Success

 

Hate the word. Here, let’s try a survey. Answer these questions for yourself:

 

“I saw John yesterday. I have to admit: I really envy his success.” John is clearly a(n) …

  1. beloved teacher at an elementary school
  2. advocate for the homeless at an effective nonprofit organization
  3. respected cello player in the local symphony
  4. president and CEO of a company that sells soft drinks

 

I thought about this recently as I was listening to some music by the late Jason Molina. He was, by any conventional measure, a failure. If he aspired to be as well known in his lifetime and as wealthy as Neil Young, to whom he is sometimes compared, he did not succeed. If he aspired to be sober, he certainly did not succeed at that. If he aspired to have a stable and loving family life, he apparently did not succeed. If he aspired to live to at least 40, he did not succeed at that either.

 

No one can dispute any of that. He did, however, succeed in writing this:

 

FAREWELL TRANSMISSION (2003)

The whole place is dark,
Every light on this side of the town.
Suddenly it all went down.
Now we’ll all be brothers of
The fossil fire of the sun.
Now we will all be sisters of
The fossil blood of the moon.
Someone must have set ’em up.
Now they’ll be working in the cold gray rock.
Now they’ll be working in the hot mill steam.
Now they’ll be working in the concrete streets.
In the sirens and the silences now,
All those great set-up hearts
All at once start to beat.
After tonight if you don’t want it to be
A secret out of the past,
I will resurrect it.
I’ll have a good go at it.
Streak his blood across my beak.
Dust my feathers with his ash.
Feel his ghost breathing down my back.
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone, but not forever.
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone, but not forever.
The real truth about it is,
No one gets it right.
The real truth about it is
We’re all supposed to try.
There ain’t no end to the sands I’ve been tryin’ to cross.
The real truth about it is,
My kind of life’s no better off,
If it’s got the map or if it’s lost.
We will try and know whatever we try
We will be gone but not forever.
Come on let’s try and know whatever we try
We will be gone but not forever.
The real truth about it is,
There ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross.
I’ve really known it all along.
Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws
Must be the big star about to fall.
Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws
Must be the big star about to fall.
Long dark blues,
Will-o’-the-wisp,
Long dark blues,
The big star is falling.
Long dark blues,
Will-o’the-wisp,
The big star is falling.
Long dark blues,
Through the static and distance.
Long dark blues,
A farewell transmission.
Long dark blues,
Listen.
Long dark blues,
Listen.
Long dark blues,
Listen.
Long dark blues,
Listen.

 

In music as in so much else, taste differs. But it’s still possible for anyone to recognize the success, even genius, of Molina’s poetic mingling of cosmic and apocalyptic language with a paean to our struggle for, well, not so much salvation as for even a wisp of something other than the black nothingness of despair and death. Success? Don’t take me wrong. I’m sure Molina’s family, friends, and fans would forgo every strange and beautiful image he ever shared with them — “midnight with the dead moon in its jaws” is an unforgettable if terrifying example — to have him alive, healthy, and happy. But it’s also true that some of us, at least, would be not merely willing but even eager to exchange the trappings of conventional success for the ability to write one timeless poem, or to rescue one person from torment, or to inspire one child to be — wait for it — successful in living the kind of contented life that eluded Molina. Listen.

 

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