Thursday, May 2, 2013

What I learned in California

Right now I’m thinking about the last seven years I spent in Cali.  When I left Massachusetts I was a 29 year old college grad with no idea what his role was in life was.  I would lay in bed wondering what I was supposed to be doing.  Had I missed an important path that would have led me to some greater success in life?  I just wanted to leave Massachusetts, get a fresh start and become the successful person I had always hoped to be.  On one occasion, my dad must have felt this agony from upstairs, and appeared by my bedside.  I told him my issue and he told me I needed to leave Massachusetts and move to California.  He thought a new environment would be good for me and encourage the change I was seeking.

A few months later, my car was packed to the gills with my essential belongings.  I remember the day I left.  I made a CD with all the top 15 songs that made me want to move to California. 

Side Note: From the time I could walk I’ve wanted to move to California.  I also loved music, and turns out, I had been compiling songs the whole time that made me want to move west.  

February 2, 2006: I left to my Dad and the “Mother Cat” dancing in the driveway to this song, the first  in my "Moving to Cali" CD:

When I got to California, I immediately started acting like a regular Massachusetts guy on vacation.  I didn’t change a thing.  I drank, partied, and wanted to fight every Californian who disrespected me or my sports teams.  Let’s just say I had a hard time assimilating, especially with my accent.  Oh yeah, for those of you who live in Massachusetts and have never lived somewhere else, we have a bad reputation.  They think all we do is drink, party, and fight everyone who disrespects us or our sports teams.  Well when I first got here I lived up to that stereotype perfectly.  That behavior, paired with my  accent, landed me the nickname “Chowda.”  My Massachusetts friends hate that nickname, well, because it’s a bit of a regional slur for people from our state.  Being a Chowdahead means being kind of an idiot.  At the time, I was working in a pizza kitchen and the other guys in the kitchen were given even worse nick names.  One guy was named “Hair Pie,” and another was dubbed “Token” because he was the only black guy on the kitchen staff.  So….  In my eyes, “Chowda” wasn’t so terrible.  Actually, people had so much fun saying it and exaggerating the Boston accent, it was kind of fun.  If I wanted to be remembered, it definitely did the trick.

I didn’t know this at the time, but my life was about to take two dramatic turns.  All the partying would finally catch up to me and I was arrested for a DUI.  Getting arrested was a huge shocker to me because in Mass, I had driven much more intoxicated.  Maybe the occasional curb got ran over, but nothing bad ever really happened.  Now that I look back, that logic was so backwards, it makes me laugh and get sad at the same time.  I was also in the process of being hired as a juvenile probation officer by the County of San Diego.  That was now out of the question.

My life would change courses a second time when I met a talented female musician named Rhythm Turner.  She asked me to come by her house and jam with her band.  She eventually invited me to join her band as a permanent member.  I remember playing one of the first shows and telling people I was a member of Rhythm and the Method.  It seemed so comical to me because I didn’t consider myself a musician at all.  I was just a regular guy who liked music.  I actually didn’t know anything about music.  Now I was in a band with people who have played music their whole lives.  It was a learning experience to say the least.  I had to learn how to act like a professional and learn all the ins and outs of performing live music.  I started to become passionate about harmonica and music as a whole.  I began to listen to everything differently and was practicing 300% more.  This turns out to be not that much at all, considering I barely ever practiced.   The band started to snowball and now we were playing 3 or 4 times a week.  It was here where my practice time, knowledge, and love for music grew. 

It was at these early stages when I met a college student at one of our gigs, named Jeanele.  She came to our gig for her 21st Birthday.  She was a young San Diego State student who I would later kiss for the first time on my 32nd birthday a few years later.  This would be the same girl who would eventually accompany me through various stages of my music adventure.  She witnessed all of  my ups and downs onstage, and would always cheer for me.  She was there for all my little successes and definitely heard my mistakes.  When I would play, she would stare at me with the most seductive eyes a human man has ever seen since the beginning of time.  Helen of Troy’s powers paled in comparison and if Jeanele grew up in Mass she would have carried the slogan:  “The eyes that launched a thousand fists”.  (Ba dum dum!)  It’s true… a man plays better when a pretty girl is watching.

I loved music so much that it was all I wanted to do.  I didn’t care if I was broke, I just wanted to mess with music all day.  It grew to the point that I quit my job to take 6 months out of my life to just play music.  This is an interesting decision for a person with a minimal life’s savings.  I wasn’t scared for some reason.  I had this idea, and maybe to a fault, that I would be taken care of.  I felt like I had a safety net and I could take some chances.  Maybe it helped that my dad again encouraged me to take another chance.  I’ve always respected his opinion.   Maybe it was my girlfriend, who I still can’t believe encouraged her boyfriend to become an out of work musician.  What girl in the entire universe would do that?  Is she real, is this real life?  I always felt strange telling people that music was the reason I quit my job.  I always felt that if you quit your job to concentrate on music, then you better be the next Bruce Springsteen.  You had better be amazing because they are going to judge you and your abilities right away.  As the old saying goes, “Don’t quit your day job”.   Well I quit, not because I think I’m going to be a famous musician, but because I am miserable at work day dreaming about music all day.  The truth is, I was miserable the entire work day in Mass when I had zero passion in my life.  In Mass I would lay awake and wonder if I would ever find something…. Anything to feel passion and love for.  “Please send me a message God... what I’m supposed to be doing?”.  That was the prayer on those nights.  Well, now I had found that thing… it was music… it was blues… it was harmonica…  it was performing.  I wanted to do it all even if it would make me broke and I never received any recognition at all.  I just wanted to do that. And why shouldn’t I, because I'll be judged?  I knew in my heart, as long as I didn’t lose the love of my girlfriend and my two parents I would be happy.  With these three people on my side, I’m not afraid to do anything.

