Posts Tagged ‘Nashville Tennessee’

No post in nearly 2 months! What’s wrong with me? Did I die? Has something horrible happened? No, quite the contrary. I’ve been busy with moving. I also slowed down on posting a bit to start working on a full fledged memoir. We’ll see how that turns out. Still, writing all this stuff feels good and I think I’ll keep doing it now that I’m settled.

I’ve recently moved to Nashville, which has been an aspiration of mine for a while. I think I may have mentioned several posts back that I was a songwriter as a kid (among other things) – pushing out cheesy MIDI demos and throwing them at anyone who even stopped to look at me. I was billed (by mom, and – somewhat reluctantly – by myself) as a Kid Genius. A Boy Wonder. A Musical Prodigy. It made me feel like a gimmick, like a circus act. But somehow, I got attention. Publishers listened. Although nobody took my songs, they were supportive and offered advice. Except for one. Moving to Nashville has put me in mind of that incident, and it got me thinking I ought to confront it.

I remember getting off the phone and being totally psyched – a friend of a friend knew the head of a giant publishing house. He had agreed to meet me one on one and listen to my music. My friend had graciously talked me up, and piqued his interest. I began to suspect later that the publisher’s interest was more in the vein of arm twisting than interest, but that’s neither here nor there.

I brought my best songs along – all in all, about ten – and mentally tried to prepare myself for a meeting. I hoped that he would listen to some of these songs (which I was sure were hits, because I was a Boy Genius) and decide to give me a publishing deal or something. At minimum, I thought it would be a contact I could pitch music to later. My biggest contact, certainly – I had never set foot in such a big publishing firm, much less seen the top guy’s office. I waited in the lobby for him, and was surprised when he came from the street instead of the elevators. He brushed past a secretary trying to give him a message and flicked his hand my way. Come on, it said. Let’s go. I’m a Very Busy Person. I’ve been around my share of Very Busy People (or Very Important Persons, or Very Late Persons), so right off the bat I knew my time was limited. We rode up in the elevator together, and I tried to break the ice with him.

“How was your drive in?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said, glancing at his watch.

For all I knew, he wasn’t even aware I was in the elevator with him. He was staring silently at the doors. Unable to read his mood, I canned the banter and rode all the way up in silence.

When he got to his office, he seemed to relax a little bit. I could see him expand, almost like a peacock. He gestured for me to take a seat across from his desk, and I did. He kicked his  feet up on his desk, and I was surprised to see scuffed white tennis shoes as opposed to something more fitting for someone of his caliber. I looked around the room at the gold and platinum records hanging on the walls, the nicely appointed furnishings. I looked at the large window behind him and saw the city beneath us. I felt like I had arrived. Maybe not at my final destination, but certainly I was in the presence of greatness. And certainly, that greatness would recognize the same in me.

I watched him settle into his office chair (leather, of course) and stroke his salt and pepper goatee.

“Well. Let’s hear what you got,” he said, lacing his hands across his midriff.

I pulled out what I considered to be my best song. Russ had advised me against doing this, for whatever reason – he insisted I should always lead with my second best song, and then surprise them with a really good one. I wanted to impress right off the bat, though, and I hit him with my equivalent of heavy artillery. I listened as my song snaked its way through the boom box speakers. I had heard it many times, of course – was even sick of it by now – but to hear it in that space was a rush. I tried to read his face as he listened to the song.

“It sucks,” he said, jamming his finger on the EJECT button.

I was speechless. I went over the song again in my head, trying to examine it for flaws. I did see some, but I didn’t think it “sucked” by any stretch. He plopped the tape in my hand.

“Next,” he said.

I carefully selected the next song – one I thought would surely get his attention if this one didn’t. I don’t think it even made it through the first chorus before his sausage finger had jammed the EJECT button again.

“No. Heard the same song fifty times already. And every one was better than this.”

Again, the tape was deposited into my reluctant palm.

I studied his face, but found it rather stoic. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t hostile. He was just matter of fact. That’s what made the shredding I was taking worse.

He raised his eyebrows, indicating that he was ready to hear more. I gave him another one – this one was an uptempo about a factory worker who was forced into retirement. Every other publisher had been positive about it, assuring me that my writing was “heading in the right direction”. He listened through the first chorus and stopped the tape again. It echoed like a gunshot.

He was shaking his head. It was the type of weary reaction you might give to a dog that has shit on the carpet so frequently that it wasn’t a surprise anymore.

“No. Just,” he seemed to be searching for words. “Where are you from again?”

Philly,” I said, which was more or less true. Nobody outside of the area would have known the suburb I was from anyway.

