Music Stars Making A Social Impact: How & Why Robert Andrew Wagner of The Little Wretches Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Edward Sylvan
We don’t need “causes.” We need changes in lifestyles. We need changes in values. We need a total reawakening.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Andrew Wagner, leader of The Little Wretches.
As frontman and chief songwriter/lyricist for The Little Wretches, Robert Andrew Wagner rode a wave of notoriety that led the band to the forefront of the underground music scene in Western Pennsylvania. Robert teaches through telling stories and spins the stories through songs. RED BEETS & HORSERADISH is the latest addition to The Little Wretches’ catalogue, thirteen songs and vignettes about sick people, crazy people, lonely people, and the spirit that sustains them.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
My backstory begins with Maria Boronkay. Her maiden name was Sokolovsky.
Grandma Boronkay may have been the most intelligent person I ever met — the mind of an engineer, a philosopher. In her little farming village in what is now the Slovak Republic, she was the only girl who liked school. What good is school? You don’t need school to gather eggs. You don’t need school to milk cows and goats. You don’t need school to cook and sew. But she liked school.
When she was a girl, her region was under the control of the Hungarians, and she told me she got paddled for speaking Slovak in school.
As I understand it, she came to the USA at the age of seventeen. All she had was a loaf of bread and a stick of pepperoni. She thought she was being sent to get an American education, but unbeknownst to her, it was all part of an arranged marriage.
In her old age, I gave her a copy of Maxim Gorky’s MOTHER as a birthday gift. “What am I supposed to do with this?” The most intelligent person I ever met went to her grave never having learned to read English.
But that love of learning, that belief that education allows you to become something other than a product of your environment, and that underlying assumption that you are supposed to better yourself and do something impactful with your life…I don’t know where Maria Sokolovsky got it, but she passed it on to her children who passed it on to me.
My dad’s side of the family is somewhat of a mystery. My dad grew up without a father. All we ever heard about his dad was that “he couldn’t take the pressure.” I now surmise that “he couldn’t take the pressure” was euphemistically saying he’d killed himself. To this day, I don’t really know what happened, but the suicide-explanation makes sense.
My dad got into trouble as a boy, spent time in reform school, became a street fighter, you know, the kind of fights where other guys place bets on who is going to win. A number of guys who knew my dad have pulled me aside to say he was the toughest guy they ever knew. Maybe all my dad inherited from his father was anger, but he was devoted to his mother. She raised five kids all by herself.
My dad was pretty much a loner. When he was sober, he was a kind, gentlemanly, hard-working man. He was a mailman for the US Postal Service. When he came home from work, he was either playing with me and my friends, cutting grass, painting, landscaping or drinking. When there was no work to be done, he drank. And that drinking became a problem. If you heard an aunt or uncle talking about “he” or “him,” they were talking about my dad. What trouble did HE get into this time?
My mom worked as a nurse and was taking college classes. She ended up getting involved with a lesbian chick, and our home exploded. A lot of drunkenness. A lot of violence. My dad moved out but came to the house every day to beg for reconciliation. Of course, his Plan B was to kill my mother. He’d have a strap to choke her with, a knife to slit her throat, a pellet gun to shoot out her eyes.
My job was to meet my dad at the curb and prevent him from getting into the house. Like I said, he was a very tough guy who knew how to fight, but he didn’t want to hurt his son. Plus, he was drunk. So I managed to keep him from killing anyone.
One day, the cops went to my dad and told him they’d lock him up if he showed his face on our street. The same day, my mom took my brother and sister and disappeared. She moved and left no forwarding address.
A couple of years earlier, I’d been the golden boy of the family, the kid most likely to vindicate the dreams and sacrifices of our ancestors. An older cousin told me that the day I was born, everybody moved down a notch in the hierarchy. I went straight to the top. I was “the one to watch,” as they say. And now I was an abandoned kid.
Having the entire house to myself, I used to sleep on the floor in front of the television. I trashed the place, room by room till I had my spot on the floor and a walking path to the bathroom. I don’t remember ever changing my clothes. I was very bright and kept my grades up at school, but eventually, I’d missed so much school that the authorities had to intervene. They put an end to my time as Huckleberry Finn. I could go into foster care or live in a room above my Grandma Wagner’s garage. I chose Grandma Wagner.
