1970s Mind: 21st Century Body

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Me and Bobby McGee: or combatting low self-esteem. With help from Garth Algar, Cat Stevens and Janis Joplin!

One day up near Salinas, I let her slip away,
She’s looking for that home and I hope she finds it,
But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday
To be holding Bobby’s body next to mine.

Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson, performed by Janis Joplin

How can I tell you that I love you, I love you
But I can’t think of right words to say
I long to tell you that I’m always thinking of you
I’m always thinking of you, but my words
Just blow away, just blow away

How Can I Tell You? By Cat Stevens

During my teens I was drawn as a moth to a flame to a record shop called Rick’s Records. Rick’s was managed by Duncan, a tall, taciturn long-hair with a goatee beard and an encyclopaedic knowledge of any music from the US. I had very little money, but would hang out in the shop, flicking through the album covers: absorbing as much information as I could about band members, track listings and even the names of the studio engineers. I was quite philosophical in those days, (I had yet to discover girls, so had plenty of space in my head for other important things), and as I scrutinised the cover of Janis Joplin’s posthumous album Pearl, I’d often think of how a woman with such incredible talent could waste it all on heroin and alcohol. Me and Bobby McGee was one of her many top notch tracks, with its slow build up and rip-roaring finale.

From my experience, most bands chose to open each side of their albums with their best songs, and delegate their least favourite efforts to side two. So my sure-fire way of discovering if an album was worth buying was to ask to hear side two, track three. There were two ways of listening to a track in Rick’s. You could wait until Duncan had finished listening to the album of his choice, (usually a flawed masterpiece by some obscure American band like Vanilla Fudge or Quicksilver Messenger Service), or you could go into a soundproofed booth and listen in perfect solitude. The disadvantage to the former was that you might have to wait for ages and be really embarrassed if the track you chose was naff. The advantage of the booth was total anonymity. It was like going into the confessional: what went on was between you and Father Duncan behind the counter, and no-one else.

It was difficult to know what Duncan was thinking. I would try and engage him in conversation, but he would just say “Mmm” and shrug in a French philosophical way when I asked whether he thought that Frank Zappa was going commercial by releasing a live album, or say, “That could be man. That could be” when I mused that Dylan had indeed gone way over the edge by releasing Planet Waves. Looking back on it, I think he was trying to discourage the little teenybopper called Michael, who hung around the shop for hours and never bought anything.

Everything changed when I left school and went to a college to do my A Levels. I hung out with a crowd that included Roberta McCall, John, Clive and Tim. Roberta and I were particularly matey, and I spent less time at Rick’s Records and more time in Bobby’s bedroom, listening to her Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage albums. By then I had dubbed her Bobby McGee, which she thought was cute.

Then I developed a massive crush on Nancy. I won’t go into all the details about how gradually she became involved in our little group; how I tried to act cool by pretending that I wasn’t really interested in her; how we engineered to meet every break time and walked the long way to the station; and always got the same train home and the same train in the mornings; and walked to college together every day without fail. This went on for months, and with each day that passed the tension between us became more unbearable. I used to sit in Bobby’s bedroom explaining how I was totally unable to tell Nancy how I really felt. I wanted to, but was paralysed by the fear that Nancy would be outraged, and then our beautiful friendship would be ruined. I had become involved in the classic romantic conundrum: you’ve spent so much time developing a friendship with the object of your desire that you fear that by telling her how you really feel you will certainly destroy everything that you have built up so far. I wanted to explain how I felt, but had become completely tongue-tied. It was just too risky, as Nancy was bound to reject me.

At the time I was reading classic works like Jane EyreAnna Karenina and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the pain and angst that I was feeling was on a par with anything suffered by Jane, Anna or Tess. (Yes, I know they are girls, but do you know of a decent romantic novel that describes the pain a bloke goes through).