“Philly.” he repeated, in a tone I couldn’t quite discern.

I waited for him to gather his thoughts.

“You know what they make in Philly?” he asked

I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question or not. I didn’t answer.

“Cream cheese. You know what they don’t make in Philly?”

I was doing my best to maintain eye contact – the treacherous orbs in my head wanted to look everywhere else but the face sitting across the desk.

Country music.” He slapped the tape on his desk, and slid it across to me. The plastic cackled against the wood grain.

“You’re from north of the border. You understand? You don’t get country. You don’t play country. You don’t live it. Go do something else.”

Tired of struggling, my eyes were studying the pattern of the expensive rug beneath my feet.

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked sullenly.

“If you want to be a writer, go write rock or something in California. You don’t belong here,” his voice was matter of fact. A judge passing a sentence.

“You got more to show me?”

I did, but I most certainly did not want to continue to be eviscerated. Still, I passed him another tape. Within the first few seconds, he was already shaking his head.

“You’re nowhere near the caliber of writers here. No. Anything else?”

I shrugged. I had at least three more songs, but I didn’t want to hear how awful they were. I tried to stammer something about how I was pretty good for my age, and I had no doubt I would only grow as a writer. He looked at me impassively, then scanned some printed lyrics I had passed him earlier.  Studying my contact info (listed neatly at the top) he tried to pronounce my last name and got a reasonable (though incorrect) approximation.

“You a Jew?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“No…” I said.

“Huh,” he grunted, as if he thought I might not be telling the truth, but it didn’t matter much to him either way. Suddenly he was up on his feet.

“Well. Nice meeting you.”

“You too.” I mumbled.

We rode back down on the elevator together. There was no conversation. He was staring at the doors, and I was staring at my feet.  I felt like my face was burning up, and certainly my ego was stinging. He was tapping his foot, as if that would make the elevator go faster.

On the way out the door, I stopped him to shake his hand.

“Next time I’m in town, would it be okay if I stopped by with some new songs?” I asked.

“Sure,” his voice said. But his face said “Don’t bother.”

He walked out, whistling.

Shell shocked, I walked out to our idling Ford Escort. Mom was behind the wheel, her seat reclined.

“How’d it go?” she asked excitedly.

“Uh…fine,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it.

“Did he like it? Did he say he’d pitch any of the songs?” she pressed.

“Um,” I said, trying to find words, “he wasn’t really interested.”

Mom’s reaction was almost comical. She practically slammed on the brakes and pulled over.

“He wasn’t interested!?” she practically shrieked in surprise, “What did you play him?”

I told her I played him almost everything. I listened while she rattled on – what went wrong, what I should have said, that I should have argued with him about how good the songs really were – but I didn’t have the energy to interact. I was totally deflated.

To say I went home with my tail between my legs is an understatement. I spiraled into a black depression that lasted for six months. Plenty of people thought I was good – plenty supported me. Hell, I even had an open door to some publishers whenever I was in town. But this. This hurt. And it carried more weight, because he was a Very Important Person.

My writing stagnated. I didn’t stop writing completely, exactly – mom and Russ still pushed me to come up with songs every week – but my efforts were halfhearted and sparse. I convinced myself that I must have sucked pretty hard to warrant that reaction. I went back and listened to all the songs I had written, and read the lyrics. I furiously hated them all. There’s a story that Picasso spent months on a series of paintings, and an art dealer came over to look at them. He marveled at Picasso’s work. After he left, Picasso slashed every painting with a box cutter. I don’t claim to be Picasso, but I completely understand.

It took me a long time to get over that, and even longer to be willing to come back to Nashville. I took the man’s lukewarm advice, and began to write pop/rock. I even had some success. I’ve learned a lot in the fifteen years since, though. I learned that I wasn’t ready, at age sixteen, to be a writer in this town. I was good – probably great for my age – but truly, I wasn’t on the level of some of the greats. So, in that sense, some of what the publisher told me was true. He was, I suppose, just being unvarnished and direct. Or, he was an asshole. I still haven’t decided. I’ve also heard writer’s tell tales of publishers who ripped you apart – really ran you through the wringer – because they wanted to see what you were made of. They wanted to see if you had the drive to come back even stronger. Write a better song, maybe. I don’t know if that works on most people, but it certainly didn’t work on me. If he was looking to see what I was made of, he discovered it – the black jelly of depression and self criticism. The stuff that quits, and can’t get out of bed or shower.

