Do college and rock music mix? Yes, but a lot of it takes place outside of class. Sac State didn't offer
any degrees in being a rock star when I went there, but it did offer music classes that taught music theory,
instrumentation and appreciation. Other classes that on the surface had nothing to do with music allowed
me to write term papers on The Beatles, since their music had such a huge social impact.
In junior college I learned a little about music theory, but not enough to write a composition for an orchestra. I also took
a violin class, in which I taught myself how to play "A Hard Day's Night." I realized it took a lot more practice
to sound good on a violin than a piano or guitar. Holding the bow in one hand while holding the violin in the other
under my chin felt very awkward, so I didn't pursue it further, although I've always loved the sound
of several violins playing at once.
I liked the simplicity of guitar, although it took me many years
to figure out basic things about it. I used it more for a tool to write songs and didn't have that much
desire to actually perform music in front of a live crowd, although I had lots of fantasies about it.
My music appreciation class at Sac State was all about classical music. It taught me that a lot of classical
pieces were broken down into three movements, kind of like how a story has a beginning, middle and end.
I didn't get too deep into it, but it did make me appreciate classical music as an artform that still
mattered even though a lot of it was hundreds of years old.
The class that let me write several papers about The Beatles was called "Age of Incoherence." It was
all about the social changes from the 1950s through the 1980s that crumbled the establishment and radically
transformed it into niche subcultures. My main observation about The Beatles was that
they didn't follow any rules to music. They went against the grain, constantly experimenting with new
ideas, which mirrored how society in general was exploring different worlds beyond the traditional
agendas laid out by church, state and big biz.
At the top of the local band scene in the early to mid eighties was The Features, who mixed pop/rock
with punk, ska, reggae and new wave. They played frequently around town and even got airplay on KPOP.
I asked singer Johnny Pride if the band
ever played at Sac State and he said, "Yes! We played several
nooners and opened some shows there, including Quarterflash." The Features also opened for The Ramones
once at Sac State as well. They opened for several other big name acts such as R.E.M. during that era.
So, yes there were opportunities to explore music at Sac State if your career goal was to be a rock star,
like mine sort of was, but mostly from a dream-trance perspective. I could always picture myself on a
stage when I was laying down listening to music in headphones, but playing guitar and singing were
difficult for me, although it felt much easier to write songs. In fact, I wrote dozens of songs while
I was in college - which was how I spent a lot of my free time instead of watching television. I wanted
mainly to be a songwriter and have established artists cover my material.
Outside the Rigid Cirriculum
My friend David Conley, who I worked with in radio at KWOD during the 90s, told me he went to
Sac State as a teenager several years before I did. "I enrolled there in 1975 at the age of 16 as a music major,"
David told me in October 2015. "I played piano in the jazz band, or stage band as they called it then,
but realized I didn't really enjoy jazz or the mathematics of music theory though I loved music theory skills
as it was applied theory. I took some other classes too, such as English 1A and Black Political Thought,
but felt that if my parents were paying for it I should learn what I want to learn.
"The breaking point was when my Piano Proficiency instructor asked me to play a
scale and I ripped through it. She said my fingering was wrong and I said 'close your eyes and it's perfect.'
I was going up against instructors with my rock and pop sensibilities and all they had was jazz and
classical backgrounds. After one semester I turned 17 and hit the road playing in a band and never looked
back other than to vow that if I ever taught music I would teach the student what
they wanted to learn instead of forcing a curriculum on them.
"My experience was singular in that I figured since I skipped two grades I was
young enough to go back if I wanted to, but playing music for a living vs. paying
someone to teach me things I didn't care about was a no brainer since as a
music major the job market was bleak."
David went on to be a music teacher and a nightly performer at The Sardine Factory
in Monterey, where he plays cover songs and sells his original CDs. One of the things we've always connected on
is we both love The Beatles. David's Sac State story reminds me how The Beatles did things their
way, without ever learning how to read or write music, yet they still ended up at the top of the
music industry. It just proves that college is not always the path to career success, especially
when it comes to music.
It's funny that I actually did learn the basics of reading music, partly from my violin and music theory
classes at American River College. Yet I had zero hits to show for it. Of course, your music has to be
heard first before it can become popular. I did send demo tapes of my music to publishers but only got
form letters back explaining why it wasn't what they were looking for. My music definitely didn't fit
in with the pop or rock scenes of the eighties (or any decade for that matter). The Beatles heavily influenced
me to be myself and not follow trends.
Here's a passage I wrote in one of my several college term papers about The Beatles, dated September 9, 1982:
"The typical commercial album is one that may contain three or four good quality songs while the remainder
of the disc is occupied by filler trash. The usual trick is to expose a few tracks through hype, so that people will be
attracted to the album. Unfortunately, too many albums become purposeless slithers of consumer waste after the few
hits on the album deteriorate from the charts. The Beatles, however, weren't so cruel to their audience.
Virtually every LP they released was filled with interesting and entertaining songs, most of which are standards
One of the songs I wrote in college was "Skeleton River" in the summer of 1983 after going on the
Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. I had been on the ride several times before, but now that I
had become a songwriter, it gave me imagery to write about.
Musically it had bizarre timing, unlike any
other song in history. Lyrically the skeleton imagery merged with my feelings about how greed and arrogrance
lead to self-destruction. It also reflected the coldness I felt from a relationship that started
out as hypnotic but went sour after I realized I was faking myself out that I could be in love with someone who
was just playing with my mind. The lyrics went as follows:
Skeleton River gets chilly at night
everybody feels the shivers while standing in line
slip into the dark on a boat ride
at Skeleton River
Skeleton River is colder than hell
with a message to deliver they tell it so well
take into account how a soul sells
at Skeleton River
Sailing down the wasteland
no sign of happiness near
and gazing at the water
(background: pirates and treasures and war)
I saw my reflection so clear
(background: and I'll come to the river no more)
at Skeleton River
(repeat first verse then instrumental ending)
As haunting as these lyrics might seem, they marked a turning point in my own
self-awareness not to get sucked into a bottomless sink hole of depression. Confronting fear
and weak egotical selfishness gave me a sense of strength that has stayed with me ever since,
although the development of my new persona was gradual over the next several years.
Essentially, Skeleton River was a
metaphor for sailing away from danger and learning how to "change channels" when confronting pain of fear.
That's not to mean escape, which implies pretending a problem doesn't exist. It was more facing the problem
and reaching a positive solution, as opposed to drowning in the problem.
Part of my evolution into a stronger self-image was merging all my college knowledge together with my own ideas, just like how The Police
mentioned in the song "Wrapped Around Your Finger" the lyrics "I have only come here seeking knowledge /
things they would not teach me of in college." Another song on the album was "King of Pain," which
mentioned a "skeleton choking on a crust of bread." Those songs on the album Synchronicity, which I thought
were artistically brilliant, may have helped inspire "Skeleton River," at least on a subconscious level.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
Bobby McFerrin once studied at Sac State but I didn't know who he was until four years after
I graduated. In 1988 he scored a number one single called "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which we played
on KWOD. What was amazing about that record was that it was completely a cappella with absolutely
no musical instruments in it, even though the production had a full sound.
The most powerful aspect
of the song was its ultra-positive message about life, that no matter how frustrating things get,
you can create your own happiness. That's what I believed then and now. Even when I'm not near
a musical instrument, I'm able to "change channels" to positive frequencies. I learned that
from a kaleidoscopic mix of The Beatles, Disneyland, The Police, Bobby McFerrin, my own songwriting ... and Sac State.