Like many, I have rediscovered some of my friends and acquaintances from high school via Facebook. At first I was shocked by, in my case at least, how conservative politically many of them had become. And initially they and I would go back and forth about current events, each of us believing that with enough effort we could convince the other and change their mind. I stopped doing that, as have most of my FB friends from high school who keep in touch, because (of course) it doesn't work. Nobody changes their mind and the conversations digress to arguments quickly. But because of that lack of contact the political conversations I read from the conservative friends on FB I still have, often through a kind of "preaching to the choir," take a tone quite disrespectful to opposing points of view, typically my own. And occasionally I enter in, get pummeled, and then delete all my posts. I guess I'm a slow learner. In any case, as John Cage once said, wisely, the best criticism of someone else's work is your own work. So today I went back and found the acceptance speech I gave at Leslie High School when I received the 2006 Leslie High School Distinguished Alumni Award. Delivered at the new high school, in front of a room full of students, teachers and many of the friends and family who still live in the area, I had hoped that my former teacher Thom Ball would introduce me, as he was still teaching there when I received the award. But when he declined, my brother Eric took on that responsibility and did a wonderful job.
This is the plaque, a picture of it taken by a family member who has children who go to Leslie High School. At the end of the speech, published below with music examples that I either played or would have played had I more time, is the photo and text I wanted to have on the plaque but the school refused.
First I want to thank Leslie High School for this honor and especially want to recognize Joann Mathews who went to the trouble of nominating me. And thanks to all of you for coming and sharing in this significant moment of my life. It's good to see you all again. And good to be back here in Leslie after so many years.
Someone once said, speaking of his "elders," an elder in this case being perhaps someone like me speaking to you at a high school honors ceremony, something like this: "When you're fifty you'll know what I mean." "I'm fifty," he said. "And I still know nothing." This reminds me of something John Cage, a composer and writer I admire very much, said when ending a lecture he gave in the 1950s with the following "when I'm not working I sometimes think I know something. But when I'm working it's quite clear that I know nothing." That then leads me to something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, a book that John Cage read often by a writer he much admired: "I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing to the purpose. Here is life an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my mentors said nothing about." My two favorite writers offer the best advice, in my opinion, which is that knowledge and understanding are fleeting and inconsistent and individual. I take them also to mean that we must find our own way and that beginning with nothing, rather than with presuppositions either of our own creation or more likely taught to us in places like this one where we are meeting now, is key to what really matters in life, or at least does to me. And that has to do with experience as a thing in itself, not as something that leads to knowledge and understanding, but as a thing that can be appreciated as it is. I know as an artist I try very hard to get to a kind of "zero," where what I make comes out of a place where I've never been before, so that hopefully what one reads or hears is something new. Beginning with nothing is what I try for and it is, in my experience, very hard to do.
Well, I'm not fifty yet but I'll be forty-nine in September so I'm likely close enough. And I don't know anything either. But the reason to listen to one's elders (or contemporaries for that matter) is not for what they know or don't know. In fact, if they think they know something that you should too I recommend getting as far away from them as possible. I am interested in what others have experienced. And assuming that you are too I have accumulated some experiences I'd like to share with you today. But first this requires listening to some music, paying special attention to the "whoo whoo" chorus in the middle:
You may be experiencing this song for the first time but there may be some in this room who might remember hearing this on an eight track player, the window of my 65 Chevy down, singing "whoo-whoo" along with the Guess Who while driving way too fast down the gravel part of Kinneville Road, that spot just before reaching the fork where the road is paved. Or at least that's how it was when I was growing up here in the 1970s. This song, as you may know, is "Bye Bye Babe" by the Guess Who from their classic album Artificial Paradise from 1972. It was one of my favorites in high school and Burton Cummings, the group's lead singer, is in my opinion one of rock's greatest singers; the Guess Who one of rock music's most underrated bands. My son Mike, who is here with me tonight, would probably disagree with that; you might too. But I get to say that with some authority because I teach the history of rock music at the University of New Mexico and, believe it or not, I actually get paid to say such things, along of course with the kind of obscure information I learned in high school, in this case that Burton Cummings isn't singing lead on this song, nor on several others on this album, an album that was not a commercial success and which is why Burton Cummings takes the lead again on their next album "Ten."
I think it's pretty funny that the stuff I was studying in high school, listening to music and reading books, anything but doing my homework and studying for tests which I pretty much never did, is now what I get paid to teach. In fact, I think it is very funny. Maybe that's what Frank Zappa, who was also very funny, meant when he said the best way to get an education was to quit school immediately and go to a library and read. Frank Zappa was another one of my favorites. I loved Uncle Meat (from 1968 but a Christmas present from my parents when I was in high school) and I highly recommend Waka Jawaka, from his jazz influenced period, and another eight track that got heard in my car a lot. I still remember driving toward Doug and Karen Gibbs' house, probably after work at Jim's Sunoco, listening to "It Just Might Be A One Shot Deal." If I had time I'd play that one for you too.
Well it's probably no wonder in retrospect that the Leslie police would sometimes follow me around town. This is dangerous music if there ever was, and as Plato insisted in his Republic, it's music we need to be afraid of, music that can bring down a republic because of its power and influence on people. I think of Neil Young's long career attempting just that whether it be singing about the murder of college students at Kent State in "Ohio," written during the war happening when I was in high school or "Let's Impeach the President" written during the war we're in right now. And maybe music made me a little bit dangerous too. Maybe those police had a reason for following me. I do know some teachers at Leslie thought so. They didn't like me very much. and I've since found that there are a lot of young people who were like me in high school. I was too busy listening to music like Lou Reed singing about drugs, spousal abuse and suicide in a great album called Berlin that Todd Eldred gave me after a trip he took to Europe. I spent a lot of time listening to this album, an album that pretty much everyone hated when it came out, even Rolling Stone magazine which I read then like it was the Bible. Berlin was Lou Reed's follow up to 1972's Transformer, famous for the hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side"--in fact Berlin flat out is a walk on the wild side. Wildness, whether it be found in people or in nature, has always been a great attraction to me. And kids who believe that are always dangerous, at least for those who want the world (and us) to be tamed.
