the Detour, or, the Lure of the Underworld

There was once a boy who aspired to be an artist. He had been drawing since birth and developed a keen interest in film. Later on, his interests turned to music. He decided that was his goal, to become a musician. Off he went to a music college, had a great time and a great education immersed in music, developed some friendships based on music and became a songwriter. When college ended, he stayed in the city and set his sites on his musical ambitions…he felt it was only a matter of time until he would be recording albums, going on tour…and then…none of that happened.

Lurking beneath this superficial story of someone with musical aspirations was a lot of fear and doubt. To me, the protagonist of this tale, it is easy to assemble this into a chronology now, but at the time, it felt like the world was crumbing around me.

Allow me to explain…

All through college I did not engage in any sexual or romantic relationships. I told myself at the time that this was due to me being laser-focused on attaining my career as a musician, but the simple truth was I was gay and not willing to admit it or face it, and certainly not accept it. It was not in the plan, and the vision I had for myself could not accommodate this fact. So I stuffed it down, way down, and ignored those facets of life.

Obviously you cannot hide from yourself forever, and right after graduation from college and the summer following, everything came to a head. I was in a band, we were just forming, and I thought this would be the band to make it. I was starting to write some good songs, and the world seemed full of possibilities. You can only deny your nature for so long, and right around the end of that year, I had my first gay sexual experience. The guilt, confusion and mental anguish this created in me cannot be overstated. I was raised Catholic, I was told this was wrong, I did not want to be gay. Again - it was not in the plan. I pulled away from friends, left the fledgling band, and retreated within. I was in a bunker, I was holed up and trying to deal with it.

Over the next year, I came out to my family and friends, and things started to normalize. Music was certainly not the focus, and while I was still writing songs, still had my ambitions, this missing part of my life was pulling my attention away from music. I started making friends, gay friends, and one of them introduced me to the gay bar and club scene in town. He sort of Pygmalioned me - molding me into what he assured me was the way to be a gay man. He discouraged my slightly weird, trendy, muso-inspired clothes, and suggested I tone down - button down shirts, khakis, the “right” kind of cargo shorts, even baseball hats. I hate baseball.

Through his lens, my desired life of the singer/songwriter/artist was kind of a drag, and not at all desirable to the denizens of this club scene, and I lost some of myself as a result. I suppose I wanted to feel normal, and I had never had that feeling. It seemed like a reasonable tradeoff. I started going to bars and clubs almost every night. You can see the math of it: working a day job all day, then going out all night - it did not leave a lot of time to cultivate a music career. Sure, I now had plenty to write about, but no time and less and less desire to do it. I should say, and I am very thankful for this, I did not touch alcohol at all in this time, and if I had, I would surely have been a drunk before too long. Or worse.

A couple years later, I decided to reclaim some of my ambition and managed to get a recording made of ten songs - in many ways a full-fledged album. It was dark, it was almost folksy, and certainly not what I had in mind as my style or sound. All though this time, I continued to hit clubs and bars and had more sex with more partners than anyone should. It was conquest, it was a validation of sorts, and it was certainly overcompensation for my virginal, self-loathing youth.

Six years later, I was in a less than healthy relationship and living in the city still, and playing the odd coffeehouse or bar as a solo performer. I was recording a second album, and I think in my mind I knew that this was to be a swan song of sorts - a last ditch effort to be a viable musician. It was more pop, it was more up, but I was 30 and my pop years were up, in terms of starting that sort of career. It was not going to happen, I knew. The following year, I played a club that was to be my last time on stage. I did not know that, but it kind of organically fizzled out by then. I was done.

Fortunately, at this time, my interest in visual arts returned and the digital camera was on the market at the consumer level. That was 15 years ago, and for the most part, visual art has replaced and healed my shattered musical dreams. I still have music - I record the odd song here and there, and write one occasionally, I have guitars around me even as I write this, but my focus is on visual expression now.

It is a tired old adage that you should not live in the past - I agree to a point, but examining the past can be healthy. That brings me to this new image, “the Detour,” and as you may have deduced, this road is my life as I imagined it, the road to musical success and fame - the tower in the distance. Ahead of me, directly and descending down, is my detour, my fork in the road, my dark wood, my Underworld. It seems like a path to something, and it’s bright and inviting, but does the man in this image know where it leads, where it lets out? Will it lead to the tower or even in that direction? He is a moth to the flame, the bright lights and the mystery of the underground world all but pull him off the road he is on.

This is the impetus for this image -my lost years of the bars and clubs, where I lost myself, deliberately changed who I was to fit in, and sacrificed focus of my art for normalcy. I believed at the time and even years later that this reality, this detour to make myself okay with being gay, derailed me from who I set out to be. I took a wrong turn for all the wrong priorities.

It is easy to say that, it is easy to point a finger at something and say “this is why I failed, this is what made me weak.” But life is not that linear, and that detour, that dark tunnel that seemed so bright and inviting and fun, had to happen. I had to go through it and come out the other side. It made me who I am today, for better or worse, and even though I did not achieve my musical goals, I still have my art, my self-expression and it is once again a focus in life. I am able to focus on it now like never before because I am not a confused, malleable young man in his twenties. I have more to say now as a result of that journey. I wish it didn’t happen, but I accept that it did and life does indeed go on in the wake of it. Life can be planned only so much, and force of will can only get you so far.

I want to say this is a cautionary tale, a sad tale, but I don’t feel it that way anymore. It happened, it changed me, it did not crush me. I am still here, I am still an artist, and I am on a road, as we all are. It may not have been the road I wanted, but detours will come to us all, and accepting that has been a lifelong task that is still in progress.

The tunnel in this image could be anything to anyone - for me, it was the nightclubs, the bars, the lure of sex and excess. It could be alcohol, drugs, suicidal thoughts, depression - anything that pulls your from your trajectory. Perhaps someday I will shoot a sequel to this, depicting the man emerging from the other end of the tunnel, aged and darker for the journey, but still walking, still on the road to find out!

April 30, 2016
Michael Bilotta