My Gift to You: New Year, New Journey pt. 2

Today is my 32nd birthday, and throughout my entire life — even before I was born — music has been at the center.

The universe was kind enough to bless me with the gift of music almost as immediately as I was conceived.  My father was a DJ and Creative Director in commercial radio for 25 years.  My mother would accompany him when he would do backstage interviews with artists at huge arena concerts.  It was during this time that they [DISGUSTING] and the sounds of the concerts would travel through my mother’s belly, into her womb and finally into my ears.

The moments before my first experiences in the outside world were spent backstage at concerts on national tours for rock artists like Bob Segar, Edgar Winter, Ted Nugent and others; plus, my dad would put his headphones on my mother’s stomach and feed me the essentials: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Vivaldi…The Beatles…Keith Moon…

The music being delivered to my ears must have stimulated positive connections in my brain, because shortly after my birth, I displayed signs of being a gifted child.

At 1 year old — in between attending concerts backstage in my parents’ arms and getting my picture taken with big-name country artists such as Alabama (my favorite), Willie Nelson, Eddie Rabbit, The Oak Ridge Boys — I was able to speak coherently and do basic reading and math.  I also showed a keen sense of memory and spatial relationships, among other things.  Above all that though, I demonstrated an undeniable and obsessive desire to do one thing more than anything else in the world: play music.

I would watch the bands at these concerts, and found myself inextricably drawn toward the drummers (duh; they’re the coolest).  At 1 1/2 years old, I began picking up anything in our apartment that remotely resembled a drum stick, assemble items that looked like decent substitutes for drums and bash away happily.  For my 2nd birthday, my parents got me a Muppet Babies-themed toy drum set, because they had a drummer ; I played just like Animal did on the TV show.

Being that the drum heads were made out of cheap material, I’d soon break the kit, and begin to play on anything I could (pots, pans, pillows, couches, ashtrays, etc.).  I’d drum on everything!  I’d also pick up and play any musical instrument I could see and can get my hands on, including pianos and guitars.  On top of all of that, I’d still be backstage getting my picture taken with country superstars, who now also gave me their autographs in my little autograph book.  (I want to find that thing because it has all of the pictures and autographs and memories I’m talking about, and I want to upload them here!  I really hope it’s somewhere in my parents’ house; it may be on the list of possessions I’ve lost in the Sea of Ex-Lovers.)

My parents likely realized that if they didn’t replace my toy drums once broken, they’d end up having to replace some of their own toys I chose to beat the crap out of.  Thus began the cycle of my drumming career as a youth: I played my new toy drums every day until I break them, and go back to playing on everything else until the next birthday or Christmas.  (This cycle would continue for 9 years.)  If we were driving in the car after dad got home from work and we passed a drum shop, we had to stop and go inside so I could play around on the professional kits.  There was also the mandatory trip specifically to the drum shop each weekend.  I just couldn’t be around drums enough.

In Part 1 of this blog entry, I highlighted a critical moment in my musical career; I introduced a band on stage at the Downtown Hoedown in Hart Plaza (Detroit, MI) on my 5th birthday, and immediately after, the crowd sang me happy birthday.  Another huge moment was when, at 7 years old, my mother thought I was good enough to enter a local youth talent competition as a drummer, and she signed me right up.

My mom found out that there would be a professional house band in the show too, and didn’t want me to be embarrassed, so she talked with a local drum shop owner and negotiated the rental of a professional Ludwig kit for me to use, something he didn’t normally offer.  (She created a sign to put on the front of the bass drum to advertise his store.  HA!)  She then made a mix tape of Michael Jackson songs for me to play along with as my performance. “Practice to it,” she says.  “Yes, mom,” I say…

Of course, I don’t practice (never really have), and I space out during my performance and play nonsense.  My ultimate reward for this stellar display was a 3rd place certificate, and a feeling of anxiousness and nervousness every single time I walk on stage in the future.

