Music has always been present at the important junctures of my life, and has always provided the soundtrack to my aspirations and dreams. I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to connect with people through song. I’ve told stories through music of my own and used the words of others to express feelings when I couldn’t find those of my own. I’ve known both the thrill and the terror of standing in front of a live audience. I’ve seen the power of a song to both wound and heal. I’ve felt the intimacy of singing just the right words to just the right person at just the right time. But for all of those moments, sometimes the best song is the one you sing for yourself – the song that helps define you, or helps you hear something your heart has been trying to tell you. For me – that song will always be “Honestly” by Stryper.
It was the spring of 1989. I was standing in my high school gymnasium in front of hundreds of friends, family members, and perfect strangers. I can still feel the hard, unyielding microphone in my hand. I can feel the heat of the spotlights shining down on me – a heat that did nothing to dispel the cold knot of trepidation in my stomach. I can feel the single bead of sweat that begins to run down my left temple as I look up and hear the first notes of “Honestly” begin to play over the PA. I remember thinking – “This is awesome.” Then, “Oh my God – what’s the first word of the song?”
That moment in the gym was the endpoint of one journey and the beginning of another for me. At some point during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I decided I wanted to be a rock star. I started growing out my hair, I got my ear pierced, and I bought an incredibly cool floor length leather jacket. In my mind, I had everything I needed to be a rock star – and I had no idea what I was in store for.
You have to remember, I grew up in a small town in north Georgia in the 80’s. While hair metal was sweeping the country and hairspray was gripping ever longer locks on the Sunset Strip – rock chic was a bit slower coming to my town. Make that a lot slower. I’ll be honest, being one of the few longhaired, pierced ear, boot-wearing guys in my school was not easy. (When I say “boots” – I’m not talking cowboy boots, people.) I was called more than a few names and had my fair share of detractors – but I really didn’t care. I was on a mission.
I always took my own path. I was never one of the truly popular kids, never one of the “in” crowd. My hair and earring conferred more infamy than fame upon me. Still, I remained true to myself. I was naïve in that wonderful way you can be naïve only in your youth. I knew what was important to me, I knew who my friends were, and I never once thought, “Well I can’t fill-in-the-blank because no one else is doing it.” Truth be told, I marched to the beat of my own drummer as much out of choice as out of an ignorance that there even were other drummers.
As I look back at myself now, I was a walking contradiction of cliques and clichés that still somehow came together to form the perfect picture of who I was on the inside. I was a band geek. I had long hair. I was shy. I was a performer. I had an earring. I loved to read. I wrote music. I took AP classes and graduated with honors. I skipped school to have lunch at the mall. I was cool even though I wasn’t cool. And – I was going to be a rock star.
Every year, our school put on a talent show. It was just as exciting and well produced as what you would see on an “After School Special” starring one of the Corey’s (Haim or Feldman – it’s your choice.) There was no stage, no backdrop – just a single riser and row upon row of plastic chairs in the lunchroom. To “light” the stage, the fluorescents over the riser were left on while the balance of the overhead lights were extinguished. The P.A. system was a single microphone and a Peavey Amp. Broadway it was not – but it was what we had.
I didn’t participate my freshman year. I was overwhelmed by the high school experience and I lacked the self-confidence you need to stand up in front of your peers and proclaim that you have a talent worth paying attention to. But by my sophomore year, my internal drummer led me to the stage and I wrote original song that I played on piano and sang. I did the same the next year as well.
Looking back now, I cringe at those songs. Full of teenaged angst, overwrought lyrical flourishes (one was titled “Teardrops on the Roses”), and simplistic musical construction – they reflect a boy struggling to find his identity and understand his emotions. At the time, I was incredibly proud of them – and I guess, in a way, I still am today. More than anything, I’m proud of the adolescent me for putting himself out there to be judged. It took more courage than I realized at the time.
By my senior year, we had a new drama teacher who really worked to make something out of us. We had performed “Oklahoma” the year before, and would be doing a Broadway review that would introduce me to “Les Miserables” later in the spring. The good news at the moment was our talent show had taken a turn for the better and migrated from the lunchroom to the gym. We had real lighting. The drama club constructed a backdrop for the stage. The PA system was robust. Everything was in place for a great night. I just had to make the most of my last performance.
