By Ace Backwords
"The stage performer wears his vanity like the flimsiest set of armor."
So said Jackie Gleason, or words to that effect, or maybe I just made it up.
But it’s true what they say: To be a performer, an artist, a writer, to be in Show Biz, you have to have a "strong eg." There may be those rare moments when 20,000 people are wildly applauding the Greatness that is You. But the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day, you're on your own. Generally if you don't believe in yourself and your talents -- often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or, even worse, complete indifference -- then most nobody else is gonna believe in it, either.
George Harrison once said words to the effect: "The media builds you up and makes you famous so they can make money off you. Then they start tearing you down to make money off of that."
Of course it’s probably a little disingenuous for ole George to put himself in the victim category, as if the media tricked him and forced that darn fame on him. Almost everybody I know that did become famous, only achieved that dubious honor by obsessively chasing after it for years and years (though it’s also true that there are rare cases of accidental fame, people who just happen to be in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time; family members of spectacular crime victims, for example. Or people who are just so brilliant that they can't avoid fame. But these people are the exceptions to the rule.)
The other day I was sitting on a street corner with this other 50-something street person friend of mine, and we were commiserating on the state of our failed lives.
"Well, you WANTED fame," he said to me. "That’s what you wanted, isn't it? And you are famous, aren't you?"
And it made me wonder. In truth I've always been extremely leery of fame. It’s a very toxic and unhealthy thing for one’s ego to be singled out like that. And the sheer fact of thousands of people knowing who you are, and sticking their noses into your business, can complicate your life in a thousand hideous ways. And this, too (which is probably a BIG surprise to all the people who imagine "fame" as this wonderful thing, of people applauding them and giving them awards): Half the people that know you probably hate your guts. They're either envious of your "success", or pissed off about something you said. (There was one guy here in Berkeley who walked around in a rage against me for 15 years over a comic strip I had drawn. When he finally confronted me, with teeth-gritting anger, it turned out he had projected the exact opposite meaning onto the strip than I had intended.)
On the other hand: The office building where I rent an office recently got sold to a new owner who is in the process of gentrifying the building and throwing out all the old tenants. And so my immediate reaction was: "Maybe if I got another hit of fame, maybe if I got my picture on the front page of the paper again, that would impress the new owner and he wouldn't think I'm a useless bum and throw me out on the streets." So "fame" has always been a two-edged sword in my mind.
My problem regarding "fame" was: What got me into this so-called business in the first place was the purity of "self-expression." In other words I wanted to make a career out of shooting my mouth off. The problem was it’s like any other business: In order to make money you have to advertise your product and invite the public to sample your wares. In the case of self-absorbed artistes, this boils down to advertising yourself.
In 1990 the CBS News did a national feature on me and one of my artistic efforts. It was an interesting experience to get to observe the media machine from the inside looking out. And, because of the television exposure, we managed to sell 2,000 copies of the product we were hawking at 10 bucks a pop in 2 weeks (they don't pay millions for those TV ads for nothing!). A couple years later, the TV producer approached me about doing another feature on me. Which I turned down. Much to his shock. Kinda' like: "Do you know how many people would give their right testicle for this kind of publicity? You can't reject us; we're the ones who reject you!" The TV people seemed deeply offended by my attitude. In truth, I didn't even own a TV, haven't watched that shit in 15 years. And was even less interested in being on TV.
So I guess I really didn't want fame all that bad. For television is the prime engine of the fame machine. I'm not sure what I really want. Though whatever it is, I often suspect it is not available to me in this Universe.###
October 23, 2006