Posted by Peter Himmelman
In 1979 there was a revolutionary new song out called Funkytown by a band called, Lipps Inc.. The damn thing was everywhere; on the radio, on MTV, in elevators, at clubs, even playing overhead in the frozen foods section of the Red Owl. As fate would have it, a local Minneapolis guy named Steve Greenberg who used to play the drums in a Bar Mitzvah band wrote Funkytown and he told me he wanted to produce a record for me.
Soon, I was going to Steve’s place once or twice a week to play him demos of things I’d written. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in taking my stuff to him for an evaluation since it’s so easy to criticize music. All you need to do is raise your eyebrow or give a little laugh -like what you’re hearing is the stupidest idea ever. Steve was a gatekeeper of sorts or so I thought, and all my energies at the time were spent trying to come up with something I thought he’d like. One afternoon I came to his house with something I was extremely pleased with. It was an emotional song that was written about a friend of my parents named Erwin Fuff.
Mr. Fuff was an odd little man. He’d been a holocaust survivor as a young child and there were stories of him running alone through the woods after the SS had killed his entire family. Two weeks before I wrote the song, my Mom called me into her room and told me that the police had found Mr. Fuff’s wife, Riva, lying dead in the kitchen with a steak knife in her sternum. They knew Mr. Fuff had killed her, he’d told them as much and since he’d had a history of mental illness, the prosecutor felt there was no need for a trial. Erwin Fuff went straight to a mental institution where they pumped him up on so much Thorazine that he was in a semi-conscious state most of the time.
The trouble was that in the early mornings, during the brief time when the last day’s dose of Thorazine wore off and the new day’s dose was given, Mr. Fuff had gotten back some degree of consciousness and was able to feel some of the horrible grief and shame over having murdering his wife. It was in that small window of lucidity that he’d taken his own life just days after arriving at the hospital.
My Mother said he’d hung himself in his jail cell with strips of a bath towel. I wrote about Mr. Fuff in a song called, Cursed With What It Means.
She will sleep forever, you’ll be high on Thorazine she will sleep forever –you are cursed with what it means.
I raced over to Steve Greenberg’s cassette in hand. This was a whole new style of music I’d just written; dark, and spare with empathic lyrics and I knew Steve Greenberg, the writer of the hit song Funkytown was going to love it.
I put the cassette in his giant Marantz stereo and let the music fill the room. I didn’t play it too loud. Not as loud as Steve might have played his own stuff. That would have been presumptuous. When he got up off his recliner he was smiling. I smiled too because of course he loved my song. He was walking over to the stereo to turn up the volume –just like he’d do with his own songs. But instead of amplifying the music, he ejected the cassette and hiked it between his legs like a football player. It flew up into the air, end over end, until it crashed into the brickwork of his fireplace.
I stared at the tape cartridge now in pieces, wondering how it was that all my passion and enthusiasm for this song had vanished in less than four seconds…
An addendum: Though Steve Greenberg could be a tough critic, he's truly a hilarious person and he was always a real mentor to me. If memory serves me, I was probably belly laughing along with him fairly soon after the cassette hit the bricks
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September 11, 2012 | 11:22 am
Posted by Peter Himmelman
October 1978. Hopkins, Minnesota.
Today I’m going to do something dangerous. I’ll drive to Ridgedale. I’ll walk into Now and Then and ask to have my ear pierced. First though, I’ll drive to my father’s office to alert him of my plan. I’m sure he won’t be happy. Ex marines hate earrings.
'That’s great Pete,” he says. “Which ear are you gonna pierce?”
“Uhhh, my right ear I guess,” His expression catches me by surprise.
“Are you gonna get a hoop or a stud?”
What’s remarkable I think, is that my dad even knows the words hoop or stud.
“I’ll probably start with a stud and then get a hoop as the ear heals.”
“A hoop is nice,” my dad says. “How much is this whole deal gonna cost?”
“Twenty bucks.” I say.
My dad's smiling as he peels off three crisp ten-dollar bills and places them in my hand.
As I pull out of the parking lot I hear his big voice booming just outside the front door and I roll down my window.
“Pete, one more thing. Don’t come home.”
