I moved to New York City in 1995 with $400 in cash, a Macintosh SE40, Takamine acoustic guitar, and a dharma doll.
Dharma dolls are hollow, egg-shaped totems modelled after Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk credited as the founder of Zen Buddhism. They’re typically painted red with black detailing and blank, white eyes. The idea is that one fills in the white of one eye with black ink while making a wish. When the wish comes true, one inks in the other.
A few days prior to hopping the Greyhound from Saratoga Springs to Port Authority, I inked in my dharma doll’s left eyeball and wished for a few thing:
1- Write for Rolling Stone (check)
2- Play CBGB’s (check)
3- Play CMJ
College Music Journal, was, once upon a time, the definative authority on what was, once upon a time, called “college music” (which became “alternative” which became “indie” which is, in many ways, now totally “mainstream”). Unlike Rolling Stone, or even Spin (the sole music publications of record in 1995), CMJ was largely penned by college stringers. It was, therefor, genuine. It wasn’t for sale. Or so it seemed to me when I was twenty-four.
Of course, everything’s for sale. I learned this the hard way years later when I reached out to the magazine on behalf of my 2001 release, “Crash Site.” They’d be happy to review it, they said, if I ponied up $750 to be on their monthly compilation CD.
There are only a handful of great music festivals of that era (or before) left: South By Southwest, Austin City Limits, Newport Telluride. CMJ’s Music Marathon, though, is the grand daddy. Founded in 1991, the festival has helped launch the careers of R.E.M., Beastie Boys, Green Day, Radiohead, Eminem, and The Killers. Keynote speakers have included David Bowie, Brian Wilson,George Clinton, and Perry Farrell. These days, given my day job (and my age), rock luminaries aren’t much of a draw. And other than my friends (Amy Hills, Undisputed Heavyweights, Chris Abad), I don’t get to a lot of rock shows. In 1995, though, as a 24-year-old singer/songwriter/music journalist, CMJ was heady stuff. I wanted in.
The application process is, on its face, democratic. The organizers say that the selection process is based “on the merits of their music and nothing else.” Which may be true. Maybe I suck. Or maybe they hear a few thousand white boys with acoustic guitars, and I’m just one of the also rans. I don’t know. I do know that, for years, I applied. And for years, I received one of those thin envelopes with a politely worded “No thank you.” And so, like any hampster who taps and taps and taps but never gets the food pellet, I threw in the towel. CMJ — like a record deal, the cover of Rolling Stone, and Madison Square Garden — became just another casualty of growing up.
Funny thing happened on the way to moving on…
I got asked to play CMJ.
My friend Suzanne, who books, amongst other venues, Alphabet Lounge, emailed me last wek and asked me whether I’d applied. I regailed her with the above story (though abbreviated, I promise). A few days later, she’d made it happen. On Wednesday, November 4 at 8pm, I’m playing CMJ.
(Funny side story. I was orignially booked to play Saturday night — a plum booking, to be sure. Except that I’m running the NYC Marathon on Sunday morning.)
So, lessons? Morals? I’m not sure. I’ve long since said that the more I focus on process, and let go of outcome, the happier I am. You know: that whole “journey is the destination” thing. And sometimes that’s true. Who would have thought it would take until my tenth CD to be on a bonafide record label? Not me. Who’d have thought I’d have an audience in London, Dublin or Auckland (let alone Fresno, Portland, or Cedar Falls)? Certainly not me. And who’d have thought that, at 35-years-old, I could finally ink in the left eyeball of my dharma doll?
Of course, I won’t. I have too many other wishes.