Episode 022 - Earthly Angels Bring Me Puzzle Pieces

Today we have Steve Birch, who is chock full of stories about sneaking into shows as a teenager and tracking down musicians at their hotels. He has been a musician, a producer, a songwriter, an author, and played many other roles on his journey through this world, and he shares a couple of those stories about the beautiful people who turned up in his life at the right time and in the right way to really make an impact on him. Here is my favorite quote, because it’s just what I need to hear at this point in my life, “That’s the key, moving in a direction but not being rigid about it, releasing expectations of the destination but move in the direction of where you think you want to go. And then that’s when the surprises happen. That’s when those doors swing open.”

My deep gratitude to Steve for spending the time and sharing himself and his experiences with me. I can’t wait to read his book.

My loving thanks to Flora Folgar for her help with the editing.

Music for this episode comes from Free Music Archive which, at the time of publication of this episode, has been acquired by Tribe of Noise and is not currently linkable. Our opening theme is “Start Again” by Monk Turner and Fascinoma. Other music that appears in this episode:

“Trio for Piano, Violin, and Viola” by Kevin MacLeod at 6:49

“Kelli’s Number” by U.S. Army Blues at 12:51

“The Edge of Nowhere” by Scott Holmes at 16:17

““Driven to Success” by Scott Holmes at 20:14

“Sweet Spot” by Scanglobe at 27:12

“Bells and Vibes” by Michael Brückner at 35:23

“I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” by John H. Glover-Kind at 41:41

“Deep Dual Love” by Jared C. Balogh at 44:32

Here’s the transcript:

As a kid, I remember my earliest memory, my earliest really vivid memory is being in a basket under my mother’s grand piano in our living room. And she was like the president of the chamber music society, and she was always having chamber music rehearsals and everything. So I was in this basket, and I looked over to my right, and there were my mom’s bare feet working the pedals, and I could hear the dampers on the strings above me thunking on the strings, and I looked out, and there were the string musicians, like a cellist and a violist, in their folding chairs swaying with the music, and I could smell the resin from the bows.

So music was, it was just always there. It wasn’t, “Do you want to play an instrument?” It was, “Which instrument do you want to play?” So I picked up the flute. It looked like an easy thing to carry. And I liked the way it sounded. Because I saw these other kids lugging tubas and euphoniums and stuff around.

I was pretty resolved that I was going to be in the music business. I didn’t know how, but I was just so drawn to it. And at 13, I started working in this college radio station. They were in the midst of an inventory, and I asked how I could help, and they gave me a broom and put me to work doing things that no one wanted to do, just helping them with inventory and emptying the waste baskets and stuff. But that changed really quickly. If someone didn’t show up for their show, I was on the air, and before I knew it, I was doing radio shows and teaching the new college students coming in how to run the equipment.

And then when I got older, I got into junior high and high school, and I was not working at the radio station anymore, but I still wanted to meet all these people that were coming through town. First, I would cold call all the hotels in town and ask for their rooms. One of the people I wanted to get was Chick Corea when he was in town doing a concert, and so I called around and just asked for his room at the Hyatt or whatever hotel it was, and his manager picked up, and he figured out what this was. I was just a kid who wanted to meet Chick. He gave the phone to Chick, and so we talked for a minute, and he said, “So are you coming to the concert tonight?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well just, why don’t you just come backstage?” I said, “Ok.” 

It’s almost like these footprints were laid out in front of me, and I was just as nervous and scared and ill-prepared as I was, I just put one foot in front of the other.

And so I went to this concert, and when it was over, I went backstage, and there was just this crowd of people there, and they were all getting autographs and taking pictures, and people bringing him flowers and all kinds of things. I’m pressed against the back wall, and the people started to part, and he points at me and says, “Steve?” I say, “Yeah.” And he calls me in, so I go in the dressing room, and we sit on the backs of these folding chairs next to a fruit bowl, and we just, I started… He was so open with me, so giving. He just says, “So, what’s going on? I heard that you wanted to go to New York. What do you want to… Is there anything that you wanted to ask me about?” And we just had this probably half an hour conversation. Me and Chick Corea, in his dressing room, sitting on the backs of the folding chairs, and it was expanding my world to know that this person who I had been listening to and studying and admiring was just a guy, and he was accessible.