But what was crazy is that the audience loved me!  There were girls in the top row bleachers of the recreation complex hooting and hollering at me (Hello, ladies!), people were dancing to the music (Shake your booty when the snare cracks!) and I got a great big applause from the crowd when I stopped playing (John Kay has left the building!).  I’m sure that they were probably just being nice and making a little kid feel good, because I distinctly remember sucking.  The point is, they recognized who I was at that very moment in my life: a 5-year old kid who loves playing the drums and just being himself.

I’m still that same person.  I love playing music and just being myself.

Because of my dogged adherence to my musical life’s task throughout my entire existence — and the persons with whom I’ve had the both the opportunities and pleasure to associate and work — I’ve been fortunate to be educated and experienced enough to not only play the drums well, but also several other instruments and aspects of making music, including audio engineering, live recording, arranging, mixing and producing.  The love I have for music and its great composers throughout history has been embedded in me since before birth, and my aim is to share as much amazing music with everyone as possible during my lifetime.  This is my life’s task.

My path has ultimately led me to today.  Today is my 32nd birthday.

And today, I have a gift for you…

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Sometimes, the Lion has to show the jackals who he really is…

Today at 6:00 PM I will be outside of Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, playing and singing songs from my upcoming debut album as a solo singer-songwriter.  I’ll be doing so for about 45 minutes, and then I’m leaving to go watch the Tigers game (you don’t miss a Verlander start).  I’m just as anxious and nervous — if not more — than I was when I was in the talent show as a kid, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to butcher a tune here and there (I still don’t practice!).

But it’s something I want to do, something I believe I need to do.  Because I believe the content of these songs needs to be heard in our current culture, and that belief has been affirmed through numerous private listening sessions with persons whose musical ears I consider experienced.  These are people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, family structures, careers and lifestyles; men and women; stoners and drunks; rich and poor; many were professional musicians, but most were just fans of good music.  They all have remarked the same thing: anyone can relate to these songs.

We ALL have music that we love, that we cherish, that moves us, that makes us dance, laugh, cry and sing our hearts out until our voices crumble and we can’t speak the following day.  But we know why we can’t speak, and we know that it was worth it.

…and we smile.

So, feel free to meet me outside of the Park on a gorgeous, 59-degree, 30% chance of rain, overcast Michigan evening and share a smile.  I’ll be playing music and just being myself.

Just a guy with a guitar, singing his heart out on the streets of Detroit.

Thanks for reading.  I love you all.

/blows out candles

:-J

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Me at 2 years old; chopsticks for drumsticks, and the back of a chair for a drum

The Fat Kid ALWAYS Wins: Overcoming Adversity

For almost two decades, I was a fat kid.  Hell, I was THE Fat Kid.

The weight gain started in elementary school when I was around 8 or 9 years old, but the psychological seeds were sown years prior.

At 3 years old, my mom had my brain tested.  It turned out I had an I.Q. of 136, so I was now the smart kid that got placed a grade ahead of the other students my age…

…and everyone knew it.

From my earliest days in school, I was picked on and ridiculed relentlessly.  I was never gifted athletically, and was always the last one picked for any team events, but the first one picked when working on an assignment in a group, or when we’d play the school version of Jeopardy.  I liked country and pop music; the other students liked rap and hard rock.  Boys picked fights with me; girls did not talk to me.  Most teachers were encouraging and supportive; some teachers resented me, and made a priority of balancing out the praise they perhaps felt was unearned by a 5-year old.  So, I buried myself into my schoolwork, and at home, my first love, playing the drums.

I got straight As; no minuses.  In both 5th and 6th grade I was pulled out of class for half a day once or twice a week, and taken to another school to study computer programming and other advanced subjects along with a handful of smart kids from other schools in the area.

I didn’t really hang out with many people from school.    When attending school, those with whom I would hang out from time to time would either join in on the insults or pretend I didn’t exist.  They were embarrassed to be friends with me.

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“They can’t make fun of the way my farts smell…if I inhale all of the gas first!!”

When I was 5, I began taking Karate lessons at my local dojo because I was afraid of getting beat up at school.  After 3 years of lessons and earning some colorful belts — the Karate belt system is used in martial arts training to mark the progress a student has made in their study — my instructor closed his business; I didn’t join another dojo afterward.

