Petty

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I’m reading Petty by Warren Zanes right now – the new Tom Petty biography written by the guitarist from The Del Fuegos.  Actually I’m listening to the audiobook, which I consider the same as reading, though my wife vehemently disagrees.  I prefer audiobooks to be read by the author as opposed to some voice actor – unless the author is a terrible narrator. But Warren Zanes is actually quite good – both as a writer and a reader of his work.  Reading Petty has me diving deep into Tom Petty’s oeuvre, and it’s a rewarding re-discovery. This is one of the best things about being a total music geek. If you truly love an artist’s work, you can rediscover it many times in a lifetime. You hear it differently at different stages in life. This time around it’s Wildflowers that really knocked me out. Good God, what a perfect album! It’s depressing to learn that it’s his divorce album, but I guess it’s sort of obvious when I focus on the lyrics. It’s the sort of work that only comes from a mix of incredible craft and profound emotion.  It’s the sort of later career record you hope for from every major talent…and rarely get.

It’s funny to think about now that I’m such a huge admirer of Tom Petty’s music, but it really surprised me back in the late 1990s when so many reviewers compared my album Vestavia to Petty. At that point I really hadn’t listened to much of his music, other than the exposure from so many of his songs being so ubiquitous on FM radio and just living in the world.  When I discovered punk rock, Petty was just another AOR rock dinosaur in my mind; and though I enjoyed Full Moon Fever, the production seemed fussy and synthetic to my ears.  I do remember, however, making an important connection as an adolescent.  I was mostly into hard rock at the time, and mostly into drums rather than songs – but I would buy practically anything from the dollar album bin at Ozarka Records in downtown Bloomington.  The dollar bin was mostly promos of unpopular albums, or slightly (sometimes severely) damaged LPs that could fetch a much higher price in good condition. I bought the ones that were just a little messed up, and that amounted to more than half of my LP collection.  One of my dollar bin scores was Damn The Torpedoes, which I listened to a fair amount around 1980.

I noticed that Refugee took its cues, both vocally and in terms of arrangement, from early 70s Dylan, specifically the live Dylan and The Band album Before The Flood, which my dad owned and listened to constantly for a couple years in the mid-1970s.  I was super excited to make this connection, and I wanted to share it with my dad.  So I asked my dad what he thought of Tom Petty and he said, “Well, I don’t really know much about Tom Petty.” I later learned that’s what my dad would say when he didn’t like or didn’t think he’d like an artist, but he should have been more careful with his word choice because I would set out to educate him about the artist in question, which was usually a giant waste of time.  Here’s how it would go.  Me:  “Dad, do you like ZZ Top?”  Dad: “Well, son, I don’t really know much about ZZ Top.” Me: “Then you need to start with Tres Hombres, their best album, though my favorite song is Tush off of the live Fandango album and [on and on]”  Actually I did manage to convince him about ZZ Top, which he correctly identified as a fairly traditional blues band (at that point), though I didn’t have the same result with .38 Special or The Cars or Queen or Aerosmith or even The Misfits or Black Flag years later.  Dad had great taste – our tastes are almost identical these days – though he had a blind spot for hard rock and, for that matter, most punk.

So I played my dad Refugee and there it was, Petty’s nasal drawl, Benmont’s soaring organ, the gritty, chiming guitars, the backbeat – I can still hear it for sure, especially in the version of Like A Rolling Stone.  “Sure,” he said.  “I see what you mean, I just don’t think it’s nearly as good or as interesting.”  End of conversation; roll credits.  But it was one of the first of many such conversations to follow, sitting with my music fan dad (who is, as an English professor, a lyrics guy) and really talking about music.  Making those connections is what being a music fan is all about.  Now it’s obvious Petty was channeling Dylan and The Band – just as much as it’s obvious in his early work he was channeling The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.  Making those connections is exciting, and it was thrilling for me, at age 12 or 13, to have that insight.

I wonder how my dad feels about it now.  I wish I’d reintroduced that conversation when he visited last weekend, 35 years later – and I suppose through the miracle of social media I can just send him a link and say “?”.   It’s hard to even contextualize that conversation now; that moment of Damn The Torpedoes breaking on radio was the first moment most of us knew about Petty, and now he is rightfully established as a towering figure in the music world, and certainly one of the most consistently brilliant catalogues of any singer/writer in the rock era.

I’m learning from the book that he was obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of writing great songs and making great records – often at the expense of having much of a life outside of those pursuits.  I am so grateful to the handful of artist like Petty, whose dedication and sacrifice to making incredible music does so much to enrich my life – and the lives of so many others.  If you’ve read any reviews of Petty you know he opens up to Zanes about his drug use and isolation.  I personally don’t care about that shit at all.  Highly creative people have a hard time in life, that much is clear. I love reading their stories because people like Tom Petty were never successful adolescents – they are always outcasts who are misunderstood until they are finally able to connect the dots and really share their gift with the world.  And then it becomes about fame and the pressure of living up to the promise of their previous work. No matter how successful they become, they must keep releasing quality work or become a footnote or, worse, a laughing stock. If someone is able to navigate that world, under constant scrutiny, and keep producing great work that brings joy to millions?  Then that person is a fucking hero.  Much love and respect to you, Mr. Petty.  Thank you for the music.