Providence arranged for me to go to college, the University of Pittsburgh, and I’m told it took me about five minutes to be converted to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. I was against everyone and everything. What needs to be changed? EVERYTHING. I thought Marxism explained how to do that. I was in an experimental program, a precursor to the Honors College, that was based on self-directed and cooperative learning. Learn how to learn. Find what you need. Do it.
Everything cool on the campus and surrounding community was driven by people from our program. Underground newspapers. Community radio. Filmmaking. Poetry readings. Food drives to help the striking coal miners. Clothing drives to help the Zimbabwean Freedom Fighters. Punk rock. The Cuts, one of the earliest punk rock groups in the city, held rehearsals in our space on the fifth floor of Old Engineering Hall.
That Marxism-thing kind of got subterfuged in my life when I got a rare form of cancer. As if my life hadn’t been sufficiently colorful and wrought with challenges, I ended up in Montefiore Hospital the summer after my sophomore year, blessed to be under the care of Doctors Jacobs and Stoller. My cancer would have been inoperable to most doctors, but these guys were on the cutting-edge of research. They got me on an experimental regimen of chemo-drugs that had tested as 90–95% successful. They worked.
But the night before my big surgery, performed by Dr. Bruce Bennett, to remove any lymph nodes that were potentially cancerous, when I didn’t know if I was going to wake up or not, I found myself having a conversation with God. Now, I wasn’t ready to renounce Marxism quite yet, but talking to God and being a Marxist are somewhat incongruous. I came out of the conversation with a vow that I would never do or say anything other than what I believe in. I would bow to no outside pressure. I would compromise no way, no how.
So my backstory is a convergence of multigenerational forces. Family. History. Education. Politics. Culture. Religion.
Now, I tell stories for a living. I tell stories through songs. I sing about our jobs, our lives, our families and friends. By providence, I’ve seen and survived things that others never get to see. I’m the inheritor of unfulfilled dreams. I’m a Hunky. Put me down, beat me down, shut me out. I keep coming back.
All that stuff I just told you, it’s in my songs, by the way.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?
We musicians are told by family, friends and well-meaning strangers to find something to fall back on. Get real. You’ll never be a star. You’ll never be able to make a living off your silly little songs. Get a degree. Learn a trade. If nothing else, learn how to play the songs in the Top Forty so you can gig on weekends.
Those people might as well give you a machete and tell you to chop off your hand. “Don’t listen to God! Don’t answer the call! Be realistic!” As Clint Eastwood says in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, “Dying ain’t much of a living,” and if you are a talented person, denying your talent is death.
The fact is, though, you have to eat. We musicians work a lot of odd temporary jobs to put food in the microwave. Cashier. Landscaper. Cab driver. Fundraiser. Dishwasher. We give it a try. Well-meaning friends arrange for money-paying jobs to help us, but let’s face it — To be good at something, you have to put your heart into it, and the only thing we can put our hearts into is our music.
Okay, so I got this job as the house servant for a rich family. The lady was doing her residency as a pediatric doctor at one of the hospitals in Pittsburgh, and the dude was a real estate developer who got a medal from the Queen of England for being on a championship rowing team at Oxford. He designed the cooling system used by nuclear reactors but underwent a religious conversion, renounced nuclear energy, and went into the business of developing housing for poor people.
So I’m living in the attic of this house in one of Pittsburgh’s elite neighborhoods. I cook, I clean, I do childcare. If the dude orders a truckload of coal for their coal-burning stove, I shovel coal. If the family wants something from the Moosewood Cookbook, and the recipe calls for an onion, I run down to the market and pick up an onion.
The dude decides he wants to convert the basement into a useable work space, but it’s covered with soot from a hundred years of burning coal. He’s going to clean the walls then spray-paint the entire basement white. He asks me if I have a friend or two who wants of make $50. All we have to do is go down the basement and knock all that coal soot off the ceiling and walls.
