Maybe I Could’ve Been a Rock Star

[October 2013] I’ve read a few “biographies” of rock bands over the years. One thing that has struck me is how unskilled many of the musicians were when they started out. How much they learned about playing their instruments, writing songs and performing on stage as they went along. In Stranger Than Fiction, Mike Chunn discusses how Split Enz kept the volume on Neil Finn’s monitor turned down (maybe even off) during their first tour after he joined the band. (If you’re not familiar with Split Enz, some of the band members reformed as Crowded House, whose song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was part of The Stand’s soundtrack.)

Touring with a rock group is like a trial by fire. You improve (to the extent that your talents allow) or you die. Neil Finn eventually became a very good musician and songwriter indeed. His group Crowded House has never managed to top the US charts, but they’ve done very well in many other countries.

Life is full of “moments” when decisions get made, sometimes tacitly. I look back on one such moment and wonder what might have happened if I’d made a different choice.

I learned to play the piano when I was young. I took lessons for five years, starting when I was five or six, then gave it up until I was sixteen, when I wanted to be able to play the songs I was listening to on the radio and on records. I took a 9-month refresher course. I was never very good, but enthusiastic. When I went to university, my access to a piano was limited to a clunker in the dorm’s band room and another in the cafeteria at the women’s dorm. I availed myself of both on occasion, but I eventually decided to buy a keyboard for my room.

I went to a local music store and tinkered around on the various display instruments. I eventually zeroed in on one, a Roland that had a few effects and, important to someone like me with limited talent, a sustain pedal, which most of the others didn’t have. As I dabbled, I started playing one of my favorite songs, “Fool’s Overture” by Supertramp. The opening instrumental is fairly complicated, with hand-spanning, four-note chords, and was one of the few pieces that I could play from memory. It sounded pretty good on the Roland, if I do say so myself.

A guy around my age approached me. He had a band and they were looking for a keyboard player. He wanted to know if I was interested in joining them. Just like that! I was then—and still am to this day—very realistic about my musical skills, so I turned him down without a second thought. My little demonstration had plumbed the depths of my talent and I didn’t think I had what it took to be in a band. Given his encouraging offer, though, I might have gone back to the privacy of my room and tried honing my musical talents (such as they are) in private and then presented myself to a band as a full-fledged musician, albeit one who had never developed the necessary skill of being part of something.

Instead, I decided in advance that I couldn’t do it. Maybe I was right. My piano playing is much like my cooking: I don’t have any improvisational skills. I need sheet music or a recipe. But maybe if I had seized the opportunity I would have discovered—or learned—the necessary musical skills. Maybe our group would have taken off and I might have lived the life of a rock star. (Who am I kidding? Coming from eastern Canada, the chances of national, let alone international, fame was remote at best. But I’m sure the lads from Te Awamutu, New Zealand felt the same way.) But it was an unexplored opportunity and my life might have been different if I’d taken it. If nothing else, it might simply have been fun.

During the same period, I was also writing short stories, which I shared only with some of my neighbors. I wrote them longhand, often during a single sitting. I never considered submitting any of them for publication back then, though I rewrote and published two or three of those early works a quarter of a century later. So, who knows what response I might have gotten if I’d typed some of them up and sent them out? I was ignorant of proper MS formatting back then, so I might have had a few mechanical handicaps to overcome at first, but I might have gotten some encouragement and had a twenty-year head start on getting published. After about 1985, I mostly gave up writing short stories and didn’t start again until the end of the millennium.

Back in the 1980s, I thought that I didn’t have enough life experience to be a writer. Maybe I was right. Or maybe I would have—like Neil Finn did—learned by doing. Made mistakes, got rejected, picked myself up and plowed ahead. That’s the way it’s done in art. Few people hit it out of the ballpark the first time. Some of the most famous painters started out as apprentices to other artists.

We learn by doing. We try, fail, learn and try again. If we persist—and if we have cultivatable talent—maybe one day we succeed.

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