Jazz music-loving Bob Fetters hoped I might take over the Sylvania, Ohio insurance agency he built but made a wild miscalculation by taking me to see Jimi Hendrix when I was in 8th grade. The front row was colorfully laced with otherwordly women wearing huge afros and the shortest miniskirts I’d ever seen. Following Jimi’s 2nd heart-stopping feedback intro during Foxey Lady – “Here I come, baby… I’m comin’ to getcha!” – I turned my life over to the rock n’ roll gods, having glimpsed heaven as a place on earth. Dad was silent on the way home; I think he sensed my conversion and was kicking himself. My mom, the “black sheep” graphic artist of her conservative family, offered nothing but support and delight for my dream. My three big sisters were cool about having a loud guitar player in the house, too: lucky me.
I spent my teenage years playing in bands wearing out a ’69 gold top Les Paul Deluxe, sneaking off to concerts at the Grande Ballroom and Eastown Theatre in nearby Detroit nearly every weekend. My parents thought I was spending the nights away at a friend’s house. Actually, my “friends” once left me without a ride home at a New Year’s Eve show at the Grande… after the MC5 finished their set at 3 AM, the place emptied and I curled up in a corner near the stage, took a short nap, borrowed money from some Hare Krishna people and caught a Greyhound home the next morning. I was fearless, 15 – no problemo! Soon after I was writing opuses with names like “Stealing Dad’s Beer” on a banana yellow piano my parents let me squeeze into my bedroom. The day after graduating high school, I began hitchhiking all over North America for 3 months. Next came one semester of college; dropping out as quickly as possible to join a blues band in need of a guitar player. All I was doing at college was playing along to Jeff Beck and Rolling Stones records and learning what made Timothy Leary tick. My mom and dad seemed okay with it; they knew I read a lot and probably wouldn’t be a total ignoramus no matter what I did.
Stumbling down the line, I helped form a group called The Raisins. After weeding out dozens of less hardy yet sensible co-members via constant gigging, living in motels, and stubborn insistence on playing original music (net: poverty), we emerged as a band with a little record deal. I wrote a regional #1 radio hit called “Fear Is Never Boring”. The Raisins disbanded and I formed The Bears with my childhood music mates Chris Arduser, Bob Nyswonger, and friend/mentor Adrian Belew. The critics loved us: we worked our asses off, toured incessantly, snagged a record deal, made albums, filmed videos that got played on MTV at 4 a.m. and almost became famous. The Bears went on a decade-long hiatus and, sans Adrian, became psychodots, recording several albums, gigging and maintaining a lovely cult following. In the 21st C. The Bears emerged from hibernation and cracked the AAA charts with more albums, a DVD, more touring. I’ve made five solo albums and played on a bunch of recordings by other artists. The ‘dots stopped gigging in 2018 so for the moment I’m band-less. That won’t last.
During my peripatetic existence I toured with the Cincinnati Pops under the baton of Erich Kunzel – Dad got to see me play Radio City – recorded with The Ohio Players, studied African music with Nubian oud master Hamza El-Din, had coffee with Frank Zappa in his kitchen, talked recovery with Eric Clapton, blurted “I love you” to Jeff Beck immediately upon being introduced to him, shared a candy apple with Ted Nugent (he wasn’t a dickhead that day), opened for Kiss (my girlfriend snubbed a pushy advance from Gene Simmons), jammed with Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath, and had music publishing clearly and colorfully explained to me by Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd while he decorated his hotel room walls with ham slices. Robert Fripp recorded the solo on one of my songs. Bantered with Led Zep at 3am in a Chicago diner… Jimmy Page was in drag! I’m not making this up and have corroborating witnesses! I’ve hobnobbed with members of Spinal Tap and Talking Heads, Counting Crows and King Crimson, Bootsy Collins and Sun Ra, Little Feat and the MC5, Gnarls Barkley and Roberta Flack, The New York Dolls and The Who, Laurie Anderson and Sarah McLaughlin (apparently needs glasses, she said I looked like young Roger Daltrey), experienced exquisite terror when gods like Todd Rundgren and Mick Jagger came to see my bands play… even dined with a movie star or three. (I’m leaving gloriously sordid parts out because the bodies ain’t all buried.) The music business may be a cesspool rimmed with deceit and broken dreams but I learned you can do just fine telling the truth and being kind to other ships passing in the night. To be a working musician is all I ever wanted to do with the real world… but my girlfriends’ parents didn’t seem impressed with the concept. Until I found the right girlfriend, that is.
One warm summer night at a gig in Florida as I was doing my best to burn my candle at both ends I fell moonstruck, madly in love, with a beautiful girl from Chicago. Susan Swanson came from a musical family and was unfazed by the life I was leading. It didn’t take her long to influence me in a number of positive ways, to put it mildly. Swany and I are the parents of Sam, twins Grace and Noah, Robert, and Tilly the beagle. My music career pales into nothingness compared to life in the fastest lane: being Dad.
Since the purchase of my first 4 track reel-to-reel machine I’ve been under the magic spell of recording and studio craft, grateful to the musicians, engineers and producers who taught me how to make records: learning it’s one thing to write music, another to play an instrument and yet another to play a studio.
When Sam—baby #1—was still in the oven I was asked to write a jingle for La Rosa’s, a beloved Cincinnati restaurant chain. My commercial music experience up to that point had been as a session guitarist and vocalist on a failed dishwasher soap demo. The advertising world and The Dark Side were synonymous to me. However, I had diapers to buy and a mortgage to pay… so I swallowed my pride, tried not to gag, and lifted a progression from an old Raisin song called “Dirt”, inserted the immortal lyrics “347 – 1111”, and to my utter surprise produced a very successful piece of music whoredom and cracked the code to self-finance my music career and family.
I continued to perform and record with my bands, freelancing as a session player and composer, learning the ever-evolving technical magic by which music is scored for film and video. Next, I was hired as the house composer for a studio where I spent ten years writing, arranging and producing a thousand instrumental scores, dozens of jingles, and custom songs for short films and theater, creating music for network television, tire shops, non-profits, chili parlors, sea lion shows, software developers, candy companies, hospitals, major league sports teams, plumbers – you name it. The creative thinkers behind advertising, branding, design, animation, film and video are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met – misfit artists surviving in a stressful and highly competitive world. That gig was like getting paid to go to grad school, always learning, un-learning, expanding my musical range. Meanwhile, I never stopped album production and gigging; staying in tune with the real me and the world I come from. Songwriting and composing is my bliss but those concerts in Detroit did something permanently wonderful to my chromosomes: playing for a live audience is still a total blast.
In a leap of faith, blessed by family, friends, business associates and the world’s greatest psychotherapist, I quit working for The Man, fulfilled a one year non-compete agreement from hell and in 2008 started my own music company – just in time to greet The Great Recession. What? Me worry? I worked hard and it all worked out. Now, blindsided like everyone else by the pandemic, I’m diving deeper into my core musical love: making songs and performing any way I can. Working as hard as ever, learning, un-learning, rolling with change, grateful beyond words for the chance to turn pain into something beautiful.