Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Altruism, cancer, Recovery, Trauma, Uncategorized

This is not a Eulogy.

This past Saturday the 27th my mother surrendered to cancer, almost a year to the week that she first told me she was dying. I got the call from my uncle while my fiancé Julia and I were out to dinner. We both went home and cried. So much for the rest of our evening.

The whole thing was not unlike how my father told me my parents were separating when I was 13. They’d been fighting a lot, and mom was drinking heavily. They really hadn’t told me much, but children can sense when something’s wrong. I was watching Saturday morning cartoons, and my dad came down with a severe look on his face – a look I’d not seen from him before.

So much for the rest of my teenage years.

This is not a eulogy, nor am I attempting to speak ill of the dead. I’m speaking honestly of the dead. During one of our last conversations, Mom told me the following:

“Honey, one day you’re just going to have to accept the fact that I was not a very good mother to you.” That’s the closest I would ever come to receiving an apology. I also believe that it gives me permission to say what I need to say.

And what I need to say, is that I’ve been grieving my mother – or rather, our relationship, our family – for over 30 years.

Mom’s passing wasn’t unexpected. Even before my mom knew that she had cancer, I could sense something was off. She kept telling me she was “healthy as a horse,” but my mom never, ever, told me an entirely straight story. One of her friends said her secrecy was to “preserve her dignity.” That’s what my mom’s friends have always done though: euphemistically defended her utter inability either to be truthful, or be a mother.

So what I feel inside is a combination of numbness, and sameness. Everything feels, sadly, quite the same. My mom’s passing has not impacted my day-to-day life, save for a kind of exhaustion that permeates my whole body. I have to force myself to get up, to do things. So I know I’ve been impacted by my mom’s death.

The short version of what happened to our relationship is that Mom began teaching English at a private school in Raleigh, and fell in love with one of the administrators who also happened to be a woman. She felt romantic love – probably for the first time in her life – and found herself trapped in a marriage that she never realized she was trapped in. That was the beginning of the end. Her drinking was simply a side effect of all those pent up emotions, because I rarely saw my mom drink when I was growing up. Even if she had been, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. My dad, who was busy focusing on his own career (really, they both were) seemed completely blind-sided.

Mom would come to pick me up, and be drunk. I would tell my dad, who could also clearly see my mother’s condition, and he would send me with her anyway. My guess is he was concerned with appearances, or maybe just didn’t like me challenging his authority. Regardless, there were times I’d have to grab the wheel out of my mom’s hands when she was nodding off on the road. Eventually I told my dad I no longer wanted to see her, and for almost two years I hated my mom.

The typical things that always accompany alcoholism began to occur. Mom’s life fell apart, she went to rehab, relapsed a bit and then was able to stitch a small stretch of sobriety together thanks to AA. To regain my love, she bought me things – clothes, CDs, food, nearly anything I wanted. Material things were always her way of showing love for someone. But it was never really her money. I came to find out it was my grandparents’ money. They had given her a credit card, in addition to multiple other credit cards she had opened for herself. My uncle related to me that she would secretly call her parents and ask for money in the early days of my parents’ marriage.

Those bills went unpaid for years. She ended up declaring bankruptcy at one point. In her house in Colorado, my uncle and I carried out 55 gallon trash bags full of unopened credit card statements, store bills, phone bills, as well as tons of beer and wine bottles hidden in the master bedroom of her house where she never slept. What was strange is that my mom left money stashed all over her house. So there was money to pay the bills. She simply never paid them. My poor uncle was left with the task of seeing that all those debts got settled. I got the task of cleaning out her storage sheds (two in North Carolina, one in Colorado).

Years before her diagnosis I would literally beg my mother to help with her storage units, knowing eventually I’d end up having to deal with them. I would ask over and over, and she would say it’s no big deal. “I can manage it.” But she couldn’t, and she didn’t – all the while claiming she was doing the best she could and simultaneously doing nothing. My guess is that, like the unpaid bills, she hoped she’d be long gone before she’d have to face her loved ones cleaning up her messes for her.

While cleaning out one of the storage units, I came across the documents finalizing my parents’ divorce. Dad had always told me he asked my mom to leave and initiated the divorce.  My mom said that she didn’t fight to get custody of me because she knew that she was in bad shape and probably couldn’t have handled it. For years I accepted those answers.

However, having been a participant in both AA and NA for the better part of ten years, I’ve known many single moms. Moms who fled their husbands. Moms who had no idea who the father was. Moms who had been pregnant in the streets. And every single one of them fought tooth and nail to keep their kids. Even the ones who lost custody because of their addictions desperately fought in court and in the rooms to gain custody and/or visitation. I’ve watched them weep uncontrollably. (To be fair I’ve seen many single dads do likewise.)

Mom never once lived in the streets. She knew who the father was. She might’ve been in a very bad way with her alcoholism, but was in treatment and in the rooms trying to get well. I’d developed several issues with her version of the story, and suddenly it all became clear.

As it turns out, she was the plaintiff. Her name was listed first.

She wanted the divorce, petitioned for it, and got it a year later in 1988. Whether it was the alcohol talking, or her frustration, or just selfishness, she’d become tired of being a wife and a mother. I know in my heart it was something she always regretted, but regret is not a mechanism for personal change.

My dad, whose pride was already wounded knowing that mom had left him for a woman (which in the mid-1980s was taboo, if not outright scandalous), probably couldn’t handle another bruise to his ego. Hence, his version of things.

So this is not a eulogy. This is a story of secrets. My parents’ marriage was one secret after another, secrets based on shame, on fear, on embarrassment and disappointment.

Secrets are unique in that they require work to maintain. When someone asks “can you keep a secret,” they’re asking if you have the physical ability to carry it, similar to asking if you can lift a heavy box.

It’s stressful to keep a secret, and in my opinion it’s unfair for an adult to place that burden on a child. Which they do, either by direction instruction or indirect transference. My uncle, until I saw him last summer, had no idea about what caused my parents marriage to end. I’m beginning to suspect that my dad never told his siblings the full truth of their relationship either.

