“Tops For Bottoms,” and Why the Middle Matters Most

My late grandfather once owned a plumbing business. During that time, he had promotional plastic key chains made up that were molded to look like toilet seats. Along with his business name and contact information, each toilet seat proclaimed his business was “Tops for Bottoms.”

I still think that’s funny. And I got thinking of it again the other day, when I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, where references to the “top” and the “bottom” both came up.

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During the program, the two hosts were discussing the potential merits, or drawbacks, of taking on a professional role of significant leadership and heavy responsibility, and why anyone would want such a job. Offered as a consideration against it, one of the hosts quipped, “It’s lonely at the top.”

Almost immediately, the other responded with, “Yeah, but it’s a long way up from the bottom.”

Tops and Bottoms.

My conclusion? Both are somewhat correct, but it’s the thought of an existence of a top and bottom at all that serves an example of how, in much of North American culture at least (and in my opinion), we’ve got it all wrong. We want to slap labels on everything, including ourselves, so as to define our lives as one thing or the other. We are constantly comparing ourselves to, and hinging our contentment on, how we stack up versus other people. We view these out-of-context comparisons as barometers of success or failure, allowing us to gauge how close we are to reaching the “top,” and how far we’d need to fall to hit “bottom.”

All too often, when we do finally hit the heights to which we’d originally aspired, be it a new job or a new car or a fancy house or even entering into a relationship, we end up disappointed and deflated after but a short while.

Lonely at the top.business-growth-1-1426746-m

I have been in leadership roles. And it can be lonely, if you allow it to be. But even when you’re at the “top” of your specific set of criteria, as an achievement-oriented person, you’re also keenly aware that there are many others well above you yet. And so, though you may indeed feel as if you’re at the top, you may feel lonely because of it and burdened from the emotional weight you bear. You may also be exhausted by the thought of how far you’ve yet to go to reach the heights – or acquire the things – achieved by so  many others.

I now realize that I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking, “If this, then that” will transpire and make everything better once it’s occurred (whatever “this” or “that” happen to be). After a few decades, I finally began to understand that, no matter where I was or what I’d achieved, I was always there, with all my evolving thoughts, feelings and emotions with me. There was no magic answer. There is no “there.”

I realized there was no such thing as “the top.” And yet, I still chase after it.

Conversely, I’ve been down, at home and at work, as just about anyone else has at one point or another. And when you feel you’ve hit “bottom,” it can feel overwhelming to work your way back up, so much so that you rarely stop to ask, “Back up to what?” And, “What for?” It could be, and likely is, that you’re just fine exactly as you are.

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What really is the “bottom” anyway? It could be ten different things to ten different people. And even when I reached what I would consider the furthest depths of my own personal cellar, I still had a safe place to stay, family and friends who loved me, food to eat and time to reflect.

Not so bad. In fact, it was appealingly simple. And yet I’m scared to go back to it.

Ironically, I’ve always found what I consider to be “bottom” to be a catalyst for new beginnings and new learning. It’s ironic because I’ve often had the exact same – initially hollow and empty – feeling each time I’ve reached “the top” (i.e., fulfilled a goal or some kind of achievement).

Thinking back again on my grandpa, he worked hard, loved his family, and by just about anyone’s standards of measuring the “top” or “bottom, ” would likely have fallen somewhere in the middle. And yet, I don’t think he took any regrets with him when his time came. As evidenced by his clever key chains, he knew how to do his work and live his life and have fun at both. We should all do as well.

It may be lonely at the top.  It very well could be a long way up from the bottom. The truth is, you’re likely not contending with either. You are where you are. And that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be. May as well enjoy it.

After all, as grandpa’s old “Tops for Bottoms” toilet key chain reminds us, whether you think you’re at the top or on the bottom, or en route one way or the other, we’re all still going to end up getting flushed.

 

 

 

New Song, “Broken Breath,” To Help Southwestern Ontario Lung Association

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it puts me in the path of some wonderful organizations. I was thrilled when my journey took me back into the office of the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association about three years ago. I’ve been working with them ever since, in my capacity as a marketing consultant at Bell Media Radio in London. However this project transcends those day-to-day necessities.

First, a little background:

I’m a lifelong asthmatic, though you’d hardly know it to see me now. Treatment has come a long way in forty years, and I’ve also outgrown many of the daily symptoms (though allergies and other irritations still chase me at every turn, but that’s another story). When I was a child, I was very sick with asthma. I was in and out of the hospital and doctor’s office on what seemed like a regular basis. A big turning point in my life was when I was sent to a facility in Toronto that was better equipped to monitor and treat asthmatic children. I lived there, weekends excluded, for three months when I was seven years old.

Here I am at 7 years old, with my Dad. This is the only photo I still have that I know was taken at what we called "The Centre" - the hospital in Toronto.

Here I am at 7 years old, with my Dad. This is the only photo I still have that I know was taken at what we called “The Centre” – the hospital in Toronto.

At that time, my family was very involved with the Lung Association, as my parents and family doctor would do anything they could to gain access to any resources that might assist them in helping me. I’ve never forgotten that, and whenever I see the Lung Association’s red cross logo, I automatically think of others with asthma and other breathing problems.

Much later in life, after the worst of my asthmatic days seemed to be behind me, I wrote a song called “Broken Breath,” which is essentially sung from the perspective of a child with asthma who can’t breathe, doesn’t understand why, and wishes for something – anything – to help. The song also touches on the subject of my parents having no choice, for the sake of my own health, but to “send me away” (to that hospital in Toronto).

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I remember when I wrote the song. It’s dated 1997. I was going through a phase of listening almost exclusively to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, and wanted to have a track of my own that fit the mold of many of their acoustic, introspective songs that tugged at the heart. To be more direct, I wanted to write a song somewhat like Springsteen’s “Shut Out the Light” (originally a B-Side from the “Born in the USA” era), which is the story of a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by his experiences well after returning home, just looking for comfort, calls for his mother to “Throw your arms around me in the cold, dark night. Hey now, Mama, don’t shut out the lights.”

“Broken Breath,” obviously, doesn’t sound much like Springsteen’s song. But from an emotional and narrative standpoint, I feel I succeeded in capturing something similar. I’ve always been proud of the song.

A couple of weeks ago, I played “Broken Breath” for my two curious sons, who also happen to be my biggest supporters. It left Eddie, my 11-year-old, in tears. His reaction was a compliment in a roundabout sort of way, although I was sorry to see him react that way. He said he was sorry he got upset, but that he thought the song was touching and that he didn’t know I’d been through any of the things I sang about. His reaction told me that the song may indeed be able to kick open some doors for some people to have a better understanding of the kind of work the Lung Association actually does.

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Eddie (at left) & Jaden: My “Road crew,” sounding boards, inspiration and joy.

So here’s the plan as it stands: my friends at the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association have asked me if I would perform / MC as part of their “First Noel Preview Night” for their annual “Festival of Trees” event, Tuesday, November 25th from 6pm to 9pm at the Covent Garden Market here in London, Ontario. They would like me to debut “Broken Breath” that night, so I’ll do that along with, perhaps, a couple of other songs. And I’ll happily MC and help out however else I can that night.

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Whether we record or videotape the song that evening is still unclear. And plans to make a studio-quality version of the song are also very much up in the air, depending on time and cost. Ultimately, it would be great for the Lung Association to be able to use the song however they like in an effort to create more understanding and support for all they do.

I’m also trying to recruit a friend or two to come along with me to make the night more special on November 25th and give the performance more impact, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m happy to do it on my own, as the song was written for just acoustic guitar and one voice. That said, I tweaked the lyrics and melody just a bit to create a bit of a sing-along element to it toward the end of the song, so it would be great to have company that night! We’ll see.

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For now, it would be wonderful for you to consider attending the “Festival of Trees” at some point this holiday season (it’s free, and it’s a great display that kids will love). And if you’re so inclined to assist the Lung Association, perhaps consider their Christmas Seals program or at least keep them in your thoughts or spread the word.

