Self-Discipline is Way Over Rated

How I stumbled into becoming a rock musician.

As adults, we tend to overestimate the importance of grown-up considerations like planning and self-discipline when it comes to the life paths we eventually find ourselves on. I certainly don’t want to denigrate the notion that our volition accounts for a lot, but then again, who are we kidding? Most often, great changes come as a result of things we can’t possibly have predicted. Do you think I spent even 11 seconds planning to become a rock musician? It happened automatically one autumn night in 1971 at Michael Finkelstein’s Bar Mitzvah party at the Golden Valley Country Club on County Road 55.

Some of my best friends were there, along were dozens of the cutest seventh and eighth-grade girls I’d ever seen, and that night all of us were listening to something that for me at the least; was simply mind-blowing. It was a rock band comprised of 16 year-olds called The Purple Sunset and they were covering Electric Funeral by Black Sabbath. It was the most beautiful, most powerful music I’d ever heard.

The bass rammed against my breastbone as it churned away in the low register. The guitars blared out from both sides of the stage from their magical black amplifiers. Who knew anything you plucked with your fingers could be so loud? And the drums… my God, those insane drums, were beaten on without mercy by a frizzy-haired kid named Steve Fine. But most beautiful of all was the intimacy of the experience; the entire Purple Sunset working as one, a single organism pulsing together, seething together, to create this wondrous, convulsive sound.

I may as well have been seeing the Red Sea split or a unicorn running down the fairway. I found myself half-crying, half-laughing at pure energy, naked and unmasked. Then, when Marc Grossfield, the Purple Sunset’s rhythm guitarist, handed me a tambourine and invited me to come up onstage and join the band, it was as if the hand of providence had plotted a brand new course for my life-trajectory.

For a Jewish kid growing up in suburban Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, I pretty much had accepted the fact that there were three life paths I could choose: become a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. In that moment, a fourth option reared its head and the rest vanished instantly. ROCK STAR! For better or worse, my vision of my future was fundamentally altered in that moment. What I wanted in life became so clear and the road to attaining it so very simple. All I needed was an electric guitar.

Though none of our family was particularly religious, we were all familiar with the basic rituals of the Passover Seder: The recitation of the Haggadah, the dipping of the bitter herbs in salt water, and the eating of the flatbread of affliction known as matzo. Our collective patience was limited, however, and all any of us wanted was to rush through the ceremony as quickly as possible and start eating the oleshkas, the tzimmis, the gefilte fish, and my grandma Min’s brisket. And so it was, just about a year after Michael Finkelstein’s Bar Mitzvah, in the middle of the Passover seder that I stole away from the table to look for my cousin Doug’s electric guitar. I found it soon enough, under his bed. I opened the case and there it was, a bright red Fender Duo Sonic lying in matching red velvet; surprisingly sexy with curves very reminiscent of the women I’d seen in my friend’s father’s Playboy Magazines — the ones we spent an entire summer searching for in the squalor of his basement.

The most famous line of the Haggadah asks this question: “Why is this night different from all others?” In my case, the answer was clear. Because, through the power and promise of obtaining this guitar, I was about to be transformed from a gawky suburban teenager into a deathless god, brimming with virility and power. If my life at the time — which consisted of being totally overwhelmed by the attractiveness of Junior High girls, (the consequent endless masturbation), and reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” — was Egypt, then this electric guitar was my liberating Moses.

Not long after that fateful Passover, my father offered my cousin $150 for the guitar and his small amp. The tools of great change had come, and my future now lay before me. As for plans and self-discipline, nothing of the sort mattered at all.

Like what you read? Give Peter Himmelman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.