Fake Book: A Musician's Half-Assed Cruise Through The Diploma Industry

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:56

    Why did I go to college? Because my parents wouldn't buy me a van. Not that I asked them to buy me a van. But on the rare occasion when I'm home, when we squabble over the miserable details of my school years, that's what I bring up. Look, why did you bother paying for all that school? I was a theater major by default. By default! Four and a half years, and at the end I count up the credits and what do you know? I'm a theater major. Had I a van and decent amplifier I would've started practicing my craft professionally years earlier than I did. As it was, eking my way through the bare requirements of two colleges, I sort of slapped together my own little catch-as-catch-can conservatory of pop music, reviewing Rolling Stones biographies for freshman seminar and retooling song lyrics for poetry classes. I didn't take any music theory courses. The closest I got to real music school while in school was a sweet piece of musical-skill-fakery (couldn't read the book; didn't know the chords; really couldn't play anything but power chords anyway) over a four-week mini-semester called spring term that involved playing in the pit band for a production of Hair. There was no effort involved, other than acting like we knew what we were doing. At the first performance, we took our places at the same time as the audience and just sat there for 20 minutes.

    The director came out and said, "Well, why don't you start the overture?"

    "The overture?" we said.

    Having talked our way out of being required to file a weekly progress essay?eliminating the only element of the class that resembled homework?we named our band Four Credits And No Response Journal.

    My mom actually attended one of the shows. My mom, who had said to me when I was in middle school: "Why do you bother jumping around your room fake-guitar-ing on a squash racket? You dropped out of chorus. You dropped the trumpet we made you play in the sixth grade. You've failed algebra. You're not a musician."

    It happened?for the only time in the course of three shows?that the director came out that night before the show and introduced the members of Four Credits And No Response Journal by name. She called me the rhythm guitarist, and the other guitar player?a hippie cat who was missing two front teeth and obsessively, constantly, unendingly played this one chiming four-note lick we called the Swift Lick?the lead guitarist. My mom tore into me with this fact a bunch of times while I was home for the summer. "Why are you insisting on this musician thing? You were only the rhythm guitarist!"

    How fucked I was, to really need to fight that kind of searing disapproval just to become a musician. My mother was right?I was not musically inclined. Nobody in my family was. The only tenuous genetic link to musicality I have is my great-grandfather Major Doughty, who was a preacher in Tullos, LA. And my parents just blink when I bring that up as a potentially musical influence. (Preachers are great singers. It puzzles me when non-Christians turn their snoots up at preachers for not adhering to a moral line that anybody would be completely whacked to hold any other musician in the universe to. And incidentally, I was once mocked on Beavis and Butt-head?split decision, Beavis pro, Butt-head con?for my Jimmy-Swaggart-esque crazed-whitey spit-notes?this-uh, that-uh, photomat-uh?at the ends of phrases. How weird, I thought, that that same song was wrung through the musings of a few dozen rock critics, and the ones who can pick out the influences by ear are Beavis and Butt-head.)

    My mom had schlepped me down to Paramus during my freshman year of high school to buy me my first guitar?an Aria Pro II bass with groovy John Taylor alternating blond-and-brown woody stripes down the pickup line?as a reward for attaining the honor roll. Which I had done by a tenth of a GPA point, won by lobbying a gym teacher for a B rather than a B-minus. My parents promptly took the bass from me, along with my stereo and my records, for failing math later the same year. The logic was that in a barren landscape devoid of musical amusement I would turn to homework for comfort.

    That was the essential torturous routine of my parents' scorn for my lack of academic ambition. I can't blame them for the scorn. They're both teachers, and they both came from backgrounds a damn sight harsher than mine. But their rhetoric was batty. Take this rough reconstruction of a phone exchange from my last year of school, when I had to have two root canals and needed money for food:

    Me: "I have to have two root canals. I need money for food."

    Mom: "You are ungrateful and have dental problems only to spite us. You have wasted your food money on drugs and tobacco. You only call us when you're in trouble and need money. You will be cut off soon and you will surely starve and die."

    Me: (mortified pause)

    Mom: "Do you want me to buy you a microwave?"

    Extremes of shrill declamation were matters of mere distraction for my parents. It was only, like, three years ago that I realized that simple immunity to psychic abuse would've gotten me anything I could've dreamed up. I want a pony, please. Smack! I want a pony please. Smack! I want a pony, please. Smack! Care for a pony?

    My mom has denied recalling any of the events recounted in the past few paragraphs. She has no recollection of any conflict over my weird, lonely drive to eschew everything sensible to her in order to pursue a profession even I believe I had no business pursuing. She has pictures on the fridge, taken from the back of the floor seats at Madison Square Garden, of the time my band opened for Dave Matthews there in 1996. That was like the second time she ever saw my band; I kept her away with excuses until we were playing houses of a thousand people. We played a gig at Tramps that sold out, so it seemed safe enough to invite her, and she showed up with a friend from graduate school in tow. At the front door, she told a security guy that she was my mother, and our tour manager just happened to be standing there. He led her and her friend through the crowd with a flashlight. She was beside herself. Oh Michael! she cried. I feel just like Meryl Streep!

    It occurs to me that with that tiny squash racket, jumping around my bedroom to Blizzard of Ozz, I must've looked like I harbored an ambition to grow up and become the Randy Rhoads of the electric mandolin.

    I wanted to extend my solo musical studies to actual gigging, so I transferred from a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of the Berkshires to a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of Manhattan. What ended up happening is that between multiple poetry classes (I was taking more than one performance poetry class in a single semester) I would play open mics?the bleakest venue for musical expression imaginable, being roomfuls of half-assed folksingers who react dourly, if at all, to anything other than their own performances?and call Louise, the CBGB booking person, something like every 10 minutes. She had a bizarre callback system, wherein you'd call and she'd say: "Call me back at 6 p.m. on Thursday." And you would, and she'd be bewildered to hear from you, and go: "Call me back at 11:15 on Tuesday."