Finally, secrets prevent healing. Our culture teaches us to bear our hidden burdens for the sake of others. But those emotions, those hurts, will come out eventually – in odd and unexpected ways. Anger that seems to come out of nowhere, over nothing. Unending depression. Ruined marriages. It is of benefit to no one to bury the past without examining it. One way or another, it will eat you alive.

But I’m letting all that go now. I will no longer be the keeper of the secrets.

As Anne Lamott, one of my mom’s favorite writers, said: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

I only wish I’d known that I had this power long ago.

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Abuse, addiction, Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Altruism, Consequences, Electronic Dance Music, music, Podcast, Recovery, Religion, Trauma

Experience.

I was recently interviewed by InRecovery magazine for a piece on active addiction (shameless plug alert: you should go read it and then leave a comment if you like)
https://inrecovery.com/journey-fun-abuse-dj-fm

Sometimes it just doesn’t feel real to me. I’ve never thought of myself someone whose experience or opinions should be held in high regard by anyone. I’m just one voice among billions. Granted, in the last few years I’ve had things like this published about my journey in recovery in various places. I’ve also been interviewed twice on the Klen & Sobr podcast which was amazing. If anything, I am not anonymous.

But still, I can’t believe that it’s me. I often scoff at the Tony Robbins types. They seem well-intentioned, yet I’m never able to trust whether they truly want to help their audience, or simply like hearing the sound of their own voice. All of this of course speaks volumes about my own insecurities. We are all a work in progress, but I’m no one’s guru.

I also watched “The Defiant Ones” on HBO last week, a 4-part documentary about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s musical and business collaborations, and their long history in the music. I am impressed by their stories. Two guys who literally came from nothing and now sit atop what remains of the music business. The greater the risk you take, the greater the reward I suppose.

I want to say I’ve never been the “starving artist” type, but in truth I was once. Between 1996 and 1998 I wrote and recorded my first album “Breakup.” I was 23 and had limited access to recording equipment, so I had to go into an actual studio and work with a producer to bring my vision to life. Of course, that meant paying for the time – and the money which went to the studio meant money wasn’t going to rent or food.

In fact, I was 3 months behind on rent and had to borrow money from my recent ex-girlfriend to get caught up. I was eating the leftover food my roommates didn’t want, and when there was none of that I was eating microwave popcorn. It sucked. My hat’s off to anyone who quits their job and goes out on a limb for their art. It created an added level of stress that I simply couldn’t handle. I have been attempting to find balance between art and “career” ever since.

Fortunately, my producer was patient with me and he came from a similar musical background and similar tastes. He taught me everything I know. I paid as I could, and “Breakup” became DJ FM’s first album. So many lessons were learned, and so many good things came about as a result of that album. Most importantly I learned the most was that if you want to be a creator – a musician, an artist, a writer – your vision comes first. Like I said, I have never believed that my opinion or my voice mattered to anyone else. Music helped me realize that my voice at least had to matter to me.

I now have a sponsee. One. The only sponsee I’ve had in 8 years of my hit-or-miss recovery. We “worked” together for an entire year, in which he didn’t call and didn’t do any actual work. I was his sponsor in name only. He is from India, and in the process of becoming an American citizen – not an easy journey in the era of Trump. Still, he wasn’t doing the work, so I fired him.

And then he had to leave the country, simply so he could re-enter and get a new Visa. I felt like a piece of shit. This was about the time Trump was mobilizing his travel ban and even though India was not on the list of banned countries, I worried for my friend. Who knows what an authoritarian regime is capable of, even in the United States?

He reached out to me from his home country a few times. We chatted. He asked if I’d be his sponsor when he came back. I told him “we’ll see – it depends on whether someone else comes forward.” I really didn’t know if I wanted to be his sponsor. I was at a point of not caring, because he certainly didn’t seem to care that year I tried to sponsor him. I blamed myself for not being tough enough, not being interesting enough.

Of course, in my mind I know that’s ridiculous. You can only lead a horse to water. What they do from there is up to them, especially in recovery. Those who suffer from substance use disorder are some of the most stubborn and incorrigible people you’ll ever meet. Have you met me in-person?

What happened was remarkable. He came back to the US, and it was as if a fire had been lit beneath him. He asked me twice if I would be his sponsor, and I finally said yes. We have been working together and every time we meet, he thanks me for listening, thanks me for guiding him. I see my experience benefitting another.

The way I was raised, and after most of the trauma that took place in my early teenage years, I spent most of my first 36 years of life feeling like I’d been permanently punched in the gut by god. Alcohol and drugs eventually numbed the pain of that sad worldview, but what I’ve learned is this: your vision matters. Your experience matters. Your voice matters. I would’ve never understood this without recovery.

You have to believe in you, first.

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Abuse, addiction, Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Consequences, Recovery, Trauma, Uncategorized

Birthday.

I recently remarked to my girlfriend that being in recovery and being in therapy was like being set free from the Matrix. You look around you and suddenly see the world the way it really is. In many cases, more than you ever wanted to see.

My girlfriend’s niece turned 4 years old last week, and her birthday party was today. It was held at her favorite place, the “bounce house.” Basically, an entire room filled with rows of trampolines, ball pits, jungle gyms – all padded so that kids can run and jump and bounce and play without harming themselves. The place was full of little kids having a blast, and parents who looked unenthusiastic at best, exhausted and irritated at worst. Even the employee helping with the party looked tired and bored.

(An aside: last year, her birthday party was held at Chuck E Cheese, a place where I’d had my 8th birthday party all the way back in 1982. Back then, it was all video games and pinball machines, which I loved. But they still had the goofy, scary looking animatronic puppets playing music way too loud. I promptly texted my father and told him I then understood exactly why we didn’t go to Chuck E. Cheese that often.)