To get a true understanding of what I was like, watch Garth from Wayne’s World make a complete fool of himself:

Finally Bobby gave me an ultimatum: “You have got to tell Nancy how you feel, because the tension in our group is practically unbearable.” This threw me into a panic, and I started sweating with just the thought of articulating the words to say It. Then Bobby struck on a plan: “How about taking her into the listening booth at Rick’s and playing her a song that sums up everything you feel? Then she will know what’s going on, despite the fact that you are completely tongue-tied. I’ll tell you what: I’ll even go into Rick’s and ask Duncan to sort it for you.”

How lucky I was to have a friend like Bobby in my hour of need. Bobby spoke to Duncan on Saturday and explained my problem, and how I thought that How Can I Tell You by Cat Stevens would be the perfect song to articulate my deepest feelings. If Nancy couldn’t take the truth then I would just have to take the consequences. Monday came and I was a nervous wreck. Bobby was behaving very oddly too. Maybe the tension was getting to her in the same way it was to me- sweating, the shakes, frequent trips to the loo, fast-beating heart, breathlessness etc.

My mind has blanked out how I explained to Nancy that I wanted her to listen to some music at Rick’s, or the walk to the shop and getting into the booth. I do remember Rick winking at me and saying, “Groovy chick man. Let’s hope this does the trick.”

This is what I expected us to share together

but this is what we got

Nancy exploded. “So this is what it’s all about! I see it all now! Holding Bobby’s body next to mine! I thought your relationship with Bobby was Platonic! I’ve been so stupid! How could you treat me like this?”

Again, my mind has blanked out how we went to a café and I explained everything: my feelings and hopes that we could ‘go out together’ and that it was all an awful mistake, and how I couldn’t understand how Duncan could possibly confuse Cat Stevens’ plaintive dirge for Janis’ rocking interpretation of a doomed relationship with someone called Bobby.

That has remained a mystery to me to this day. All I know is that Nancy and I had a tempestuous relationship (she was the tempestuous one), and exactly a year later one day up near Llandudno I let her slip away. Bobby and I remained friends for many years, though we never spoke about the fiasco at Rick’s. Some things are best left alone.

So how did Janis Joplin, a singer of massive talent, huge popularity and a bright musical future end up dying of a drug overdose in a lonely motel room? Many people attribute her problems to low self-esteem brought on by unbelievable bullying at high school and college. Apparently Janis had some skin problems and was a bit overweight at school, and found it difficult to fit in with the crowd. The crowd rejected her and Janis was submitted to intense name calling. This continued into college, so Janis, who by then performing in bands and getting noticed, left Texas for California. Even though she rose to be a massive star, the damage to Janis’ self-esteem had been done, and she was never convinced that anything she did would be good enough. The only place where she felt at ease was on the stage: where she could please everyone and get the positive feedback she craved.

Self-help books are full of definitions of low self-esteem, but I like this one best of all:

“Individuals with low self-esteem are very critical of themselves and depend on the approval and praise of others for their own evaluation of self-worthiness. They believe that a person’s approval of them is dependent on their performance, whether it be academic, relationship, etc. People with low self-esteem view their likeability in terms of successes: others will accept them if they succeed but will not if they fail.”

Baldwin, M. W., & Sinclair, L. (1996) Self-esteem and “if…then” contingencies of interpersonal acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1130-1141.

And my problem with Nancy? I put that down to low self-esteem too. I didn’t think that she would like me in the same way as I liked her, even though the evidence that she was as keen as mustard was staring me (and everyone else) in the face. Why couldn’t I say what I thought? A fear of the consequences, which I assumed would be catastrophic. Had it all gone horribly wrong, I now realise, I would have survived and lived to find another pebble on the beach. It’s just that at the time I was so wound up, no amount of reason and logic was going to help me. Looking back, it was a ridiculous situation, but after all I was only 17.

So how to instil a sense self-esteem in young children and boost it in adults who have a low sense of self-worth? A good place to start would be to listen to Dr Katherine Ferdenzi, who describes how to build self-esteem in young children. I like the idea of making at least six positive comments to children for each negative, and helping children to recognise successes.


Take care out there

C.O. Jones

By Clive Oliver Jones. 4th January 2014

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