Saturday, February 18, 2012

Failed musician?

The other day, someone called my music career a failure and I literally laughed so hard that a gummy bear I ate in 1987 flew out of my nose.

Sure, I never got to see my name on the Billboard Hot 100. Nor did I ever get to live in a palatial mansion just above Sunset Boulevard and throw parties full of people I don't even know.

But, when I think about it, I realize that I never dreamed about any of that stuff anyway.

See, I was the kid who went from being one of the popular kids in my small town in Indiana, to being a complete nobody when my family moved to a different small town in Michigan. We moved back because my grandfather was suffering from leukemia and my father had agreed to help run his business. We went in thinking the situation would be temporary, but when my grandfather succumbed to the illness, my dad transitioned from "just helping out" to "guess I'm here for good".

I don't know whether this came as a disappointment to him or not. He was a stoic man and we didn't have anything close to the sort of relationship where such feelings were shared. As much as I love and admire the man, he remains a stranger to me, for the most part.

Being the new kid in town, I quickly realized that I was stuck in a town full of meatheads. Rather than try to build friendships with kids I had absolutely nothing in common with, I lost myself in the music of The Beatles, whom I had just recently discovered.

As the years passed and the other kids' tastes shifted to Top 40 radio and old Led Zep and Pink Floyd records, I went in the opposite direction for no other reason, initially, than to keep my tastes completely separate from theirs. On my 13th birthday, my parents finally realized that it was just easier to give me money than to figure out what it was I might actually want. They then took me to Kmart.

That might sound like a shitty thing to do to a kid these days, but, back then, Kmart was a fucking wonderland to a small-town kid with limited retail options. I made a beeline for the music department and browsed the bins looking for something different. I was driven to walk out of the store with as many albums, by as many strange bands as my $20 would get me. A couple hours later, as the family piled back into our station wagon, I was the proud owner of the first two Police albums and "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" by Adam & The Ants.

A week later, I spiked and dyed my hair to match Sting's and got called a "fag" at school for the first time. It was fucking awesome.

Despite the fact that I didn't know how to play an instrument, or know anybody else who did either, I began formulating a plan in my head to become a rock musician. I spent countless hours turning album covers inside out and designing my own, coming up with outlandish logos for potential band names like X-Rayz and The Rebels, to name just a couple.

Meanwhile, my grades took a serious nosedive and, at one point, I had to repeat ninth grade math. At first, I was embarrassed to be the only tenth grader in the class, but then I began chatting with the nerdy dude named Jim Allen who sat in front of me who brought a Steve Walsh solo album to class one day. He'd brought it to play in music class, but it wouldn't fit in his locker so he had to carry it to every class. I loathed Kansas, but knew that a kid who would go to the trouble of actually buying a solo album by one of the members of such a band might be someone worth getting to know. He immediately took one look at the cover of my math book, upon which I had scrawled "DEVO" in huge letters and the battle was on. We spent the next week arguing about music in hushed whispers, repeatedly 'shhhh'ed' by the teacher and those students in our vicinity who actually wanted to learn something about math.

It was during one of these arguments that he mentioned that he played guitar. You could literally hear the needle skip in my brain. Wait, dude, back up. Did you say that you play guitar? Remember, I still didn't actually play an instrument, but by the end of class, I had actually managed to arrange the first rehearsal for my first band. In hindsight, this "plan it first, worry about how to pull it off later" method would be employed in order to reach every new plateau in my quest to be a rocker.

My younger brother had begun guitar lessons himself a year earlier, so he was immediately enlisted to join the band. It turns out Jim's brother played bass. Upon realizing that there was an almost complete drum set stashed in our basement, I christened myself a drummer and began hammering away at the poor things like they owed me money. The noise must have been unbearable to all who lived in the house, much less our closest neighbors. Our basement seemed perfectly engineered to amplify drums so, when dad came home after a long day of work, all drumming came to a screeching halt.

Sometimes, though, my drive to become the next Gene Krupa overtook common sense and I would begin rocking out for as long as I could before my dad would open the door to my bedroom and shoot me the universal "dude, seriously?" sign and I would call it a night.

At our first rehearsal, we wrote two original songs, "Heart Like A Chainsaw" and "Bellyflop Into Love". We also worked up a great instrumental version of Van Halen's "Dance The Night Away" that my mom absolutely loved. It remained an instrumental because we hadn't come to any consensus on who was actually going to be the singer in this band. I had sung the two originals only because I had written the lyrics.

Jim and I were totally gung-ho about the band, which we named The Allen-Robbins Approach. We went so far as to get some hats printed up with our band’s name on it. Back then, showing up at school with a hat that has your own band name on it was the cat's meow. Sadly, though, neither of our brothers seemed to share our enthusiasm and both drifted off to other things, taking our dreams of rock & roll world domination with them.