I well remember the Lung Association’s phrase, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

It’s true. I know what it’s like.

Maybe I can help.

The Courage to Get Started, and How My Own Words Have Come Back to Inspire Me

I’ve often heard it said that the greatest thing you can do with any goal or quest in mind is simply to begin. Just having the courage to start is a grand achievement. A willingness to try means being open to the possibility of failure, and/or being available to the responsibility success may bring. Each is scary in its own right.

Once started, the next great challenge in moving forward can be managing the unique mix of knowing when to roll up your sleeves to do the work and when to take your hands off the wheel so that the energy created by your efforts can take you where you need to go (as opposed to where you initially think you need to go). Just as it takes a lot of courage to begin, it requires a lot of guts to be able to get out of your own way once you’re going. The good news is that, once you’ve done those two things, the journey can be very rewarding.

I guess I'd like to be a better man  I guess I'd like to feel less afraid  I guess I'll take a breath whenever I can  I'm often feeling just a little out-weighed (Song: “One More Run,” 2000)

I guess I’d like to be a better man
I guess I’d like to feel less afraid
I guess I’ll take a breath whenever I can
I’m often feeling just a little out-weighed
(Song: “One More Run,” 2000)

A few months ago, I wrote an article about my re-introduction to the world of social media, and Twitter in particular (you can read it, HERE). At that time, my intention was to start activating various online platforms (including this site, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn), to represent the many facets of what I do for a living and for my own enjoyment. With Twitter, I began by trying to share a variety of content, representing my marketing and business interests, while also referencing material I’ve read that’s inspired me along the way. And from time to time, I would also share a lyric line or two from songs I’d written. I kept at that for several weeks and then just watched for responses.

Initially, the song lyrics I would share were only from tracks that have been recorded and are available online or on CD. But that’s a pretty limited representation of what I’ve written over the years. And so, when I started to run out of “new” material to post, I started combing through volumes of older lyrics that have never been recorded. When I did that, something interesting began to happen.

A good guess, or destiny?  The right place or ...  The wrong dream? (Song: “Right Place, Wrong Dream,” 2002)

A good guess, or destiny?
The right place or …
The wrong dream?
(Song: “Right Place, Wrong Dream,” 2002)

After I’d posted a few of my own unpublished lyrics, I began to receive responses from people online. It was somewhat strange at first to see people marking something I’d written – but never recorded – as “favourites” or “re-tweeting” them out to their followers. People began to send me messages asking if I had written the things I was sharing.

Never did I imagine I’d ever gain anything back from some of the songs in that way. I had always just assumed that a song had to be “finished” and recorded in order to be worthy of sharing. And these aren’t even really songs I’ve been posting. They’re just individual lines that, for one reason or another, have stood out to me as worth sharing. But, after having the initial courage to get started, and the wisdom to let the process become what it wanted to, I’ve found it incredibly rewarding.

Twitter Feed

Another thing that this process has given me is a growing catalogue and timeline of my own thoughts. After I’d posted lyrics for a few months, I began to scroll back through my own Twitter feed, feeling very much gratified at what I was seeing. Previously, all these thoughts and lyric lines have existed only either in my head or in binders squirreled away at home. Now, many of these observations are available to anyone who would like to see them, and it’s been rewarding to see some people respond in a positive fashion. It’s been equally (if not more so) gratifying to revisit my own words and reinterpret them with the perspective I’ve now attained.

Meantime, a similar approach has not yet gained any real traction on Facebook, and the full, recorded songs that are published on YouTube have not seen much traffic. Nor, however, have I given them much promotion, but I’m admittedly surprised to find Twitter the most rewarding of any of the other digital places where I’ve invested my time so far.

Let's sail up to Complacency and cannonball its port (Song: “A Pirate’s Life,” 2003)

Let’s sail up to Complacency and cannonball its port
(Song: “A Pirate’s Life,” 2003)

So where do we go from here? I’m not entirely sure.  But at least I got started, and am now enjoying the journey.

I also want to say thank you to all the very kind people I’ve heard from on Twitter. The feedback has been a lovely thing, and has stoked the fire for me to want to explore the possibilities of my own creativity even more.

Poll: Deja Vu or Bilge Rat Blues?

I’d love your feedback, please.

The new EP, released in February 2014

The new EP, released in February 2014

For months, I’ve been thinking of creating some sort of music video for the songs “Deja Vu” or “Bilge Rat Blues” from this year’s “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man” EP. Though either one would be very much homemade,  I think it would be a lot of fun to work on, particularly if I could get my kids involved.

My question is, Which one to try first? (Note: you can listen to the tracks, below)

Thanks for voting!

Haven’t heard the tracks? Here they are.

Deja Vu:

Bilge Rat Blues:

Friends and Mentors, Vol. 3: Dan Balch (aka “Dan the Mortgage Man”)

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Dan Balch.

DanTheMortgageManBalchA man of family and faith, Dan has been a mortgage broker for eighteen years. He cheerily refers to himself as “Dan the Mortgage Man.” One visit to his website (www.bankhostage.com) and you’ll see that Dan Balch is a person who both knows his stuff and has fun while helping people with one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

Though his expertise as a mortgage planner goes back almost two decades, Dan has enjoyed many unique experiences in both business and in life that have helped shape him into the very likable and interesting person he is today. From real estate to marine biology and reptile road shows to helping countless people have the home and lifestyle of their dreams, Dan has met each challenge with a quick smile and an open heart.

Family has always come first for Dan. He and his wife, Gail, have been happily married for over thirty years. In that time, they’ve touched the lives of many young people, taking in and caring for pregnant teens in support of the Crisis Pregnancy Center. They have also built a happy family that includes six children and six grand children.

When you meet with Dan, it becomes quickly apparent that he brings the same level of care and compassion to his clients that he has applied to every other area of his life.

Here is my conversation with Dan Balch:

Kevin: Listening to you talk about family makes me feel like asking you what it was like for you when you were a kid? Did you have siblings?

Dan: Oh, gee whiz. Well, I have an older brother and younger sister. Two parents. My father just passed away about two years ago, but up to that point, great family. It was great growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we spent time together. I only have great memories of growing up. That’s probably why I am the way I am. I’m a pretty easy going guy. My father was a jokester. I got my sense of humour from him.

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Kevin: You mentioned not having a lot of money but still having a great time and great recollections of that time.

Dan: The problem is that we think that money solves our problems. We think that money gives us things that we need. And on a temporal basis, sure. It gives you food, it gives you other things. But it doesn’t give you the love. It doesn’t give you the satisfaction or the emotional things that a good family does. We get so caught up with trying to make money, which fuels our ego and a lot of other things, but really with the kids, instead of buying all these electronics and things, they really just want to spend time with you. They want to be able to ask you any question. They want you at home.

Kevin: You used the word ‘ego.’ Ego often is screaming at you, but that’s maybe not the voice you want to be listening to as much.

Dan: I think you’re more successful when you’re always looking outward, not inward. Meaning, you’re always trying to help other people, rather than help yourself. I think you get more out of helping people than with anything you can do for yourself, by buying stuff or doing stuff.

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The Balch Family

Kevin: There is the word ‘help,’ and there is another word you’ve been very specific about: the word ‘care.’ Talk about your interpretation of what care means, as opposed to – or in addition to – ‘help.’

Dan: Some people I can’t help, but I can care for them. I can give them good sound advice. I can put them on the road to success. So, in our case, fixing their credit or something like that. Just looking after them and trying to put their best interests before my own. It’s the old saying of, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Care is really more than just helping. It’s looking after people. It’s wanting to see them successful and wanting to see them do well also and get good information so they can make their own decisions.

