Jan 30, 2013

Fear, Love, Failure, Determination

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”- Maya Angelou

Once upon a time, this happened:

Anyone who has ever heard their song on the radio for the first time will tell you:  It's awesome.  It's the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, it's your dick stirring in your pants, it's that shit-eating grin you can't wipe from your face.  It's a slightly more subtle version of this:

There are some truths to what Elvis Duran said while talking up my song on the biggest morning show in the biggest radio market in the country.  I was working down the hallway - I was Z100 radio's Sales Promotions Manager, newly promoted after three years toiling in the station's Traffic department.  New York's #1 Hit Music Station was my 'put bread on the table' day job that allowed me to safely pursue my rock star dreams while nurturing my middle class values (and appeasing my parents).  I worked part-time jobs every summer starting at age 12.  I went to city college.  I graduated.  I bought property at age 23.  Mission accomplished, Mom and Dad.

Radio was my second passion, it's the biggest reason I wanted to go to college.  I was one of the nerds running your college radio station, discovering Radiohead and Jeff Buckley while you were doing Jager shots over at the frat house.  But at Z100, I wasn't doing anything fun.  I was on the grounds, just not in the clubhouse rubbing elbows with Ja Rule and Dave Matthews.  But that didn't mean I couldn't visit the clubhouse with my demo tapes in hand.  And when the opportunity arose, I did.  That's what you did, unless you were an idiot.  A wannabe rock star working at a radio station is like a fat chick working at Sizzler.  You've gotta take advantage of your surroundings, just don't saddle up to the salad bar too often so as to annoy management.

So I didn't ask for any favors, I just gave Elvis the 3-song EP I had been working on with my friend Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, a new electronic solo thing I had just started up after 5 years playing keyboards in a moderately successful pop/rock band.  I gave a copy to Tom Poleman, Z100's Program Director, too.  Elvis liked it, so he decided to play it.

I was 26 years old.  It was a Friday, around 7:30am.  The producers of the show - good friends of mine - called me excitedly and told me to tune in.  I was laying in my bed with my girlfriend when the song came on and I felt like I was levitating about five feet over it instead.

I was on my way.

That was June 22, 2001.

Now I work for the same morning show that aired my song, for the same man who played it nearly a dozen years ago, one of the only people in this godforsaken industry who has given me a break, given me a chance.  I'm in the clubhouse now, been in it for nearly half a decade.  And for the most part, I'm still not doing anything fun.

So did I fail?

Most anyone in my industry will tell you that having your song played on Commercial Hit Radio in Market One during a peak listening hour can only lead to one thing - Attention.  Right, Karmin?  So why have you not seen me as the musical guest on SNL?  Why don't I have 261,000 Twitter followers?  Why didn't I open up Zootopia as Elvis predicted?

Because that was the last time any Q*Ball song I ever wrote or recorded was played on Z100.  It was the last time any Q*Ball song was played on Top 40 radio, period.  I came into work on June 22, 2001 still basking in the sunshine of that 7 minutes of airtime.  As I recall it, one of my producer friends pulled me aside to tell me that Elvis had gotten a phone call while my song was playing (on the dreaded STATION HOTLINE).  The call was from a rather passionate higher-up at the station scolding Elvis for playing an unknown song during peak listening hours.  And that was that.

It's understandable.  Z100 was trying to climb back atop the Top 40 Mountain - the station was struggling when I got hired, something Z100 wasn't used to.  Z100 struggling in the ratings is like the Yankees finishing at the bottom of the American League East.  It's not acceptable for very long before you'd start to see a few heads roll.

So playing Q*Ball instead of more popular - and now legendary - acts from that same year meant risky business.  It was obvious that artists like The Calling, Willa Ford, Five For Fighting, 3LW, Alien Ant Farm, Staind, Da Buzz, Toya, Evan and Jaron, Uncle Kracker, and Eden's Crush needed more of a push than That Nice Bald Guy Working Down The Hall.

But hey, I'm not bitter.  Uncle Kracker rules.