In any case, there were quite a few dynamics at play:

– My girlfriend no longer speaks to her father, for reasons I understand and respect completely. He was there.

– My girlfriend has instructed/begged/pleaded with both her siblings not to allow their young children around her father (“grandpa”) for the same reasons. They don’t listen.

– My girlfriend’s sister-in-law tried to schedule a Mother’s Day lunch the previous Sunday without inviting my girlfriend or sister. There was much consternation, and so the sister-in-law is being pissy. She also was there.

– The birthday girl’s parents are going through an ugly divorce and, you guessed it – both there.

– My girlfriend’s mother was there, mostly likely a little tweaked on Adderal, and an hour late.

I glanced around the room. The children seemed content to eat pizza, cake, run and jump. The little girls were just sitting and talking, learning how to be social with one another. Same with the boys. In short, the kids would’ve been content to simply be themselves.

The adults however were fidgeting, anxious, nervous habits and tics could be observed all over the room. Everyone just HAD to get pictures of the niece with the presents they got. And – you guessed it – there was a big chair at the far corner of the “party room” where the birthday girl could sit and have her picture taken with all her presents as she opened each one. “This one is from Ms. So-and-so! Say thank you! Sit! Smile for the camera!’ “Sit in your seat.” “Get up from your seat.” “Eat your pizza.” “Eat your cake.” Do this. Do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Be here. Be there. Everything had to be just so!

I know what it is to be a spoiled kid. Like my girlfriend’s niece, I was an only child. I not only got everything I ever wanted, I also knew how to gripe to get what I wanted. After my parents divorced, my father (whom I lived with) would get angry with me for griping, even though he was the same person who repeatedly got me everything I ever wanted. I certainly didn’t complain. What 10-year-old boy, circa 1984, would complain about getting ALL the Transformers?

It took years of childhood trauma, unfortunate circumstances and self-inflicted wounds to break me of my entitlement and greed. It didn’t have to go that way, but it did.

My girlfriend, who came to the party exclusively for her niece, was traumatized seeing her father – invited anyway despite her past pleas, but again no one listens. I felt horrible for her. We left early.

In the end, I wondered who the party was truly for, or about. Because it certainly wasn’t about one little girl turning four.

In many respects, it’s never about the kids. It’s about parents keeping up with the Joneses. In high school and most of college, I worked part-time in the stock room of a Toys R Us. I was a jack-of-all-trades. I knew how to run a register, set up an end cap with new toys, block merchandise, unload a semi-truck full of toys in a hot truck bay and assemble a kid’s bike. I can tell you I never saw one child leave that store with a dry eye, unless they had something to show for it.

And why would they? A five year old mind is no match for a colorful store with toys, video games, sporting goods and bicycles stocked floor to ceiling. It’s like telling a cocaine addict to go into a room full of mirrors with a straw and an 8-ball and NOT use. The retail chains know this. That’s what capitalism is all about – sell, sell, sell. Always be closing. Take their money. No one cares which kid grows up spoiled or addicted as long as they sign on the dotted line.

Again, seeing things through the eyes of someone who’s been unplugged from the Matrix, it is hard to watch a room full of people repeating the same patterns that have probably been in those families for generations. The same patterns that my family followed for generations. My grandmother would have epic Christmas parties when I was a child. In many ways, it was a throwback to when she was younger, and the family was well-off, living in Colorado and high on success. As a child when we went to visit them at Christmas, they were just an old, retired married couple living in Marietta, GA, far away in both time and place from those experiences. Now that my grandparents have passed, my uncle tries to carry on the tradition, desperately trying to cling to something that only ever worked once or twice, sometime in the early 1950s. In addiction, it’s called “chasing the dragon” or “romancing the drug.” The circuit is the same.

Watching the cycles repeat over and over is like watching reruns of the same series, only with different actors. We tend to think of therapy and recovery as terms only to be associated with the most severely affected. Survivors of physical and sexual abuse, recovering addicts, those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other mental condition. Given the millennia of trauma humanity has endured as a species, one would think we’d know better. But we don’t. Even with all the access we have to good information, we avoid it. Even with all the tools at our disposal. Instant access to credible sources and we turn straight to Raw Story.

For instance, I found this clip of a lecture by Dr. Janet Woititz, on Youtube. Dr. Woititz started the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement and in fact wrote the book. This clip was recorded sometime around 1983, the time her book was published, and almost 3 years before my Mom’s alcoholism would take hold. The resources were there! Here she talks about messaging in broken families (in this case alcoholic family systems, but it applies to more than just alcoholism). She describes a type of habitual repetition in the victims of trauma.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7p7hssaHF0

Never again will I live that way, dragged around by the dysfunction of others. I will follow the truth wherever it takes me.

And the truth, as I see it, is this: I think two parents, the niece, and maybe a close friend or two would’ve been fine. No crazy party hats. Let them run, let them jump. Let them be themselves. Hold them, show them love, leave them be and keep them safe. She wouldn’t have known the difference between 20 friends, pizza, cake and a truckload of gifts – or a day at the park – if she hadn’t been conditioned from birth to expect the former.

And for Christ’s sake keep the kids away from Grandpa.

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addiction, Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Consequences, music, Recovery, Religion

The Codependent Love Songs of the 1970s.

I’ll be getting back to my sober DJ story soon enough, but for my first post of 2017 I wanted to share something a bit different.

Tommy Rosen, the founder of Recovery 2.0, shared a video on his Facebook page after his morning meditation which entailed pop culture, movies, the 1970s…the effect that those things have on children, and relates it to how he became an addict:

At first when he began talking about movies, he kinda lost me. I was thinking, whatever. Then he said something that made my jaw hit the floor. “You know what I grew with in the 1970s, if we’re really gonna be honest? I grew up with the codependent love songs of the 1970s.” Feels. (And doesn’t that sound like the title of one of those Time-Life greatest hits CDs?)

