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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Getting to know me – THIS IS NOT A TEST #5 (transcript)

Published January 24, 2015 [Podcast link]

Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard with your ears. Follow this link to podcast happiness.

This week I’m doing this standing up as god and nature intended. I’ve worked at stand up desk for more than 10 years, I do all my writing there – I recently got a convertible stand up sit down kind of desk attachment thing to use at work and I like it but I think everyone else in the office thinks I’m a bit of a twat – standing up while you work seems to make other people defensive, I guess they start to feel that they look kind of lazy sitting in a chair all day. But no one is lazier than me, so the jokes on them.

Here we are and so far, aside from the interview with Carol, I’ve spouting off about things that are on my mind and you might be wondering – I know I am – what qualifies this guy to be pontificating and gesticulating and filling my ear holes with his take on these things? Well you can’t see me gesticulating, but my arms are moving, you’ll have to take my word for it. The more wound up I get the more I flail around, so maybe you can just imagine that – me sitting here – or standing here – wildly punctuating my points to no one. Maybe that’s a sad metaphor for this whole thing – I don’t know, I can’t think about it too deeply or I’ll be crippled by fear and self-doubt and close up shop.

So what qualifies me to do any of this? I’ll tell you right up front: nothing does. Not really. I don’t have any special wisdom or insight, and I certainly don’t have any formal education. Here you are listening to me, here we are together, so I may as well take this opportunity to tell you a bit about me, mjp. If I’m not qualified at least you can get to know me, then you’ll keep listening even when my lack of qualifications becomes painful.

All right, to start with, why mjp? That’s pretentious dude, what the hell? The initials. Knock it off already. Well the mjp thing came from the first Internet job I had, that was my email address in the company and someone started calling me mjp and it just stuck to me like things sometimes tend to do.

But backing up a bit from the internet – let me try to give you my compressed and concise story here in a somewhat linear and logical way. I strive to be linear and logical in all things and I usually fail, so we’ll see how it goes.

I’m the oldest of five kids and my family was chaotic and weird – not weird in a cool, creative way, just weird in that way that families can be, especially where we lived and the times being what they were. The where was Minnesota and the time was the 60s. If you know anything about the upper midwest, you know that it’s full of stoic types who consider, I don’t know, screaming when you’re cut by a chainsaw to be unnecessarily drawing attention to yourself. People like that don’t talk things out, so when something goes weird in your family it goes like exponentially, tornado weird, and meanwhile everyone is pretending nothing is happening and all is normal. So that experience qualifies me to talk about that kind of thing, those kinds of people and that period in our great nation’s history.

A lot of people thrive in those kinds of large families, I’m not one of those people. I had too much responsibility when I was too young and that filled me with the never ending dream of escape – so as soon as I could get out I did. But for the first 15 years of my life we lived on a dirt road in a tiny town – and by tiny I mean a couple thousand people, one gas station, one store, no traffic lights – so I didn’t know how I was going to get away or what I was going to do if I did get away. But then the skies parted and a miracle happened: we moved to the futuristic metropolis of St. Paul and suddenly a wide world of possibilities were laid at my feet. So that qualifies me to talk about, you know, the sudden onset of possibilities. So there’s two things I’m qualified in. This is going pretty well.

Now all that time I was a grubby little kid languishing in the woods, I dreamed of being a rock and roll star. Not a musician, a rock star. Like Alice Cooper or Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. I got my hands on a really crappy electric guitar, but I didn’t even know how to tune it and there was no one around me to teach me. Plus, you know, living in the woods. It was going to be difficult to become a rock star there. But that move to the city also meant that I found more grubby young musician wannabes and we eventually a few of us got together and made something work.

The rock star thing was still there, but in 1976 the first Ramones record landed in our filthy mitts somehow and that changed everything. Like, immediately. Not only did it now seem completely reasonable and possible to play in a rock band with a minimal amount of talent, those guys also made all of the rock star unicorn and mystical mountain shit seem stupid and old fashioned. All of that happened in the 30 or so minutes it took to play both sides of the record. It really was that sudden and that liberating and wonderful. So that qualifies me to talk about punk rock, and the beginnings of it and how it turned the worlds of the people who embraced it upside down.

So time went on – as it tends to do – and I found myself in a really good punk rock band…wait a minute, I just thought of another qualification. When I was 17 years old, still in high school, I got a job as a printer and moved in to my own apartment in downtown St. Paul. Downtown St. Paul in 1977 was not a glamorous place. Like a lot of midwestern downtowns at the time, it was filthy and crumbling – definitely not cool, not hip. But I lived there and worked there for 7 years, so that qualifies me to talk about living in crumbling old cities and their eventual gentrification, kids living with their parents for far too long – and the joys of noisy, dangerous industrial work at a tender age. Ha – three in one, bitches!

