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I don’t usually post on Saturdays, but then David Budin (one of the original members of the band that became Bruce Sprinsteen and the E Street band) emailed me such an interesting note about the transformative power of music, that I asked him if I could share it with you. He said, yes, and so today, I give you an inspiring rumination on music and how good it can make us feel….
I’m what I call a “recovering musician.” And I’m only half-joking about that. I played music professionally for about 20 years and then I vowed to never perform or write music again, for a variety of reasons. I’m not making light of any addictions by saying that, because while other addictions certainly can be more destructive, this is an addiction, nevertheless. It may be that only people who have tried to become successful professional musicians over a long period of time would understand that
Anyway, the bad news is that after many years, I’ve “fallen off the wagon,” and I’m performing again. The good news is that I’m not writing music this time around. I felt that it would be irresponsible to bring any more unwanted songs into the world.
The other big changes, this time, are my attitude about playing music and my goals for doing it at all. My attitude changed from being angry and – believe it or not – wanting to hurt people with music, to simply hoping to heal people with it. My goals are simple: Essentially, I only want to calm people down for a while, with the thought that maybe if I can help someone relax for a short time, it might help them calm down in general. I’m not a mental health professional, but I do have this skill to offer, so this, for what it’s worth, is what I consider my contribution to society.
The world is a scary place these days. Living is not as easy as it once was, for anyone. When I perform, all I want to do is to make people forget about all of that for two hours. Which is not all that easy to do.
A little background: I started playing and performing music as a child – instrument and theory lessons beginning at the age of 6, my first rock band at 9 years old and playing professionally by the time I was 12. I quit high school in the late ’60s and left my hometown, Cleveland, when I was 18 to live in New York City. I played for a while in the original band that eventually evolved into Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I left that band and signed as a solo artist with Sire Records. I recorded my own album and produced several others. I also worked as a comedy writer for performers and radio personalities.
I moved back to Cleveland in the early ’70s and continued playing in bands (rock and folk) and also performed as a comedian and worked as a comedy writer. In the early ’80s I got out of music and comedy, completely, and began freelance writing. I became the editor of a couple of regional magazines, including Cleveland Magazine, for a few years, but returned to free-lancing. I, somewhat reluctantly, got back into music in the mid-’90s, mostly backing up my much-younger singer-songwriter brother.
But as a recovering musician, just as with any addiction, I found that I couldn’t do music and performing just a little. So I decided that since I had officially fallen off the wagon, as long as I was going to do it, I should and could make something more positive of the experience this time around.
Almost all of my ‘60s and ‘70s rock groups had the purpose of trying to “destroy” people – super-loud, aggressive, mean-spirited – even the last one, for which I wrote songs that were funny, but were also always tearing someone down, including myself half of the time. My folk groups were all about protesting everything or, at least, constantly challenging people to think about and confront negative concepts.
One of the many reasons I got out of music was that it was all about being self-centered – wanting to be a star, wanting to be rich, wanting people to envy you, etc. – and I had changed my ways of thinking and got tired of all that and of not doing anything good or at all positive for the world.
So when I decided to get back into it, I made up some new rules for myself, among which are: to only play with musicians who are better than myself (which, unfortunately, also guarantees that I’ll always be the worst one in the group); to only play songs that are meaningful to me and, hopefully, will be for the people who hear them; and to only perform for the purpose of actually entertaining people and making them feel better and making them forget their problems, at least while they’re there.
So now I have this folk-type group, in which all of the members feel pretty much the same way about all of that. We do nice songs – which does not necessarily mean slow or quiet songs. We do songs that are meaningful, for any number of many reasons. We do not do any protest songs. We try to do nothing that could offend anyone or put any negative thoughts in people’s minds, while still managing not to be musically wimpy.
We do music that will make people forget about their problems because: (a) the songs either have meaning, so you can identify with them for some reason, or, if not, then they’re songs you may remember from your past, so there’s an element of nostalgia (which, I guess, could be a way of being meaningful); and (b) our arrangements are intricate, complex, unusual and unique (and everyone plays really well), which keeps listeners’ minds engaged, even if they don’t realize it, or know why that’s happening – or that it’s happening.
And, of equal importance, I do comedy in between all the songs. But it’s an old-fashioned style of comedy. It’s not at all old-fashioned in its content, but in that it’s completely non-offensive (again, without being wimpy). It’s all original, too, so no one has ever heard it before, and it’s not jokes (as in, “A guy goes into a bar …”), but, rather, stories, which have lots of internal jokes, plus a pay-off at the end; or observations about funny aspects of life. And there’s nothing I say that’s aimed at any person or group of people in any negative way.
And I don’t use any so-called “dirty words” (I mean, not on stage, anyway) – and if you’ve been to a comedy club during the past 20 years or so, you know that it is apparently a comedy-club law that you must use the F-word in some form, every 30 seconds, plus all the others – body parts, bodily functions, racial and sexual slurs, etc. – as often as possible. And the stories and jokes I tell are intellectual, but without being snooty, so I’m never talking down to anyone, yet never insulting anyone by dumbing it down, either – while still engaging people’s brains (at least a little) – which is part of the goal of making them forget everything else while they’re there.
So, altogether, it’s what I call doing “the whole show.” In other words, there’s not a moment of down time to let people slip back into real life. There’s no fumbling around in between songs, trying to think of what comes next; standing there drinking water (always hugely entertaining, right?), tuning guitars for minutes at a time without saying anything – all of the stuff that drives me crazy about most newer performers, and many older ones, and makes audiences uncomfortable, which, obviously, would be counter-productive to my goal.
The combination of all of this does seem to have a calming effect on our audiences. They are happy while they are there, and that’s the most I can hope for. And if they stay happy for a while afterward, that’s a big bonus. I can see their faces from the stage. I can hear the buzz after the show and at intermission. I see people hanging around long after the show, talking to each other. I get calls and e-mails from audience members – friends and strangers alike – afterwards with much positive feedback.
I hear from many people about how good our shows make them feel, and that’s extremely gratifying for me. I have received notes from a few people that have said one show or another was, for instance, the highlight of their whole summer. And if the show had made them nervous or anxious, I’m fairly certain they would not have felt that way.
My current approach to performing also represents some big changes in my life and outlook that took place between the time I stopped performing the first time and started again a few years ago. And while I do what I do for the sake of the audiences, the audiences’ reactions do no one more good than me.
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