(This is the 7th chapter in my autobiographical series. It overlaps with, and supplements the previous chapter. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 3, 2020. I have expanded on it for the blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)
Music Moves to the Forefront of my Life
While working at National Semiconductor in Tucson, I had become friends with Gary Roberts, another technician at work, and played casually with him. Gary was a much better musician that me at the time, and was playing some paid solo gigs in Tucson. Here’s a photo of me playing with Gary at a birthday party I organized for myself at my apartment clubhouse in Tucson.
Towards the end of the years at National Semi, I got an idea for a song about the work environment while driving home from work. I wrote it as a parody of the old Muddy Waters blues tune, “Hootchie-Cootchie Man.” When I got home I got out a pen and paper and wrote down as much as I could remember, and then added to it. It was my first song. The company Christmas party was coming up, and they were having a talent show contest. I rounded up Gary to play bass, and another guitar player/technician to play lead guitar. I sang and played harmonica, in my best Muddy Waters imitation. The song ridiculed the company management and got a huge applause. It drove home lesson I already knew from 60’s rock music: the power of combining music with political organizing.
Early Attempts at Joining Bands
I remember auditioning for a New Wave cover band, and playing “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls. But they never called me back, and I realized I needed to get better as a guitar player if I wanted to be in a band, so I took some advanced guitar lessons. I learned songs by The Police and The Church. Up until then, I only knew how to play triad chords– major and minor chords, at the root position and as barre chords. But now I was learning what I was told were “modal” chords– chords that had other tones besides the root, third and fifth. I remember reading an interview with Andy Summers, guitarist for the Police, where he said his motto is to “avoid the 3rd at all costs.” The 3rd is what determines if a chord is major or minor. If you leave it out, the tonality is ambiguous. Andy’s chords would have the root, 5th, and maybe the major 2nd, suspended 4th, and minor 7th. I found out later that Andy had been playing jazz before he joined The Police; these were jazz chords. It opened up a whole new world for my guitar playing. It was the secret to learning how to play the music I loved.
I ran an ad for a band and met a young woman singer. We then recruited a drummer and bass player. I was very clear in my ad that I wanted the band to cover melancholy New Wave songs by bands such as 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, etc. But after a couple months of practicing and learning the songs, the drummer and bass player said we should do happy dance songs. I packed up my guitar and amp and walked out.
I also joined a band during this time that played original songs– generally melancholy songs. I liked that. There were 3 songwriters in the band– the drummer, bass player (a married couple) and keyboard player. The bass player and keyboard player sang. I played rhythm guitar and there was another guy who played lead guitar. We played one outdoor gig on 4th Avenue in Tucson, and then the band broke up.
Tucson Bands in the Late 80’s and Early 90’s
Meanwhile I continued going to see local original bands in local Tucson venues. Some I especially liked were If…, The Onlys and the Sand Rubies. I remember seeing the Phoenix band The Gin Blossoms before they got signed.
I was searching. Trying to figure out what to do. How can I get into a band? A band that will play gigs at Club Congress and other places? I didn’t care about making it “big.” I just wanted to be in a band that played locally at the small clubs. Even that was proving hard to do, if not impossible. Why is it so hard? What do I have to do? How do I find people?
My Silly Search for a “Career”
I mentioned in the previous chapter (The Missing Years, Part 4), that I had quit National Semiconductor and taken a job at Burr Brown in Tucson, in 1990 or 1991. But after only working there a year, they were hit by layoffs, and being the new guy, I was laid off. The layoff package included free career counseling. I met with the counselor, and took various tests, such as the Briggs-Myers, and followed the exercises in the book, What Color is Your Parchute?
I had made the conscious decision to end my career as a radical political activist– a “professional revolutionary.” What should my career be now? I didn’t want it to be electronics, or anything technical. I had mainly become an electronics tech for the purposes of union organizing. I had no great passion for it; it was practical, that’s all. It was paying the bills.
You walk through this world, but you can’t find your song
Doing what you should, not what you want
–from the title song on my 2012 album, The Other Side of Nowhere
In hindsight, it’s obvious that I had chosen a new career– music! In fact, I remember the counselor telling me at one point, “Seems to me that your career should be music.” But I dismissed the idea; I saw no hope of making a living playing the kind of music I loved. I didn’t know how the other bands did it. I didn’t know any of the people in the bands, and I was too shy to go up them after a show and introduce myself; I didn’t “network.” To me they were stars, and I assumed they would never talk to a nobody like me. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Some of them might have had rock star pretensions, but I bet there were some who would have helped me. Maybe one of them would have served as a songwriting mentor, or helped me find people to start a band with.
It wouldn’t be until 2007, at a class at the Rocky Mountain Song School, that it finally dawned on me– you need a plan. While you have a day job to pay the bills, you work hard at your music career, build a fan base, and then maybe eventually you can transition to doing music full-time. I wonder how much more I I could have accomplished, and how much further along I would be, if I had realized that in 1991 instead of 2007? If I hadn’t been too shy to ask for help?
You just need a little help
but you’re too shy to ask
You don’t want to be a burden
You’re afraid they wil laugh
–from my song, Apollo’s Little Bastard, on my 2011 album, Misfit
A Fun Job
After going through the career counseling– and rejecting music as a career– I took another electronics technician job at a small company in Tucson in March, 1992. The company was called Lightning, Location and Protection (LLP). They made lightning detection systems. My plan was to work there for just a few months until I figured out what I wanted to do for a “career.” I was also thinking about moving to another city, since the whole reason I had moved to Tucson was no longer relevant (see the previous chapter). But I ended up working there for 8 years. Unlike my previous jobs, this was a small company. Thanks to my previous year of work with the engineering department at Burr-Brown, I was now a pretty good electronics technician. My input was valued, and I was allowed to use my creativity on this job. There were 3 other technicians in our group, and we got along great and laughed a lot. My boss was David Firestine, a mandolin player who ran the Irish jam sessions in Tucson. Dave was the greatest boss I ever had, probably because he never wanted to be a boss in the first place. He kept the environment fun and loose. That’s why I kept working there for so long; that’s why I never decided on a “career;” I actually enjoyed my job.
Meanwhile I continued my efforts to get into a band. I also began composing music ideas on the guitar and recording them to cassette. I tried to write lyrics but struggled. I needed help with lyrics but didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know any songwriters. I didn’t know about any lyric-writing books. I didn’t know about any “song schools.”
Then, in 1994, my music career would take a big step forward when I met songwriter, singer and bass player Kurt Loken and we formed Faded Innocence. That will be the subject of the next chapter in this series.
Next: Faded Innocence