For my final talent show appearance, I decided to perform “Honestly” by Stryper. Stryper was (and still is) one of my favorite bands, and has the honor of being the first rock concert I ever attended. Their ballad “Honestly” was a huge hit during the late 80’s and, more than any other song, influenced my own burgeoning songwriting skills. (For my wedding, I wrote and recorded the song we used for our first dance. When I really listened to it a few years later, I realized it was structured exactly like “Honestly”. I guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.)
It was a tough decision for me not to do an original song – but I felt it was time to step out from behind the piano. It was a bit of a safety net for me; something I could hide behind. To stand center stage with nothing but a microphone was to lay myself open in a way I never had before. It was something I needed to do. Not for my friends, or my family, but for me. I was putting an exclamation point on the story of me I had been writing for the last four years, and that was something I needed to face head on.
As I walked out from the wings, I could see the silhouettes of everyone in the audience. Some had come to see me; most had not. I stopped in the middle of the stage and took a deep breath. I was wearing sunglasses (of course), so no one could see the fear in my eyes. This was it. A point in time I had been moving towards since the first day I sat down at my parents’ piano and discovered my love of music.
I raised the microphone to my mouth and found myself addressing the crowd. I hadn’t really planned to say anything, but the moment grabbed me and demanded to be marked in some way.
“I just want to thank you all for being here. This song is for all of my friends. Those that have stuck by me and helped me become who I am today. My real friends – you know who you are.”
And with that, the music started playing. I had a brief moment of sheer terror as the opening chords resolved to the verse and I found I could not remember the first word of the song. Then, just like that, the words were there and the song carried me through. I stood center stage, looked at the crowd, and poured absolutely everything I had into that song. All of me.
Call on me and I will be there for you
I’m a friend who will always be true
And I love you can’t you see
That I love you honestly
I will never betray your trust in me
And I love you can’t you see
That I can say I love you
And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. The last note faded and I stood there with my head bowed. It was utterly and completely silent for what seemed like an eternity. The moment had grown too big for me and I felt both elated and exhausted at the same time – caught in that perfect silence where the world is balanced on the knife-edge between acceptance and rejection. I was afraid that opening my eyes would break the spell and tip my entire youth the wrong way.
Alone in that public moment with my thoughts, I realized something important. Choosing to walk out on to that stage alone and sing that song was my entire high school experience captured in 4 minutes and 7 seconds. Totally exposed, proclaiming who I was, but still looking for an affirmation, or at least acceptance, of my choices – I trusted myself to find the way through and I trusted in who I was.
For the first time, I truly began to understand the dissonance we all find between following our heart and following the herd. In some ways, we all want to be accepted and loved by those around us. But before you can ask someone to love you, you must first know who you are – not just who you think you should be. Finding the courage to take that first step, to sing that first note – that was important. It was both my acceptance and understanding of who I was, and my unfiltered declaration of love for that person. Without that, I realized, there might be applause, but it would be empty and meaningless. That understanding was one of first true markers on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood for me.
It was at that moment I felt the applause start to wash over me – thunderous, raucous applause. It grabbed me and jerked my head up. I looked into the audience and soaked up their appreciation like a sapling turning towards the morning sun. What could have been an ordinary night had been transformed into something magical. It was everything I had hoped for and more. Did I need their applause to validate the experience of that night? No –not really – and that made it all the more sweet. I felt alive and invincible.
Sadly though, everything eventually comes to an end – and end it did. In all too brief a time, the moment was over, the applause died down, and I walked off the stage. The talent show drew to a close and we all went home. As it does for all of us, the clock kept moving and more stories were birthed. I finished my senior year, went to college, had my heart broken a few times, got a job, found the love of my life, started a family, and I eventually found myself sitting here, in front of this computer, reflecting on the journey.
Dreams are like clothes – some are everyday affairs and some we tuck away in the back corners of the closet of our mind. My rock and roll career is one of the latter. Like the concert t-shirts from my youth, it may not quite fit me anymore, but it holds far too many memories for me to ever part with it. In the end, though, it simply was not meant to be. But, for that one spring night in 1989, I was a rock star. I set aside my fears and sang like no one was listening – even though everyone was, including me.
I will never betray your trust in me.
And I haven’t. No matter where I’ve been, I’m still the guy who stood on that stage and sang with all my heart. I’ve always remained true to myself. Age and “wisdom” have intruded upon the naiveté I enjoyed then, but I’ve still found a way to walk my own road. Music has been my constant companion on that path, and “Honestly” will always hold a special place in my heart. It may not have set me on the road to being a rock star, but it did set me on the road to being a man.
© 2012, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.