The Lottery Of Life

Eleventh instalment: Born Under A Bad Sign

The lyrics to Born Under A Bad Sign were written by Stax Records rhythm and blues singer William Bell; the music was by the Stax bandleader Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). It was first recorded by blues singer/guitarist Albert King in 1967; British band Cream recorded a version in 1968.

The words of the chorus are:

Born under a bad sign
I’ve been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
You know I wouldn’t have no luck at all

I’ll get to the point, I promise, but I can’t resist putting in a plug for this book.

Published in 1970 and out of print for several decades, it was republished in 2015 in a new edition but with the same cover and still with the John Lennon foreword and Ralph Steadman illustrations. The book’s central thesis is that rock’n’roll, and all popular music for young people that followed in its wake, was indeed born under a bad sign.  I would like to provide more details but I’ve discovered that my copy, which I bought in 1970, is missing. As is my copy of Rock And Roll Will Stand, edited by Greil Marcus – another insightful work on the subject of popular music. I hope both books are hiding on the shelves somewhere (I have many books) – they’re probably a bit valuable by now.

I should return to the subject of this instalment. In previous instalments I’ve set out the factors – before conception, at the moment of conception, during gestation – that determine many characteristics of an individual’s physiognomy, mind, personality and preferences. We have now arrived at the birth and, while not for a moment endorsing any of the claims of astrology, I would say that at the moment a person becomes capable of independent life it is possible to conclude that he or she has been born under a bad sign – or a good one. He or she has been equipped with bad luck or good.

This instalment, therefore, will discuss the events and influences that impinge, at and soon after birth, on the new-born individual: the events and influences that can reinforce, amend or even act to counter the good or bad luck that has been built in to the new baby by its parents’ lifestyles and genes.

Before doing so, however, I feel obliged to take another detour. Recent conversations I have had about this blog have indicated that there remains a degree of misapprehension as to what I mean by luck, and I think I have to address this.

In the third instalment of this blog I attempted to define the terms I’m using, and in particular to differentiate between luck and chance – the former being, for my purposes, the cumulative effect of long-term factors over which the individual has no control; the latter being one-off instances of good or bad happenstance.

I will have another stab at clarifying my meaning, while at the same addressing another concern brought to my attention: that my insistence on luck, and life as a lottery, leaves no room for individual choice. In order to do this I will use the analogy of a card game. Like all analogies it is imperfect: an individual’s hand of cards rarely exceeds thirteen, and in most games far fewer, whereas the factors that determine an individual’s luck in life are much more numerous.

We must, therefore, imagine a game at whose outset (which corresponds to the individual’s birth) the individual is dealt a hand of cards. He or she may have a hand full of court cards and trumps; or a hand of low-value cards. Good or bad luck. There is nothing the individual can do to alter the cards he or she has been dealt; nor has he or she any control over the relatively few cards that are replaced and added during the early stages of the game (corresponding to childhood and early adulthood), which will add to or detract from the strength of the hand – the individual’s luck.

I hope that helps to explain what I mean by luck: it is the hand that is dealt – the good or bad health, the strong or weak body, the clever or slow brain, the personality traits, the inculcations of one’s upbringing, that shape the person.

Each of us is a hand of cards; a construct of factors that were dealt to us – a few before we were even conceived, a thick stack of cards at conception, and then other cards added with diminishing frequency as we grew in the womb and then outside it. Where do we have choice? Why, here: it is up to each of us to play our cards. I would only point out, though, that a person with a hand full of court cards and trumps will have many more choices than a person with a hand of low cards. There are people with good luck – people with advantages, with privilege. There are people with bad luck. The latter do not have available to them the plethora of choices available to the former. This is a subject to which I will return.

I seem to have written enough words to constitute an instalment, without yet beginning to address the subject. Birth, then, and the luck, good and bad, that it brings, will have to wait until the next instalment – which might have to be entitled Born Under A Bad Sign 2. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.