Risky Little Venture

And now, because I’ve got just 6 days left at the job I’ve had for 15 years, a note on risk-taking. (By popular demand!*)

I believe that there is a point in our lives where we become set in our ways, perhaps a bit too passive, content to roll along on autopilot. We are happy to be drama-free or maybe overly cautious. Maybe not. Regardless, it is easy to slip into a nice, safe existence where life is smooth, untroubled, and adventure-proof.

Sure, we have our ups and downs. We go on little vacations. Some of us bring children to life’s table and our lives develop a new focus. We are living the greatest adventure we’ve ever had. But soon, we grow accustomed to the ways of the ninja toddler or pre-teen mope-sack and life seems pretty good. Why rock the boat? (After all, the teen years are just around the corner and then who knows what will happen!) In the meantime, we keep our jobs and plod along doing little hobbies here or there, cultivating a private passion for the arts or World Cup soccer or 3D printing. Often we do something really crazy like rearrange the furniture or xeriscape our yards.

It is rare in the grown-up reality of bills and responsibilities and normal, non-tech, unglamorous, everyday, salt-of-the-earth lives that we are given the opportunity to make a major change in our tiny world. Luckily, unbelievably, I have been given that chance. In fact, I embraced it. I cut ties with my soon-to-be-former educational community and ran toward the cliff of uncertainty with a puny parachute and a very used wingsuit. It was freefall time. Pretty scary. Miraculously, I found a landing zone and it’s all good, but for a few minutes it was touch and go. Still pretty scary.

Giving up everything you know is like that.

So, I guess I’m a risk-taker. I didn’t think I was, but when I do the risk-taking tolerance assessment, (thank insurance industry!), my results are moderate to severe. It makes sense, now that I think about it.

During the rock and roll era of my life, if measured on the debauchery scale from Paul Anka to Kiss I was probably in the Hanson range, leaning toward a good helping of Sublime, minus the heroin. Risky? A bit.

Dumb kid stuff, like driving too fast and climbing things that were dangerous, while looking for questionable bodies of water to leap into. Check! Risky.

Writing checks that my body couldn’t cash? Uh huh. Risky.

Going to the wrong side of the railroad tracks? Been there. Not so risky.

Major life changes in my prime. Not really risky, just expected.

Major life changes in early middle age. Kinda risky, but the jury is still out. We’ll see what happens.

There are plenty of things that are riskier. Plenty of places where each day that you continue to drew breath there is risk. It comes from the simple fact that you are in a jungle or a war-torn country or at the bottom of the barrel or just on the wrong side of prevailing social thought.

So, in assessing my risk-taking tolerance I find that it is just below drinking water from a stagnant puddle on a desert island. Yet, I am likely to do something stupid like go to trapeze school. I would eat green eggs and ham, but not with a fox, because those demonic little fur balls can carry rabies! I would attend a punk rock show, but I would not join the mosh pit. (I might break my glasses!) Would I open my own bicycle business in Scottsdale? I don’t know. That seems like a risk only an advanced risk-taker would take!

I will walk away from everything I know as an educator, but I am going to an exciting new school with a principal who has already shown great leadership and an interest in pushing the boundaries of the status quo and, in fact, stated in my interview that she was looking for a risk-taker.

Sign me up! Besides, one of my pals is going to be there too, so it’ll be a hoot!

*OK, so “popular demand” is pushing it, but I was reminded by my favorite mentor & friend today that maybe it was time to write something again. It has been awhile and my only excuse is that I have been focusing on ending my school year, gearing up for a new job, and working on music a lot lately. (Speaking of music, I have been mulling some thoughts and have an idea that will soon be making its way from my brain to my fingers in coming days…)



Fragile. Fragile is this existence.

Life is fragile. It’s something we hear often. It is muttered so often that it is almost trite. A cliche. But it isn’t a cliche. Life on Earth and, in particular, the human condition is a delicate proposition. We are so strong, but we can also be gone in mere seconds. Imagine the suffering humans have endured across the ages. How have we even survived? And yet, every day, everywhere, there are meaningless deaths. Women, men, the old, the young, children, the bad and the good erased without cause or concern from the Universe. How can it be? Tragedy strikes all of us. Eventually. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes in a trickle. The result is the same:

We grew a bit more aware of the impermanence of life.

