Years ago while listening to a cocksure young artist discuss success and her inevitable collision course with it, I interrupted her well-intentioned rant with some questions she couldn’t make head nor tail of.
“How do you measure success?” I asked. “Monetarily? By fame or name recognition? By those standards alone, Paris Hilton is a success. What about an influential artist or individual who inspired others to create? Would they count as successes?” She seemed truly flummoxed by the question, ordered another Pabst Blue Ribbon, and disappeared. I am uncertain as of this writing whether or not she has met her goals. I never saw or heard from her ever again. But I want to tell you about a friend of mine and the influence he exerted on me. A friend — a good friend — is someone you look forward to seeing and spending time with. For several years I had a subscription to the then-authoritative magazine on all things punk rock, Maximum RocknRoll. Every month when my copy of MRR arrived, I’d flip straight to George Tabb’s column, “Take My Life, Please,” so I could spend time with a friend. He really seemed to understand my life in spite of us never having met.
George’s column was also consistently the best written one in the magazine. Plus, they were almost always funny and painfully honest. Most people outside of therapy or “The Maury Povich Show” don’t reveal their shortcomings and daily travails with the candor George brought to the written page. Punk rock, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” an infuriatingly dysfunctional relationship with his father, and a complete lack of confidence with the ladies were all covered here, and Lord, I had lived it, or was presently experiencing these things. Thankfully, I never endured the familial psychosis he described. With the accuracy of a Tomahawk missile, those stories could have easily been taken from my playbook with names and places substituted. But even here, he was a Florida punker when such a creature barely existed. In 1980, George had formed the band Roach Motel in Gainseville when punk rock was a scary bogeyman to shield your kids from. Not long before, the Sex Pistols made network news for throwing up in some executive’s office.
Things had changed somewhat by the time I discovered punk in the humid, brain-cooking heat that is Florida, but not too much. Punk was still a scary word and not readily found on TV or Hot Topic. Little kids with mohawks only showed up on postcards in funky bookstores. Rednecks were still plentiful and short on tolerance. Being out of step with the rest of the world is never easy. “Hero” is a word bandied about with far too much frequency and misuse. But in a very real sense George became a hero of mine, if for nothing else, by allowing me to know someone who had experienced everything I then faced. Giving someone permission to pursue their ambitions by the example of how you live your life is no small thing. And in his monthly column he frankly discussed his missteps along with his successes, with equal emphasis and humor. I didn’t have to explain how and why the Ramones had changed my life.
George knew firsthand and when he wrote about it; it was a shared experience separated by 15 years and thousands of miles. We’d both undergone the same transformative moment for all of the same reasons, yet he’d found a way to explain what he had seen and heard. And he didn’t care if you didn’t get it. He wasn’t writing for people who never felt the same emotional charge of connecting with something as intangible and abstract as a musical performance. He wrote for himself first, which was a huge lesson to me at the time. And as a musician he wrote and performed what was a good fit for him, rather than trying to cash in on something he wouldn’t be as comfortable with. By being honest about unflattering moments in his life rather than focusing on the highlights reel, it made him human, likable, and relatable. I also learned, as an artist, that if you are consistently out of step with the masses, your attitude and integrity may be all you have on that long drive home where 97% of the bar wanted to lynch you.
I’ve had two very long telephone conversations with Mr. Tabb, both of which were incredibly memorable, at least on my end. In the first, he allowed me to pick his brain regarding the accuracy of a rock n’ roll novel I’m still not done with. He didn’t seem put off by the mundane, fact checking questions I peppered him. The second was an in-depth interview with him regarding his musical legacy. I’m still having trouble finding time to transcribe it, and my residual Catholic guilt still gets at me on this point. He’s been involved with or at the helm of such notable underground acts Roach Motel, Atoms for Peace, False Prophets, Letch Patrol, Iron Prostate, and Furious George. He’s authored several books, all of which are by turns painful and hysterical.
Like so many others who lived in near the World Trade Center 10 years ago on 9/11, he’s not well, and I worry about him. He made a living via underground media, music, print and television, and multiple health conditions resulting from the collapse of the towers emptied his savings. I wish I had something to help ease his financial strain, but once again, he and I are in a similar boat.
A distant disembodied voice connected with me via print years ago and helped assure me that others felt the same way I did. That voice gave me the courage to believe in myself, even contrary to popular trends. Success measured in units sold or the number of commas in a bank statement is easy to measure. Success by living life on your own terms as best you can, while harder to measure, makes for a far richer man.
For all things George Tabb visit: www.georgetabb.com