And you know, when it didn’t work, when I couldn’t reach them at a hotel, I’d call around, call everyone, and no one would have them staying, they’re probably under a different name or under someone else’s name, so what I would do in those cases is I would go to, the afternoon of the concert, I would go to the venue to the stage door, knowing that they would be off-loading equipment onto the stage from the trucks. And I walked up to the stage door, and there’s a stage manager there and everything, and just walked over and grabbed a mic stand off the back of the truck and walked it in and went back out, grabbed a little box of mic cords or something, and did that like 3 or 4 times, and then I was in. And it worked. It worked so many times. It worked time after time after time.

So that was my bridge from this small town in Michigan to getting up the nerve to say, “OK, yeah. I’m going to go and immerse myself in this world.” And so that’s what I did. L.A., when I was 20.

I was so ill-prepared. I had been there for maybe a week, and I decided, “OK, I have to go down to the Hollywood Musicians Union and see what this is all about, see if I can make some connections and stuff.” I remember, I went downstairs into the basement, and there was a big band rehearsal going on. They have the door open because it’s blazing hot down there, and they’re just doing this rehearsal, and there’s this guy with this tenor sax on a stand, and he’s just slumping in a chair smoking a pipe while this rehearsal is going on. And I’m listening. The band is kicking. And he takes his pipe and puts it on the music stand at one point and reaches over and picks up the sax and straps it on, and still laying back slumped in his chair just blew the most blazing sax solo I had ever heard, effortlessly. And I remember being just awestruck and defeated at the same time realizing that no, these were world class players. I had stepped into something that I was absolutely not prepared for.

But I was picking up whatever I could, and there just wasn’t any work. And it got to a point where I just had to make a living, just to be able to stay there and not move back to Michigan and lose face. You know? Because I was the one who got out.

Talk about transformational moments. Sometimes they’re nice and perfectly laid out, as if planned. And sometimes they’re trainwrecks. And this was my trainwreck, this was my bottom. I was driving a delivery vehicle in Skid Row and the Jewelry District and the Garment District, and just all over L.A., and I was doing a lot of drinking, and so I would drink to put myself to sleep at night, and I’d get up in the morning and take little white pills and stuff to get me going, sometimes like a handful. And drinking coffee and taking these pills. And I remember, I was in this frenetic state, and so I would rush through everything, and I was driving very recklessly and everything. I came around a corner and realized as I swung around the corner that there was like a shadow of a person in front of me, and I just brushed past them, and I looked over as they fell away from my truck. I could see this horror on their face, this terror. And I still see that face today. I will always see that face. And as I continued to drive, I looked in the rearview mirror, and he’s cursing me. He’s OK, and he was just one of the guys on Skid Row. You know? But in a way, he’s the guy who saved my life because almost running this guy over, almost killing this guy, was the thing that made me say, “I can’t. I can’t keep going like this.”

And so, I drove the truck to my therapist’s office and just sat in the waiting room until she would see me. And she came to see me, and I gave her the keys to the truck and said, “I’m done.” And that afternoon, I was checked into a hospital, and I was there for about 10 months. I was having suicidal feelings. I was having even homicidal feelings at times. I just had all this rage inside that was unresolved, and so I had to take that time. And fortunately, I had insurance that allowed me that time. I just stopped my life and said, “No, I have to fix this.” And I had this sense that, if I didn’t fix it, I wouldn’t be able to live out my purpose or even find what that purpose was.

And I had a boss who kept my job for all that time and in fact welcomed me back when I left. I was so blessed with just wonderful people. There were these angels that just kept appearing that were just wonderful. That’s a theme for me, is these angels who pop up. And sometimes it’s a very mystical thing, and other times it’s like that guy I almost killed. To me, in my memory, this is the guy who helped me turn that metaphorical corner in my life as I almost killed him turning the corner with the truck. And I imagine, in my musings I imagine, maybe I had the same effect on him. I don’t know.

I got back on my feet. And I was at this for a long time. I mean, I was getting my act together for the good part of a decade, and I got to a point where I was feeling really grounded and assessing my life and saying, you know, there were problems. Some of that stuff I did with music, I did for the wrong reasons and all that, but I still loved music, and there was still a big part of me that wanted to be there because those are my people. That is my tribe, you know?

