For love or money (part three of four): The Lost Years.
(This is part three of a four-part series on how I finally starting thinking about what I am instead of what I want to be, or something like that. Sorry for the long post!)
Moving back to SF > planning to start a band with college friends > bands I played in > IAC > The Sharper Image > leaving the country and music behind
The long drive back to San Francisco from LA ended at my parents' house, which is about an hour south of SF. I stayed with my folks for awhile, a few months, at least, then moved into a house on the border of SF and Daly City. The house backed up against the 280 freeway and was painted a chipped, faded white and fronted by a small, struggling patch of grass. Inside, I remember shag carpets, which I did my very best to clean with a Rug Doctor. My housemates were two of my very best college friends, Jeff and Eric, who had helped me record several songs during my college years by adding their exquisite lead vocals and harmonies. Although I was definitely back on a Writer track, having read The Writer's Art and committing myself to finally really practicing the craft, music remained top of mind and my biggest dream, and Jeff, Eric and I planned to start a band. We never did. Eric wanted to go to med school, Jeff had plans to get an MBA then return to his home state of Minnesota and take over the family business and I, well, I didn't have any sort of long-term plan. It's not that I was a crazed musician hell bent on making it, damn the odds and the torpedoes, I just didn't have a plan beyond starting a band.
I don't remember how Jaco came to live with us, but he did, and lo and behold he had played the drums once. Could he play them again? He mused that maybe he could, got his kit, set it up and we jammed in the garage (see pic). Jaco was out of practice but obviously a total natural. My spirits soared and though I knew Eric was not interested, given his med school prep and girlfriend issues (a saga that ended happily), I got Jeff fired up, enlisted my friend and fellow GITer Mike Northcutt, who had also moved back to the Bay Area, agreed to play the bass and we were off. Our name: The Paupers. One gig into our career, we stopped. I can't remember why, but though we played well together and sounded good, it was not to be. Wait, I can, too, remember why we broke up. Jeff's MBA plan was coming into focus, Jaco wanted to become a bartender and Mike was too good for us (truly, he was, I don't hold this against him at all). Once again, everyone but me had bigger plans.
In time, Eric left for med school and Jaco left for... I can't remember, so, without any band ambitions to justify having a house where we could rehearse, Jeff and I moved into an apartment closer to downtown SF. But Jeff got accepted to Michigan and soon was loading his car for the drive back to the center of the country. Before we moved to the downtown apartment, I was working as a salesman in a stereo store, but not being so clueless as to realize that this was no long-term career, I was trying to do something new. I honestly don't remember what exactly, so that tells you how cool it was.
I re-focused on writing. Clearly, the music thing was a dead-end, and while writing was still not the dream music was, it was a dream just the same and I was in need of a dream. "What now?" was a favorite topic of internal dia(mono?)log for me. I finally landed a new job at a company called Information Access Company. It was more of a reading job than writing -- I was paid to read magazine articles and index them by entering keywords in to a software program -- but in time, I was promoted into the Computer Database group, where I would read articles on the computer industry and write abstracts of them. Dull, to be sure, but I fancied myself an unsung Hemingway, as I crafted my spare, adjective free prose day after day after day after day... Once again, music reared its head and said, "What about me?" While I was still a lowly Indexer, a friend, Cory, who had a band, called me and told me their guitar player had just quit and asked if I would I step in. I protested that I wasn't good enough, but Cory persisted and I finally joined The Distractions (see pic), a bar band with some ambition, in April of 1987 (I know that because Cory keeps good notes!). So there I was, by day indexing magazine articles and by night, about three times a week, playing songs like Midnight Hour, Happy and What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding. Cool, but there had to be more to life.
I forget how, exactly, but I started to hear about something called copywriting, and I set my sights on getting a job with an ad agency. I signed up for a night class in copywriting, and I liked it enough to take a second class from the same instructor, and while I was never the best student, I was also not the worst. Encouraged, I started combing the classifieds for writing gigs and one day, there it was. The Sharper Image needed a writer. It wasn't an ad agency, but I loved the Sharper Image catalog, I loved gadgets, I loved the idea of writing short, punch catalog copy. I applied and they sent me a copy test. I took the test, then they called me in and gave me another copy test, for which they paid me (ah, the good old days). I took that test. Then they called me in again and gave me another paid copy test. Finally, they called me in again and told me that of the 100 initially selected to take that first test, I was the one they wanted to hire. I think that was maybe the first day in my life I truly felt good about myself.
The Sharper Image was everything I'd hoped. The gadgets were great fun, the pay was good and, most important, I was really, truly writing for a living. Still, music tempted me, and after the Distractions disbanded I joined an originals band with high school friend, Toby Germano. We were called Germano Warfare (see pic) and I am proud to say that after playing the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco, we were told by the owner that we would never be welcome there again because we were the "loudest fucking thing" he had ever heard. Toby had serious talent, great songs and ambition and deeply hoped that Germano Warfare would go somewhere. I decided that if he was to really have a shot, he couldn't be dragged down by me, and so I quit the band and focused on my new job. It was the end of the 80s, though, and Sharper Image was losing relevance. People stopped buying baubles and soon the company was on the brink. I got my pink slip in January of 1990, I recall.
I took stock. I was in my mid twenties, and while still pretty much completely unsure about what to do for a living, Sharper Image had given me hope that writing was a real possibility. As always, the siren call of music was there, but more faint than ever. Most important, I had met a girl from Germany and her visa had just run out. With my new-found confidence in my writing abilities and my ever present uncertainty about what to do for a living and my congenital tendency to want a colorful, romantic life, I decided to follow the girl to Europe. My ticket was round-trip, with a three month limit. I was gone for four years.
NEXT: EUROPE AND BACK