I read an interview with The Edge years ago where he said that before every U2 tour he has to go to a record store (ask your parents) and buy all their albums (ask your hipster uncle) so he can sit down and re-learn the chords to all their songs.
At the time it felt like a tiny bit of quaint, self-deprecating fiction. But now I think it’s probably true. Because next week I’ll be visiting a piece of furniture I made seventeen years ago, so I can figure out how it was made, so I can make it again.
A lovely couple in Austin saw some very old pictures on my website and called to order exactly. that. bed.
Which is great!
It’s a strange feeling for an artist when someone connects with a thing you created years ago. It’s incredible of course, of course, whenever anyone wants to own anything you just dreamed up in your little brain, no matter when that was. You never stop loving your children. And let’s be honest, you never stop needing the work.
But to live as an artist is also to grow, to change, to improve. To get so bored with the old ways that you have no choice but to find new ones, just to keep your heart beating. In that sense, boredom is a gift from God (a mantra I repeat to my kids with regularity). It’s a divine signal that your heart and your brain are now ready for what’s next. To take your next step.
But walking leaves footprints. Blessed, cursed footprints.
Blessed because your footprints — the things you made long ago — are how people have come to know and love you. There is no other way to get and enjoy momentum as an artist than to nurture a body of work.
But cursed because people often get focused on a footprint that you left behind years ago. They still see you in it, they want you to be there, they believe you are there, even though you know you are actually many steps past it.
Maybe, then, there are two important mistakes to avoid as an artist, and as a human.
The first is to squelch the voice that prods you to change and grow and improve and explore new things, simply because those around you don’t want you to. They want you to stay the same, for reasons that have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. They fell in love with a version of you from years ago. And even though you know that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist any more, you can’t bear to tell them that. So you pretend you are still the ‘you’ they first loved. And you just make yourself stand still.
The other mistake is the opposite, to disown the old you completely. To throw off your past like ballast so you can move forward unfettered. To feel so embarrassed by or bored with what you’ve done that you turn on it entirely. To move forward and never look back.
The first mistake comes from a tragic self-disrespect. It is the nature of all living things to grow constantly, to change with the seasons and the years, to become stronger and more beautiful, to reach taller and higher. That’s just seventh grade biology class. It’s unnatural to decide to stop growing for fear of what others might think. For fear that they will only always love the smaller, less developed you. To restrict a thing that is meant to grow leads to sick, misshapen results. Google ‘Chinese foot binding’ if you have any doubt.
The second mistake shows zero appreciation for the best gift you’ll ever receive as an artist, or as a person — love, admiration, and respect from other people. To throw away your history is to show disdain for those moments when other people first wanted to know you, those little doors where they entered into your life and your work. To toss off your past is to toss off your people. Which is the opposite of love. So what if you’ve ‘moved on’ to new things? There are still people who love the old things you did, and for that you should be infinitely grateful.
And this is what I will tell myself next week, just before I knock on the door of the house where that bed still sits. I’ll visit it like an old friend, I’ll explore it thoroughly. I’ll remember to love it. And to love the old me, the guy who built it, along with this new couple who wants me to play the old hits again.
But I’ll also love seeing how much I’ve grown and changed since then, how much better I am at this now than I was seventeen years ago. And I’ll let this feeling wash over me and soak way in so that I’ll never want to stop moving and getting better.
So maybe this balance is one of the many keys to a happy life. Love your people enough to play the old songs, but love yourself enough to keep writing new ones.