John Creighton, my bandmate in NO SHELTER and THE LITTLE WRETCHES, needed $50.
The day of the job, John comes over at eight in the morning, and we spend the next couple of hours just whacking the walls with rakes. We’ve got masks over our faces so we don’t inhale too much coal dust. Bang. Scratch. Wallop. Whack!!!
Around ten-thirty, we take a break. We are black as coal miners, filthy from head to toe. We’re walking down to a convenience store, maybe three or four blocks away. John will pick up a pack of cigarettes. We’ll get some kind of sports drink for energy and hydration, then we’ll get back to work.
As we walk, I tell John about this weird sequence of events involving rainbows. RAINBOWS. How many rainbows have you seen in your life? Well, in the day leading up to this job, I’d seen something like twenty rainbows in fourteen days. The days had been hot and humid, and there’d been a cloudburst every afternoon and evening, most of which were followed by a rainbow!
I bet you never saw twenty rainbows in fourteen days. I did. Impossible. But true.
PLUS…I was dating a girl who was into rainbows. Rainbow tee-shirts. Rainbow placemats. Rainbow you-name-it.
So all the way to the convenience store and half the way back, I’m on this rainbow-riff. John listens patiently, then he finally stops me and says, “God won’t let me see rainbows.”
He really said that — “God won’t let me see rainbows.”
And then I look up and what do I see?
John, look! Right there! A RAINBOW!!
You very rarely see rainbows at that time of day, but there it was, right on cue.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
My former bandmate Ellen Hildebrand used to quote Abraham Lincoln, “I will get ready and perhaps my chance will come.”
There are rich kids whose parents will pay for the finest equipment and private lessons. Skiing. Golf. Soccer-clinics. Tennis coaches. The best gear, the best training. Piano lessons. Voice lessons. Dance lessons.
But if you’re a working-class kid, you’d better be a prodigy or your talent will elicit nothing but scorn. The most important thing is to be able to put food on the table. Get real, they’ll tell you. Don’t waste precious years of your life deluding yourself. Your talent will lead to nothing but disappointment. Get a job. Learn a trade. Turn your talent into a hobby.
In America, though, education is the great equalizer. Through education, you can transform yourself, create opportunity for yourself, become something other than the product of your environment.
Lucky for me, my parents believed in the power of education, and they worked second jobs to put me through Catholic school. The Catholic nuns taught us about the saints who took vows of poverty. They taught us that God has a purpose for each of us, but the devil will try to trick us into ignoring God.
Thanks to my Catholic education, I had both the tools and the belief-system to weather the poverty, loneliness and discouragement when I felt the call to be a writer and musician.
I was not a prodigy. I was a late-bloomer. Most people have already quit by the time I was beginning to find myself. You must have no quit in you. You must have, as it says on The Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, “Dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”
If you are a working-class kid with big dreams, don’t let anybody or anything discourage you. As Lou Reed sings, “It takes a busload of faith.” Without faith, you probably don’t have a chance. You don’t just snap your fingers and discover faith. Faith comes from an encounter with the Holy Spirit, or whatever you call it in your belief-system.
Short answer — Educate your mind, your body and your spirit. Transform yourself. Invent yourself. And never quit.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Let’s see if I can do justice to Ed Heidel. Ed played bass in No Shelter and The Little Wretches.
This relates to that rainbow-story I told earlier involving John Creighton. When John and I were roommates, I woke up one morning, and as I headed to the kitchen to make my morning coffee, I had to step carefully over all these bodies sleeping on our living room floor. John had a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in a gentrified neighborhood that hired a lot of kids involved in the arts and other people down on their luck. John brought these people home like stray puppies.
Well, one of the guys sleeping on the floor turned out to be Ed Heidel.
Ed was short, maybe 5’3” or 5’4”, but he had an athletic build. He had a reedy, whispery, mousy voice so you had to watch his lips and lean in to hear when he spoke. He had long hair that came down to the middle of his back. And he had thick eyeglasses.
