Archive for the ‘Backstory’ Category

The Greg Ham Effect

Driving home tonight, Men At Work’s “Overkill” came up on the shuffle of my iPod.  My finger twitched on the “next” button, but like always, I can’t resist.  Men At Work flashes me back to my first music obsession of staying up late when I was ten years old to watch a live performance on MTV.  They also remind me of another distinct childhood memory which is hauntingly accompanied by Greg Ham’s sax solo played at the interlude.

When I was ten years old I had a choice.  Fourth grade wasn’t only a transition from baby to adult stature in the elementary school world, it brought a plethora of new opportunities.  One was music.  We were donned with the option of playing an instrument. (Yes, this was way back in the day where schools had musical programs.)  While most gravitated towards their grandmothers’ dreams of the violin, I knew I was destined for the flute.  It wasn’t the same reason like every other girl who thought the flute was prettier than the clarinet (even though it was), but instead the choice was solely based on Greg Ham’s solo in “Down Under.”

In seventh grade, with an overflowing flute section and a sad showing for a saxophone section, the music teacher asked if I wanted to try alto sax.  “The fingerings are pretty much the same so it should be an easy transition.  Also, there is a lot less competition for first chair.”  While “easy transition” and “less competition” spoke to me, the real weight in my decision was once again Greg Ham.  I pulled out my Business As Usual cassette tape and in the black print on the glossy innards were the word “saxophone” after Greg Ham’s name.  The deal sealed.

Seventh grade right before I jumped off the flute ship.  And yes, I'm also wearing a Guess skirt to rock this outfit.

Seventh grade right before I jumped off the flute ship. And yes, I’m also wearing a Guess skirt to rock this outfit.

Now I wish I could go on with a terrific ending about becoming a concert saxophonist to make Mr. Ham and my parents proud.  Unfortunately, the reality was I played into high school in the marching band before moving to the tenor sax for jazz band.  In college, I abandoned the instrument all together and now pull it out on special occasions to prove to my children I actually know how to play.

This year when the “In Memoriam” scrolls through all the stars you will remember, Mr. Ham’s name will probably not make the list even though he left this world in April.  To most, he was no Whitney Houston, Larry Hagman, Phyllis Diller, Neil Armstrong, or Ron Palillo (Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter — OMG, he’s dead?  I didn’t even know until I searched to put together this list.  This may be another blog in the making.)  But there is a part of my heart devoted to Mr. Ham.  In his flute and sax works he opened a world to me about discipline to learn something new, appreciation of the arts, and the uncomfortable chaffing of a polyester band uniform.  I can’t thank him enough.  Here is your in memoriam, Mr. Ham.  You will be missed.

Maybe this picture is a little creepy.


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I Was Fearless

When I drove home in the glow of what a great time I had at the Willamette Writers Conference, I realized it all came from being fearless the first night.  I thought about how when I was younger fear wasn’t something considered when making decisions.  One of the lectures taught nostalgia as a plot device being the biggest draw for people in their thirties.  (I’ll let you believe now that I barely made it into the thirty tier since I’m obviously 29.)  I guess it’s true because I spent the next hour cycling through stories of my younger self storming headstrong into ridiculous situations.  I loved them.  And then I wondered when it had changed.

My freshman year of college represented my most fearless year.  My parents insisted I travel out of my small hometown to go to college.  This also meant leaving all my comforts, friends, and securities, too.  The first few weeks I holed up in my room and played on Prodigy because the internet wasn’t “a thing” yet.  (You’re probably recalculating my age assessment from before.)  One day I took a stand and reached out to my suite-mate.  I cast fear aside and put myself out there in hopes of better things.  She welcomed me into the group and I finally did more than listen to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine for the millionth time.

Some of my best accomplishments came because of that first step to ditch fear.  I took a job as a concert security guard who had to travel to locations around southern California.  It never even occurred to me how unrealistic that was since I was a freshman without a car.  My resourceful self recruited dorm-mates to take on the same job and the carpool began.  Not seeing the boundaries allowed me to work one of my favorite jobs.  The lack of worry brought other adventures, such as an interview to intern with Capital Records (didn’t get it, but did get a tour of the building), inviting one of my favorite bands at the time to come stay in the dorms (no go, but did get a handwritten note back), endless photos of wild nights (they don’t see the light of day), and even the most gutsy move to fall in love (with my now husband).  That was one of my best years.

