Failure is not a word that many find appealing. Suggesting a sense of doom and gloom, it can strike fear into many. For me it’s never been far away from my thoughts, especially creatively. Indeed, it’s often been said that if you are too afraid of failure then you will never try to achieve anything. It’s about the act of experimentation itself, the moment when you are walking the tightrope without the net beneath you to catch you should you fall.
The writer Samuel Beckett summed it up beautifully:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Failing in front of the public
And believe me I’ve failed and failed enough times to qualify for a Professional Failure merit badge. Consider a very public moment for example when I was invited to chair a panel of highly respected artists and musicians at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, featuring the esteemed British painter Tom Phillips RA and influential musician and thinker Brian Eno, amongst others. I had successfully managed to engage all the guests on the panel regarding our conversation exploring architecture and sound, but now it was time to open it to the audience for questions. As one person asked Brian an especially detailed question regarding sonic art and design I looked around in preparation for the next question to ensure a smooth flow of communication.
“I think this would be a question better answered by Robin” Brian retorted, passing the question over. However, there was one major problem.
“I’m sorry,” I answered, “I wasn’t listening to a word you said,” as honest as possible, accompanied by humiliating laughter from the audience. I stumbled back on track and the questions continued.
This time a fellow in the audience directed his question about me regarding the installation of sound in buildings. As I began to politely answer he interrupted:
“I wasn’t speaking to you!” he barked.
“Oh I’m sorry,” I retorted, “but I thought you were looking directly at me so presumed it was meant for me”
“I’m cross-eyed” he angrily spat back. Again, the audience roared with laughter and I slipped a little further down into my seat.
Afterwards I passed this same fellow in the corridor who gave me an evil glance, or at least I think he did. He could easily have been looking elsewhere.
Later on, dinner was then served for the guests upstairs and conversation easily flowed between us all. At the end of a very pleasant meal we all bid farewell to one another and went our separate ways. I followed the stone staircase down to the apparent exit in this grand building, following directions given to me, only to find myself lost in the darkness of an industrial looking kitchen. Then I heard a voice. It was Brian Eno, also lost in another room on the very same floor. With images of us being stranded here until the morning we called out to each other until we could jointly move towards the exit and bid farewell again. What an evening this had been.
Failing in the street
Or how about the time I was so excited to have dinner with a potential music publisher in London. He picked me up at my flat in Battersea and drove us up to Clapham Junction where we parked up just around the corner from the restaurant. Stepping out of the car I slipped on a banana skin that was almost comically laying there and fell down onto the ground as if scripted in a TV show. The publisher stepped out the driver’s door and couldn’t see me and began calling my name but I was laid flat out on the ground in some pain. Needless, to say I never got the contract.
Stumbling through a professional career like this can be comical and painful in equal measure but it’s true that you DO learn from such experiences, mostly about what’s possible. I’ve kept a diary since I was 12 years, never missing a day’s entry. That’s 42 years of failure, gathering dust, sitting in a cupboard to be occasionally rediscovered. They aren’t written for a reader, they are a way of releasing the day onto the page. They also contain a considerable amount of emotional failure throughout, especially when young.
We all make mistakes. Mostly these are privately experienced, shared with family and friends, but sometimes they can be very public indeed. So much so that sometimes we shamefully lower our heads and begin to question the very meaning of life, simply wishing that a giant hole will open up in the ground and swallow us entirely. So I wrote Wrong Stories, a book that collects all these tales into one volume.
For the last quarter of a century I’ve led a reasonably public life, performing around the globe, collaborating with all manner of individuals, sharing my music and creativity with the greater world. It’s not all been smooth sailing however, and the book is testament to that. Many a time I’ve returned from a trip only to share the most agonisingly embarrassing moments with friends, wondering whether I should begin to self-censor a little more, yet enjoying this cleansing of the palette in revealing my often-awkward tales of woe.
Such moments are evidence that life can teach us all manner of lessons and hopefully we can learn from them. For just a moment too perhaps I hope that they peel away the veneer of any level of ‘success’ and demonstrate that my very own foolishness that has never ceased to impress. Interspersed with my personal tales are recollections of other awkward and unsettlingly dumb moments in the course of my career which might possibly water down my own confessional moments, but perhaps that’s just me feeling optimistic.
At present I have no publisher for these stories so if anyone happens to be reading who might be interested in supporting this or has suggestions, then please get in touch!
This week I was BBC Radio 3, as a guest on The Verb, speaking about this very subject, failure. Alongside the other guests I shared anecdotes and read some diary entries from my awkward teenage years so be prepared for some very painful moments indeed! I also created a special two minute collage of broadcasting fails which is well worth the wait for the AC/DC competition moment! So, what are your thoughts on failure?
Tune in 12 October 2018 to The Verb
You can listen back for a month after broadcast too