“You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”
There is a well-known story about one of the world’s most important blues musicians, Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.
As legend has it, Johnson was a nobody, and a mediocre musician. According to several accounts, Johnson once performed in a Mississippi club in 1930, where the audience was annoyed with his lack of talent.
A famous blues musician, Son House, who knew Johnson at the time, recalled having to scold Johnson over the noise he made. “Such a racket you never heard!” he said. “It’d make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, ‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He’s running people crazy with it!’ I’d come back in and I’d scold him about it.”
One day, Johnson left home with a cheap guitar and disappeared for a long while; some say months, some say years. When he came back and played in the club again, he was a master. Defying expectations, he played the most beautiful blues that the audience had ever heard.
Many speculated that during the time he was away, he made a deal with a big black man at a crossroads at midnight. It is said that the man took and tuned his guitar, and granted him masterly talent. And in exchange, Johnson gave him his soul.
At the height of his fame, Johnson suddenly died at the untimely age of 27. He is one of the earliest known members of the 27 Club – a “club” of famous musicians who died at 27, later including Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain.
The legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain likely sprung from his own songs, especially Cross Road Blues, in which he eerily sings about the alleged deal. His frequent lyrical references to the Devil might have been unusual at the time, as folks could have easily taken them a little too literally. Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s lyrics such as “Me and the Devil, was walkin’ side by side” in Me and the Devil Blues did a lot to cement this legend.
Nevertheless, a big part in why the legend has survived in music for so long is that it is a potent metaphor for the cost of dreams, particularly fame and success. For many of the greatest musicians, achieving massive stardom and everything they have ever dreamed of come at the cost of “losing their soul”.
With fame and success come the pressures of being a cog in the music machine, and gone are the pleasures of practicing music for its own sake, with no expectations.
With fame and success come emptiness and disillusionment, as they realize that they are still unhappy, that none of their personal problems have gone away — if anything, they are only amplified. And with that, come the worsened addictions, and the wrecked relationships.
Borne from hard-earned personal experiences, a great body of music has been written to caution us on the cost of dreams.
Perhaps the most articulate song written about the dark side of fame and success is The Eagles’ Hotel California, from the album of the same name. The song is lyrically inspired by John Fowles’ novel The Magus, which tells a tragic story of a young man who is mesmerized with the illusions of a wealthy trickster, becoming increasingly detached from reality.
In a similar macabre mood, accompanied by its haunting 12-string guitar intro, Hotel California likens the life of excess to a mythical hotel. It is sung from the perspective of a person who is charmed by the hotel’s splendor and luxury. Their stay becomes stranger and darker, as they finally realize that they can never leave the hotel, no matter how hard they try.
The Hotel California album being beautifully arranged, this theme of decadence and hedonism is echoed not only in the titular song, but throughout the album’s entirety. As guitarist Don Felder explained about the songs, “When you get into the Hotel California and you have a hit, you’re The New Kid in Town. And then once you have a great deal of success in the business, you start living Life in The Fast Lane. Every once in a while, you start to go, ‘Is this all a bunch of Wasted Time, all the years we’ve sat in bars and turned into parties?'”
Another notable work is Pink Floyd’s album, Wish You Were Here. Written and recorded in the aftermath of their breakthrough album The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here touches on a particular cost of dreams, which is, absence.
The members of Pink Floyd struggled with their newfound superstardom, as it changed their relationship with one another. Wish You Were Here bears witness to the tensions within the band, as their lifelong friendship frayed into nothing less than a mechanical and transactional colleagueship. The album reflects the emotional absence in the band; the members being physically present, but emotionally checked-out. The album also grieves over the absence of their former member, Syd Barrett, who suffered severe mental illness from heavy drug use, due to his inability to cope with fame.
The two-part song Shine on You Crazy Diamond, which bookends the album, can be understood as a tribute to Barrett, whom according to songwriter Roger Waters, is seen as “a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope.” The songs Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar criticize the machine of the music industry which they were now a part of, which runs on young musicians’ dreams. And the titular song Wish You Were Here is sung about the costs that they have had to endure in achieving their fame and success.
Wish You Were Here is in many ways, a painful album to listen to, as it encapsulates a painful run in Pink Floyd’s career, when they were disconnected from one another, when they were afraid of their own shadow, afraid of where their dream-turned-nightmare might take them.
As guitarist David Gilmour remembered, “In this post-Dark Side of the Moon period we were all having to assess what we were in this business for, why we were doing it — whether we were artists or business people. Having achieved that sort of success and money…We had it all that would fulfill anyone’s wildest teenage dreams.”
If there were a lesson to take home from these works, as well as from this article, perhaps it’s not that you shouldn’t have dreams. It’s only that you should be wary of the costs.
You should be wary of running on the hedonic treadmill, thinking that your dreams will ultimately bring you happiness and contentment, and will automatically fix everything wrong in your life.
Problems need real solving, rather than escaping and easy fixes. And life can never be without problems either, because achieving success comes with its own set of problems too.
Remember that happiness and contentment can only come from within. They come from deciding that you have enough in you, and anything else you own or want to own is extra, and anything you want to do is unselfish and genuinely for the better good.