Gatekeepers

[I wrote this for a music business blog in 2010 that’s since been deleted, but I think it’s still relevant so I’m reposting]

I have a vivid memory of the first time I visited a major label office.  It was 1990, and various major labels were courting my indie buzz band, the Blake Babies.  The A&R guy from one of the labels, Elektra, invited us to their New York office for a meeting.  I remember the sleek, modern architecture of the office, the impossibly beautiful receptionist, the state-of-the-art sound system in the A&R guy’s office, the vault of promo product they let us pillage.  It was nothing short of thrilling to breathe that air; I felt a bit like Dorothy (or more accurately the Scarecrow) in the Emerald City.  That office held the promise of everything I’d dreamed about since childhood: stardom, wealth, opportunity, free shit…

 

My band never signed that deal, or any deal.  We broke up, and eventually our independent label sold to a major (Disney), so all of our records ended up in the major label vaults anyway.  Our singer quit the band, signed her own deal, and became famous for a time.  Shortly after that courtship period the business changed dramatically when Nirvana became a surprise success.  Suddenly, to the major labels anyway, “alternative” rock went from a risky prospect with limited expected returns to a full-on gold rush.  I was stuck in my own deal, but I watched from the sidelines as modest, formerly independent bands cashed seven-figure checks from labels willing to bet on unproven acts.

 

With the CD the dominant format and singles all but unavailable, the labels had money to burn.  The business model went like this: sign a shitload of bands and assume that maybe one in ten will make any money.  But the one-out-of-ten will make a ton of money.  That was actually a sustainable model for a time.  What it didn’t take into account, however, was all the heartbreak it caused musicians.  Most musicians shared my feelings of destiny when embarking on their major deal.  They’d worked for…this.  Sign a deal, and then things fall into place.  But for the vast majority of bands that signed deals in the nineties, the major deal meant maybe a little money in pocket, a lot of money to managers, producers and (yes) attorneys, and then…nothing.  Heartbreak.

 

Things were weird (and pretty awful) in those days, but it was pretty easy to understand.  The major labels acted as the industry’s gatekeepers.  They had more money than God, and they could afford to bet heavily on something totally unproven, and write it off if it didn’t work out.  Because the controlled the all-important physical distribution and could provide access to all-important commercial radio, an artist’s commercial success depended upon the resources only the majors could provide.  “Going the indie route” in those days meant either you chose to take a vow of poverty to maintain artistic integrity or you couldn’t get a deal.  Musicians felt ashamed to admit that self-release was their only option.  In those days, self release meant failure.

 

You hear a lot today about the failure of the music industry, and it’s true, in a sense, that the industry described above has utterly failed.  But that’s the major recording industry, and it’s a business model that has become obsolete thanks to technological changes.  Revenue is down, but as revenue has diminished the excesses in the major industry have decreased.  The role of the majors has changed, and musicians not longer perceive the majors as the sole gatekeepers.  “Going indie” and self-release thankfully no longer carry stigma, and musicians are less inclined to perceive a major deal as an end in itself.  “Making it” in the industry is beginning to mean what it should have always meant: consistently making a living from actual revenue rather than borrowed funds.

 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say over the past decade the industry has fundamentally changed.  Major labels still thrive to some extent, though as digital distribution becomes more and more common, the majors’ lock on physical distribution becomes less important.  Physical product still exists, but it’s more or less relegated to the late adopters and audiophiles – we’re moving quickly towards a world where physical product will be an afterthought.  Commercial radio is but one way people find out about music, and the Internet is still something like a level playing field.    The net result of this fundamental change is that there are now many gatekeepers and many paths to success.  This should come as good news to independent artists, but it’s also scary as hell.  We used to focus on the “big break” – the bigtime manager or A&R person “discovering” the act; now we’re still looking for that break, but it’s not clear what form it will take.  How do you pursue something when you don’t even know what it will look like?

 

By way of example, I represent several independent bands that most people inside and outside the industry would regard as “successful” (i.e. selling hundreds of thousands of albums, selling out large venues, placing songs in major motion pictures, television shows and ads, etc.).  I asked the manager of one such client recently what he saw as his client’s big break.  “Easy,” he said, “the Pitchfork review.”  I’d worked with this particular band before and after Pitchfork, a popular tastemaker online publication, reviewed their debut album.  After the rave review appeared, things fell quickly into place for the group – recording and publishing offers from independent and major companies, opening slots for major tours, synchs…it’s like the review provided the momentum that made everything else possible.  Pitchfork definitely acted as the gatekeeper.

 

That particular client never seriously considered signing with a major (though it certainly was an option), but they’ve enjoyed major success.  Prior to the Pitchfork review I could never have shopped their music to major labels.  The style of music didn’t have a precedent as “hit” product (i.e. they didn’t sound like an established act, such as Kings of Leon), and they didn’t have anything quantifiable “going on.”  Even if the A&R person totally loved the music, they wouldn’t have signed the act.  Once upon a time major labels spearheaded what was known as “artist development,” meaning they financed an artist over the course of several albums and tours before deciding if the artist was commercially viable.  Artist development died gradually over several decades, its demise hastened by corporate acquisition and consolidation in the recording industry.  Development is just not a good fit when a company must justify quarterly earnings reports to shareholders.  So today majors pretty much only sign acts with something already going on, meaning that development has already occurred – on someone else’s dime.

 

These days majors want to see that the artist has developed a following in ways that are quantifiable, such as SoundScan sales figures, attendance at shows, gross income, etc., and they want to participate in all existing and foreseeable revenue streams.  Therefore, for the artists just out of the starting gate, the majors don’t really exist even as prospective gatekeepers.  Artists are expected to work social media, interact in person with potential fans, develop a cottage industry – so that the majors can take something that’s already happening “to the next level” (meaning huge commercial success).  But in order to get things started, artists must appeal to these smaller gatekeepers before becoming even potentially available to major labels and publishers.  I know from hundreds of conversations with indie artists that his chicken and egg conundrum is extremely vexing.  Bands that could use a deal to get things rolling are too risky and expensive for majors to sign, but bands that have developed themselves to the point where majors would be interested often reach the conclusion that it’s in their interest to remain independent.

