01. Flat on My Face – March 1976
My story begins at the big kindergarten of adolescency, college, because that is where malleable minds are molded, mine being no exception. After completing three long years of high school — I graduated at the end of my junior year – the very last thing I was looking forward to was moving on to college. That's how much I dreaded the classroom. Structure was something I abhorred and could never adapt to. I wanted to make it on my own musical merits, like Isaac Stern and Glenn Gould had done. What I needed was to get out and stretch my musical wings, or so I thought. I was like the Marquis de Bacqueville. He was one of those early pioneers of aviation (1742) that you always find mentioned as a joke in some science text. Thinking he could fly over the Seine River like a bee, the fool jumped from the tower of his Paris mansion, flapping a pair of artificial wings strapped to his arms. The outcome was obvious – he crash-landed and broke both his legs. That moment of stupidity became his only claim to fame. Like the good old Marquis, I was only fooling myself, going nowhere but straight down. My father and mother raised me to become a musician, and most orchestras won't consider anyone who doesn't come from a conservatory, or have a music degree or extensive musical background. There was no way I was ever going to get anywhere in life without a formal education, so I committed myself to earning a B.A. in music, majoring in Music Theory and minoring in Music Performance.
College is one of those deferred benefits in life that’s intended to pay off down the road. You’ve heard it before – what you get out of life depends upon how much you put into it. It’s a time when a tremendous amount of knowledge is gained almost all at once, and ideals are shaped by professors with a political agenda. By the time you graduate from college, you feel as if you are Moses prepared to come down from the mountain and enlighten the world with astute wisdom from above. Sure, college is a lot of work, but it’s not like having to dig ditches for four years. I was a pretty diligent student for the first three years. Then, I came to believe that my social life was lacking. To have no friends at that age was insularity I couldn’t bear any longer.
My most memorable day at college was one of those you’d like to forget. I’m surprised I even remember it. One gloomy afternoon, a bunch of us pseudo-intellectuals gathered at a frat house at UC Berkeley, drinking and discussing Man's Fate by André Malraux, a book that was assigned by a political science professor of mine. Our assignment was to prepare an argument either for or against communism. That, of course, got us arguing about Capitalism vs. Communism, creating a moot discussion between liberals and conservatives. All one could do was drink and get louder.
Now, I was drinking whiskey on an empty stomach, chugging one jigger after another until I fell off the front porch and into a flowerbed in the pouring rain. That’s what happens when you’re showing off in front of a beautiful girl. I could hear the 1961 James Darren song, Goodbye Cruel World, playing in the background. The last thing I remember was her looking at me and saying, “You’re going to fall flat on your face,” which was exactly what happened. The fact that nobody bothered to even pull me out of the mud just goes to show that you never really know who your friends are until you come-to in someone’s flowerbed during a rainstorm.
Somehow I managed to get home the next morning, but I don’t remember how. By noon I somehow managed to get myself sober enough to go to class. It’s a good thing I was living on campus, because there was no way in hell I could have driven myself to class. As I walked from my dorm room to the Philosophy department, I vomited until there was nothing left to vomit. How was I going to explain myself to Dr. Bloom? Food poisoning or the stomach flu? Oh, hell, who did I think I was kidding? Despite freshening up in the restroom just before class, I walked in looking like I had been in a train wreck and immediately became the butt of the philosophical topic of the day.
“Good afternoon, students,” said Dr. Bloom, gripping the sides of the podium.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Bloom,” replied the students in unison.
The staunchly built professor cleared his throat and, looking directly at me, said, “I believe Spring Break isn’t for another two weeks, Mr. Cosgray,” after which I slumped down in my chair like a puppy after getting whacked on the nose with a newspaper. Dr. Bloom was a man of patience who used words so well that you always felt important when he singled you out. Or in my case, importantly terrible.
“My dear students, I was prepared to continue with the lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, but after looking at you, Mr. Cosgray, I’ve decided to switch to a more sustainable topic. Perhaps a lecture on hedonism might do you some good. Eat, drink and be merry is not what Epicurus had in mind, Mr. Cosgray. I shall not say what you smell like, but kindly move to the very back row.”
I propped myself up on my desk, looked at Dr. Bloom and said, “I deeply apologize, Dr. Bloom. May I please talk to you after class?”
“Yes, Nathaniel, but only at a safe distance.”
To many students, but me especially, Dr. Bloom was a sage from whom we sought advice on matters requiring acroatic knowledge. He was a rotund man, about six feet tall, with a face that resembled Alexander Woollcott’s, the Town Crier who discovered the Marx Brothers. I always think of people in terms of music, and Dr. Bloom reminded me of the 2nd movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, where the instruments pair off, with the bassoons leading the way. He was the epitome of an owl wearing a pair of round spectacles, and as you would expect from an owl, he always spoke with a steady flow of stilted, didactic words that tended to form vignettes. When I entered his office, I found him kicked back in his chair with his feet on his desk. The big smile on his face was more intimidating than comforting. Knowing that he had another class in twenty minutes, I got right to the point.
“Dr. Bloom, I’m sorry about coming to class this way. I would have stayed in bed except that I’d feel guilty later on.”
“The fact that you have a conscience is good, Nathaniel. I, too, succumbed to such earthly pleasures during my undergraduate years, but never quite to such an excess! O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!” he added, quoting Cassio in Shakespeare's Othello. “Nathaniel, you must have gotten bombed out of your mind.”
“You can say that again. Believe me, I’ve learned my lesson.”