“I have to die when’s it time for me to die, so let me live my life they way I want to” –Jimi Hendrix

I have been on an interesting adventure here in California and now I’m headed back to the east coast with passion and a beautiful girl.  In this time I learned about myself and went through some things I never thought I would.

Things I never thought I would experience:
  • Sleeping in a tent located in a friends backyard when I first got to San Diego
  • Playing in a band in front of 4,000 college kids in an arena with a 20,000 watt PA system
  • Living with two lesbian roommates who became my adopted sisters
  • Moving to the gay section of town, as a straight man, and having more lesbian friends than dude friends
  • Getting arrested for DUI and basically making my criminal justice degree null and void
  • Staying in on NYE, my birthday, St. Patricks Day, Cinco de Drinco, and Saturday night and being completely happy with that decision
  • Becoming homeless and sleeping in my car for a good two months (true story, don’t tell Janys)
  • Owning a dog, living with a girl, and tending a garden with various plants around our house (the old me shaking his head in disgust. The current me just gave the old me the middle finger)

These last 7 years led up to a high point when I was invited to perform at Spring Harp Fest, an annual harmonica festival.   In 2009, I entered and won their harmonica contest known as the Unknown Players Jam.  This was a turning point in how I viewed myself and my abilities.  I though “Hey, I’m actually getting good at this instrument and people like how I play.”   I was more excited about the audiences' reaction to my playing than the trophy I won.  After that day, I started to move my way up the ranks at Harp Fest.  The next year the organizers had me come up and take one solo, then 2012 I got to play an entire song in front of one of my harmonica heroes, Jason Ricci.  He told me he was proud of my performance and how I worked with the band.  Then, in 2013, I had a spot on the  Harp Fest bill and a 30 minute set.  I wanted to use this as my crowning achievement in music.  I had now been in Cali for seven years and played in bands for the last six.  In that time, I had gone back to college to study music and take up guitar and piano.  I wanted to push myself to do what I was always hesitant to do, sing and front a band. 

Side Side Note: I once took a lesson from the great harmonica player Jerry Portnoy.  The lesson actually sucked, but I’ll never forget the first 5 mins if the lesson as long as I live.  He asked me to sing…………  “SING????” I thought.   “Yeah, sing Mary had a little lamb” he said.  Well I started singing and it was the most horrific sound any one has ever heard.  I was completely embarrassed and didn't even know all the words.   He pulled no punches and told me “If you can’t sing the notes, how do you expect to play them on harmonica?  If I had to do it all over again I would have practiced singing just as much as I practiced harmonica.  You won’t get anywhere just being a harmonica player.”  How could Jerry Portnoy be unhappy with anything in his career, he’s toured with Eric Clapton!  He was in Muddy Waters' Band and Muddy only had legends play harmonica in his band!

Well, I decided I was going to sing at least one song at Harp Fest.  I didn’t care if it was bad.  I was going to sing and play the poop out of my harmonica.   I also decided I was going to work harder on this than I ever worked in my life.  There were a lot of people who were now invested in me, emotionally and financially.  I wanted to prove to them that the last few months I had been working hard on music and that their investment was now going to pay dividends.  I also wanted to prove to myself, a recovering life-long procrastinator, that I was a hard worker and I was driven.  I want to bust my ass so hard that when I walked off the stage at Harp Fest I knew in my heart that there was nothing more I could have done to ensure success.  I was going to bust my hump learning to sing and learning to front a band.  As long as I didn’t lose the love of the people who are closest to me, I was not afraid.

It wasn’t easy and I often needed inspiration to keep me going.  When I really needed a boost, I watched this video I made was for a project at Mira Costa College.  My assignment was to create all the audio for an existing youtube clip.  I chose this HBO boxing promotional video that shows a man doing everything he possibly can to ensure success.  He wasn’t going to leave stones unturned and I wanted to live the next few months that way as well.

Here is this school project:

In the video the speaker, Eric Thomas, says, “You don’t want it bad…. You just kind of want it”.  That line really spoke to me.  I knew that if I was going to have a good performance I needed to go all out… I couldn't just “kind of want it”. 

This next video is from Harp Fest.  It captures one of the most successful moments in my life because it was the thing I worked hardest for.  It’s not a perfect performance but if you told me seven years ago that I would assemble some of the best blues musicians in San Diego for a band I’m fronting, write lyrics to a song that I am singing, play at a harmonica festival headlined by the legendary Rod Piazza, in front of hundreds of people including my dad... I would think you were dreaming.  

Here is the video:

 The lyrics:

My hearts charged with Lightnin’
It’s all Muddy in my head
My hearts charged with Lightnin’
It’s all Muddy in my head
My souls a Howlin’
And it won’t stop till I’m dead

The piston's pumpin’
And the needle’s buried red
The piston’s pumpin’
And that needle’s buried red
I’m filled with desire
And my engine is well fed

The song is all about finding my passion.  I did it.

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