At that point in my life, I had been playing drums for 6 years.  A friend of mine played guitar, met another kid at his school who also played guitar and introduced us.  BAM!  First band formed!  (NOTE: I would go on to play with these two musicians on-again, off-again, for the next 16 years.  More on that journey in future blogs!)

So at 8 years old, instead of playing outside, climbing trees, riding bikes all day and taking Karate lessons throughout the week, I was being driven to and from my new buddy’s house to go play songs as a band with another 8-year old and a 7-year old.

I’d load my Noble & Cooley drum set (settle down, pro drummers; it was a toy store version of a legitimate N&C kit) into my dad’s truck, get dropped off, set up and play.  At his house was a professional Premier drum set, and we’d secretly play on it when his folks weren’t home…mostly because I had all but destroyed my toy set, and my cymbal stand kept falling over.

When we’d get hungry, we’d bike to any of the fast food restaurants and convenience stores in the area and stuff our faces.

Around this time, an older kid moved into the neighborhood.  He was a skateboarder, and me and my bandmates thought he was just the coolest dude ever.  So, we started skateboarding, too.  We learned about the secret skate spots in our area, and we’d carry our boards while riding our bikes to go skate at these places.

When we’d get hungry, we’d bike or skate to any of the fast food restaurants and convenience stores in the area and stuff our faces.

My brother and I joined a Saturday morning youth bowling league, and remained in the league for years to come (until I could drive my own car and my teammates started playing “real” sports).  My dad would take my brother and me to Hardees for breakfast in the morning on the way to bowling.  During bowling matches, Dad would buy us snacks and sodas out of the vending machines.

After we finished our games we’d usually go to my grandma’s house for dinner, and on the way, stop at the local book store.  We’d each get a new book to read…and candy, even though Grandma always had candy.  I’d drink anywhere from 4-8 cans of Coca-Cola Classic while we hung out at her house, and would spend most of my time trying to eat as many M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Hershey Kisses from her candy dishes as possible without anyone noticing; it was my little secret.

In order to bring extra money into the household, my mom began doing day care out of our house for family and friends.  Each summer, there would usually be anywhere from 5-10 kids in the house Monday through Friday, and she was responsible for feeding everyone lunch.  I mostly remember eating soft tacos and “cinnamon crispas” from Taco Bell and mini fried chicken sandwiches with mayo from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  And drinking lots of Dr. Pepper.

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Clockwise L-R: Me, best friend, friend from school, brother, best friend’s brother, cousin, and friend from school’s sister mowing down chicken sandwiches like it’s something to do.  circa 1991

My family moved to a new city when I was 10 years old.  At the new house, what would normally be the rear fence of the backyard was actually a high concrete wall to separate our yard from a mall parking lot.  Our house was 3 houses from the corner, and at that corner was a dead end through which you could walk to get to the mall.  Almost every day after school for two years, my mother would give me and my brother five dollars each to go the mall, eat at the food court, play arcade games and hang out until our dad got home.  We’d usually get Taco Bell, since it was cheapest and that meant we could play more games.

A kid in school began making fun of me for my “rolls” at around that time.  I thought he was talking about the bottoms of my blue jeans.

When I changed schools after completing 6th grade, I had a choice that summer: I could go into regular 7th grade at the local middle school and end up graduating high school a year early; or go to a gifted school a little further away, repeat 6th grade with more advanced teaching and be with kids my own age.  I got a legal pad, went into my bedroom, drew a line down the center and labeled one side “Regular 7th”, the other side “Gifted 6th”.  I wrote down all the pros and cons I could think of for each situation, and ultimately decided to go to the gifted school.

I thought that no one at this new school would make fun of me for being smart; they were all smart.

And I was right.  Not once did anyone ever make fun of me for being smart.

Instead, they made fun of me for being fat and poor.

I was now a poor fat kid, ridiculed in a whole new way, and I became incredibly depressed.  I was furious at myself for choosing to attend this school, effectively adding a year to my seemingly never-ending sentence of ridicule.

