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.