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Requiem for a Dream

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He had wanted to be an artist, but in the end he'd become an imitator. His seven years of playing local clubs, usually as an opening act or a bit player on an open stage, had finally convinced him he didn't have what it takes. What he had longed to be when he was 18 years old he'd realized he couldn't become.

He'd been fueled over the years by an illusion, this sense that his songs deserved serious attention. He was frustrated by the way people conversed during his performances and the lifeless applause at the end of so many sets.

But this perspective was his alone. To a listener on a stool at the bar his songs came off as overwrought. His voice was a strained nasal twang with little depth or resonance. He told himself he made up for it with a certain stage presence and charisma, but nervous energy and self-deprecating humor didn't equal charisma.

He was lean, handsome, and intense, the prototype for the earnest singer-songwriter. Many nights he found a woman's business card in his tip jar. But unlike his friends, he hadn't gotten into this for the women. He thought he had something novel to say, something important, and he was sure it would be obvious to anyone who heard him play.

In recent months, however, his lack of originality had begun to reveal itself, often in cruel and withering ways. The critics weren't kind. They had come to view his stuff as lazy rewrites of popular hits, as if he were stealing chord progressions and tweaking the melodies. He was channeling pop music but taking it nowhere. His lyrics, meant to sound cryptic and weighty, were actually prosaic and transparent. Clubs looking for something new began to turn him down when he came knocking. He gradually came to see that the world didn't need his songs after all; what he was singing had been sung before, and better, and what hadn't didn't need to be sung at all.

There can be a poignant, almost sacred vulnerability in coming to terms with one's weaknesses. The shattered pretense ushers in a serene, humble honesty. One is another step closer to knowing a truer self. The fear of being seen as counterfeit can haunt any artist, but the ones who catch it glaring back at them in the mirror can often have a kind of identity breakdown. For a while, they're emptied, and there's a phoenix-like yearning for reinvention.

Such was the case with this 25-year-old.

"What is it," he asked his therapist, "that allows a person to fool himself, to have a perspective utterly at odds with reality? You end up wasting precious time, unnecessarily, on phantom pursuits."

The therapist pointed out that the man was being a bit hard on himself. Clearly he possessed talent. But like countless numbers of artists, entertainers, and athletes before him, he had taken it as far as he could. It was no crime, no sin, to encounter one's limitations and simply acknowledge them.

The man asked the therapist if he'd ever performed a song onstage. The therapist had not.

"Well, sometimes," the man said, "there is a possession that takes place up there. Like a spiritual possession. In the middle of a song, the direction it's going is one you never mapped out. It's become something else, separate from you. All you're doing is following its lead. You're not a man possessing a song, you're the song itself, come down to earth to momentarily possess the man."

There was a long stretch of silence in the room. The man's eyes were closed and his head was resting against the back of his chair.

"If you haven't known that feeling," he said, "you can't understand what I'm leaving behind."

Over the next few years, his guitar would still rise from its case occasionally, but only in his apartment, or around a campfire with friends. He would never perform onstage again, and his career as a regional sales director for a chain of electronics stores would never deliver the rewards music once did.

But what surprised his friends most was how he stopped visiting music clubs altogether, unable now to watch those onstage who could no more give up what they do than stifle the urge to breathe.