I walk into a coffee shop this morning and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is playing on the audio system.
“How are you today?” the barista asks.
“Can’t be bad if I’m starting my day with the Man in Black,” I say.
“He was such a badass,” I continue. “Like Dylan.”
She smiles again. But I’m not sure if it’s a smile of agreement or she’s simply trying to sell me a latte. Maybe she’s appeasing an old man who has been thinking a lot lately about the art of being fearless, and how I somehow missed that important ingredient when I was building my early creative self.
Cash, Dylan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and countless others of my generation and today have and are creatively without the slightest apprehension. They throw their guitars on their backs, their notebooks in their canvas suitcases, their laptops under their arms and get after it. They go sing their songs, write their words without constraint.
When I was young and playing guitar, writing some songs of my own, I did it the safe way. Sure, I did it, but I didn’t hitchhike to Greenwich Village, I played at the student union on my campus steps away from my dorm. Not so fearless. And my songs, the ones I wrote, had a formula, a tempo, an aesthetic that could be found readily on the radio. Boring. Oh, I was decent enough, people clapped, I was even praised sometimes, but I was far from being creatively fearless.
A few years after those halcyon days, I put on a tie, some cotton khaki pants, and played the part. I was a journalist and I liked the role. I won some awards, did some good work, but was I fearless like a Woodward and Berstein? No. I did my job and I did it well, but I was pedestrian.
Today, I’m thinking about that. What makes the greats fearless, even from the beginning? What makes them take the big and bold chances with their work, their life, their creative self?
At nearly sixty years old, I’m more fearless now than I have ever been. But it is no longer combined with the promise of youth; a young man’s belief that he is immortal and his work—his songs, his writing, his poems—are the most important thing in the world. Like many who work creatively, I find I must do it. I’m compelled to write and from time to time create music, but the fire that rages when one is young is not there. It burns, but not as brightly.
Or does it?
A crazy idea: What if I grabbed my guitar and practiced hard and wrote some more songs and went out to share them? Go on a little tour? Play some bars, small festivals in dumpy towns and learn to be fearless. I play okay. I can write decently. I know how to perform in front of people without fainting. My next book—October Song—is about a songwriting contest and facing big changes in one’s life. So, I think I know how to do this. I could call it the “Fearless Tour” or the “No Regrets Tour” or “The Old Man Needs to Prove Something Tour.”
If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t start writing creatively and without restraints at a younger age, that I didn’t strap on my guitar and jump on a VW bus and play anywhere and everywhere, all over the place. I didn’t realize when I was young that I needed to be more fearless, that I needed to push the edges more often, that I needed to stretch to the point of snapping. It wasn’t that I was afraid of snapping, I just didn’t know any better.
But I do now.
Yes I do.