I remember when I was a scared little kid growing up in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, it took every ounce of energy to get through school. If I wasn’t dealing with teachers reminding me how stupid I was, then I was reminded by my peers of my smallness, wimpy-ness, and insignificance. Every day was a fucking gauntlet. I ran home crying at least once a week. And when I did make it home, I came home to an empty house. I had no brothers or sisters, and my parents were always at work till I went to bed. I was socially awkward so I didn’t have very many friends. I didn’t have any relatives nearby, nor was I close to any of them. All I had were my A.M. radio and my parents’ old Frank Sinatra records, to which I’d listen on my parents’ white antique couch and stare at the ceiling till it was time to drag myself to bed.
Big Band jazz and Frank Sinatra were my friends. I used to daydream about dancing with girls to that music just like in those old movies from the 1940’s. Swing dancing looked like so much fun and the music was beautiful. Swing music lyrics were sometimes sad, but they had this odd way of hugging me and crying with me and being lonely with me. The Great American Jazz Songbook was my home and my solace. That music was a place for peace, and it took me away from all the hurt. I never felt abandoned listening to the jazz classics. Music never put me down or made me feel bad about myself, especially jazz. Music never hit me or called me names. Coming home and listening to jazz made me feel less hated and alone.
When I was in college I took up singing as an outlet to deal with depression, and somehow found myself in the Jazz Studies program. It was there when I made a few friends and formed a band who’d eventually be my backing musicians on my vocal jazz album. People actually believed in me enough to encourage me to go out and sing professionally. They saw how much I believed in the music… in those old love songs, so innocent in their lyrics, but yet so profoundly romantic. The American Jazz Standards were almost always all about how a man loves a woman, and how much it hurts when she leaves. It takes you away into a fantasy dimension when love and life can be so simple and hopeful. It almost felt like a celebration every time I walked up onstage and sang into the microphone, no matter how large or small the audience was. What I gave the crowd was me, my true self, a person who truly believes in music as the ultimate expression of humanity. And I did it through the art of jazz.
When I finally released my album in 2006, it was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was a bonafide recording artist, a member of the Recording Academy. I had great reviews, and airplay from over 100 jazz stations around the USA, Europe, and Asia. In some markets, I debuted at #2 behind notable artists like Michael Buble and Jamie Cullum. Even in the local scene, I was starting to build my reputation and was invited to play in various venues. There were even newspaper clippings of me. I felt like I was on a rise to the top of the world. I knew I wasn’t a celebrity, but I set out to become one.
And that’s when things started to crash on me.
I went from believing in the healing power of music… to wanting to be “cool.” The music and my performances used to speak for themselves, but I turned into an asshole, whoring myself for attention. Instead of performing as an artist, I was performing as a businessman. It stopped being about the art, and started being about me. The music that brought me peace and hope as a child became more of a vehicle for my rising ego. Everything that meant anything to me about my art had completely changed. Music was no longer my solace. Struggling to win the fleeting favor of my audience started to feel like drowning in quicksand, futilely fighting my way deeper into my own hole. The more I tried to be that “awesome” image I saw myself as, the less people took me seriously. Eventually, my delusions of grandeur caught up to me as I woke up one morning and looked at myself in the mirror at a complete stranger staring back at me. After struggling so hard to be someone I wasn’t… and to force my music and art to be something that they weren’t… I decided to quit playing music for good.
No one even noticed.
I realized that the audience was the same audience it always had been. The problem was neither them nor my music. The problem was me. I wanted more from my audience, more than they can ever give. I wanted more from my own family and friends. I wanted to know that I was bigger than I really was. I wanted to feel important and needed and admired and loved. I kept pushing and pushing, and eventually I lost support from everyone. When it all finally crashed, I was a man alone. I felt like a failure. The depression, shame, and self-loathing took over me, and once again, I became that scared, lonely, and hurt little kid I used to be.
The whole experience truly hurt, and to this day – although I don’t regret any of it – I still have a deep, resounding sadness when I think about it. I haven’t been on stage since. Not even for the simple joy of it. That was 10 years ago.
The emotional attachment to external validation sucks. It’s an anchor that weighs you down, disallowing you from progressing in life. The constant craving to be liked and admired by others knocks you off your center. It makes you do and say stupid things, and it can be self-destructive. It can possibly destroy your sense of peace, or your career, or even relationships.
For instance, I have a friend whom I truly respect and adore on several levels. But when I kept digging for more external validation from them, I kept crossing boundaries with them. Eventually, it turned them away and we didn’t speak for several days. It truly hurt, and it was my fault. I was disrespectful to our friendship. To lose a friend, even for just a split second in time, really breaks my heart. But I appreciated the lesson it taught me. It taught me that there’s something within me that I still have to work on. There’s an underlying sadness and emptiness still inside of me that’s so deep that I tend to rely on others to fill a void that can’t be filled by any other person than me.
We don’t need external validation if we truly love ourselves. As a matter of fact, people would admire you more if you just simply be you. Oddly enough, they’d love you even more if you genuinely don’t need anyone’s compliments. Light shines brightly only if the internal source of the light is powerful. The sun doesn’t shine it’s brilliance onto us because it wants to win our favor. The sun is simply the sun, shining its golden light, not even realizing it’s providing warmth to all of us. Whether we thank the sun or curse it, it will always shine brightly on us.
That goes for you too. Just be you. Just be your happy, shitty, silly, glorious self. I’ll love you for it. Everyone will.
Below is a little music video entitled “Why Not Try It All,” a cover of The Strokes’ “You Only Live Once,” featuring me on keyboard and vocals, and I changed the lyrics to fit my story. I recorded and released this in 2009. It’s a song about lamenting my jazz days, as well as other times in my life when I wanted to be cool and popular, but ended up feeling like an attention whore acting well outside of myself.
It took me a few lessons, but I gave up trying to be “cool” years ago. Instead, I learned to find enjoyment in life by just being my dumb and silly self, and being a loving husband and father. For me, there’s no greater calling.