Something to Fall Back On?

My father is a retired General Electric lighting executive, and my mother was a college math professor, but both of them dabbled briefly in music. When I was young, my mother occasionally sat down at the piano and played one of the classical pieces she learned as a child, and my father never let us forget that he played clarinet in his high school marching band with the great trumpeter Al Hirt. Neither of them had the skill or desire to pursue music as a vocation.

My dad is the epitome of a Depression-era child grown old — a frugal man who has lived within his means to a fault. If there is one quality he has tried to instill in his children above all others, it is to work towards financial stability, to save today for the uncertainties of tomorrow. Now almost eighty-five, my father is, by any reasonable standards, a wealthy man. Yet he still drives five miles out of his way to save two cents per gallon on gasoline and will make special trips to three different grocery stores because one has a slightly lower price on bananas, another on toilet paper, and another on dinner rolls. He buys generic everything, uses the top of a butter tub for a plate, reuses paper napkins, and drinks wine from a box.

If there was ever a character type that might not encourage his child to become a professional musician, it would be someone like my father. All of my siblings were encouraged to go to college and all of them did, but I wasn’t and I didn’t. One of my brothers is a quantum physicist, and my younger sister was on her way to a similar vocation when chronic fatigue syndrome stepped in the way. So my dad would surely be the guy to say, “You really need something to fall back on.” (How many times did I hear that from the parents of my musician friends?) But he never spoke those words to me. Ever.

Why did my mother and father, two children of the Depression brought up to believe that providing for one’s family was the most important thing in life, never utter a discouraging word to their fourth child about the incredibly risky profession he was single-mindedly embarking upon?

My mother is no longer around to ask, but I recently sat down with my father and talked with him about this. He hadn’t considered the subject in thirty years, if ever. Disappointingly, he didn’t have a deeply profound answer. After thinking on it for awhile, he offered that it was simply a lack of knowledge about the music business, not knowing anyone who had been in the profession (apart from his high school bandmate Al Hirt), so neither he nor my mother was informed enough to pass along the dire parental warning signals. (And my friends’ parents were?) I expected something a little nobler, but I bit my tongue and listened. After all, I always suspected that from a very early age I was a one-trick pony and that my parents figured they might as well encourage the trick with all the support they could muster because I wasn’t going to be much good at anything else.

“We frankly didn’t know what to do with you,” said my father, about to confirm my suspicions. “You were so good at music at such a young age, and you seemed to be making a success of it.” Success at that time being defined as performing five nights a week in smoke-filled nightclubs well before I was legally old enough to step through the front door.

Brent BourgeoisI’ve often pondered whether it was good that my parents actively supported my musical aspirations instead of encouraging me to get a college degree like they did for my other siblings. Every band I was in practiced at my parents’ house, and I was an underage performer in nightclubs, so my mom and dad often watched us perform. I think they got a kick out of it. Most teenage musicians would give their left leg for supportive parents like mine. And even though I developed predictable problems with drugs and alcohol along the way, I don’t look back at their decision with regret — just wonder. I was incredibly fortunate to have two parents who, despite their upbringings, had minds open enough to not treat all of their kids with a one-size-fits-all standard. I’m not sure what would have happened had they tried to force me into college. But in the end, I had nothing to fall back on. This was ironic to realize at age fifty, especially considering I had supported my wife and four children for almost thirty years through the vocation of music.

Twenty-somethings don't get asked these questions often enough: “What if you decide someday that you don’t want to (insert your artistic vocation here) anymore? Will you have anything to fall back on?” Young people find these questions nearly impossible to consider because they are bursting with optimistic idealism and boundless energy. These questions are simply not on the table. They rank right up there with planning for retirement, doing homework ahead of time, and eating a balanced diet. To ask such questions is to allow into the soul the possibility of defeat. Young people have enough cognizance of the long-shot odds of having a successful career in the arts that they don’t want to skewer those odds even further by allowing elements of self-doubt to creep through their shield of dreams.

I never even imagined at age twenty what a life in music would look like at fifty; I never even wondered whether I would want to participate in such a life. I suppose I occasionally pondered whether I’d have the inner motivation to remain creative if I was fabulously wealthy, traveling to the many homes I would own in various places, and receiving the lifetime achievement awards I imagined for myself. But it never crossed my mind that I might one day decide on my own that I had had enough.

Adrian BourgeoisMy son Adrian, our oldest of four children, is a talented singer-songwriter and musician. I say this with as much objectivity as I can muster, for it would be easier if he wasn’t so good. I carry with me all the broken promises, misplaced optimism, wishful thinking, and bull-headed stubbornness that thirty-odd years in the music business doles out. Without a doubt, I also had some signature moments of my life, but what weighs more: the successes or the struggles? Adrian isn't a middling talent with a lethargic nature; he's better than I was at a similar age, and he has unshakable determination. I had a lot of little unearned successes at an early age to keep me coming back for more, but the pain of constant rejection would have caused me to self-medicate, at the very least. I marvel at Adrian’s ability to slough off failure, to retain unbounded optimism in the face of humiliating circumstances.

