Driving back to the house last night, Danny volunteered from the back seat:
“I don’t think I can be a Formula One driver.”
I immediately asked the obvious question – why? – and his response surprised me a bit.
“I think I’m probably too lazy.”
That sparked a conversation about why he perceived himself in that light, and a pretty lengthy discussion about the roles that talent and opportunity play in the arc of a persons’ life, and whether it’s fair to self-identify as “lazy” when the truth is probably closer to the notion that he lives in a world mostly devoid of opportunity to pursue such things.
Wendy (Danny’s mom) has often said of herself that she’s intimidated by trying things if she can’t do them at a certain level of proficiency right out of the gate…it’s not a fear of failure as much as a fear of humiliation, and Danny certainly shares that. His frustration boils to the surface almost immediately if he doesn’t meet his own standards in pretty short order, and if he falls too far short of his expectations, it can get ugly.
None of this is to say that I don’t fall on my own sword on a regular basis when I don’t live up to my own expectations…I’ve never exactly been a bottomless well of self-confidence at any point in my life. I think that the difference might be that I channel that frustration into anger and use it as fuel to push myself to get as close to my own standards as I can (with some things, anyway…fiddle – as fate would have it – was not one of them).
As we were talking last night, though, I think I realized two things that had never really occurred to me before.
ONE – there’s literally zero reason I ever should have had ANY degree of success whatsoever in the music business.
(and yeah, the whole “definition of success” wormhole is right there, waiting for whoever wants to descend into it to take that leap…for the purposes of this conversation, I define it as “learning to play several instruments, training my ear to the degree that I’ve been able to play in bands, write songs, record in studios and make records that I love for artists I love and for myself”, yada yada…” – seriously, none of those things should have been available to me.)
I was born in Savannah, Tennessee in 1965 and spent my formative years there…other than being just across the state line from Muscle Shoals, there was very nearly NO musical community there. A few bluegrass pickers and hobbyists here and there, but it was very nearly non-existent. By the time I reached my teens, I’d managed to find a few like-minded folks here and there, but there were a total of maybe three bands in my hometown…even then.
When the band Alabama played at the football stadium in my hometown in 1980 or so, I think every local band within an hours’ drive was also on the bill as an opener.
My transformation from a comic book-and-baseball obsessed kid into a radio-addicted pre-teen and teenager was one hundred percent internal. I would stand at the magazine rack at the supermarket and read Circus and Creem and Hit Parader while my mom pushed the cart up and down the aisles. I listened to the radio incessantly, formulating hundreds of questions in my head about why this band sounded different from that band, I formed allegiances at junior high school based on music and…well, not much else, really. It’s pretty much all I gave a shit about, so I didn’t really want to be bothered hanging out with kids who didn’t love it as much as I did. Thank God I found a few.
The fact that I managed to overcome all that and learn what I did and put that information to use is…well, the more I think about it, the more it kinda blows my mind. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, into the wee hours this morning and throughout the day today as I’ve mulled it all over.
There’s no rational reason it ever should have happened for me.
OK, TWO – in my formative years, I was literally too naive NOT to take wildly unlikely and ridiculous chances.
I had a relative – Loyd Stricklin – who worked in radio as an announcer, and when my mother told me about him, I wouldn’t shut up until she introduced me to him…and I became a pain in his ass. This is not up for discussion, and I won’t be convinced otherwise…there’s just no way the poor bastard didn’t groan inside when he caught sight of me. Yet, to his credit, he must have seen something in my boundless curiosity and enthusiasm…because he answered all my questions, he suffered my hounding with a great deal of patience, and he even brought me a box of 45’s from the attic of the radio station.
Later, when he opened WKWX, he’d allow visits while he was on the air…and after the other announcers got to know me, they’d let me watch over their shoulders while they worked as well (well, except for Mel Carnal…I don’t think he disliked me, but he certainly didn’t have the patience for my bullshit that Loyd had.
One morning, I was at the radio station when two guys came in – both with long hair and beards, one blond and one brown – bringing copies of a record they’d just made at their brand new recording studio THAT WAS IN MY HOMETOWN.
I couldn’t believe that there was an actual rock band IN SAVANNAH that wasn’t a bunch of old guys in cowboy hats playing Flatt & Scruggs songs or country gospel quartets that played at church on Saturday nights…and here these guys were, in the lobby of the radio station, hawking their new record.
