January 11, 2016
[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.
April 28, 2013
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.
January 5, 2012
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.
June 18, 2011
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!
March 27, 2011
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.
April 20, 2010
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.
February 8, 2010
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.
January 9, 2010
I grew up in a house without any acknowledgement of religion. I didn’t even see the inside of a church until age ten when I went to the wedding of a girl who used to babysit my brother and me. The wedding took place in the First Methodist Church in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the stained glass windows looked with the light coming from outside. My father studied and taught the Old Testament, but he sure didn’t believe in it. My mother started going to church after my parents divorced, but she didn’t ever mention religion when they were married.
Although nobody ever told me that God watched and judged my actions, I still always felt that someone or something was watching. My parents framed the gatefold from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the one with the four mustached men standing shoulder to shoulder in their satin uniforms – which hung it at the foot of my crib beginning months after my birth. I grew up with that picture staring down at me, and it took me until age seven or so before I had any clue as to their identy. I felt that they were there to watch me; and judging from the looks on their faces, they remained passively amused by my every move. Their eyes seemed to follow me around the room.
In addition to the Beatles, I felt very strongly from a very young age that I had an audience somewhere, somehow. It wasn’t a sense of God per se – it felt more like a live television audience. I saw my life was an endless, mostly mind-numbingly boring sort of cinéma vérité. I often imagined a narrator’s voice inside my head describing the action. “Now the hero will commence to spoon sugar onto his Wheaties…not too much, but just enough to sweeten the milk…he is incredibly skilled at spooning sugar; observe that he rarely spills a single granule.” Everything I did inspired reverence and awe from the off-camera announcer.
My brother had a best friend in the neighborhood, a kid named Pete. He lived around the corner, but our backyards faced one another. Pete had an older brother named Tony, a serious kid with glasses. Pete’s parents enjoyed conventional things such as golf, recreational boating, and home decorating. My mother admired Pete’s parents, though I suspect my father considered them dull and conventional. Once they built a weird, sprawling concrete and glass addition onto their ranch house that consumed most of the back yard. For months during the construction they had this giant dirt pile that became our favorite place to play. I found several real Indian arrowheads that had been buried deep beneath the yard.
One time during the early fall when I was about seven, we went over to Pete’s parents’ house for dinner. Before dinner, the adults chatted over drinks in the living room as my brother and Pete talked animatedly in the basement about the Chicago Cubs. I wandered alone through the house, exploring. I wandered through various rooms, picking things up and putting them back to appear undisturbed. In Tony’s room, on his desk, I saw a neat stack of one dollar bills. Without thinking about it, I picked up the stack of bills and stuffed them in my pocket.
I nervously felt the bills in my pocket as I sat and ate dinner, wondering what I would buy. I thought I might buy a new G.I. Joe, or perhaps a real army helmet from the army surplus store. I felt slightly nervous, but I didn’t feel the least bit guilty.
Then on the way home it occurred to me that I would have to explain to my parents how I suddenly had all this money – six dollars as it turned out. I had an idea that I’d pretend to have somehow found the money in our basement. As soon as we arrived at the house, I went straight to a large walk-in closet in the basement that connected to the large bedroom that my brother and I shared. I waited a few seconds and then shouted, “Hey, mom, come look what I found.”
My mother, brother and father all came down the stairs and directly into the closet as I held up the stack of ones. “I was looking for something on the shelves over here, and I found this money. Can I keep it?” With hardly a second’s delay, my brother chimed in. “Hey, that’s my hiding place for money, and I hid that money there.” Of course I knew he was lying, both because I’d stolen the money, and because my brother would never have misplaced money. Back then he was the biggest tightwad in the world. I knew exactly where he his his money, and I knew he kept count down to the penny.
Our father looked us over with a furrowed brow, thinking it over. After a moment, he spoke. “Well, it seems there’s only one solution,” he said. “Since Jacob hid the money and John found it, they should each take three dollars.” My brother quickly agreed, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I revised my thinking, calculating what I could buy at Air Way with only three dollars. Not much.
Then, almost immediately, the phone rang. My parents disappeared upstairs for several minutes and then returned with grave looks on their faces. “That was Tony’s parents,” my mother said. “It seems Tony’s lunch money for the week has gone missing, six dollars to be exact.” My stomach dropped. “John, do you have something to tell us?”
For my fittingly brutal punishment I had to walk back to Tony’s house by myself, knock on the door, and return the six dollars to Tony. When I rang the bell, crying buckets, all four members of the family came to the door. Tony’s father stepped solemnly out of the screen door and looked at me straight in the face, his bushy eyebrows raised expectantly. I handed him the money and stammered a few words of apology. I scanned their faces, and they all held the same solemn look. For weeks afterward I remembered the way they’d looked as I imagined what they must have been thinking. “Well,” they must have thought, “there’s a kid who’s already started going wrong…prison can’t be but a few rough years away.”
I didn’t do much stealing after that, save for a can of Binaca breath spray I shoplifted from the Osco Drug in fifth grade. I’d seen the ads and it just looked really awesome, and I couldn’t afford the five bucks. I ended up spraying it in my mouth once or twice. Other than that isolated incident, however, I didn’t ever want to experience the humiliation that I felt over having to return that money.
Clearly the episode tought me an important lesson, which I thankfully took to heart. It’s a little troubling to me, however, that I didn’t feel bad about stealing the money at the time. Sure, I was very young; but I don’t remember a lot of wrestling with the moral issue when deciding whether or not to steal the money and deciding how to conceal the crime.
So what if I’d gotten away with stealing Tony’s six bucks? Would I now be a hardened criminal? Would the guilt eventually have eaten away at me to the point where I’d have ratted myself out? Would I have gotten the G.I. Joe and carried on with my life just the same? I have no idea. What I do know is that somewhere along the line I developed a sense of morality on my own, and I suspect that stuff like my failed foray into petty theft helped in a way religion might have helped someone else arrive at the same place. With or without God as my co-pilot, I’ve picked up a thing or two here and there to the point where I feel okay about taking a crack at trying to instill a sense of right and wrong in my own kids. I don’t want to give my parents credit to the extent that I would suggest they actually knew what they were doing back then, but perhaps they did a thing or two right after all. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but my memory of that walk and the images of the faces at the door as I returned the money stand in stark relief. I still shudder a little.