“I doubt that, but we shall see. You know, you are not attending a community college. I have a son about your age, and I’d be completely shocked to learn he was ever in the condition you’re in at this very moment. I’m sure your parents wouldn’t approve of your current condition, either.”
“Well, Dr. Bloom, I have no parents. They both passed away, and I’m completely on my own. But I get your message. Really, I do.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I’m very sorry about that, Nathaniel.”
“That’s OK. What you said is right, regardless. I’ve been living off the insurance money I got when my parents died, but that well’s about to run dry and I’m worried about my future. I don’t know how I’m going to manage on my own once I graduate.”
“This is not an employment agency, Nathaniel, but I suggest you look for a job in your field. You’re a music major, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I play violin and piano,” I replied without the slightest bit of hope in my voice.
“That’s very impressive. How good are you?"
“There isn’t anything I can’t play, and play reasonably well. But there’s so much competition out there. Getting on with a symphony orchestra isn’t as easy as it seems.”
“Nothing is, at least, nothing worthwhile. I’ve never heard you play, and even if I did, I’m no judge of musical proficiency. Tell me, what is it you’re so afraid of?”
“I can answer that in a single word: everything!”
“I believe you can narrow everything one thing — failure – but I don’t know why. Buckety-buckety, you’ve got everything going for you. You’re young, handsome, intelligent and articulate, with plenty of talent. Why can’t you get on with a well-paying symphony orchestra?”
“Dr. Bloom, getting a chair with a symphony orchestra is a lot like becoming a professional ballplayer.”
“I figure it’s hard, but I fail to see the comparison.”
“Let’s say I want to play for the Giants or the Dodgers. Only nine players can be on the field at any one time, yet there are millions of kids who would like one of those positions. It’s hard enough just to make it to the minor leagues. The odds of actually making it all the way must be one in a million.”
“Well, you don’t have to make it all the way to the pros, do you? Can’t you get a job as a sessions artist? Glen Campbell started out that way, and I’m sure many others did, too. Have you ever thought about that?”
“It isn’t any easier getting that kind of job, either. The difference between playing for the L.A. Philharmonic versus getting on with The Tonight Show is the difference between baseball and football. It may be a different field, but the competition is just as brutal.”
Changing the subject, Dr. Bloom immediately inculcated, “Nathaniel, it’s a good thing we’re studying Aristotle. The very heart of Aristotle’s philosophy is what is called, in Greek, the entelechy. That’s kind of like an acorn becoming an oak, but much more involved.”
“How so? Is Aristotle alone worth spending so much time on when there are so many other philosophers, like Kant? Isn’t studying Plato and Aristotle a lot like studying ancient history?”
“Don’t forget what Santayana said – Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Where would Kant and all the others have been without Aristotle? Aristotle is to philosophers what Shakespeare is to playwrights. There seemed to be no limit to his wisdom and knowledge. You know, the Sophists were the ones who killed Socrates for impiety and corrupting the youth. Absolute rubbish! But after Alexander the Great’s death, Aristotle hightailed it out of town. You see, Aristotle learned from history and wasn’t about to let Eurymedon the hierophant put him to death, as well. Remember what I said during one of my lectures – Aristotle was far more than a philosopher. He started off as the prodigious student of Plato, then became Alexander’s teacher, but he didn’t just sit around and think. He was a very busy man who studied just about everything imaginable and had a profound influence on philosophers, theologians, scientists and mathematicians. And on top of everything else, he was an authoritative figure in music and drama. The range and duration of his knowledge is not measured in centuries, but millennia.”
Dr. Bloom looked quite pleased after giving me such a robust, ad hoc lecture on Aristotle and awaited my response as though prepared to sing an encore. The problem with talking to one of your college professors is that fear of being taken for an idiot.
“Yes, I know. I found that out while working on my essay on Aquinas.”
“Saint Thomas himself was quite an amazing man. He had the temerity to adopt ideas from Aristotle – who lived 384 years before Christ. Try to imagine that, Nathaniel.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment, Dr. Bloom,” I replied, unintentionally sounding like a patronizing tyro.
“An accomplishment? You mean an earth-shattering accomplishment! Hopefully, you ascertained that from at least one of my lectures. What Saint Thomas did during his day would have been considered absolute heresy had it been professed by Saint Augustine, and you know what they did with heretics back then,” added Dr. Bloom, swiping his index finger across his throat with his chin raised high.
“Like putting a dumb ox to death,” I joked.
“Ha! I never thought of it that way. I’ll have to remember that for a future lecture. Now, to get back to the point. As your philosophy professor, I will be more than happy to do my best to teach you Aristotle’s philosophy, but as far as entelechy is concerned, I am neither a priest nor a rabbi and would rather not delve into it.”
That was as far as I got with Dr. Bloom that day. For a classical musician, the road was usually a rough one. It was hard enough to find a classical station on the radio, let alone find a permanent job with a symphony orchestra. I always figured my good sight reading ability would lead to a job as a session musician, but working out of recording studios was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Even though classical music seemed to take a back burner to popular music in the 1970s, I was able to hang on to hope. With President Nixon ending the war and then the draft, this was a decade I grew to like. I was always afraid of ending up in the middle of the war like my brother. Now that military service was voluntary, I was in the free zone. Of course, you still had to register for it as soon as you turned eighteen, and I got chewed out by some old man for registering late, but the fear of waking up to a bugle was a thing of the past. Now, without the Vietnam War to sing about, I could only wonder in which direction the rock music machine would roll. It was a decade that had a redefining purpose, yet I couldn’t quite define it. I had enough on my plate just defining myself.
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