Kevin: You also talked about the kind of work that you and I do, where if you don’t get deals, you don’t get paid. I’ve long felt that everybody should have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and that it would really change your perspective on a lot of things, but that’s another conversation entirely.

Dan: (laughs) Oh, yeah.

Kevin: By that thought, you almost feel like you should be beating the bushes even harder. But it goes back to caring about people and just trusting that the results will come.

Dan: Most salespeople are transactional. They’re thinking, “I need to do a transaction,” which is usually a sale. I think there’s more to it. We’re only on this earth one time around. So if you can help someone or care for someone or put them on a different path that’s better, I think you’re far better off and they’re far better off than worrying about that one sale that may or may not happen. It’s a better way to live.

I feel much better if I talk to someone and put them on a path to getting their credit fixed so that in six months instead of renting, they can own their own house. Now, do they come back to me? A lot of them do. Some don’t. But I know inside that I’ve helped these people. And that’s good. That’s what life’s about.

Kevin: I’m going to change topics on you. I didn’t know you’d gone to school for marine biology. What led you to that (marine biology) and then away from it?

Dan: To be honest with you, it was just kind of cool.

Kevin: You’re just like George Costanza (from the TV show “Seinfeld”): “You know I always wanted to be a Marine Biologist!”

Dan: (Laughing) Yeah. I always loved the water and it sounded like a fun thing to do. But when I graduated, there just weren’t very many jobs and because I’m a home guy and love being around my parents and my kids, I didn’t really want to move away from everybody.

The Balch Grandkids

The Balch Grandkids

Kevin: Then what happened?

Dan: I got married right out of university (U of Guelph) and needed a job. So I started actually selling real estate. I enjoyed it but I was so young. I think I was one of the youngest guys on the board at the time. I did it for about four years. I didn’t like being on call 24-7, especially with a young family. It just didn’t work.

Well, we had always had pet stores, so I started into pet stores for a number of years. I owned a traveling reptile show for about ten years and did shows all across Canada with that. We went on the road and I brought the kids along. We spent the summers together.

And then, actually a client of mine had a sick tortoise. He knew I was in the real estate business back in the day and said, “I’m looking for new mortgage brokers.” I told him I didn’t want to be a mortgage broker, and that I couldn’t charge fees to people for doing that. And he said, “It’s just changed. Now we get a finder’s fee from the mortgage company, so we work hard for the client and somebody else pays us.” And I thought, “That sounds good.” But again, I still liked what I was doing.

But then, we went away on holidays and we were down in Florida for about a month. When we came back, we’d had a break-in at our house. They stole everything, left my doors wide open and all my animals that I had from the reptile show froze. So there I was with no money. I used up all my credit on my holiday.

Well, my client happened to call me and said, “My tortoise is sick.” And I said, “Ask me to come work for you again,” and he said, “Well, come work for me!” And I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” And I started working for him, and that was about 18 years ago.

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Kevin: From what you’ve described, pretty much since university, it doesn’t sound as if you’ve ever had a straight-ahead, salaried 9-to-5 type gig?

Dan: Never. It’s not in my DNA to work for someone. I think I have to be my own boss.

Kevin: Not everybody’s wired to be able to deal with that, because they need that feeling of safety, which in itself I think is a little bit of a fallacy.

Dan: It is.

Kevin: I want to talk a little bit more specifically about what you’re doing, and that aspect of helping people and caring for people because, other than what they do with their family, you’re dealing with what I think is the most impactful thing in their lives. I’ve got to feel that there’s a very high level of trust, because it’s one of the most important decisions people are ever going to make.

Dan: I’ve had people where I’ve gone through everything with them, and I ask, “Do you have any questions?” They say, “Well, no.”

Well then, I’ve done my job. Or I’ve had someone say, “Isn’t there something else I’m supposed to do here?” And I’ll say, “Nope. I’ve taken care of everything.” That’s the way it should be. It should be, “I’ve taught you everything you need to know. You’ve made an informed decision and we’re going to go on from here.”

That’s going back to what we talked about earlier: being transactional. I think that’s where I differ, though I know a lot of other brokers are that way too. I can’t say that it’s just me. But I think that with the banks, they are very transactional and they don’t say, “We want to be your bank for your whole life” or “We want to look after you, we want to take care of you.” Well, no. They make billions of dollars in profit because they’re charging you all kinds of money.

I’ve got clients that I dealt with 18 years ago that I’m still dealing with. A lot of them now have paid off their mortgages and their kids are getting mortgages from me because they know and trust me. And that’s who you want to deal with. You want to deal with someone you know and trust and you have a connection with.

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Kevin: I know that, for me as I get older and my kids get older, I look for those opportunities. I become more patient. There have been times in my life when I was younger when I almost wouldn’t want to engage in a high level conversation with an expert in their field like you, because I wouldn’t want to hear what I knew I needed to hear. I just wanted to get on with it and be able to check that thing off my list. But now, I want to be able to know. And if there’s an issue, I want to be able to call, say, Dan.

Dan: Well, look at Home Hardware. Why is Home Hardware still around? I mean, their prices aren’t cheaper than Home Depot or Rona or Lowe’s or whatever. They’re actually more money. But they have that service. They have that old time kind of, “Come in and we’ll look after you and we’ll figure that problem out together” type of thing.

Some of these other small shops that are still around … why are they still around? Well, they’re still around because they’ve gone back to, “Let’s have a relationship here, so you can call me up. I’ll give you some good information.” Now, what’s that worth? Well that’s the problem. Some people think it’s not worth anything and that’s why they’ll get a mortgage off the internet because it’s the lowest rate. The only quantitative thing they can look at is, “Who’s got the best rate?” Well, who has the best pre-payment privileges? Who has the best penalties to get out of this mortgage? Am I locked in? You’ve got to know.

You have to pick up that phone and you have to call a professional.

Kevin: And you’re going to be there. It’s a face. It’s a name. It’s a relationship. It’s not just a transaction and then, “See you later.”

Dan: That’s right

Kevin: There is real peace of mind with that.

Dan: You don’t have to know everything in life. You can’t possibly. But you have to have good people around you that do. So in this case we’ll put the client as the center of the spoke. I’m just one part. I’m their mortgage expert.

Toes in the Twitter Pool. So Far … Not Bad

Turns out, there is more good stuff out there online than I thought.

I’m both ashamed and excited to admit that.

Shut Up and TweetAt the suggestion of one of my local radio clients, I recently purchased and read Phil Pallen’s book, “Shut Up and Tweet.” I enjoyed it and found it helpful. Step by step, I’ve been implementing much of what Pallen suggests, for just as I like to get my radio advertising clients thinking outside of their own heads, I appreciate someone showing me a way to get outside of mine, especially when it relates to an area with which I’ve little expertise. Thanks to Pallen’s book, I’ve learned a lot in a short time.

I started a Twitter account back in 2009 but had left it largely dormant for the last many years. About a month or so ago, I finally decided it was time to make a more concerted effort to build a presence through social media, both for my own sake and so I would have more real-world experience to share with my other clients, as I get asked about Social Media a lot.

For me, it’s crawl, walk, run. But so far, so good.

Twitter profile
One of the reasons I’d stayed away from Twitter specifically was my perception that I’d be overwhelmed and discouraged by the sea of anonymous negativity I see from people on popular subjects. I want no part of that, and though I’m sure some share of it will come my way as my participation expands and grows, it’s clear to me that I had underestimated how many positive thoughts and helpful resources can be accessed online if one is only willing to look. In Pallen’s book, he makes a pretty solid case for using social media as a means of building your network and, as a result, expanding your potential for future business. It’s also a great way to find and meet new people who are sharing great experiences and doing good things.

So in addition to recommending Phil Pallen’s “Shut Up and Tweet” to anyone interested in exploring Twitter and brand marketing, I thought I’d share some other helpful things I’ve found just by implementing his recommended processes. I wasn’t expecting to find so much so fast, but I’m glad I have.