So I decided I’m going to go for it again. And at that point in time, I was pretty clear that, yeah, it wasn’t going to be as a musician. I just wasn’t that good. So I decided that I still liked putting music together. I liked the studio aspect of it, putting the pieces of a song together and working with musicians. So I thought, yeah, OK, I could be like an engineer or producer or something. So I took a bunch of classes at Cal State L.A. and UCLA. And I met this guy, he was one of my teachers, he was a Record Production teacher, and he was a serious working musician. This guy was a monster player. And we hit it off, and he helped me put together my production demo so I could show my skills as a producer, and I decided, OK, now I need to find somewhere where I can work my way into the business and do this record producing thing. And again, I had no idea what I was doing, but I just went for it anyway. And I remembered that there was this guy who I had met a couple times in passing back in Kalamazoo.

So I figured, if I could get this tape to him, since he had become a producer, a really hot pop producer, then maybe there could be some work there. But I didn’t know how to reach him. But I knew he had a studio in San Francisco, and I knew he was from Kalamazoo. And I figured he’s gotta still have some family there. So I went back to my old childhood ways, my tricks, and started cold calling. 

So I called and called and called, and then I got his mother, and I said, “I’m going to be in San Francisco on business, and I was really hoping to connect while I was up there, but I don’t have any of his current contact information or anything.” And so she just assumed I was an old friend. She said, “Oh, baby, just a minute, let me get it.” So she gave me the address to his studio and the telephone number to the studio. So I drove up. I rented a car, booked a hotel room, spending all kinds of money I didn’t have. I was going to take this tape, I was going to get in that door somehow.

So I drove up there, found the studio, it was just around the corner from San Quentin, found a phone booth, and called the number. Now this guy, he was huge at the time, and he was just in this incredible zone as a producer. So I called him, and he had like 10 people working for him in the studio, but for some reason when I called, he picked up the phone. So I just went to work. I just started to talk my behind off. He said, “So where are you now? What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m just up the street in a phone booth.” He’s like, “Here? In San Rafael?” So he reluctantly asked me if I wanted to come down. I said, “Yeah, be there in a minute!”

So I drove down to the studio, and he met me at the door, and the first words out of his mouth as I was walking through the door, he said, “So what do you have for me?” So I reached in my pocket, and I hand him this cassette tape of my 3 little musical pieces, and he put it immediately into a boombox there in the lobby and listened to, oh, I don’t know, maybe 20, 25 seconds of it, turned it off, and handed it back to me. Oh man. OK. So is this how it’s all going to end? All this stuff, all the classes, all the studio time, all this stuff, he was my best bet to get in with a production team. And he was clearly not interested. He knew that I wasn’t up to their level.

But he was nice, and he said, “Hey, look, you want to come back and see what we’re doing?” So I followed him down this dark hallway to the control room, and there was this little guy hunched over a piano in one of the booths, and he walked over to that room. He slid the door open, and he stuck his head in and said to the guy inside, he says, “I want you to meet Steve. He’s from Kalamazoo. He’s a writer. You guys talk.” And then he turned to me, and he said, “This guy is the songwriter of the ‘90s. You guys need to work it out.” And then he left.

So we talk, these 2 socially awkward musical geeks trying to carry on a conversation, and it’s going nowhere. And so, in my head, I’m tallying up all the money I’ve spent and saying, well, I’m just going to have to write this whole thing off as an experience. And so I’m starting to say my goodbyes, and I get one foot out the door, literally, and he says, “So do you write lyrics?” I say, “Yeah.” I had never written a lyric in my life. So he reaches over to his desk and picks up this cassette tape, and he’s going, “I have these 3 songs. I need lyrics. I need these things done. I was like, “Cool.” So yeah, I took the cassette, I said, “So when do you need them?” And he said, “Tape rolls tomorrow at noon.”

So here I am, with the opportunity to write the first 3 songs of my life, and I have about 18 hours to do it. So I drove up and parked under a streetlight in front of an all-night diner so I could keep the coffee flowing, stay awake while I hammer out these songs. Now, I had no idea how to write a song. I never paid attention to lyrics because I was so into the music, but here I am being asked to write the lyrics to these songs. And they were completed songs. They were studio-quality with a la-la melody over the top and a song title. So I had to create these stories around a song title to match the melody. I didn’t know what to do, so I just went by the seat of my pants and said, “What would a writer do? How logically would they go about it?”

So I just wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, until I fell asleep. Woke up the next morning. The lyrics are crumpled at my feet, and I pick them up, flatten them out. The sun is high in the sky, and I still have 2 verses to write. So I crank them out really quick and hit the road. I get there about 20 after 12. They’ve been there, they’re just waiting for me. The music is up on the monitors. The vocalist is all warmed up waiting in the vocal booth, and this writer is across the room nervously, I’m sure, imagining the extra money he’s going to have to pay for the studio time because he doesn’t have lyrics for these songs.