A year or so later, I would befriend another lonely soul in biology class, discover that he played bass, and give Jim Allen a call. In doing so, I would create the band that would get me to the very fucking edge of the big-time. Of course, my definition of "big-time" wasn't shaped by the likes of KISS, Led Zep and Pink Floyd, but by bands like Chameleons UK, House Of Love, Platinum Blonde and 20/20. The most mainstream band I liked was Cheap Trick, but by the time I started really liking them, their Budokan fame was long gone and other kids had come to regard them as old news.

I guess, in a sense, I was a lover of lost causes. I loved the new Lords Of The New Church record, tried valiantly to get the band to cover "Russian Roulette", but couldn't close the deal. We did manage to cover three Platinum Blonde songs (who?!), so it wasn't a complete wash.

We called ourselves Montserrat (named after the location in the West Indies where George Martin's Air Studios was located) and proceeded to book ourselves into local Top 40 clubs and treat unsuspecting redneck crowds to an evening of obscure new wave covers and a healthy dose of our own original material. Looking back on it now, and having seen other bands try the same thing and fail miserably, I am amazed that we didn't get our asses kicked. But, see, we not only didn't get our asses kicked, we got people to freakin' dance. To songs they'd never heard before.

You may not think that's a big deal, but when you see a 50-year-old farmer and his wife cutting a rug to a band playing an Alarm B-side called "Reason 36", that's something you will not soon forget. Those who saw us blow away crowd after crowd continually told us that we needed to leave this town as far behind as we could and head to Chicago.

So, in 1986, I enrolled at DePaul University for the sole purpose of eventually bringing the rest of the band to Chicago. Our first Chicago gig would take place a few weeks later at a show sponsored by the university's radio station. Nobody knew us from jack, but by the end of the night, you could not fit another soul into the room. Our two-song encore turned into a maniacal ten-song set that ended with the police shutting down the establishment. In Monday's edition of the Chicago Tribune, there was a small article detailing the fact that WDPU's annual fund-raising event had been shut down by police during a performance by the band "Monster Rat".

From there, we befriended other bands like Jim Ellison & Material Issue, the Elvis Brothers, and began gigging as often as we could. I would skip classes in order to be well-rested for a full day of pestering local booking agents for gigs. I knew we were making headway when I called one club, told them who I was, and the booking agent not only gave me a show, but offered a guarantee of $250 because he'd already heard of us.

Then one day my phone rang and Jim told me that he was getting married and that his wife didn't want him playing in a rock band. Just like that, it was over.

By then, we'd accumulated at least six album-quality demos, recorded with the help of Graham Elvis from the Elvis Brothers. As singer on those tracks, I decided then and there that those tracks were now the foundation for my first solo album. A friend of mine formed a record label and gave me the money to finish the album. I called Graham, enlisted the Elvis Brothers as my backing band, and went down to Champaign-Urbana to finish my record.

With the CD format still a relatively new development, our decision to release the album on CD only was a pretty nervy decision, but it brought us a lot of attention, as most indie band's did not have the wherewithal to put out a CD. Sure, we'd have probably (okay, definitely) sold more if we'd put it out on vinyl and cassette, but my friend who ran the label was adamant on being a CD-only label. To further differentiate us from the rest of the pack, we advertised on TV, a la Slim Whitman, making a commercial that was supposed to be dead serious, but turned into a total zany spot once the camera started rolling. When the commercial would air, the operators would get just as many calls asking if the commercial was for real as calls to buy the CD.

Then one of my heroes, Ira Robbins (no relation) of Trouser Press fame, reviewed my album in Musician magazine. Having grown up reading and re-reading every page of every Trouser Press magazine I could get my hands on, having Ira Robbins review my record was an immense thrill. I could have retired from music right then and there and been completely happy.

One of the results of getting reviewed in a major rock magazine was that the phone in our humble record label office, which doubled as my friend's apartment, was now ringing off the hook. Clubs from L.A. and New York wanted to book the band, other publications wanted a promo copy of the record, and, best of all, major record labels were now interested in signing me.

This, of course, was all part of my friend's master plan. He had agreed to finance my record for the sole purpose of selling the rights to a major label. So when they started calling the office, he began playing one against the other, driving the bids higher and higher.

Meanwhile, I was off playing rock star as my new-found notoriety gained me entry into VIP rooms around the city and put me in direct contact with "the beautiful people", for lack of a better term. Women who seemingly crawled from out of the pages of fashion magazines were now interested in me. I distinctly recall hanging out in this exclusive club that I had previously not known existed when Rachel Hunter walked past me. I complimented her on her hat and, amazingly, she came to a dead stop, said "thank you", and engaged me in an extended conversation about god-knows-what. The entire time she was talking to me, all I could hear was my inner voice saying, "Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!!!"