He’d had diabetes since childhood, and among the first things to go are your eyes. The blood-vessels in your eyes get brittle and knot up like bird’s nests. Ed was always smoking weed, claiming he needed to do so for his eyes. I was skeptical. I thought he was just a stoner, but I learned later that, indeed, the weed DID help his eyes. And I was totally mistaken about Ed being a stoner. Ed was as driven and hard-working as anyone you’ll ever meet.
So we’re sitting around sipping coffee, and Ed tells me his story.
His dad was an airline executive, and they lived in Sewickley Heights among some of the wealthiest families in the region. Ed went to Duquesne University, got a degree in music and elementary education, and worked as a trumpeter in a show band, making way more money with them than he would ever make playing original songs with me.
Ed was estranged from his own family because his mother had died and his father remarried. Ed and his sister were unaccepting of their new mother, and Ed’s dad had to choose between his new wife and his own kids. He chose his new wife.
Ed had been dating the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Western Pennsylvania, a family with a lot of name recognition. She got pregnant, and this was a potential scandal. They begged her to leave Ed and cover-up “the mistake,” but crazy kids got married, named their child Ollie Vee after the Buddy Holly song, “Rockin’ around Ollie Vee,” and they moved to a remote part of West Virginia where Ed worked as a school teacher. Among his daily tasks was checking the scalps of his students for head lice.
Ed’s father-in-law loaned him something like $30,000 to buy a house and start a life then disowned the daughter.
A hurricane struck West Virginia. There was flooding, and the flood caused a fire. Ed and his family lost everything.
His wife called her father and begged to come home, and she was accepted back into the fold with the provision that she would never again speak to or associate with the father of her child. Ed called his own estranged family, but his stepmother answered the phone, said, “We thought you were dead,” and hung up. So with nothing but a sack of clothes and an Army-surplus parka, Ed starting walking and hitchhiking back to Pittsburgh.
There are wild dogs in West Virginia. While walking through a wooded area toward a major highway, Ed was attacked by a wild dog. Thankfully, ever the schoolteacher, he had a Bic ballpoint pen in his pocket. He fought off the dog by stabbing it with a ballpoint pen. Ed had a semicircular scar on his cheek where the dog bit him.
Ed finally reached Pittsburgh and spent most of the winter sleeping in idle construction sites. Back then, buses ran 24-hours, and you could buy a weekend pass for a meager fee. Ed would panhandle enough spare change to buy a weekend pass and spend Friday night till Monday morning in the back seat of a Port Authority bus.
So on that morning when I met Ed, he’d just secured a job as a dishwasher alongside John Creighton, convinced John to let him crash on our floor till he had enough money to get a place of his own, and his goal was to work two or three jobs, as many as necessary, to repay his debt to his father-in-law and prove that he was, indeed, worthy of his father-in-law’s respect, his wife’s love, and a relationship with his child.
Ed ended up playing bass with John and me in No Shelter and The Little Wretches, but he left the band and returned to school to became a respiratory technician. For a time, Ed had patched things up with his own father and returned to Sewickley Heights. He even provided respiratory care for his dad, but when his father died, the stepmother wanted nothing to do with Ed and sent him on his way.
Ed’s diabetes worsened over time. The last time I saw him, he and I went to a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. Ed could barely make it up the ramp to the stadium, and his eyes were so bad he couldn’t see the ball or follow the action. By this time, he was on dialysis and living on public assistance.
Ed died alone. His body was found by a caseworker. There was no family to contact. The only thing the caseworker could find in the way of contact information was a phone number scrawled on a piece of paper in Ed’s pants pocket. It was Darrell Jackson’s number. Darrell had been the drummer for No Shelter and The Little Wretches.
Darrell notified everybody who’d known and loved Ed, but by that time, Ed’s body had already been disposed of by Allegheny County. Thank God the caseworker cared enough to call Darrell’s number.
So let’s all raise a glass or bow our heads in memory of Ed Heidel. Ed was a true Little Wretch. Tough. Humble. Resourceful. Determined. Kind. An amazing person. Ollie Vee, wherever you are, your daddy loved you.
