Having your cake and eating it too.
Last month my friend Tom Merrill sent me this picture. He is the fire/rescue dispatcher in Snyder, New York, the town where I grew up, just outside of Buffalo.
Tom’s family was good friends with my family and my brother was a volunteer fireman in the same department many moons ago. Tom happened to stumble on this picture when he was rummaging through the old fire hall. He sent me this message via Facebook:
"Tom Merrill: So, as we were canvassing through our Fire Department archives in preparation for our upcoming 100th anniversary, I cam across this photo - recognize anybody?"
It took me a moment to realize I was looking at an early picture of myself. Being the youngest of six kids there aren't many pictures of me as a boy floating around in the family. It's not that my parents were retired from parenting, but I think they were just less concerned with the minutiae by the time I came along.
So, Tom's question "recognize anybody?" echoed in my head because in truth, I barely did. Did I block it all out?
I was surprised the picture captured a kid who was well dressed, lovingly groomed, seemingly happy and healthy and most importantly, excited to eat cake. I suppose I often look at my childhood as being slightly tragic or at the very least, troubled.
So who was the kid I was looking at?
In this picture I was probably 11 or 12 years old and was growing up in a fractured home. On the one hand, my parents had a toxic relationship with alcohol that then rippled into tidal waves for my five older siblings and me. Alcohol caused broken parenting signals, created faulty emotional wiring and spawned all the conflict and confusion that came with its chaos. On the other hand, our house was filled with constant music, sweet love, and overflowing laughter.
And our house was small. I verified this by arranging a walk-through after my dad died last year. Although we hadn't lived there for thirty years a neighbor friend contacted another neighbor friend who contacted the current owner who gave us the keys to our old front door. It's funny how things seem so much bigger when you're young. Somehow, we crammed six kids, two parents, a dog and a cat into a lovely three-bedroom brick house overlooking the highway.
I idolized all of my older siblings then and saw them as heroic. Heck, I still do. One of the brilliant things my mother did was insist on closeness between all of her children. Even until her last days she would employ a simple technique: If one of us happened to miss the others' birthday, or if we failed to make a congratulatory phone call after another sibling got good news (i.e., a promotion), she would throw a shit fit. It was in this simple messaging that she gave us the family she never had. My brothers and sisters were my friends.
I hadn't found the guitar yet so at that time, like most boys, I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. Not JUST a professional athlete but the hero of the team. I would create the whole world in my head - the stadium with the crowd cheering (even though mostly I was playing alone, throwing tennis balls against the side of our house).
Later on in life, I sang the national anthem at a Buffalo Sabres game and I got to meet Gilbert Perrault, the player I used to imagine I was when I played street hockey. That was a moment to remember.
Occasionally my brother Scott would let me tag along with him while he delivered pizzas. He'd crank Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA in his Ford Pinto while smoking Marlboro Red cigarettes. I loved seeing the world through his eyes, feeling his sense of freedom, watching him navigate the ins and outs of our town. It seemed infinite to me then.
I had also started to dip into all my older sibling's record collections. Down in our basement -- which he had converted into a semi- bachelor pad -- my brother Tom would play me his favorite Jimi Hendrix songs. Tom had long hair and a cool leather jacket and I wanted to BE him only because he had the quickest sense of humor and could make everyone laugh instantaneously. I would get bummed when he would leave to go out with his friends.
I would then bounce upstairs to where my brother John was cranking show tunes or stand-up comedy. Quite the contrast from Hendrix but, an amazing education for a would-be musician.
My sisters Linda and Lori liked James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Brown and the Beatles. I would start trying to learn Simon and Garfunkel on guitar a couple years later and eventually write my first song after my sister Lori generously let me have her guitar, which had been gathering dust in the corner of their room.
More often than not, my mother would ask me to sit with her in the kitchen after everyone else had gone to bed. She would drink beers and talk about grown-up problems. Mostly I would sit there hoping to be released to go to bed. What I wouldn't give to have one of those nights back now.
I would usually wake up petrified to go to school because I had an annoying and embarrassing stutter. I would fear the wrath of judgmental peers. Surprisingly, I've seen a lot of those same peers at my shows over the years, not only are they all kind-hearted, but they always tell me I was "quiet back then". My closest friends from that era insist I was obnoxious. I suppose once I got comfortable with someone, I could be myself, which apparently was obnoxious.
It was around this time I first noticed my father often had a sad look on his face when he would come home from work. He would take a slow walk down the driveway carrying a heavy load of disenchantment. He didn't love his job but needed to provide for his many children. His look of dissatisfaction always stayed with me as something I wanted to avoid in my life. I wanted to always love my work. Later on, it was his advice that gave me the courage to pursue music as a career. He advised me to have my cake and eat it too.
Which brings me to you.
When I graduated from rock band to solo artist no one really knew my name and promoters and club owners had no reason to book me. I had to entirely reinvent my career. Now I go all across the country (and in some cases the globe) and people show up.
I am so grateful to you for how my career has shaped up. I know I'm not playing arenas, and I'm not a household name by any means, but everything has gone outside-in for me. Some of the songs I've written seem very personal to people and seemingly have more meaning than I ever expected.
So I just wanted to thank you because these days I'm punching out of work feeling more fulfilled then I probably deserve.