I remember the ballads, especially of the late 1970s/early 1980s. So many songs about unfulfilled and unrequited love. I remember hearing Dan Fogleberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” as a 7 year old and crying…kids know. Kids understand more than you realize. I remember my mom teaching class late one night and not knowing when she would come home, and then hearing “Your Song” by Elton John. Balling. Missing my mom. (I was a sensitive little kid, I’ll admit. Not much has changed.)

I also remember the movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you saw the animated movie “Watership Down” as a kid, you know what I’m talking about. The movie “Kramer vs. Kramer” with Dustin Hoffman came out in 1979, and from the clips I saw on HBO it seemed that divorce was an epic event, with a big soundtrack, courtroom drama, parents yelling at one another and at the judge. Anytime I met a kid in elementary school whose parents were divorced, I felt deeply sorry for them. I imagined them in court with their parents, watching it all go down, and then having to take sides.

And then my parents actually divorced. And there was unfulfilled love, and anger, and infidelity and substance use between them. But other than the relatively few fights I saw – bad as they were – it was a very quiet process from my perspective. My dad told me my mom was moving out while I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. I never once set foot in a courtroom, never talked with an attorney. In fact, my mom told me that she had me live with my father because she knew that she was incapable of taking care of a child – that she thought he would’ve been better for me.

Like drunkenness, I learned that divorce too was very, very different from what was portrayed in the media. I accepted my mom’s version of the story for a long time, until I myself found recovery. I saw men and women, young and old, who’d just recently had their children taken away because of alcohol and drugs. I watched them in 12-step meetings claw, and grasp at every straw they could to hang on to sobriety, to get visitation back, to get their kids back, to be in their lives again. These were, by-and-large, people who didn’t have educations, people who simply did the best they could with what they had, some with extensive criminal records. Never in all my life had I seen a parent fight harder for their children.

You see videos of mothers and fathers in war-torn countries being re-united with their children after being separated, after being refugees for a decade, two decades, with no hope of ever seeing them. And a miracle happens and they are reunited. They are falling on the floor in tears, and the children are too. Wailing, weeping as though their lives depended on it.

My mother and father were both highly educated people. If I’m to believe my mother, she was invited to join Mensa at one point. Neither had criminal records. Even with all that, I began to feel once again like I had been “given up,” in early recovery, at age 36 after over 20 years had passed. The feelings stay there. You can’t deal with them until you face them head on.

You have to wonder what kind of force is so powerful that it decimates the instinctual bond between a parent and child. It’s not alcohol, it’s not drugs. Those are just symptomatic. As Tommy is noted for saying (and I agree 100%), the root of addiction is trauma. The trauma that occurred in my mother’s life when she was young, which was in turn a result of trauma that her parents had, and so forth. At no point did anyone put the brakes on it, because our “no crying in baseball” culture doesn’t believe in feelings – talking about them, expressing them or recovering from them. One county in Georgia even banned schools from teaching mindfulness because of the influences of “eastern religion.”

Look at who we elected president, for god’s sake.

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(no, we didn’t elect dan fogelberg)

When you experience divorce, suddenly everything that happened before you see through a new lens. Nothing was right, everything was wrong. Of course the whole thing fell apart. Dan Fogleberg was right. “She’d like to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.” And any happy song immediately became a lie. Hearing all those old songs made me even more emotional than they had when I was a kid, so my tastes gradually shifted away from even 1980s pop to the angriest, loudest music I could find. It was my only defense mechanism.

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(the loudest, angriest music I could find…)

Alcohol and drugs came much later, because watching my mother did make me afraid of their power for a time. But I was addicted to all sorts of things before that. Credit cards. Relationships. Materialism. Even the anger that I carried with me I was addicted to, in a way, because it was mine. It was something no one could take from me. Like the NIN classic Head Like a Hole, “no you can’t take it, no you can’t take that away from me…head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control.”

Tommy concludes with observations about the media our kids are seeing today… “I’m not even sure what’s going to happen to our children today…the jury is not in yet, we hope that we can get our kids excited about the magic of life without dooming them to… a life of seeking through the outside world to create some bizarre reality…” The jury is still out. We don’t know.

I agree with what Tommy is saying. I also agree that I am 100% percent responsible for my actions. I can’t blame anyone but myself for what I did in active addiction, and I certainly don’t blame pop culture. What I do believe is that art, music, and media are a lens into our culture, an expression of it’s own reality. It may seem bizarre, and frightening, much like the gangster rap of the early 1990s was to suburban parents. But our art tells a story about us.

And if it’s any indication of what we’re feeling as a culture, I give you a lyric from one of the most popular songs of 2016…by the Chainsmokers:

“I think I’m losing my mind now

It’s in my head, darling I hope

That you’ll be here, when I need you the most

So don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t let me down”

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addiction, Consequences, music, Recovery, Rock, Uncategorized

On 2016, Sentiment, and Loss.

2016, like years past, has been full of it. It’s all over our news, our Facebook feeds, our 24-hour news cycles, our pushed updates.

Loss.

I’m nothing if not sentimental. I have a tragically good long-term memory, and tend to remember the good and the bad in equally vivid measure. I’m also a pack-rat, keeping every correspondence with people I’ve known, some of whom are no longer with us, and some who I lost contact with years ago.

2016-12-27-23-29-04
(correspondence)

If love could be measured in terms of that correspondence, then I am the most loved person of all. Hundreds, maybe thousands of letters, from college friends, my grandparents, loved ones from years ago are stored in plastic bins which I’ve organized over the years. As I’ve been putting together my book, I’ve been going through my old journals and letters to read what was going on at a particular time in my life – to make sure I have the facts straight. Or at the very least, my interpretation of events at the time.

It has been a journey full of surprises, a teaching tool for me in both in terms of my recovery from substance use disorder, and in terms of understanding how my life in general has unfolded.

It is also one of my defense mechanisms against loss. That person, that event, that thing I loved may be gone, or missing, or estranged. But the piece that worked, the love, the friendship, the enlightenment as it was documented and saved, will be with me as long as I have the capacity to maintain it.