 

So who are these smaller gatekeepers?  I mentioned Pitchfork, which is an obvious example.  Pitchfork is not genre-specific, but it takes its role as a tastemaker publication very seriously and is often accused of snobbery.  Pitchfork has a large and devoted readership, so getting a positive review is a bit like winning the lottery for a small, independent artist.  Nevertheless, a positive review in Pitchfork by no means guarantees commercial success, and the vast majority of acts (particularly overtly commercial acts) will never appeal to the editors of Pitchfork.  But Pitchfork is far from the only online publication acting as a potential gatekeeper.  There are hundreds of respected music blogs and publications that desire to get credit for discovering the next important act.  It’s rare for the major online publications such as Pitchfork to cover an act before the act has received a groundswell of coverage in other, smaller publications.

 

On the Internet, with a vast sea of options, gatekeepers are the agents that focus our search for new music.  Sometimes independent labels serve a filtering function as quality distinguishers, and that is a sort of gatekeeper function as well.  If an artist releases a record through a small independent label with a loyal following, then the people who follow the label presume that the artist is of a certain quality simply because they are on the label.  This is a function that independent labels have served since the dawn of recorded music.  It’s also a bit ironic, because many of the current major imprints, including Atlantic, Motown, A&M and Blue Note, began as independents that served the same filtering function for consumers.

 

Another class of emerging gatekeepers is the music supervisors who place music in television programs, motion pictures, advertisements and video games.  The cliché is that these media have “become the new radio,” and there is some truth to that.  It’s rare that a single “synch” placement will provide the elusive big break for an artist, but one placement often leads to other placements, and there certainly have been instances where a single placement has provided that momentum, such as the Pitchfork review did for my client.  New companies seem to crop up every day offering to “pitch” music to supervisors for synch placements for a percentage of the take, and some of these companies are very good.

 

The point is there are many gatekeepers and many ways to get music out to a broad audience.  There’s also an enormous amount of competition.  It’s a good thing, in my opinion, that musicians make money when they actually connect with fans and sell products and tickets.  The problem is taking advantage of these new opportunities – finding ways to be heard above the din.

 

It is a frustrating situation – we know that there are numerous opportunities to be “discovered” on the Internet.  Still, it’s a challenge to kick open the doors.  You simply can’t force the sort of success my client had in receiving a breakthrough review in a prominent publication.  But you can figure out ways to get out there and get noticed.  The crucial fact to understand is that at least 90% of the music being promoted on the indie level is shit.  The people and companies trying to provide a filtering function are constantly fatigued by the barrage of aggressively marketed bullshit, but the upside is that the good, thoughtful, well-crafted music that contributes to the culture is fairly easy to quickly recognize.  I’m personally turned off by aggressive marketing gestures, and the vast majority of the time the music that’s aggressively marketed is awful.  The point is, if it’s good and you make focused, reasonable efforts to reach the people who are likely to respond, the music will get noticed.

 

Here’s another music industry myth: there are no overnight successes.  In the old industry that was absolutely true, but these days overnight successes do happen.  The problem is that it typically takes years for an artist to get the right breaks to find that sort of success.  Once you get that review or synch or your video goes viral or some mega-prominent artist name-checks your band, then things can happen very quickly – literally overnight.  But the challenge is finding those essential gatekeepers to enable things to happen on that level.

 

So here’s my advice: don’t put it out there until it’s actually good and original.  There’s a glut of shit out there right now; don’t contribute to that.  Make good, thoughtful music and then make a clear, focused plan to get it out there.  Then it might or might not happen – but at least you’re not sitting around waiting to be discovered by some douchebag wearing a $500.00 hoodie who only listens to the first ½ of a song at your showcase.  And the best part: an artist can be successful without transferring ownership of songs and recordings.  The new industry is just taking shape, but at the moment it’s possible for artists to find success on their own terms and to remain in charge of their careers, and that’s definitely a good thing.

 

The Country Club

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog, and for that I apologize. To make up for it, I promise this piece will be entertaining.  I was thinking about all the weird gigs I’ve played with the Lemonheads, and there have been many.  What about the show inside the maximum security prison?  Or what about the show at an elite prep school where we played outdoors through a severe thunderstorm?  Or what about the huge punk festival in Portland Maine with a dozen big acts, and only ten people actually showed up to watch?  Oh, or what about the show opening for the Angry Samoans at a straight-edge club where a cokehead stripper jumped on stage and stripped to a g-string while a pack of teenage skinheads moshed in the pit? 

The show that stands out as the weirdest, however, was one of my first with the band in the late spring of 1987.  If memory serves, I’d just joined the band as the drummer just before the release party for Hate Your Friends, the band’s first album.  We played a release party, and we opened for the Cleveland punk legends The Pagans, and that was it.  I was thrilled to be in the band, and I was having the time of my life – but the band wasn’t yet a particularly popular band.  We probably had 150 people at the afternoon album release show, but the crowd consisted largely of the band’s high school friends and people connected to the Harvard radio station, which sponsored the event.  People weren’t really talking about the band outside of their circle of friends.

