Slip Slidin' Away
Updated: Jun 1
The punk beauty rarely ever took advice, yet she considered the salesman’s pitch about what could potentially be the gift of a lifetime. The gift that keeps on giving, he promised, like so many salesmen before him.
The present was for my 30th birthday. I assumed she would be shopping for a toaster; a real toaster, a fast one, four slices, the works. I’d been bitching about the one in our apartment.
I made her promise that the gift would be inexpensive, the celebration a quiet affair this year, just the two of us… I don’t want any kind of party, friends or family, especially the band. It’ll feel more like a wake. Remember the vow I made a year ago?
At my 29th birthday party, I had stood on the table at the crowded bar—drunk and dubious—and announced that “if I don’t get a record deal by this time next year, I’m giving it up for a real job!” Friends booed and hissed, and there were a few skeptical laughs, but the punk was pretty sure I meant it.
Every major label had come to see us in the early ‘90s, and every one of them passed. I was tired of being told “we don’t hear any hits” and “your songs have too many words.” I had spent my twenties in bands, so my thirties were going to be a decade of making up for lost time. Maybe get my degree, or take that promotion at the sporting goods store. A manager, health benefits, vacation pay; it all sounded pretty good. Besides, the punk beauty wanted to start a family.
So, this is it. I’m 30. This is the end, beautiful friend, The End.
What I didn’t know at the time was that she intended for our relationship to come to an end as well. The birthday present was to be a parting gift, my consolation prize.
One might be suspicious; was she only in this to be the girlfriend of a rocker? Did she secretly love that I showed up to her friend’s wedding in shorts and combat boots? Would she miss the times when I put my pants in the wash with a Sharpee in the pocket, ruining three of her favorite outfits when one opened in the dryer?
Far from it. She loved me and was willing to sacrifice our relationship for my happiness.
Driving home from the sporting goods store that night, I slipped the cassette of Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc. into the tape deck. He was the consummate songwriter whose recordings were immaculate, and that allowed me to just listen. Listen like everyone else. Just happily listen, without analyzing what the bass and drum kick are doing, or spend time rethinking the lyrics, reworking a line or two, shaping it into something I would have written. I was never going to improve Paul Simon, so I could just sit back and enjoy the music.
The first track, Slip Slidin' Away, couldn’t have been better timed.
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin' away.
No shit. So close, the band was so close to getting signed. And yet, it felt like we were slipping and sliding all over the place.
The second verse hit me like a ton of bricks:
A good day ain’t got no rain.
A bad day’s when I lie in bed
And think of things that might have been.
I pulled the car over, dropped my head, and let out a heavy sob. Then another. Just let it all go for good.
I popped the cassette out and rode in silence the rest of the way home.
“Happy birthday,” she said, holding the present with both hands. She was wearing a flower print dress that went just below her knees, just above her own set of combat boots. She had recently cut her hair into a bob, pixie-short, blond, beautiful.
The box was a different size than I expected, but then I realized that I had bitched about our CD player as well. Hmmm...I sure bitched a lot.
She took a sip of wine while I gulped mine, then sat down to open my 30th birthday present.
I tore through the wrapping paper, expecting to find a CD player with a 6 disc changer. Instead, I found a 4-track recorder for my songwriting. A 4-track recorder on which I could layer some harmonies or add a guitar part to a demo. A recorder that would up my game as a songwriter and a musician.
It was probably the most thoughtful present anyone could have ever given me. It said so many things more than “you can still do this.” It said, regardless of our destination, you need to do this.
She knew I would never be happy as a nine to fiver. Her wish was to find someone who also wanted a family, someone who wanted the weekends off. Someone who wanted to spend time listening to music instead of creating it.
We broke up the next day, officially, and not wanting to ask someone for one more favor, I decided to forgo sleeping on someone’s couch and moved into the band’s storage unit. Within an hour, I was packed up and on my way out to State Mini Storage, where I would immerse myself in solitude to write and record demos. A dozen of them on that 4 track recorder. Songs that would end up on an album that sold 3 million copies.
Had I hung it up at 30, where would I be now? More lyrics from Paul Simon had the answer:
God only knows - God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man
We didn’t last, she and I. I suspected she knew we wouldn’t. Her career was taking her places where I wouldn’t go, couldn’t go, not during my pursuit of my—now extended—dream.
It’s a pretty good lesson. Those times when we’re slip slidin' away, we may need a friend to help right our listing vessel.
That final present she had given me—that parting gift—left a lasting impression.
True to his word, that salesman was right.
That gift just keeps on giving.
Brian Vander Ark is the lead singer of The Verve Pipe. He still bitches a lot, but after 17 years of marriage, he assumes he is being ignored. To hear his version of Paul Simon's "Slip Sliding Away," subscribe to the Rockstar Reinvention Youtube Channel for the premiere of the video Wednesday, June 2.