Religions are built around this concept. Wars have been fought for the right to determine whose path to salvation is correct. Mystics and saints seem to have the key. Some seem to defy Death altogether. But let’s be honest, no one can avoid it forever. Our world religions make assurances that it doesn’t matter, that there is more beyond the Veil. That doesn’t change a thing, though.

The irreplaceable NOW is lost when Death comes to call. All that we have and experience will be dust. Our long-term belief structure and faith doesn’t really come into play except in our acceptance of the inevitable, (if afforded the gift of time to come to terms with it). It is what it is. We are saved or we are not, but in dying we are all, finally and completely equalized. We go into the ether from whence we came.

And the living? We are stunned. We are distraught. Bereft. Adrift. Stoic.

Some among us may knowingly nod and extend our sympathies to the bereaved, comfortable, superior even, in our own knowledge of Nirvana or Valhalla or a Savior and life-everlasting. But it still doesn’t compensate for the reality that we are so fallible. We are so easily broken. It does not make me ask why as much as exclaim: Damn it!!

Life is a precious thing and we are so very lucky to experience all that this cosmic plane has to offer. Let us take it upon ourselves to wring out the most from our numbered days. Let us spread a little more love around so that we cushion the blow for others.

The Night Before I Race

Tomorrow I will run in a race. My very first race. Ever. I won’t win. I’m not even attempting to win. I just want to do it because it’s happening and I’ve never experienced the crowded, jostling crush of a mad pack of crazies determined to push themselves to the limit for various reasons. I will finish and it will be own victory. It’s a personal moment that I will share with thousands. I’m not the first, nor the last. I am a human who can run.

To trace this madness is a futile task. I’m not sure how it happened, but when I think back to the last few years I see a pattern emerge from my reading material. There are clues in the adventure tomes that I’ve favored. Life and death struggles on mountains. Books about pirates. Kayaking expeditions around Australia. Surfing quests. High-seas eco-adventures. War books. More surfing quests. An eco-warrior, desert-rat author’s biography. More war books. Running books. A book about a runner who went to war…

That Louis Zamperini book was inspiring. His story was amazing. Maybe that’s when it clicked. December of last year. I read that book and a few others featuring prominent stories about runners and running. That Born to Run book. It was all stuck in my head. Running was something I could do.

Wasn’t it?

I pretty much hate running.

So, yeah. Let’s try running.

It was awful at the start. The awkward fits and starts. The red-faced gasping and sweating mess that I became as I trotted down the sidewalk. It’s a familiar story, one told many times over on the pages of countless running memoirs. It was me. I could relate. I was not a runner, but I was running on a regular basis.

I’m no runner now, but I have surpassed my goals. I run. I will continue to run. Tomorrow I will stand amongst many others and wait for my turn to bolt past the starting line and trace a path through the city. It’s a short race, just 4.2 miles in honor of Pat Tillman, who died 11 years ago this week in another trade-off war. Tillman wore the number 42 while he attended ASU and played for the Sun Devils. We will all wear the number tomorrow as we run.

It seems to be more than a coincidence that I was partly inspired by a war hero and athlete like Zamperini and my biggest goal so far has been to participate in a race to honor Tillman, a different fallen hero and athlete. We find our muses in strange places.

This running thing is fascinating to me. I fuss over it. I obsess. I have to fight the urge to treat it as some magical power. I am doing it. It is not something that I conjured. I can’t break the spell. I have run more since January 4th than I have ever run in my entire lifespan. And I want to run some more. Maybe this is my version of a corvette. Maybe this is my ear-piercing and frosted-tips.

Maybe I’m just inspired. Maybe I decided it was time to do a little more with my body than what I’ve been doing.