Here’s a summary from the last week:

“5 Ways to Let Go of Perfectionism and Still Excel at Anything”

I’ve long struggled with just letting go and allowing “good enough” to be “good enough.” I’m proud of the attention I pay to detail but can be honest in that I now recognize that I’ve allowed it to limit me at times, too. This article spoke to me quite clearly. A fine effort by the good folks at Huffington Post.

“Ray Bradbury on Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection”
By Maria Popova

“The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”

We’re all prone to thinking others have it easier, and that we should be further along than we are at the present moment. I took comfort in these thoughts from the legendary Bradbury, thanks to Maria Popova, and the good folks at BrainPickings.org.

“10 Tactics to Better Work-Life Balance” via Fizzle

Sadly (but thankfully), it took a divorce for me to understand and implement many of the things in this terrific article. For me, cliché as it may sound, nothing in business is anywhere near as enticing for me as simply being Dad to my two sons. More work can come later, when they’re older and so am I. If I were to die today, I’d have no regrets at all about how I’d prioritized my time with my kids first. There is no job title that, for me, can trump being “Dad.” But that’s just me.

This is a great article by the folks at Fizzle.co

“8 Profound Life Lessons I Learned from a Year of Soul-Searching”
by Freeman LaFleur

Now 40 years of age, I’ve been searching my soul for many, many years. I’m still learning, and likely will always be. Point number two in this great article by Freeman LaFleur resonates with me particularly. What about you?

These are just some of the great pieces I’ve come across in the early going of looking for helpful, positive people with something valuable to share. I look forward to discovering more, and if you have suggestions of your own, please feel welcome to pass them along in the Comments section below.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man!

Four years ago today I achieved a goal I’d held for at least a decade: to complete and release a full-length CD of my own music. It was June 26, 2010, when “No Schedule Man” was finally released with a concert at the London Music Club here in London, Ontario. Much has happened since then. And looking back, I feel proud of myself for seeing the goal through to completion, and I’m glad I have those songs recorded in some form.

At the CD Release show

At the CD Release show

It took me almost a year and a half to finish the project (I documented the whole process with a weekly journal. All the entries can be found HERE). At the time, I was not enjoying the accomplishment as much as I’d been hoping to, as I was truly hurting with sciatic nerve pain caused by herniated discs in my lower back (which actually caused a two-week delay in releasing the CD). In fact, just one week after the CD release show, I decided to cancel the rest of the appearances I had booked for that summer because I was just in too much pain and wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Partly because of that, I never really felt those songs got the push they deserved.

Shortly afterwards, many significant life changes took place, including a divorce, change of address and change in career, all of which happened pretty much at the same time. In the face of that, playing the songs from “No Schedule Man” quickly fell down the list of priorities.

CD Artwork in development

CD Artwork in development

For the better part of two years after all that, I didn’t even really look at my guitar, let alone go anywhere and play. My mind was only on being with my two boys, keeping myself healthy and learning what I needed to learn from the life changes that had taken place. To that end, I feel grateful for the lessons I’m not sure I could have learned any other way. But there was always a part of me that felt bad about watching “No Schedule Man” sit and collect dust.

Eventually, the urge to start creating and sharing music bubbled back up. But it was different this time. There was much more patience, and even hesitation, to move forward. As I’ve written and talked about before, it was really my oldest son, Eddie, who nudged me to start working on music again, and so last summer I recorded a handful of new songs that became the acoustic EP, “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man.” In the process of getting ready to release that collection, I went back and started rehearsing some of the songs from the original “No Schedule Man” CD again and thought, quite honestly, that there were some really good songs just sitting and waiting for me to pay them some mind again.

The new EP, released in February 2014

The new EP, released in February 2014

Now that “Solo” has also been released, my guitar is mostly quiet again, at least for now. I’m still not sure where all this fits in the scheme of a guy who makes his living as a Marketing Consultant and Radio Account Executive. But when I burden myself with trying too hard to make sense of it all, I think back to the lyrics of the “No Schedule Man” title track and remember that “No plan is all part of the plan.”

The idea of control is really a fallacy. Change is inevitable, and this present moment is truly all we have. So I strive to be more like the character I created with “No Schedule Man,” to the extent where I’ve since adopted it as a kind of “brand” for most of the things I do, and hope to be.

No Schedule Man, the character, doesn’t aim to have. He simply wants to be.

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

One day, I’ll give those songs the attention I always felt they deserved. In the meantime, I can look back and feel proud that they even exist in the first place, and feel emboldened about my ability to navigate through whatever changes and challenges may come from here. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and celebrate your own creativity as well, in whatever form that may be. I did, and I’m glad I did.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man. I’m better for knowing you and am curious to see where we set sail next.

Bulmer on Business, Vol. 3: Fairness, Flow & Fun (Life Lessons From an 8-Year-Old)

One of my favourite things to do is to watch my youngest son, Jaden, play hockey. In fact, I enjoy watching him do just about anything, but I’ll use hockey as the example for now. I recently realized that, in watching him play, I was also getting a great lesson in how I could better run my business, and my life.

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Believe it or not, Jaden is almost always smiling like this. His attitude is, Why wouldn’t he be?

Jaden, who is just turning 8, has a remarkable gift for going with the flow. He almost always seems to be happy in the present moment and, more often than not, he gets great results. Or at least, he seems to be consistently satisfied with the results he gets. But this isn’t about the results. It’s about how he gets them.

Jaden’s pretty good at hockey (or, as is currently the case, indoor ball hockey). But I sometimes wonder: Is he good at it because he loves it, or does he love it because he’s really good at it?

Consider that question for moment, as it relates to your business, or even your life in general.

Meantime, here are some of the things I’ve noticed from watching Jaden that got me thinking about how I might better conduct my own day-to-day work life:

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With or without ice, JJB just loves to be at the rink. And he approaches just about everything else the same way.

He seems to take the ups and downs almost effortlessly. He enjoys, but does not boast over, his victories. He shrugs off losses as if they’re inconsequential, other than considering what he might be able to do differently next time. It’s as if he just doesn’t see any value in expending energy or thought on anything other than something positive. What a concept.

It’s as though he inherently understands that he’s going to win some and he’s going to lose some, so he may as well enjoy the experience of actually playing the game, regardless of the result.

Jaden encourages others and celebrates their successes as if they were his own. He observes his peers and competitors who are more skilled than he is and he picks up their good habits almost as if by osmosis. And yet, he never beats himself up for not being as strong a skater or stickhandler as someone else. He’ll just notice what the others are doing, he’ll work on it when he feels like it and the new skill will come along when it’s ready to. Or not. He seems content with who he is either way. He just learns through a natural sense of curiosity and always seems to be happily moving forward.

 

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Jaden (no. 3) loves his teammates. He learns from them, as well as from his competitors. Pretty good recipe.

He always tries his best but does not become so competitive that it robs him of the joy of playing the game. Sometimes, he and I will be watching others play, and he’ll see someone become very upset, throw a tantrum or use some other kind of antics. When that happens, he’ll look at me, chuckle and shrug his shoulders, as if to suggest, “Why play if you’re not going to enjoy it? Why get so worked up?”

He has no aspirations of being a super competitive-level player, nor do I wish that for him. Life is going to place plenty of expectations on him as the years go by, so I see no need to start turning the screws on him now. But, perhaps, he’ll find that if the only expectations he places on himself are to show up, do his best and have fun doing it, things will almost always work out over time and life will take him wherever he needs to go. In fact, it seems he already understands this concept and is able to employ it more consistently than I do.

In business, as any entrepreneur can attest, we compete every day. We set goals, we train, we coach, and we hope to move forward. We have all known times when everything is flowing well, confidence is high and optimism reigns. And we each have experienced the intense frustration of wondering what went wrong as our competitors seem to be thriving while we struggle and flail about.

Do we do well because we like what we’re doing, or do we like what we’re doing only because we’re doing well?

