This entry in the “Numbers” series was written by guest writer Pete Barry. Pete is the screenwriter of the upcoming film Marian. He is also an award-winning playwright, as well as the other half of the non-award-winning film studio “Pinewood Men.” Follow his upcoming comedy podcast Mission: Rejected on Twitter and Instagram at @missionrejected. Thanks for giving me the day off, Pete.
When I was eighteen years old and a freshman in college, Kurt Cobain – frontman for the then-breakout grunge band Nirvana – died of a drug overdose. I didn’t mourn him. As an aspiring musician with (to put it generously) eclectic tastes, I knew Weird Al Yankovic’s “Smells like Nirvana” better than the song it parodied.
But what did seep into my consciousness was a pre-internet meme that gained traction with Kurt’s death: the 27 Club. Cobain was the latest addition to a number of rockers who died at the tender young age of twenty-seven; the club’s members included such giants as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones. This macabre numerology gained a subtle but damaging foothold on my psyche as an artist.
There’s a joke the great comedian, songwriter, and pianist Tom Lehrer once told about the feeling of desperation that can seize you when comparing your achievements to those of others in your field. “It is a sobering thought,” he observed, “that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”
Mozart didn’t quite qualify for inclusion in the 27 Club (he made it to 35, when he might have quipped that by his age Jesus had been dead for two years). But Lehrer’s statement struck a chord with me, encapsulating what I felt about the members of that Club that began to show up on posters adorning dorm walls in the mid-90s: look at what they’d accomplished by the time they got to where I am! What am I doing with my life?
I tried many times throughout my life to start a band, but the attempts always fizzled out. Eventually I shoved a bass guitar into a friend’s hands (he had a beautiful voice and could already play two other instruments) and said “Play this. It’s only one note at a time. We’re a band now.” Playing in that two-man band turned out to be one of the great joys of my life. But even as we started to get gigs in New York, and started to believe we might actually have something here, something worthy of a tour, or a record label’s attention – a specter began to loom over both of us like it does with many young artists, a cloud of mortality, not mortality of life, but mortality of dreams.
It wasn’t subconscious. It was very conscious for me: I’d say it out loud. It was a perversion of the 27 Club: if you haven’t made it as a musician by age 27, you’re never gonna make it. My dreams had an expiration date, a tombstone with the years already etched on.
By the time I turned 27, the band had broken up. I was engaged, working another day job, and I’d long since moved too far away from my bandmate for regular rehearsals or gigs. My life wasn’t worse, but changed. I found myself despairing: I’ll never make it now.
Turning 30 was rough. I felt my life was going by too fast, like I could potentially be on the back half of it. I still found joy in writing and music, but it was often shadowed by the feeling of going nowhere. I wrote plays and movie scripts that no one would read, that went unproduced. I revised my dreams.
But the unexpected happened. In my 30s, I started to pick up steam. My first daughter was born, and then my second. After resigning myself to writing and playing music not for my aspirations but for the joy of it, my plays were produced, and then published. Producers in Hollywood began to notice my spec scripts. And I wrote songs for my daughters, songs I never would have been inspired to write as a young man. Those songs are some of my best work, my favorites.
I can’t say I’ve “made it”. I’m in a fascinating place where I’ve surpassed the expectations of my 30-year-old self while falling far short of that 18-year-old’s dreams. All I know is this: I haven’t arrived. I’m not sure I have any intention of ever arriving. I’m doing what I love to do, being with the people I love, and constantly becoming someone new, every day.
“Made it” is up to you. “Success” is up to you. You keep doing the thing you love as long as you continue to love it, but time is not against you. Time is your companion, time allows you to grow, time will bring you to the place where you stand on the mountainside and see that even if you haven’t made it to the top, even if you never will, even if maybe there is no top – even if, you’ve come a long way, my friend.
Poor Kurt Cobain. By the time he was my age, he’d been dead for 16 years. When he died, 18-year-old me thought, that’s my future. But I find it a sobering thought that, from where I stand now, I think to myself with some sadness: he was just a kid.
Note from Michael: If you have a number that means something to you, and you’re interested in writing a guest blog, let me know.