 Evan Dando (one of two singer-writer-guitarists in the original lineup, along with Ben Deily) and I used to hang around together quite a bit in those days, since neither of us had much in the way of daily responsibilities.  I was an indifferent student in my final semester at Berklee (planning a career in punk rock), and Evan had dropped out of Skidmore.  We had plenty of time to waste, and we wasted plenty of time at the pool at the Brookline Country Club, where Evan’s parents were members.

The Brookline Country Club, simply called “The Country Club” because it was literally the first country club (originally an equestrian club) founded in the United States.  It’s the sort of place for which the term “WASP” was created.  But it was (and I’m sure is) incredibly nice, and Evan delighted in charging food to his parents’ account as we gawked at all the incredibly beautiful young women who populated the pool every day.  And they all loved Evan.  I might as well have been invisible, but I didin’t mind. 

Ben and Jesse (the bassist) came out from time to time, and in some perverse way they enjoyed being Jewish crashers of this WASP preserve. They’d known Evan through high school, and I’m sure other members as well – they felt right at home by that pool. Juliana Hatfield came once, and pretty much fit right in – but she didn’t appreciate all the attention Evan got from the girls.  Which, of course, he didn’t discourage.

One day at band practice Evan sheepishly noted that we’d been invited to play a youth party at The Country Club.  The money – a thousand bucks I believe – was mind-boggling at the time.  But we all felt a little weird about playing there.  I mean, we’d all tremendously enjoyed their facilities; but the actual idea of the place was a little weird for a punk band. Even deep into the second wave of American punk, we knew that punk bands were supposed to be generally “on the left” and against the trappings of elite culture.  At least on a conceptual level, The Country Club was the enemy  – even if Evan’s parents were members, and even though they served those incredible burgers poolside.  But, of course, a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks.  Two hundred fifty a man – that would’ve been rent and daily beer and pizza slices for two weeks, easy.  

Behind the scenes, I’m imagining the conversation that might have given rise to this gig. I imagine Evan in conversation with someone roughly similar to the Ted Knight Character in Caddyshack.  “So, young man, I hear you’ve got a little combo together? Care to play a mixer at the rec center?”  There isn’t a single member of that club – other than Evan’s immediate family – that would have a single idea what the Lemonheads were about. But, yeah, a thousand clams…

On the day of the show, we drove up to the grounds in Ben’s ancient, navy blue Chevy cargo van with “The Lemonheads” spraypainted on the side.  I’d seen the van around Boston before I knew they group, and it made me think they were probably lowlifes.  It took a minute at the gatehouse, but we checked out.  On the way to the rustic activity center deep in the woods that would serve as our venue, we passed a cluster of post-adolescent girls.  They flagged us down and asked for a lift.  Evan knew them and invited them to sit with us on the metal floor.  They gladly, and without hesitation, obliged. 

They continued a conversation they’d been having before entering the van, referring vaguely to “M’s”.  “What’s an ‘M’,” Ben asked.  “Oh,” one of the girls volunteered, “an ‘M’ is a ‘minority’.”  “Yeah,” said another, “M’s work here, but they’re NOT members.”  “I see,” said Ben.  We all exchanged looks.

We quickly loaded in to the activity center and set up as a few dozen kids, ages probably 11 to 16, milled around.  Mostly boys.  They didn’t seem all that young to us, as we were all either 19 or 20.  We’d see kids that age at the all-ages hardcore matinees we all frequented in Boston.  In other words, it didn’t seem like babysitting.

Once we’d set up and checked the vocal mics through the low-power vocal PA provided with the room, we launched into our set.  I guess we all thought the kids would get it, and just respond like a typical hardcore matinee crowd.  Or perhaps we didn’t think that would happen, and we simply didn’t know what else to do.  For a couple songs the kids just stood there, sort of stunned.  They didn’t clap after songs; they just stood their ground, looking vaguely confused.  Then, after three or four songs, a kid approached us, waving his arms.  “Wait, wait,” he said.  “We don’t even know these songs. We don’t like these songs.  You need to play something we know.”

None of us had every played in a cover band.  We’d never learned any other tunes, except maybe a few Misfits songs and maybe some Big Star – songs that would be just as meaningless as our originals.  “Okay,” said Evan, “What is it you want to hear?”  Without missing a beat he said, “we want to hear “Fight For Your Right (To Party).”

We huddled and made a quick effort to learn and perform the tune. The kids were clearly not satisfied with our efforts.  The delegate kid came up once again and said, “you need to let ME sing it!”  Ben took the mic off the stand, handed it to the kid, and once again launched into the song.  He sang every verse, and I noticed before he was done that a line was forming.  He handed the mic to the next kid, and we started once again at the beginning.  We played it at least a dozen times, until each kid that wanted to sing took the mic.

After we’d played out that number, the delegate kid once again approached.  This was when the movie Ferrie Bueller’s Day Off was popular.  The kid said, “Do you know ‘Twist and Shout’?”  Yes, I think we can figure that out.  We did the exact same thing for the half-dozen or so kids who knew the words.  Then for the encore, another dozen passes through Fight For Your Right.  After that, our novelty had worn off and it was still broad daylight. The kids all just wandered off without so much as glancing back in our direction.

Football Cards

My brother Jake used to collect baseball cards. He was really into sports statistics and other stuff I just couldn’t pretend to care about. I cared about sports only as much as necessary to keep my friends from discovering me as a fraud. Still, I coveted my brother’s baseball cards. He wouldn’t even let me look at them.

Jake wouldn’t tolerate me starting my own, because it was his thing. He had a strict “no copying” rule. I bought a pack or two, but he ridiculed me and made it clear he would not tolerate my baseball card collecting. So I started collecting football cards.

I wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but I really wasn’t a football fan at all. I actually played organized baseball for years, albeit badly. When my family traveled to Vero Beach over spring break every year to visit my grandparents, we’d always catch a Dodgers spring training game or two. Once every year or so we’d take a family trip watch a Cubs or Reds game during the regular season. I even watched the Cubs on Channel 9 occasionally, but I doubt I ever watched an NFL game from beginning to end. I never even had a favorite NFL team.

So I bought these football cards in part because I didn’t know how else I should spend my money. I was seven or eight; I didn’t really have any interests yet. I bought pack after pack of cards, chewed the gum, glanced over the cards, read the trivia on the back, and then tossed them into a large shoe box. I enjoyed the act of buying the cards and first opening the pack, and then I enjoyed watching the shoe box become full. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, though Jake ridiculed me for failing to keep my cards organized.

Around age nine I discovered how I really wanted to spend my money: buying record albums. I wanted so badly to own all of the albums by Kiss. I owned Kiss Alive, Kiss Alive 2 and Love Gun, but I really wanted Destroyer, Hotter than Hell and Dressed to Kill as well. I wanted to join the Kiss Army and buy the Kiss comic book, with real Kiss blood in the red ink. And I knew how I could get some money that didn’t involve dreaded yard work.

I knew a kid a grade or two below me at my school who was really into collecting all sorts of sports trading cards. I approached him in the cafeteria one day and asked him if he had any interest in buying my cards. “How many are there,” he asked. “I don’t know exactly,” I said. “I think there might be a thousand – it’s a full shoebox, a big one!” He said, “how much will it cost?” “I don’t know,” I said. “Ten dollars.” “Okay,” he said, “bring them by my house and I’ll give you ten dollars.”

After school that day I rode my bike across the park to this kid’s house and handed him the box of cards. He glanced at the box and then handed me a ten dollar bill without a word. I rode home, giddy as I considered which two Kiss records I would buy with the money. Although I’d invested probably fifty dollars in the football cards, I felt no regret over the sale. The cards really meant nothing to me, the ten in my pocket meant everything. It meant two Kiss albums.

That evening the phone rand during dinner. I could tell by the way my mom stared gravely at me over her glasses as she spoke that the call was about me. “Yes, yes that sounds reasonable,” she said. “I think that’s a fair solution, and I’m very sorry this happened.” When she put the phone down she said “that was Mr. Jordan, and he says you sold his son some sports cards.”

Mr. Jordan was a science teacher at the high school with a reputation for being a tough grader and a stern disciplinarian. It seems Mr. Jordan had taken the time to count the cards. Rather than the advertised thousand cards, the box only contained seven hundred twenty three cards. Mr. Jordan was pissed. So he called my mom and said “Your son sold my son a box of one thousand football cards for ten dollars, a penny a card. Since there are only seven hundred twenty three cards in the box, my son is entitled to a refund of two dollars and seventy-seven cents.” What an asshole, I thought.

So after dinner I rode my bike back over to the kid’s house and knocked on the door. Mr. Jordan, a square-jawed guy with combed-over reddish hair and cold blue eyes, answered the door as his son stood by his side. “Well,” he said, “I guess you’d better count the cards next time you make a bargain.” I said “yes, sir.” I handed his son the two dollars and change and quickly shuffled back to my bike. I stole a glance at the door and they both stood there, staring at me through narrowed eyes.

I still managed to buy what I really wanted with the money, a copy of Kiss Destroyer. And the album brought me many hours of joy. I don’t think I learned anything from the exchange, and I doubt I’d have counted all those cards under any circumstances. I just wasn’t that sort of kid.

My Great Dad

My 3-year-old daughter’s pre-school had her class do a “mad libs” style fill-in-the-blank father’s day letter. This is the unedited result.

My Great Dad

My Daddy is 35 years old.

He weights 2 pounds and he is big & tall feet tall.

My Dad loves to relax by the he rock-a-byes me and he likes to wear sweat shirt, T-shirt that’s cool.

He loves to cook crabs.

His favorite household chore is clean house.

His favorite TV show is “Daddy Movie” and his favorite song is Dawes.

Daddy always tells me a secret.

It makes him happy when he cooks garlic and fish.

When my Dad shops, he loves to buy lobsters, muffins, cupcakes and a little ice cream.

If he could go on a trip, he would go to Alabama and he would take me.

I really love it when my Dad turns on the kid shows

He’s the best! I love you, Dad!

By Sophie Strohm, June 19, 2011

Happy Father’s Day!

Piano Class

Even though I managed to sustain a “professional” music “career” for a decade during the late 80s into the 90s, I knew in my heart it wouldn’t last forever. Somehow I managed to have enough, or nearly enough, money to get by. I played shows, received the occasional mailbox money, lived for awhile off a publishing deal. But at last when I returned from a year-long Lemonheads tour in the fall of 1997, my financial life collaposed with dizzying speed.

I’d followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) Heather to Birmingham, and although I’d technically lived there for half a year during tour I’d only spent a half-dozen nights in town. When the endless tour finally came to an end I spent the last months of 1997 writing an album and watching my savings dwindle down to nil. The sum total of my supposedly marketable skills (as a guitarist, songwriter, fledgling audio producer/engineer) rendered me practically unemployable in Birmingham, a town at the time pretty much bereft of music industry. By December I’d gratefully accepted a friend’s offer to work the holiday rush at the local Barnes & Noble, and by the first of the year I was working full time just to get by, grateful to have health insurance.

