Before I had Converse sneakers, I wore the knock-off copies from W.T. Grant. Same with pants and underwear; Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom were something I’d only heard of. I had an off-brand bicycle that became my prosthetic legs for a few years. It had sparkly gold paint and a banana seat, with high handlebars and reflectors that immediately fell off. The ride to anywhere required climbing a hill that would give most of my friends a heart attack nowadays. I wanted to put a ski on the front wheel so I could ride in the wintertime. I cobbled a platform to attach a transistor radio on the handlebar stem. I could get AM stations WHEN and WFBL, and I couldn’t really pull in WOLF. Whoever was playing “Get Down” by Gilbert O’Sullivan or anything by Chicago had my ear. Nine-volt batteries were expensive even then, and they didn’t last long, especially if you accidentally left the radio on all night.
By the age of nine, I had destroyed a handful of record players. I wound up the spring on a Victrola until it snapped. I removed the tonearm on a player in order to place it on larger items like pie tins and serving platters, in case there was music in them to play. I remember standing upon the turntable of one, trying to spin around, just as my mom walked in the room. That was after I had spent my pre-phonograph years dancing to imaginary music coming out of dresser drawers and paper plates nailed to trees.
Many years ago, someone asked me, “What do you do?” and it was the first time I’d heard that. It’s a cliche that is apparently considered a bit rude to ask. I was dating into a (not quite) wealthy family, and someone’s wife started in with these questions.
“What do you do?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. I thought about it, as I’d never heard such a question in my twenty years before having this poolside chat. Someone came to my aid, and said, “His father owns Mobile Oil.” I thought to myself, well, my Dad has a gas station franchise, that’s close enough. I don’t know what I said, if anything, but I did sing a song of my own for everyone out by the pool right after that.
There was a point within a year of that incident where I wondered if I should say “I’m a musician,” or, “I work at Bud’s Shell,” or, “I crash parties in Pacific Heights, steal Ray-Bans...and do not suffer fools gladly.” It seemed false to claim being a musician when I paid my bills working as a cashier, wearing a shirt printed with my name. Over time, I found if I could stay alive at the level of poverty on my musician income, only then had I earned the title of Musician, for what that was worth.