Sunday, April 07, 2013

I'm a failure - y que?

Failure gets such bad press, but it really doesn't deserve it. Who cares if you fail? It doesn't mean your life is over (unless your failure causes your death). I'm a big failure and I'll tell you all about it.

My first failure was leaving Cornell University in 1993 without finishing the PhD program in English literature. Instead, I fled with a masters degree and moved to Chicago, Illinois, USA. There I began my second big failure as a musician. I spent fifteen years taking voice, music theory, guitar and electric bass lessons and practicing, practicing, practicing. I was determined to make my musical mark on the world and I guess I did. It just turned out to be miniscule.

Although I performed a lot of others' music, in choirs and solo, my main focus was writing my own songs and I wasn't too bad at it. My specialty was a sort of acoustic folk with jazz, pop, country and Latin influences. My singing voice covered three octaves and my songs expressed the optimism and trust in life that I didn't feel at all. A chronic depressive who constantly struggled with her emotions, I wrote and performed songs with the comforting, soothing messages I needed to hear. My fans -- and I did have them -- particularly liked "The Penguin Song," "Not So Bad," "Happy Are We," and "I Like Life." I played electric bass and hired a guitarist and a conguero to accompany me. By a stroke of luck, I met jazz guitarist Neal Alger through a friend in 1999 and he worked with me on my music for years. He brought a lot of creativity and great ideas to my songs and was fun to work with (his website is here and he is great).

In my loneliness and depression, I craved singing. I sang all the time, to the radio, to my bass, to my guitar or to nothing at all. I'd spread myself out on the hardwood floor of my one-bedroom apartment with staff paper and pencil to create charts for my songs. I'd run melodies over and over, plucking at the heavy resonant strings of my bass to find the right harmonies and rhythms. The electric Fender Rhodes piano I kept in the corner did little but help me tune my other instruments since I never really learned how to play it. In truth, I never learned how to play any external instrument very well. I was a singer.

I wrote songs whenever I felt inspired and whenever I needed to drain off some of the emotion that overwhelmed me. On no particular schedule, I poured myself into my music because I needed to make my voice heard, needed others to hear my stories and craved attention. Chronic depression drove me through those 15 years of focusing on music, and I took my musicianship very seriously. I became rabid whenever anyone suggested singers weren't musicians, or if someone assumed our technical and theory skills were always worse than those of instrumentalists. I hated singer jokes (How do you know when there's a singer at your door? She doesn't know when to come in).

My singer stridency poorly masked my deep insecurities. I desperately wanted people to like and respect me. I needed applause and compliments. My favorite place to be was onstage with a bar full of patrons, listening to ME. I enjoyed the patter between songs as much as the singing because what I really needed was connection and understanding, and performing made me feel like I was getting that.

My wonderful friends faithfully attended my gigs and I even picked up a few followers. People would tell me that my music made them happy and no wonder: I wrote the chirpiest songs and felt happy while singing them for others. Often my only peaceful times were while I was onstage making music with Neal and Jean and telling my stories. I loved the spotlight, but the gloominess overtook me almost immediately afterwards. Some of my most productive years corresponded with my bleakest depression.

Then in 2006 I fell in love with a guy named Bob Martin (now my husband) (updated 2014: now my ex-husband). My need to sing began to wane. I spent 2007 trying to market my music to people looking for songs (record companies, commercial directors, film producers), but no one was interested probably because my lyrics were too obscure and my singing unimpressive.

By 2008 my desire to pick up my bass had pretty much disappeared. I no longer got those urges to write melodies and lyrics. My piano gathered more dust than ever and I stopped singing around the house. The worst of the fear and self-loathing that had driven my music seemed to have dissolved.

There's a cliché that artists must be in pain in order to create. I can't argue it because I sing when I'm sad, not when I'm happy. Once my need for connection and love was appeased by acquiring a husband, I simply stopped needing the music and my "career" as a singer/songwriter ended. I never became well known, I made no money, no one wanted the rights to any of my songs and I produced all of one CD that I never finished packaging. Oh, one more detail: I wasn't the best singer. When I listen to recordings of myself I'm amazed that anyone let me get away with all those sharp and flat notes. I just never truly relaxed in front of the microphone, probably because I was so desperate for everyone to love me.

A failure as a musician, I returned to focusing on the activity that had sustained me since I was ten years old: writing. Writing is truly my element and my lyrics were always stronger than my singing voice. Did I feel bad about my failure to break into the Chicago indie music scene? No. By the time I realized that I hadn't felt like practicing in months, the dream was dead. I felt no regret because by then I knew it was more important to do what felt good than to worry about how I appeared.

A few weeks ago, friends were discussing public speaking. They were saying that even professionals who have faced hundreds of audiences still get nervous before starting. I supported this opinion with my experience as a singer: even though I loved doing it, there was always some anxiety before a show.

"You were a musician?" someone asked as all eyes turned to me.

"Yeah, I wrote songs and performed and recorded them. I don't do it anymore."

"Really? You have recordings?"It was that familiar expression of someone being impressed by a part of my life that's actually already over.

"Yeah. I sang and played electric bass and performed with a guitarist and a conga player." I wasn't interested in going into more detail.

"Do you ever think about doing it again?"

"No," I said definitively.

I didn't feel embarrassed about my amateur career that existed in obscurity. It happened, and then I moved on. If pressed, I'd provide a copy of my last (and only) CD if they wanted, but no one asked, which is just as well. The last friend to whom I gave a copy of my CD either lost it or said she did because she didn't want to comment on my singing.

One thing that strikes me is that I was way cooler when I was the most miserable and depressed. In the late 1990s and early aught's, I prowled the streets with a 1972 Fender Mustang electric bass strapped to my back, heading to and from open mic's at all hours. Bar regulars became familiar with me as the chick bass player, and once someone even recognized me as such while I was riding the bus. I wore black shoes, a too-big bomber jacket with a fur collar and strutted as if I couldn't possibly be harassed on the street (I wasn't).

So I'm a lifetime failure and that's fine with me. God knows life isn't for riding out success after success, endlessly triumphing until we die. We're all failures and that's good or we'd never learn anything. I'll never be as hip as I was back then, but so be it. If suffering accompanies coolness then I'm perfectly content to be a dorky, pudgy, middle-aged woman who stays home reading and writing every night. That's failure I can happily live with.

Regina Rodriguez in 2001: beautiful and an emotional wreck.
Photo by Bruce Lorie.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I couldn't call what all you did a "failure". I guess "failure" can only be measured by some end goal? So you effectively demonstrated in the piece that you can start on the course toward one goal, switch gears to head to another goal, and thus be a success at getting to where you actually belong.

I first ran into the "failure" zone my senior year in college. The Music Dept chair really thought I should go to grad school and head for becoming a music prof. I wanted to teach grade school beginning band. I remember the shock in his eyes - WHY would ANYONE want to be teaching a beginning band class - except as a stop gap measure on the way to something better?

But it was what I really wanted. And sometimes I've felt guilty when reading about some high-powered band director that accomplishes great feats. But, nope, that's just not what my "success" looks like - at least not on the outside. On the inside, it feels juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust right :)

Congrat's on your continued exploration of happiness.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Anonymous - I'm not afraid of the word "failure." Since I was going for fame and fortune as a singer, yes, I did fail completely. And I'm glad because now I'm exactly where I want to be. I'm a failure and a success.

Let us embrace failure and remember that it's a noun that applies to an act, not a person.