More on this balancing act. In 1986, I had only been working at EPA for a year and a half when I asked my boss if I could to take leave without pay to go to London that summer (to shop around cassette tapes of Acrylix material to the millions of small record labels there), because I hadn’t yet accumulated enough annual leave. My boss gave me his OK but added “Ken, you’re going to have to decide if it’s going to be music or this job.” Well, as it turned out, I was able to do both over my 35-year career. I led a double life, EPA bureaucrat by day, rock and roll by night. In the music world, I tended to keep my education on the down low and cringe when people worked my educational achievements into promotional material for the various bands. People have told me this is very unusual, this balancing act, but I didn’t have children yet; when that happened, it became trickier. I found out later that James Williamson of the Iggy Pop’s Stooges in fact worked in Silicon Valley developing computer chips, so there’s at least one other data point. Oh, and Tom Scholz, MIT-trained engineer and founder of the band Boston is another example.
My career trajectory was a little more muted that those examples; the real balancing occurred from when I started working at EPA in January 1985 through 1987, when our daughter was born and my first band Acrylix really ended, and then on for a year or so more with the next band, Shocko Bottom. To be honest, children or marriage or job notwithstanding, it always felt a little schizophrenic. From way back in 1980, or even in the 1970s when I was in graduate school and not in a band, I was writing songs and poetry on the backs of technical scientific articles I was reading, or preparing for a test by turning the steps of the Krebs Cycle into a blues song.
I am good at compartmentalizing. My interests lie in creative endeavors, alternative music and poetry, and an organic local scene. I seek like-minded people. I had to protect myself from my family's well-meaning meddling and sidetracking of my vision. So I had a LOT of practice finding my space in any environment. I distinctly remember, in 1985, a conversation with an office secretary at EPA. I was trying to recall where I had been over the previous weekend and said “I don’t know, it could have been somewhere in Sweden.” That became a song, and over the next 35 years I sang it this way (with Linda Reinisch on vocals, Glenn Kowalski keys, Charles Steck bass, Norman van der Sluys drums, Dan Robinson mandolin) or I sang it this other way. (with Tom Lyle of Government Issue). No tossed off comment was too small to turn into something.
I felt I could pull off solid government work – I write well and I wanted to be the only bureaucrat in the world who actually tried to be helpful - but never took myself "seriously" enough to advance very far; I just couldn’t bring myself to drink that Kool-Aid, although I would like to think I did my part to protect the environment (assessing risks of new chemicals before they come on the market) over all those years at EPA. That said, I held a secure, well-paying government job with benefits for 35 years. At the same time, I felt like an imposter as a musician because I couldn’t jump off that cliff and risk it all for a musical career. In other words, I felt I wasn’t completely invested in either what my college education trained me to do or music, even though I knew that being truly committed to the “rock and roll lifestyle” might mean I ended up with cirrhosis of the liver and no health insurance. It’s funny, one phrase I heard often was something being “close enough for government work,” but I always thought it made equal sense to say “close enough for rock and roll.” You know it when you see it. In government work, you tend to write to a 6th grade level of comprehension so that everyone can understand. In rock and roll, it's the one chord/one world thing. It has to, well, rock.
In the office, I played this little game in my head where no matter how difficult someone was at work, I would say to myself “Well, I can kick his/her ass on guitar.” Fact is, although I might find some simpatico people at work, or people who thought it was “really cool” that I played music, the reality was they had families and a steady job and were not the kind of people who wanted to party, so it was a little lonely trying to be a legend in my own mind. Why did I play it that way? It was all I could think of at the moment, and I guess I wanted to do everything, all the time.
That should be on my tombstone:
He Wanted to Do Everything,
All the Time
(Optional, add: Plus, The Guy Actually Stole his Brother’s Guitar)
No denying the fact that I had to make choices along the way, even if I neurosed my way through them. As Yogi Berra famously said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. One memorable example was circa 1977 when I had an opportunity to see the Grateful Dead and Joel Gray (Cabaret) on the same night. The looks on people’s faces when I left the Dead at intermission were priceless. I have no regrets.
Looking back, am I glad I did it that way, the balancing and the juggling? I could respond that I don’t care, or that it's a stupid question because I already did whatever "it” is. However, I do think about it. Yes, I am glad. I think I did the best I could with the tools I had. I indeed straddled two worlds: doing the responsible thing and listening to my own heart. I’m glad I had children; they are brilliant and I love them more than anything. I’m glad I got married; I have learned how to love my wife Patty and myself. She has put up with a lot of shit from me and I don’t feel like I deserve her love, but I’m working on that part. I am a mere mortal as a songwriter and guitar player, a singer with a unique voice, and a pretty good performer. I have dared to delude myself into thinking I could be a rock star, and I’m proud of that. As I will get into later describing my experience playing in front of a crowd, I consider the high moments to be my reward for taking a chance. I’m proud I was able to create valid art yet still have the ability to engage on environmental issues and regulation. I can talk about beat poetry, guitar pedals, sports, fine art, environmental science, Marx Brothers, politics, etc., and if I can’t talk about it, I’m ready to learn about it. I would like to think that I have a broad bandwidth; if we start talking about one topic and you move into an unrelated subject, I will not slide off the conversation.