Editor note: A big thank you to our beloved member/mascot/fixture, Tom Jackson. Here’s his story about how he quit his job to take a sabbatical from work to focus on music. We love seeing you here every day, Tom. You truly are family.
It’s 10:48 in the morning. It’s a Tuesday. This call is already 48 minutes over schedule. This call felt like it was 48 minutes over schedule when it started. Working on a large project, with too many people involved, these things happen. Or so that’s what I always told myself. I chime in to make my point about long-term strategy and making sure all stakeholders in the project get proper consideration. Let me translate that office schmuck sentence that I just gave you into English – “Hey dumbass, don’t put another Band-Aid on this project and quit Tom Jackson Smalltrying to screw over the guys in operations.’ After making my point, emphatically as I can, while maintaining that good old ‘professional conduct,’ I put my phone on mute.
In these moments I naturally tend to start singing to myself, usually whatever I was listening to on my morning commute. Maybe it’s the Kings of Leon, maybe it’s the Black Keys, maybe it’s some new band that I’m stoked on like Hockey Dad. Tapping my finger and singing under my breath, it’s my healthy distraction. Then my favorite member of the conversation chimes in, the good old ‘double point’ guy. You know the ‘guy,’ his name is Terry or Jenny or Carmichael, and he’s that guy that repeats a notion that’s already been brought up on the call. All he does is add a word or two to the sentence that somebody already brought up, that’s it, but now he can bring up ‘his’ point again on the next call. I hate Carmichael. The sad part is, it’s the seventh person on the call for the same topic. At that point, they just sound like the mom/teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons, and I zone out. It’s now 11:16 and the call is finally wrapping up. I hang up the phone.
I had had enough; this was the point where I hit my wall. You might be thinking, “C’mon TJ, every place has bad meetings and people that suck?” True, but I’d been teetering for a long time, a loooong time. Not to bore you with the blah, blah, blah details, but suffice to say the last three years of work had been rough. That last call was just a microcosm, the straw that broke good old Tommy J’s back. Sure, there were great people that I worked with, and I did a few things that I was pretty proud of, but I just had to take a break, a break from this absurd environment. I was tired of everyday feeling like the same day. I was tired of the mind-numbing bureaucracy. I was tired of being angry and frustrated all the time at work. So right then and there I decided to start saving money and plan for a sabbatical from work.
The work thing was definitely a huge part of wanting to take the sabbatical. The grind had gotten to me, but there was something else involved too. I’m 37, getting a little long in the tooth. I’m the dude that’s always had the sweet Ibanez acoustic guitar sitting in the corner of his apartment, and every so often I picked it up and learned a thing or two. I can crush ‘Flake’ by Jack Johnson. It’s a real lady pleaser [Editor’s note – He cannot ‘crush’ Flake nor does he know if it’s lady pleaser by experience]. Consistently that’s all the guitar was, just a showpiece or something I’d pick up on occasion and just jam out to. Just jam out, make up little riffs that didn’t really connect with anything or have direction. But I enjoyed it, I’d create something, even if was just a little three-chord doodad and it felt good. So I decided I needed to get serious and just give music a shot for a bit. So naturally I decided to pick up the drums. Pause for collective head scratch. Here’s my logic – I figured I’d learn about time, pace and ‘round’ myself out if I took drum lessons. I had been taking drum lessons with a guy by the name of David Agee (I’ll get to him a bit later on) for a while, but it was just like the guitar. I didn’t focus; I found ways to get distracted. Some legit, like work trips, some not, like going out with friends and general apathy. Then Dave started teaching at Altered Stage and brought me along. That changed things for me. Altered offers more than just lessons, it had other people just like me that were regular folks but wanted to learn music. A cool community, with similar backgrounds and similar desires to learn and play. But what really made it great for me was the structure; the lessons with Dave, a sweet practice venue, songwriting classes and they set up gigs at real music venues in Chicago. The kegerator doesn’t hurt either.
But let me back up a bit. Four months before making my decision, I went on vacation to break up the daily monotony. I went to Amsterdam. Sure I was there to see the sights; the beautiful canals, the Van Gogh museum (highly recommended by yours truly), the ‘coffee shops’ – I promise mom, I only had lattes [Editors note, he only had lattes because he couldn’t figure out how to roll the hash he bought]. Oh, and what’s with all the red lights. Hmmmm. PT.2 – Mom I just walked around and checked out the scene [Editor’s note – truth on this front]. I tried going to a soccer (try to say football when you are on that side of the Atlantic, if you not you’ll just sound like a dipshit to the locals), but couldn’t scalp tickets. But the real reason, the catalyst for my trip, was to see Bloc Party. Their album, Silent Alarm, is my favorite album of all time, most likely will be for the rest of my days. I’m obsessed with that album. Maybe you like Bloc Party, maybe don’t like Bloc Party, that’s not the point here. It was one of my favorite bands ever, half way around the world, and playing in a pretty small venue to boot, what’s not to like?
