A legend in my own mind . . . or what’s left of it

“Often when I read your nostalgic blogs about the good ol’ days of 90s Berkeley I am inclined to regard you with a mixture of pity (because you really seem sad at the loss of better days) and bemused contempt (because of the gap between actuality: street person/fanzine cartoonist and fantasy: “I dominate Telegraph Avenue”)  . . . . . .  As always, your wry self-awareness is your saving grace. And I’m left with the thought that we all need some pond to be a big fish in, we all need a little bit of fame and recognition and the approving eyes of our neighbors.”

— Hardear Pickney


Interesting observations.  I don’t know if the Good Old Days were really better.  Or if its just that These Days kind of suck for me.  Probably a little of both.   But I’ll admit to having exaggerated impressions about life.  And I often have difficulty distinguishing between “actuality” versus “fantasy.”  Or if there even is a hard-and-fast distinction.  I sort of experience most of life as either heaven or hell.  I think its probably an unfortunate bi-product of all the LSD I took in my youth.  This extreme, and possibly distorted, outlook I have.

And yeah, I’m prone to delusions of grandeur.  And the other way, too.  I’ll have these delusions of wretchedness where I feel like I’m a guilty sinner who’s ruined all these lives because of the incredible affect I may or may not have on other people.  So I guess that bullshit cuts both ways.

But I’ve never quite understood that “big fish in a little pond” thing.

My basic outlook on human life is that every person is the star of their own movie.  And that the movie I may be experiencing in some skuzzy back-alley in the Tenderloin district (a “little pond” if you will) is no less profound or meaningful than what some big and famous Hollywood star is experiencing at some dull Beverly Hill A-list party (the so-called “big pond”).  I mean, if it was my name up in lights —  “The Ace Backwords Story!!” — and it was my ugly face, 30 feet tall up there on the silver screen, would that somehow make a whit of difference on any level?  Considering how crappy most Hollywood movies are, I’d rather be hanging out in a skuzzy back-alley than stuck in a movie theatre watching that garbage.  At least the puke on the back-alleys is real, as opposed to the simulated, special-effects puke that these coked-out Hollywood directors are always vomiting on you (I admit I don’t like movies, so I might be prejudice here).

I remember reading an interview with this big, famous rock star (I forget his name).  He talked about when he was an aspiring musician, and how much he longed to “make it” to the Big Time.  And he strived mightily for a decade until he did in fact become a Famous Rock Star.  He knew he had finally made it when, one day, he was hanging out at this exclusive, ultra-chic Manhattan nightclub.  And the owner of the club ushered him to the back room, the coveted VIP section!!  Where all the other famous and important Big Fish hung out.  He was thrilled beyond words.  He was finally going to enter that magical realm that he had always dreamed of being a part of.  But he quickly became disillusioned when he realized the VIP section was mostly just made up of 10 or 15  hipsters hanging around making dull small-talk , while the guy from Duran Duran ate a boloney sandwich off a paper plate.  And there’s your Big Pond.

And its all just a matter of opinion in the arts anyways, isn’t it?  I mean, the guy that does the “Garfield” comic strip probably has a net worth of $100 million.  R. Crumb has a net worth of about $20 million.  B. N. Duncan died with about 12 cents in his pocket.  So what’s the barometer of these “big fish”?  I think that’s one reason I always preferred sports to art.  I mean, Michael Jordan has 6 rings, Magic has 5, Bird has 3.  So it’s more cut-and-dry (though tune in to any Sports Talk radio show and you’ll find there are plenty of extenuating circumstances to argue about in the sports field, too).

And of course, the great Van Gough (big fish of the art world) famously died “without selling a single painting.”    So any artist can play the Van Gough card (“I must be ahead of my times.  Yeah!  That’s its!!”)

