My old, weird Uncle Joey used to tell a story about a singer. I think the singer’s name was Nolan, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he was an artist, a “struggling artist.” I don’t quite know the details, like what kind of an instrument he played, whether piano or guitar or zither. Maybe he played piccolo. In any case, I know he wanted very much to be a successful musician, but just wasn’t. He played or strummed or zithed — or whatever, and he sang with heartfelt emotion the lyrics that he had composed himself. But he just never made it big, never got recognized. Why? Well, he insisted that he just never got lucky, never had that “break” that some artists get when someone, anyone with clout, announces that this work is “good.” I suspect it might have been lack of discipline or, more harshly, lack of talent. I can’t say for sure in this story. But Nolan certainly believed he was an artist, and he was definitely “struggling.”
That’s why he went in search of good luck, the “lucky break” that had eluded him so long. And he found it — in the phone book, under ‘M’. It came in the form of a magician whose ad in the Yellow Pages caught his eye because it mentioned his problem exactly, said “succeed in art” right there between “find love” and “lucky lotto numbers.” It also promised “competitive fees.” So he made an appointment and dropped by the office, which was upstairs from the “palm reader and advisor” that used to live in the old house on 48th Street before they tore it down and put up a Blockbuster.
The magician looked right. He was short and old, with scraggly whiskers and one twisted, squinty eye that seemed to make the other eye look larger. That big eye peered at Nolan and made him uneasy, and yet it was that kind of uneasiness that made the magician seem mysterious and, well, magician-like. He even spoke with all the right mystery and paradox, the perfect combination of religion and science that really shows insight. “Magic, like light, is energy,” he said, “and just as some eyes cannot see some wavelengths of light, so there are energies beyond our ken that only the discerning spirit can see. The light of the stars that hits us tonight is really millions of years old, and right behind the light that hits us tonight is the light that will hit us tomorrow. Thus the ancientness of starlight brings the power of the past to change the future, but only if those in the present know the arcane lore of the Druids. Ancient unto ancient,” his big eye got bigger, “and power to power.” Stuff like that was really convincing. Besides his results were “guaranteed,” and there was no money down.
Nolan didn’t know what the magician actually said. But they signed a contract full of more impressive references to Druids and which required only a basic $100 fee after the first success. A good deal. And apparently, the magician did his magic that very night (using all that ancient star light, no doubt), for the artist’s first success was indeed the very next day.
I don’t know if Nolan was singing one of his songs on the beach or humming in the shower, but somebody somehow passed by him, heard his work, and liked it. And this someone was, apparently, someone who hired or promoted singers, ’cause he paid Nolan up front, in real money, for a future gig. Nolan, astonished by the power of the magic, ran back to the palm reader’s house that very evening and gave the magician a hundred bucks right off the top.
And that was only the beginning; after that, success followed success. I think first there were just gigs in coffee shops, or in the back corner of Borders Books. But the amazing thing was that people listened. They put down their books and listened. They loved Nolan’s stuff and applauded like it was really good. A quickly produced CD sold at Borders better than the books, and in no time Nolan was picked up, as they say, by a major label. His first album went platinum.
For six or seven years, Nolan rode this wave of fame and glory. His singles hit the top of the charts regularly, and delighted fans gobbled up everything he sang. You probably remember some of his greatest hits, like “When, Oh When:”
When, oh when,
Will I see you again,
And know your love,
Soft like a dove.
Or who can forget “Time Will Come,” that set new records in overnight sales.
Time will come
When this poor bum
Will know your love
Like a gentle dove.
Wo- wo-ooh baby.
He even did a song for a Disney animated movie, the one about the frog and the witch and stuff. Remember?
Is this the day
When the kiss will pay?
And I’ll taste your love
That falls from above,
Like a dove.
Wow! And yet it was after that first six or seven years (Uncle Joey was never sure), when Nolan was about as popular and rich as anybody could want to be, that he began to be depressed. And it was at this point, so the story goes, that he went back to the magician, who still had his shop on the second floor of the “advisor'” place.
