Boy Genius vs. The World

Posted: December 18, 2012 in Life, Mom, Music, Russ
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The point of the blog for me isn’t self aggrandizement – it’s to say things as they were (or at least as I saw them at the time) flaws and all, including my own. So I hope you’ll forgive my use of the word “prodigy” and “boy genius” in regards to myself. In this case, they’re there to paint a more full picture of how I was seen by my Mother and certain others in my life. Not the least of which, they also illustrate how I felt. I was Extremely Talented, so much so that the Mafia either wanted to “make me” or assassinate me. Yes, it was a fearful time but it was also a time of great possibility and pride for me. All that in mind, you can imagine the blow to my ego when, years later, I finally put the pieces together and realized I wasn’t important enough for anybody to want dead. At the time, though, it was me and Mom vs. the World – along with a small cadre of allies (Uncle Richard and Russ, and Uncle Carlo).

By the time I was 2 1/2, I was carrying full on conversations with adults. By the time I was 4, I had written a short story (well…I call it that liberally. It was probably half a page, about finding a fox in the yard – so, a short short short story?). By 6, I had written my first song. By 10, I had recorded it in a studio, sang on it, and played on it. I somehow got the idea in my head – I’m not entirely sure where this came from, possibly even Mom – that I ought to be a published songwriter. I wrote and produced a jingle for a local diner (the theme of the diner was trains – I made sure the arrangement sounded very train like), and approached them. I remember standing red-faced with embarrassment in front of the counter, asking for the owner. When he came out, I asked him (eyes firmly planted on my shoes) if he would like to hear a jingle I wrote for his diner. He listened, and was delighted. Within a week, it was airing on a local radio station. It was in this way I became the youngest (or one of the youngest) published songwriters in the country.

I wrote from time to time, when the inspiration struck me – perhaps a song a month, or a few songs a year. Mom got it into her head somehow that we needed to keep Russ’s interest, and to do so meant writing a lot of songs. Like, writing songs EVERY DAY. Maybe several a day. Hot resentment bubbled up inside me – I did not like her stepping on my creativity. This felt wrong, this felt like an incursion. Yes, her nocturnal visits where she woke me up and asked insane questions were ridiculous, and yes her constantly dragging me into her rehashing sessions of what Russ said or didn’t say were exhausting, but this was a bridge too far. For the first time in my life, I actually protested. I insisted that creativity was something to be nurtured, it wasn’t a factory – I couldn’t crank out dozens of songs a week.

Mom: Then you’ll never make it. You’ll fail. And they’ll never let you in, or Sit Down and Talk to you.

I was quiet. I did want to be successful, but this felt wrong. In the end, I decided to do as she asked (not that there was really a choice – she would harass me endlessly until I did it anyway). I wrote a song a day, minimum – sometimes 3 a day if I could manage. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, it was important to develop and hone my skills as a writer – the only way to do that was to write consistently and have Russ (himself a seasoned songwriter) critique it. But that also meant churning out what amounted to musical slush. I mean, I turned out some real turds. And I knew full well they were turds as I was writing them. But I bravely typed out the lyrics, recorded the music on my little tape recorder, and presented them to Mom and Russ. About every 10 songs I wrote, I’d hit one that was actually worthy of more attention. We’d spend the lesson with Russ reading over my carefully typed lyrics, listening to me play my songs, and considering what I had written.

Russ: Well…why on earth would you write a song about not being able to get to sleep?

Me: I don’t know…I guess I just felt like writing it.

Russ laughed. Mom laughed.

Russ: Uh. Not your best work, Danny. Next.

And I’d show him the next one, again feeling those hot embers of resentment glowing in my chest. He was complicit in all of this and it made me very angry. I wouldn’t say I hated him for it – I didn’t hate him yet, not then – but I had hoped he would step in on the side of free creativity.

I wrote. I cranked out songs. Between running to auditions and banging out songs at the piano, those were my days, my weeks, my years. If I didn’t write, I was harassed either by Mom or Russ.

Mom: You need to write. You haven’t written yet today.

And I’d gamely sit at the piano and slush out a tune.

If I walked in and didn’t have anything for Russ (which was very, very rare) Russ would shake his head.

Russ: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work. You gotta keep writing, Danny.

The difficulty is that they were probably right – the best writers write every day. I think I just resent the way I was thrust into that world – kicked through the door, if you will. I still struggle with that issue. I still write – not all the time, and not as much as I should. When I don’t write, I’m beating myself up for not writing every day. When I do write, and it’s junk, I beat myself up. Maybe I’d have ended up with this same dilemma regardless of Mom’s machinations. It’s hard to say, but it is one of the bigger issues I’ve wrestled with out of my childhood.

By the time I was 13, I had 600 copyrighted songs to my name. By the time I was 18, it was over a thousand. I stopped counting after that, though I did keep writing. Let’s just say I am prolific.

Genius. Prodigy. Boy Wonder. Many strangers and friends pronounced these names over me. Maybe I was. Who knows? But it became something else to live up to – another pressure. I had heard somewhere that really smart people – people like Einstein or whatever – suffer severe depression. I think they struggle with – and sometimes collapse under – the weight of their own genius. I totally get that. Once that is declared over you, once that label is affixed, that is what you are. You can’t be average any more, you can’t be just alright. You have to be amazing. And that is pressure. And God, do I know it well.

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Comments
  1. Reed says:

    Wow. I’m getting to know you a whole lot better.

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