It doesn’t mean everything was gravy.  My grades weren’t the best, I watched a convenience store robbery go down, I enjoyed under-age extra curricular activities more than I should and I lost dear friendships.  But that was from being eighteen and thinking I knew everything.  Not the shallow defeat of fear telling me it wasn’t possible.

This weekend reinforced great things happen when your fear is in check.  The first night a choice presented itself.  A stranger made some innocent conversation.  My fear tried to seduce me to blow her off and go back to looking busy on my phone.  It took actual strength to stuff the phone back in my pocket and engage in normal interaction.  Once we started, my nerves calmed.  The real me entered the party.  Then another writer searched for a chair and I invited him over.  Three hours later, the three of us enjoyed several drinks and a helluva good time.  It set us up for having a wonderful time for the entire weekend, meeting many more people, and not melting down into a non-verbal mess when an agent sat down for a gin and tonic.

The whole thing reminded me how crippling fear can be; doubting if the novel is good enough to submit, despair in knowing thousands of hours of work doesn’t guarantee anything more than what I have, and self-loathing for not being better.  It will paralyze me on this road I’ve loved for the past four years; the time in my life where I feel like I’ve finally started doing what I was meant all along.

Life shouldn’t be calling up memories from twenty years ago to remember what it feels like to be fearless.  It should be living the fullest today like there is no tomorrow.

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When I was fifteen, I met a boy at a party I hosted for a girlfriend turning sixteen.  The boy was playing the dutiful role of wingman to his buddy trying to hook up with the birthday girl.  We chatted throughout the night about music among other things.   As we escorted them the two miles to his house in the moonlight after the party, he told of one of his favorite bands, The Smiths.  I’d only heard them through my older sister’s closed bedroom door from the vinyl records she never shared.  But my interest was piqued with the possibility of a new musical taste and in the boy who suggested it.

In an innocent crush sort of way, I followed him to his art class and made conversations while he tried to work on projects.  (Even though it seems super creepy when I’m writing it now, it was very innocent at the time.)  I masqueraded my affection by chumming up next to a favorite girlfriend and seemed overly interested in her stenciled flower project.  At night, I listened to the mixed tape he made of Strangeways, Here We Come and The Queen Is Dead.  It only took one listen for me to fall madly in love with the happy ditty of “Frankly, Mr. Shankly.”  I replayed it a hundred times until the words were recorded to memory to prove my duty to being a true Smiths fan and not a poser. 

With high school a distant memory, the other morning the song came across my iPod.  I’ve listened to it hundreds of more times over the years.  It was my battle cry while I suffered through a job I hated a few years ago.  I belted out the opening line “Frankly Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held, it pays my way and it corrodes my soul” to comfort myself that I wasn’t the only who’d done it.  I giggled at the thought of telling my boss he was a “flatulent pain in the arse” and even harder at the fact I had no idea what that meant twenty years ago. 

I thought about how the song was completely different as an adult than the catchy tune I took it for in high school.  The words resonate differently now that I understand what it feels like to work a job for a paycheck versus being at the starting line waiting for someone to fire the gun to go.  Regardless of the interpretation, the song always brings back the memory of balancing on an art stool waiting for the boy to share a few words.  I remember he was quiet, shy, and completely uninterested in my affection.

The song does exactly what art is supposed to do.  It evokes an emotion; an ever-changing, evolving, heart-stopping emotion.  Different stages in life will have different interpretations, but the true test of a great piece of art is if it’s something you want to return.   Do you give it the chance to be reviewed with your different frame of mind to see if it holds up to your memory?  Or do you not give it a second thought after done the first time?  Or are you afraid to challenge your deep regard because it meant that much to you?