I’d been thinking about going back to college for years, but recently I’d begun to think my window of opportunity had passed. I was 31, and I’d invested everything into trying to make a living as a musician. Finally it wasn’t working out. I absolutely had to do something different. Going back to college was, at minimum, a way to take a little time out to figure out what to do next. I applied to the best local option, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I got in.

My previous pass at college was more than a decade earlier, a half-assed two years I spent at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where my focus was on my band, not my studies. Surprisingly my credits all transferred, so it made sense (or so I thought) to finish up a music major. Heather encouraged me to audition for a scholarship, which meant showing up and getting in the que with a bunch of high school kids carrying band and orchestra instruments. I carried my acoustic guitar out to a brightly lit recital room stage, where I played and sang on original song to the entire music faculty. To my astoninshment, I received a full scholarship.

After receiving the good news of my scholarship (endowed by UAB benefactor Stevie Wonder), I met with the prim department dean, who also served as the choir director. He informed me that for every quarter I received scholarship assistance, I would have to be a member of either the concert choir, the symphonic concert band, or the marching band. Since I’d never really learned to read music properly and didn’t play an orchestral instrument, the symphonic band was not an option. It was choir or marching band. When I told Heather about my options she laughed for a long time before informing me that she would not be a party to my plan to fly under the radar. It was just too good an opportunity for comic relief to invite friends to come see me in either a choir robe or a marching band outfit. Panic began to set in.

I had a few weeks before the session began, so I carefully studied my options. The music major carried many requirements that would not be fulfilled by my transferring Berklee credits, so despite the two years of transferred credits my degree would take at least three years to complete. Alternatively, I could get a history major with a music minor in two years. In the end it was an easy choice – I would very happily pay the full (though modest in-state) tuition for an extra year of life…and to avoid the certain humiliation of the ensemble requirement.

Nevertheless, to make my Berklee credits count and to receive the music minor, I still had to endure a number of pain in the ass requirements from the ultra-high-maintenance music school. The first requirement was a remedial piano class, which I took as a sort of “getting my feet wet in college” sort of softball class. I’d never really been to college (as music school is a different beast altogether), and having grown up in an academic family I’d always assumed that college – any college – would be challenging and labor-intensive. In addition to the piano class that first quarter I think I also took a first-year Spanish class, having taken three years of high school Spanish and visitng Spain a half-dozen times. I wasn’t taking any chances.

The piano teacher was right out of central casting. A stern, emaciated task-master woman of late middle age with a massive steel-grey hairdo that seemed fixed like the hair of a statue, she seemed constantly poised to snap a ruler down on the knuckles of any student that dared play a sour note or lose time with the antique metronome. Twelve of us met at 8:00 in the morning in a room in the music school packed to capacity with bargain-basement japanese digital pianos. The task-master paced the room barking comments. “Play in time!” “Keep going!” “Hand position!” As we struggled through six-finger arrangements of ancient easy-listening hits such as Mahogany or the theme to the Posiden Adventure.

I actually worked my ass off in that class, partly because I really wanted to re-claim my very rusty sight-reading skills, but also because I didn’t want to be humiliated by the task-master. There was this one guy in class who was utterly hopeless, and I think we were all grateful to him for being so balatantly terrible as to absorb all of the task-master’s negative attention. This guy, an African-American guy with a wispy mustache and a strong lisp who showed up every morning fresh from his shift – and still in uniform – from the Huddle House, must have been about my age. He smelled strongly of bacon fat. He must have been working multiple jobs, because it was obvious he’d never cracked his piano book.

The class would gather by the door at 8, since the task-master was routinely five or ten minutes late arriving. You could hear the Huddle House guy coming down the closed stairwell because he sang gospel songs tunelessly at the top of his lungs. Every morning he’d approach the group and say “Well, well, well, it’s the Piano Geniuses! I don’t know how you all got so good at piano. Piano Geniuses! All of y’all!” We’d all stare at the floor as he scanned our faces, hoping to start a conversation. “Yes, sir…Piano Geniuses…yes indeed,” he’d mutter to himself.

I managed to finish piano class, first-year Spanish, and all of the other requirements to finish my degree. I’ve gotten into the habit of telling people that I went to college with law school in mind, and it’s true that I started thinking in terms of law school once I really found my rhythm. But if I’m being honest I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting myself into or where I was going. Barely half a year passed between touring with a famous band playing sold out concerts and having anxiety fits over learning beginner arrangements of old Bacharach and David songs under the demanding eye of the task-master. I’m not sure how I got through it. Glad I did.

That’s How You Party

 

I knew this guy who drove rock n’ roll tour busses for a living. He’d been driving for decades, and man did he ever have some stories. He’d toured with all sorts of huge bands throughout the years and he’d seen just about everything that went on in those busses. In fact, he participated in much of the debauchery. He was what you’d call a road dog, a lifer.

He claimed to be completely sober by the point I met him, but that seemed pretty unlikely. He took a very keen interest in who among the touring group was partying, or rather who was “holding out” on him. He mistakenly pegged one chronic insomniac in our crew, whom he referred to as “old owl eyes,” as a coke-head. He’d inspect the tables for residue the next morning, muttering “that old fuckin’ owl eyes, I know he’s holding out on me.” I never saw the Bus Driver actually indulge in any drink or drug, but that’s pretty much all he ever talked about (other than complaints about what a bunch of ungrateful slobs lived on his bus).