I said something earlier about my carrying forward the unfulfilled dreams of my ancestors. I carry some of Ed’s unfulfilled dreams, too. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell people about him.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
I think we ought to re-frame the concept of “causes.” Forgive me because I know exactly what you mean about trying to “bring goodness to the world,” but I take umbrage with the wording. People can be total pigs and support causes. We don’t need “causes.” We need changes in lifestyles. We need changes in values. We need a total reawakening.
That being said, my cause, for lack of a better word, is the education, counseling and mentoring of at-risk youth. What we see in the world is the cycle of poverty, the cycle of trauma, abandoned kids growing up to abandon their kids.
I’ve learned that my niche in this field is to work directly with the kids. Some people start nonprofits, some people run neighborhood programs, some people find themselves presiding over agencies that provide assistance to at-risk kids. But I don’t want to institutionalize the problem. I want to touch the lives of the kids and help them figure out how to solve their own problems and make their own way in the world.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
Well, during one of the lulls in my music career, I was working for the development office of a well-known museum. Development is a fancy word for fundraising. Most of my colleagues were little old ladies who’d shake their fingers scoldingly and telling me I should be teaching at one of those “Dead Poets Society” schools.
As much as I might dig being addressed as “Captain, My Captain” by adoring children of the ruling class, my heart is with the little wretches of the world, so I started working as a teacher, counselor and mentor to at-risk teens. At one point, I was supervising a residential unit with fourteen boys between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. “Residential treatment” is pretty much a euphemism for being locked up. Most of the boys had no dads, and the few who had dads could look forward to getting out of residential treatment when their dads got out of jail.
Residential programs. Group homes. Foster care. A pipeline from poverty and back to poverty. From trauma to trauma.
The way out of poverty across generations is home-ownership and entrepreneurship. How do you learn about that stuff when you’ve been abandoned by your parents? How do you learn to manage money and accumulate wealth? If your parents didn’t give you squat, how are you going to learn to care about providing your own children with what you didn’t have?
How? One kid at a time.
My own dad grew up without a father, and he was great with kids. I don’t know, maybe I picked it up from him.
Lenny Bruce used to talk about people being corrupt, self-motivated, out for themselves? Well, here’s the deal with my so-called cause. I don’t have children of my own, and I truly believe people are hard-wired to live in families and communities and to provide care and nurturing for the next generation. My work with these kids might be doing more for me than it does for them. I get a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of fulfillment. Maybe that’s the real reason I do it.
Do it out of benevolence or do it out of self-interest, who cares? Want belonging, purpose and fulfillment? Get involved in teaching, counseling and mentoring at-risk teens.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Well, I’ve got confidentiality issues here, but more than one kid has thanked me for helping to save his or her life. “You saved my life” is a pretty powerful reward, you know?
By the same token, I could tell you about a number of kids who took their own lives, were murdered, or are now incarcerated for having murdered. Two kids I knew and loved, in completely separate incidents a years and miles apart, ended up shot to death, their bodies discarded along rural roadsides, surely something to do with drugs and foul play. Another kid murdered a dude because his girlfriend told him to. Sure, honey, anything you want. Want him dead? I’ll kill him for you and spend the rest of my life behind bars.
At the risk of telling a story that’s not mine to tell, I was working with a kid in a residential program whose father had died, possibly at his own hand. The kid had powerful anger-issues. He’d learned not to lash out, not to hit or hurt people, but sometimes you’d see him standing there with his fists clenched, his jaw clenched, his body trembling, trying to contain his rage. I remember saying to him, “You’ve been doing really well with your anger,” and he replied, “You have no idea how good I am doing with my anger because I AM ALWAYS ANGRY.”
This kid had been doing so well behaviorally and academically that the residential program released him to live with his mother. I had the honor of taking him and his stuff to his mother’s house, and I knew right off there was going to be trouble. His mom was a hoarder. We had all his accumulated possessions from seven or eight years in an orphanage stuffed into big black trash bags, there was no place in the house to put his bags. There was hardly even space on the porch. Nonetheless, he was elated to be home.
