Rock and roll dreams come through
"It became a very mythic, important thing to me to never forget that every song you write, every record you make, ultimately is for that kid in Wisconsin. Or that weirdo in Alabama, or the banker in Kansas, the young couple starting out in California, the kid in the ghetto in Oakland, it doesn't matter. It just always ends up being some kid under the covers with headphones on. And I honestly don't know of any other business where you can so majestically reach so many people on such a vast scale, but also so intimately, urgently, and passionately get into the bloodstream of their lives. And I have to say that all this award means, ultimately, is that it's for the kid in Wisconsin. And he's the one I'm always working for. So, kid, this award is for you. And I really have to say, without being sentimental, that it's a great honor to be a part of the soundtrack of your life every time I write a song and every time you get a chance to hear it." (excerpt from Jim Steinman's acceptance speech for the 1998 BMI Song of the Year)It was the last Saturday in May when I awoke to the patter of rain on my hotel room window. Sweeping aside the curtain, I looked past the W.E.B. Du Bois Library to see UMass Amherst's Old Chapel, a beautiful Romanesque Revival building constructed in the 1880s that has sadly fallen into disuse.
Allow me to provide a bit of background. When I found out that rock composer/producer Jim Steinman would be receiving an honorary doctorate from his alma mater Amherst College, I traveled north from Baltimore so I could be there for it. I invited along my friend Margaux, a wedding photographer in Boston and fellow Jim Steinman fan. She and I attended North Carolina State University together, where she wrote her undergraduate thesis on Emily Dickinson, a 19th-century poet from -- you guessed it -- Amherst.
I parked on the aptly named Dickinson Street and walked a mere quarter mile to meet her at the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street. We toured both the Homestead (Emily Dickinson's house) and the Evergreens (Austin and Susan Dickinson's house). As someone with an interest in antique books, I was intrigued by the museum's ongoing quest to restore the Dickinson library by replenishing its shelves with the exact same editions of books owned by the family.
After visiting Emily's grave in West Cemetery, we popped into Wheatberry Cafe, which serves fare made from local "farm fresh" ingredients, for lunch. When I discovered that the girl behind the counter shared my love for the word "zarf," I knew we had chosen the right spot. I opted for the "Rooster" plate -- organic eggs, sourdough toast, and homemade sausage. Their sausage recipe is truly unique; my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!
Then it was time to make our way over to Amherst College's Stirn Auditorium. I think we only had to stop for directions twice, so I'll chalk that up as a win. The sign outside listed the afternoon's speeches to be delivered by Barry Scheck and Jim Steinman, respectively titled "When Hope and History Rhyme" and "revolution... rock... the doors... jumping jack flash... nietzsche... mayor daley’s armpit... and a 3 Second Ad Lib At Amherst That Changed My Life." I'll let that sink in for a moment. Okay, moving on.
We arrived just in time to get a seat up front for the speech by Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project. He spoke about civil rights and the criminal justice system.
The subject matter was fascinating, but I couldn't help squirming in my chair as 3:00 PM inched ever closer. I had come to see Jim Steinman. This was the moment I'd been waiting for.
I went into the hallway to get a drink of water and ran into Jacqueline Dillon, webmaster of Jim's website. We'd never met before but thanks to the power of the Internet we recognized each other immediately. "Hey Ben," she said. "Did you say hi to Jim?" She gestured to a man sitting in the corner behind the door. As Jim and I shook hands, Jacqueline introduced me as "the one who got the tapes from the library." (For context, see my previous blog post about how I discovered some of Jim's long-lost demo tapes.) But Jim had also already recognized me, saying, "I saw your post on Facebook." Someone standing nearby asked me if I was a student at Amherst. I said no but Jim chimed in youthfully, "I'm a student here!" I told Jim I was looking forward to his speech. He gave me a funny look and replied, "I don't even know what I'm going to say!"
Jim began his speech by explaining that its impressive title was taken from an article he wrote for the Amherst Student newspaper in 1968. Copies of the article were passed around the room.
The bulk of Jim's speech revolved around his senior year independent study project, a musical play called The Dream Engine which he wrote and starred in. His words were rife with charm, humility, and humor.
A pleasant surprise occurred when Jim invited Barry Keating, who directed and narrated The Dream Engine, up to the stage to re-create the play's opening monologue, 44 years after he first performed it.
"Ketchup or blood? We pour one on our meat to make our meals more colorful, one on our flesh to make our wars more colorful, to make our slaughter more colorful for the movies, and yes we do have colorful movies, yes! Do you like movies? I find them immeasurably more entertaining than the theater, don't you?"
Jim then answered questions from the audience on subjects ranging from Meat Loaf to spaghetti. His final words referred back to his 1968 student newspaper article: "I didn't know who I was until I wrote that article."
You can listen to a recording of the event here on the Amherst website.
After the speech, Margaux and I went up to the stage. We asked for photos and autographs, and Jim obliged graciously. I had brought CDs to get signed, but I got him to sign his newspaper article instead. He told us he was proud of the graphics he'd put together for it, in an era before computers.
I also had my picture taken with Jacqueline.
Jacqueline introduced us to Steven Rinkoff, who has worked with Jim as a co-producer, engineer, and mixer since 1986. We chatted about the aforementioned demo tapes I'd rescued, and Jim's theatrical work-in-progress Nutz. I had my picture taken with him, too, but for some reason he asked me not to post it.
Next we went over to talk to Barry Keating. He explained that he didn't have to rehearse the monologue very much since he still remembered it well. He also pointed out that one of the other honored guests receiving a doctorate that weekend, National Cancer Institute researcher Robert Yarchoan, was actually one of the actors in The Dream Engine!
After saying our final good-byes and thank-yous to Jim, Margaux and I adjourned to the Fresh Side Eatery on Pleasant Street for Asian cuisine before heading to Boston for more Memorial Day adventures.
So that's the story of how I met the man who wrote the soundtrack of my life, not to mention millions of others. Thanks again Jim!
The kid in