“So what’s to complain,” the magician asked. “They love ya, and you’re rich. Sounds like pretty damn good magic t’ me.” The old, grizzled man looked exactly the same, though the big eye bored into Nolan with a different kind of unsettling eeriness. And his lingo had changed: no “energies” or Druids; just business deals. “Hey, price was cheap, if ya ask me,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, but…” Nolan couldn’t really deny the money side. But he knew something was wrong and just couldn’t say what it was. Actually, he did know what the problem was, but it was hard to put into word. Hard, too, to confess. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s great, with all the money and fans and all…”
“They love ya,” the magician repeated.
“Yeah, but…” He paused. “I mean, yeah, they love my stuff, but my stuff,” he paused again, licked his lips. “My stuff sucks,” he said.
Actually, he kind of groaned, and for the next few minutes he spouted some blabber about poetry and melodies that really didn’t make much sense, concluding rather frantically, “and it just isn’t any good.”
“But they love ya,” the magician said again, and this time there was almost a giggle in his voice, that kind of “tee hee” you get from kids trying to hide a secret. “Whaddya mean, it ain’t any good? They like it, it’s good. What’s the difference?”
“I know, but…” Again, Nolan groaned, exasperated.
“Look,” the little old man said, now, strangely with the “tee hee” in his voice and a twinkle in his eye, indeed in both eyes, like the bad eye was opening up. “You’re rich, you’re famous, the fans love ya and adore anything ya spit on the page. What do you want?”
“I want,” Nolan started, then stopped and thought, then looked into the square face of the little old man. “I want to be good.”
“Ah!” the magician threw up a hand with the index finger raised, both eyes now wide, almost aflame. “Ah, ‘good’ is it?” He laughed again, but it was more a “humph” than a “tee hee.” “You think I can make you actually good?” He leaned toward Nolan, squinted the “bad eye” back and bugged out the big eye until Nolan felt transfixed, or like some new magic was about to hit. The magician then wiggled his fingers in front of him with mock seriousness and intoned, “Bugga-bugga-bugga, now you’re good.” Then, all at once, the magician’s face and eyes went wide with a nasty glee and he laughed out loud. “Good?” he cackled. “Good?” And his face narrowed down to a beaming stare that felt like pure hatred. “Well, that’s not in the contract now, is it?” he said.
And as Nolan watched, the little old man’s face seemed to burn with hate and mockery. Nolan himself felt confused, astonished, troubled, hurt. “So what am I supposed to do?” he cried, as if the man would help him. “How can I live like this?”
The magician’s face beamed a proud and diabolical smile. “Welcome to hell,” he said.
I think that’s where the story ended, at least the way Uncle Joey used to tell it. But somehow — and now I’m telling the story, after all — somehow I think there’s more. I think the story ends like this.
Maybe the magician isn’t quite diabolical, or maybe Satan is nicer than we think. Or maybe he’s trickier. Anyway, as I see it, the magician surely realizes that there is still another option. He says, “Tell ya what I’ll do. I can’t make ya good, but I can make ya happy.”
“How’s that?” Nolan asks with a lingering suspicion, but also a glint of hope.
“I can make it so that even you think yer music is good.”
Nolan is surprised. Even astonished. Maybe ‘incredulous’ is the word. Anyway, he ponders a second, and in his happy surprise he says, “But if everybody likes my music, and I like it, too, then there’s no problem. Heck, that’s not hell; it’s heaven!” He is genuinely happy for a second or two, but he can’t quite forget the look of malice on the magician’s face. So Nolan looks a little suspiciously at the old man and asks, “You’d do that for me?”
“Sure,” the magician says happily. Then his face draws back into its squint-eye/bulging-eye, scraggly beard look, and he nods mysteriously. “But here Druid-runes that focus the stars’ photonic energies of time are dark, hidden forms.” He pauses, winks, says, “Tee hee.” Then his face is broad again and he adds, “And for you, no charge.”
Nolan’s happiness is suddenly mixed again with suspicion, and he narrows his gaze. “What’s the catch?” he asks.
“Ya just don’t get it, do ya?” the old man asks with easy humor. “Nothing has really changed, ya know,” he admits, because he has to. “Your music still sucks.” He almost laughs. Finally, though, he shakes his head. “Doncha see? You’re still in hell all right, except that you’ll never want out.”
That’s where I think the story ends. I don’t think it ends with Nolan deciding what to do. I don’t think I can say.