My buddy Graham was off trying to schmooze his way past a bodyguard in order to talk to Rod Stewart, who had an entire wing of the club to himself. Rachel grabbed my hand and told me to come with her. She and I breezed past the bodyguard and immediately sat down at Rod's table. In the center of the table was a dish of coke, right there out in the open like a plate of freakin' mozzarella sticks, which may or may not have been invented yet, I don't know.

Rachel proceeded to ply me with alcohol whilst running her hand up my leg while Rod continued to sit like a statue, saying nothing to nobody. The guy came across like a total wet blanket on this particular evening, seemingly bored to tears by all that the city, and this particular club, had to offer. Rachel, of course, thought it would be a smashing idea if Rod's producer would produce my record and told me that she would put him in touch with me. I was new to such high-class surroundings, but even I knew that such promises were quickly forgotten, but, sure enough, a few days later, Rod's producer called me and then went on to call a few labels on my behalf, as we were still in the negotiating stages.

The next several months were a blur of negotiations, signings, meetings with prospective managers, booking agents, recording sessions at famous recording studios, and being whisked past the unwashed masses as if I really were a “somebody”. A deal was inked and I deposited a six-figure check into a bank account that had never seen more than a hundred dollars at any given time. The look on the teller's face as I handed her the check remains forever etched in my memory.

Other dreams that came true along the way:

Shared the stage with my idols Cheap Trick. Did I mention that it was a revolving stage? How cool is that?

Toured Europe with Chameleons UK. Got to see one of my favorite bands every night, for free. All I had to do in exchange was perform before they did each night.

Recorded at the esteemed Record Plant. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were in the next studio.

Got to hear Ahmet Ertegun tell me that I was a great songwriter and that I had a bright future ahead of me.

Stayed at the Chateau Marmont on somebody else’s dime. Ordered room service.

Had tons of sex with women completely out of my league, some famous, some insanely beautiful, some both.

Went at least five years without ever having to pay for a drink or a cover charge.

Saw my name up in lights, in magazines, and heard my songs played on the radio.

As a result of so many dreams coming true in such a short time, the rush of exhilaration that pulsed through my veins was stronger than any drug known to man and propelled me to continue on with my musical ambitions long after I had any real interest in making music. I remember reading a Todd Marinovich interview where he said that by the time he made it to the NFL, he'd realized every dream he'd ever had. When that happens, you lose your fire, your intensity, your desire to prove yourself. For me, the result was that my first album for a major label would never see the light of day. I had blown my advance on a new BMW and endless partying, which was a lousy combination that ended with my car being wrapped around a gasoline tanker and me being pronounced dead on the local morning news.

I survived, of course, only to see my label drop me for my erratic behavior, and went right back to playing gigs and trying to get another deal. I hated being a solo artist, working with hired guns, and feeling like a cog in the machine, but I just couldn't bring myself to admit that I was done with music. My whole life up until now had been about music. Music had been my only friend in school when I'd been surrounded by meatheads. It had gained me access to places and people I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to rub shoulders with, and that alone was an intoxicant that my body could not walk away from. Mentally, my whole identity was based on being a musician. Most people have a back-up plan in case their rock & roll dreams crash & burn. Very few have a back-up plan for when every dream comes true and then you realize your heart's no longer in it.

I should have walked away, but my mind could think of nothing to match the glamour and the rush that came with rock & roll. Although it took years of saving up my cash to do so, I released three more albums over a fifteen year span, each one an exercise in stubborn commitment to an already realized dream. I liken it to a runner who wins a 10K race and then proceeds to run another 500 miles instead of just crossing the finish line and going home.

Instead of going home, hanging with my girl, and living a normal life, I've been running and running and running, during which time I've neglected every other aspect of my life. Every job I've ever had has been a necessary evil, there for the sole purpose of funding my music. As a result, I have bounced from company to company, and one entry-level job after another.

Did I fail at music?

No, I completely succeeded at music. I mean, I faked my way into my first band, having never played drums or sung in my life. The minute I cashed that big check, the word "failure" was rendered moot. I would go on to not only exceed my own expectations, but everybody else's. Not only did the dreams I had come true, several dreams I didn't even know I had came true along the way, as well.

If I failed at anything, it was realizing that there was no shame in walking away the minute my heart was no longer in it. It doesn't undo the fact that I would go on to sell over 50,000 copies of my albums at the indie level when more than a few of my musical heroes sold less than that with the help of a major label.

I still get fan mail from people as far away as Australia, and Japan. Considering I've never been to Australia, I think it's cool that my music has and that someone I have never met thought enough of it to welcome something I created into their world.


Anonymous said...

What a great essay on "what happens when a dream comes true." You're a great and thoughtful writer, and I've enjoyed your records over the yeas, too.



Anonymous said...

Preach it. My music dream came true when I heard my music on the radio. Many other dreams have come true since then.