a-ha, David Fenton, funkytown, grover washington jr., heaven, hendrix, jagger, joplin, karaoke, Lipps inc., mcferrin, purgatory, rock and roll, rolling stones, Steven Greenberg, take on me, turning japanese, vapors, withers
If there’s a Rock and Roll Heaven, well, you know they’ve got a hell of a band. But what if there’s a Rock and Roll Purgatory? Do they have something more like a karaoke lounge on a Carnival cruise ship? What exactly gets you into Rock and Roll Heaven anyway? Is it enough that your good performances just outweigh your bad performances? Or are there some cardinal music sins that will just keep you out no matter what else you have accomplished? “Um, sorry, Mr. Jagger, but after ‘Emotional Rescue’, I’m afraid we can’t give you shelter here. But I know someone else who has sympathy for you.”
What about Steven Greenberg and David Fenton? You may know them better as the former CEO of a Minneapolis web design company and a British solicitor, respectively. Or, perhaps you don’t. Thirty years or so ago, each was responsible for a worldwide hit song. Greenberg was the person who put together Lipps, Inc., and wrote their then-ubiquitous “Funkytown”. Fenton wrote and sang “Turning Japanese” with his group The Vapors. Each enjoyed massive success with a cut off his first album, could not duplicate it on his second, and ended up exiting the Rock and Roll Highway — one merging onto the business route, the other taking the law off ramp. In other words, they were members of One Hit Wonders.
That term carries a derogatory connotation that is often not actually justified. A lot of artists might have had just one hit here in the States but were repeatedly successful in their home countries or elsewhere. Take a-ha (“Take On Me”). (Please.) They are gods in their native Norway, like Thor and Loki. (This explains their comic-book video.)
Other folks with just one pop hit have been respected and durable artists in other genres, like eclecticist Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) or jazz great Grover Washington, Jr. (“Just the Two of Us” — it’s okay to admit you thought that song was credited to its vocalist, the awesome Bill Withers). And let’s not forget that acknowledged Rock and Roll Heaven residents Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were also technically One Hit Wonders (“Purple Haze” and “Me and Bobby McGee”).
Still, we can’t deny that some One Hit Wonders seem to embody that squirm-inducing blend of luck and pathos that fits the stereotype. They had what it took to make it big, but not what it took to keep it big. A brief glimpse of glory, snatched away forever. Do they live with that deprivation, believing their careers have already peaked, that they will never be so truly fulfilled again? Is that Rock and Roll Purgatory? A place of temporary torment, with only the hope that one day you might be invited up to the Eternal Stage, as a nod to your one flaring contribution?
Well, maybe for some people it is. Fame can be like a drug; groupies can be like a drug; drugs can be pretty much exactly like a drug; so I am sure some people get hooked on their fleeting rockstarhood and spend the rest of their lives in withdrawal.
But I am not worried about Messrs. Greenberg and Fenton. Their lives have moved on in ways that suggest that music was just one of the interests that motivated them, and that they realized it was not their only, or even necessarily their main interest. Music is still clearly important to each — after 15 years running a Web design company, Greenberg founded a music production company; and Fenton practices in the field of music law. But to me they look like people who have realized that the surest way to fulfillment is not to look only to the reactions of others.
Fervent fans, satisfied clients and customers, and appreciative bosses do help give you a sense of how well you did the job; and a job well done can contribute to your own satisfaction. But true fulfillment derives even more powerfully from the process than the results. Would you stick to the career you are now in if you unexpectedly found yourself going two or three years without praise or success? Try to imagine that. If your answer is no, maybe you should start considering a new path. Not necessarily to jump ship now, but maybe to use your current success as a platform from which to launch yourself into something even better. Don’t wait for the applause to fade before you start planning your move, because you don’t want to end up suffering in Career Purgatory, doing professional penance before things can get better. At least in Rock and Roll Purgatory, there will be karaoke.