One night, as we waited for the last stragglers to board the bus for an all-night haul, we found the Bus Driver in a particularly good mood. Some of us had had a few drinks already and, as usual, planned to carry on our revelry in the back lounge after departure. “You guys think you know how to party,” said the driver. “You don’t know shit about partying.” “Oh, really,” I said, “and how do you party, Mr. Bus Driver?” “Well, son,” he said, “let me tell you how I party.”

“When I party,” he said, “I just need four things: a hotel room, an ice-cold fifth of Stoli, a giant bag of coke, and a chick. The chick doesn’t have to be all that hot, but she has to be into it. I take the chick back to the hotel after the gig, and then every twenty minutes I drink three fingers of Stoli and snort a gram of coke in each nostril. BAM! I keep that going until the bottle is gone. What I’m trying to do is to make my fucking heart explode. I’m sayin’ ‘come on, heart, you fuckin’ worn out piece of shit, show me what you got – what’s it gonna take to make you fuckin’ explode right inside my chest?!? I swear I’ve gotten close – the fucking thing is just fuckin’ pounding, like, a thousand beats per. That is when it gets so fuckin’ awesome!”

“Then, once the bottle’s gone, I snort the rest of the coke and I fuck the shit out of the girl.  I don’t care who she is, groupie, whatever. I fuck her for, like, two hours straight. If she’s hot, I fuck her with the lights on, face-to-face. If she’s ugly I just fuckin’ turn her around and fuckin’ dog her. Then, after I fuck her, you know what I do? I have a cuddle.” “Huh?” “A cuddle…I cuddle the girl and go to sleep cuddling, holding her tight. That’s the best part. And that’s how you fuckin’ party.”

A Huge Stack of Playboys

There is was, right in front me…my heart’s desire. And it might as well have been a mirage before a thirsty desert wanderer. Damn.

One day in the spring of 1978 my mom and I drove out to the recycling center north of town. In those days if you wanted to recycle newspapers and magazines, you drove them out to the place yourself. There was this massive bin to receive recycling, big enough to seem more like a small barn and loaded with paper, bottles, and bags of junk. Earlier that morning, my mom had bundled two large stacks of newspapers and loaded them into the trunk of the Datsun. She hoisted one of the bundles and started toward the bin, gesturing for me to grab the other bundle.

The bundle was heavy, and by the time I made it half way to the bin I passed my mom, already on her way back to the car. I, of course, made a huge production of my discomfort, hoping to guilt her into paying me a few bucks or at least buying me a blizzard at Dairy Queen. She showed no sign of noticing my display. Upon arriving at the bin, I opened the door a crack and started to toss the bundle. Something red and glossy just inside the door immediately caught my eye…an issue of Playboy.

I slipped quickly inside the door to investigate. It wasn’t just one Playboy. I’d seen the one issue on top of a bag, but for all I knew the bag was full of Good Housekeeping or Time or some such boring crap. But to my amazement the large shopping bag actually contained four years worth of monthly issues in chronological order…nearly fifty issues of Playboy. I picked up the issue on top and quickly leafed through…centerfold intact, perfect condition.

My mind raced…how could I possibly get these home?!? How could I even get one of them home? In my running shorts and T-shirt I couldn’t tuck any issues into my clothes, and I sure as shit couldn’t carry the bag back to the car. I was eleven: I couldn’t drive (though I’m sure I entertained the possibility of learning), and it was too far to bike. I just turned and walked back to the car, shaking my head and hoping for sudden inspiration.

I’m no porn historian, but it seems to me Playboy Magazine held a much more significant place in American culture in 1978 than it does now. As a boy I found the “harder” mags such as Hustler pretty disturbing. But Playboy – my friends and I would tear into an issue as if it contained all the answers to the Universe. If anyone had the incredible fortune to come across an issue (usually nicked from the Nite Owl convenience store on Third Street), we’d all get together and study it like a tome. Even the cartoons held the answers to our most hotly-debated topics.

One of my friends went into business around seventh grade (it wasn’t his last capitalistic venture before eventually landing in the pen). His superior shoplifting skills enabled him to accumulate a substantial stash of mags – by then we weren’t so prone to brand loyalty. He’d let us come over and look through his collection, and the he would let us “rent” a magazine for a buck a day. As a courtesy, he permitted the renters to tear one page out of the magazine for keepsies. By the end of seventh grade I had a decent stash of torn-out, well-worn pages bound with a giant paperclip. My mom had a habit of casually leaving my collection of pages out on my desk whenever she discovered a new hiding place. I guess I wasn’t the first to think of stashing something between the mattress and the box springs…

My magazine collecting days ended suddenly and painfully around ninth grade. My father had an elderly housecleaner named Florence, a frail, emaciated chain-smoker who used an entire can of Comet during each bi-weekly visit. Florence picked up where my mom left off in policing my habit, leaving magazines found stashed under the bed out in full view. One day I invited a couple of girls from the school bus over to my house to watch the Brady Bunch. The girls walked straight into my bedroom and discovered my stash of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, spread out in full view on my drafting table. Thanks, Florence.

This all seems sort of innocent now, but I can’t help but feel a little cheated that magazines played such a large part in shaping my notions about sexuality. By the time I had an actual girlfriend, I’d already viewed literally thousands of posed, styled and airbrushed images. I’d developed personal tastes and preferences that really had no connection to objective reality. Perhaps it’s true that men respond to visual stimulus in ways that women do not, and perhaps the porn industry simply responds to the demand created by these tendencies. But regardless, the porn industry and, increasingly, the mainstream media encourage this trait in men to the extent that it’s totally unavoidable. No wonder so many women have body image issues.