Regarding 2016, I see a lot of false bravado on Facebook, the same kind you find all over internet chat rooms, message boards, and social networks. The irreverent, blasé angsty name-calling and deprecation that has long been a part of adolescent youth culture (which even “adults” are now engaging in.) “You didn’t know George Michael/Prince/David Bowie, so why are crying like a baby?” I even see people doing it with Carrie Fisher, who passed today at the age of 60. “Princess Leia’s dead. So what?” (and these are some of the nicer posts I’ve seen). I could also delve into the more existential “losses” felt by any person or social group negatively affected by Donald Trump’s victory, but I covered that in a different thread.

Then there’s this one: “2016 didn’t suck. People die ever year.” True enough.

And yet it is the great defense mechanism of our culture. It didn’t hurt me, therefore I’m not affected. Therefore, you shouldn’t be either. Every year sucks, so why care, why be shocked, why be sad?

I really don’t need to talk about what kind of impact Star Wars has had on my life. I didn’t weep when Carrie Fisher died, but I certainly “felt” it. The writer of “Watership Down,” Richard Adams, passed away also. It was made into a very disturbing, violent and sad animated film my parents allowed me to watch as a child. I hesitate to watch it again, and I never read the book. However, I felt the emotional knock at the door when I read about his passing.

Then there’s George Michael. As a musician, I feel it when another musician has passed. Because I know what it is to write music. You live life very much like an open nerve ending. You have to learn how to govern what you take in over time, how to process it – the pain and joy alike – or it will consume you. For many years, it did consume me. I sought ways both healthy and unhealthy to redirect and numb myself from it. As it seems like George Michael did also.

I knew of “Wham” peripherally when I was a child. I was 10 or 11 when “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” came on MTV, and I hated it. It was another in a series of throwback “doo-wop” music for baby boomers who were “30-something” at the time. But in 1987, when his “Faith” album came out, my parents’ divorce was in high gear, and all the awfulness associated with it. Much of the music of 1986-1988 reminds me of that very dark time in my life. “Faith,” “One More Try,” “Monkey,” and “Kissing A Fool” were all songs that stuck with me. I didn’t really pay attention to the music he wrote that came after, except for “Freedom ’90” (solely due to the music video and the supermodels all lip-syncing his vocal parts). But that music produced emotions as vivid in me as I did when I was the scared angry kid that heard them.

My appreciation for “pop” music left after that, and my musical tastes did a complete 180…to Queensryche, to Metallica, and Anthrax…and the even heavier and heavier music it spawned in the decade to come.

So I didn’t know George Michael. I never attended a single concert. But his music had a long and lasting impact on me which I “felt” when I saw that he had passed. And to insinuate that I or anyone else shouldn’t “feel” something because I didn’t know him personally? That you believe – because social media is just one great extension of both the telephone game and a high school classroom – you have say-so over the emotions I feel and the emotions I carry simply because you have a mouthpiece?

Go fuck yourself. 

This event, this moment, this person meant something to me. And someday, you will hit a wall where you also will lose something of value. Because that’s life. I can promise you I won’t be there to tell you “how it is” simply because I’m insecure with what I believe.

Much of life is something we have to “feel” our way through. There’s the pain, then you embrace it, feel it, allow it in, then let it wash away. Because all emotions eventually run their course.

I will not allow myself to become jaded ever again, to hold back because emotional expression isn’t “cool,” or warranted in our culture. If something means something to me, I will allow myself to feel it and express what I choose in the way that I choose. And I won’t blame you for doing likewise. I expect the same respect in return.

Because to do anything else is disingenuous. 

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addiction, Adult Child of an Alcoholic, Consequences, DJ, Electronic Dance Music, Grunge, Recovery, Rock

My (Sober) DJ Story, Part Two.

When last we left our hero, there were 9 boxes of CDs all sitting in the living room of his apartment. Now he had to figure out something to do with them. Here’s what happened…

How to not come even CLOSE to selling 1000 CDs, but figure out other cool stuff to do with them.

The music world in 1998 was a much different place. There was no Napster, no iTunes, and very few electronic devices that could play MPEG Layer 3 (or MP3 files). The internet at that time was still very much like the wild west. There was SO much contact information for record labels, music supervisors, recording studios just floating around free, including email addresses. Encryption was a joke. No one gave it much thought.

By necessity, if you wanted to sell music, you had to get your CDs in stores. I landed a pretty sweet arrangement with a regional college record store chain called Record Exchange which allowed breakup to be sent to all their stores, as well as nearby college radio stations. I learned about the deal (getting featured on a compilation) from a local print zine, which had an email address listed. I didn’t have to pay for it, they curated the compilation and chose one of my songs. I’ve never done “pay-to-play” in my life and never will.

My first experiences with drugs other that alcohol took place between the years 1996-1998. I tried MDMA/Ecstasy a total of four times, it only sort of worked once. I smoked pot a handful of times, but I never felt “stoned.” The only drug I experimented with where I got a definite high was off mushrooms, and it was horrible. Mostly because the guy who’d given them to me/us (I had done them with a group of friends) was not a very good guy, and seemed to enjoy watching us freak out. I never saw him again save for that one time.

Always concerned about the illegality of drugs vs. alcohol, I decided to stick with alcohol. It would be the last time I’d experiment with illicit drugs of any kind for almost a decade.

I also began DJ-ing during this time, and learned the first rule of DJ-ing the hard way: if you want to be taken seriously, you have to DJ the same format (read: technology) everyone else is using. At the time, it was vinyl. Vinyl was still *the* format for nightclub DJs everywhere, all the way down to local and regional rave DJs.

I wanted to do something different, because I wanted to be able to play my *original* music in my sets in addition to other music, and vinyl wasn’t very cost-effective to press up. So I took out a loan and bought Pioneer CDJs. A CDJ is to a compact disc what a vinyl turntable is to a 12-inch dance record. It allows you to beat match tempos, find cue points, and in a primitive way, “scratch.” But at that time, they got a bad rap. There was a lot of misinformation about them, claims that “they do all the hard work for you.” “They automatically sync the music together” (which most DJ controllers and software do nowadays by default – and no one bats an eye).