    After a year, I called once and she gave me a different phone number to call back at 9:30 on Wednesday?the super-secret second-level CBGB booking phone number. I called back on Wednesday at 9:30 and the bartender who answered the phone said: "Well, she's not here, but you're calling on the right phone."

    It was another year before I actually got a gig.

    The tiny liberal arts school was too thrifty to possess a cafeteria; there was this little-used option for a student to pay for the meal plan at NYU and play NYU student for three squares a day. It was ridiculously expensive. My parents didn't so much as sigh when jotting off the check, despite the fact that when I ran out of cigarette money and called up pretending I had to buy more books, I would be excoriated for not buying all my books at the beginning of the semester.

    I ended up an adjunct to an extended cadre of actors attending Tisch School of the Arts. What a peculiar scene. The acting school doesn't have auditions, so it seemed to me that more or less anybody with the minimum SAT scores could attend one of the several acting schools under the Tisch umbrella. From what I overheard at the lunch table, it seemed that mostly what went down was something akin to public therapy: girls from Connecticut crying hysterically about the loss of their pets, near-oblivious to the stoical squadron of classmates watching. I felt a ludicrous superiority?I was, after all, studying playwriting, not the crass and common craft of acting, harrumph harrumph?to these hordes of doe-eyed boys and girls who wanted nothing more complicated than to be famous for something. Of course, I too felt a nameless gnawing I thought I could dispose of by winning the anonymous love of many strangers.

    And I, too, was blowing off an actual education for an easy romp through easy stuff that not only seemed to vaguely promise a future absolutely stinking with unconditional admiration, but acted as a mildly effective therapeutic balm to boot. But hey?what I was doing was infinitely more hardscrabble and involved a fair amount of hustle. I didn't just show up at pop star school and fall lazily into the groove of the program. I was blazing trails.

    What a mook I was.

    I look back at school and it's just Electric Exgirlfriendland to me. That was a particularly serious side to my educational mission statement?the accumulation of women who'd lend me songwriting fodder by briefly digging and then ditching me. And I sure knew how to pick out the sorry ones. I went through like four anorexics during my first year in Manhattan. Not a one of them ate a thing in front of me for the duration of our liaisons. The first time I saw a woman chewing, I was completely overcome with emotion, blown away. I went out with a redheaded hellion of a girl whom I absolutely adored and followed around slavishly, and split parties early to bring seltzer for her stomachache over to her apartment. Maybe I was besotted just by her confidence?how steely and powerful a woman seemed to me a woman who wasn't retiring to the restroom to upchuck after dinner! We went out for about three months, and then she left me for my best friend and drummer.

    In the months that followed, I worked a job as an ice-cream delivery van driver and listened to Elvis Costello cassettes over and over again, driving tubs of gelato all over Manhattan. And let me tell you, in that particular emotional state, that guy sounded good.

    I wrote a series of gritted-teeth fuck-you anthems over the summer, and honed them in poetry class in the fall. Two years later, several of them ended up on my band's first record. The Girl ended up in Los Angeles, going to medical school. My band cut a record out there and we went out for dinner. Technically, I told her, she had paid for the dinner by providing me with material. I relished the moment. Despite the fact that when I wrote my gritted-teeth fuck-you songs and envisioned this moment, I had imagined that I'd have the extra mocking-fodder of her continued employment at El Bandito.

    The Drummer?a wild-eyed ally I'd made in a playwriting class, the only musician I'd ever met with less basic ability than me?eventually left her to go live in a squat in Rotterdam. And she almost immediately took up with his best friend. He came back years later with a big fake Dutch accent, claiming he could make himself stoned through the mere application of willpower.

    And he was completely aghast at my minor success in the music industry.

    "What are you doing now?" he asked.

    "In a band," I said.

    "Yeah, but what are you doing now?" he asked.

    "That's all," I said. "We're on Warner Bros."

    And he squinted and said puzzledly: You're on Warner Bros.?

    And back through the months and years, in my mind, I add a final quip to the conversation. You bet, Squatsky, I say. And AOL owns my white ass now.

    As it happened, I was kind of right to design my own program through school. Because you can't learn how to play music in a school; you can really only learn it through other musicians. And that learning process is less based on, Here, let me show you this, than on, What, you don't know what that is?

    So homework-faking has served me well in my travels among the players.

    I graduated from college?I walked in the ceremony?but as it turned out, not really. I owed 11 bucks and change to the NYU library (my tiny liberal arts alma mater couldn't afford a real library, either). And so I've never gotten the diploma. My mother?who, on the same evening as the Meryl Streep remark, chewed out my band's front-of-house engineer for not finishing college?is absolutely horrified.

    The only guy I know who ever did the music theory courses and the composition courses did it for the same reason I did poetry and playwriting: it came easy to him. He was a bass player, and absolutely brilliant. But every couple of months he would go through a crisis wherein he'd realize that there was little assurance of survival playing music for a living, and he would absolutely panic. I'm quitting, he'd say, I'm giving up music. I'm going to study.

    But he didn't last. And the world can use a great bass player?there are too many guitar players, like me, glutting up the scene already?so he fell into a bunch of profitable gigs, and before he knew it he was making money. And before I knew it, he stopped having his bimonthly life crisis.

    I went out and ate with him and related my 11-dollar diploma dilemma.

    Well, he said. I wouldn't worry about it. I don't think Miles Davis was ever looking for a guitar player and said, "Yo, I want the guy with the MFA. Definitely."