Everything changed in 1986, while I was sitting on my bed in a shabby studio apartment in the San Fernando Valley. In fact, it was the only place to sit in the tiny room, which I’d estimate at 12' x 12', only slightly roomier than a prison cell. No doubt the place was an illegal build-out — just drywall hammered onto haphazard framing that dissected the back corner of a garage. It had no kitchen — just a hot plate and cube refrigerator. You could hear mice scuttling in the walls at night.
My band had broken up a year earlier and I’d gotten laid off from my shipping-and-receiving job. Unemployment insurance barely covered my minimal expenses, assuring that I couldn’t do much more besides eat and sleep. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that, under these dismal circumstances, I actually had a houseguest: a soundman and old high school friend who was down on his luck and literally had nowhere else to go. He slept on the floor and the two of us simply hung around this dingy apartment all day long. I was 31.
We were talking one day when my friend said, “You know, Andy, you and I are classic underachievers.” I asked what he meant. “Well,” he continued, “we’re both intelligent and capable enough to do whatever we want, but we choose not to do much at all.”
My face reddened. The inarguable truth of his statement hit me hard. I didn’t want to be an underachiever. I wasn’t willing to accept that this was thebest I could expect from life. With no resources at my disposal, and no idea how to do it, I decided in that instant to reverse the downward trajectory my life had taken.
It’s a convoluted story that I’ve told episodically in this column, but a little more than a year later I had moved to Northern California and was working at Drums & Drumming, the first magazine I ever edited. I’ve worked my tail off ever since, and succeeded in undoing what once appeared to be an irrevocable fate.
I can’t say the same for my old friend, though. He never pulled himself out of that lifestyle and today, in his early fifties, he alternates between flopping on couches and living in weekly hotels, earning just enough to hover a hairsbreadth above homelessness.
To be sure, I’m glad I made the choices that I did. And yet it’s important to realize that my friend also made his own decisions, for his own reasons. It’s his life to live, and I believe he’s satisfied in his own way. But you don’t have to give in — not if you don’t want to. If you feel like you’ve hit bottom, remember that you might be standing at a crossroads, not a brick wall. Change is possible as long as you want it.