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But worst of all, in the minds of teenage boys, it wasn’t “keeping it real.” How a kid from suburban North Raleigh with a record player and some records could call out another kid from suburban North Raleigh for not “keeping it real” is beyond me. With a few exceptions, the local DJs I dealt with at that time were elitist dicks. In all my travels in the EDM scene I have rarely seen “PLUR” in action. Just a bunch of assholes playing other people’s music who wanted the drugs and chicks for themselves while waving the banner of “integrity.” They also needed somebody to clown on, and that person became me. I rarely got booked my first year DJ-ing, and it was not fun. And since no one bothered to take me aside and help me learn, I also wasn’t very good. As with all things, I learned the hard way – and on my own.

So I tried a different approach. I was reading CNN and found an article about a music industry “tastemaker” named Braden Merrick, who’d started a website called Redbutton.com. His site hand-picked artists to feature, and according to the CNN article, label A&R representatives were following him very closely. If you were selected, he would feature your song on his site, and would also allow users to purchase your song for $1.99 as an MP3 download (brand new concept at the time).

Braden would go on to manage a band called The Killers. You may have heard of them.

In any case, I was working for IBM at the time as a graphics contractor – meaning we did presentation graphics for the sales team. We were second-class citizens, paid less, looked down on by full-time IBM’ers (who were experiencing the effects of layoffs and outsourcing). We were required to use Microsoft Powerpoint’s IBM knockoff for this task, Lotus Freelance. The software was awful, but only 1-2 hours of any given week involved any kind of actual work. During the remainder I searched for music contacts, taught myself HTML, and ate free filet mignon brought up to us as “leftovers” from sales briefings. It was a cushy job to say the least. Why I didn’t simply stay there and milk it for all it was worth is a mystery, but I’ll get into that later.

I found Braden’s email address, and reached out to him about my CD. I had a very primitive website up which had RealAudio samples of some of my tracks to preview. He wrote me back with an address, and I mailed him a CD. Once he received the CD, he said he’d listen and let me know over the weekend whether or not RedButton would be featuring the CD.

Needless to say, it was selected and became the highlight of my press kit. They picked “Proton Girl” to feature, did a nice review of it and gave it prime placement.

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A few weeks went by, and nothing. I became deeply depressed.

Then I came into the office and saw a “While You Were Out” note (similar to this one) on my desk:

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You can imagine my surprise. My officemates were just as surprised and excited for me. I called Chris back. Apparently he’d heard my material on that Redbutton site, and wanted to license my music on MTVs Real World – the hot reality show of the day, and still several years ahead of “Survivor.”

Moby, one of my main musical influences, had released his “Play” album that year, and all of his songs from that album had been licensed for radio, commercials, movies, etc. An underground electronic artist from my youth was finally getting his due because of a very smart marketing decision. So I understood all too well the importance of music publishing and licensing.

Chris showed me how licensing worked, how to join ASCAP and get paid for my music getting played on-air. My music ended up being used on Real World Hawaii first – here’s the video clip:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGBGaEhcLfw

I got my first check from ASCAP a few months later. $250 for less than 60 seconds of airplay, of a song I had composed in 15 minutes in the studio close to two years prior. I was blown away. I realized at that moment that my primary source of income wouldn’t be from DJ-ing, but my original productions. And I had just put together my first home studio, so it was time to get to work…

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(My studio set-up, circa 1999)

Since no one would book me to DJ, I would go back to the only thing I knew well: live performance. My friend Jason, who had played drums in my band SGO during college, joined me on drums while I sequenced music in my computer and played live guitars and keyboard. A good friend booked us for our first live show – “Rapture” in Asheville. We were supposed to go on at 12am, but our set ended up getting pushed back. Everyone at the party, including the promoter was on drugs of some kind. Everyone but me (I’d had a few beers – okay fine, that’s a drug).

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When our set finally took place at almost 5am, Jason and I were both beat to shit. But we pulled it off. Half the crowd danced their asses off, the other half just stared at Jason in disbelief, at how fast he was playing. It was something.

I wish I had pictures of it, but sadly this was in the days before iPhone cameras existed. We had no video of the performance, no photos, no nothing. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had close friends there who were involved in the show, I wouldn’t have believed myself that it happened. The only photos I have are of Jason and I rehearsing for that show.

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Our friend who had offered us a place to crash after the gig was nowhere to be found. So we drove back to Raleigh the same day. I nearly passed out behind the wheel. I got home, unloaded my car, and slept for almost 18 hours.

Because my music had been used on MTVs Real World, my album “breakup” could be featured online at a music retailer called CDNow. But I had to first secure a distribution deal with an online “middleman” that would allow me to place “Breakup” in retail stores, both online and brick-and-mortar. This company was called “The Orchard.” Just because your music is in a major retail store, however, doesn’t mean it will sell. Unless there’s an end-cap somewhere with a big “DJ FM” sign and a listening station, “breakup” was sorted alphabetically among hundreds of other nondescript artists. Looked pretty cool, though.

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In any case, my life was taking another turn. I had flown to Los Angeles with Jason during the summer of 1999, to attempt to shop our demos with labels and reconnect with some of my former school of design friends who lived in West Hollywood. Mostly we drank a lot and partied, both in San Diego and Los Angeles, but I made it out to see where my former design friends were working – the Museum of Contemporary Art. I looked at the work they were doing and became jealous. Here I was, sitting behind a desk doing shitty Powerpoint presentations, and my friends were doing all this amazing work. I went home jealous and envious.