And he sees me walk through the door. “So you have it? Do you have it?” And I just raised up this legal pad, this crumpled legal pad with the lyrics, just cooler than I had any business being. And he rushed over and took it from me and read through the first one, then flipped the page real quick and started reading through the second song and started to slow down, and slowly turned the page and read the third and just sat there for a second and then turned to me and said, “Cool.” Walked out into the studio, put this pad on the music stand and taught this singer the melody to show her how the words would go with the song. So those 3 songs ended up being the first 3 of over 200 songs we wrote together. And that was what launched me into this career that consumed the next 10 or 15 years of my life. Never had I set my sights on being a lyricist. I’d never imagined that. But I found that it was the perfect thing for what I had been prepared for in life.

I set the intention, but when you set the intention, one of the tricks to that is that you can’t be rigid about it. You set your intention, and you release it to the universe to whatever is going to happen, whatever door swings open for you. I was on this journey to reawaken this childhood dream of being in the music business, and I thought I knew where I was going, but I didn’t. And that’s happened to me so many times in life that I’ve come to really trust it. That’s the key, moving in a direction but not being rigid about it, releasing expectations of the destination but move in the direction of where you think you want to go. And then that’s when the surprises happen. That’s when those doors swing open. 

I have to go back a little bit. My immediate family, my father and us kids, we were like black sheep in the family. We were really different. But it always bothered me that I didn’t know why we were so different. And then we had a grandfather who I did not connect with at all. He was this beloved doctor. He delivered me, and I never connected with him. 

When I was probably 16 years old, my dad pulled me aside and explained to me that my grandpa was not his birth father, that he was his stepfather and that my father had been adopted when his stepfather married my grandmother. It was apparently very serious for my dad. And “Don’t bring it up because it really upsets your grandmother” and all this subterfuge, all this stuff. It was apparently a chapter in her life that she just wanted to bury.  I knew that my dad was really, he was really wounded when his father left him. He was 9 years old. His dad left, and he was never heard from again.

But I wanted to help my dad find what happened to this guy, and I imagine from the way my grandmother tightened up and got angry whenever the subject would come up, I just assumed that this guy probably just died homeless under a bridge somewhere. But I continued to help my dad look. And his name was Joe Miller. We didn’t know what state he was in. But years into this, after helping my dad search every 5 years or so, I’m grown. And I’m on the phone with my brother, we’re having this conversation, and we’re finishing up the conversation, he said, “Oh yeah,” he said, “Did you hear about the circus picture?” It’s like, “Huh?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, there’s… Larry found a circus picture.” And Larry was a guy who was my parents’ best friend. He introduced them to each other and everything.

So what happened was, he was down in Florida, and he was going through a local yard sale. He came across a stack of New Yorker magazines for a nickel apiece, so he bought the whole stack to have something to read while he was down there. And he opens up one of these New Yorker magazines to see this picture, a class picture of the sideshow from the Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Combined Circus. And there’s a guy down in the corner who my dad’s best friend said looked just like my dad looked when he met him in college. And he was doing a contortion that my dad used to do when he was in college. It’s like when they met, when these 2 guys met, my dad and his roommate, they’re getting to know each other, and my dad says, “Yeah, they tell me that my grandfather was a contortionist in the circus, and look, I can do some tricks too!” And he disjointed his shoulders and crossed his arms behind his head, with his arms sticking out straight the wrong way. And there’s this picture of this guy looking like my dad doing that same contortion in this picture from Madison Square Garden in 1929. It’s entitled “The Congress of Freaks.”

And I’m doing Google searches to try and find something. Boom, there’s a posting from a circus genealogy bulletin board where people are looking for their relatives from the circus. There are no responses to this posting that was posted like 6 years prior to my seeing it. It’s just sitting out there. And this woman is looking for, I think her great uncle Lan, or her uncle Lan, or something, who was double-jointed.

So I write to her, and it’s after midnight, and the house was totally asleep. And there’s this email from a woman who says, “I can’t believe it. Seems like every year at Christmas, another relative finds me.” She was in her early 70s. She had been a lifelong genealogist who had done the whole family tree, but it had run cold at her uncle Lan, my great grandfather, that leg of the tree.

