THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I pulled one of the dumbest stunts of my life: I started a band with a 14-year-old bassist who’d never played bass, a 12-year-old drummer who’d never played drums, and considerably older me, who’d been playing guitar for 20 years without ever getting much good at it.
There was no reason to suppose we’d amount to more than a bad joke or worse memory. Not a single friend, family member, neighbor, or stranger seemed to think it was a good idea. Even the kids in the band were dubious, but as is typically the case with kids, they were willing to give it a try. I’m not sure what my excuse was.
As time went on and we showed no sign of going away, people would crack jokes about us getting signed to a big record label, not because we were getting better (though we were, slowly but surely), but because it was yet another way of taunting us about how hopeless we were. Ironically, it was around that time that we started meeting other bands who, while they might have been better than we were, at least didn’t (usually) laugh at us.
We and our newfound friends began playing shows, shows that we mostly had to organize ourselves, and though we didn’t always get a ton of respect from the audiences, at least there were audiences, which was already way ahead of anything we’d dared to dream of. We never got signed to that big record label, but we never expected to, either. Instead, I started my own semi-big label. The Lookouts never sold a ton of records, but some of our friends’ bands sure did.
Most of you know this story already, or at least parts of it. So why am I bringing it up again? No, there’s no reunion tour or new record coming out. Nothing at all has happened in the world of the Lookouts except that I looked at our streaming royalties the other day (they’ve recently been creeping up into the low double digits) and realized that more people are now listening to the Lookouts than came to see us or bought our records during the entire five and a half years we existed as a band.
That’s pretty gratifying, and who knows, maybe in another hundred years, we’ll really start to have an impact. But what got me thinking, not for the first time, was how sometimes doing the dumbest thing possible can have a life-changing outcome, mostly if not entirely for the better?
I’m not exaggerating. Starting the Lookouts, as pointless and self-owning as it felt at the time, has colored and shadowed virtually everything that has happened to me since. If it hadn’t been for that band and what it led to, there would have been no Lookout Records, I never would have moved to Berkeley or London or New York, or traveled around the world, or learned Chinese, or written a couple of books and hundreds of magazine articles. Most likely I’d still be sitting up on Spy Rock picking ticks and twigs out of my beard, which by now would have grown down to my toenails.
I’m not the only one whose life was changed. Our drummer went on to win a few Grammies and is now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Our bassist and I didn’t quite reach those heights, but we produced some songs that are still being heard, sung, and, I daresay, loved, which is an awesome feeling.
I was trying to picture what it would have been like if, in 1985, a visitor from the future had dropped in on one of our off-the-grid, solar-powered practices to tell us, “Keep up the good work, boys. You may think no one cares now, and you’d be right, but in the year 2020, people around the world will still be listening to your music. You’ll be streaming on Spotify and Youtube, and reporters will be emailing you for interviews about what it was like back in the day, and…”
It would have been complete gibberish, of course. The internet didn’t exist; we barely had enough electricity to plug in our amps, and if the sun didn’t shine for a few days, we didn’t have that. The idea that within our lifetimes we’d be able to instantaneously communicate with millions or even billions of people, that they could gain access to your words or music with the touch of a button … well, we would have sent that guy back to the future in a hurry. “What a weirdo!” I can hear Tre or Kain saying.
But if I’m going to ponder how one dumb move can turn out to be one of the smartest or luckiest things ever, I’ve got to flip the coin over and explain how another dumb move – quite a few of them, in fact – can turn out to be just plain … dumb. And how the heck is a guy supposed to know the difference?
I’m not sure you can. I can’t help wanting to believe that we have a certain amount of intuition – call it a sixth sense, if you want – that lets you know (if you listen very carefully) when your apparent foolishness is really inspiration as opposed to your regular everyday doofishness. And though I can’t say I had a hunch during the early days of the Lookouts that this would lead to something big, by the time we’d been playing for a couple of years and were part of the early Gilman Street scene, I did know, with quiet but almost unswerving certainty, that we had become part of something that, to quote Tim Armstrong, no premonition could have seen.
There have been many times, of course, when I really wanted to do something even though I suspected it was a bad idea, when the whole universe was screaming at me, “Are you sure you want to jump off that cliff?” And more times than I’d care to recall, I went ahead and jumped off that cliff anyway. The fact that I’m still here, let alone in more or less one piece, continues to amaze me.
So doing the dumbest or most futile thing you can imagine doesn’t guarantee success; more often than not the outcome will be somewhere between mediocre and fatal. Yet, if people didn’t occasionally throw caution out the window and say “I don’t care who laughs at me or cries over my bones,” a lot of amazing stuff might never have happened. And if worse comes to worst, there’s still the chance that you’ll qualify for a posthumous Darwin Award.