I’ve exorcized some of those demons, I think. Medication helps. If you’ve read the blog at any length, you know I had a lot of them to deal with. Maybe this meeting was just icing on the cake – the final straw in a mountain of straws that created a shit avalanche.

I’ve also learned that self criticism has a place, but it’s important to keep it in it’s place. The opinions of others – both the criticism and the praise – also has a place. And it matters, but not as much as you might think it does. I’ve decided to do the best I can. I always gave the criticism such weight, and paid no attention to praise. That’s not healthy. Neither is the converse. The answer – at least, I think – is to do the best you can. Of the criticism and praise, use what you can and forget the rest. Be happy with your art, and don’t let it be influenced by too many opinions.

And it doesn’t matter how nice of an office you have. You can still be an asshole.

 

As I think I mentioned before, when I wrote music before it was very scattershot – I wrote basically every genre under the sun. Hell, I even wrote a (bad) Reggae type song. But, ultimately, it was important for me to pick a genre and stick with it – and, ultimately, it was decided that I should do country music. At the time – early to mid 90’s – country was exploding. It was also deemed by Mom to be the “easiest” to break into. So, she bought me boots. And hats. And Western style shirts, with fringes. I’m not exactly joking, but I wish I was. I looked like a Nashville tourist, except I was walking around NYC. I didn’t quite have the sense of self to realize I looked like a moron, but as I write this I am literally slapping myself in the forehead. I was cranking out songs by the dozens – by the time I was 16 I’d have over 400 – and each week I’d bring them in to Russ and he’d critique it, deciding if it ought to be recorded. The stuff I was writing at the time was total garbage. Good for my age (12-13) but really bad. To make matters worse, the arrangements were really bad MIDI recordings. Don’t get me wrong – Russ was a brilliant producer – but bad fake synth versions of real instruments make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, that’s what we had to work with – we weren’t going to be hiring live musicians…it would have just been too expensive.

The next step was how to break into the industry. I had a hand in it, in that I agreed that we should go about things this way, but Mom masterminded the whole thing. So how to do it? By going to shows of famous singers and hoping to talk to them in the autograph line. I’m not joking, but I wish I was. You hear that sound? That’s me slapping my head again. So we went to show after show…trying (somehow) to corner these singers and slip them my demo. Even though it rarely worked (I don’t think we ever got close enough, really, a lot of the lines were just too long) Mom wasn’t discouraged. Autograph lines were clearly the way to get discovered. The realization came (painfully slowly) that perhaps trying to accost the headline act wasn’t going to be fruitful. Instead, for whatever reason, Mom decided we should try the opening acts instead. I met some very nice people who graciously listened and took my demo, but it went no further.

A guy came by the back stage door once, when Tim was on Broadway. I don’t remember why or how, but Mom struck up a conversation with him, noticing that he had a Southern accent. She just assumed he was from Nashville (he wasn’t) and that he knew people in the music business (he didn’t – he was some sort of contractor or something). Mom insisted on taking them out to dinner, getting them a backstage tour (which they really appreciated), the works.  They didn’t realize that they were the unwitting recipients of Mom’s craziness. He had a daughter roughly my age, and Mom had it in her head to hook us up.

Mom: I’ll set it all up. He’s very rich…you guys should date.

That was basically the only time me dating people was okay with Mom – if they were rich or influential. Otherwise, they could go to hell. It was almost like she viewed the world in terms of some sort of middle ages royalty type thing – I could only marry “up”. Preferably way up. I really had no interest in the people she wanted to hook me up with, specifically because she wanted to hook me up with them. This was a nice girl and everything, but I wasn’t going to date people for money or influence. I thought (and still do) that was backwards and asinine.

Anyway, Mom talked a lot about my music, and we passed them demos. They graciously listened, but admitted they knew nothing about the music business. Mom seemed to think that was bullshit, and pressed them on the subject anyway. They were really nice about it, and we exchanged numbers and information. After several months (and several demos), Mom kept calling them. Finally the guy threw up his hands, and in as nice a way possible, told her to fuck off.

Guy: Listen…I really appreciate how nice ya’ll have been. But I honestly know nothing about the music industry. I’m a contractor.

Mom: A contractor?

Guy: Yes. I mean…the music’s great, but I can’t help you. I really can’t.

Mom amazingly took no for an answer and dropped pretty much all contact.