So she writes this letter back to me, tells me what she knows, and I’m starting to close this thing down, and I notice that there’s an attachment to the email. So I open it back up, click on the attachment. It opens up, and there’s this picture, this sepia tone picture of a little boy, probably 4 years old, who looks exactly like I looked at that age. And written in calligraphy underneath the image, it says Master Joseph Dustin Miller. This was the first picture I ever saw of my grandfather, and I’m at this point, I’m well into my 40s when I see this for the first time.

It was one of these moments where everything became very surreal. It was very unreal feeling as I’m sitting there looking into the eyes of this child from generations before me. And I get a sense that my wife is coming down the stairs, and I call her name, and she doesn’t answer, and so I look up from the picture, and that’s when I saw the ancestors gathering, gathering like they would around a street performer, with little kids trying to see between legs and between people to see what’s going on as I’m reconnecting with this lost generation in my life. I mean, and it was filmy, and it was just light, but it was clearly people. And they were there for the moment.

So the next morning, I write to the woman. She writes right back, and she introduces me to a couple of people, and they introduce me to a couple people. And I’m doing more and more searches now that I know where he was.

He’d left in Prohibition Chicago. My grandfather, turns out, was an emcee in Vaudeville and burlesque, and he would tell corny jokes. It was like, he would take a piece of bread out, and he’d say, “Now I’m going to sing, ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody’,” and he’d put it in his pocket. He’d come to the end of the song, he’d pull out a piece of toast. It was just really bad, corny Vaudeville stuff. This man who was a Vaudeville burlesque entertainer had had a knock down, drag out fight with my grandmother because he caught her with the grandfather I knew growing up. They had this fight, he disappeared, was never heard from again. Nearly 70 years, never heard from. And she would never help along the way, help us put it together.

So I break the code. The code is broken with this circus picture, you know? That’s the thing that lit me up to search again, and to search with passion. Things started falling into place like... you know, they talk about moving in the direction of your passion, and the universe will conspire to support you. I felt like I was riding a wave and like I was having all these, at the time I would refer to them as rolling epiphanies because it was like everyone I talked to, every turn, every email I received, there were all these people welcoming me to my connection to my family. People who knew my grandfather, people who loved my grandfather.

So there’s all this stuff is emerging, and it’s all emerging, I’m telling you, from the moment I opened the picture in the email, to see that picture of my grandfather, that little 4-year-old boy, to 5 weeks later, I’ve met all these people. And all these people come together to celebrate what would’ve been his hundredth birthday, and I was the guest of honor. All these mystical experiences started coming at me. It was this season of awakening for me that changed everything.

But I learned through this experience and connecting with these aunts and uncles that had no idea that I existed or my dad existed. I was able to bring them all together and find a place for healing those wounds, for reconciliation, for reconnection. And ultimately, I believe, to heal those wounds for those who had long past. There was so much damage through the generations, so much disconnection, so much pain that it needed to be healed. It needed to be healed for all those who are living today who struggled with their strained relationships with their father, you know, this man who abandoned my father, and for all the generations to come.

And that happened very miraculously. It just… It just happened. It fell in my lap, the one person who was best equipped, because it meant so much to me to solve the mysteries for my dad. And also because I was the one who was, who had become now a wordsmith, through my lyric writing and all of that. So I didn’t know how to write a book, but I knew enough to get a start and imagine what a writer would do, just like I did with the lyrics. And so I started doing it, and more things started coming, and I started getting visited by Spirit and by earthly angels who had a piece of the puzzle to bring to me.

And so I’m taking pieces of that, stringing all those experiences together, those things I didn’t feel like I was worthy enough to tackle. Who am I to say I’m a writer, or to suggest that I had anything worthwhile to hear? But I’m at the point now where I’ve had so many experiences and learned so much in life and feel like I’ve been gifted so much that now I’m compelled to get to that place where I can share it, share it out.

But it was so cool, you know? And it’s just… It’s all very pedestrian. It just happens in my life. None of this is sacred. I like to have fun with it all. I don’t take myself that seriously. I’ll tell you, when I hit 50, that’s when I decided that I was going to be honest and speak my mind, and when I hit 60, that’s when I decided I was, if I’m going to share myself, I’m going to share my heart. And I’m not going to do it halfway. I’m going to do the damn thing. You know? My wife says that. Whenever she sees me backing away from something or being cautious, she says, “Just do the damn thing.”