Stage Fright

Levon Helm of The Band passed away on April 19. He was a great drummer with a distinctive voice, played multiple instruments and acted as well. That’s him singing lead on “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” But whenever I think about The Band, the song that sticks in my mind is “Stage Fright,” which conveys the kind of feelings I have about writing for an audience.

Some people — like Levon — seem completely at ease performing in front of crowds or cameras. Not me. Even when I wrote for newspapers, I’d get nervous about what readers would say the next day… or not say. The only thing worse than criticism for a writer is complete indifference. Actors, musicians, writers, for the most part, want to see their work get reactions from others. But there’s a price to pay for wanting to be in the limelight. You feel like you’re always walking on a high wire, and all it takes is one misstep to send you crashing to earth. There’s a new book out about creativity (“Imagine: How Creativity Works”) that says a high percentage of artistic types are manic depressives, which doesn’t surprise me. That also ties into the correlation between addiction and people who choose the creative arts as their profession. Life on the tight rope brings high highs and low lows.

Every time I start a new screenplay, my stomach gets tied up in knots. The sensation never leaves, even after I type “Fade Out” at the end of a script. Actually, that’s when my “page fright” gets more intense. Whether I’m sending it out to a fellow writer or asking my wife for feedback, there’s the nagging voices in my head telling me it’s good no matter what others think — or it’s crap no matter how good they say it is. Then after more rewrites, I’ll send it out to agents, managers or producers, and wait nervously for their responses. I know 90 percent of the time, their response will be “not for me” or the soft pass (they simply never get back to you). Yet once in awhile I do get the positive response or news that my script has advanced in a screenwriting competition… and I’m back on top of the world with renewed visions of Hollywood success in my head again.

Last night, my wife and I were about to watch Mad Men and The Killing on AMC. However, the power in Kailua went out briefly, knocking out Oceanic’s cable service. The electric service for everything else was still working though, so I fished around for a DVD to play until the cable box rebooted. I blew the dust off my copy of “The Last Waltz” in honor of Levon Helm. It’s one of the great rock concert films of all time (filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976), mainly because it features one of the best rock bands of all time. Listening to those songs reminded me how times have changed. The Band actually played their own instruments and could play just about any style, from classical to jazz, blues, rock. But they were also students of history, writing about things like the Civil War and the hardscrabble life of farmers, or humorous takes on characters who seemed like real folks. You just don’t hear much music like that these days because the people who are big stars now prefer to write about how hard it is being a star or the “tragedy” of getting dumped by a boyfriend, or want to brag about their macho ways and pimped out lifestyle. They have the opposite of stage fright — they can’t imagine life not being in the spotlight.

When I heard the news Levon died, I didn’t feel sad. I was happy he lived a relatively long life doing what he loved (not to say he didn’t have struggles and problems, including throat cancer). Watching “The Last Waltz,” I did get a little misty-eyed though when the band launches into “Stage Fright.” I remembered meeting Richard Manuel at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC, where he was performing way back in 1984 0r 1985. There used to be a giant iguana sculpture on the roof, and I saw some great musicians play in that club. Anyhow, while hanging out, I met a writer who was working on a piece about Richard and The Band. He told me that Richard was drinking hard again, and not doing very well. But when the writer introduced me to him, Richard was gracious and soft spoken. He was the guy in the song:

Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid
Who suffered so much for what he did,
They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame,
Since that day he ain’t been the same.

See the man with the stage fright
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.

I’ve got fire water right on my breath
And the doctor warned me I might catch a death.
Said, “You can make it in your disguise,
Just never show the fear that’s in your eyes.”

See the man with the stage fright,
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
He got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again…

And that’s how I feel every time I sit down to write. But I no longer do it for the accolades, or because I need affirmation from others. Sometimes I just want to share what’s on my mind. Thanks Levon… and Richard, for the songs and the music. (For those who didn’t closely follow The Band after they broke up, Richard committed suicide in 1986.)

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