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?
If you're chasing success, Finlin said, you're chasing an illusion. (In "Alchemy" he wrote, "I've seen the order in confusion / The empty hand behind illusion.") And if you quit because you haven't grabbed hold of that illusion, then you weren't meant to create in the first place. "Most people who don't have any success, they just quit," Finlin said. "They're not true artists. Jung says: The artist is the only person who will compromise his well-being to create."
After dinner we shook hands and said goodbye. I told Finlin I'd be in touch, and watching him disappear down the dark street I understood for the first time how large a part gratitude had played in my reaction to him. But also rage. Subconsciously I wanted to help the guy, but I also wanted to unleash a primal scream on his behalf, on behalf of everyone trying to sing or say something honest in this Lindsay-loving, Rosie-riveted, Sanjaya-saturated culture. As a journalist I'd been curious about Finlin—as a writer, however, I'd been furious. All the rage Finlin didn't feel, I'd felt for him. He was a legitimate news story, he warranted a profile, but at last I recognized that I'd let myself become offended, personally offended, by his lack of success. Finlin's website got 6,000 hits each month while "American Idol" got 60 million votes in one night. When I compared those two numbers I couldn't help but grind my teeth.
Driving back to Denver, hitting the scan button on the radio in search of something good, I reviewed my history with Finlin and shook my head. I'd tried to write about him—and failed. I'd tried to help him—failed again. I'd raised his hopes—and dashed them. Now, even as I planned, consciously this time, to help the guy, I saw that once again he'd helped me first. He'd prompted me to do a badly needed overhaul of my views on failure and success, criticism and creativity, writing and rejection, commerce and art, and in so doing he'd inspired me, steeled my nerves and lifted my spirits—on the eve of a major decision.
The Los Angeles Times, to save money, to stay afloat in a culture that reads less, was offering buyouts, and days after my dinner with Finlin I took one. I filed the form asking for "voluntary separation," fancy words for my walking papers. I would have done it anyway, Finlin or no Finlin. But he made me breathe a little easier, stand a little straighter. He made me feel braver about striking out on my own, going solo. In his song "The Hard Way," which could be his anthem, and might be my maxim, Finlin wrote: I don't know what's right or wrong / So you sure won't learn it in this song / The only way is to follow your heart, / In this dog-eat-dog world I think that's smart.
I didn't know how I'd earn a living. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to write what I wanted to write—and that the next story I wrote would be the ballad of an almost-famous man.
And regardless of my new Finlin-inspired Taoist outlook—"Do your work, then step back"—I knew that when I finished the story, when I let it go out into the world, I would permit myself to hope that many people might read it. And that a few of them might be inspired to give Jeff Finlin a little help.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer is also the author of the best-selling memoir The Tender Bar. A motion picture, Resurrecting the Champ, based on one of his nonfiction pieces, is set for release in late summer. This is his first article for 5280.