As I drove home Friday night, I believe I understood, for the first time in my life, why so many musicians are prone to alcoholism and are drug or sex addicts. But let me back up a bit.
After four and a half years of being disbanded, my former band, The Honour Recital, decided to get back together for one concert, on one night. We were all thrilled to share the stage with each other again—since the breakup, we had all gone separate ways and really hadn’t spent time all together as a group, so the prospect was exciting on many levels.
A lot of work must go in to a concert if the band wants to sound good, make a little money and have people show up. So for the next two months, that’s what we went about doing: individual practice, business meetings, writing a press release and contacting various media outlets, getting a poster designed and printed, buying merchandise to sell, writing and producing a set, band rehearsals, working with the promoter and our sound and lighting technicians, etc.
After two months of hard work (usually after getting home from our “real”, paying jobs), leaving our wives and families at night for rehearsals and meetings, and getting little precious sleep, the day finally arrived. We got to the venue at 2 p.m. for a sound check and full run-through and by the time we got through many complications with sound, lighting, stage setup, etc., it was time for people to start arriving. And arrive, they did. Some came from as far away as Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and even Iowa, some six hours away!
Three great bands opened for us and before we knew it, we were up! We took the stage and even before the first note, we could literally feel the energy and anticipation of the crowd. And when we started playing, it was as if we had never stopped four years ago—fans were clapping, dancing and singing and yelling along to every word. They loved our music, and they loved us.
It’s incredibly difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced it before, the incredible high that a person gets who is in that position. But suffice it to say that when hundreds of people are singing back to you the songs that you carefully crafted and when you’re causing them to have such a good time that they, in turn, cause you to have a great time, it’s just an incredible high, like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
Now it’s definitely not the most fulfilling high by any means. (Is any high truly fulfilling?) It doesn’t even touch the day I married my wife or the week I spent with the poor in India. Those things were more of a process and had greater rewards, over a longer period of time. But neither of those truly meaningful and fulfilling things come close to the very short and high peak of emotion and happiness in that moment on stage. And with every short, high peak of emotion comes a very long, steep fall back down to earth and “real life.”
That’s what I struggled with after the lights went out and the music stopped and all the fans went home. The long period of work was done, but so was the very short moment of reward. I felt really empty and life felt meaningless. Even though I absolutely love my life: I have a beautiful wife who loves me for who I am, I have a relationship with the God who created the universe (including music) and yet loves me, I have a baby girl on the way and a great job that I love going to every morning. But in that moment, none of these lasting, fulfilling, meaningful things could touch the sharp, high peak of happiness that I had just reached. And in that moment, and into the next day, I just wanted to find something else to go to to make me happy. I understood—fully I think—for the first time, why “rock stars” (along with some professional athletes and celebrities) run to drugs, sex and alcohol to keep them happy. If I didn’t have the aforementioned meaningful things in my life, that fall back to the real world would have been much longer and even steeper and I would probably be like the rest of them.
The way I see it, we as musicians (performers, entertainers, etc.) have to find our true happiness outside of the stage; we have to have real relationships with people who love us even when we haven’t recorded a single song in five years. We have to know that this life matters, whether or not we ever produce a single hit. If we don’t, and if all our hope is in the music and our fans, we are doomed. Even if we live, we’re doomed to live lives of destruction, to ourselves and everyone around us (See Nikki Sixx’s story in The Dirt by Neil Strauss and Motley Crue, or Michael Jackson’s life for more evidence of that).
Later that day, Amy Winehouse was found dead. A beautiful girl with a great voice, her death is certainly a huge loss. At this point, we still aren’t sure what the cause of this 27-year-old’s tragic death was. Whatever the cause turns out to be, one thing no one disputes is that her life was full of imbalance and she battled many addictions. As sad and tragic as her death is, it couldn’t have been timed more perfectly for my understanding. Because of my very short experience with a very small-scale level of fame, my heart was a lot more sensitive than it normally would have been. I think at any other time, I would have said things like, “What a waste. She was so talented and had it all and she ruined it.” Now, I understand, more than ever before, that it in fact, ruined her. If all her life centered on her music career and if that is what she counted on to make her happy, she didn’t have a chance. Because music (and fans and concerts and adulation) will bring a short-term happiness that nothing else can bring, but it is extremely temporary.