Tomorrow I will run in a race. I will attempt to run every inch of those 4.2 miles without walking. I will finish in the center of Sun Devil Stadium, standing on the grass of the football field where Tillman once competed. I will join the long lineage of athletes and wannabes who seek glory for a multitude of reasons.

Then, I will continue. I will get up on Sunday and probably run again. I will run because I can.

And it doesn’t even really matter why, does it?

Predatory Ending

Rule number one is don’t stand out. Rule number two is stick to your own. Rule number three is swim in the same direction. Rule number four is follow the first three rules.*

Ray learned the rules early on. His best friend Artie was a plump jack with blue-tinged fins. Ray was always a bit more narrow and reflectively silver in color. Therefore, after awhile, Ray and Artie only saw each other in passing as they shoaled and schooled in different circles of fish. There was the pretty angelfish, Sabrina, who was from the same coral patch. Ray loved swimming along with her under the drifting kelp and racing through the currents that surged over their reef. Ray would stare at her beautiful blues and yellows and those long trailing fins for hours. Sabrina didn’t mind hanging out with Ray and the other jacks. She stood out, though. That rogue barracuda appeared out of nowhere on the very last day that Ray knew her.

Don’t stand out. Stick to your own. Easy enough. But swimming in the same direction?

It’s so boring, thought Ray. Constantly moving in the same direction, like one mega fish, was demoralizing. Ray had his own ideas and desires. Sure, schooling** wasn’t all bad, the food was nice and he had a lot of great friends, but shoaling*** was more Ray’s style. He could flit across the reef and explore, while still being part of the group. Now and again he could sneak off and visit some of his more reclusive friends, like Eli and Ezekiel, a couple of eels from over on the deep side of the reef. Ray longed for independence, but he knew the risks. He’d seen it.

Oscar and Edna were odd ducks, as far as jacks go. You could tell by looking at them. There was just the tiniest amount of crazy radiating from their big dark eyes. They were nuts too, darting from the school to snatch random bits of flotsam and jetsam out of the deep blue, like scavengers, only to drop their tiny treasure in the next moment.

Oscar liked to do long, swooping circles away from the safe boundary of the school, while Edna liked to shoot up to the surface and then dive straight down like a pelican crashing through the center of the school. One afternoon, Edna darted to the surface. Ray noticed a shadow briefly darken the water, but it was gone just as fast. Edna never returned. A few weeks before that, Oscar had been in mid-swoop when that dolphin happened past. It just didn’t pay to break the rules, but Ray really couldn’t stand the monotony and the boredom and the homogenized existence.

And all that togetherness. Sure it’s safe, but at what cost?

When that freak storm battered the reef, Ray knew immediately that he had an opportunity. He was no ass, that jack.

The destruction was primarily along the deep side of the reef. Eli and Ezekiel were OK, but a lot of coral had been shredded. A number of boats and their anchors raked the top of the reef, decimating the anemone fields and the delicate antler coral. Most importantly, the tidal currents had thrown entire schools into disarray and even relocated a number of schools from further down the reef. A silvery group of jacks caught Ray’s eye. They were slender and silver and sassy, with just a hint of salmon coloring, (pinkish, but not enough to throw off the silver overtones). Ray imagined that he would fit in nicely. It was time for a change.

Ray notified his leadership council. The typical arguments about respecting similarities and group cohesion were made, but Ray held firm to his beliefs, stating that a change would do him good. Dissent was discouraged and dealt with harshly. Ray suddenly found that his opinions were not considered and he wasn’t surprised when he found himself nudged to the outside of the school and often left behind during shoaling. A bait fish. He was no longer wanted.

He accepted his fate with dignity.

After introducing himself to some relocated fish and proving himself to be adept at finding food, Ray knew he would be accepted by the new school. He suggested to his new group that they follow the reef north, to search out less populated waters for a new start. The yearly barracuda gathering was under way and Ray figured it was a good time to move on.

