“How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”
“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan from Highway 61 Revisited
“Like a Rolling Stone” was released in 1965 on the album Highway 61 Revisited. Clocking in at over 6 minutes, the song set a record at the time as the longest charting (#2) record. It was exceeded only three years later by the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968 at over 7 minutes and surpassed again in 1972 by Don McLean’s magnum opus, American Pie. It wasn’t until 1992 that November Rain by Guns and Roses bypassed American Pie by over 30 seconds and most recently Taylor Swift’s All Too Well ran over 10 minutes.
To most folks, I am a complete unknown and you know, I am perfectly fine with that. A lot, perhaps even most, would not care for what I do musically as a songwriter and I am fine with that as well. I don’t want to be famous. At most, I want an opportunity to sing my songs to some folks who might connect with them.
That for the most part is the shared feeling of artists I know personally. Would we like to be more widely known and respected for our work by other artists and the general public? Of course. But we know it isn’t going to happen in any big way and yet we keep doing it. But why?
You see, obscurity is not a bad thing. There are few better moments than witnessing the faces in an audience when the light comes on and THE CONNECTION is made. That is the major reason I do it: drive all night to get to a show 500 miles from the one I had the day before, take shows I only hope will buy us gas enough to get to the next one, sleep on couches and spend vacations from necessary day jobs, chasing that 2 hour “high” I get from standing in front of an audience and playing my songs. It isn’t glamorous but it is addictive and rewarding. If we don’t do it for money and fame then why the heck do I bother. For me, it is simply making the connection; that magic moment when my words and music bridge the gap that exists between each of us. When somehow we respond to the same words and emotions expressed in a song. That is truly the moment that makes this craziness worthwhile.
I will readily admit that I am a serious introvert. I like people but am pretty hesitant in large social gatherings. I often feel out of place with little to offer. Many times at music conferences even after paying more to attend than I am comfortable with, I will walk down to a meet and greet, look across the audience for someone I know and if I don’t see them or they are otherwise occupied, I will often quickly beat feet back to my room to sulk at my inability to put myself out there. Sound familiar? I spend much more time mentally rehashing my interactions with folks than I do actually having interactions. Pretty sad but totally true. It’s also a part of what keeps me obscure. I am actually more comfortable in front of folks than among folks.
Obscurity like mine, is most often self imposed by being an introvert and as well as the fact I don’t put myself out there for fear of being rejected. I don’t write songs about love, lost love, new love, old love, screwed up love and good old fashioned lust. It has always felt to me that 95% of songs are about those overused topics. Instead I write about what moves me which typically doesn’t involve the afore mentioned topic(s). I like to write about stories of real people in real situations, many untenable, where those folks are stuck. Because in truth, most of us are stuck in our lives, habits, needs, wants, situations and addictions. I want to write about that as much for myself as for the listener. I use my writing to figure out my own stuff and trust me, I have a LOT of STUFF.
We all want to be great at what we do, when I’m pretty sure it’s better to be real and honest in what we do. Some will like us, some will love us and others might even hate us. In reality most won’t care enough about what we do to have an opinion. I once had a boss who quoted Eleanor Roosevelt often. He could say; “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” In truth most folks are so tied up living their own lives and dealing with their own stuff they don’t have time to think about you. That gives you the freedom to honestly create the art that means something to you. Besides, serving our own needs by expressing ourselves honestly so we can sleep better at night.
As an artist, at least for me, my constant companion is doubt. I know, I know, I just wrote a whole paragraph about not caring what others think and then I doubt anyone will like what I create. Hey, I am human and I am allowed to be profoundly conflicted and conflicted I’ll be. Like everyone else, what I know, what is true and what I think are completely different things all living side by side in my tiny brain simultaneously. Unless I am totally out of my mind, I bet you feel the same way too, at least sometimes.
So, what am I saying with this twisted, meandering blather? To put it simply (and I had to write all the preceding to figure it out myself): obscurity in art grants us the power to create our truth while ignoring the expectations of others. It requires bravery to put yourself out there. It requires bravery to tell our truth. By truth, I don’t mean objective truth but instead our personal innermost subjective truth. Because, as hard as it may be to believe personal subjective truth is universal. Deep down inside each one of us are broken and wounded in some way and are filled with unspoken hopes and fears. Tap into what it feels like to be human and you have found the key. But be warned telling that truth from a place of vulnerability is probably the hardest thing to do in art. On top of that, folks can smell bullshit from 1000 yards blindfolded. Our inner bullshit detectors are almost completely infallible. So beware, when you pull punches in truth telling everyone will know.
So here lies the reason being unknown is your ultimate weapon in art. Being a complete unknown, means folks don’t know what to expect from you. That puts you at a great advantage. When an audience has no real expectations, they surely don’t expect anything great and maybe not even good. So if you come out of the chute telling your deepest truth, a portion of the audience if not all of them will almost instantly start listening. When real truth is evoked folks listen. It is almost an involuntary reflex. Once you have an audience really listening to what you have to say, the hard work is over. Now you simply have to keep telling your truth and you will have a bunch of new fans.
Sound easy doesn’t it, but unfortunately it ain’t easy at all. Telling that deep down inner truth is probably one of the hardest things an artist or anyone for that matter can do. But if you can dig down that deep and manage to voice those hopes, fears and doubts, if you can, the battle is more than half won and you won’t be a complete unknown anymore.
By writing the previous paragraph, I have outed myself, because I am still a complete unknown. Oh, I can tell some of that truth but the deepest stuff still pulls away when I try to poke it. To really understand what I am talking about, real truth, I suggest you listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, anything by Oklahoma’s great John Moreland and the latest album from Amy Speace; Tucson. In my opinion each of these artists hit the mark. There certainly are more artists like that out there but those 3 examples immediately came to mind. I promise you that their music will leave you almost speechless at the depth of human truth there.
So, as a complete unknown, I have my work laid out for me. I will take that challenge and keep digging and poking until I can also tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is, or should be in my humble opinion, the ultimate challenge goal of art and artists. But in the end the goal is not to be known but instead to know yourself. That is the true prize.
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 may be 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. He hopes to one day tell the whole truth to himself if not to everyone else.