The foundations of the music business have changed so much over the last ten years as to be almost unrecognizable to someone even as experienced as I am. The Internet Revolution led to a full-scale rebellion against the entrenched major labels, to the point where most young artists would not sign with a label if given the chance. A few years into the Wild West of indie music, however, where each artist is his or her own chief cook and bottle-washer, has convinced me that for all their flaws, the (major) record labels had at least a few good things to offer. But most of the lessons I learned in that system no longer apply.

So I find myself in a very different position with my son than my father was with me. I want to encourage Adrian, but only so much. I believe he deserves the opportunity to make a decent living as a songwriter/performing artist, but I know that there is much more than talent, hard work, and logic involved. If one wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an architect, a scientist, a teacher, a psychologist, or a pilot, there are certain logical steps to take to achieve the ultimate goal. Study hard in high school, get good grades, do four years of college, get accepted into a graduate program, do well there, and on to law school, med school, or whatever. Not that any of that is easy, but there is a reasonable amount of certainty that if you follow all of the steps and do them well, you will get a job in your chosen profession.

Only in the arts, it seems, does this logic get turned on its head. People with very little discernible talent seem to come from nowhere and become stars. Or not. People with great talent languish in anonymity maybe forever, or sometimes they are magically pulled into the spotlight for a fleeting moment, then unceremoniously deposited back into the dark recesses of Nowheresville. Talent and hard work only make up part of the equation. Luck and timing are equal partners in the deal.

I end up raining on Adrian’s parade more often than not, pointing out the downsides and reminding him of all that can go wrong. When he presents a new song, what he wants from me is to tell him that it’s good, not that the song doesn’t need that fourth verse. My parents didn’t know any better and thought everything I did was good. When Adrian tells me about his upcoming “tour” — a quixotic exercise in van maintenance, playing to a half-dozen people at a time in coffeehouses where, if lucky, he will earn enough money to pay for the gas to get to the next coffeehouse — he wants me to approve, even though I think it’s crazy. My parents would have tagged along.

We convinced Adrian to go to college — to UC Santa Cruz, my wife's alma mater in a town that he loves — but he lasted just one year. He decided that he needed to be in San Francisco, closer to where the “action” was in live performing. He feebly tried to continue in junior college but then gave up altogether, complaining that he had spread himself thin and was doing nothing well — not his music, not his school work, not his job. So the school had to go. He eventually finished his second year, but I have no illusions that he will complete the other two years anytime soon.

Do as I say, not as I did — easier said than done.

The most important part of his life, his relationship with Christ, makes me believe that Adrian is going to be all right. When I was his age and throughout my twenties, I was in a dark spiritual period, clouded by drugs and alcohol. Adrian couldn't be more different. His walk with Jesus is strong and deep, and there have never been any signs of the rebellion that so many young people his age seem destined to go through. He seems at peace with his life and lack of material progress, which is practically un-American but is in large measure due to his faith that a loving God is in control. That he is a devout follower of Jesus eschewing the contemporary Christian market, insisting on taking his chances in the mainstream world, is a decision I support wholeheartedly: it's one thing we can both agree on.

The whole family circa 1999.Adrian’s younger sisters have looked at his artistic quest and have all said, in their own ways, “No thanks!” They all have talents, especially his youngest sister, but she is more influenced by what she sees in his world, especially the failures, than by whatever she knows of mine. The twelve-year age difference means everything. Adrian was around to see some of the successes that a life in music can bring, while to young Natalie, my music career is abstract —pictures and videos of funny-looking outfits and funnier-looking hair.  She (and her two older sisters) are far more level-headed than Adrian, carefully considering college choices in view of what life might be without local musical theater. They have, without any prompting from their parents, come to their own conclusions about the need to have something to fall back on.

So how do parents in the arts train up their children who aspire to follow in their footsteps? In my opinion, nothing can be as important as the truth. Things don’t have to be portrayed as better, or worse, than they are. If, like me, you didn’t go to college and yet were able to carve out a reasonably good living as a musician, it becomes hard to convince your musician-son that going to college will be a huge benefit in his life.

“Son, I really think you should go to college.”

“Why? You didn’t.”

“Well, you may not always feel the way you do now about music as a career. I don’t.”

This is the point when he trots out all of the music legends over the age of sixty who are still releasing CDs and filling arenas.

“Yeah, but they are all the famous ones, the exceptions. For every one of them, there are at least a hundred who never even made a decent living.“

Then he mentions several of my friends, older than I am, who are barely hacking out a living while still playing music locally. They are exactly who I was thinking of in the previous example.

“You want to do that when you are sixty?” I ask, incredulously. “That would be OK with you when you’re that age? One of them lives with his mother. The other one is in a constant state of penury. The third one is on the road 380 days a year.”

“I would rather be doing that when I’m sixty than to be cooped up in some office building at a job that I hate, no matter how much money it pays,” he answers emphatically.

A pearl of wisdom finely drops from my brain to my mouth — the gem I have been waiting to utter, the truth that he must hear:

“Well son, you better get yourself fixed, because you probably won’t want to bring children into such an unstable environment.” I’m somehow channeling my dad, except he never said that to me.

“Oh, I don’t plan on having children. At least not anytime soon.” 

They never do.

Brent Bourgeois lives in Elk Grove, California, with Mary Ann, his wife of twenty-seven years, and four kids. After a long career in music, including an eight-year stay in Nashville, he is now the Director of Outreach at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento. Brent wants to be a writer when he grows up.

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