It's good to be Uncle Kracker.  Duh.
I couldn't be bitter, I couldn't complain.  I could only say thanks.  Because they didn't owe me a goddamn thing and they still played my mediocre electronic rock party song, they still talked it up and said all those great things about me.  They still sent a few copies of the EP to their record label buddies with their seal of approval attached.  I was told that had only happened twice, to me and to Jessica Simpson.  And Jessica Simpson looks much better in shorts than I do.  Game over.

So the opportunity was also the problem.  I fucking worked there.  I had to be a good soldier, I couldn't stir the pot.  My decade and a half in radio has taught me a few things, one being if you're gonna stir the pot, you better be delicate about it and you better have a strategy. 

There are other tales of woe related to my Z100 radio career:

That Time I Got Booed Off Stage at a Station Event.
That Time I Almost Walked Out Because I Wasn't Allowed To Have An Opinion.
That Time They Passed Me Over For That Job I Wanted.
That Time They Fired Me.

And a dozen years later, I still work there.

So did I fail or am I just super determined?  Or have I just been a fucking idiot?

You'll have to ask me down the road.  Because I'm still on the tracks, I'm still rolling.  "Failure" could have meant being one of those bands I mentioned.  2001 was probably awesome for the bass player in The Calling, but how is his 2013 going?  What's Ja Rule up to now?  "Failure" could have meant not being passed over for that job I wanted and then getting hit by a bus during my new commute.  You can't gauge the success or failure of a career, of a relationship, until it's over once and for all.  Failure can be as fleeting as fame.  All you can do is accept the journey.  It is what it is.

Two months after Elvis played my song, some planes crashed into some buildings across the river from our studios.  The same morning show folks who were rooting Q*Ball on two months earlier were watching those buildings burn.  The world changed forever.

My world certainly changed, stirring up a life that has rarely remained static since 9/11/01.  I put three more Q*Ball albums out, I started my little record label, I signed three bands, I put two more albums out with Return To Earth.  The Internet showed up and decimated the two industries I work in.  Simultaneously.  And yet I still work in both.  Somehow, I'm still here.

Over the past decade, I've lived at five different addresses, I've told five different girls "I love you," I've divorced one and I don't talk to the other four.  I bought a dog and a house, I endured a hurricane.  Everything has changed.  Everything continues to change.

So did I fail?  Was it my fault?  Someone else's?  Bad luck?  Bad mojo?

I didn't deserve that success back then.  I was a hack.  I had good songwriting ideas, some cool influences, and I had the help of an amazing musician who knew how to produce my stuff and make it sound its best.  I sampled a lot of beats that didn't belong to me, but that didn't stop Diddy and Kanye from ruling the world, so I don't point to that.

I lacked confidence, and rightfully so.  Before Q*Ball, I was in bands.  Q*Ball was me in the center ring for the first time, and I didn't have the attitude - the balls - to properly pull it off.  Before Sandy washed my entire musical history away - songbooks, CDs, old demos, magazine articles, lyric sheets, banners, show flyers, keyboards, hard drives - I had a chance to sample my early performances captured on video.  And it's clear to me now what I knew then but couldn't admit to myself.  I was a clown.

When you're in a band, you can play The Clown, just as long as you can be The Prince when you get behind your instrument.  Or you can be Keith Moon and be both.  Or you can be one of a series of clowns and still get by.

But I was just a clown.  I'm not a skilled musician, I don't play any instrument proficiently.  But not everyone is Pete Towshend or Elton John.  The biggest problem was- and has always been - fear.  I wasn't confident on stage, I didn't have the look or the charisma to make up for it, and the lack of any regular performing never allowed for proper seasoning in that arena.  Most Q*Ball shows did not go well, for a myriad of reasons, but I was always one of them.

Aren't you being a little hard on yourself, Ron?

The only way you can evolve in your short time on this spinning rock is to take responsibility.  For everything.  You have to recognize who you are before you can decide who you want to be.  Being Some Girl's Dude was always part of the equation - always where I was and where I wanted to be while I carved out a career for myself.  Five years ago, I was with someone who finally wanted to go all the way.  I know that's why I married her, even tho there were more than a few reasons to be wary.  It was nice to be wanted.  But just because you're wanted doesn't mean you're with the right person.