Did I have questions?
I had questions.
And again, they couldn’t have been nicer.
“So do you guys have a drummer?”
“Well, yeah…his name is Korgy.”
“Yeah…it’s actually a box with buttons on it…it’s made by Korg, so we call him Korgy.”
The TL:DR version of the conversation – they weren’t actually playing live shows, so for the time being they saw themselves as a songwriting and recording entity more than anything else…they were trying to get the studio going as a profitable entity, and they were making their own records both to promote themselves and their music AND to try to get the studio on the map.
But I was too young and too green not to go ahead and ask:
“So do you guys hire session musicians?”
They both looked at each other, then back at me and said, “Sure – when we need them. Did you want to audition?”
So these guys gave me their phone number, the address to the studio, directions, and told me what nights they were usually there, and to call when I’d be able to come by and we could play a few songs together and see where I was.
Now, at the time, I was a drummer.
I was a drummer who didn’t really own a legitimate set of drums, but as far as I was concerned, I was a drummer.
These guys didn’t have to give me the time of day, but they did.
I guess they figured that if I had the balls to ask, that they weren’t gonna piss in my cornflakes and tell me I couldn’t…that’s what I tell myself all these years later, anyway.
But, I mean…not only did I not own a gig-worthy set of drums…I didn’t really know how I was gonna get to the studio. We didnt’ have a car.
But again, because I wasn’t really capable of shame, I suppose…I got my mom to ask my Aunt Betty to drive me from Walnut Grove to Savannah at the appointed hour and she sat and waited for me while I was inside.
I knocked on the door and Frankie Briggs invited me in with his trademark giant smile and re-introduced me to Pat Durbin, who’d accompanied him to the station – and to their guitarist, Jerry Opdycke…who seemed a little irritated at the time at the disruption, but cordial enough.
It was the first time I’d ever been inside a recording studio, and it seems quaint now to think about how awestruck I was by what was essentially an exercise in floor-to-ceiling carpeting with mic stands hanging from overhead and XLR jacks in the ceiling…but I didn’t want to leave.
They sent me into the drum booth and we played three of their original songs and a cover of “Two More Bottles of Wine” and my life was both saved from an inevitable impending mediocrity and irreversibly scarred at the same time.
I already had an inkling of where I wanted to go, but after that night, I was all but certainly useless to whatever academic pursuit of a “career” might have been forced onto my plate later on in school.
Now, I hear you asking yourself already…and I appreciate your indulgence…
“Did I ever get a call from them for a session?”
Well…no. No, I didn’t.
I went on to play drums in my friend Jeff’s family band and toyed around with a few garage bands in my early teen years, but they never called me for a session.
They called me and invited me to join their band.
It was several years later, and they’d run the studio as best as they could, but they’d decided that they wanted to start playing live shows…and they wanted to hire a drummer and a keyboard player.
They still had my name and number on a card on the wall of the studio.
So they read me off a short list of songs to learn over the phone, and I went down and got the gig.
Opie, the disgruntled guitarist, became a lifelong friend, hero, role model, confidante, and – later in life – my head cheerleader as things started to go well for me.
When he died almost seven years ago, I learned that he’d left a handwritten note in the case of his beloved Fender Stratocaster leaving the guitar to me.
When I went to his house to help his partner clean out his belongings, she gave me a bunch of his other stuff as well…books, photos, notes…but before I left, I asked her what she was planning to do with the stuff hanging in the closet.
She mentioned that it’d probably end up going to Goodwill, so I grabbed a dozen or so of his shirts from the closet and kept them.
I don’t think a week has gone by in these past seven years that I haven’t worn one of Opie’s shirts over the course of a Sunday-to-Sunday span.
I actually wore one to work today, and I’m wearing it as I finish scribbling this story down.
If there’s anything to be taken away from listening to me recount all this, hopefully it can simply be that opportunity comes in a LOT of forms. Sometimes disguised, sometimes accidental, sometimes created out of nothing because we have no idea what the hell we’re doing.
If I hadn’t been green and naive enough to create those opportunities out of those random, serendipitous moments, I’d never have had the life I’ve had.
But if we put ourselves out there and prepare as best as we can for the moment when talent and luck intersect, you never know what will come of it.