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Lessons from an 8-year-old: Life is supposed to be fun. Smile. Play. Repeat.

Storms come and pass. Wins and losses will take their turns. Either way, we’re committed to play the game. We may as well compete with a sense of fairness, fun and flow.

That’s why I want to be more like my son when I grow up. He already seems to have this figured out. If I can too, I believe my business – and my life – will be better because of it.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 2: Mark Malerba of Metropolitan Maintenance

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Mark Malerba.

Mark Malerba

A proud father of two children (Luca, 4 and Mila, 2) and loving husband to his wife of almost 8 years (Caterina), Mark was recognized as one of London’s “Top 20 under 40 (years of age) Emerging Leaders” just last year. Mark is also Vice President of Metropolitan Maintenance, a London, Ontario-based and family-owned janitorial service provider that has been in business since his parents, Mike and Joanne, started the company in 1980.

Over the course of more than three decades, Metropolitan Maintenance has earned a well-deserved reputation of doing business consistently with integrity and respect. As such, the company has been recognized with several awards in recent years, including the Consumer Choice Award for Janitorial Service; Best of London award for Best Cleaning Service; London Chamber of Commerce’s London Quality Award; the Better Business Bureau’s Business Integrity Award; and the Family Enterprise of the Year, awarded by the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, among others.

Although he did not originally aspire to be a part of the family business, when you talk to Mark, you quickly get the sense that he has a deep and genuine respect for his parents and the legacy they’ve built, and is extremely proud to be a part of it now. Like most of us, Mark took a somewhat indirect path to his current place, but has now found a role that suits him and also benefits those around him.

While he is rightfully proud of the company’s accomplishments, Mark does not seem to be defined by them. Rather, he has always struck me as a very humble and genuine person who is sincerely grateful for the effort of everyone that makes a contribution into making Metropolitan Maintenance the great company that it is.

Here is my conversation with Mark Malerba:

Kevin: What were your recollections of your parents, back when they started this business, and what was your perception of all of that?

Mark: I remember when I was young even going to a specific site with my Dad. I don’t know why this one sticks in my head but it was a printing shop. He would clean it on the weekends and I would go with him, just because I was fascinated by all the supplies. I just loved being in that kind of environment. And so he’d take me. I wouldn’t do any cleaning, but I would just be there and just kind of watch him and spend time there.

The one thing that both my parents did was, as I was starting to grow up, I was involved in soccer and basketball and hockey and I can never remember them ever missing a game. And we traveled quite a bit, especially for soccer, all over Ontario. We even went to Italy one year and my Dad came for two weeks during March Break. So as busy as they always were, they always made time.

Kevin: What did your Dad do prior to starting this company, and how did Metropolitan Maintenance even come to be?

Mark: He came from Italy, I believe when he was 19. And he didn’t speak any English or anything. He did have some family here that helped him get started. I know he mentioned he worked for a little while at the hospital as a patient porter. But he always felt like he could do more. So he put an ad in the paper for himself, basically just advertising himself, that he wanted to do more and that he had the skills and desire to basically run a business.

One of the calls he got was from the owner of a cleaning company. He had never run a cleaning company before. So he just basically figured it out as he went. He managed the company. He did the cleaning, he basically was doing all of it. And he ran it like it was his own business. And then the point came – I’m not sure when the transition happened of him leaving that business or that owner deciding to retire, but that’s when my Dad decided to go out on his own and start this business. My Mom told him he was crazy because there was a lot of risk involved and a lot of competition at that time too. But again, his whole thought process was, “I can do more, and I want to do more.” And he worked extremely hard to get it started.

Looking back, you wonder, ‘Would I be able to do that if I went to a country where English wasn’t the first language, or where I didn’t know anybody really, and was basically starting from scratch?’

Kevin: There’s a resourcefulness there that, in my personal feeling, we’re lacking as a culture in general.

Mark: I agree

Kevin: To think about it in the context of, ‘If I were to go to some other country, and learn how to speak the language and try to figure out how to start a business from scratch?’ When you think of it that way, it really is pretty astounding.

Mark: It is. That’s how I always looked at it, is, where would you even know how to begin?

Kevin: I’d like to talk about your journey into the family business.

Mark: I’ve always been involved with the family business, but it was really in 2005 – so it’s been 9 years – since I decided to really commit full time. Now I’m Vice President.

For the first few years, I really just managed business development. I did a lot of learning. And then, slowly, took what I had learned from Ivey (School of Business), and I had worked in consulting for a couple of years prior to coming back into the family business, so I took what I learned in those experiences and started implementing them here.

And it was definitely the best decision I ever made. It was a good mix. My father’s had the years of experience of being in this industry and running the business and I bring the formal tools that I’ve learned. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university and that kind of thing so that’s where we mesh well.

Kevin: To what extent is he still involved?

Mark: He’s the President and he’s still here every day. He enjoys quoting jobs, going to visiting clients. He doesn’t have any thoughts of retirement.

I think that, slowly, he’d maybe like to start taking some more time off, but he always says, “If I enjoy it and my health allows me to keep doing it, then I want to keep doing it.”

My wife always says we’re like the Brady Bunch here. We get along. And there’s no issue on my end that he stays as long as he wants.

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark's father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark’s father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

Kevin: Can you take me back to when you were younger, even before Ivey and all of that? What were your thoughts about maybe being a part of this business? What was going through your mind about what you wanted out of the work world and what you wanted your place to be in it?

Mark: I played a lot of sports so I think that a lot of kids that are into sports think that, at one time, maybe they want to be a professional athlete. But then you realize quickly that’s not going to happen.

In high school, at one point I was thinking about medicine. But then in Grade Eleven biology, we had to start dissecting things, and that didn’t go well (laughs).

So then, for the longest time, I did have an interest in law. I did speak to three lawyers whom I’d known for a while and trusted. All three of them suggested I not go into law. So I took that information for what it was and decided that if these were three people that are in the role, and that I trust, and that have the experience and basically are telling me that if they had to do it again they wouldn’t do it, that kind of pushed that one aside too.

But you start to realize that you have all these ideas as you’re growing up.

So growing up in a family business, you always have an interest in business because it’s always there. My parents always suggested or encouraged me to do something else and not to come into the family business because the last thing I think any second or third generation should be is pressured to go into the family business, because you’re not going to do well if you don’t want to be there.

That’s why, when I went through university, I still went for my business degree. At that point I still wasn’t sure what I would do, whether I would come here or interview for different positions all over the map. And then I decided to take the consulting position at Ivey because they had a consulting group. And that was a great decision because we got to work with different sized organizations: small, medium, profit, non-profit or whatever they may be, and you get to see what kinds of issues they may face and help them overcome them. So that’s what I talked about before, about taking some of that experience and applying it here. That was definitely a positive decision that I made was not coming right into the family business but doing something different.

And then you ultimately realize that you do want to do this. I don’t think anybody grows up thinking, “I want to run a cleaning company.” It’s back to that idea that it’s not the glamourous movie star job and all these things, but once you grow up with it, it’s kind of in your blood too. It’s in you, it’s a part of you and no matter what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what service or product or whatever you’re doing, if you do it with passion, then you’ll do it well. Whether you’re selling a widget, cleaning a floor, cutting a lawn or whatever it is, as long as you do it right and do it well and take care of the people that work for you, I think you’ll go a long way.

Kevin: So that brings us back to where I think we started. Rather than asking you where the passion comes from when it wasn’t something you grew up with a burning desire to do, the theme that runs through the whole thing to me seems to be one of family and partnership and integrity. To what extent is it fair to say that that’s maybe the link to the passion? There seems to be a sense of ownership and pride amongst everybody here.

questions_85475Mark: That’s exactly it because there are a lot of employees that are still with us that have been with us even from when my parents started. And in the cleaning business …

Kevin: In any business

Mark: Yeah

Kevin: It doesn’t happen anymore.