Naturally wildness is typically thought of culturally as something that needs to be tamed, and that's something artists (and anyone else for that matter) should in my opinion resist at all costs. I remember in eighth grade some of us had read Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and used the language Burgess created as a private language, a mixture of Russian and English and, as such, as remnant of the cold war thinking of the time, thinking as outdated as the thinking in charge of our country that continues to plague us now. That language was spoken by a group of unbridled and wild young people who wreak havoc on society at large. I'm not recommending doing that literally; but I don't think it is harmful to at least think that way. Out of the box that is. What Thoreau meant when he said that "wildness is the preservation of the world." If high schools and colleges knew what a radical Thoreau really was you wonder if they'd still teach him. But I digress.
My point is that all the things I loved to do in high school, the reading and listening I did, had a lot to do with what I'm doing now and a lot to do with what likely helped convince those responsible to choose me for this award. However it had little to do with showing up for class and doing well in school. So it's no wonder I didn't graduate from Leslie High School with honors academically and it's no wonder when kids like me--and there are plenty of them out there--also don't do well. But that doesn't mean teachers have any foreknowledge about who their students are and how well they are going to do when they leave. That's partly what I meant when at the beginning I tried to move away from knowledge instead privileging experience. Hard enough to "know thyself" as Socrates famously said. But to presume to know others?
The only thing I knew for sure when I left Leslie in 1975 was that I never wanted to teach. Thirty-one years later I've spent twenty-six of them doing just that. So much for what we know. A former graduate student of mine is here tonight and I'm so glad he came. He begins work on his doctorate in composition at Michigan State University next fall. Naturally I hope he learned a lot when he worked with me. But I also hope he doesn't think I taught him anything. After all these years, I still dislike the word "teaching" and, as my students at UNM all know, I always say that if I teach at all (and I try hard not to) I'm not very good at it. I instead like to share my experience with them, show them how I do what I do, and do everything I can to help them help themselves.
In contrast to how Thoreau felt about mentors, it is often said that mentors are important to young people if they are to be successful in college. At UNM, like other universities, we try to be inclusive in our hiring so that students can see someone like them doing what they want to do. I've had many mentors, two of whom taught at Leslie. The first was Steven Baxter, my junior high band director who went on to become Dean at the Peabody Conservatory of Music; the second was William Berz, my high school band director who was for many years Director of the School of Music at Rutgers University. I doubt that many school systems of Leslie's size typically have had band directors of such eventual stature. And I'm sure being around them as a young person, even one as cantankerous as I was, must have rubbed off at least a little. But the two mentors who really made college seem possible were nearer to home, the only two of their generation to graduate from college, just as the only two from my generation were my brother and me. I'm talking about my parents of course. They never pressured any of us to go but they certainly did everything they could to encourage it from, in my case, giving me music lessons, paying for me to go to Interlochen and the Fred Waring music camp at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania, to covering my expenses when I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate. But that doesn't really take into account how beneficial it was for them, more often than not, to trust me to do well and most of the time, as long as I stayed out of trouble, leave me alone and let me do my own work. Which, by the way, is what I believe is the best thing a teacher can do too. I certainly wish that instead of wanting me to leave them alone, some of the more thorny teachers I encountered at Leslie had instead just left me alone.
My parents' trust in me, then and now, is at the heart of what I think of as good mentorship. And I have taken that into the work I do with my students, students who often, like me, resist the bureaucratic, see rules as meant to be broken, following instead what that great obscure composer John J. Becker once said "Laws are for imitators. Creators make laws." Since there may be some teachers in the room let me say this. In my experience, it has been important to understand that even though rules and regulations exist for a reason and are hopefully meant to be followed for good purposes, there will occasionally be those students who don't fit, who can't conform, whose resistance of authority is the life's blood of their existence. I've made a career out of repairing the damage done to students who come to me after having experienced things similar to what I did when I graduated from Leslie High School in 1975. I know how to help them because I was damaged too. That's mentorship in my book. It's the kind of mentorship I wish for my son, hoping I've provided him with some of that but then wanting him to find his own way in the world too. You don't find your own way by following others. As Thoreau put it "Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own path then." That's what I did. And that's hopefully why I've been granted this award.
Since this is supposed to be an acceptance speech let me close with the first thing that came to mind when I received word from Jeff Manthei that I had been selected as Leslie High School's Distinguished Alumni for 2006:
I'm accepting this award on behalf of a seventeen year old ghost who has been haunting me all my adult life. He's leaving me now thanks to you. And in the photo on your program, taken by Rodney Johnston during the Leslie High School honors ceremony my senior year in 1975, that alternately sad and angry, serious looking, trouble making and talented boy has finally found a home. Here with other alumni you have honored over the years, I hope he can inspire others like him to stay the course, remaining true to themselves and their artistry. Because that's what he did and I'm what he's become. Looking back I wish I could have told him what I tell young people now: don't take things too seriously and don't be too hard on yourself or those around you. There's a great life waiting beyond high school. And everything will eventually, if you stay devoted and patient, work its way out in the end. My being here tonight, and there are some witnesses present who have memories long enough to know, is proof of that.
Thank you so much.
For the Students of Leslie High School
Shadrach Meshach Abednego
not alone in the fire.
Buddhist ox herding pictures
the last has two versions
one, the void of emptiness
two, a fat man returns bearing gifts.
choose the fat man.