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Excerpt: 'Rock On'

'Rock On' cover

Chapter One

I'm not a top-notch, grade-A, tanned and successful middle-aged record executive; sadly, you'll realize this shortly. I'm not dictating these pages to a well-scrubbed, starry-eyed, sexy underling on my private jet, interrupted only by nosebleeds that I insist are simply the result of my allergic reaction to a tasteful leather interior and the rigors of daily cabin pressurization. No, I'm basically the guy who made it to the middle and has no problem swiping his ID at the door to let you in for a look around. My biggest qualification here aside from a magnetized laminate that opens a couple of doors is simply this: I've loved music all my life. And you probably have, too, right? Ten bucks says you have. With hearts and brains like hard drives, we all move through this life constantly shuffling through thousands of songs triggered by memories and names, a certain season, or even just the way the light or landscape feels in a certain place. Maybe some of the songs are triggered by a specific small cluttered studio apartment where your ex-girlfriend Kristin seemed to routinely break your personal belongings, then later took to the habit of sleeping with handsome patrons of local restaurants in exchange for cocaine. Or not, I don't know, maybe I'm kind of doing what therapists refer to as "projecting." Anyway, the point is this: our hearts and heads are filled with music, and as years go by we continue to amass a catalog of songs that permanently score some of the biggest moments and memories of our lives; we have that in common, no matter who we are.

I remember my dad teaching me Johnny Cash songs when I was four years old. I would wake up and shave with him before he went off to work, using my toy fake plastic razor and shaving kit. And instead of having to use the empty toy can of fake shaving cream, my dad would give me a little bit of his real shaving cream to use, and man this made me feel like I had arrived. And we would shave and he'd sing "I Walk The Line." I still remember how lucky and amazed I felt that this ninety-foot-tall superhero with his American workingman-tanned forearms and biceps would glance down at me with a grin and take a second to back up and teach me the line.

"I keep a close watch on this heart of mine," he would repeat.

My way of excitedly repaying my dad for these weekday mornings that I would keep in my heart for the rest of my life was to wake the poor man with seizurelike drumming at around seven in the morning on weekends; one toy metal drum, just marching and pounding. First, the length of the hallway in front of my parents' bedroom a couple of times, then the perimeter of the backyard; a pounding and marching that was at once obsessive-compulsive, extremely punctual, and eerily, calmly emphatic¿—¿like a new recruit to the Naval drum corps honoring the dead or a tiny drumming version of Christopher Walken. At the age of nine, I bothered him relentlessly for rides to the Toys "R" Us out by the freeway, where I would stare at an Ohio Art brand toy drum set for twenty minutes in total daydream silence, while he patiently waited. Then it was straight home to sit in my room and stare at posters of Kiss and Led Zeppelin in the same wide-eyed quiet trance.

My parents must've lain awake in bed nights, silently considering options like boarding school or exorcism. Because, while my dad dealt with the drum set situation, my mom knew that in the beginning of September she'd have to endure long meetings with me that would lead to deciding which member of Kiss I would be trick-or-treating as, come the end of October. There would be discussions about the details of the actual band's current costumes and whether duplicating them was feasible this year, which makeup would work best, etc. Even though I wanted to be a drummer in real life, I always decided I would be Gene Simmons for Halloween, since his fire-breathing, blood-spewing demon/bassist persona seemed like more fun than drummer Peter Criss's well-behaved domestic cat persona. What was a cat even doing with a demon?

My mom juggled work and everything else she had on her plate with making my demon cape from scratch. She used scissors and stitching to convert ordinary witch wigs into perfect Gene Simmons hair, plus did my makeup exactly the way it was on the cover of the Kiss album Destroyer. She never let me go in for spitting fake blood, though. And I was not to play with fire, either. Also, it was made perfectly clear to me that being the Lord of the Wastelands did not give me the right to act like a hooligan; I was to thank neighbors when they gave me candy, and only take one piece unless they invited me to take a bit more. So, each Halloween I essentially became a smaller, oddly well-mannered, polite version of the real Gene Simmons.

There is one sister unit in our little family, who was sixteen when I was ten, which meant one thing: she had the means to buy more records than me. She also had a social life that got her out of the house regularly, which meant I could sneak any new records she had from her bedroom. Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and then there were three by Genesis, or Led Zeppelin IV — I'd play them in my room on my little record player, and then put them back perfectly so as to leave no clue by the time she got back home. And if you listen to Led

Zeppelin at an early enough age, you have to turn it up and picture yourself being in the band and impressing your sister and her cute friends. I would be lying if I didn't admit that, like a lot of the other 18,321,745 grade school kids that the census bureau says were living in the U.S. suburbs in the seventies, my early love of music led to daydreaming that maybe one day I'd be a rock star myself. Maybe you were doing this sort of daydreaming, too. Your resume may even look a lot like my own. A brief review:

Fourth and fifth grade: Started /lead several lip-synch bands that rehearsed and mimed the bittersweet radio songs of 1976 in Jason Mace's garage. We played brooms and gardening tools, and our set list was basically whatever was on the radio at the moment we turned it on, mostly mid-tempo odes to lost love written by men I always pictured as bearded, very tan, and wearing white slacks and maroon silk shirts with the first four buttons undone. Men who wrote mostly of meeting new lovers while still lamenting a recent divorce. Sometimes the metaphors for lost love were thick and guarded: a horse running free and not returning when its name was called, for instance. Women back then sang a little more openly and less metaphorically of the rigors of love and lust, preferring scenarios of, say, magic men with magic hands, and hoping their mothers could try, try, try to understand that he's a magic man. We lip-synched those songs just as emphatically as the ones from a man's point of view. Jason especially identified with the material back then because his mom and Bob were always arguing about whether or not they had made a big mistake in getting remarried after both having had first marriages that wound up in divorce. During the more emotional parts of songs I'd look over at Jason to make sure he was okay. To lighten things up, I'd give him one of those mid-song nods and knowing grins that you see musicians give each other on stage occasionally.

Seventh grade: Nearly flawless gig as DJ for Valentine's Day Dance at school, the only real glitch coming when I had to fall back on playing "Stairway to Heaven" three and a half times in a row for reasons I won't go into now, locking peers into roughly twenty-four-minute slow dance. Threats to my welfare were hollered by both boys and girls; even the substitute-teacher chaperone looked pissed by the third time.

Four-year hiatus after "Stairway" incident: Frankly, I wasn't sure if I'd ever want to work with music again.

Eleventh Grade: Reevaluated, regrouped, and reemerged at age sixteen with my first band. I played guitar and sang in our power trio. We played at parties. We covered "Repo Man" by Iggy Pop and also played a slightly out-of-tune version of Agent Orange's version of the sixties surf classic

"Wipeout." Our set list took about seventeen minutes to play through, and then we would simply play it over and over again at different tempos.

After high school: Worked a bookstore job and the requisite record-store job, and later took a job in a wholesale record warehouse near Sacramento. Then I quit the northern-California agricultural-town rat race and drove to Austin, Texas, to finally get serious about starting a career as a singer-songwriter. I returned from Austin to my previous record store job after about a week and a half of what I like to think was a matter of being ahead of my time.

Upon returning, I moved to Seattle, Washington. There I worked a rash of food service jobs and became the drummer in a band of overeducated local girls who had somehow slid into their early thirties as unskilled laborers who loved to drink, with the exception of the bassist, who had a job as an engineer and helped design cranes for NASA. She paid the rehearsal space rent. Aside from the brainy one, our skill sets were a perfect match; I hadn't played drums since I was nine, and these girls had never played guitars in their lives. Together, the four of us found a drunken hobbyist's pleasure in staggering start-and-stop through our dissonant sonic spasms of crude, unformed songs — like stroke victims in some kind of groundbreaking, unorthodox rehabilitation program that involved trying to play electric guitars. We broke up after five rehearsals.

Settling surprisingly comfortably into the hobbies of mild regret, eating poorly, and financial insecurity, I took to hosting a morning radio show at the community radio station on the University of Washington campus. Contrary to popular assumption by my on-air colleagues, I was not a student of the university.

After a few years of embracing life as a pessimist who enjoyed isolation and the seduction of low-grade depression coupled with an awkward lust for drinking too much and then wandering around town until drowsy, I took an uncharacteristic leap of faith out of my comfort zone and moved to New York. And just like clockwork, twenty-nine years after I started sneaking Led Zeppelin records from my sister Trish's bedroom, I got a phone call from Led Zeppelin's record label. They wanted me! Well, they wanted me to take an office job in their marketing department since I had, you know, laid off of the "songwriting" and had wound up working as a copywriter in New York advertising and marketing agencies.

By the time this record label job rolled around, I had gotten honest enough with myself to admit that I was only in three bands in my entire life; one of them was the fourth-grade lip-synch band, the other that short-lived quartet of depressed girls . . . so, one band, really. Maybe the music thing wasn't panning out. Maybe the next best thing would be taking this job and working behind the scenes of rock and roll. I tried to forget those daytime TV ads for a technical institute that I had seen all through my childhood; ads with mustachioed men and plain Midwestern women hunched over mixing boards, staring through a plate-glass control-room window at a recording studio full of musicians who were, for some reason, always wearing outdated, slightly disco-inspired, semiformal attire. The musicians were giving the thumbs-up sign to these ordinary folks to indicate that some knobs and levers had been adjusted to their liking. The ad asked you to "Imagine yourself in an exciting career behind the scenes of rock and roll!" and every time it came on when I was a teenager watching TV after school I used to look at the people in the little glass control booth and think, "Jesus. Look at these poor bastards. Trapped behind the glass and giddy to have even made it that far."

One day on the phone, right around the time I had taken my job behind the scenes of rock and roll, I asked my mom if she thought I would've had a shot at the big time if she and my dad had only encouraged my music a little more when I was younger. Her reply made me feel loved beyond measure, but it also confirmed my worst suspicions: "I dressed you up as the guy from Kiss at Halloween every year. Dad and I helped you get the drums you had been saving for. And then we got you a guitar and some lessons once you were a teenager. Frankly, I don't know what more we could've done."

Come on, it's time to go to the office.

Excerpted from Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy with permission from Algonquin Books. Copyright (c) 2008 by Dan Kennedy. All rights reserved.

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Dan Kennedy