Tuesday, July 27, 2004
What I've Been Up to Since I Left School
After the initial failure
of my band’s second album, Pinkerton, I decided not to return to school in the fall of 1997, instead setting out on
a mission to develop creative methods which would allow me to be more consistent as an artist. Above all, I wanted to cure
myself of the Romanticism which I believed was to blame for my failure.
Throughout 1998 and 1999 I engaged in hundreds
of song-experiments. I filled notebooks and cassette tapes. I drew graphs, tables, and charts. I studied other songwriters’
methods. I took hundreds of pages of notes on the creative process, mostly from Nietzsche, but also from Goethe and Stravinsky.
At first, I maintained a relatively normal social life, playing and coaching soccer and continuing my classical piano
studies with Bruce Sutherland. Eventually, however, I became more and more isolated. I unplugged my phone. I painted the walls
and ceiling of my bedroom black and covered the windows with fiberglass insulation. I disciplined myself to the extreme. My
goal was to purge myself of all weakness so that I could write “perfect” songs as reliably as a machine.
of the time, I believed that I was optimistic and happy. The song-experiments, however, produced music of less and less joy
and, occasionally, I would fall into despair. At one point, in September of 1999, I actually gave up my mission and decided
to go back to school, sacrificing my music career indefinitely. I contacted Dean Thomas Dingman to gain admission, but learned
that I had missed the registration deadline by two weeks. I could only move forward with the music.
I struggled on
for two-and-a-half years in all. I finally concluded that such intense focus on musical perfection was only scaring off any
real inspiration I might have had. I decided I needed to broaden my focus onto a more practical, tangible goal, in the hopes
that the music would start to flow in service to that goal. I read in Nietzsche that “great” men like Julius Caesar,
Cesare Borgia, and Napoleon found their genius through practical activity, on the battlefield, in the pursuit of worldly ambitions.
They were not locked away in a study like me. I decided to follow the example of these men, step onto the battlefield, and
pursue “World domination”. I hoped this goal would spark my creativity. .
World domination—or, in
terms applicable to me, commercial success—meant making the most of what I had, musically, and becoming active with
my band again, and making an album and touring. I swallowed my creative insecurities for the sake of that success and revealed
my songs to close associates in early 2000. Their positive reactions led to rehearsals, which led to performances. We discovered
that during our long absence, we had only become more popular. Our “failed” album, Pinkerton, was now viewed by
many critics and fans as great. With momentum behind me, I kept writing. At the end of 2000, we entered the studio to make
our long overdue third album.
The Green Album was released in May of 2001, going on to
sell over two million copies worldwide. We toured extensively, playing our biggest concerts ever. We performed on Saturday
Night Live and at the MTV Movie Awards. The album’s success at radio and MTV, and in foreign markets wherein we had
had no previous success, seemed to me to validate the approach I had taken with myself and my art. I quickly became the opposite
of the unconfident hermit I had been in 1998 and 1999. I now believed that my band would become “the biggest band in
the world” and that I was the man to lead us to that destiny.
I sought to cultivate the same ruthless practicality
in my business that I had achieved in my music. I studied the lives of Napoleon and David Geffen, Machiavelli’s “The
Prince”, and contemporary texts on leadership and management. I gradually took over all of the business responsibilities
from our manager and managed the band completely by myself. My performing, writing, and recording continued but were now joined
by my business activities, all of which together I viewed as converging on the one goal of “world domination”.
I read books on business and negotiating. I hired a staff. I reformed our operation, renegotiated contracts, and consolidated
power. I found it easy to gain ground in negotiations because no music businesspeople wanted to “play hardball”
with “the artist”. Furthermore, I believed we were able to grow with integrity, as I could now make informed choices,
seeing for once exactly how the business worked.
However, I also steered us into many bitter battles, including two
lawsuits and many other very tense negotiations. For example, in order to demonstrate our independence from the record company
in the new age of digital media, I shut them out of the making of our fourth album, Maladroit. We financed and produced the
album entirely ourselves, sending hundreds of copies of the finished product to press and radio—but none to our record
company. The record company could only watch on the sidelines as the single quickly climbed the charts, and the fans downloaded
the promotional copies off the internet. At this point, we had what I believed was optimal leverage, and we renegotiated our
Ultimately, however, Maladroit was not the big hit that it had threatened to be, selling only about three-quarters
of a million copies. I had succeeded in improving our financial arrangement, but not in making a hit album. The record company
blamed my shenanigans for the downturn in our success.
Many fans also criticized the music. They heard both Maladroit
and The Green Album as being “mechanical” and “emotionless”. I tried to evaluate the criticism objectively
but I made little progress. I had extinguished my faculty of self-criticism in 1998-2000 in order to make the comeback. Now
I could not tell if my current predicament was just a classic case of an audience lagging behind the development of an artist
(as in the case of Bob Dylan when he went electric) or if I had I really “lost something”. I reacted defensively,
calling the fans “little bitches” in an interview with Guitar World magazine. Now the fans were unhappy, the record
company was unhappy, my associates were unhappy, and I was unhappy. I did not know what could be done to change that.
fell further into a life of ego and vice. Still, deep inside, I was having serious doubts. I asked myself, “Is my life
really supporting the production of the kind of music I know I am capable of?” I had to admit that my music no longer
gave me the feeling of sublime ecstasy that it once had. Although I had already written another large pile of songs for our
fifth album, I put all plans to record on hold. There was a revolution brewing in my unconscious, soon to be triggered by
the man we had hired a few months earlier to produce the album, Rick Rubin.
