same patterns, expecting different results, right?  I realized, one day, eventually, in the course of growing up, when I finally recognized that repetitive condition in my own life, that I, like so many others before me, am forever ill-fated to suffer from what I came to know as what I call,


The Curse of the Artist.”

The curse of the artist, as I see it, is:

                              Either you can LIVE,

                                        — or —

                               . . .you can CREATE.

                              But you CAN’T do BOTH

                              until WHAT you create

                              is HOW you LIVE.


Until then, no real artist is every truly satisfied in life.


Once upon a time, when I was young and stupid, and I knew everything, as we all did once, I watched my best friend, 10 years my senior, begin to fade from the joy of the pastimes we once shared together, and I swore that would never happen to me.  I vowed to never lose the passion I had for the desires of my youth.  Because nothing should ever really change about what we want in life, right?

Well, I haven’t really lost it, I suppose.  I haven’t buried it so deep that it can’t be found.  The truth is, I couldn’t make it go away even if I wanted to.  It will always be a part of me.  And because of that, on some level, I will always be looking for it, over my shoulder, around the next corner.  But it isn’t haunting me anymore, and it no longer controls me.


I may not be on the fast track to getting there.  In fact, I’m not even sure I can see the track from here.  But, I don’t think it’s ever really completely out of my mind.  It’s a just a step away, right over there, just to the left.  I’ve got a fairly good idea how I’ll eventually get around to doing what I love, assuming I don’t get too cozy in my quiet life, sit on my haunches and twiddle my whole future away.  And when I do choose to set foot on that path, it’ll be on my terms.  Because I don’t feel like I’ve got to make it big to make it worthwhile.  I’m not dying to be famous.  I’m not trying to sell out standing room only shows in arena rock concerts.  I don’t have to be good enough for the voting public, or an audience of millions.  Someday, I just want to be able to answer the question, “What do YOU do,” with the facts of life about my dream.

I’m an artist.  That’s what I do.  It’s who I am.

And that will never change.



LJ Idol | Season 9 • Week 21 - Topic: THE MUSIC MADE ME DO IT
This post has been brought to you by an association with the online writing community forum, LJ Idol.
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Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
i_17bingo
Sep. 17th, 2014 08:02 am (UTC)
I needed to read this today. I won't say why, but I did.
karmasoup
Sep. 17th, 2014 08:24 am (UTC)
I'm glad it spoke to you, even though you don't say why. I'm always happy to reach out and connect with people, on any level.

Edited at 2014-09-17 08:24 am (UTC)
roina_arwen
Sep. 17th, 2014 04:29 pm (UTC)
I saw Donny Osmond perform in "Joseph..." back in the day. It's always been one of my favorite rock operas. Alas, I have no singing ability to speak of, so when my summer camp performed it one year, I got cast in a non-singing role. (I was one of the Ishmaelites)

Edited at 2014-09-17 04:30 pm (UTC)
karmasoup
Sep. 18th, 2014 12:52 am (UTC)
Well, at least you got to be part of the fun of it... that's worth something! Thanks for sharing!
rayaso
Sep. 17th, 2014 08:14 pm (UTC)
This was such a great personal story, and you wrote it so well. I loved the picture, and wondered what choices you made to get to this point in life in relation to your art. Excellent job.
karmasoup
Sep. 18th, 2014 01:00 am (UTC)
Well, mainly, I've been distracted along the way. I've never been very good at keeping up with the 9 - 5 grind, and I've had a few missteps in career tracks off-the-beaten path, that in many cases ended up taking me almost farther in the wrong direction, because at least with a 9 - 5 gig, you get to go home at the end of the day, and leave your work behind you.

I've built, run, and sold companies multiple times, because I'm just not the sort to work for anyone else. I've been a professional contractor for 20 years now, because I like freedom, flexibility, and not having to make a long term commitment. I've had businesses fall apart due to failed partnerships, and that's a real learning experience.

These days, I have a much lower-key operation that really doesn't depend on anyone but me, and I like that best so far. My time is my own, and at this point, so is my destiny. The future is wide open.
reckless_blues
Sep. 18th, 2014 01:18 am (UTC)
Dear God, is American Idol that old?

...Is it still on? Jeez, it's still on. I have no idea what's happening in the outside world anymore. (Needless to say, I can relate to focusing so much on your work that it becomes your life.)
karmasoup
Sep. 18th, 2014 01:42 am (UTC)
It looks like it still is... I wouldn't have known that, except when I went to create a link for it, the site is still live, and I just checked... yep, it says at the top left corner it's coming back in 2015. Looks like Harry Connick, Jr. has been brought in to replace Steven Tyler. That might almost be enough to tempt me to tune in for a bit, as I do luvs me some Harry, but, I'll have to think on it. Not sure the rest of it is worth putting up with.

All work and no play makes Mick a dull gal.
penpusher
Sep. 18th, 2014 01:03 pm (UTC)
A fantastic memoir entry of your personal experiences around the machine that is the music industry and your reflections on creativity in general. No pun intended, but it definitely strikes a chord when it comes to a lot of what we, in the Western World, deal with about artistry, approach to experience, reality television, dreams versus practicality, and defining oneself in spite of the definitions that are placed on one by all the outside observers.

P.S. This is going to be Harry Connick Jr's. SECOND season as a regular judge on American Idol. My (distant) cousin was a contestant on AI last year and Harry had some really weird things to say to her, and then she got voted out that week, right before they started the "regular" show voting.
karmasoup
Sep. 19th, 2014 09:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks - glad we could be in synch on this! ;) That's too bad about your cousin. I've been out of the loop on it for a bit... I'm a bit surprised the show is still around.
bleodswean
Sep. 18th, 2014 03:05 pm (UTC)
WOW!! What a deeply thought-provoking read. I can relate to this on so many levels. Enjoy your 40's, it all shifts again when you enter your 50's.
karmasoup
Sep. 19th, 2014 09:28 pm (UTC)
Isn't that the way with every decade? Each marks the passing of a milestone into a new era, and your world changes from that point forward. Glad you enjoyed this, and thanks for reading.
bleodswean
Sep. 19th, 2014 09:51 pm (UTC)
I would say about every 7 years we cycle...again...and so much of a successful transition is about mindset. And yours seems incredibly positive!
karmasoup
Sep. 19th, 2014 10:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's sweet... thanks so much!
mamas_minion
Sep. 18th, 2014 11:56 pm (UTC)
this is a very insightful and wonderfully written story. I laughed out loud a the part about there being 314 presidents. Hopefully things will setup so that you can reach a place where your dreams and life intersect.
karmasoup
Sep. 19th, 2014 10:23 pm (UTC)
That is the hope, indeed. Glad you enjoyed this.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )