Hard Work and Re-Inventing Myself, For Myself

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Trash can drumming: Spring of 1966

Music has always played a major role in my life. I started showing an interest in drumming at around 18 months. In grade school, I played trumpet and later switched to drums when I moved to a new school that had school-owned drums. I bought a guitar with my lunch money and painfully taught myself.

And since we did not have a piano at home, I would leave a window unlocked in the school band room so that I could break in after-hours and teach myself piano, as my flashlight shone upon the keyboard.

That was just a sample of my dedication.

I marched in State Fair the summer after graduation, before going to college. After all of the state competitions and various bands in school, I ventured to LA in 1986 to become a pro musician. Drumming in a rock band was what I had wanted to do since I was old enough to speak the words.

1987 Home
On my own: My first apartment, and finally, my own drums [1987].
For a while, I did not even own any instruments. I’d still get gigs, by using drums at rehearsal halls. For gigs, I would rent drums from the band before or after us, giving them my pay. Later, I would ask the club owner if I could sweep floors for a few bucks or  a sandwich.

 

I relied on the kindness of others, which did not always work out. Sometimes I was homeless and would have to sleep behind dumpsters.

On the toughest of nights, I would be sleeping behind a dumpster, crying myself to sleep because I was hungry and the pain was unbearable. People who are not driven do not put themselves through this.

I was in a strange city that was not welcoming, two thousand miles from what used to be “home.” That was the power of the pull my dreams had.

I had prepared for my entire life to do this. I took every chance I could. I worked hard. I struggled and made things happen. After giving it my all, I would push to give a bit more.

steel panther.jpg
The expectations of 80s rock stars were so bad that making fun of it is now big business.

I almost got signed once. For every band in which I played, there were dozens of bands that rejected me, for reasons that had nothing to do with music.

 

I didn’t have the right “look,” which was often times things like not having “metal hair,” or not having a buff physique.

These attributes eventually became more important than the music itself, which had become generic, homogenized, and lame. There was nothing rebellious or driving about it.

In order to survive, I adapted my outlook.

My original goal was to make a living with music. I didn’t need fame, and had no interest in being a rock star. I just wanted to make music.

Adapting meant joining the work force, which did not really pay all that well. I was working 40 hours per week, my roommate was working 40 hours per week as well. We had nothing, and sometimes found ourselves being so hungry that we’d to go McDonald’s to eat out of trash cans. Other times, we’d ask for ketchup packets and take it home.

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
On occasion, I would tell my story to someone who claimed to be interested. The most common responses that I got were upsetting, as well as insulting. When they said these things, they did not realize that they were declaring me a loser to my face. With most other scenarios, this would never happen. Somehow, when discussing music career pursuits, it’s a different story.

“Obviously, you did not try hard enough.” My experience tells a different story. There’s really not much else that I can add to this, beyond what I’ve already written.

“You weren’t good enough.” I actually did believe this for a while, until I met other incredible musicians who also did not get anywhere in the music business, or who got ripped off, exploited, or unceremoniously dumped into the cultural garbage bin.

Today, many of the acts that are a big deal in the industry involve those who have no musical talent, which is another discussion.

“You’re making excuses.” This usually comes from people who buy into the junk psychology that self-help motivational speakers spew out. “If you work hard enough, then you can achieve anything.” What this phrase does not tell you is that it is very possible to work really hard and then NOT get anywhere.

I could point to the vast array of great musicians who have also gotten nowhere, as well as those who were once celebrated and are now forgotten. To get ridiculous about it, I could ask how well Beethoven or Vivaldi are selling these days.

But you can also look to other industries. A former co-worker started a restaurant with his husband in West Hollywood about ten years ago. We would cross paths from time to time, and he would talk about how difficult it was.

He had no idea how hard it would be to get a restaurant off the ground. And I know how much passion he puts into his work, because we worked together for a few years.

Close to 60% of restaurants fail within their first year. The popular sentiment is that 90-95% fail. 60% is the correction in publications, so I’m putting my bet on it being somewhere between these two numbers.

A WORD ON FAILURE
Of course, I did fail in some instances. There were some auditions where I did not live up to expectations. No excuses there! In fact, I am still very capable of failing today, and I expect that I will be failing a lot more in the future.

The point is to do it, and to find out.

Putting all of the blame on other things, other people, or situations, would be unreasonable, unrealistic, and immature. While I accepted my failures and learned from them, I also had to accept the hard reality of the overall situation.

ACCEPTING REALITY
Hindsight is 20/20 in this case. MTV had changed what people expected in music. It is romantic to think that if I had started my pursuits ten years earlier [were I born ten years earlier], that I would have had a better time of it. However, reading about musicians from the late 60s and early 70s has me convinced that this would probably not have been the case.

Making excuses involves complaining or being down about it. That’s not what I’m doing here, in case anyone is not getting my point. I wouldn’t blame you for not getting it, because you cannot see me while I’m writing, and cannot hear my voice.

I’m not complaining. I’m accepting the reality of the situation.

If I had to find one thing to complain about, it’s the people who tell me to my face that I didn’t work hard enough, or that I didn’t want it enough. Their ignorance of the big picture is staggering, which is why their negativity does not stick with me. I forgive them, for they know not of which they speak.

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LIMES
This is when you take those limes and search for some tequila. That is exactly what I did, after one band rejected me, citing that I “looked too much like Pee-Wee Herman.”

IMG_0250I then spent six months studying the character, learning the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors. I learned to think like the characters so that I could improvise. I learned magic tricks and made up games. And with that, I started working for myself as a professional Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.

Like most other entertainment ventures, it was a seasonal thing. Nobody would be hiring me around Christmas. But when spring and summer birthdays were happening, I was in demand.

I got so popular that a business used a photo of me in their pizza shop, which was posted in a story in The Israeli Shelanu, with a caption that roughly translates to “Pee-Wee loves Picasso Pizza.”

This resulted in my receiving an angry call from his lawyers. That’s how you know when you’ve made a name for yourself. I let them know that I was there for a party, I had no idea what they were doing, and I did not read that paper. Still, they gave me a big list of things that I was not allowed to do.

peewee-shelanu.jpg
I see why Mr. Reubens’ lawyers were not happy about this. I had no idea this was happening.

Their list would turn out to be rather ironic, because my business came to a crashing halt due to the scandal, where Mr. Reubens was caught masturbating in an adult movie theatre. Really, what do they expect people do in these venues? But I digress.

After this happened, I called his lawyers back, and let them know that I was put out of business by their client. It was a brief call. I closed with, “Maybe you should have given your own client a list, too.”

The business died, and it was not because I was not working hard. In this case, I worked very hard, and got some reward, for a little bit. Sometimes things sort of work out.

A RETURN TO MUSIC
After that went away, I returned to music as a songwriter. I had co-written a musical in 1987, which is still in production today [2018], so why not?

Viewing myself not as a star, but as a support player, I found a singer and wrote an album for her. Below is a clip of us having our first run-through of the flagship song from that album. Half-way through the two-minute clip, the audio switches from first-run demo to finished product.

This did not get anywhere, even though we had incredible financial backing. Ultimately, the singer ran off with the master tapes, returning to The Philippines. Lesson learned. At least it didn’t fail because I did not work hard.

I did get some solid studio experience from it, working with a great producer and solid studio musicians. There is always something to learn in the studio, even if you’ve done it before. The experience was not a total loss. More about that idea later.

Sosband1BACK TO DRUMMING
I made a return to drumming with a band in the late 1990s, and kept on through today. Almost all of the bands I was involved with worked hard. The ones that did not work hard were unable to keep me around for long.

However, something was different this time around. I wasn’t struggling to “make it” in the music business anymore. I wasn’t relying on music for money.

Instead, I was back to a place where I had once started, where my love for music, and what music gave me in return, was in play.

It felt great.

labrum tearMY LATEST ACTS OF RE-INVENTION
In March of 2014, I had a labrum tear in my right shoulder. The pain was unbearable, so much that I could not lay down to sleep for a month. Thanks to physical therapy and lots of work, I was able to mostly recover within a few years.

Of course, this meant that I could not play drums for quite some time. Being a drummer, lugging lots of gear is required. I could not even do this.

The band I joined in 2003, Noodle Muffin, had stopped gigging in 2009. I kept playing drums, fretless bass, guitar, keyboard, and any other instrument they wanted me to play on their recordings. This inspired me to beef up my own home recording studio, so that I could do more.

MD02 AKAI Professional MPD18I found value in the art of finger drumming, using the AKAI MPD18 with Addictive Drums [in Reaper] as a way of getting drums that sound more played than programmed.

When I got my home studio to a certain point, I started taking guitar lessons with my guitar consultant. He had sold me almost all of my guitars. He knew what I had and what might be a good addition to my collection.

He also knew what kind of music I liked. We worked on the basics for a while, until I hit a wall. It was through no fault of his, and ended up being an issue that I did not even know that I had.

A LATE DIAGNOSIS OF ASPERGER’S
I stopped taking lessons from him, while recommending to others that they study with him, since he’s a really good teacher.

I did not yet know if the problem was with him or me.

I had to find out what was wrong, so I went to get help. I agreed to a battery of intelligence and psychological tests. At the same time, I had started studying with another guitar instructor.

The IQ test results were very good. But the other tests concluded that I had Asperger’s, which is on the Autism spectrum and is classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. While there is no cure for this, there are ways to work around at least some of the issues.

I let my new instructor know about this. So far, we have been able to work around or through some of my issues. He has a better understanding of my issues than most people, which has turned out to be helpful.

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
Someone close to me, whom I will not name, asked me why I was taking guitar lessons, and what I was going to do with my guitar lessons. In their mode of literal thought, the natural progression is to get paid to play guitar in a band, or something along these lines. As someone with Asperger’s, I can relate to literal thought.

Through these lessons, I’m learning lots of new things. I’m taking on some difficult challenges as well.

Learning new things keeps a person’s brain active and engaged. It sparks creativity, opening the mind up to new ideas. It’s a way to keep growing. It’s making me a better musician overall. It’s making me a better guitar player, for nobody else but me.

I’m doing it for me, and I cannot think of a better person or a better reason.

MORE ABOUT MY ASPERGER’S DIAGNOSIS
It was hard to accept at first, especially when I learned that there is no cure for it. What made it difficult was seeing the horrible attitudes that others have about Asperger’s, as well as Autism in general.

Autistic Guitar Reddit.jpg
This message courtesy of the sensitive people on Reddit.

Looking back, I could see the impact that this had on my life. There were things that would happen, and I would always wonder why.

Sure, one cannot change the past. The good news was that parts of my past made sense. The bad news was that I was unclear about what this would mean about my future. Was there anything I could do about this?

The answer to this riddle certainly seemed bigger than sprouting an impressive mane of hair or turning into Pee-Wee Herman.

A BIG DECISION TO MAKE
At first, I felt devastated, as if my life was over. I’d been dealt a bad hand, and now I have to suffer it until I die. Maybe I should re-invent myself again, but this time do it for me.

The big trick to re-inventing one’s self is that it gets more difficult as you get older. Society expects people in their 50s to know what they’re doing, to be established, and to be settled. This is not how my life worked out. I know why, and I have accepted it.

EMBRACING THE NEWS
I could easily get depressed about this news, feel badly about it, or even use it as an excuse. For me, it’s more of an explanation than an excuse, even though it is the reason for some of the things that have happened to me in the past. Viewing it as an explanation was a good start.