Mark: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And that’s because of the respect my parents earned from the staff, seeing them work as hard as they did. Seeing my Dad sell during the day and then cleaning at night. Actions speak louder than words, right?

Employees do not feel like they can’t pick up the phone and call one of us, whether it’s good or bad, it’s like any family: if you communicate well, then more often than not, you’re going to have positive results. And if you don’t communicate in business, you don’t know where you stand.

Kevin: In my experience, communication, even with the best of intentions, can still go wrong, or can be taken a different way. And so to create and foster that sense of family and ownership, what do you need to be doing as somebody that’s responsible for operating the business to interact with the rest of the team members and foster that environment?

Mark: There are daily meetings so that everyone knows what’s going on and everybody’s on the same page. The employees will either communicate a lot of the time with our supervisors and managers. Our management personnel will visit the sites to get feedback from the employees and to check on them and tell them they’re doing a good job. We even encourage the clients to communicate with our employees directly as well, whether it’s to tell them pay special attention to a specific boardroom that evening because of a special visit, or to say, ‘You know what? Thank you so much for everything you’ve been doing for us.’

We even find a lot of times that clients invite our staff to their luncheons or parties or give them a little something at Christmas just as a sign of appreciation. It kind of trickles down all the way through. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful too is because those front line employees that are the heart and soul and backbone of the company, they feel accountable and take ownership of what they do. They feel like we’re all in this together. This is one big family and if I do my part and they do their part – if everybody does their part, then we’re all better off.

To Visit the Metropolitan Maintenance website, please CLICK HERE

10 of The Most Influential Albums of My Life (So Far)

I recently was afforded the great pleasure of serving as Master of Ceremonies for a really neat event called “Rock for Dimes.” A key fundraising initiative for the March of Dimes Canada, the “Rock for Dimes” night featured a variety of rock bands and special guests, all coming together to help raise money and awareness for a great cause.

Grateful to meet Justin Hines, an incredible artist, at "Rock for Dimes."

Grateful to meet Justin Hines, an incredible artist, at “Rock for Dimes.”

As I took in each performance, I was struck by the variety of music that was played, and I noted what songs were covered and what other famous artists had been represented. I was interested to see what kind of songs these performers had so deep in their souls that they would be willing to dedicate so much time and effort into rehearsing and, ultimately, sharing them on stage.

I also wondered what it was that got each of the members of these bands to pick up an instrument in the first place? It was clear that they loved what they were doing, and that they were singing and playing as an extension of their spirit, rather than just a means to an end.

It was nice to watch, and it all got me thinking about what had inspired me musically. Once I started to really think about it, I was amazed at how many wonderful things in my life have come as a result of embracing and expanding upon the music I love. I had fun looking closer at which artists and albums had actually had the largest affect on me over the years.

Most of the truly “iconic” bands were a little before my time. While I appreciate them, I never had a love affair with the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Queen, the Who or other bands of that caliber. In that sense, I feel I was born a decade or two too late. I bet I’d have loved following along with groups like that.

Some of the big hit-makers of the 80’s, such as AC/DC and ZZ Top, are among my favourites. I still listen to their music and enjoy them from time to time. But they didn’t particularly influence me to do or try anything beyond just listening to their songs.

The albums listed here are not necessarily my “favourites,” or the ones I still listen to the most. But each of them will have made this list for having had an incredible impact, in one way or another, on my own creativity, curiosity, thirst for further knowledge and happiness in general. To have made this list, the album had to have had a considerable influence on me in one way or another.

I consider these the 10 most influential albums in my life (so far):

Here we go:

10. Volbeat - Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies

Volbeat_Outlaw GentlemenGranted, this one is very recent, so it may be a bit of a stretch to include it here. But I’ve no doubt that Volbeat’s “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies” will not only hold up over time, but will probably move even further up this list as the years go by.

A year ago right now, I had never heard of this band. I first encountered the track “Heaven Nor Hell” while listening online to an out-of-market rock station last summer. The song practically jumped out of the speakers at me. I’d not had that kind of exciting, “what the heck is that?” kind of experience in a long, long time.

I wrote down the name of the band, and looked them up online once I got home. For years, I’d hoped to find a current group that wrote heavy, solid riff-based rock but with really attractive melodies and insightful lyrics. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever find one. And so, when I did my online search, I was astounded to learn that Volbeat had been around a while, had already sold millions of records and had a very large and loyal following, particularly across Europe.

As my taste for Volbeat grew, I eventually got to “Outlaw Gentleman and Shady Ladies” and it resonated with me right away, from start to finish. I remember the first time I listened through it. I had my headphones on and was in the kitchen, preparing to make dinner. Just after the opening instrumental (“Let’s Shake Some Dust”) rattled to a close, the cold opening of “Pearl Hart” practically body-slammed me with an immediately likeable melody. I instantly giddy. That song is so infectious that it got into my bones straight away. I thought, “That was awesome, but the rest of the CD can’t possibly be this good.”

But it is.

After “Pearl Hart,” another stellar track came next. Then another. And another. And another.

I cannot pick a favourite song from the disc. Looking further into the band’s inspiration for the whole concept of the record helped me to feel the spark of my own creativity again. The excitement over hearing new music I loved as much as Volbeat got me back strumming the guitar again after having been away from it for the better part of three years. At the time, I’d been wavering on completing and/or releasing an acoustic EP I’d been working on. Volbeat’s arrival in my life helped me to see that it was important to me to finish that project, regardless of what anybody else might have thought of it.

Bonus points for this record: my 11-year-old son, Eddie, LOVES Volbeat. I don’t know why. But he does. He insisted upon seeing them live. We are going to see them in May.

It will be his first concert ever. And it’ll be with his Dad.

9. David Francey – Skating Rink

Skating RinkMy sister Karen gave me this CD as a Christmas gift many years ago. It remains one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

David Francey writes astonishingly beautiful songs. They are brilliant in their simplicity, in that they sound somewhat minimal at first blush, but are in fact quite complex, insightful and thought-provoking. Francey is the most efficient lyricist I’ve heard, and he packs more wallop into just one or two lines than any other artist I can think of.

This CD has had a massive influence on me. I’d have put it further up the list, except for the fact that we’re going to run into Francey again in a bit.

I remember listening to “Skating Rink” for the first time. Back then, I enjoyed the title track (which is also the first song on the disc). And the second track, “Broken Glass,” is also lovely. But it was the third track, “Exit,” that initially stopped me in my tracks. I’d not heard many artists include a song with vocals but no music accompaniment, but it’s not uncommon for Francey, and he does it with “Exit.” The song is just Francey’s voice alone until a sweet little musical bit appears and then fades the song out, like a reluctant acceptance of what he sings about before the instrumentation comes in: “Rich or poor or young or old. Some of us carry a heavy load.”

“Skating Rink” is a beautiful CD from start to finish. Standout tracks for me include “Belgrade Train,” “Nearly Midnight” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” an absolutely beautiful song that would be a massive hit if it were covered by the right popular band.

My sister giving me this CD turned out to be the impetus for many inspirations and wonderful experiences in the years to come, including getting to meet and visit with David Francey on several occasions. And spending time with him has only deepened my appreciation and sincere affection for these wonderful, beautiful songs.

8. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown

21st Century BreakdownI held a strong dislike for this group for a long time. They became popular at a time when the band that I still consider my favourite (more on them a little later) was not getting anywhere near the attention I felt they deserved. Partially because of that, I didn’t like Green Day and never paid them any mind. I thought they were childish punks. And maybe they were. But they certainly were churning out better music than I ever gave them credit for.

Ironically, it was it was another fan of that same favourite band of mine (the one I’ll reference in just a bit), that suggested that “21st Centrury Breakdown” was a “masterpiece.” I laughed at the thought and challenged him on it. He challenged me back. So I went and gave it a listen, and was floored by the scope of it. There was so much to dig through in this one record alone. For some reason, its tone and lyrics spoke to me at the time in a way that kept this CD in my stereo for months.