Ray dropped down the deep side of the reef to say goodbye to Eli and Ezekiel. They didn’t say much, but they never did. The shadowy movements of the lurking baracuda spooked him and he swam quickly to the top side. Just as he edged over the upper lip of vertical coral he ran into his old school. Startled, his old companions moved in unison off to the left and then descended the deep side of the reef. Not a one spoke or wished him well. He swam to his new group and the last preparations were made before departing for the north. Ray took his place proudly near the head of the school and with a silvery flash they were gone. None of them noticed the circling predators whipping the remaining schools into a frenzy.

In a matter of minutes the round and the thin and the silver and the yellow and the blue were annihilated.

Eli and Ezekiel lived to be very old eels. They often reminisced about the little jack fish who occasionally visited them on the deep side of the reef. They never saw him again. New schools had come and gone many times over, but none of those fish had been curious enough or independent enough to seek the old-timers out. It was business as usual on the reef, week in and week out. Unless you had a deep hole to hide in, the barracuda always returned and when they did there was pretty much nothing a fish could do. Some things never change.

*This is a work of fiction. Obviously.

**Schooling is when fish swim as a united group, often turning on a dime as though they were a single, giant organism, not one made of hundreds of individuals. It is safe and threatening to would-be predators.

***Shoaling is when fish group together and kind of do their own thing while still enjoying the safety of numbers and similar coloring. It is confusing to predators because they have trouble discerning where one fish ends and another begins.

Fork In The Road

I’m in awe of street performers. They bring a little magic to our public spaces by being the living embodiment of Shakespeare’s old line about all the world being a stage.

Sure, we’re all players. Every one of us has our own little drama swirling around us at all times. We are the star of our own show. It’s easy to see why the ancients believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. (For awhile, anyway.) After all, we humans are an egotistical bunch. But standing on a street corner in Prague or Venice or Winslow, Arizona and performing is a daunting endeavor.

Stage fright is real. Upon the stage, you are expected to deliver your lines or dance or sing or play like a machine; close to perfection. You are there to entertain and the audience has high expectations. That brings anxiety and a host of bodily discomforts that are understandable. The best make it look effortless. They invite us in and make us an integral piece of the performance. They are equal parts shaman, professional, and improvisational savant. It all seems so real and right now. So, it is understandable that some folks feel like the stage is the last place on the planet they ever want to be.

Those of us who have gotten over feeling scared witless still feel a tinge of nerves now and again. We wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t. We relish our time in the spotlight. It’s part of our genetic make up. It’s a flaw, certainly, a deep-seated abnormality that should be outlined in the DSM, (that psychological reference book that doctors & health professionals refer to when dealing with all matters of mental illness). So be it. Performers of any kind are weird members of the tribe. We are supposed to be. That’s our niche. We hold up the mirrors to society. We inspire beauty (on a good day) and incite revolutions (on an even better day) and give voice to the voiceless or merely soothe the souls of the not-so-damaged. It’s all an act, though. Once we are done and off the stage, societal expectations dictate that we have to sort of keep it together. No one likes a fool who doesn’t know his or her place!

It’s those expectations of the audience again. The stage is just another pigeon-hole, a box where we are categorized and organized and understood. Assimilated, even. We can be taken seriously as real, live humans, maybe, because, we are entertainers and once the lights go out we are free to resume our private lives, tabloid celebrities excepted.

Street entertainers, though. They are a different breed. The walls are gone. The relative safety of the stage is removed. They are playfully antagonistic. The expectations are totally different. Street performers are subjected to a new standard. They are viewed as a super-freaky genius or sort of sad and desperate: a failed, starving musician.

Tourist spots around the world have a similar array of pseudo-celebrities that entertain. Jazz cats on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Times Square and the Naked Cowboy. Those body-painted robots and statues in Las Vegas or Paris or Beijing or Seattle. In Scottsdale, Arizona there’s an actual cowboy, with a real live horse who yodels and serenades the people in an old-timey, iconic western way. Venice, California has it’s own regulars, whether it’s the chainsaw juggling fireman or the one-man band who plays a bass with his toes or the roller-skating guitar player with a turban.* All of them developed a character, an act. These are the warriors that give meaning to the idea of street theater. These performers don’t get dress rehearsal. There are no do-overs or encores. It’s hardcore, in your face, entertainment. Prepare to be amazed or watch someone lose an appendage. Maybe both.

