I lost my way. I’d thought by my labors to stand outside that true bend of gravity which is the world’s pain.
The beauty of the stonework is simply a reflection of the purity of the mason’s intention.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Stonemason
When I was 12 years old, my parents split, and I moved with my mom and sister from outside of Detroit, Michigan, to Wichita, Kansas. I was small for my age and terrified of starting seventh grade in a new city.
As it turned out, I had two main weapons that got me through those first few years in a new place: my first guitar and my first true mentor, my next-door neighbor Shawn Belford.
Shawn was maybe 20 when I was 12, but when you are 12, 20 seems endlessly older and wiser, and he definitely had the wisdom of a few lifetimes. He had to become an adult quickly. He and I actually dealt with very similar upbringings (though he didn’t tell me this for years) — family members suffering from alcoholism, depression, etc.
All of these things form us, and we each have to decide whether to use them as arrows in our bow or to blame them for wherever we are standing. Most of us have dealt with some kind of family issues in our formative years, but as common as it is, the crux of all new emotions as a teenager is you feel you are the only person on the planet going through them. When you are trying to find your way through adolescence, any instability in family life can feel like the sky is turning black rather quickly. Every emotion is heightened to the nth degree anyway, and those early teenage years are a selfish time. But it takes those dramatic, over-the-top feelings to carve a place for yourself, to do the work of finding who you are and where you are headed. There is no realistic perspective there, but that’s part of the magic. How many times does a parent tell you about your first love, “Oh, there are seven billion people on the planet/lots of fish in the sea,” and you want to strangle them where they stand?
Your first love, whether it’s another person, a dream, or a goal, when it first clicks in, there is no drug that will ever take its place. Shawn saw my first love was music, and he pushed me toward it, gently but firmly.
Everyone reading this post has experienced some element of the insane, ever-repeating game show “How to Not Be Like Your Parents”! What helped me over the years (sadly, we can’t see it when we are in it) was to learn that our parents, friends, and heroes are all HUMAN — and all humans have been through many of the same things since time out of mind. Everyone has their own demons and history (which I see as an adult now my folks actually did a damn good job of fighting off). If you don’t find some way to forgive them or at least make some kind of peace, you are dealing in victimhood, which will kill you faster than a bullet. Like many young people, Shawn and I both had a crossroads to face. It’s a choice that either destroys you or it gives you resilience, tenacity, and coping skills. You really have two choices only, and to some degree, they are there every day of your life — either become a victim and model bad behavior or pick up the flag and promise yourself you will break the chain and make a change in your life no matter what. Easiest thing in the world to write about; hardest thing to do. I’m still trying to learn these lessons slowly every day.
Shawn never mentioned any of this head-on, but he knew in his bones what I was going through. He understood having to be “the man of the house” at a young age and what kinds of tricks that plays on your mind — if you don’t stare right into some of your fears, if you don’t find an outlet besides drugs, the wrong crowd, and the anger that forces so many of us to see the rest of the world as “other.” Shawn understood this at a level that most shrinks haven’t discovered in a thousand books, and he used it to help me. He was a father figure at a time I needed it more than I knew.
I still fight with those fears: Am I enough? Would I make a good enough father? How do you balance your lifelong dream of traveling the world, playing music, and still being a rock for your loved ones? To this day I look to Shawn as someone who came out of instability and built a life firmly rooted 1,000 feet down into the ground.
I remember Bono being asked once, what would you tell your 12-year-old self? He said the most outstanding and simple thing: “You are right. Keep going.” Whatever is burning inside of a young person is probably the gift they are meant to have, no matter how big or small. The instincts and magic we have when we are young is beyond anything we can harness or explain later as an adult. (Stephen King does a beautiful job writing about this in so many of his novels.) This naivete, this purity is one of the hardest things to navigate back to once the world bangs us into its preordained shape for adults. You see this with musicians all the time — it’s very hard for artists who know too much to play with the reckless abandon and simplicity they had in their youth. We all want to conquer our instruments and our crafts, but we forget sometimes it should be HEART OVER MIND. Every time. It’s so much easier for our society, schools, teachers, and the friends around us to succumb to fear over hope. Most of us adults have quietly had to give up on what we love the most, and therefore, may steer young people on the same safe and fearful little roads that protect us as consumers, and not dreamers.
Shawn was always there, and he always opened the bigger roads to me.
He always made me laugh out loud and kept things loose and funny, but he was always DOING THE WORK. He lived integrity and principle and yet was a blast to be around. This is a hard trick to pull off. To be square and be cool is no easy feat.
He understood and showed me by example how important the way you treat others is and the importance of your word. Things you do regardless of whether you want to, regardless of how convenient they are, regardless of whether they help you get ahead. You do them because they are the right thing to do. These are lessons you can’t buy, and lessons that don’t leave you if you are so lucky as to learn them at a young age. We should all be so lucky as to get to instill these things into other young people. So many kids don’t feel their own value, their own potential. They don’t have any self-confidence, and they don’t feel SAFE. I cannot imagine not having anyone around to give a little boost as a kid, to give you the feeling that things can change, that things can get better, to help you find something you love — something you can run to that doesn’t kill you when you feel the world is coming down.