September 6, 2012 | 1:15 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
About four years ago, just after I was… dare I say it, “replaced” from a job as a composer on a major network television show, I began meeting with some friends to help get over feeling like the biggest loser in the world. I had failed hard. I failed miserably. Of course I had. That’s usually what happens when we become complacent -and did I mention, how bored I was from sitting by myself in a soundproof studio for ten, sometimes fifteen hours a day staring at a computer screen, writing the little pieces of music that would eventually underscore the various scenes in the show? I should have had a shred of self respect and cried Uncle, called it quits without letting the whole situation come down to my getting…ahh, there’s that word again, replaced (read: fired), but I kept telling myself I’m not a quitter. I stick to a task. I’m Mr. Responsible; I’m a veritable Boy Scout-Busload of Trustworthiness, Loyalty and Helpfulness. But looking back, that’s not really why I didn’t quit. I kept going because the money was just too damn good. Nope, not about being Mr. Dependable at all, I’d have quit in a nano-second if I weren’t so well paid. Though I had long ceased to be truly invested in the work, I kept hanging on for the paychecks alone. So much for integrity. The interesting thing was how many of my friends, even the ones who appeared extremely successful, seemed to be going through exactly the same experiences I was.
This “organization” to which I refer in the title of this piece consists of about twenty people of varying ages who are secretly afraid that their best creative years are behind them. To say aloud that you feel a little lost or a little old or a little worthless is almost impossible for us humans to do. We need our wives, our husbands, our kids, our clients, our parents and our bosses to keep believing that we’ve got everything under control. Oftentimes we get so good at purveying the control-myth that we start becoming believers of our own fiction -and of course, that’s precisely where all the trouble starts. We begin by deluding the people around us to protect ourselves from looking like failures and then without noticing, we begin to delude ourselves. At that point we’ve become so lost we don’t even know we’re lost. This is where the ODTF comes in. The Organization Dedicated To Failure
We’re a small group (but growing fast) of people who feel a little marginalized, left behind in a world for whom the very fact of being over thirty five is something to be worn like a Scarlet Letter. Ok, our organization’s not a real organization in the sense that we’ve got sign up sheets and membership drives. It simply consists of all of us, informally acting as one another’s personal board members, listening mostly, giving some advice and listening some more. I know it sounds a odd and maybe even a bit indulgent to say this, but the struggles we have are far from small. We’ve all got people to support, real flesh and blood folks depending on us to keep our confidence up and our creative juices flowing. I can’t tell you how many men and women our little organization has set up on their feet and gotten into the very condition they’d never thought they’d be in: highly energized, impassioned, and inspired.
How do we do this you ask? It’s pretty simple. We talk to one another. We create an environment that stands well apart from the jungle that is our professional lives. What we mostly do is ward off the feelings of isolation that take over when we move from communal beings in search of success to isolated beings coasting along in the furrows and routines of our success. That is to say that at some point after we’ve developed our skills, our list of contacts and had a few wins, we begin steering clear of new ideas and staying close (too close) to ideas that bore fruit years, perhaps even decades ago, failing to notice that the tree is dying and has no more fruit to give.
We encourage one another to take risks. Simple things like learning to dance in my case. My wife (and to be fair) many others, have remarked that I am literally the worst dancer they’ve ever seen. In spite of all that, I took a Salsa class last month and for the first time I saw in my mind’s eye how I could become -with a great deal of practice- something slightly less than a total embarrassment to myself and my species. Not avoiding embarrassment is the whole point. It’s the way we developed our skills in the first place. No kid ever picks up a guitar or hits a speed bag or goes in for a lay-up perfectly the first few times. It’s just that when we’re young, it’s expected that we’ll be bad at something. Somewhere along the way, after we received a certain number of accolades, we lose touch with the beauty, the poignancy of failure. That’s what our organization does best; it helps people learn to fail again. And through that failure and particularly the freedom from the fear of failure, we are made joyful. Not temporarily giddy but truly joyful. The joy comes from one place alone and that’s the place of renewed of possibility. When you have that sense that the world has opened up just a bit wider, that your dreams can be made to flourish again, you get this wonderful and elusive and very human feeling called hope -and I ask you, is there a greater joy than that?
We do our work in small groups, in emails, on the phone, during lunches, breakfasts, walks and talks, evening strolls. We don’t have corporate offices, we don’t have a movie or a website and yet, the work gets done. We’re people literally saving people, saving one another, one at a time.
Here’s how to get involved: call a friend and ask for advice. Everyone likes to dole it out and it’s a great way to break the ice and elevate the tenor of your conversations. Start a dialogue that goes beyond talking about the weather or worse, a non-conversation that’s merely a rehashing of that endless laundry list of complaints. Talk about renewal; talk about getting outside yourself and doing things for other people. Talk about the things you loved and dreamed about as a kid and ways, real practical ways, you can start doing those things again today.
Excuse me, but I’m going to put on a Salsa record now.