I’m not sure how long I’ve carried this picture, tucked inside the little notebook I keep in my back pocket. I no longer remember where I first stumbled upon it, or how, or the number of copies I’ve worn out by unfolding it and folding it again whenever I need the reminder. It’s served me well over the years. Kept me going. When you have a dream that sometimes feels close enough to embrace as fact and other times feels so far that it seems the two of you will always be destined as strangers, keeping on becomes the hardest thing and the most important. Victor Hugo once said that each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet. I would imagine that sentiment applies to women equally. The picture at the top of this post is a reminder of my own future hour. It makes me see that I’m not alone in what dreams I have. There are others out there—you, perhaps—whose aim in life reaches high. There always have been.
The picture was taken in 1961, at a place called the Aldershot Club. Where the club was (or remains), I cannot tell you. I suppose it’s enough to say it wasn’t a very popular place with the day’s younger folk, or perhaps it was the club’s entertainment that night wasn’t enough to draw a larger crowd. According to the note I scrawled on the back, a total of eighteen people spent that night dancing. I would imagine few of those cared to admit they were in attendance after the fact. It does seem to me, though, that they’re all enjoying themselves. I’ve often though that despite it all, that’s the most important thing.
Look close enough, you can make out three-and-a-half of the four faces on the stage—singer, guitarist and bass player, and part of the drummer. I doubt the photographer intended to make such a strong point in leaving the band to the shadows, but the result is poetic in a way and not at all ironic. Those four were surely in the shadows, lost among a sea of other bands with aspirations just as lofty. They are too far away for me to gauge their expressions. I like to imagine them fully involved in their music, feeling each note as it courses through with a precision that indicates not only inherent talent, but unending practice.
That’s how we all start out, don’t we? Doesn’t matter if your goal is to be a musician or a writer or a professional _______, this picture represents the beginning. Obscurity and under-appreciation. Playing to a crowd that barely reaches double digits or writing novels or short stories or blog posts read by about the same number of people. We toil under the assumption—the hope—that it won’t always be this way, that the hour Victor Hugo expressed when fact meets dream will surely come. We do this even as the inner critic, that realist to counter an almost holy optimism, shouts that you and I are only two of many, that our dreams are no less than the dreams of billions more, and how is it that we are so special to warrant fulfillment? Ours is a hard world, after all. Often enough, the goal becomes not to rise above but merely not to sink. Forget about overcoming, sometimes all we can hope for is to simply get by.
Worse, if we are strong enough to dream we must also be courageous enough to admit that dream rarely, if ever, truly arrives. A part of us already knows that no matter how tall the mountain we climb, at its peak will lie another, taller one in the distance. That is the cost demanded of those led beyond the doors of a boring life, an existence frittered away with passionless work, the only light a coming weekend or those seven summer days of vacation. There is an allure to the life of the masses that the life of a dreamer cannot match: that sense of being settled—that, good or bad, this is how you will spend your remaining days. It is a rut, no doubt, but at least one that is straight and relatively smooth and travels over no mountains.
I wonder, looking at this picture, if the four men on the stage are thinking about a life in one of those ruts. The men and women on the dance floor look happy enough. They are all perhaps married, all gainfully employed in jobs that offer steady pay to balance out mortgages and bills. A better life, perhaps, than that of an artist, living gig to gig and wondering if it will always be that way. Or maybe it is that those four men understand what many of us do—a life of settling hurts no less than a life of dreaming. Its pain is merely spread out, constant enough to dull us to it but there. We would hurt if we gave up just as we would if we keep going, because the world is made for bruising. That’s why I think in the end it doesn’t matter who chooses the ruts and who challenges the mountains. We are all extraordinary just by making it to the end of our lives. We all deserve a measure of rest after.
Maybe that’s what Paul is thinking. And John. And George and Ringo. Maybe they’re thinking that some people settle and some never do, and you put them both together and what comes out is music. Regardless, they kept on. And a year and a half later, the world would know the Beatles.
Maybe—just maybe—that’s you up on that stage. Standing away from and above the smattering of some crowd, vowing to play as if it were millions. If so, I say let’s keep on. Let’s play and sing and not grow weary. For there’s a mountain to climb, friend, and another on ahead.