I ended up leaving my job with IBM for another company down the road. It was a good job, with slightly better pay, but I didn’t have the same freedom that I did at IBM. I wanted what my friends in Los Angeles had – a graphic designer career putting my skills to good use. During that time I began dating a young woman long-distance in Baltimore whom I had been friends with for close to a year and a half. We hadn’t really planned on dating long-distance, but we seemed to fall for each other hard. She’d spend every other weekend in North Carolina, and I’d spend every other weekend in Maryland.

I had a great life in North Carolina. I was now roommates with my producer, Tom. He lived in a house near Five Points in Raleigh which was a quiet neighborhood. I’d left a bad roommate situation to move there, and it was the first real peace I’d had in months. I would come home, usually with a six-pack or 12-pack of Heineken, sit out on the front porch and sip a beer, listening to the wind chimes on the porch. Tom would get home late from the studio, we’d go grab steaks, fire up the grill and work on music until 2-3 in the morning. I’d go to work the next day hungover, but happy. It wasn’t the most healthy routine, but it was a routine. And for awhile it worked.

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(Netscrape Navigator GOLD son!)

My album “breakup” continued to do well for me during this time. It had been featured on Abercrombie and Fitch’s website. It had gotten reviewed by over 15 different online “zines” and had also gotten a mention in CMJ (College Music Journal). I had an assembly line in my bedroom closet – press materials, 8×10 photo, CD, and cover letter – so that whenever I found a new contact to send the album to I could put it together a mailer in minutes. I sent out hundreds of them, and must’ve spent hundreds on postage, if not thousands. I even entered “breakup” in a competition and won a Sennheiser microphone that I still have today:

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Jason and I played a 2nd live show at a venue called Local 506 in Chapel Hill. Again, this is the pre-iPhone era. No one had cameras. There might’ve been a video camera somewhere. My girlfriend from Baltimore had driven down to be at the show, Jason’s little brother…but no cameras. No photos. Or if there were photos, or cameras, none got footage of us. According to crowd reaction, we had put on another good show…but how could I prove to record labels that I could pull this thing off live if I had nothing to show for it?

I began to feel pressured. I was tired of driving to Baltimore to see my girlfriend, tired of going long periods of time without seeing her. So, in typical Adult Child of an Alcoholic fashion, I dropped everything I was doing, found a new job in Baltimore, and left to be with her. Everyone I knew tried to convince me it was a bad idea, that she wasn’t ready, she was afraid of commitment. My two best friends did. My parents (arguably, not masters of romantic relationships) did.

A week after I moved, she dumped me.

Two months after I moved, I lost my job.

I was up to my eyeballs in credit card debt and unable to pay rent. I’d never seen such a cascade failure in all my life, an really had no clue how to navigate it. I spent several months interviewing for jobs and drinking myself to death.

Six months after I moved, 9/11 happened.

I moved back to North Carolina after that with my tail tucked between my legs. Music was all I had left. I had been talking back and forth with a guy named Keith about cross promoting his rave production company (2AM Management) and my music. He then invited me to play at his artist showcase that November in Springfield, MA at a club called The Asylum. He said he had hired a video company (TranzTV Visuals) to record footage – cameras would be placed at all angles around the stage. They’d be producing a DVD.

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(The Asylum)
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(The Event Flyer)

This was it. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. A big club, a big crowd, lots of cameras. All I needed was a few minutes of footage in that setting to showcase what we were capable of. Broke, jobless, living upstairs in my mother’s office/guest room, I began remixing/re-sequencing the songs (including some new ones, like “I Believe“) so that they would flow together like a DJ set would. I chose which parts I would play live and which I would sequence as backing tracks. It was a blast.

Then my lead vocalist flaked. Then my drummer flaked!

No matter! I wouldn’t be deterred. This was my career! So I found a replacement drummer, and Tom’s girlfriend at the time agreed to sing. I borrowed $400 from my mom to rent a minivan to drive up in. I agreed to pay everyone’s way including the hotel – and man was it a shit hole. But it was still a hotel.

After much haggling, after driving 12 hours, after load in and setting up – we played. We did our best. For one hour, I got to see 1500 kids dancing to music I had written. There were mistakes, the power even cut off – but fortunately my laptop battery was charged, so the music sequence continued to run and when the power came back, the music didn’t even skip a beat. We lost power and kept going.

That was the moment for me. Everything I’d been working towards for 3-5 years, wrapped up into one hour. I even sold a few CDs in the crowd after the show. We went back to the hotel room, and I think I slept maybe 2-3 hours. We drove 12 hours back to North Carolina the next day, but it was all a blur to me.

All I needed was that video. That was my whole reason for doing the show.

A month went by. Two months. 6 months. Rumors about the video company not being paid by the promoters (a real shock in the rave scene), miscommunications. The video guy, who’d been good about writing me, stopped. I called a time or two, he answered once. Nothing. NO VIDEO.

Life started crumbling around me. My drinking was getting worse, and I had moved into my own apartment which my grandparents chipped in money for, but I had no job, no money coming in, my unemployment was running out. I ended up pawning my DJ gear, my PA system, my amp, just to pay my credit cards. Thousands of dollars of musical equipment, sold for a few hundred bucks.

It was 2002, and music career was at a standstill.

And all my copies of “breakup” were gone.

What next? Stay tuned…

See what came last … or go back to Part One

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Adult Child of an Alcoholic, DJ, Electronic Dance Music, Grunge, Recovery, Rock

My (Sober) DJ Story, Part One.

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I’ve been a music lover all my life. My tastes run very eclectic and very polarizing. One minute I’ll be listening to dub techno. The next, classical guitar. The next, metalcore and  deathcore. I’ve never been able to sit still in one genre because almost *all* genres of music have meant something to me at one time or another in my life, save for what I call “nu-skool pop country.” I do love Patsy Cline.