The night did not disappoint; they were on point, and the crowd was properly drunk and rowdy. It was truly magical. It was damn near religious. Have you ever had one of those moments when you listen to music, and it’s just the truth? It speaks to you at a very deep level. That was this concert. Cherry on the cake, they played Modern Love and Banquet, my two favorite songs by them, for their encore. It blew my doors off, the buzz I felt was insatiable. Run to this feeling, run to music. That’s what I felt at that moment. I’ve always been the jubilant receptor of music, but if I could be the conduit of music, even in the tiniest of ways, then I would doing something I loved. So that was the grand precursor to hanging up on that Tuesday phone call. Making the leap, as scary as the thought has been throughout the whole process, felt very right at that moment. The seed had been planted.
But back to reality a bit. Do I ever plan to play at a Hard Rock venue near you soon? Do I ever plan on hearing one of my songs on Casey Kasem (RIP Homey) top 40 hits? No, probably not. But that’s not the point. The point, for me, is to be able to play music. Perhaps that grand pie in the sky, play my own music someday. Even if I end up sounding like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite, I can look myself in the mirror and say to myself I did it. What else are we trying to do in this crazy world, besides scratch that kind of itch?
But as I mentioned I needed structure, I needed guidance. Enter the grand sensei, my Splinter [Editor’s note – Yes, a 37-year-old man is making a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles reference], the man himself, David Agee. I’m convinced the dude is half baby kangaroo because he’s always in a pocket. My secret nickname for him is ‘Lint,’ because guess where he is??? He’s always in the pocket! Alright, alright, enough with the schticky drummer references. What I’m trying to say is, I’m pretty sure David Agee is the best musician that I’ll ever meet and surely the best I’ll ever play with. Sometimes when he’s teaching me something, he’ll add a little ‘sauce’ to it. Sauce equates to him doing some epic fill or five-limbed-worthy groove, practically sonic acid to melt my face. Every time it happens I just furrow my brow in astonishment and quietly ask myself ‘Ummm, how long before I can get that good?’ It’s crazy what he can do with the d
rums, with music period. But Dave’s also an awesome dude. We talk the perils of fantasy football and how early Coldplay was pretty amazing (IT IS!) and just life stuff. He’s a good dude, a patient dude. Have you seen the movie Whiplash? If not I’ll give you the necessary two hours to watch it now. Go now. If you have seen it, he’s the opposite of the teacher in that excellent film. He’s not going around getting all Rick James on folks when they are a bit out of time. Which is splendid for me, because folks the drums are hard and I struggle sometimes.
I mean what instrument requires that all four limbs are trying to do something at the same time or are setting up to do things at the same time or setting up to counteract each other? It’s crazy. It’s some straight up rub your belly and tap your head stuff at times. And don’t get me started on my right leg. I’m convinced I did something horrifically wrong with it in a past life, like chop it off or step into lava because it refuses to cooperate. It acts like it’s not on team TJ. It’s evil! Which leads me to getting frustrated, kind of a lot, but Dave bears with me, and we hack through. Now don’t get me wrong, banging the crap out of those drums can be a lot of fun. A lot of fun. And there are times when I’m feeling on time and absolutely in the groove, and it’s just awesome. But it’s like anything worth doing, it takes work and sometimes it’s just tough. But there’s Dave helping me through it. Having that kind of personality and tremendous talent to teach, available to me, is truly nothing short of incredible.
So I quit my job, got the structure and guidance needed and that brings me to present moment. I’ve been on my sabbatical from work for five months, and it’s been a trip. I’ve tried to practice a couple of hours a day and even though it’s very much a work in progress, I think I’ve made some decent strides. The biggest indicator of that improvement, hands down, is that I played music in front of random people at Reggie’s. I’m talking Reggie’s; it has that biker vibe to it and sure enough there were some gnarly looking dudes in the back. I definitely had some rough spots in my performance, but none of the huge men in the back came up on stage and kicked my ass. So I guess it wasn’t too bad. But seriously that’s straight up some bucket list stuff there; I played music in front of strangers. Awesome.
Five months is about as long as I could realistically go before needing a plan to get back to the real world. Sadly, I’ve started firing up my network of colleagues and submitting resumes on job boards. Sigh. But I’m still doing the music every day, and I finally put an original tune in front of Dave, and we’ve started working on it. As I said earlier, I have to be able to look at the dude in the mirror, so hopefully I get that finished and summon the cojones (pronounced – “ba-lls”) and play that in front of people. We’ll see. I gotta say, this sabbatical from work has been a real good thing for me. Music is now more of a habit, then happenstance. I’ve realized that music is math with a soul. It’s infinite, so there’s always room to get better, but every step in getting better comes with a bit or reward. A small smile on my face when I finally nail that fill or the cool feeling I get when a little riff I’m working on connects. It’s funny; it’s those simple things that have made playing music consistently rewarding during my time off. Like last Tuesday, 11:16 AM came, and I wasn’t hanging up on a shitty conference call. I was working on music. Pretty rad my friends, pretty rad indeed!