That is not me.

I do what I do. I sing and play my guitar, mostly on a stage, but on occasion I am offered the opportunity to perform on a street. Usually it is part of a make-believe, civically-minded initiative to provide local color for the tourists who may be in town for, spring training or the Super bowl. It’s an act. I get to pretend I’m a street performer. But since I don’t have a real act or a persona, I am just a guy on the street with a guitar. That translates to sad and desperate for those who encounter me. A starving musician trying to be heard. I’m not. Really. I’m usually being paid by those civically-minded forward thinkers who want local color. But because I don’t have a shtick, most passersby sort of feel sorry for me. I can tell by the look in their eyes and their words.

“You’re so talented.”

“You should be on the radio.”

If it was that easy, I would be.

I’m not broken up about it, though. I get to pursue my passion on a regular basis and get a few dollars for my troubles. Street performing is not my forte. I’m OK with that. I don’t have a horse. I don’t have a costume. I can’t play a character. (See also: another reason I’m not on the radio!) I enjoy the time I get to play & sing without the expectations of a stage. If I fail to meet the expectations according to the code of the street, well, at least I manage a few tips. I even got a fork last weekend!

Yes, a fork.

The delightful human being who left it thought she was being funny. Hilarious! I’m sure. Maybe she was disappointed by my failure to fit into the categories: No costume! Ugh! Too clean, therefore not a charity case. Double-ugh! No horse! Good God!!

Yep, I’m just a dude with a guitar. She was singing along to that Bob Marley song I was playing at the time, too. So, what gives? A fork? Pretty rough, but I’m not mad. After all, I was just an uncredited extra in her movie of a life. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to respond with something witty, like, “Fork me? Fork me??? I don’t thinks so! Fork you!!

But, fork it! What can you do?

*My references are dated. I haven’t been to Venice in years. I’m sure those same guys who once haunted the Venice boardwalk have long since retired, but they were cool!

Local Heroes

The other day, an old friend wrote a post on that social media place with the faces. It was about our hometown, listing all the bands that were around back when we were but youthful whipper-snappers. It was quite a long list. It seems astounding that there were close to two dozen bands that came and went in a few years time. I’m not sure it is all that rare, but considering the “safe” status and middling size of our southern California bedroom community, it’s pretty amazing that we had such a lively music scene. It got me thinking about how lucky I was to grow up in the midst of it all. Maybe all those tract homes and sidewalks that got rolled up at dusk were good for something. Those years and the people I met and played with inspired me and pushed me on toward my own musical future. I relish those days even if I didn’t take the time to appreciate it then. That list of old band names got me thinking…*

“No one from this town will ever make it as a musician!”

So said one of my neighbors when I was eleven and all I wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. He was right, in a way, I certainly didn’t make it, but here I am all these years later and I still find work as a musician on occasion. As a matter of fact, my neighbor was wrong. There were more than a few who actually broke out of our little suburban-bowl of a city, that lurked anxiously in the long shadows of Los Angeles. Some of them actually got to play rock star for awhile. Some still do.

Yet, what did my neighbor know? He taught me how to skate, but when I first tried to push off with my left foot forward, he shamed me into changing my stance. It never quite took and it was years before I learned that I was goofy-footed. No wonder it always felt awkward.

The awkwardness I experienced on a skateboard was similar to the feelings I had as I tried to fit into a musical crowd that seemed to know so much more then me. Being the sort of dweeby, wannabe rocker that I was, and with no older siblings to guide me toward the good stuff, I was left adrift in a sea of music, unable to be selective. I was easily impressionable, (which, if you don’t already know, is a terrible character-trait to have as a would-be rock star!), and that sort of led me into temptation in the realm of glam metal, among other stupid choices that you make when you are young. I’m not proud of it now, but back then I was a sucker for a pop-hook and I would have given my soul to look as cool as Bret Michaels in leather pants. It was not to be. Thankfully.

