The Ballad of Me and My Friend: Witnessing the Rising Success of My Pal, Frank Turner
What happens when your friend goes on to be a successful musician?
Frank Turner and I at Lee's Palace. Photo By Sima Sahar Zerehi
Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with that fact that I’m not going to be a rockstar. When I’ve confessed this to friends they usually think that I’m joking. I haven’t played in a band since my teens. I’m not a singer-songwriter and I don’t make electro jams in my bedroom. But until recently there was a part of me that earnestly, one hundred percent, believed one day I would stand in front of thousands of people and play my songs. I found it comforting. I would think about it during long shifts washing dishes or late at night when I couldn’t fall asleep. Giving up on that dream has been difficult. I understand how childish that must seem, especially given the fact that in my twenties I’ve done absolutely nothing to pursue a musical career, but still. The rockstar fantasy was protection against the inevitable onslaught of adulthood. It was my safety blanket and for a long time I hung onto it with a wide-eyed, naïve, optimism. Letting it go felt like a failure. It felt like I was giving in, even if I couldn’t tell you who or what I what I was giving in to.
That feeling was exasperated by the fact that over the past six years I have watched my friend Frank Turner go from playing bars, to clubs, to arenas. He performed at the 2012 Olympic Ceremonies and has appeared on numerous late night talk shows. He has played the main stage at Reading Festival and headlined gigs at Wembley and the 02. Frank is one of the hardest working people I know. By the time you’re reading this, he will have played over seventeen hundred gigs. I’m a huge fan of his music and there is no doubt in my mind that he deserves every bit of success that he’s earned. But I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t jealous of him. I know that being jealous of my friend kind of makes me an asshole, but it’s true.
Frank and I met during an interview at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. He was playing his first headlining gig in Canada, a free show to support the 2009 album Poetry of the Deed. I was covering the concert for a punk rock fanzine I had started with my friends, and the publicist kindly asked if I wanted to chat with Frank before the show. The interview that day was supposed to last for fifteen minutes. We talked for almost an hour. It was the type of experience that I’m always hoping to have with musicians. Frank spoke about his music with humor and intelligence, and the two of us went back and forth in shorthand that only comes with growing up at all ages shows in basements and back rooms.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Frank’s work in the first place is that his lyrics always reminded me of the better conversations I’d have with friends. His songs would hit on these broad what does it all mean type questions, but they were grounded by personal anecdotes and a relentless need to connect. Speaking with him that day it was clear to see why his music was so good, and the concert that night remains one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Over the next few years, I’d interview Frank on a handful of other occasions and eventually we got to the point where we’d forgo the whole question/answer thing entirely, and instead get drunk on Jameson and talk about our favourite bands. I’d watched Almost Famous enough times to know that as an aspiring journalist I wasn’t supposed to make friends with the rockstars, but Frank and his band The Sleeping Souls had always made me feel welcome. I felt like I was one of the guys, even if the rest of those guys had sold thousands of records.
I’ve got to believe that quality is key to the group’s success. Frank remains a believable everyman even while playing sold-out shows across the world. For example, I was watching the band from the side stage at The Sound Academy. The venue was filled to capacity with adoring fans, singing along with every word and pushing each other with the hopes of getting closer to the stage. I was taking a short recording with my phone when Frank turned to the audience and said this: “The only difference between me and anyone in that crowd, is that right now it’s my turn. Anybody could take this stage. I want you all to remember that.” I’ve thought about that banter a lot. It’s sentiment that is beautiful, and important, and as a metaphor I can totally get behind it. But as a factual statement I’m just not sure that it’s true.
A couple of weeks ago Frank Turner was in town to perform at Riot Fest. The two of us had set up an interview to discuss his new album, Positive songs for Negative People, and have a chance to generally catch up. I was excited to talk to Frank, but when I was getting my notes together that weird, irrational, jealousy started to pop up. I started thinking about the rockstar fantasy, and because I tend to make terrible decisions both personally and professionally I decided that if the opportunity arose I was going to tell him about it.
The conversation that day flowed naturally. We talked about the upcoming tour and support acts Beans on Toast and Skinny Lister. We talked about his intentions for the new record and recording in Nashville. We also spent a strange amount of time chatting about carpentry and Frank’s failed grade school attempt at creating a coffee mug tree. While all this was happening, I was trying to figure out how to bring my personal baggage to this perfectly good interview. I thought that I missed out on the moment entirely, until I asked this question: Do you want to be an astronaut? On multiple tracks over multiple albums, Frank makes reference to astronauts, space, or space travel. At first I thought it was just a clever analogy for the life of a touring musician but over time I started to wonder whether or not he actually wanted to visit the stars. It was possible. Asking seemed like a fun way to cap off our talk, but then Frank laughed and responded like this:
“A realization that I’ve come to in the past few years is that there is a moment in your life where really, wildly, famous people start being younger than you. And you kind of go, shit, I’m never going to be a teen sensation. The possibility of that happening is a closed door. That’s one of the things about getting older. Doors start closing. I’m probably never going to be an astronaut. I’m probably not going to be an NBA star, not that that was ever in the cards.” That was all the set up I needed. I launched into my spiel. I explained about the rockstar fantasy and how watching his success had made me feel jealous. I explained how feeling jealous of my friend made me feel weird. I explained a lot of different things and Frank listened with patience. Then he paused for a moment and proceeded to blow my mind.
“It’s almost like… one of the definitions of youth is those years when possibilities seem endless. And the process of growing up is the process of choosing paths, but every choice you make necessarily closes down other choices. There are opportunities lost with every decision. But what’s the alternative? I’m at a point now where I know that regardless of whether I live till I’m 80, my obituary will talk about music and touring. That’s the person I am, and parts of that are great. I decided to be something and it worked out. But there is another part that’s fucking terrifying. Because now I’m this thing, and I’m happy being this thing, but it also means that I’m never going to be something else. I was going to be… I don’t know. A journalist. Is being a journalist fun?” I was trying to figure out how to respond when Frank’s tour manager told us that his fifteen minutes was up, and he was ushered away to do more press. We hugged goodbye and agreed to watch the Rancid set later that night.
The things that Frank said in that interview isn’t anything that I haven’t heard before, but the grass is always greener conversation doesn’t usually come from a person who actually knows what it’s like on the other side. He summarized some of the feelings that I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a while, and he articulated it in a way that made more sense than I ever could have. The conversation made me feel better and at the same time reiterated my inferiority complex… but whatever. It is what it is.
There are tons of things that I’m not going to be and while I’m prone to navel gazing or lamenting that fact, I’ve been realizing that neither of those feelings are particularly useful. Talking to Frank also made me realize that maybe those feelings aren’t so much about my shortcomings as my disposition. He has everything I thought I wanted and he’s still left thinking about what else is out there. So what’s the takeaway? I’m never going to get on stage and play songs in front of thousands of people, but there are a bunch of other things I could still do. I should probably stop complaining and get to work, and be grateful for the fact that my friends will still put up with me.
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on twitter.