Even at 11 years old, I knew I owned my decision.  I’m the one who weighed the pros against the cons and did what I thought was best given the circumstances.  I thought I was going to a school filled with people just like me, and that things would be so much better.  I knew that making new friends could be difficult and awkward, but I was excited to be with kids my own age and whom shared some of my skill set and abilities.

And now here I was, in a new school with people I’ve never met, most of whom grew up together in their upper-middle class neighborhoods, enlightening me to my family’s financial woes and my own obesity.

I could not endure the pain any longer.  I had to make some sort of stand.

So, I told my bandmates to start calling me “The Fat Kid”, and created a kind of alter ego where I was totally comfortable with being overweight.  I made jokes about myself before others could have the chance.  Whenever something would go well for me, I’d pick up an object, hold it in my hand like Groucho Marx with a cigar and say “The Fat Kid always wins!”  It got so many laughs that I went to the custom t-shirt shop in the backyard mall and had it ironed on a extra-large cream-colored t-shirt in big blue letters…

The Fat Kid ALWAYS Wins.

That shirt became my “security blanket”.  I wore it to school.  I wore it when my bandmates and I rode bikes and skateboarded.  I wore it when I played drums at shows.  I embraced the whole character of the overweight kid in the group that tries really hard to get everyone to laugh, and continued to portray that character for over a decade.

And I effectively eliminated all ridicule about my weight.

Today, I’m in the best shape of my life.  I’ve lost 70 pounds from my highest weight ever, bike almost every day and go to the gym 3-4 times a week.  I eat a well-balanced diet of food throughout the day, and only binge or cheat on festive occasions.  As a result, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  I also have more stamina where it really counts…behind the drum set, ladies!

Book Cover

The late Stephen Covey wrote in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.”  I knew back then I couldn’t change my weight problem overnight.  (In fact, it has taken the past six years of consistent — and inconsistent — effort and decision-making to finally get to a point where I can stand naked and sober in front of a mirror and smile).  What I did know was this: just as the decision to attend the gifted school was mine to make, so was my decision to choose my response to my bullies.  I decided to use the exact same smarts the kids used to make fun of me about, and turn the tables on my adversaries.

And the only person stopping you from doing the same thing in your life is you.

Turn the tables on your haters.  Use their own tactics against them.  Sharpen your mind and create a better life for yourself.  Feel free to start with Covey’s book above.  I’ve bought it 3 times and given it away to people to help them, leaving me with no copy.  One of my best friends recently gave me his extra hardcopy.  (Call it karma, right?)

My birthday is coming up this Saturday, and I always get myself a gift.

This year’s gift: six-pack abs.

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The fat kid always wins.

Thanks for reading.

:-J

P.S. Speaking of Saturday, I’ll be posting a big announcement on here!  Those who follow this blog will get it emailed directly to them so they don’t miss it.  I have a no-limit policy on how many people can follow, and it’s FREE!!

P.P.S. Here’s a moment from the fat years that stuck with me…

Once, on the way home from bowling, I remember going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s and this exchange happening as we were waiting to pull up to order:

Dad: “Okay boys, what do you want to eat?”

Me: “A double quarter pounder with cheese extra value meal, super-sized with a —”

Dad: “Doggone it, John! Do you always have to get the biggest thing on the menu??”

I fell silent and shrunk into the passenger seat.

“Why does he care what I order, anyway??”, I wondered at first.  “Is it because it’s the most expensive thing on the menu and my family is struggling with money??”  (Maybe.)

Then, I began to get really pissed off.  “So what,” I reasoned, “I’m hungry, and you’re just jealous that I can eat more than you.” (What??)

My brain brewed with thoughts and my body shook inside for at least an hour.  Bottom line, I was really upset with my food lifestyle being challenged.  I had settled into the role of “The Fat Kid” and what he would order when he went to fast food restaurants: whatever the biggest value meal was, super/biggie/fatfuck-sized.  But I knew in my heart that he was right to ask the question, albeit angrily.

So, why did I always have to order the biggest thing??

It was the habit I unconsciously created over the course of almost 10 years due to my daily decisions.

Make better decisions on a daily basis — even the decisions you think are small — and you’ll eventually create new habits and get the results you want.  I know from experience, dude.