“In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall.
Some speak of the future,
My love she speaks softly,
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all”
Love Minus Zero/No Limit by Bob Dylan
I have been a Dylan fan for a long time. In fact a lot of folks will tell you they were first influenced to write and play music by the Beatles but Bob Dylan was one of my very first songwriter crushes. He was kinda goofy looking, his voice was not great and his lyrics were often obtuse and hard to understand. He was the perfect anti-hero for a directionless, self-doubting, adolescent, embryonic songwriter wannabe. Somehow his lyrics unpacked themselves in my brain with meanings both foreign and intriguing to my young mind. Though now I am firmly convinced that Bob sometimes wrote his stream of consciousness, word salad lyrics by throwing them up against the wall to simply see what stuck. But that resulted in everyone listening forming their own idea of what Dylan meant. That was his genius; his ability to sing his almost nonsense lyrics with the result that critics could pontificate endlessly about what deep philosophic meanings hidden in his cryptic musical poetry. Quite the Emperor’s new clothings approach to songwriting don’t you think?
I wrote my first song at the age of 13 back in 1965. It was terrible but it was a start. My idea about songs at the time was country music, church music and the occasional novelty song like “Flying Purple People Eater.” I hadn’t even heard Dylan yet as I was raised in the south where that citified bohemian stuff was considered too weird for consumption. So I wrote a song instead about the end of the world, influenced by my love of dystopian science fiction like Alas Babylon and my adolescent desire to get as far away as possible from what my parents thought of as good music. But my views would soon change with the accidental purchase of one record.
I received an allowance of a dollar a week so in 1966 so while going through an on bargain record bin at the local drugstore I found a copy of “Bringing it all Back Home” and spent a week’s allowance on it. I was drawn to the mysterious out of focus cover which felt dangerous and I imagined buying it was a huge act of rebellion against my boring church-centric world. I got home put the record on and the first thing I heard was “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” My mind was instantly blown! What in the hell was I listening to? It not only looked dangerous but sounded that way as well. Nothing like the then current country music played on KWKH out of Shreveport. He wasn’t singing about drinking or lost love. His words, though enticing were almost incomprehensible to me. But I simply couldn’t stop listening. They drew me in and made we wonder why I had never heard anything like this before. By the end of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” I was confused but also excited by this foreign thing I had just listened to. So in order to figure it out, I played it again and again and again and again.
So the telling of this story finally brings me to this lyric from the fourth song on that album; “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” I loved that song the first time I heard it. What it meant, I had no idea but the words were intoxicating. Making statements about his love which within themselves seemed self contradictory. The final two lines of the second verse stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard them. It felt like some deep aspect of truth was hidden in those lines. Yet it took me years to really think I understood them. I want to try to unpack my interpretation, the meaning, I hold for the lines; “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure’s no success at all” and how they have effected my life.
So let’s talk about success and failure. Two words we imagine as total opposites yet I contend as Dylan did that there are inextricably linked. Not simply opposites as many would claim but instead part of a greater continuum. Each feeding off the other and creating its opposite as a result. As an artist I have failed many times to meet my own expectations, let alone that of others. Yet though those failures I have learned more about myself than with any success I experienced. In my little corner of the music world, I have set goals. Some I succeeded in arriving at quickly and others I have spent many years failing at.
Without failure or its possibility, success would have no meaning. If everything was an easy win, then where is the challenge, the growth and the high? The high of a success is only there because I just as easily could have failed to reach my goal. Example: There is a songwriting contest that I entered for 20 years with no recognition whatsoever. I was simply an also-ran. Yet, last year on my 21st time, I was at long last a finalist. For me it felt like a huge success simply to be a finalist even though I ultimately failed to win. What made me keep going for 21 years? My perceived failure of course. I kept believing, I was good enough and hoping it would be recognized. If I had been a finalist or even won the first year I entered would it have meant as much to me? I am sure it would not. I have won in a number of what I consider lesser contests the first time I entered and though the win was sweet at the time the long term satisfaction is not there. It was always onward to another challenge. But failure, as Dylan said is not success. It is instead that which can push you to keep trying until you do succeed.
What do you consider success? Its definition is different for everyone. For some it is money and fame. For a friend of mine success would be to walk without a walker five years after a major stroke. No, he hasn’t succeeded in that goal yet but he is still trying everyday. He is an inspiration to me and others as well.
WInston Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. I just discovered that quote writing this column and I agree whole heartedly. I also found a quote from Confucius stating “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” Let’s keep doing that! I certainly intend to. I just entered that songwriting contest I was finally a finalist in last year, for the 22nd time. Who knows, maybe this time…
I would love to see your comments, complaints, corrections and suggestions. As they say, hit me with your best shot. I welcome every single one; positive or negative.
Randy Lewis Brown is an over-the-hill, baby boomer, curmudgeon who is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, and an early bedtime, he remains stedfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition. Always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories. In spite of his many perceived failures he remains steadfastly hopeful for success.