The style of writing and overall concept of this album left me considering different ways to write, and to listen to and enjoy music. I’m still finding things on this record I’d not notice before.

Green Day may be best known for “American Idiot” or their debut, “Dookie,” but it’s “21st Century Breakdown” that had the biggest influence on me, and made me a fan of the band.

7. The Trews – Hope and Ruin

Hope and RuinThe Trews are a Canadian rock band from Nova Scotia, and I absolutely love them. All of their records are among my favourites, but this one came out at a time when it almost felt as if it had been created just for me. Having just been through a marital separation (and eventual divorce), the very title of this collection had me feeling as if the band was inside my own head.

Songs like “Hope & Ruin,” “Love is the Real Thing,” “I’ll Find Someone Who Will,” “You’ve Gotta Let Me In,” “If You Wanna Start Again” and “Dreamin’ Man” all hit home for me in a deep and profound way. I clung to this record for many months, and felt rather emotional when I got to see them live on the headlining tour they did to support this effort.

I’ve got a bunch of songs kicking around that I wrote in the months following this CD’s release. It both held me up and inspired me.

For a time, I held on to this record like a life preserver.

6. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska

NebraskaI haven’t listened to anything from this record in years. But I have not forgotten the impact this harrowing set of songs had on me.

I love the story about how Bruce recorded these tracks alone, at his home, and when he brought the songs into the studio for the E Street Band, they just couldn’t recapture the original emotion and feeling, no matter what they tried. And so they ultimately decided to master and release Springsteen’s original demos, a gutsy, bold move. The results are downright spooky.

It’s a good lesson in the power of a good song not needing much instrumentation or production. If the song is solid, it will still remain (and maybe even become more impactful) even with much of the instrumentation stripped away.

“Nebraska” is loaded with heavy, heavy tracks about common people and their daily struggles, their simple hopes, collective fears and frailties.

I tried to write some songs in this style in the mid 90’s, but I realized I didn’t have the knack for it. Most don’t. Springsteen’s ability to tell a story in the framework of a song is absolutely incredible. His characters appear on the scene fully developed, and the settings are clear from the get-go. I don’t know how he does it. Some novelists take pages (or even chapters) to do what Springsteen achieves in a single lyric line.

To me, the album is absolutely heart wrenching, but a good reminder of the thin line between happiness and despair that lurks within us all.

It’s also powerhouse songwriting that leaves me a little breathless if I really dive into it.

5. Great Big Sea – Courage, Patience and Grit (Live)

Courage, Patience and GritIn trying to remember how I first came upon this disc, I think I may have been going through a phase of enjoying all things about pirates and found the song “Captain Kidd.” If memory serves, I think I found this double CD at the local Wal Mart and bought it without having heard anything from it. In fact, that would have been an odd thing to do, as I’d previously been aware of Great Big Sea as the band that performed “Ordinary Day” and “Sea of No Cares” but, to be absolutely honest, I never much cared for them. It’s not that I disliked them as much as I just really wasn’t interested. But when I listened through this collection of songs, that all changed.

As with Springsteen, I don’t listen to Great Big Sea all that much anymore. But I still love them. And for a time, I played this particular album over and over and over again. The Celtic, folk, pop, rock and traditional tones that run through all of Great Big Sea’s music strongly influenced a lot of the stuff I was writing at the time (I consider my songs “Hope Over Hurt” and “Glass” to have been heavily influenced by Great Big Sea).

I love my country and feel even more deeply Canadian when I listen to this band. And most of all, I suppose I just truly appreciate the sincerity with which these fellows perform, particularly Alan Doyle. At the time I found this CD, I had just come off of a particularly draining job change. This music helped me to feel revitalized, and I will always remember and be grateful for that.

The musicianship, the vocal harmonies, the tone of the songs and the general feeling of being in a big ‘ol Newfoundland kitchen party are all things that appeal to me about Great Big Sea. And maybe it’s because one of my sisters lives in St. John’s. Perhaps this music helps me feel a little less removed from her. In any case, it’s all great stuff.

4. Extreme - Pornograffitti

PornograffittiHere is the band I referred to earlier, writing about Green Day. Back in the early 90’s, I resented Green Day (and a lot of other bands) for getting the attention I felt Extreme rightly deserved. Luckily, I’ve grown up a lot since then!

Still, Extreme was the wrong band at the wrong time. In my view, they are easily the most misunderstood and under-appreciated band of my generation. They were not a “hair metal” band, nor a “grunge” band. They were just a great group of musicians who always showed incredible reverence to their own musical idols like Queen, The Who, Zeppelin and the Beatles.

“Pornograffitti” sounds like KISS one minute, then the Everly Brothers another minute, then the Red Hot Chili Peppers another, and Frank Sinatra the next. They grew even more eclectic in future recordings, and I loved them for it.

Extreme is, and always will be, my favourite band. I have an irrational attachment to this group, and the fact that most people don’t understand or appreciate them at all only makes me love them more. “Pornograffitti” was the record that started my love affair with their music.

Like many others, my first exposure to Extreme was through the smash acoustic song, “More Than Words,” which hit in 1991. I did not like that song at all at the time. Just another hair band, I thought (and, as it turned out, that’s what many others thought as well). “More Than Words” was a Billboard Number 1 sensation and helped Extreme sell millions of records worldwide. The trouble was, that song was not at all representative of Extreme’s real body of work. It turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. While I resented the song somewhat for overshadowing the collective work of the band, I later came to appreciate that it, too, is really special piece of music that went to number one for a reason: it’s good. Really good.

“Pornograffitti” is a brilliant rock record. A theme runs throughout, following a character named Francis as he’s subjected to the allure of money, sex, power, love and the rat race of life in general. It starts with “trying so hard to keep up with the Joneses” in what is still probably my favourite song of all time, “Decadence Dance” (shame about the hideous music video for this song, though. Ugh. No wonder people had the wrong idea!). From there, it follows many twists and turns addressing all of life’s temptations until it comes back to rest with “Hole Hearted,” a song many misinterpret as a boy-meets-girl love song, but is actually more of a statement the singer is making to his or her interpretation the Divine: “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.”

Those who feel this record sounds like other 80’s-based rock of the time are missing the message. Extreme was always different, and they foreshadowed their falling out of sync with the popular music industry in general with the very first song of the record: “It’s hard to stop once the music gets started. Til the souls of your feet harden up like your heart did.”

The first big festival-type concert I ever went to, I attended simply to see Extreme. When Gary Cherone, the lead vocalist, climbed up and over the runway/risers behind the drum kit as the rest of the band launched into the opening song, I thought, “Oh my goodness! I want to try to learn how to do this!” It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever experienced, and led me to writing songs, learning how to sing and, eventually, to play guitar.

Extreme was my band. They still are.

They always will be.

3. David Francey – Right of Passage

Right of PassageTo me, all of David Francey’s songs are gems. Each of his albums is a gift, and it almost seems wrong to rank them. I’ll just say that, of all of the truly incredible CDs he’s shared, this one means the most to me.

Francey’s story behind the song “All Lights Burning Bright” makes me emotional. I sang this song at my Grandpa’s funeral.

I remember seeing Francey perform in Aylmer, months before the release of this CD. He sang “The Ballad of Bowser MacRae.” When he got to the part of Bowser’s son saying to his Dad, over the phone, “I love you Daddy, good luck and goodnight,” I cried. I am almost doing it again right now. I think of my own two sons and get a lump in my throat every time I hear that song. My sons mean everything to me, as they do to Bowser as well.

I love the stories behind “Kansas,” “The Conversation,” “The Gate,” “Stone Town” and “Under the Portland Weather” (if you’re curious, you can find all the lyrics and liner notes to these songs HERE).