When I got divorced, I had this idea that my music and radio careers would finally take off because the biggest obstacle - The Jealous Woman - had now been removed.  But the next two years meant more abandonment - by band mates, friends, label employees.  And the biggest obstacle was still there.  It wasn't a green-eyed monster.  It was me.

And in a lot of ways, I was okay with all that abandonment.  Because my band mates and employees were obstacles, too.  It was necessary to shed that additional skin.  I got it into my head that being Some Girl's Dude was still where I wanted to be, and if all else failed, I could live with being just that.  I believed that Love was still The Most Important Thing.  And I had a chance to do it right this time, I found someone who made me believe love was still top of the mountain.  But that didn't work out either.

So did I fail?

I don't know what's next, I really don't.  I know I'm still dealing with some obstacles, still dealing with the Sandy aftermath, with my broken dog.  But obstacles occur daily.  Since I woke up in the wake of the hurricane, I have looked inside myself honestly and taken stock of what matters.  Music still matters, just not in the way it used to.  It's still part of me, it still flows thru my veins, it still soothes me on the subway and pushes me harder when I need to do just one more mile or five more pushups.

But making music has been hard.  Because I'm not a clown anymore.  I'm a man.  My songs are no longer about outer space or candle wax or dancing the funky chicken.  They're about adult stuff, about longing and regret.  I write my songs like I write this blog, and I'm tired of writing about the same broken heart, about the same girl, over and over again.  I want to write happy songs or I don't want to write at all.  And it's so easy to fall into that trap, to sit on the piano bench and D minor myself to death.  I'm tired of falling into traps.  I'm tired of being reminded of people who don't want me in their life anymore.  I'm tired of relying on the same old crutches to get me by.

Radio still matters because putting bread on the table matters more than ever now.  And I've been able to live comfortably off the loaves, more comfortably than most I know.  And because that same guy who gave my song a break in 2001 has given my life such a boost since I joined his clubhouse a few years ago, and for that I will forever be a loyal soldier, a friend, and an admirer.  I see the altruistic man, the confident power player my boss is today and I see someone I want to be. 

This company I've had such a tumultuous relationship with since I showed up in swampy Secaucus, New Jersey - a skinny 23 year-old kid who listened to electronica, Pantera and White Zombie - has stepped up to help me through this difficult time.  I want to acknowledge that I received a grant for $15,000 from my employers at Clear Channel, which absolutely blows my mind.  That makes up for that time you sorta fired me, guys.  Thank you.  Life is fucking weird.

Family Matters.
I'm not afraid of much anymore.  Because I have failed - at a lot of things.  But I'm still trying.  I'm not afraid of success, of love, of finding happiness.  I should be.  Some could argue that I should be crawled up in the fetal position somewhere, bawling.  But I run instead.  I write.  I cook.  I carve out time for the people in my life who matter.  I'm becoming the man I need to be, and it has to start with that before I can grab for the things I want, before the things I want can grab me.

The best part of all this - the most important part - is that there are no secrets anymore, no more lies or exaggerations.  There's no Manti Te'o or Lance Armstrong angle to my post-Sandy tale.  All of it is true.  My house was really destroyed by a hurricane, my dog is really crazy, I really run like an idiot and do a hundred pushups a day (125 now!) thinking of some knucklehead's face.  I'm progressing.  I'm determined.  I'm ready to rise up.

I still believe in true love even tho it has shunned me.  I still believe I'm capable of things I haven't even tried to achieve yet.  I'm bitch slapping fear and failure in the face one day at a time, and even if things don't wind up the way I want them to - even if that was my last spin on the radio, even if I stared a dazzling beauty in the face for the last time - I have to grow.  I have to keep trying, I have to keep looking for my calling in life.  I'll never quit, and even if the pieces finally start to fall into place, I'll continue to fight, continue to climb.  I'll never be complacent again.

Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

The first part of that is behind me now.  It's time to achieve.  Who's comin with me?

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