Self-Discipline Is Way Overrated (Or: How I Stumbled Into Becoming a Rock Musician)

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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 everything — but then again, who the hell are we kidding? Most times, great change comes as a result of things we can’t possibly comprehend. 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.

There were dozens of cute seventh and eighth grade girls there that night, and all of us were hearing something that for me at the time was just completely overwhelming. 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 music I’d ever heard. The bass rammed against my breastbone as it plowed 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 drums, they were beaten without mercy by a frizzy-haired kid named Steve Fine. 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, my life trajectory instantly plotted a new course.

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: be a doctor, be a lawyer or be an accountant. In that moment, a fourth option reared its head and the rest vanished instantly. ROCK STAR! For better or worse, I was indelibly 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 flat bread 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. So it was, just about a year after Michael Finkelstien’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 right away, 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 like the women I’d seen in my friend’s father’s Playboy magazines.

The most famous line of the Haggadah asks: “Why is this night different from all others?” 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 — which consisted of junior high, endless masturbation, and reruns of “Gunsmoke” — was Egypt, then this guitar was my liberating Moses. Not long after that Passover, my father offered my cousin $150 for the guitar and a small amp. The tools of great change had come, and my future now lay before me.

And all of this came with no self-discipline whatsoever.

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