Kitty and I met the sophomore year of high school, when we both auditioned to attend Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Fast forward two years later and we’re best friends, dating and each working professionally in the music industry. Kitty had accepted work as a session vocalist at Prince‘s Paisley Park studios and was missing a lot of classes because of this. I was in the midst of recording my debut jazz album (“Wizard Oil”) with members of Tom Waits and Leon Redbone‘s bands.
Despite the “open minded and supportive” nature promoted by the school, no one of the music department was impressed by our extra curricular activities…in fact, the head of the department was a truly horrible woman who was hell-bent on failing us both. I have fond memories of the principal calling Kitty and I in and letting me know that I would be a failure. His exact words were: “at best, you’ll be a drunk in a go nowhere garage band.” What a great way to educate and motivate young artists!
Now, years later, I’m pretty sure Kitty and I are the only graduates of the school that have made their living as full-time, professional artists. I of course don’t know this for sure, but from the few late night Google searches I’ve done it sure as hell seems to be the case.
Why write all this when all I wanted to do was let you know I just added an album called “Milwaukee Blues” that I recorded and produced by one of my mentors Dave Van Ronk to our shop? Well, to give you some context for the recording…and why it means so much to me. Who’s Dave Van Ronk? Most people know him as the guy an impossible young Bob Dylan ran to in order for Bob Dylan to become Bob Dylan, but Dave was so, so much more…yes, it’s true Van Ronk took Dylan under his wing…but that’s only one short chapter in the long story of Dave’s life leading the American folk music revival.
You see, just after graduating with a final grade of “D-” (in music, mind you) I set out to make a living as a musician and artist, and I’ve never looked back. That summer I ended up having the incredible opportunity to book a short tour of the midwest with Dave Van Ronk. I picked him up at the airport in Minneapolis and we spent a week together driving to shows in places like Ames, Madison and Milwaukee. I opened each show with a short set, but didn’t give a shit about that. All I cared about was the late night hotel jams with Van Ronk chain smoking and drinking until the crack of dawn, telling stories about his days mentoring Bob Dylan or writing with Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The next day, I’d drive Dave to the next show and he’d tell me more stories like the time he and Dylan were caught in a snowstorm on the way to a gig and Bob rolled down the window of the car using a broom handle to tap the road to make sure they were still on the pavement of the highway as Dave drove…because visibility was nonexistent. Van Ronk showed me a few little tricks on the guitar and he called one of the first songs I ever wrote “pretty okay”. It was a tune called “Fireflies Makin’ Whoopee” and in thinking about it, it was pretty okay.
I learned more from a week in the battlefield with Dave Van Ronk than spending two years at the Arts High School. The moral to the story? Ignore the haters…pursue your dreams…and never, ever listen to authorities. Listen to your heart. Smoke a lot when you’re young, be sure to quit when you’re young, and write pretty okay songs until they become pretty good songs.
Sometimes, when I miss Van Ronk I re-watch the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis which is largely based on Dave’s life.
Now, I can listen to one of Dave’s shows from that tour…a stop we did in Milwaukee, Wisconsin…and you can listen now too. Cheers!