He ended up getting locked up again, got picked up for joyriding in a stolen pickup truck, and they shipped him across the state. He persuaded them to send him back to the program I was associated with. I asked how he liked it out there on the other side of the state. He said he didn’t like it. He said they had something called “carpet therapy.” Carpet therapy, what’s that? Carpet therapy is when they put you down on the floor and rub your face in the carpet.
That’s child abuse, right? Yes, it is. But who is going to believe a kid?
Anyhow, that young man is now raising a family, working for a living and running a couple of businesses. He is doing exactly what he should be doing, building businesses and accumulating wealth that he can some day pass on to his children.
Are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
A hundred years ago, caring for orphans was the work of the church. In my hometown, each of the social services agencies was, once upon a time, an ethnic orphanage — the Black orphanage, the Italian orphanage, the Polish orphanage, and so on. I’d argue that the churches did a better job then than the government does now.
Government-involvement is part of the problem. The Department of Education was started during the Nixon administration, largely to solve the problem of the racial achievement gap. That was some fifty years ago. Has that gap narrowed?
The Johnson administration implement the war on poverty. If you were to do a cross-generational study, what became of the impoverished families that received government assistance from 1966 to today? How many of the descendants on the family trees are today on government assistance? What percentage of those descendants now own homes or operate businesses?
I’m not saying that the government should stop providing assistance. But the government should stop feeding the problem and start feeding the solution, and the solution is the family. Fathers being parents. Mothers being parents. Mothers and fathers taking care of each other and taking care of their children. The government should incentivize and reward mothers and fathers who lovingly and responsibly take care of their children.
You really want to help? Don’t think your tax dollars are making a difference. Don’t think your financial contributions to foundations and nonprofits are making a difference. Want to make difference? Teach a kid. Mentor a kid. Foster a kid. Adopt a kid. Spend time daily with a kid. Go to church with a kid. Cook dinner with a kid. Catch football with a kid. Don’t expect agencies and institutions to do the work for you.
You have to do it yourself.
Like I said earlier, “You saved my life” is a pretty powerful reward. It’ll be challenging, but you won’t regret it.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started?”
Here’s the sad thing — people probably DID tell me, but I couldn’t hear them. But here goes.
Number one, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, I heard someone citing research that indicates asking for help does more to earn trust than offering help. People want to help you. People are flattered and blessed by the opportunity to help you.
Number two, people who don’t help you now may help you in the future. In THE GODFATHER, Tom Hagen says, “Don Corleone never asks a second favor when he has been refused the first.” You turned me down, and now you’re dead to me. How foolish. People may have not been in the position to help you. People may have thought you were not worthy of receiving their help. But your hard work and persistence may have changed things. Hey, look! This kid won’t quit! Maybe we should help after all! Never slam that door behind you. Be gracious and say thank you. You never know.
Number three, in any sphere or field, you will encounter exclusion. Historically-formed networks of people, hierarchies, cronies. They don’t know you. People do business with people they like. Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN. You’ve got to be liked. You won’t be liked because of gifts or flattery. You’ll be liked for integrity, for being what you purport to be, for doing what you said you’d do. And you’ll be liked for making people feel good. A cheery presence. A smile. A hopeful outlook. Showing that you care. People like people who like them.
Number four is straight out of the Bible: No prophet is accepted in his hometown. You have to leave home. You have to expand your horizons. By leaving the familiar sights and sounds of home, you’ll be forced to develop people skills, social skills, learn new things. And at the same time, you’ve be bringing into your new surroundings the experiences from your point of origin. You’ll have something unique to offer, something they don’t already have.
Lastly, and this is also Biblical, everything takes longer than you think it will. You have to stay the course. The Bible is full of examples of people who quit, not knowing they were on the precipice of success.
I was working for a time as a substitute teacher, and I was surprised how many teachers had Bibles on their desks. I cracked on of those Bibles during a free period and read, “Whoever puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.” Or something like that. Basically, oh my brothers, I’m tossing in point number six for free. Do the work. Don’t look back to flatter yourself. Don’t look back with regret. Just do the work. Plough the field. Plant the seed.
