• Notes on Cerebellum Blues, Playlists One and Two: my life in advertising begins.
Welcome to my series of posts about how I got into music and songwriting and the events that ultimately led to the 2012 release of my first album. Here are the posts, so far:
If you read anything that strikes a chord please let me know in the comments section or via email. As always, thank you for reading.
Late in 1994 I had been back from Europe for nearly a year. I was living in Palo Alto in a converted servants quarters behind a large, shingled mansion and one evening I grabbed one of the two Cuban cigars I had brought back with me from Germany and a small glass of bourbon and I headed outside into a foggy night and walked down the street to where there was a flat, no-back wooden bench under a redwood tree. I lit the cigar, took a sip of my bourbon, laid down on the bench and blew smoke up into the wet air and into the branches of the tree. Was this what I wanted? Had it all been worth it, leaving Munich and Michelle to come back to the States and get a job in advertising and get some experience so that I could return to Munich and live and work there? Because that’s what had happened. I was working in an agency now and building that portfolio and plotting and planning — and doubting. What had I done?
When I walked back to my apartment I was dizzy. It wasn’t the bourbon, it was the cigar and just like that Cuban cigar, my first and so full of promise, my new life was a letdown. I missed Munich. I missed Michelle and the people I’d met there, the way they treated me and talked to me and listened to me and engaged with me. I missed the schnecke rolls at the Marienplatz subway station, the coffee made with an espresso machine, Bavarian butter. I missed walking along the Isar river and watching the ducks. I missed having to pinch myself that I was indeed living in Europe.
Back inside my tiny apartment, there it all was, just as it had been before my years in Munich, my music gear. Since high school, my room/apartment has always been cluttered with guitars and amps and multitrack tape recorders and my place in Palo Alto was no different. There was a multitrack, my SansAmp, a mic, guitars, and cables, cables, cables — all gathering dust yet making me believe that I would dust them off any day now. I never did. After getting back from Europe, I recorded just a couple of songs, none of which were any good, save for maybe People Change, and I never again played in a band. No, I had a career now, aspirations, focus. I was through with the hobbies of youth.
I kept telling myself I was going to stick to my original plan, which was to stay committed to Michelle and to work for a few years and build up a portfolio that would be strong enough to allow me to get me a job back in Europe. But this plan exacted a high price because it forced me to live in two places at once and to be unable to call either home. Every social occasion was tinged with loneliness as I would wish Michelle could be there with me and then my mind would drift from wherever I was and I would not be there anymore and eventually I would return to my apartment where I would sit alone and doubt would eat at me. And then there was the work, always the work. Advertising is like that, you get a project and you just can’t stop thinking about it until you are out of time and then another project starts and sometimes, most of the time really, you’re juggling multiple projects with overlapping deadlines and you never get a break. It was all too much — the loneliness, the job, my waning optimism — and I became desperate for a change, but I could not bring myself to simply go back to Europe. Looking back, I can’t say for sure why but part of my plight had to do with the fact that advertising was the first job I’d ever had that I felt I could turn into a career and I was convinced that my one shot was happening now and I could not pause even for a second, no matter the consequences because nothing could be worse than letting this opportunity slip through my hands. And I was 30. Time was running out! The follies of youth.
In 1997, Michelle and I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t coming back to Europe. We were both visiting New York, she to organize a shoot (her journalism career was taking off) and me to... well, I don’t even remember why, maybe there was only the hard business of parting, I cannot recall. We said our last goodbye as a couple under a grey, early morning sky as she rushed off to catch a flight. After that moment, I don’t remember anything else about that trip.
Back home in SF, I was now at McCann Erickson and finally had the freedom to think only about advertising for every waking moment—and that’s exactly what I did. I still noodled on my guitars here and there, still started a short story every now and then, but never for long because to leave my advertising muse unattended for even a minute was unthinkable. Now, I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room but even I could see I was on a road to ruin, of sorts. But how to get off of it?
I kept telling myself I would rise in my career quickly and soon reach a point where I would have enough money and security to take a step back, to stop, reassess, find something new. Well, I did rise fairly quickly. Within a few years of starting my career, I got into McCann, which was one of SF’s better agencies, and then into another where I rose to become the co-head of the creative department. But my big title and solid paycheck got me no closer to my goal of being financially set for life. Worse, I was getting farther from the fun work of creating ads and I was getting sucked into office politics and other swampish muck. Should I quit and go work somewhere else in a lower position? Should I ask to be demoted? Should I look for a different career? Would life as a homeless person be that bad? I truly asked myself all these questions but I could not bring myself to act. I was frozen. And so on it went. As for music, its siren song gone faint but still audible, it was only something I thought about in the way people think about winning the lottery.
About midway through my upward fall, I met Catherine and though I did not know it at the time and did not appreciate her for what she truly meant to me, I knew I felt happy again when I was with her and hope and optimism dared to show their faces. When we were together life was good but even during our best times, there, sitting on my shoulder, was the Ad Devil, who was always whispering things into my ear like, “Why are you out with her having a nice dinner when you could be home in front of your computer staring at a blank page? What about the brief? There’s a meeting tomorrow you know, you really sure your ideas don’t SUCK?” And fear, well, the Ad Devil is an expert at making fear a constant fact of life. Though I was doing well and producing good work, advertising is a “what have you done for me lately” business and one misstep and all your triumphs are forgotten. But in a perverse, masochistic way, I liked that about the business and still do. There’s real risk. Like music, you’re either producing hits or you’re a has-been. And you’re paid to think, even if your thinking isn’t always appreciated. Best of all (to borrow an adland phrase), those hits, if you can come up with one, can be life-changing. Advertising truly is like music in that if you can come up with one, bonafide, no ifs-ands-or-buts GREAT idea, just like the rock band that reaches number one on the charts, you are made for a good, long while — but not forever, never forever.
But no career, not advertising, not music, can be enough in life. You need a relationship, you need genuine friends, and while money is nice and even necessary there is such a thing as enough and to chase it for too long means you collapse into your grave unfulfilled. I chased money relentlessly. I always tried to do great work, but I wanted money, too, because I believed that once I had enough money (see where this is going?) I would be happy or at least able to take the time to figure out what would make me happy. I never did have enough. No, I had to complete my fall to the top and now I look back and it’s all such a shame: I wasted so much time and energy on things that, while important, are not the only things one should be concerned about, while all along Catherine was right there. Today, I cannot imagine life without her and the two beautiful babies we have. Through her I learned that no career in and of itself can be all that’s required for a fulfilling life, at least not for me. Through her I learned that family really does matter and that success is not measured by a paycheck or expressed in a title. Success is within, it’s where you feel joy. But to fully realize this very simple fact, something had to break. Literally.