My Childhood Answers to This Question
Like most kids, I had a pretty rich fantasy life. Some of the things I imagined being “when I grew up” were: a superhero, a baseball player (for the Philadelphia Phillies), and a singer. In fifth grade (my elementary school was K-5, so this was our “graduation” year), we were asked to give an answer to this question that would appear in print under our name and picture in the class yearbook, for posterity! I remember being torn between two equally compelling choices: “Actor” and “Writer”. My teacher told me I had to pick just one (not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but difficult nonetheless…). So, when push came to shove, I chose “Actor”.
(As a side note, when the yearbook was issued, I found that one of my classmates – who had a different teacher – had listed “Actress/Author” under her name!!! D’oh!!!).
Click, and My Answer (with a Capital “A”) Appears!
I had always loved music, but it was when I was in seventh grade (age 12) and became obsessed with The Beatles that music started to become a true passion. The kind that almost has a life of its own. The kind that draws you in with such power/force/magnetism that you probably couldn’t resist it even if you wanted to (and I certainly didn’t want to). The kind that just sweeps you away.
The following year (age 13) I began taking guitar lessons, which soon meant taking two SEPTA buses (the 58, and the 59 trolley) each way and paying for the lessons myself, which I did gladly and willingly. Practice in between lessons was a compulsion for me, not a chore.
I visited my local record store (Sound Odyssey, in the Leo Mall) so frequently that I ended up getting hired there at the age of 14 (perhaps the only time in my life that I was the envy of my peers for the job that I had!). Just about all of my earnings were spent on records, tapes, CDs, a stereo rack system (remember those?) with speakers way oversized for my bedroom, concert videos, concert tickets, music-related books (song books, musician biographies, etc.), guitars and accessories (in addition to lessons), and so on. My bedroom walls were covered with album cover prints and posters of some of my favorite artists (most of these freebies from the record store).
I listened to a ton of music (needless to say), with my tastes ever broadening, but my top heroes – the ones whom I pretty much idolized and took as models for What I Wanted to Be (like) When I Grew Up – were: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Harry Chapin. All, interestingly enough, guys born around the same time as my parents.
At age 16 I started writing my own songs in earnest, with titles like “Spare Change”, “So Long Gone”, and “Paper in Plastic”. It became clear to me at this point that WIWTBWIGU was a “Singer/Songwriter”. I didn’t want to be a member of a band, per se. I wanted to write and perform my own songs, and I was happy to do this by myself with an acoustic guitar. I got positive responses whenever I played for my peers, and found this very encouraging.
As time went on, I realized ever more deeply that singing-and-songwriting was truly the ideal occupation for me, not just because it epitomized some adolescent fantasy of mine, but because it leveraged the things I most loved doing and that I believed were perhaps my greatest strengths: writing and performing. It satisfied both of these distinct, yet equally significant, aspects of my personality simultaneously: the reflective, introspective, somewhat solitary, independent-minded thinker and the outgoing, expressive, high-energy, attention-loving, very-much-at-home-onstage entertainer. And the tools of my trade would be words and music, two of my absolute favorite things in the world.
For all of my (plentiful) teenage angst and insecurities, I had the benefit of this clarity about WIWTBWIGU, and I clung to it fiercely and took much solace in it.
The Steadfast Pursuit
So here I was, armed not only with a Purpose/Direction/Passion/Goal/Calling…but also with a sense of certainty that this was absolutely what I wanted – in fact, the only thing I wanted – to do with my life. Not everyone my age had this kind of conviction about WTWTBWTGU…not by a long shot. I was fortunate.
However, what was the path? How, exactly, would I get to do this for a living? I had no illusions about it being easy. I knew it wasn’t exactly a conventional career with a blueprint laid out for reaching it, where all I had to do was follow steps A, B, C, and D. Part of the challenge, and adventure, of the pursuit was figuring out how to make it happen!
I’m not sure what – or how much – to say here to give you a sense of how I went about chasing this dream of mine, or just how invested I was in it.
I could tell you that I was so hungry to perform that, in addition to playing organized gigs whenever I could get them, I spent much of my time in college assembling small audiences for impromptu concerts in dorm rooms, study lounges, laundry rooms (great acoustics!), quads, and just about any space on campus – indoors or outdoors – that would suffice.
I could tell you about countless hours spent alone in practice rooms, working on songs and putting together demos on a four-track cassette recorder, and that I had a self-designed major (the closest approximation I could find at Penn State to majoring in Songwriting), and managed to attain all of the 400-level credits required for my bachelor’s degree via “Independent Study” simply by turning in demo tapes to my advisor at the end of each semester.
I could tell you that I spent the summer in between my junior and senior years of college (the summer of 1993) in Nashville, chosen because of its reputation as a mecca for songwriters of all stripes (not just country) and its copious performing opportunities at writer’s nights and open mikes.
And undoubtedly I would tell you about some of the many adventures I had in my three years spent in Nashville post-college – one of the most amazing, intense, and growth-filled periods of my life, musically and otherwise. I’d be sure to mention:
• The immersion in a musical environment and exposure to all kinds of musicians and songwriters, of varying genres, levels of skill, and renown – but all people chasing their dreams, nonetheless.
• Some of the exhilarating highs and demoralizing lows inherent in performing at well over 100 writer’s nights and/or open mikes all over town.
• The numerous day jobs worked to support myself (waiter, telemarketer, substitute teacher, temp, administrative assistant, private guitar instructor), and the inevitable opportunities to connect with still more musicians as a result of most of them.
• The endless attempts to gain recognition from those on the “business” side of the music business, and the staggering amounts of rejection endured as a result (that I did my best to wear as badges of dues-paying honor).
• The small group of fellow musicians/comrades with whom I forged brotherly bonds…we gave each other much-needed and much-valued moral support, laughter, inspiration, love, and appreciation in the face of the often brutal business we all were attempting to break into.
• The decision – after recording a studio demo and having it rejected or ignored by 70 record companies, large and small – to go ahead and record a full-blown CD on my own. Overseeing every aspect of this process entailed a massive learning curve and enlisting lots of help (most especially from Steve Goodie), but it was an immensely satisfying labor of love, and it gave me total creative authority over the project (something I never would have had under contract with a “proper” record company).*
• Hearing my music played, and even being interviewed live, on my favorite local radio station (Lightning 100), and getting just enough encouragement from other unbiased outside sources to validate that I had some business doing what I was doing, that I wasn’t completely delusional.
*For those curious, the CD, entitled Sanity Check and Other Love Songs, can still be heard/acquired via digital music services such as iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify, and CD Baby (and physical copies possibly found on websites like Amazon or eBay).
To be continued…!