personal • 22.05.09
The valentines I never knew / The Friday night charades of youth / Were spent on one more beautiful / At seventeen I learned the truth
In her song “At Seventeen” Janis Ian explores the plight of the troubled teenager. It's a sentiment many will relate to as the adolescent years can prove to be an obstacle course. I was lucky at that age. Towards the end of high school I went through a radical transitioning that changed my life. It was a spiritual change both subtle and powerful. I was aware of it happening and yet not so aware of it. I felt slightly removed from reality as if watching from a vantage.
My values, attitudes and thought processes changed then and began to formulate in a way alien to anything I had known previously. This was not at all a bad thing. External events unfolded happily as my new-found sense of self coincided with an emergent social life. The dynamic that kicked off then would set the tone for the life I would live thereafter.
It was 1973 and throughout the year my friends and I hung in cafes and bars, threw parties, holidayed together and organised events. I was usually at the core of the happenings and my cachet was starting to grow as a consequence. I felt blessed with a slight sense of entitlement.
I recall a bunch of us going to see Paul McCartney in Glasgow. We were organised enough to hire a coach and sell tickets. This was not so long after The Beatles had split. I was such a McCartney fan that had a reincarnate Christ been on stage that night it would not have been more important. Serendipity being ever present I met Paul at the gig. He emerged from a dressing room just where I happened to be standing. I shook his hand and got an autograph. I had recently sprouted and was surprised to be quite a bit taller than he was. As a rock-god I expected him to stand towering and here he was just normal size actually looking up to me as we spoke. Of course it was a big deal. Meeting one’s hero at seventeen is big by any measure. Yet there was something quite natural to me that I should bump into McCartney. Good fortune had become such a presence that I had began to attract it. I even spent half the concert kissing the gorgeous gal I'd been fancying.
It was May of the year and the coming summer would be memorable. We went often to the beach playing at being singer-songwriters. I wasn’t just a pose: “singing Beatles on the sand makes a happy heart’s club band” was how captured the vibe in a composition full of sunny major-sevenths. We stayed on a friend’s boat and partied; we went in full force to Arran for two weeks in August commandeering a room in the village hotel every night singing and drinking around guitars and a piano; we made new connections from other places. This was how life was meant to be. I felt centred and sure of myself.
Going back to school for the senior year after such a fun summer was not at all what was meant to be. So I didn’t. Soon I ran into trouble with the authority figures in my life for the first time. Not that parents and teachers were unreasonable in their demands. They were fair. It was just that I was becoming someone who needed to carve out a life for himself in his own terms and was sure enough, and unreal enough maybe, to believe such a thing possible. Over the next few months that battle was joined. It would be a life-time struggle. In embarking on such a challenge my trials were unusual in that I was battling convention. I was looking for a better deal. Most others by comparison bowed quite quickly to the pressures of conformity.
It was these few months in 73 which were the crucible for my future. I developed a sense of myself then which would endure beyond simple teenage fancy. Twenty years of career progress unfolded from that concentrated moment. Although setting up shop in your hometown and getting the music business to come to you would barely fly in a movie script, that was what we did. Thousands came from afar to work in our well-regarded little music studio. We were patronised by internationally renowned players. Many people got their careers going there and went on to bigger things. I started it up, saw it through and passed it on. The guys who took over ran with it some more. From that early period almost thirty years of rich activity ensued in a small town otherwise undistinguished for much to do with music.
My luck did run out eventually. By the time I was forty I couldn't get arrested and the people who crossed my path were never again the right ones. Earlier fortune proved to be something of a cul-de-sac as no solid career path emerged from it. My life became a roller-coaster of troubles both professionally and personally. That's the way of it in the arts. It's might also be how it is for fortunate teenagers who become too complacent. Janis Ian understood something like that...
Remember those who win the game / Lose the love they sought to gain / In debentures of quality / And dubious integrity / Their small town eyes will gape at you / In dull surprise when payments due / Exceeds accounts received / At seventeen