I did get a piece of advice from Dolly Parton that was actually rather useful – she directed me to an organization that helped songwriters with their craft. We thought we were getting the brush off, and didn’t really pay it any attention (even though she took the time to write a very nice letter). So clearly getting the attention of famous singers wasn’t working out…what next? Contests. For God’s sake, let’s try some more contests. I did every country contest under the sun. I auditioned for theme parks, for God’s sake. Every year, Opryland (a now shuttered theme park in Nashville) had open auditions for people to sing at their theme park. These people would walk around the park singing or performing or whatever I guess. We spent money on plane tickets to fly down there, hotels, money to enter the contests…etc. I was, of course, very under age – a lot of these had cutoffs of 16 or above. Ironically, even if I had won, I’d have been ineligible to win and thus been disqualified, probably. Anyway…I was always going there singing to tracks of my own original songs –  it always made me feel a lot more like a pageant contestant than an artist. Add to this the fact that everything I did was over-rehearsed – so over-rehearsed that the spontaneity was wrung dry out of every performance. Mom would keep asking me to go over and over and over and over the song, looking for that “one time” that I got it right. When I got it right…I could never get it again. That’s not to say I never got it right in reality. She would just watch and shake her head.

Mom: You know, three times ago? That was it. You don’t have it. You lost it. You’ll never get it again.

Panic would rise in my chest, and I’d think back on what the hell I might have been doing differently three times ago (I could think of almost nothing, and in reality…I was probably correct). I’d try it again and again, hoping for approval.

Mom: It’s…okay. I don’t think you’ll win. If you do it like you did that one time, you’ll get it. But you’re just okay.

She would walk out of the room, concluding the practice session and leaving me with nothing but fear and paranoia that I had somehow missed a shot at greatness.

Anyway, this one time – I think it was my 3rd or 4th  time auditioning for Opryland – this girl auditioned right after me. She was sticking to me like glue the entire time…and finally I got that she liked me. She was like some sort of runner up for a beauty contest or something (I remember her telling me all about it). I was completely oblivious socially, and in my head most of the time, so I had no clue I was being consistently hit on (and hit on very hard, at that). Finally, I think she gave up and just went the direct approach.

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

Me: Oh, I dunno. Probably going back to the hotel.

We bantered for a while about where we were each staying. She kept laughing and touching my arm, which really creeped me out (I really didn’t like being touched as a kid). Finally she leaned in.

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

Me: Uh. I guess I could have iced tea…

Girl: You don’t drink?

I took a moment, as it sunk in what was going on. This girl was in college, at least – I’m guessing maybe 19 or so. I rewround our conversation and realized that she was coming on to me. I was both flattered and perplexed.

Me: Um. I’m 14.

Her jaw dropped, and she walked away red faced and embarrassed. To her credit, I always looked a lot older than I was. Even when I was underage, I was never carded going into an R rated movie, even if all my friends were.

I still remember the first time I went down there. We literally had thrown our bags on the bed, and Mom grabbed the Nashville phone book and plopped it down in front of me.

Mom: Make some calls.

Me: …to who? You want pizza or something?

Mom: No. Call record labels and publishers. See if they’ll meet with you.

In sales, this is known as “cold calling”. It almost never works. More than half the time, I got a disinterested secretary – a secretary who, I have no doubt, received several hundred similar calls a day (conservatively). I was inevitably patched to someone’s voice mail or simply told not to bother.

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

Mom: Did you tell them you were 13? And a prodigy?

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

I sighed, but did as I was bid. I got similar results. One thing I learned as an adult is that you never, ever do what we did when I was a kid. You never go to Nashville waving your demo in everybody’s face, and you certainly don’t go around in a 10 gallon hat. That pretty much screams at everyone that you have no idea what you’re doing, or you’re just an ass. I think I got away with a lot of that because I was a kid, but I certainly would never try such a thing as an adult.

Anyway, after probably hundreds of calls, I got a couple people who were willing to listen (mostly small publishers). I counted this as a victory. They listened very graciously, and offered me their input on my music.

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

Publisher: I want to encourage you, because you are very good. But you need to get a little bit better. You need to be even better than what’s on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Me: I think so, yeah.

Publisher: I’d love to hear more from you whenever you have something new.

I felt at the time that what they were saying was that – because of my age – I really needed to rise above what was out there, ability wise. I think that was true, because it would have been hard to justify hiring a 13 year old if they weren’t the best thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think I was also a curiosity, which sort of went along with the prodigy/genius thing. I often felt like a zoo creature, or an organ grinder’s monkey (considering the clothes Mom put me in, that probably wasn’t far off). I felt like the people that were interested were interested because I was an oddity, not because they necessarily thought I was amazing.

Looking back, even though I made some inroads, I despise the music I created and the way I went about doing things. Not because I hate writing, or hate country music or anything of the sort, but because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t real or true. I was just a monkey in a ten gallon hat, dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.