My fear is that kids are profoundly affected by viewing erotic images. I know the images I viewed shaped my own perceptions and attitudes. It’s one thing when the images are idealized versions of female anatomy; but my feeling is that it’s a fundamentally different issue when it’s so easy for kids to access violent, repugnant, patently misogynistic images on countless websites. It seems so much easier now to access images in general, and it seems that there’s no limit to the level of degradation depicted in those images. I know for a fact that if I were eleven today, I’d be all over the Internet by any means necessary. As a parent I shudder.

A Conversation at the DMV

I went in to get my driver’s license renewed. The woman behind the counter, a pleasant-looking woman in her mid-to-late 40s with long greying hair, engaged me in conversation. Here’s a sample.

DMV: So where’d you get that wedding ring from?

ME: Uh, I don’t know, it’s been nearly ten years; uh, I guess from a jewler friend in Indiana?

DMV: Yeah? Nice. You like being married?

ME: Sure, most of the time…

DMV: I had a guy in earlier today, married 13, maybe 16 years. One day he woke up, but his wife didn’t…nothing wrong with her either.

ME: Must’ve been something wrong with her…

DMV: Nope. Nothing. Perfect health.

ME: Dang.

Punkers

I love this article on so many levels.  There are so many jewels among the quotes. “These actions are taken by a group of students who said they preferred to be called “country hicks.” I guess that’s what happens when one “lives in one’s own vain little world…”

I’ve written quite a bit about the early 80s punk scene in Indiana in other memoir pieces, and I’ll re-post some of those works here in the future.  There are official reunions now for the alums of that scene, which is amazing.  I keep in touch with a good number of my friends from that scene; the stories come flooding back. 

My best guess is that this article is from early 1985, the year I graduated from high school, though it might be from the fall of ’84. I’d spent the first three years of high school in constant fear of these so-called hicks – a violent group of reactionary kids from the country. My home town was an odd mix – it’s a university town, so you had plenty of freaky faculty kids looking for ways to be different. But then it’s in Southern Indiana, so you also had plenty of real country folks. Punk was still pretty new; the American hardcore scene was just taking shape during my freshman and sophomore years, 1981 through 1983. And it’s really all I cared about at the time. I took my share of beatings, but there was no way I would let intimidation from some redneck thugs prevent me from wearing my Black Flag bars or combat boots.

Two things in the article are particularly absurd and hilarious in retrospect. The first is the quote from the hick who says that punks are trying to be someone they’re not, but if it was really them they’d accept it. I mean, of course that’s who we really were. When I first “became” a punk during ninth grade, only two kids in my class dressed that way. By the next year there were four or five of us, and by the next year maybe a dozen. The other high school in town had a slightly larger number. Dressing punk every day made most people at school totally hate us – we became a self-contained sub-culture and effectively opted out of participating in mainstream high school culture in any way. If it was all an act, would we really have chosen to be completely friendless outside our culture? Not only was it genuinely who we were, it was everything we were for those few years. 

Nevertheless, there is absolutely no way the hicks would have backed off under any circumstances.  They felt extremely threatened by our presence, and they had no interest in gaining understanding through discourse or any other means.  Violence was inevitable.  But while the hicks erupted in violence, the majority of the students just looked on with baffled contempt.  The reference to “jocks” in the headling is an editorial gaff because there’s no reference to jocks in the story; however, it’s true that the vast majority of jocks or mainstream kids absolutely shared the hicks’ reactionary stance.

The other absurd thing is the notion that the “pacivist” (sic) punks could beat up the hicks. By ’84 there were maybe one or two guys in our punk scene who would actually fight, but most of us (including me) felt utterly unprepared to physically defend ourselves. Those country kids could obviously fight – they fought each other all the time.  Most of us punks had been raised by professors, to whom teaching a kid to fight would never occur. I was just as terrified by one of those guys as ten. Many of the acts of violence against me by the hicks – and there were many – occurred one-on-one. They’d slam me into the lockers or shove me to the pavement and there was no way I was going to fight back. Partly out of some naïve notion of pacifism, but mostly out of fear. I’d take my licks, but I certainly didn’t want the beating to escalate or to lead to more – and more severe – beatings.

There’s a vague mention of sexuality in the article, which specifically means that the primary (virtually exclusive) insult hurled at the male punks referred to their presumed homosexuality.  “Faggot,” “punker fag,” “queer,” “homo;” one of the more clever hillbillies came up to me one day and pointed at my ubiquitous Black Flag shirt and said, “oh, yeah, Black Fag, you like them?”  He punctuated his remark by shoving me head-first into my locker.

By the time this article came out, my close friends and I had pretty much moved on. By 1985 the first wave of American hardcore was on the wane, and my musical tastes were evolving. I don’t think I even knew about this article at the time, because by then the punk scene consisted mostly of younger kids. I was just trying to graduate, get out of town. I played in punk bands, but I couldn’t be bothered to dress up every day as I had in years past. The hicks pretty much left me alone at that point. They had someone else to antagonize, someone who created an easier target by getting a mohawk, earings, or other such indicators.

What’s interesting to me now is that I was so willing to behave and dress in a way that made so many people despise me. At this point in my life I think I’d find that emotionally harrowing and profoundly stressful. But despite all the animosity directed towards my friends and me, I didn’t really care. I had a great high school experience and amazing, brilliant, hilarious friends. It wasn’t just a category, it was a tribe.  We shared a recognition that high school culture was bullshit and we created something better, cooler.  The vast majority that didn’t get it probably still don’t get it.  Screw ’em.