Finding Your Howl

Suggested Song: Downtown Train, Tom Waits
Suggested Drink: Thurston Howl, rum, brandy, gin, pineapple and grapefruit juices. (to sooth those weathered pipes)

I’ve wanted to be rock star since I was young. I gave it the old college try as a teen, then surrendered to the odds and went off to college. But I never gave up on the dream. I kept on writing music and making bedroom demos through my 20s, and recorded a proper studio album in my 30s. It was a decent effort, but my voice just didn’t have that edgy rock n roll bark that I so loved hearing in the greats: Daltrey, Waits, Cobain, Bon Scott. I couldn’t find my howl.

A lot of us are inspired but mediocre at things we really love, particularly when we’re young. Passion and effort aren’t always enough, unfortunately. But there are plenty of examples of mediocrity flowering into something truly special in later years. Consider Czech composer Leos Janacek. He penned a respectable piece at 22 in the late 1800s, and then spent his next 30 years mostly doing folklore research. Janacek kept plugging away in his spare time but didn’t find real renown until 62, with the completion of his opera Janufa, to be followed by Sinfonietta and then many other classics.

Why his later-in-life bloom? Maybe he finally had time on his hands to immerse more deeply, or it was the continued honing of his talent, or the inspired provocation drawn from his ache for the beautiful Kamila, married and 35 years younger, for whom he took a hard tumble just about the time Janufa was in work. Love bloomed, he soared, the rest is for us to enjoy.

Another good example is Charles Bukowski. At 24 his “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” got published to some decent reviews. Then he went on a prolonged bender and deep dive into the seedier side of life. Like Janacek, Bukowski kept at his craft but had little to show for it. His real break through came at 51 with “Post Office,” which he wrote in 3 weeks after quitting the Postal Service in LA as a carrier. (I picked up a copy at City Lights in SF earlier this year. What a great read.)

I was at a Chagall exhibit in Aix-en-Provence last week, at the beautiful Hôtel Caumont in the center of town. Chagall established himself as a transcendent and successful painter early in life, and unlike Janacek and Bukowski kept the acclaim rolling. But what I admire most about Chagall is his leap into distinctly different and challenging forms of art in his later years: ceramics and stone sculpture and stained glass, starting in his mid 60s. You think I’m this, but now I’m that. Allez allez, keep up!

Maybe you’re in your 50s or older and thinking that the window of passion possibilities has long closed. That comes down to the commitment you are ready to make and embarrassment you are willing to suffer. But who cares about embarrassment? No one will say at your funeral, yeah she was great at X but really embarrassed herself at that Y thing she so loved. No, a best friend or sibling or child will say that you had a real passion for Y and immersed yourself deeply in it. You will produce something authentic that people will either embrace or reject, but everyone will respect the effort.

I went back into the recording studio last year with a binder full of songs and a talented bunch of musicians. A new album after a 25-year pause, this was my Janacek moment in more ways than one.

Why now? My confidence was buoyed by the inspired material and quality of the crew, but more than that my voice had taken on, finally, enough gravel to sing what I wanted to hear. Age and more than a few Bukowski evenings had lined those silky pipes with a rough patina of smoky leather. It just wasn’t my time at 30. It might be now. I’ve found my howl.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

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