I was surrounded by booze and drugs in the first bands I played in, even at age 12 and 13 (I was very lucky to be in older bands as a kid). I can remember vividly a very good friend of mine pulling me out of band practice to learn the riff for “Walk This Way” in the middle of a neighborhood street while the band was inside getting high. I played clubs well before I was old enough to get in. I saw the coke cut up on snare drum heads, the drunk drivers, the wasted potential, and, of course, so many of my early rock ’n’ roll heroes destroying themselves. And it was all supposed to be so sexy and so cool. Die at 27 — pretty corpse — all that garbage. Without lecturing and without giving those escapes any mystery or weight, Shawn showed me how stupid he thought all booze and drugs were, and it got through. It sunk in. Both of us had a cross to bear with what alcohol did to our families. I didn’t smoke a cigarette until I was 23 and barely drank anything besides a few beers until I was in college. (I was no fun at parties, but I also seldom went to parties. It took me a while to find a balance; I’m sure I was a self-righteous nerd to many friends in the early days.)
Fireworks, building BMX ramps, going to the baseball/basketball card store, shooting free throws from another planet, Shawn hustling money off folks playing pool — a lot of good stories and memories. But one memory stands out above all others, and to this day I think it’s a great deal of what formed my confidence as a musician.
I practiced my guitar night and day. As I have said in another post on this blog, it felt like the one thing I knew from another life, one place of peace. Early on, I told Shawn I played guitar, and he asked me if I was good. In a rare moment of total confidence, I said something like, “Hell, yeah, I’m good! I play all the time.”
He said, “Well, if you are good, then go home and take this tape” — yes it was a cassette, folks — “and learn the solo on this song.” It was a track from “Jesse Johnson’s Revue” — Jesse was one of Prince’s protégés, and the solo was killer. It was Prince-level playing: passionate, gorgeous, technical in a raw way that belied how difficult the part actually was.
I went home and worked relentlessly for hours to get that damn solo right. It was my sole mission to blow my new neighbor away and get some respect for the one thing that I thought I was good at. I put ultra focus into this task. I wanted him as a friend so badly.
After a few days of burning through notes on my trusty yellow legal pads, I went next door and asked if he could come over so I could play the solo to him. Moment of truth. I made sure I had the stereo set perfectly to blend in with my amp. I played the solo section note for note, and he was blown away. To this day, that is the same feeling as playing for thousands of people. It was better because I think a part of me knew I needed that friendship, that mentor. (Looking back now, Shawn’s musical taste was much cooler than mine, too — he turned me onto a lot of funk and hip-hop that I wouldn’t have found just worshipping the Kiss posters on the wall.)
I left Wichita for KU in Lawrence at 18, went back to Wichita for a few years, and then headed off to northern California, Colorado, and eventually LA. Shawn and I didn’t talk for a long time. I went out to take the world down, and I cut ties with so many of the old-school crew, somehow thinking all that mattered was to work harder. (I was shortsighted. Thankfully, many of my old friends are still with me now and have forgiven my one-track mind.) I saw Shawn once when I was in college, and his political views had moved a little more to the right; my views were so left, I was most likely intolerable. We never let that stop our respect for one another, and we always listened to each other — something I see now, so many years later, that is in short supply.
I thought of Shawn many times, but at that point, we hadn’t spoken for over a decade.
Then a few years back, something wonderful happened.
Shawn’s daughter was a student at one of the schools the band and I played and did our financial literacy talk. She went home that day and told Shawn that the kid he knew from childhood just played her school.
Shawn came to the show that night, and since then, we have been thick as thieves once again.
He has a one-liner that I will later devote an entire piece to: “Hard work takes care of you.” No truer words have been spoken. Not just for money — for the work itself. For using your hands and your mind and your time building something. There is a spirituality to hard work, and if kids are not shown this (by example — I’m not sure it can simply be told), they are missing out on one of the great joys of this life.
I think to this day, how can I better understand these lessons? And how can I give some of this understanding and hope to young people around me? Sometimes all it takes to keep hold of a dream is a little bit of confidence and someone to remind you to ignore the garbage, ignore the haters. It’s not your fault this world feels insane — much about this world is insane. You have potential. We all do. There is real magic in the world, but it is accessed by WORK, by discipline, by LOVE. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to do whatever it takes — leave your hometown, leave the negative people in your life, burn the ships and burn the maps and DO. NOT. COME. BACK. ’Cause you can’t go back anyway — you can only keep building.
Did you have someone who helped you as a kid? Right now, get out a piece of paper and thank them or call them. Let them know. Life is so much shorter than we think. And please, please pay it forward. Find a kid and give him or her a compliment when he or she feels like crap. Do what you can. Listen to them for a while. It means more than we know.
Thank you, Shawn. I’ll always owe you. And I will try to give back when I see kids who are losing their footing like I was back in the day.
Love you all. Thanks for reading.
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