The boy moved away a couple months after that party and we didn’t have the type of friendship which required the obligatory “KIT.”  (Keep In Touch)  His memory came in passing when “A Rush and A Push” plays and I wondered what became of him.  With Facebook, I was able to see a glimpse after he accepted my friend request.  In the same way of time changing a perception of art, people are not the memory.   But even though he doesn’t know it, he will always be the boy I crushed on when I was fifteen who helped me fall in love with The Smiths.

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No matter who the person, I love the backstory.  Getting to know new friends or catching up with old ones from my past always includes the fun of learning about what’s gone on.  It’s no different when I stalk a band.  How did they come together?  Were they BFFs since first grade when they traded their PB&J for turkey?  Or did two male members meet after loving the same girl?  Did they ditch the chick and write songs about their shared heartbreak?  With a little digging, there’s always a fascinating story behind the person.

An interesting thing was noticed when I dove into my research of how TATE came to be.  It was consistently the same story.  Article after article highlighted Mikel’s terrible week which left him on the path to creating a band.  It’s a week where he claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend, found out his mom had cancer, and received his own diagnosis of illness.  That’s a pretty shitty week (even shittier the girlfriend still broke up with him after the other two things.)  Do I really believe this all happened in the specific span of seven days?  No.  Does it make a great backstory which has evolved into a more fabulous brand?  Absolutely.

Mikel’s a writer; not only of songs, but an author of stories and novels.  He understands the importance of being concise with thought and drawing the reader in with relatable emotion.  Damn, have you listened to his songs?  Case in point.  Would it have played as well with “My girlfriend left me after she found out I’d been cheating for months”?  I’m not saying this is what happened, but the choice to be vague in certain parts and descriptive in others proves beneficial in the story of TATE. 

His backstory also calls to his age group.  Mikel was in his thirties when he formed the band.  A prime age for others in the same demographic to hear the battle cry of “live the life you dream before it passes you by.”  If he were in his early 20’s, his message could have been “I started the band to get laid after my bitch girlfriend dumped me” and people would understand.  But thirty-somethings are supposed to be more mature, settling down, and have a depth to their personality.  (I’m guessing being a rockstar always comes with the hope of getting lots of tail.)

The only time the backstory of the band does not revolve around him is when the focus shifts to the violinist Anna being classically trained.  This is another well-crafted brand to focus on their different sound because it contains the strings.  Why does it matter if she’s classically trained?  Does it sound any different from learning in your garage to impress a boy?  Never the less, it’s the start of every question of her in most interviews.  It’s that subtle hint that perks up the ears of the potential fan to give them a go.

But with my need to know in-depth details of everyone in my life, I was disappointed with the same backstory told in every single interview.  There was no more knowledge gained with Googling new articles, following them on Twitter, or regularly checking their site.  It was the same canned answers every time.    

“It must be boring to say the same thing over and over again in interviews,” I said.  Hubs shrugged not giving me a second thought.  I wondered if he even heard me.  “When I do all my interviews about my backstory, I’m going to mix it up.  Tell wild stories to spice it up.  Maybe it will involve a musician.  Won’t that be funny?”

“No,” he said, “people will think you’re a liar.” 

At first I scoffed at the fact he was jealous of the musician, but then I realized he was right.  The power of a brand is to get an audience to identify and be loyal.  Your backstory needs to be as relatable as the product you are selling.  This doesn’t mean you have to fabricate it to fit what you think your audience wants, but it does mean you have to tell the same story over and over again.  If you trail from it or become something else midway, they will lose their trust in you and the product you are hawking.  Same is true when creating a character in a book.  The minute you say something untrue to their backstory, the reader pulls aways and says “Whatch you talkin’  ‘bout, Willis?”

Maybe this analysis of Mikel’s backstory tells more about his character than he intended.  He could be a shrewd business man who knew what it took to create a relatable character to propel his product into a successful line.  Or maybe he’s a good author who peppers in the right details at the right moment.  Or maybe he’s just a guy who had a shitty week, wanted to play music, and snag a bunch of ass in the process.

Also feel free to tell me your backstory in the comment section.

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