Ace Backwords's photo.
I used to enjoy gassing off on the Comics Journal Message Board. The site was mostly made up of artists and fans-of-artists.  One time I made the mistake of mentioning that I considered myself one of the great artists of our times, right up there with Crumb and Bukowski.   Which I actually believed at the time.  Oh boy!  Did they really let me have it!!  They all called me the worst names you could imagine!  Ha ha.  And I can understand that.  Artists are famous for their big egos.  And artists can be extremely competitive, bitchy and grudging-in-their-praise to their fellow artist (I should know, I’m one of those damn artists myself).  But I just figured:  “It’s all just a matter of opinion.  So I might as well consider that I’m great.  And even if I’m wrong, I’d rather err on that side of the equation than the other side.”  Ha ha.

Getting back to the “actuality” versus “fantasy” thing.  Some people seem to think there’s some kind of objective standard that separates the Great Artists from the lesser fish.  Even though, oddly, you can’t get two people to agree on which is which.   (I tend to agree with what the Hindus say:  That what most people think of as “reality” is mostly just maya — an “illusion.”  It’s mostly just the fleeting, moment-by-moment impressions conjured up from our limited minds, and then we come up with our half-baked opinions about what those impressions mean.)

In fact,  over the years, plenty of people have called me a “genius.”  And plenty of other people have called me a “piece of shit,” too.   So I guess if you accept one, you’ve got to accept the other (perhaps I’m a “genius piece of shit” . . . .  or possibly the other way around).

*                                                                  *                                                                        *

And I’ve experienced this from the other side of the coin, too.  There’s this long-time Telegraph Avenue character who is the classic “coffee shop dilettante.”  Lets call him Monte.   For decades now, you could see Monte at his coffee shop table, working away at his 200-page manuscript.  Or the many, many other artistic projects that he’s worked on over the years that he would  never finish, let alone get published.  But this fact has never deterred Monte for a second as to his belief in himself and in his true artistic greatness.  He is forever making speeches attesting to the sheer brilliance and genius of his never-to-be-completed works of art.  Even Monte himself — a wordsmith of his magnitude — would sometimes have difficulty finding the exact words that would express just how truly great his work was (though he never gave up trying).

One time (and one time only) I made the mistake of getting sucked into Monte’s coffee shop nightmare.  He wanted my “feedback” on his latest work in progress.  “It’s not just going to be a book!”  he excitedly proclaimed.  “Its going to be like the Lord of the Rings trilogy!!  Only more archetypal and cosmic in its scope.  And its not just a trilogy.  Its going to be a 10-book set.  That captures the zeitgeist not just of our times, but of all human history!!”   And etc.

“Is it OK if I read you some of my manuscript?”  he asked.  “Sure,” I said.  Well, he started reading . . . droning on and on . . . and by the time he got to page ten I realized if I didn’t stop him (and I was prepared to do that,  with threats of physical violence if need be) he was perfectly happy to sit there and read me the entire 200 pages.  Because, needless to say, Monte was madly in love with the sound of his own voice (so naturally he assumed that the rest of the world would be equally enamored).

Not only that, Monte would regularly give me advice — “constructive criticism” — on how I could improve my own work.  How I could possibly even achieve  his level of artistic greatness.  I found this annoying.  Because the guy just oozed condescending smugness from every pore.  And I’d sometimes be tempted to say something like:  “Hey Monte.  I’ve had all these books published, and I have this storage locker full of relatively-acclaimed artwork that I’ve produced, as well as about 30 boxes of fan mail.  And you’ve produced, well, nothing. . . .  Shouldn’t I be the one giving the advice to you?”

But I mostly kept my mouth shut.  Because I got a perverse kick out of Monte’s act and didn’t want to tamper with it.

One time, in a rare moment of humility, Monte actually conceded:  “You know, Ace, you might be even more talented than me.”  Talk about high praise!  And what a concession!   But of course Monte had to quickly add this disclaimor:  “Of course that’s only because I already have high self-esteem.  So I don’t feel this compulsive need to validate myself by trying to win the approval of an audience.”  Unlike some of us.  Heh heh. . . .

So I can understand it when other artists sometimes want to knock me down a peg.  I do it myself.   I guess the bottom line is:  I’m a weird fish in a weird pond.  And nobody has ever argued with me on that score.



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