And to digress a little further – the reason I was able to get a job as a printer while I was still in high school was because it was the 70s and high school had become a bit of a joke by then. I was never interested in any aspect of school, it didn’t do anything for me and I didn’t like things like math. I wasn’t any good at math, and rather than get good at it, I chose to avoid it (I was going to be a rock star anyway, so I’d just hire someone to do my math). And in the 70s you could actually avoid math in high school. It wasn’t a requirement, if you can imagine that. In fact – if you wanted to – you could avoid pretty much anything we think of as “school” these days. I was only required to take an English class, so I took a science fiction class or a creative writing class – anything that didn’t involve memorizing names or dates. The rest of the classes were things like pottery, drawing, photography, intercultural studies – which was more or less just a hippie teacher letting a bunch of teenagers run wild – and the most important class for me, as it would turn out: printing. I had a printing class that took up three periods of the day. And after a year of that I learned that you could do something called “on the job training” and go work and get paid for those three hours. So that’s what I did. And that qualifies me to talk about the state of education in america in the 1970s, and how the school systems successfully offloaded a lot of the kids that they expected to fail onto unsuspecting companies as workers. Though I doubt that’s a subject that will come up very often here.

All right, so, the really good punk band I found myself in toured around the midwest and northeast, recorded – kind of – and generally kicked around trying to make it. Make it in the punk rock way, which was not anything like the rock and roll star way. Punk rock was very much a do it yourself kind of thing, mainly because no one who could do anything for you was the least bit interested in it. But the DIY mind set changes you, and you eventually become a creature that doesn’t ask for permission or seek the proper qualifications to do anything – you just do it. You have to if you want anything to happen. So not seeking qualifications qualifies me to talk about punk culture, DIY, touring with no money in your pocket, and continuing to do things with a simple-minded optimism when all signs point to ultimate failure. Those may be the most important qualifications in my book.

You still with me? It turns out I’m qualified to talk about a few things, but if I keep going I may be able to make up a few more qualifications. I need you to stay with me though or I’m just standing here talking to myself. Okay? Cool. Thank you.

So punk rock was cool and I had my comfortable little place in it, and my steady job (which was sort of un-punk rock, but that’s how I rolled) but then a second turning upside down of my musical world happened when I started listening to reggae music. Punk incorporated – or tried to incorporate – some reggae rhythms and techniques, but hearing that absolutely did not prepare me for hearing the real thing. It caught me off guard and within the first 30 seconds completely and irreversibly fucked up my relationship with punk. Until then I though that punk rock was the toughest, most unrelenting and brutal fuck you to the rest of the world that could possibly exist. I Was wrong. These jamaicans, these Rastafarians were singing about revolution too, only they sounded a lot more serious than we did. But they were also like hippies, and hippies and punks – at that time anyway – were not exactly of similar minds, shall we say. Punks hated hippies is another way to put it.

But here were these Jamaican hippies singing about herb and Haile Selassie and revolution and I was completely transfixed by all of it. I couldn’t not try to do that myself. In retrospect I see that it was a foolish thought, but from the time I started buying those records all I could think was, “I’m going to play in a reggae band, that’s where it’s at.” That was 1979 or 80 though, and it really wasn’t where it was at. Not in the twin cities anyway. But I quit my punk band anyway and went off to form a reggae band with some guys I knew from the punk scene. That was about as predictably unsuccessful as you’re probably imaging it would be, so I was in a bit of a conundrum. Then a friend of mine, the drummer from my last punk band called me from Los Angeles and said, “Man, you should come out here. There’s a million reggae bands and clubs and the weather’s really nice…and…hold on, the Olympic marathon is running past my front door…”

So I quit my good job, gave away most of my stuff and hopped into a friend’s van and moved to california. That in itself qualifies me to talk about impulsively uprooting yourself and changing your entire life for reasons most people would consider unrealistic, if not downright insane, and giving up security for adventure or possibly premature death. I had nothing, nowhere to stay, but I was 24 years old, which, as you might recall yourself, is a magical age when you truly believe that everything will be fine. Regardless of all signs and evidence contradicting that belief.

But everything was fine, eventually, and after a few months in fleabag motels – literally, bags of fleas – places full of crank addicts and child pornographers, I found an apartment at Venice Beach, a few steps away from the boardwalk. Which was not an ideal place for a budding Rastafarian and reggae musician – or most humans. But the next place I landed – Topanga Canyon – was the perfect place for such an unlikely character to thrive. In fact, the band I would go on to play with was living in a house 100 feet away. It seemed predestined, though I’m not a believer in pre-destiny or fate or whatever you want to call it. So…that qualifies me to talk about living in Venice Beach when it was a dangerous place – the police wouldn’t even answer calls from the canals at night – and Topanga Canyon before you had to be a millionaire to afford a leaky cottage, and fate. Even though I don’t believe it exists.

