Original Of The Species

Every gig is more unusual than the last.

Last Saturday found me making good on my bargain in Waterloo, Iowa. This Saturday found doing it again in Westford, Massachusetts. And then some.

You’ll recall that I solicited patrons for the making of “Heartland.” Three of those contributors merited a live performance at the location of their choice. Last week was Smitty’s Bar. This weekend was Robbie P’s Living Room.

There’s a photo somewhere of my father from deep in the 1960s. He’s thirty-years-old, max. Of course, he’s wearing some ridiculously garish flowered shirt, bell-bottoms, and a Raleigh Fingers mustache, but that’s not the point. In the dusty, folded, faded photo, my father is standing on a coffee table, strumming my mother’s acoustic guitar, and singing at the top of his lungs.

That was me last night. Except it was my guitar. And Rob’s coffee table.

I played the three-set show with one-time Smokey Junglefrog drummer (now a chef and father of two), Tod “Fish” Salmonson. I dug deep into my catalogue, excavating oldies that surprised even me. But that’s cuz Rob, Fish, and I have been hangin’ out and playing songs since we were twenty-years-old.

I can barely remember what it was like to be twenty-years-old. I think I was pretty much the same as I am now: I worried a lot, over-thought everything, and felt things way too deeply. I didn’t have a whole lot of foresight. I couldn’t see much further than an arm’s length. (Still not sure I can.)

I tried to put myself back into the head of a twenty-year-old yesterday. I spent the entire train ride from New York to Boston preparing a speech (of sorts) for a presentation at Emerson College. One industrious young student, Danit Zivan, invited me to speech to her communications fraternity, Zeta Phi Eta, after reading about my interest in doing so at Syracuse.

I was charged (well, I charged myself) with summarizing the last thirty-four years of my life, and connecting the dots to create some meaningful narrative. Which is a pretty tough assignment when it’s your own life. It’s the closest thing I’ve done to writing a term paper in a long, long time. I might have gone on a little long (you can read it here) on how who I was as a little kid led to who I am today, but I was trying to make a point.

Remember the story about my vision quest? It’s the September after college graduation and I’m on a solo fast deep in the Utah desert. And I’m asking The Gods or The Spirits or Myself or Whomever what I’m supposed to do with my life. And the only answer I get is, “You’re doing it.” Remember that story?

Well, that seems to be how things have worked out at 34-years-old. As I said to the students, “You can be anything you want to be. Odds are, you’re going to be exactly who you’ve always been.” Even now, that’s something of a revelation. I was a musician and editor of my high school paper, and then I was a musician and journalism student, now I’m a musician and Executive Producer of MTV News Digital. If I only knew that it was going to work out just fine, or just as it was supposed to… damn. I could’ve gotten a lot more sleep.

And that’s why I wanted to speak with them. I remember that uncertainty. Heck, I still live with it. But not like then. Back then it was crippling uncertainty coupled with blind naiveté and no concept of adult reality. The thirty or so Emerson students, though, were right on. Their questions were especially impressive.

“Does the media influence culture or does culture influence the media?” I couldn’t get away with answering “Yes,” but I tried. Because that’s The Big One, isn’t it? I certainly don¹t think there a bunch of old, white men sitting around in some room figuring out “The Message,” but there are definitely plenty of powerful and subtle spin-artists out there. Still, there are a thousand other factors pushing on the media, not the least of which being the mood of the news director on any given Tuesday.

Another student asked, “What’s your favorite REM album and tell us about interviewing Michael Stipe.”

I was like, “Is that a ‘Green’ t-shirt you’re wearing?” Sure was. Rock on. (And “Reckoning.”)

But it was my host, Danit, who wrapped it all up, turned the tables, and really got me thinking.

“Did you ever consider using your MTV connections to further your music career?”

I was stumped. I mean, I get asked that question all the time, but never in front of an audience. And I never know quite what to answer. Yes, of course I’ve considered it. And to some degree, I have used my connections. But not really. I’ve never networked, or even handed my CDs to label types. Possibly because I know how futile it is. There are a lot of waste baskets between a publicist and an A&R rep. And a lot of CDs on an A&R rep’s desk. And mine don’t sound anything like Britney’s, or even Scott Stapp’s. Mostly, though, it never felt right to pimp my music at work (beyond emails and fliers, that is). And if that means I’m playing “Summer’s Gone” for a room full of old friends on a Saturday, and few college students on a Sunday, well, that’s all right with me. I’m exactly who I’ve always been.

Afterwards, a young woman stepped up to thank me.

“I’m graduating in one week,” she said. “I cry every night.”

I understood where she coming from. I was right there with her.

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