20 years ago, I walked into a diner on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It was a crisp, autumn evening with neon lights running the length of the boulevard. If L.A. had ever cared about seasons, the sidewalks would have been strewn with freshly fallen leaves. But Hollywood is not a real place, so everything was 'just so', palm trees standing tall, reaching into a cerulean blue field of endorphins. At night, Sunset Boulevard transformed into a time-lapse parade of perfect smiles on former prom kings and queens with aspirations of fame, fortune, and a lifetime of cinematic orgasms.
This part of the strip presided over a clutch of nightclubs where legends honed their craft in an endless search for that perfect chord. So it was only fitting that I should walk into this particular diner -- Mel's Diner -- with James Iha, the guitarist for The Smashing Pumpkins. I relished the stir that this caused upon our entrance. As the hostess showed us to our table, all of the attention was on James, but I basked and beamed in the reflected light of a bonafide rock star. I wasn't a hanger-on, exactly, because I don't think James had those kinds of relationships. He was a genuine dude. A deep thinker. But I did have that -- less than admirable -- new-to-Hollywood pride at having a famous friend. The feeling of validation. The feeling of being somebody. Fame is infectious. And even good people turn into pricks in Hollywood when this sort of thing occurs. La La Land is a machine with bastardized and monstrous gears in perpetual motion, and if you come out of Hollywood the same person you entered into it, you can count yourself lucky. Very lucky.
We sat down at our table with all kinds of eyes on us. I pretended not to notice. I asked James something I had been pondering for the several weeks we had been galavanting around town.
"How did you end up becoming such a great guitarist?" I asked him.
James put down his menu and thought for a moment before he answered.
"When I was in high school, I had a friend named Javier that played the guitar. Javier was gifted beyond belief. People would go nuts while he played in the halls between classes. It was almost as if he were the instrument -- not the guitar -- and God was playing him. I watched him intensely. I studied his finger positions as they moved from chord to chord effortlessly. I tried to crack the code that was his essence. He knew many songs by rote and played them flawlessly, and with such style. Even the most technically difficult pieces eminated from his guitar strings without strain or sweat. It motivated me. I practiced every night for hours. For a while, my fingers were in terrible shape, but I was driven to match his prowess. I kept at it. Hundreds of hours turned into thousands. One night, a magical thought appeared in my brain. I realized I would never, technically, be as good as Javier. Even if I practiced ten hours a day, for the next ten years, it would never happen. And it occurred to me that I didn't even want to be the best guitar player in the world. I wanted to write the catchiest riffs. Not only did I realize this was my true desire, I also realized that I was capable of it. So I concentrated on creating melody and riffs. I shifted focus. And that's it...that's the answer to your question. And, by the way, our drummer is many times better at his instrument than I am at mine. He has an utterly shocking level of talent."
I stared at James, my mouth agape. Because I loved his story and I loved the way he told it. He really is a thoughtful and lovely person to be around.
Listen to the song "Today" by The Smashing Pumpkins sometime soon. Listen to the first 1.5 seconds of that song and you will understand what James was saying. Almost anyone you know -- literally anyone -- can identify that song in 1.5 seconds beyond a shadow of doubt.
Whatever your dream is in this life, believe in yourself.
Never give up.
Believe in yourself all the way.
With every single mitochondria, every cell of your being.
No one can predict what you are capable of, what you might become. They might spin some good bullshit, but they don't know for sure.
There will be obstacles. Some of them will appear insurmountable. You will fall sometimes. Perhaps you will get hurt. Perhaps your doubts will grow so rapidly during certain periods, you will seriously consider giving up.
The world needs more songs like "Today."
And it always will.