Playing with the reggae band I actually experienced some lower rung success – making a little money – just a little, but a lot more than I made playing punk rock, which was about zero – or less than zero…negative profit – and traveling around the world, making records, appearing in a fancy hollywood movie, getting a bit of los angeles music business hype thrown our way – all of that stuff that doesn’t suck about playing music.

But band life, no matter your level of success, is stressful, and you can’t avoid having periods of animosity where you’d rather kill each other than step onto a stage or into a studio. Yes, even the peace loving Rastafarians among us. So eventually I parted ways with the reggae band. I Was 30 years old and tired of the 23 hours of crap a musician has to put up with every day to enjoy 1 hour of fun, so I “retired” so to speak. But that experience qualifies me to talk about touring the world playing music, making a living playing music, the ins and outs of the recording studio, engineering live sound in outdoor amphitheaters and stadiums, and ultimately turning your back on all of that because you’re just tired of it. Even though it’s all you ever wanted to do with your life.

Retiring from music meant returning to the printing industry. But I never went back to the press. I Worked in binderies mostly, and even did a stint at the front counter of a printing/office supply shop up in the Pacific Palisades, selling pens to Walter Matthau, Shirley Maclaine, Chevy Chase – well, his wife – and Vin Scully. I Know, it sounds pretty fucking exciting, doesn’t it? At that time I was also living with a woman who was a costumer for movies. We’d actually met on the set of the movie I was in with the reggae band. Shortly after we got together she started working exclusively for Demi Moore and Tom Cruise. Well, one movie with Tom Cruise, after which she declined further opportunities with him because of all the weirdness that surrounds him and his freaky Scientology brethren. But she did quite a few movies with Demi, all of the movies she made at the height of her fame really, so I saw a lot of that world. More than you want to see, trust me. But it qualifies me to talk about what really goes on in Hollywood, who is a dick and who isn’t, what the inside of Demi’s private jet is like, and what it’s like to wash her underwear in a hotel room sink.

As marvelous as that may all sound, I still didn’t have any skills outside of music or printing, and the small shop printing that I’d survived on for most of my life was disappearing because offices were getting computers and printers and suddenly they didn’t need to buy reams of letterhead or business cards anymore. That change kind of killed the small shop printers and my “career” such as it was. But a funny thing happened, because in the early 90s I got a computer. I Was starting to write a lot – I guess quitting music left me with some sort of creative stuff I had to release – and typing with a typewriter on to paper is all well and good if that’s all you’ve got, but typing on paper when there are small computers that fit on top of a desk is a little bit crazy. So the writing was good on the computer, but the computer really came alive and everything changed when I got a modem and plugged it in to the telephone line.

The early 90s was pre-world wide web, but BBSes and the internet were already there and it was a magical, ridiculously crazy thing that I couldn’t believe existed. When the web and html came along, I saw some crazy possibilities there and started learning everything I could. I Remember trying to explain it over the phone to the singer from my reggae band: “It’s like a page…you know, on the computer screen…anyone with a computer can see it, anywhere in the world…it could have pictures of the band and an address and stuff…” But no sound, because that wasn’t feasible yet. Not over 9600 baud modems and telephone line dial up connections. So I put up a web site for myself and one for the band when there were only a small handful of sites on the web. I had to call the web host on the phone to set up the accounts. And they faxed me papers to sign and receipts. That’s how you did it at the time. And doing that kind of stuff qualified me for a job at one of the first web site hosting companies in Los Angeles.

I went in to interview and the guy asked, “Do you know what FTP stands for?” and I said, “I have two web sites, I use FTP every day.” He said, “You’re hired!” It was that easy because it was a brand new industry and finding people to work for your company who even knew what the word Internet meant was difficult. That was 1996 or 97 and I’ve been working in the industry ever since. Purely by dumb luck and circumstance, not through specialized training or education. Obvioulsy, as I didn’t really have any education. Which qualifies me to talk about the early days of the web, and being interested in – or obsessed with – the right thing at the right time. And being ridiculously lucky.

Wow, okay, well, that’s it. My whole wonderful life summed up in 20 minutes or whatever this has been. So as you can see, I really have no qualifications to talk about anything here, but at the same time I have all the qaulifications. Depends on how you look at things. And I think it goes to show that anyone can do this. You can do it. Go get a microphone. You’re qualified. Just say you’re qualified and you are, right?

Next time I belive we’ll talk about records and cds and the recording process, hipsters, hype and harmless self-delusion. Something like that. If it sounds magnificent, that’s becasue it is! Everything is magnificent, remember that.

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