Ballad for a Plain Man
Jeff Finlin might be one of the finest American troubadours since Bob Dylan. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or director Cameron Crowe. So why is he scraping by on the Front Range, playing gigs on a cracked guitar?
While just a teenager he hitched west. "If I'd been born in Melville's time," he said, "I would have been on the whale ships." All his heroes were wanderers, especially Kerouac, and like them he took any odd job he could find as he crossed the country. Waiter, painter, farmer, bartender, dishwasher, even circus hand. Finlin's main task was making sure the clowns always had enough tequila. "They were kind of angry clowns," he said—and they grew angrier whenever the tequila ran out. He developed a bad crush on the contortionist, one of his many "twisted" romances, he joked.
He'd always wanted to make music, and in 1982 he ended up where half of all aspiring musicians seem to end up eventually—Nashville. He got a gig playing drums with a band called the Thieves, and they cut an album, which did well. But Finlin chose to strike out on his own. He'd recently fallen in love with a woman named Karen—they married three months after meeting—and he felt his own songs welling inside him. "I never wrote a song until I met her," he said.
He was a 28-year-old singer-songwriter, a late bloomer by music industry standards, so his chances of success were slim. And yet he couldn't stop writing. New songs kept coming to him. They fell from the sky like rain. "I don't write them," he said. "I just write them down." Soon he cut his first record. It flopped, as did the next. None of his labels gave him any marketing. One didn't even release his record. All that work—Finlin was devastated. He already drank, but he began drinking more, to cushion each blow, to keep the creative channel open, and also to shut it. "It was the only way I could turn off my mind," he said. "I'd write all day, and the only way I could turn it off was to drink.... It's a great tool to deal with your fears, your insecurity. It definitely works."
Fatherhood changed everything. In 1995 Finlin and his wife had a son, Aidan. Finlin quit drinking. In his song "Sugar Blue Too," he wrote: "The hole it's big, it's dark, it's round / And you can't fill it up with what you lack." I asked if the lines were autobiographical. He said every line he ever wrote was autobiographical. I asked if he had a favorite bar when he drank. "My favorite bar," he said, "was my couch."
He and Karen decided they needed to break away from the Nashville scene, they needed something different, and in 2003 they moved to Fort Collins, where they found all the different they could handle. Among the cowboys and frat boys, Finlin definitely stood out. "When I got here," he said, "people asked me what I do. I said, 'I'm a songwriter.' They said, 'You need to get a job, dude.'"
But he'd already tried to go straight. Toward the end of his time in Nashville he decided that he couldn't justify so much struggling and scrimping without any hope of success. He couldn't support a growing family on almost-famous wages. "I learned a trade, had a little painting business. I said—I'm done with music. But it wouldn't let me be done. The need to create is so strong. Even when I do something else it's all I think about."
He returned to the music, but this time he adopted a new attitude. He didn't pine for fame, didn't let himself get sidetracked by wanting and hoping. "Where there's hope," he said darkly, "there's fear." He no longer went to bed every night feeling angry at the world. "I spent 35 years being frustrated," he said. "I had to make other choices."
Some years he made a little money. Some years he made less. Karen, thank God, was always there to pick up the slack. Her salary as a nurse helped pay the mortgage.
In 2007, however, Finlin expected to bring in a bit more cash. He was getting set to release another record in the United States, Angels in Disguise. "I hope somebody plays it on the radio," he said. "I just want to work." There—he'd said it. Hope. And want. I called him on it. OK, he confessed with a grin, he hadn't entirely quit hoping and wanting. "I'd love to buy my wife a car," he said. "Pay off my motorcycle, ride horses, tour and have 1,000 people show up."
But if none of that happened, he said, so be it. He no longer saw fame as the finish line. He worked hard at his art, but knew when to stop. He talked as though reading directly from the Tao Te Ching—"Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity"—and the seeds of his fatalism-cum-Finlinism had been there for years. Sprinkled through his lyrics were many lovely descriptions of the special peace that comes from no longer giving a shit.