Part of Francey’s liner notes about the instrumental track “Ferry to Cortez” served as inspiration for part of the lyrics to my song, “No Schedule Man.”

I was fortunate enough to be a at Hugh’s Room in Toronto to see the CD release show for this stellar collection. I had never heard (or heard of) a Shruti Box prior to that, but I will never forget its mournful tones as it opened the show with Francey then singing, “Well it was Edmonton late in the fall, and I was done for good and all.” It gave me shivers.

There were only two times that I can remember when I saw someone perform and thought to myself, “Wow – I want to try that.” One was the first time I saw Extreme. The other was seeing David Francey at Hugh’s Room. What an incredible inspiration.

To me, each of David Francey’s CDs rate a rock solid 10 out of 10.

“Right of Passage” gets an 11.

2. Jimmy Buffett - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

Buffett LiveI can’t help but chuckle, looking at this album so far up this list. In the late 90’s, I was in a band that played (among other songs), “Margaritaville.” I detested the song. I felt that we were lazy for including it in our sets and trying to appeal only to the “lowest common denominator” (I felt the same way about many other songs we played as well, including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Mustang Sally,” “Honky Tonk Woman” and a whole bunch of others). Of course, I can now admit that those songs are all very popular for a reason. If I’d been choosing which songs to play, the bar would have been empty!

In the early 2000’s, I visited Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. Among the many restaurants and bars at that complex is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. There was a cover band playing in there that night. Their music was being piped out to the walkways outside the restaurant as well, and I distinctly remember the singer saying, “We’re in Jimmy Buffett’s bar. I guess we should play one of Jimmy Buffett’s songs.” They then went into an upbeat track I’d never heard before and I thought it was really catchy. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. I didn’t know what the name of the song was but remembered that they kept getting back to singing, “Fins to the left, fins to the right.”

A couple days later, I saw on the news that Jimmy Buffett had been kicked out a Miami Heat basketball game I had attended the day before (in fact, that was the reason for the trip: to see the Heat in Miami playing their arch rival at the time, the New York Knicks). I figured that was a sign. At least Jimmy Buffett and I had the Miami Heat in common.

On the last day of that vacation, I decided I’d try to find a Buffett CD, maybe with that song on it, so I could have it as a kind of soundtrack-type reminder of the vacation. I went into the FYE music store in Florida Mall, expecting to find some kind of collection like “Margaritaville and 10 other songs you’ve never heard of before.” I was shocked when I found row after row of albums by Buffett, in stock. There must have been 25 different selections. I couldn’t believe it. How could a guy that only had one “hit” have recorded and released so much music?

I combed through the bin until I found “Live: Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays.” I figured it would be a good sample of his career, and saw that one of the songs on it was a tune called “Fins,” which I figured was the one I’d heard a few nights before.

When I first listened to the album, I didn’t like it right away. But as I started to go through some of the songs and they began to sink in a little more, I started to realize I’d been way off in my assessment of Jimmy Buffett and his music. Songs like “One Particular Harbor” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” infused me with a sense that Buffett was a guy who knew what he liked, was entirely comfortable inside his own skin, was happy to share what made him happy, had more insight to offer than it seemed from the surface, and that there were a LOT of people that were happily in on it.

Despite the fact that he’d only ever had one “hit” (and “Margaritaville” never even got to the top of the charts), Buffett had been selling out stadiums and amphitheatres for years. He’d established a successful restaurant chain, began his own internet radio station (eventually picked up by Sirius/XM satellite radio), and had made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list as both a Fiction and Non-Fiction writer.

My curiosity led me to reading Buffett’s books, which resulted in me reading other authors he’d referenced (including Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Herman Wouk and Carl Hiaasen). I began devouring historical books about pirates, privateers and also modern day adventurers. One work led to another, and another, and another.

Listening to Radio Margaritaville helped me discover many other artists that I now love but wasn’t hearing anywhere else (some examples include Will Kimbrough, Sonny Landreth, Todd Snider and John Hiatt).

I eventually acquired Buffett’s entire recorded catalogue (that took a while!) and saw him in concert a couple of times. I wrote scads of songs off the various inspirations from the music, literature and experiences I gained that all started with discovering Jimmy Buffett (a couple of examples include two songs from my “No Scheudule Man” CD, “Orlando” and “Do Better,” the latter of which references the Buffett song, “Fruitcakes”).

In terms of sheer volume of additional influence and inspiration, this album really deserves to be at the top of this list. Looking back almost 15 years later, the inspirational ripple effect of first listening to Buffett has been staggering, and unmatched with anything else I’ve enjoyed.

And I guess that statement alone should give you some idea of just deep into my bones I feel about the only record that could rank ahead of this one, it terms of its influence on who I am, what I’ve created and what I still hope to be ….

1. Extreme - III Sides to Every Story

III SidesThis album spun my head off my shoulders. It helped to shape the way I think about a lot of things, and still do. This was the one that spoke to me on a very meaningful level when I was an 18-year-old, bordering on adulthood and trying to figure out what my place in the world was going to be, who I really was and what I really thought about things.

Songs like “Am I Ever Gonna Change,” “Stop the World,” and “Who Cares” resonated with me very deeply. It was as if lead singer and lyricist Gary Cherone had lifted the thoughts from my head, made them eloquent and set them to incredible music.

Once I’d truly absorbed this record, I was so moved that I was sure I wanted to try and learn how to write songs to express my own thoughts and feelings. This is where my songwriting started.

When I eventually picked up an acoustic guitar, I didn’t learn by doing basic strumming patterns to traditional songs like “Tom Dooley.” Instead, I wanted to be able to play what I was hearing come out of the speakers when I put on an Extreme record. I bought any guitar magazine that had any reference at all to Extreme and tried to figure out the tablature so I could learn some of what guitarist Nuno Bettencourt was doing. I didn’t beging with basic lessons. I tried to learn how to play “Warheads,” “Cupid’s Dead” and “Peacemaker Die” instead.

I don’t recommend that, by the way!

Three sides to every story: Yours, Mine, and the Truth. It’s still true. And I can’t say enough about how this record just resonates with me deep into my soul.

The use of part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the song “Peacemaker Die” is breathtaking. The band had to secure permission from Dr. King’s family to use that audio. The family must have sensed what Extreme was really all about, and I thank them for giving their blessing. The song is a masterwork.

The old Dr. Pepper commercial parody in “Warheads” works perfectly. It’s tragic comedy, illustrating just how casually we seem to accept violence and aggression as part of our everyday being. Sadly, that song resonates and holds up just as much today as it did over 20 years ago.

I may have learned a lot about other artists from Jimmy Buffett, as I outlined earlier, but my world expanded greatly because of Extreme long before that. Extreme would constantly nod their respect to the artists that influenced them. Their songs are laced with references, both lyrically and instrumentally, to iconic musicians like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Queen, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and many others.

For evidence of just how much the members of Extreme respected those that came before them, listen to what Brian May says about them (in the video below) before they took the stage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. Extreme then effectively stole the show with a spot-on medley of Queen songs in a display of absolute love, appreciation and reverence for Freddie Mercury.

“III Sides to Every Story” was acclaimed critically as a masterpiece. And it is. But it didn’t resonate with the public the way “Pornograffitti” did off the strength of “More Than Words.” It also was released at a time when the Seattle-based “alternative” sounds of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots were taking over the airwaves.

Extreme was cursed to have been the wrong band at the wrong time, at least in terms of sustained public success. But that doesn’t make their work any less impactful to those who found and embraced it

My love of “III Sides to Every Story” was a watershed connection in my life. I’ll never be that same age again. I’m not likely to ever be that impressionable again. I’m just glad it was this particular record that found its way into my spirit, as I believe I am better for it.

 

So there we have it! That’s my list. Thanks for reading. Please feel welcome to share yours as well, in the comments below. Maybe it will inspire others!

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