BRADFORD—I am doing a show in a small Pennsylvania town in an old theater. We are recording our 100th podcast. I have never been this far north in my life. It was so cold when we flew into New York that I saw Lady Liberty place her torch inside her dress.
There is a band playing. And I am playing music, too. And this is ironic because—not that you care about this—I was once rejected from a major university where I once hoped to study music.
It’s sort of a long story, but I feel like telling it.
It all starts with a guitar. A cheap guitar. Much like the kind I am playing tonight. I began playing when I was a child. I was god-awful. But I practiced a lot.
I tried to teach myself, though I had no idea what I was doing. I tried strumming, plucking, picking, patting, flicking, smacking, etc. Anything to get a sound out of the thing. Finally, my uncle was kind enough to put strings on the guitar. That made all the difference in the world.
So music was important to me. I started playing piano at age nine. And I loved all music. I enjoyed the country music that my grandfather’s generation two-stepped to. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzell.
I like other music, too. Namely, old-time jazz. When I was a young man, I was obsessed with jazz. I taught myself to play “Laura” on the piano, and “Satin Doll,” and “Georgia On My Mind.” These songs were important to me.
I also liked classical music to some degree. I’ll never forget when I was in community college. I was a grown man who felt out of place being surrounded by so many teenagers. I felt sort of stupid, actually.
I was on my way to an ethics class when I heard singing from a nearby classroom. I peeked into the window. All that singing looked like fun, so I signed up for this class.
It was Music Theory I. The first lecture on music I ever heard was about the similarities between Louis Armstrong and Bach. It blew my mind. And every class was like that.
I never learned how to read music, but I learned enough to fake it. So I joined college jazz band. I had never been in an academic band before. In fact, I had never done anything academic before except get a $100 parking ticket in a school zone once.
The truth is, I dropped out of school when I was in seventh grade. It’s one of the shameful things in my life, and it’s hard to talk about. My education didn’t come easy for me.
But there I was! Playing a grand piano in the COLLEGE JAZZ ORCHESTRA! This calls for triple exclamation points!!!
How about a few more exclamation points just because?
The music director would place charts before me and I would pretend to read them. I’m sure the music coming from that piano sounded like the instrument was being demolished with a sledge hammer. But this gave me confidence. Enough confidence to decide that I wanted to study music, maybe even make it my life.
Big mistake. I enrolled in a large university, one I won’t name here—but I will tell you that the campus is located at 600 West College Avenue, Tallahassee, Florida, 32306, and their team colors are garnet and gold.
I rented an apartment near campus. I was in my thirties, and for the first time in many years I was hopeful.
Then came my music audition.
I walked into a room of stiff professors who all wore turtlenecks and tweed jackets. Many of whom looked like they hadn’t had a satisfying bowel movement since the Kennedy Administration.
They asked questions like, “Who did you study piano with?” and “What do you hope to gain from this academic program?” and “Were you a natural birth or a C-section?”
I played one song on piano. I had been working on it for weeks. I did pretty good. They even clapped. But then one professor placed sheet music in front of me. Classical music. I couldn’t read the first note. I almost started crying.
“I can’t read music,” I admitted.
You should have seen those professors. They couldn’t even finish their caviar and white Zinfandel.
I was rejected from the school. The university basically told me not to let the door hit me where the Good Lord split me. I went to my apartment and I sulked.
I watched students through my window, wandering all over campus. And there I was, too slow to be accepted into a major univeristy.
I played an old Hank Williams song on my radio. In a few seconds, the little apartment was filled with Hank’s moaning:
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
“He sounds too blue to fly,
“The midnight train is whining low,
“I’m so lonesome I could cry…”
And after I cried a little, I wiped my face and decided I would write something. I don’t know why.
So I removed a portable typewriter from its case. I started typing. It was just for fun, you understand. It was nothing serious. And in a few years, through some stroke of weird fate, that typewriter turned into my career.
And on this evening, when we recorded our 100th show, I just wanted you to know that when a kid gets a cheap guitar it can change his entire life.
It just takes some of us a little longer than others.