Friday, September 22, 2017

A not so brief introduction – Part 3

I’ve been working for a living and supporting myself completely on my own since I was about 18 years old. I got my first job was when I was 17. It was as a copywriter at Perceptions, a small ad agency in Bangalore. I was hired on the strength of my lyrics. I used to carry a journal where I scribbled words, chords and other ideas. I showed it to the owner as examples of my writing. I was offered the job. During my tenure, I also came up with music and words for a couple of jingles in addition to standard copy. I worked at Perceptions when I wasn’t attending classes in high school, or pre-university as it was called – and then full-time once I graduated. I also wrote album reviews for a couple of small newspapers on the side. The best thing about this was I got the latest albums to listen to, even though I had to return them when I submitted my article.

Things were a lot different those days. Most young people couldn’t afford to buy musical instruments, unless they had rich parents. I didn’t. After some months of working, I bought an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar and amp. My friend, Krishna (who wanted to be a drummer) and I, had dreams of starting a band and playing only original songs. We even recorded several of our songs on an old cassette tape recorder. He couldn’t afford a drum kit so he banged on an old suitcase with his hands. Sometimes he brought along a bongo that he had at home. We kept the neighbors up, playing well into the night in my parent’s garage.

I started my own design studio and ad shop when I was 19. Things were a little hectic after that and I didn’t have much time to spare anymore. Krishna and I would still hang out late into the night swapping songs, and talking music. He had convinced his parents to buy him a drum kit by this point. We were obsessed by music and writing songs. Those were heady days and I can still remember the excitement we felt at being able to write songs. We didn’t know what to do with the songs though. If you played Western music, covers were the norm those days in Bangalore. There was no interest in original music. Other musicians didn’t want to play our songs. Several people even laughed at our enthusiasm and ridiculed our efforts. But I simply felt we were ahead of our time and shrugged it off.

And life went on…

Fast forward to some years later, and I was in New York City doing an undergraduate degree. I was also barely surviving. I was on a student visa and allowed to work only a few hours every week. I had a full international scholarship which paid some of my tuition. I supplemented this by working for the college dean doing publicity for student programs. I was also the editor of the college newspaper. At night, I worked for a printing company doing mechanical layouts, cutting paper, operating the bindery and anything else. This was before they had computers or digital printing. Most days, I got to work only after the sun went down and worked past midnight – locking up the shop when I left.

I barely got by that first year. To stretch my money, I usually had a full breakfast of 2 eggs, 2 sausages, 2 slices of toast, orange juice and coffee at the pharmacy counter next to my college. It cost $1.25. I skipped lunch and bought Chinese take-out for dinner (usually fried rice and chicken wings) for $3.95 which I ate for 2 days. I had no money to hang out with anyone after class for a couple of years until I started earning a little more money. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to further my musical ambitions. It was so near and yet so far! I was close to all the clubs and music venues. But I didn’t have the time or money to do anything.

However, one thing I did consistently was write songs. And I wrote a lot of them. Many of these songs were sad and full of despair. I still remember a few of them, but I haven’t performed or recorded almost anything from that period in my life. Here's one I sometimes play called "Morning Light," and the link to a live performance of it.

Morning light wakes me up to another day
Feel its gentle glow wash all my blues away
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

When I was young I thought I could make it on my own
But as I'm getting older I find my fears have grown
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

As night time comes I turn and look for a friend
But I was born alone and I know that's how it will be in the end
I'm living through changing day by day
Made it through the night again
And morning light makes me feel alright

And I know I will be all right
By morning light

 It’s almost like I was a different person then. Someone I can’t relate to anymore. I bought a cheap Casio keyboard and tried to teach myself to play. I gave that up quickly. But, it had a drum machine so I was able to get a beat going in the background while I played guitar and sang over it. I also used the chord function to add a bit of organ and piano to my songs. That was my first stab at DIY recording. I used to get creative by moving the Casio around the room until I got the sound I was looking for. I had a double cassette boom box with an internal microphone. I experimented with that as well. I also recorded songs from the radio on cassette. The highlight of my day was when I recorded a new song I liked from the radio without much DJ talk on it. I copied from tape to tape and sent compilations to my friends in India.

Yes, it was a pathetic existence and I can still remember those days clearly -- maybe even with fondness now! I lived in a tiny basement studio apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It cost me $325 a month. My landlords were a sweet, old Greek couple (little did I know then that I would become a Greek by marriage a decade or so later). They were very nice. I often got home to find a plate of stuffed peppers, moussaka, pastichio, or grape leaves on my dining table.  My kitchen and bathroom was at the bottom of their stairs and was always accessible to them. There was no privacy. The apartment was old and dingy with a couple of small windows at street level. My kitchen consisted of a small electric plate and ancient refrigerator in the boiler room. My sink shared a connection with the clothes washer. I didn’t have a TV for almost 6 months. My boss at the printing company took pity on me and gave me an old portable black & white TV he had in his basement. I could only pick up 3-4 stations on it. I didn’t watch much TV. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of songs. That’s all I did when I wasn’t in college or working. I didn’t have any friends. I had no one to invite home. Nobody invited me to theirs. Or to a movie. Or for dinner. I remember one incident during the first month of college. I was sitting in class and talking to a bunch of freshmen. One of the girls went around giving out printed invitations for a party she was having. She gave one to everyone in the room, except me. I realized that I was the only foreigner/brown guy there. Sadly, I was also probably the only one there that didn’t have even one friend in New York City. I sometimes repeat this story to my wife and kids now and they can’t understand why I still remember this incident. I don’t know myself. Maybe any perceived slight was all in my head. Or maybe I remember it so I never forget what it feels like being all alone… or of being a stranger in a city full of people… or of being a minority and an immigrant… or of the sense of confusion and embarrassment of being shunned because you don’t look or talk like everyone else in the room.

Fortunately, the gloom and doom didn’t last for long. In a couple of years, I had a lot of friends and was invited to several parties. My elder brother also came to the US as an immigrant during my 3rd year in college. He got a got a good job in advertising on Madison Avenue and graciously invited me to stay with him in his brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I also met the girl who I would marry around this time. Things started looking up from that point on.

To be continued…

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