Personal Responsibility and the Circle of Associates

My Friends

Apparently, when I was about four years old and attended a first nursery school somewhere near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a teacher saw me stood alone on my first day looking around the playground at break. She asked me if I was OK, I replied “I’m deciding who are the good kids and who are the bad ones.” I’ve no idea if this is apocryphal or not but it’s just background.

Forty-fifty years ago, when modern communication networks weren’t in place and the modern economy wasn’t driving most people to crisscross the country (or indeed countries) in search of work, peoples’ primary connections were to family because one could live one’s whole life within a mere few miles, less than fifty miles from home forever. Accidental or temporary connections were rarer than they are today — which is neither a good nor a bad thing — fewer individuals were itinerant, organisations were smaller and more localised, one’s own contact with other regions was restricted. At that time, the circles above would change in size, the inner circles expanding, the outer circle contracting.

The diagram isn’t complex or stunning — I took the idea a lot of years ago from Geography lessons discussing core/periphery in terms of countries and the economic centralisation around a capital city that tends to occur; outer rings contribute ever less significant to the overall entity. This is how I visualise the human relationships around me. At the centre, the most solid block of colour, this is the core; in my case there’s a very strong family group there, reinforced by a very powerful group of friends. There’s research about the number of truly important relationships that human beings can maintain so this circle will always be the smallest, tightest unit; the people one has the deepest contact with, who are the strongest support, sometimes the biggest pain (depth isn’t just a source of the positive.)

The second circle is the wider grouping of intermediates; the quotation I’d use here is the one about “some people are here for a day, others a season, some for a lifetime”, the point being that one should appreciate, honour and love the experience of those people for whatever it’s allotted time is rather than despising or dishonouring those connections for not becoming more. The people here may once have been part of the core, they were those one shared each day with, past loves, all the people one meets through school, university, work, interests with whom one develops a deeper interest and association.

The final circle is the majority of everyday contacts; the work mates one will never know deeper, the friends of friends, the people at bus stop or shop counter one sees regularly and acknowledges, the passing complexions of life. My first manager, a man of 32 which at the time seemed so old, said to me, “Nick, you’ll get used to the fact that the people you met at school and university are the people you’ll have for life but you’ll start seeing less of them. You’ll fill the gap with the people you meet in work but a lot less of those people will cross the line into being true friends once you don’t have work to talk about. Just remember to be able to tell the difference.” So far, his statement remains true. Acquaintances is my word for people I wish the best to, I think well of, but won’t necessarily be sharing my deepest wishes and fears with, nor making extra effort to draw tight to my life.

The trick in life, I believe, is to hold on tight to those people in the core, work hard for them regardless of immediate rewards or otherwise, to give the friends a chance to become the core but appreciate them regardless whether or not the bond loosens as circumstance changes, and to welcome the acquaintances without ever mistaking them for friends or core with whom one should expose one’s secrets, give away too much ‘skin’, or blow too much of value.

So! After the massive preamble…A further preamble. I’m reading a book called Jimi Hendrix FAQ by Gary J. Jucha — a bloke who definitely and decisively knows his stuff. One tiny thing that irks me , however, is that several sections basically consist of calling out the damaging individuals in Hendrix’s life for various misdemeanours, whether business related or sexual. On the one hand, the validity of including comments on these people is absolute — they were and are a part of the story. On the other hand, my objection is that there’s a small tendency to devolve responsibility for the consequences of their presence from the individual who kept them close — Jimi Hendrix — to the agents of harm. It’s a difference of tone rather than a complaint; acknowledging the selfish and venal nature of this cluster of people is worthwhile, but a deeper criticism of Hendrix would be reasonable and right.

The nature of a professional musician’s life naturally expands the transient nature of human connection; the individuals with whom I, by necessity, must make contact with each day for work purposes is far larger than that of my forefathers (miners, dockworkers, etc.) but far smaller than that of a professional musician playing shows in multiple locations, with multiple bands, staying in multiple temporary residences night-by-night… The reaction of most musicians to this burgeoning number of contacts seems to be to build and lockdown a fresh core — the siege mentality many bands and musicians describe is a consequence, the ‘us against them’.

The problem is, however, that this rebuilding of community in the maelstrom of fame relies on a strong ability to distinguish friend, foe and one’s own self-indulgent self-destruction. Hendrix wrote song after song regarding his loosely tied nature and his perception of life as a series of transient connections — Crosstown Traffic, Highway Chile, Stone Free, Castles Made of Sand. His reaction to a damaged childhood was to retreat from closeness into an embrace of temporary warmth. He deliberately created the harem of groupies, the endless “good bye girls”, the invitations back to the studio for whole posses of club buddies — that this environment was wearing, dangerous and interfered with his more overt and less psychological desires in life was something he ultimately recognised. At the time of his death Hendrix was speaking of leaving New York and returning to his community of friends in London, of returning to his manager Chas Chandler, had brought Billy Cox a long-time friend on board — a core was being sought.

In the case of Cobain, a similarly (if not more) disrupted youth and family destroyed the core. Cobain, however, sought permanency in a small number of tight relationships — he was never the social butterfly nor the promiscuous presence that Hendrix was — whether the four years with his first real girlfriend, the regular presence of Melvins throughout his career, Krist Novoselic. Post-fame, he tried to reconstitute a core around Courtney Love, around family, something Hendrix rejected as a restriction. Cobain, however, suffered the same unwillingness to confront his own destructive elements that meant, while rejecting his band mates and other former friends, he retained drug buddies, struck up new drug connections and left the door open to them; the ultimate indication of the appalling nature of his connections is the tale in Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven in which his new key associates drag an overdosing Kurt Cobain out into his car because they don’t want him found dead on their property, he isn’t even dead yet and already the commercial and parasitic nature of the connection is clear. Hendrix, for all his ‘safety moves’ always left the door open to sexual temps.

In Hendrix’s case there’s the, very common, inability to tell the difference between people who might be fun for a drink, for a single night out, but who will absorb energy, distract from one’s ambitions and desires, drag one into their business rather than helping you with yours — Hendrix seemed unable to recognise the need for a core and deserves criticism for it. Cobain, by contrast, was more in tune with a conservative desire to rebuild ‘home’ but, crucially, did so around people who were more attuned to his worst habit (drugs) than his best (creativity) — again, he deserves a touch of censure for it.

On a regular basis, I see people upset by people who should never have been more than casual acquaintances, sharing personal information or access with those who are great fun to be around but shouldn’t be trusted with the substance of life — heck, I’ve seen thefts, pregnancies, the odd act of violence, general tears and mayhem on this basis. It’s nothing special. But if you look at your life and can’t see the three tiers of contact then it’s very hard to let the right ones in or keep the wrong ones out…

…Addendum. This isn’t a manifesto for distrust or mistrust. It’s a suggestion that clear sight, a degree of actual thought about one’s connections, should enrich and reinforce one’s significant ties. Can one tell in advance which are which? I’d suggest it depends on one’s own intentions to some degree, but if you’re looking for people who are going to be good to you, yup, I’m pretty sure there are pointers — just always be ready to be surprised for good or ill.


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