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When Stevie Ray Vaughan digs into "Lenny"on Live at the El Mocambo—taped in 1983 at a gig in Toronto—it's obvious he's in a trance, simply channeling his music in the moment.
It’s been said that to think is to undermine. I get it. The minute I stop to analyze my life/career/relationships/accomplishments, my sense of fulfillment and general happiness go to shit.
Musicians rarely improve their lives through pensive moments. A little contemplation inevitably leads to a suspicion that we have chosen the wrong path. Either we should put down the guitar, grow up, and get a real job, or we should quit our grown-up job and just play. Or maybe we should play with different people, or work in a different town, or choose a different genre, instrument, or band. After too much meditation, we begin to suspect we are wasting our lives, and we have become enormous disappointments to those who love us in spite of our glitchy natures. In a world of infinite possibilities, it rarely seems like we are where we should be.
We like to think that a happy life depends on good decisions. Prisons are full of people who made poor choices, while successful/happy people pick the smart path. That’s true to an extent, yet it’s as false as any oversimplification.
My high school guidance counselor had a motivational poster in her office. It was a huge photo of a picturesque grassy footpath beneath a canopy of gently arching trees, with these words superimposed over the image:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
While my counselor blathered on about the benefits of learning a trade, I’d stare at that stupid Hallmark cliché and think, “When in doubt, go off the beaten path.”
Roughly 20 years later, during an agonizingly introspective moment, I got around to reading Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I was shocked to learn that my idiot counselor and the printer of motivational posters got it all wrong.
Most of us are familiar with the poem. It starts with a classic dilemma we face literally and figuratively throughout life: Which road is right for us? The speaker looks down each path as far as he can see, and declares they are “really about the same.” Our traveler arbitrarily chooses the first of these nearly identical paths.
Hey, wait a minute! He didn’t take the road less traveled. He just selected a road based on no real information. That’s the curse of free will: We are free to choose, but we never really know what we are choosing. It’s like a cosmic Monty Hall is offering us two mystery boxes, and our entire life depends on the choice.
The poem takes an odd turn in the final line. The speaker says he“took the one less traveled,” but he knows he is lying. He wants to appear to be a discerning, rugged individualist who found success off the beaten path, but he knows he just got lucky while blindly stumbling through life.
So what does this have to do with guitar? We musicians tend to let the “greener grass” syndrome drive us crazy because of the huge disparity in income and benefits between the top and bottom tiers in our industry. We see someone who appears to be a rich and famous guitarist in a wildly successful band and think, “Dang, I’m better than him! That should be me. How did that idiot get there while I’m floundering in oblivion?”
Stop torturing yourself with doubt about your life’s trajectory. If you are happy, paying your bills, and not hurting anyone, that’s about the best you can hope for. There will always be others who appear better off then you. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. Evaluate your situation, make calculated decisions, but then let go of or be driven mad by those things you can’t control. There is no right path.
That’s one of the great gifts music gives us. When you get lost in playing guitar, all outside thoughts disappear. Watch a video of SRV playing “Lenny,” and you can tell he’s not worrying about some namby-pamby existential quandary. He’s experiencing a semi-euphoria that I imagine is far better than an extreme yogi’s experience while deep in a trance. Don’t worry about your path—just enjoy the journey.