I may not have had brothers or sisters, but I made my own in the like-minded souls who also found themselves bored and jonesing for rock awesomeness in our bland little corner of California. From these fellow travellers and long-haired Jedi guitar-masters I learned that music was in me and with a few new chords I was happily enrolled in the College of Rock. I was still in high school, but still… Slowly, I let go of the 80s power-ballads and discovered something new, and old, and deep, and majestic. Like Led Zeppelin and The Misfits. I discovered that there was more to music than Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe and Guns N Roses, I just needed a gateway band to open my eyes to the musical feast. Thanks, Jane’s Addiction!

What’s more, rumor had it that there were actual musicians right in my very own town, in my very own neighborhood, sometimes in my very own class. There were guys, (and yes, back then in the late 80s and early 90s it was almost exclusively guys in my neck of the woods), playing shows, creating powerful music, and basically being the most amazing musicians I’d ever heard or seen. Many of them could still put real rock stars to shame with their musical prowess. And, I believe a few of them actually are doing that. Maybe even right now.

There was the guitar player** who worked at the local music store who was in a band called Axis and he could shred! They got awesome gigs like the city carnival and the roller rink and Gazzarri’s in Hollywood. Not only that, he was encouraging, even when I was a total dork and didn’t know a damn thing about the guitar. He showed me some stuff, sold me my first real, non-pawnshop, guitar and became my friend. He also introduced me to the guitar teacher who set me free from playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and gave me the secret to the blues: the pentatonic scale!

That same teacher also told me a different secret when I was about to enter tenth grade. He casually let me know that athletes got noticed in high school, but musicians were always popular with the ladies. Perhaps it was ill-advised on his part, but I will admit I practiced more than ever that summer.

I remember sneaking out of the house when I was 15. The drummer** I was playing with knew about about this party a few streets over. (He had an older sister who knew about cool stuff.) There would be booze and cool musicians. These guys were all older than us by a few years, but in just a few more years we would get to play in the same venues as them and sometimes even with them. Right away, we found ourselves in a back room with this bushy-haired, skinny fellow. He was the older brother of a kid I’d played soccer with. Mack**, was a renowned drummer with impeccable timing, he was also a singer and played a number of other instruments, including guitar. My bandmates and I would discuss his band, The Juice Whistles, in between playing “Louie, Louie”. They were legendary. That night, Mack treated us to a kooky song about meatballs and then he was gone. Other guys were floating around, dudes that played in bands with crazy names like Carne al Carbon and Earth, but we weren’t familiar with them. Not yet.

We had our little band of four or five high schoolers. Someone was always getting grounded or quitting or bored, so the numbers would ebb and flow. Pretty soon, there were just three of us, we called ourselves Station Zero, which another acquaintance mocked by calling us Talent Zero. Eventually we changed it to Contradiction on the smart advice of our drummer. (And of course, that name was mocked incessantly as well.) We played the talent show. We played some parties. Our friends started a band called Psychedelic Juice. We had a rivalry! We heard about this band from across town, Atomic Cocktail, who could play like all the guys we idolized. They were already playing at the Whisky in Hollywood. So we followed them onto the Sunset Strip, which, in retrospect, was a lame idea, but at the time it felt magnificent!

In a few more years we had a different drummer. He was friendly with all those older guys we’d always heard about. In no time at all we were playing shows together at dingy clubs and backyard parties and up the coast near Santa Barbara. Every weekend, it seemed, there was an opportunity to see guys we knew playing fun, incredible music, jamming with them late at night or just doing dumb stuff at their shows. In the center of town, a creaky old restaurant was becoming our own epicenter of rock.

Cheers. Yes, Cheers. It was not the Cheers where everyone knows your name, but for us it was pretty close. The place had been a surf & turf yuppie hangout, but somewhere along the way, an enterprising entrepreneur named Rick** persuaded the manager to have alternative rock shows on Sunday nights. Sunday Skool was born and allowed us to freak out the staff. That bled into Fridays and Saturdays and soon it was our place to rock and act like imbeciles, not the place where prom couples went out to dinner before the big dance.

