Gloomy Stories

 Living a little on the edge...

Living a little on the edge...

I have a guestbook on my website that I almost never look at. I don’t know why I almost never look at it. Probably because I think that no one ever visits my website and so I don’t expect new postings in the guestbook. Jackie looks at my website nearly every day. She checks all the charts that HostBaby provides about traffic on my site so that she can tell me that people do too visit my website, “more this month than last, more this year than this same time last year.” Jackie is like that. I am not. I don’t even balance my checkbook.


I’m not sure why I decided to look at my guestbook the other day … Maybe because, a while back, the immensely talented, young Des Moines blues singer and guitar player, Matt Woods, left a comment in my guestbook. I might have just wanted to read that comment one more time.

So, I looked.

Aside from a long, nonsense computer code message, which Jackie says that spammers leave in order to attract robots and crawlers … She said something like that … See, when Jackie tells me stuff about technology, she sounds like a demented person to me and I immediately snap into my polite face and I nod my head as though I’m taking in what she says when I’m really not, I’m backing up slowly and thinking up excuses for other places I need to be … But, I swear, I think she said something about robots and crawlers … Anyway, aside from that, there was this new message in my guestbook: Gloomy stories.

Okay, okay, you’re gonna love this, you are … When I told Jackie about this message, here’s what she told me …(this is so good) … She told me that sometimes spammers leave random two-word messages that don’t mean anything. Is that great, or what? “Gloomy stories” are just two random words that accidentally wound up together as robot crawler bait. Jackie thought that, since I’m somebody who doesn’t even balance her checkbook, I might possibly fall for this explanation. She said it so that I wouldn’t take the guestbook off my site just so people can’t say things like “gloomy stories” to me. This is my way of dealing with things. Recently, Jackie told me that she didn’t think I played very well at a gig and I told her that the perfect solution for that problem was for me to never play again. Can you believe that Jackie has to live her astonishingly productive, let’s-get-on-with-it life beside someone with such teetering confidence? I’m easily devastated. You just can’t say things like, “You didn’t play very well tonight” or “Gloomy stories” to me, you just can’t.

I got a very nice note recently from Bob Dorr, deejay at KUNI and front-guy for the Blue Band. Referring to our long lives as performing musicians, he said, “Persistence is the hard part, right?”

It is indeed the hard part.

I immediately erased the “gloomy stories” comment from my guestbook (along with the crawler-attracting nonsense code). It’s one of the only ways I manage to persist as a musician. I get rid of the spoilers as quickly and as thoroughly as I can. They’re everywhere, these spoilers, people with egos as fragile as mine, closet self-loathers who make themselves feel better by diminishing and criticizing what others do under the guise of being “helpful” … as though leaving me a message like “gloomy stories” is going to help me write some cheerier ones. I have exorcised people from my life for one comment that I thought was intended to unravel those thin, fragile threads of my persistence at music. I have. And I’d do it again. Some things are more important to me than others.

In all likelihood, my “gloomy stories” spoiler was no spoiler at all, but, instead, some guy from Finland who grew up speaking a different language and meant to leave the message, “dark stories,” which I would have agreed with and taken as a huge compliment.

A journalist recently asked me in an interview if I thought I wrote angry songs.

“I prefer to think of them as dark,” I told him.

I’m all about dark stories.

I’m probably way too quick to erase my critics. There are probably ways in which their criticism would make me better at what I do. I’m just terrified that their criticism, instead of making me better, will make me quit. And one thing I know: You don’t get better at something by not doing it. And I know that it would not make me happy to give up music and dark stories.

And then there’s the other side of it. There is Jackie who has allowed me to set up my life so that it can be all about music. Hardly anybody I know gets that kind of support for their life as a musician and songwriter. If Jackie hadn’t done that for me, my fragile persistence would have broken long ago. If I had what many musicians have, a fulltime job outside of music, children and the plethora of activities that go along with having them, and other interests and talents besides music, I never would have made it this long. I don’t see how Jackie does it. She has always given enormous time and dedication to her academic work. She has an astonishing number of interests and talents outside of her job and outside of music. She puts in far more hours, even on sabbatical, than I put in on one of my occasional productive weeks. And, yet, she still manages to play shows. And she doesn’t just play them. She plays them with great skill and intensity, and she gives herself over as a musician to my songs. Jackie is remarkable. I am not. I would have folded long ago as a musician without everything that Jackie does for me.

My friend, Gayla Drake Paul, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter and a world-class and world-recognized guitar player, came to hear me play a while back. Gayla and I shared a number of shows years ago when I first moved to Iowa and, through her playing, I learned a guitar tuning, DADGAD, that has become the foundation of a lot of my playing.

I said to Gayla after the show, “Can you believe that, after all these years, I’ve finally figured out that I can play in other keys besides D when I’m tuned in DADGAD? It’s only taken me about twelve years to figure this out. We can’t all be prodigies like you.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said to me. “I learn something from you every time I see you play live.”

These are the things that get me through my own gloomy stories when the pull of persistence is weak and waning.

I was all ready to take my guestbook offline to protect myself from those “helpful” critics who leave me messages that are code for, “Why don’t you just go ahead and give this up, you were never that good at it, why not save yourself a lot of misery and just stop.”

Then I saw Matt Woods’ entry: “BeJae Fleming is the queen of the world.”

I decided to leave my guestbook as it is for now.