So check it out, I just quoted Mario Puzo, Arthur Miller, Jesus of Nazareth, and Luke the Apostle.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Earlier, I was talking about my “cause.” My cause is teaching, counseling and mentoring at-risk kids. Personally. Person-to-person. One-on-one. Or one-on-five. My movement? Give your time to kids and young parents. Help families stay together, and don’t let kids feel alone, abandoned or betrayed.
At-risk kids don’t feel comfortable around so-called normal people. As they say, birds of a feather flock together. Druggies feel comfortable around other druggies. Kids who’ve been to juvie feel comfortable around other kids from juvie. At-risk kids will throw up all kinds of smoke-screens, pretexts and excuses as to why and how they don’t fit in. They will anticipate rejection and reject you first. It may feel damn near impossible to get through to them, to get through that armor, to soften those defenses.
Can you hear the strains of Whitney Houston? Listen closely. “I believe the children are our future.” Hear that? Okay, I totally disagree that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all only when you’ve first learned to hate yourself. Why would you hate yourself? You hate yourself because the people responsible for loving you abandoned you. You’re not worthy of love. Your life is a burden to others. Your life is an inconvenience. Nobody wants you. Nobody cares about you.
Again, government programs, nonprofits and social service agencies are not the solution. Money has not and will not solve the problem. Persons, families and communities have to make a conscious effort to keep families together, to help young parents, and to love and protect children whose parents are not making good on their obligations.
This requires a paradigm shift. We’ve got to get away from “somebody ought to do something.” YOU DO SOMETHING.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
My life-lesson quote is a line from The Rolling Stones’ RUBY TUESDAY, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”
I don’t know if that quote really stands on its own. Around the same time I discovered that song, I also discovered The Rolling Stones’ STREET FIGHTING MAN, “What can a poor boy do except sing for a rock’n’roll band?”
When I was a kid, I was a dreamer. I dreamt I’d someday be heavyweight wrestling champion of the world. Someday, I’d lead the NFL in rushing. I’d go to college on an athletic scholarship. I’d compete in the Olympics. I’d be like Jim Thorpe and star in several sports.
Then as I described earlier, my family exploded. My mom went into hiding to escape my dad, and I ended up having to live in a room above my grandmother’s garage.
I hated everyone and everything. I survived by dissociating. I lived in my imagination, in my dreams and daydreams. I was a teenager now was able to see the futility of my childish dreams. I clearly was NOT going to become a football or wrestling star. Not only were my dreams gone, I had nothing to look forward to.
I needed some new dreams, and they came by way of music. I found my new dreams through the songs of Lou Reed, The Who, The Kinks, Patti Smith, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan.
I used to copy song lyrics onto the rubber parts of my sneakers. I can remember the sensation of the tip of the pen squeaking and vibrating against the white rubber that connects the sole to the canvas of the shoe as I wrote, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”
And as a poor boy with nothing and no one, what else could I do except write song lyrics on my shoes and dream of someday singing for a rock’n’roll band? I told you earlier, I live in my own little dreamworld. Always have. First I dreamt it, then I did it.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Just yesterday, I was listening to a podcast that had John Oates as a guest. It was a strange coincidence because I have a playlist on my phone of Hall and Oates, and I was listening to that playlist when I clicked over to the podcast.
When my first band No Shelter had broken up, I realized that my future in music depended on becoming a good songwriter and performer. To become a better performer, I started taking Theater Arts and Physical Education classes. Swimming. Ballet. Voice and Movement. Acting. To become a better songwriter, I went to an off-campus used-record store, Garbage Records, later to be renamed “Jerry’s Fine Used Records,” and I bought vinyl albums by Tony Bennett, Petula Clark, an obscure predecessor to Johnny Cash’s prison albums called “The Prisoner’s Dream” by a guy named Charles Lee Guy III, and Hall and Oates.
Did you know Hall and Oates have sold more records than any duo in pop music history? Well, on the podcast, John Oates was talking about loving and studying ALL kinds of music and having a lot of influences from what is called “Roots Music.” Hey, that’s exactly what I had done! I wonder if John Oates would like The Little Wretches? I wonder if John Oates would be interested in producing our next album?
Please, please, please. Tag John Oates.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!