All the bands from our town played there. The Juice Whistles who became Hail Rumpus. The Underground who became April’s Motel Room. Carne al Carbon-who were called something else before that-who then became Tree of Love. Psycho Hesher who became Cold. Redfish. Ten Foot Pole (who were Scared Straight back before any of us played a note). Strung Out and Chump and so many others. Bands from surrounding towns, touring bands, bands from the South Bay, all came and played our little dive. And there was us, Contradiction. We got another few drummers. Added a guitar player. We broke up a time or two. A few of us joined some of the same bands listed above. We eventually morphed into other bands like Tempus Fugit and Flush and, well, Contradiction, again, before finally walking away from each other and the whole incestuous thing for good. Mostly.

Some of those guys still play a little, like I do. Some play all the time. Some don’t play at all. Some have little gigs here and there, but they don’t make a big deal about it, even though it is kind of a big deal because they can play like nobody’s business! It is something to have the gift of music. We shared an incredible period of time in our lives. I’m not sure my words do it justice. It was a profound experience. Lifelong friendships were forged. Petty arguments were had and forgotten. Mistakes were made. Youthful exuberance and hubris carried the day.

For awhile, we had our own remarkable private party with our closest two hundred friends. Then we all grew up and moved on. Some of us, unfortunately, have shuffled off this mortal coil.

Those days left their mark forever on my heart and soul. Lessons I learned are still with me, even as I walk through life as an unassuming, full-grown adult with children and responsibilities and a life that I never dreamed could be a reality. The fingerprints of each one those guys are all over what I do now because we fired each other up, urged each other on, competed for the spotlight, and shared something oddly beautiful. These days, every once in awhile, when there’s a crowd and the volume is cranked and the mood is just right, I can feel those old ghosts. I see those smiling faces and it’s just a little bit like those electric nights we shared once upon a time. And for a split second it’s as if those moments were just last weekend, not a lifetime ago.

That’s the power and magic of music.

*This is by no means a definitive account of the years 1987 to 1995 in my hometown. I chose to focus on my direct, formative experiences. This was not an effort to encapsulate my entire experience or that of my contemporaries. As with every life, there is so much to tell. There were so many players, and not just the musicians, but our friends and family who supported us, or the best record store down the street that we all frequented and where some of us worked, to the managers and club owners who put up with our crap. It was a great time to grow up and play some rock & roll. If, by chance, you are reading this and you feel slighted, please accept my apologies. It was unintentional.

**Names withheld to protect the righteous and the wicked.

To the Voice of the Machine

Yo, Zack,*

Where you been? What’s up with you? I think your voice is needed. I know it is. If it was real, I mean. Was it real? All that rage? I was mad back in the early 90s, too. I didn’t know why, but I felt it, like it was turning me inside out. I was swept along on the alterna-tide with everyone else. There were so many voices of change and justice-seeking and anger and rage and introspection. It was a brand new day. It was a new age of reason, when you could be yourself and not try to to fit into the leather and latex costumes of the 80s. You could just express your point of view, even if it was a little sad and desperate, like Kurt’s. I channeled my own demons and aggression into my art, but you…man! You, Zack were the bomb! I’m not so outrageously angry anymore.

Well, I am today.

You know why I’m angry, Zack?

Because today, while I mowed my suburban lawn and took my suburban kids to an Easter egg hunt, I had some time to listen. I decided to put your first record on. Only it’s not a record, now. It’s just digitized ones and zeroes beamed to me from my optimally-Primed music account. It’s like you’re an angry ghost in the machine. But as I listened to your wrathful indignation, as I grooved along to the mechanized force of the soul-slicing roar of four fellows sonically assaulting the status quo, you know what I realized?

