I was in Cooperstown yesterday, picking up my paintings after my show at the Fenimore Art Museum there had finally ended. After packing up and heading home, I couldn’t shake a song from my head, it’s refrain running over and over again. It was Is That All There is? by Peggy Lee. It had been a hit for her in 1969 and was played regularly on the AM radio stations of the time. If you were listening to an AM station back then , there was no telling what you might here next. After Peggy Lee you might hear the Beatles or the Stones and then maybe something from Otis Redding followed by Roger Miller or the Doors or Johnny Cash. It was all over the place, stylistically, but that was the norm then before music on the radio became relegated to its stylistic niche.
But in 1969, there was Peggy Lee, the older Pop/Jazz chanteuse from a prior generation singing the existential lyrics of Is That All There Is? on my radio. She spoke much of the song, recounting episodes in her life and the disillusionment she felt after each occurred before singing the lines …if that’s all there is , my friends/ Then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/ If that’s all/There is…
It turns out the song, written by the great songwriting team of Lieber and Stoller, was based on an 1896 short story, Disillusionment, from German writer Thomas Mann and the song’s episodes were directly from the story. I didn’t know that and it really didn’t matter because , though I was only ten years old at the time, there was something in that song that stuck with me, something that I internally understood. We are always let down somehow by those things we seek and finally attain, even when they meet all of our expectations. We never feel as changed as we had thought we might and we emerge pretty much the same person.
That’s pretty much the feeling I had yesterday as I headed home. The show there had been a great, great experience. It had exceeded my expectations and was by all accounts very successful. But still… there was the inevitable moment of letdown accompanied by doubts and fears and questions. What if this is as good as it gets? Is this a peak and I have nowhere to go but down? Where do I go from here?
I’ve tried to explain this feeling here before. It’s something that baffled me early on. But after doing about 35 or so solo shows over the past decade and a half, I’ve come to expect this feeling and am somewhat prepared. I always tell other artists when they get their first show to savor the feeling, take it all in, but to not be too discouraged by that letdown moment in the aftermath. And they all do feel that moment, even after a triumphant show. I’ve had so many tell me this that there must be some validity in it.
I’ve gotten to the point where I anticipate it and try to prepare for it. There’s show preparation and post-show preparation. The show prep is actually the easy part in that it is all tangible. There is work to complete. deadlines to meet. The post-show is intangible, without goals or deadlines, and therefore more difficult to take on. I use it now as a catalyst, a cattle prod of fear to spur me forward in my work. Actually, I would be worried right now if I were without fears, satisfied and content with my achievement. I think that this feeling of contentment leads to complacency which is the end of growth and creativity for an artist. And to not continue to grow would be even worse than the few pangs of disillusionment I experience in the aftermath of a show.
So today I am discontented and anxious in the studio. Just as I want and need to be.
I think I’ll listen to a little Peggy Lee just to enhance that feeling. Maybe I’ll break out the booze and have a ball…