Then I decided to not feel badly about it, and instead try to figure out how it worked for me. I have since learned that this is how I am able to memorize music and retain it. It’s how I can learn and memorize songs that are linear, and not modular. It’s also how I can do the same thing over and over and over again without getting bored by it. Instrument rehearsal involves a great deal of repetition.

As for those who are derogatory toward those who have Asperger’s or other types of Autism, I had to deal with that. The first thing is to understand that they’re ill-informed, and are broadcasting their ignorance the world. This allows me to have a laugh at their ignorance; an issue that can actually be fixed.

Dan Fender Autistic Telecaster.jpg

In a symbolic act of acceptance, I went out and got myself one of those “Autistic” guitars: A 2015 Fender Limited Edition American Standard Butterscotch Blonde Double-Cut Telecaster.

Only 500 of these were manufactured during the Fender “10 for ’15” campaign, so they’re actually difficult to find. Out of the ten different guitars that Fender made for this promotion, Vice President of Fender Product Marketing Justin Norvell said this particular model is, “quirky,” as well as “off-beat” and “a guaranteed collector’s item.”

It sounds and plays like a dream. I suspect that I love this guitar because of this, but also because it gets made fun of online. I’ve been made fun of online in the past. We relate to each other.

COPING WITH BAD ATTITUDES
You can stay positive about yourself all the live-long day. But when others take a bad attitude toward you, then simply staying positive is not enough.

You have to also be able to cope with people who have bad attitudes and what they have to say about you. Whether it’s indirect, such as the Reddit post, or pointed directly at me, it can have an impact.

Whether a person speaks in a hurtful way out of ignorance, or out of malice, I cannot control what they say. What I can do is control whether or not I will react to it. Reacting is emotional. Sometimes reactions can be overly-inflated in proportion to what is being said and who is saying it.

I have the power to respond to it, when appropriate, and to ignore it when it is not important. Who is the person saying these things? Are they important to me? Are they making a good, useful point? As my grandmother said, “Consider the source, and then ignore it.”

Refusing to let others ruin my day is the best thing for me to do.

TO SUMMARIZE
I could have ended up bitter about my lack of commercial and financial success in my attempts to get into the mainstream industrial music business in the mid-1980s. Instead, I accepted the reality of the situation. I also accepted my own failures, learned from them, and grew as a person.

I could have given up, put away my instruments, and moved on. Instead, I made adjustments to my life and my goals after accepting the reality of it all. In the chaos, I remembered that music was always an important part of my life. I am fortunate to not have lost that.

I could have quit when I had my labrum tear in early 2014. Instead, I modified my focus and adjusted what I was doing, so that I could keep music in my life.

I could have become stagnant with my music. Instead, I sought out instruction and knowledge, and worked to improve for myself.

Life is work. It’s a struggle. It will always be difficult for almost everyone. Re-inventing one’s own self after age 50 is a daunting task. The way I see it, I’m here, and I get the opportunity to do this.

I got to give my dreams a shot. I can look in the mirror and say that I did my best. I also learned how important music is to me, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.

As a result, I still have music in my life, and I have no regrets about what happened or how it all ended up.

IN THE END
Not only do I accept the hard work that I put into life, as well as into re-inventing myself, but I am proud of it.

Just as there are those who will say that I did not work hard enough, there are also those who will suggest that “the universe has a plan” for me. I do not buy this, for if the universe had a plan for me, then I’d not have to work hard or re-invent myself. Instead, I could sit back and enjoy the plan. At the very least, it would be good if the universe would tell me about this plan. That’s why I do not buy into this idea.

But if the universe were an actual being that was focusing its intelligence and plans for me, I would tell the universe to not waste its time. I would ask it to instead focus on the other people in the world who have very difficult lives. People who are sick, injured, or in really bad situations that are bleak.

Do not help me, universe. I’m doing fine and I have a good life. There is a long list of others who need the help way more than I do.

Now let’s go see what today has in store for us.

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