I realized that I’m everything you hated. (I’m probably everything I hated back then too, but that’s my own problem.) I was just like all the other white kids who came to your shows and shouted along to your socially-conscious shtick. I saw you once, during a Rock the Vote show. We probably disappointed you, even as we emulated your righteous rants and bought your records and your revolutionarily-appropriated images of Che Guevara and all your socialist propaganda. Yet, as I listened today, I also realized that your words of empowerment and revolution and straight up rage ring hollow, now. Those are still bone -crunchingly awesome songs. Tom and Tim and Brad were the tactical annihilation team that was the vehicle for your incendiary words. It was a communal effort. You gave voice to what you all felt, but you were the politically-aware, tornado of a mouthpiece that spoke truth to power. Yet, you’ve vanished. And while listening, while being aurally lacerated by your deft rhymes and cunning turns of phrase, I felt a little bit of what the tired, old revolutionary hippies of the 60s must have felt when they finally realized that all their big dreams were nothing but dust blowin’ in the wind.

Where have you been? Have you been paying attention?

Maybe it’s time for you to wake up!

Wake up, Zack!!

Engage, Zack.

Take your pick of topics from the last decade and a half: 9/11, war, financial implosion, politics as usual, fiscal corruption, moral ineptitude, more war, hate-for-hate’s-sake, terrorism, unbridled religiosity, Obama, boots marching, marginalization, police inaction, police over-reaction, civil liberties eroded, Arab Spring, real revolution, botched foreign policy, failed political discourse, immigration, Ferguson, New York, San Francisco, Ohio, Chicago, Phoenix, American nadir…

I know, I know, you’re still out there, lending your voice occasionally, but not like that. Not like you did when you had the international spotlight to do with as you pleased, when you were part of the most vibrant truth-bomb machine ever to blast out of a pair of speakers anywhere on Earth.

We are all marginalized now, Zack. It’s not just brown and red and black and yellow. It’s not just us versus them anymore. It’s unstoppable, unmatched, unmitigated, unchecked power versus the middle class, versus the poor, versus the voiceless, versus the small and little of means. We are more and more divided, even as we have the technology to really get together for the first time in human history, unimpeded by the power structure that seeks to control and cajole. We are up against the greatest, monolithic, far-reaching corporate-military-industrial iron fist that has ever ventured set its sites on humanity. In the face of this scourge we are hopeless.

Only we are not.

There are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people out there right now marching, speaking out, standing up to the proverbial man. All over the world. There are people, rightthismintue, raging against the actual machine. They are looking for solutions. They seek justice and peace and equality and fairness for all. They want to be taken seriously. So, when stuff gets heavy, they shoulder into it like the determined fighters they are. They don’t skulk away and work on a solo album for so long that it is becoming the new Chinese Democracy. They don’t disappear, only to make rare appearances at Coachella. They stay the course. They actually “rally ’round the family.” They seek solutions.

C’mon, Zack. You spoke of historic injustice and modern-day injustice and Mandela and Black Power and Brown Power and fighting the power and taking the power back, but now where are you when this world is in desperate need of a voice that ignites and could unite?

Maybe it was all an act. Maybe you weren’t really that angry. Maybe you are just an entertainer. Maybe it was all a dream. When I listen to that bombastic record of yours, though, when I hear the words of “Township Rebellion” I wonder how long you can stand on a silent platform, ignoring the war? And what was it you said we should do to the norm?

“All of these are American dreams,” huh? Really? The hypocrisy continues, but you don’t seem to be railing against it, now. You’ve joined the club.

I know I’ve been harsh, perhaps a bit unfair, but dang, dude! There’s a riot going on and you’ve missed most of it! Get in the game, get involved. Mad Boy, grip that mic with your “fist full of steel” and end your silence!! Do it for the people. All people. I’m sure you’ll figure it out one of these days. Get the band back together, man. Make new, revolutionary music! Own your legacy. Good luck, Zack.

All the best,

*This is merely a humorous, imagined letter. It is not meant as an actual missive to an actual person. I would never willingly use my words to harm or cause pain and suffering to another living human being, even if that human has missed out on countless opportunities to use his voice to stand up and sing out against the very real inequities that have been perpetrated against all of humanity in the last dozen years. Who am I, anyway? I’m sure, if given the chance, he would graciously address me with a hearty, “(Expletive deleted) you! I won’t do what ya tell me!”