In February of 2003,
Rick gave me a copy of Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz’s poetry, The Gift. After overcoming my initial
aversion to all things spiritual, I decided to read some of the book because I trusted Rick so much. Henry Mindlin, in his
introduction to the book, says:
Hafiz wrote hundreds of ghazals [or love songs], finding ways to bring new depth and
meaning to the lyrics without losing the accustomed association of a love song…He explored different forms and levels
of love: his delight in nature’s beauty, his romantic courtship of that ideal unattainable girl, his sweet affection
for his wife, his tender feelings for his child…his relationship with his teacher and his adoration of God.
was struck by the connection between all these different forms of love. I recognized that the feeling of sublime ecstasy I
once got from music was just one more of these forms of love.
I had an epiphany: if the feeling these mystics get
in union with their God is analogous to the feeling I used to get in union with my music, then their teachings for how to
achieve their union should likewise serve to instruct me how to achieve my union. A whole world of spiritual teachings therefore
opened up to me for the first time since, as a child, I had decided that I was an “atheist”. I now read these
spiritual teachings as coded instructions for how to connect with my musical creativity. For example, when Hafiz says, “Self-Effacement
is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to …God”, I read it as “Self-Effacement
is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to Musical Creativity.” Like this, I just
replaced the word God wherever I saw it. I had discovered a new path which I believed was what I had been waiting for.
eagerly studied a wide variety of traditions including the mystical poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, and Kabir, contemporary spiritual
teachers, and ancient texts such as the Tao Te Ching. In accord with my understanding of these teachings, I abruptly dropped
all of my business responsibilities and hard-won power, and isolated myself once again. I fasted and lost fifteen percent
of my weight. I took a vow of complete celibacy. I gave away or sold most of my possessions, my house, and my car and lived
in an empty apartment next to Rick’s house for the rest of the year. I moved to settle outstanding lawsuits and reconcile
myself with enemies. I apologized to many people. I volunteered six days a week at Project Angel Food in Hollywood, preparing
meals for people with HIV.
Thus, my life made another extreme swing, as it has many times since I was
a teenager. I have been sometimes a tyrant, sometimes the most frustratingly passive person you have ever met, sometimes a
socialite, sometimes a hermit, sometimes a rock star, sometimes a student. I have had little inner stability.
this latest swing towards spirituality, however, I started a practice which may help me achieve some balance: meditation.
Rick Rubin sent me some books on the subject. At first I would not read them because I thought that meditation would rob me
of the angst that I believed was essential for my connection to music. All the crazy experiments I have tried in my life have
always been an effort to improve, maintain, or recover that connection. Eventually, I read the first three chapters of one
of the books, Ken Mcleod’s guide to meditation, Wake Up to Your Life. His words hit me like a lightning bolt. I realized
that, in a sense, I had been wrong all these years in trying to connect to my creativity by violent means, for example, by
mining my adolescent anger for “Say it Ain’t So”, crucifying my leg for Pinkerton, or consuming Tequila
and Ritalin for “Hash Pipe”. Mcleod says:
These devices [such as the ones above] do not work in the long
run because they draw on our system’s energy to generate a peak experience. Peak experiences cannot be maintained, and
when they pass, the habituated patterns and the underlying sense of separation remain intact. (xi)
Mcleod, and other
sources I began reading, showed me a new way to work. Instead of generating peak experiences for inspiration, I could practice
my power of concentration so that I could get more and more inspiration from weaker and weaker experiences. Not only that,
but the practice would make my life better, and make better the lives of those that have to live with me. I started to meditate.
The technique I was drawn to is called Vipassana. It is taught around the world at over one hundred centers. (Go to
www.dhamma.org for more information.) I started the practice fourteen months ago, attending seven ten-day courses and serving
as a volunteer at two. Since then, I have found that the areas of tension in my mind—the fear, the anger, the sadness,
the craving—are slowly melting away. I am left with a more pristine mind, more sharp and sensitive than I previously
imagined possible. I feel more calm and stable. My concentration and capacity to work have increased greatly. I feel like
I am finally much closer to reaching my potential.
I now live in a small but comfortable apartment. I feed myself
adequately. I took a class at USC this spring, “The History of Literary Criticism”, and enjoyed it very much.
I take private lessons in music composition once a week from Bruce Reich, a professor at UCLA. I still volunteer, once a week,
now at the West Hollywood Food Coalition, feeding homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people. But most pleasing to me is that,
month by month, I have watched my creative flexibility returning. The music I have created over the last six months has brought
me much enjoyment.
I am returning to school in the fall. Other than that, I am wide open to whatever else comes my