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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10
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Unsolicited Advice

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

by Josh WeinsteinJuly 2024

Well, twenty-ish, but we’re going with it.

Twenty years ago, my decision to quit a Perfectly Good Job and pursue only music-related endeavors culminated in the release of my first album of original material, Petty Alchemy. It was a long time coming and almost didn’t happen. It took—quite literally—a building falling on me to get me there. This column is one-part Morality Tale on the cost of cowardice and one-part invitation to my big Music Box show next month.

Those two elements are connected.

As a kid I always figured I’d grow up to be a musician. Music was everywhere. Mom was a professional musician/songwriter, Grandma was a classical cellist, Dad was a music-loving entertainer. I plunked out songs on the piano from my youngest days. When the old folks in the family dragged us to Broadway, I watched the musicians the whole time. When I listened to records, I listened to how each musician played. When I sat at the piano, I wrote songs. I loved reading, too, and gravitated to the types of music that were also literature—that is, singer-songwriters. Without ever saying the sentence out loud, I had the sense from the beginning that that was the path I would go down.

I begged for piano lessons as a kid. By high school I spent as much time in a piano practice room as I did in the classes I was supposed to be in. I had a band. I made multi-track recordings using two tape recorders. I sent in an original “classical” composition as part of my college applications, fully expecting to be a music major and then maybe one of the people I heard playing those cool parts on the records I listened to, or maybe even the one whose songs those parts were played on.

But when I got to college, my family, who was paying, put their foot down that I not major in music. A more rebellious or confident child might have ignored them. I was not that kid. I was a “good kid” who did whatever he was supposed to do. So, I majored in something else.

Even so, in college as in high school, I spent hours and hours in the piano practice rooms. I played for the musicals they put on. I played in bands. I took private jazz piano lessons. I played for singers. And I wrote my own songs and performed them frequently at showcases and other concerts.

At one of those showcases, the MC, a NYC comedian (Richard Jeni) chased me down afterward and said, “Reach out to me when you graduate; I can get you work in some of the clubs I perform at.”

I did that. He gave me some names to contact. My father, upon finding out I planned to live in the City, offered to have me live in his apartment in New York with him and his wife and her daughter. I told him my plan—to pursue these lounge options while perhaps working as a bartender during the day.

And then, just as mom had with college, my music-loving, quite-bartender-familiar father said that if I wanted to do that, I could find myself another place to live.

Another fork. Another cop-out from me. On some level I believed my parents that music was not the right career for me. I concluded that it must be because I was not good at it, and they knew it. I did not have the confidence to see it any other way.

So, I did what I was supposed to. I stayed with dad and got a “real” job, eventually ending up in the advertising world, writing ads and doing corporate branding.

For a while, I continued to write and record music, and played in bands so frequently that I simply never touched my real-job paycheck. I played on some recordings.

But as I did better and better in those jobs, I had less and less time for music. Eventually, I hit the point where I sat at the piano and no longer had any connection to it. “Okay,” I thought. “I guess I’m just one of those guys who used to play music.” This was horrifying, but I decided it was just how life worked sometimes.

Then, a turning point event occurred. The ultimate fork. As I write about it here, that apartment with the piano I couldn’t figure out how to play, was two buildings south of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I was home at the time of the 2001 attacks. I lived on the top floor and watched both towers burn from my roof for a very long time. Stupid-long. Many others were smart enough to take their ganders and peace-out before the thing tipped over onto us or any more airplanes decided to use our block as a runway. I stood there trying to grapple with the surreality of it. There was not just implied death, but literal death happening before our eyes (and ears, a component not spoken of very often, but damn). Those folks deciding to take their chances on a quarter-mile free-fall instead of burning to death, had done nothing that morning except what they were supposed to do.

I was in my building’s stairwell when the earth shook and the world rumbled. As we understood it, this was one or the other of the towers collapsing onto us and killing us. In that brief span of time, in the pitch black and as I ran down the stairs, I had time to figure out the logistics of my death and the aftermath. I even remember trying to figure out which landing they would find me on—that is, how much farther I would get before our building was crushed.

But there was another series of thoughts, crystal clear and soul-deadening. It was about what a cowardly waste of space I’d been. I couldn’t figure out how the World Trade Center was ending the life of an ad copywriter in those stairs instead of the only thing I’d ever known I was going to do. I felt I’d been weak—seduced by money and my family’s approval. I felt like a failure, and if the universe wanted to rid itself of me, it could certainly be forgiven.

The attacks (on the towers and from within) beat me up pretty good.

For better or worse, the weight of the experience eventually woke something up. That’s when I finally shifted to music full-time. When you are present at so much death, you end up feeling a responsibility to keep the overall level of life the same. I left the ad agency and concentrated on music. I put a recording date on the books and made what turned out to be my first record. It was called Petty Alchemy—named after a song of mine about the crime of stealing time. Another song on that album, “There Ain’t Nothing Sadder Than a Saturday Night,” which is directly about the attacks, garnered some local airplay.

That record came out 20 years ago…or close enough to say as much. I released two others after that and each did pretty well. Airplay and licensing, etc. I haven’t looked back since. That was the Final Fork.

So that is the morality tale portion of the column: it’s never too late. Don’t wait for a building to fall on you to do what you want to die having done. The weight and cost are too great. Supposed to has never written a song or changed the world. It only nags. Take those lessons you meant to take, open your pet-grooming business, start your nonprofit. Don’t die in the hole of supposed to. Die on the mountain of did.

*************************

Okay, now the Music Box show! The last of those three records came out in 2009. This is 2024. It took until last year to get a next album out. A long story not worth taking space here for, but the end of the story is me putting out a 24-song, 84-minute album last year, called Mind the Gap. I’m very proud of that record, and I’m finally doing a release show for it. I’m using the show to simultaneously celebrate the 20-year-anniversary of that first release and to present musicians I am genuinely a fan of (and fond of).

I’ve never done a show like this and I. Am. Stoked. It’s the culmination of that long, “last” trip down those stairs.

I’m hitting songs from all four of my records. The Brothers Burns and Chloe Lou will open and also perform with me; these are both acts that I feel strongly that more people need to see. I’m inviting people I’ve played with throughout my time here, some of San Diego’s music royalty and my favorite musicians in the world. And Music Box is my favorite venue in town.

This show is a huge deal, and I would be honored and chuffed if you’d show your support by attending. The Music Box took a risk in presenting a show like this there, and I would love to let them know hometown original artists are worth the gamble. Plus, it’s a seated show, since, you know…

But more important, I would flat-out love to play these songs for you with these musicians! Forget whatever you were supposed to do on July 14. Come out to a long night of original artists in a legendary venue. We will play the fork out of these tunes for you!

The Music Box show is July 14 at 8pm. Tickets are here.

Is there something I should offer unsolicited advice about in future columns? Shoot me a line via the contact form at joshweinstein.com and let me know.

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