I’m not from New York, Los Angeles, or Miami or London. I was born in a tiny town in Pennsylvania and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, a longtime suburban bedroom community which has always tried way too hard to be the “big city.” I’m about as far removed from being “streetwise” as you can get. I think if I were to live in New York or Los Angeles I’d be eaten alive, either by the pace or the personalities. For me growing up, a DJ was a “radio personality” – not a party rocker, turntablist, or music collector. Just some guy on the radio that announced the next song to be played – which gave me just enough time to put in a cassette and record my favorite song. That was as close to Napster as my generation (X) got.

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I’m old enough to remember listening to AM radio on long trips to see my grandparents in the 1970s and hearing music like this. I’m old enough to remember owning my first walkman (a Sanyo). I’m old enough to remember when MTV happened and actually played music videos. The first video I saw on MTV was Howard Jones “What Is Love?” and from that point forward the DJ and the VJ were constant companions. Back then it was all so new and so exciting to watch. I heard music there I couldn’t hear anywhere else, certainly music that wasn’t played on any major radio station in North Carolina.

My first experience of a club/party DJ was at my 8th grade end-of-year dance. Until that point, I had never really seen a DJ perform. I’d seen a video on MTV for a song called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS, went up to the DJ and requested it. He looked at me as if to say “how in the hell did you know about that song?” He showed me the record and played the “bonus beats” remix (one with an extended intro/outro for a DJ to mix), then pulled out another copy of the same record and segued the bonus beats version into the “radio” edit. I really didn’t understand what I was watching, it all looked like magic to me.

Aside: I later found the “stems” for “Pump Up The Volume” on a bit torrent site and did my own remix:

In any case, I was not going to embrace DJ-ing at that time. Loud rock music was to consume the next 5 years of my life. My mother bought me a guitar for my 16th birthday, Nirvana released “Nevermind” when I was a rising senior in high school, and I was off to the races.

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I grew up on 80s synth pop… Howard Jones as I already mentioned, Depeche Mode, Human League, Thompson Twins, Information Society. I always appreciated the sound of keyboards in music. As a kid in the 1970s, I heard disco on the radio but never enjoyed it. The electronic beat had more punch. Then after my parents divorced, I underwent a musical sea-change. I was angry, and depressed. I began to gravitate towards the loudest, darkest metal music I could find: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Prong, Pantera, etc. That was my therapy. They were the soundtrack for my family falling apart. And if you wanted to be an angry young man, the early 90s was a perfect time for it.

sgo1(DJ FM on bass, with long hair, circa 1994)

I played in several bands during this time. The first was a doom metal band called Static Character, with my friend Jason on drums. The first time I jammed in a room with him, I began playing the main riff of “To Live Is To Die” by Metallica, and he immediately began playing drums. He would go on to become the drummer in my second and most long-lived band up to that point, SGO (Silence Grows Old) or, as it was first called, “Iscream.” My college band. In 2005 I put up a tribute page to our music on myspace, 10 years after it was relevant (now, 20 years):

https://myspace.com/silencegrowsold

It wasn’t until college that I really discovered electronic dance music. It was 1993 and I was still knee deep in grunge and metal. I was in school for graphic design and was starting to hear house, trance, and techno emanating from boomboxes all over our studio (though I had no clue about what genre was what). I enjoyed it but it still wasn’t angry enough for me…and then I heard industrial music, NIN, KMFDM, Front 242. That was the next step.

About this same time I started hearing about “raves” and “rolling.” I was working in the stock room at a Toys R Us and one of my female co-workers told me about ecstasy. At the time, I hadn’t even been drunk yet – or really taken a proper drink, really. I was scared of drugs and alcohol because I saw what they had done to my family. It’s a fear I should’ve held on to longer, but it was not to be.

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I went to what would be my first rave at a club called The Depot in Greensboro in 1994. I heard a DJ that night by the name of Ed LeBrun, one of the first rave promoters in NC (who sadly was murdered 5 years later). Though I *loved* the music, I wasn’t drinking or taking drugs, and I felt like a fish out of water. I was still in my grunge phase and still way too angry for rave culture, if not rave music. I would not go to another party like that for almost 3 years.

My best friend from high school and her older sister were both Grateful Dead fans who became ravers after Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995. I guess they needed something new to “tour with” and follow. I knew many people like that. While I experienced rave culture peripherally through them, I continued to focus more on rock music and producing my own “dance” music, usually a combination of rock and electronic sounds. By the time The Prodigy released “Fat of the Land” and Crystal Method “Vegas,” I was already paying for studio time to record my first album “breakup.”

My producer had spent his formative years in Chicago, and was working in a parking garage, teaching himself to program MIDI while sitting in a tiny booth. He knew about Steve Silk Hurley, about the Muzic Box, about the origins of house music as well as the EBM and industrial scene which also had a foothold in the city. My college band recorded out first and only album with him, but when I saw his music collection, I thought he might be someone who could help realize my vision.

studiob(Studio B, where “Breakup” was recorded between 1996-1997)

Home computers were still not as powerful as they needed to be to record digital audio, so I recorded my first album “breakup” using Mark of the Unicorn’s Performer software (just a MIDI sequencer, no hard disk editing yet) in Osceola Studios, room B. I would sequence MIDI on the fly while my producer sat at the mixing board adjusting levels. Very much an in-studio performance, all recorded to Alesis ADAT tape (I still have all the masters). We got pretty good at it. If I’d had the money to simply go to the studio day after day, I would have. Instead, I traded studio time for graphic design work, and actual payments where I could afford it.

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(DJ FM’s ADAT Tapes)

I had the album mastered at The Kitchen in Carrboro, NC. Seriously one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’d ever had, to hear my music in that context. The picture does it some justice:

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(The Kitchen)

This was all happening in the first two months of 1998. There was no Napster, no iPod, no iTunes. MP3s were still very much “underground.” So I had to have a run of CDs pressed, 1000 of them to be exact. I remember the day in April when I came back home to my apartment and found 9 boxes of CDs in my living room. My roommate Yancy gave me a high-five, took a swig of his beer and said, “Okay, what the fuck do we do with these??”

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Part Two: What FM did with the CDs…dun dun dun…

But before that…read this…

 

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