Let me be 120%, Swarovksi-clear: I hate the sound of my voice. Hate it.
Won’t listen to it. Won’t harmonize. Won’t do multiple takes on a vocal track. Won’t listen to my TV and radio interviews. Won’t record a goddamn “Hi, you’ve reached [redacted], leave a message after the ..” Nothing. I wasn’t born Morgan Freeman or Ryen Russillo. I sound like a 23rd-Century robot-parrot hybrid after 12 cartons of Winston, 3 gallons of cough syrup and shot out of a cannon, filtered through a vocoder.
Or, as I got in junior high, often, … Gilbert Gottfried.
Around 1993-94, when dudes and their voices started turning from mice into bears and I was entering a new school district at an already awkward point in my life made all the more awkward by having to introduce myself to everyone, I began to get ruthlessly hammered for the tone and timbre of my harmonics.
“OMG U SOUND LIKE THAT BIRD FROM ALADDIN.”
“GAWD WILL U SHUT UP UR VOICE IS LIKE SO ANNOYING.”
“EWWW SHHHH GROSS U COULD BREAK GLASS”
It was high-pitched, razor-sharp, tinny and toneless. Like the maid from The Jetsons sucking on a helium balloon. I don’t know why it sounded like it did. I didn’t know how to ‘fix’ it. Folks treated it like a switch I could just turn on-and-off. “Oh, don’t get him excited, he’ll burst into yapping chihuahua-bot mode again.”
I went home sad, a lot. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell my siblings. I didn’t tell anyone. I just learned to stay real, real quiet.
Of course, my dream, my passion, my life-long ambition … was to do Sports Talk Radio. I’m totally serious. From the time I was a 7 year-old, sitting in Pane’s Restaurant and my Papa asked me “What do you want to do?” and my mom was all like “He’s going to be the next Bob Costas,” and I agreed because, quite honestly, I couldn’t think of anything that sounded better, I knew. Sports Radio. Always wanted to do it. And I would go to Syracuse University, the greatest school in the history of sports radio announcer people EVER and would become the finest voice in all the land. Unicorns and private jets for all.
I would sit there in my parents’ bedroom next to their silver stereo/alarm-clock listening to the cognac-smooth Ted Darling or the circus-crazy Rick Jennarett on radio. These were the only two men I’d ever willfully invite into my home 80 times a year without seeking a restraining order. And I would take notes. Emulate. Dream about myself, one day, calling the Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup victory.
I must’ve pretended to do it 100 times or more. I would talk into one of those Fisher-Price toy radio things, I do believe it looked like this:
And I would call the action. “Mogilny passes to Hawerchuk passes back to Mogilny to LaFontaine … he-shoot-zee-SCOOOOORRREESSSSS!!!!!!” [unintelligible crowd noise] “AND THE SABRES WIN THE STANLEY CUP! AND THE CROWD IS GOING WILD!!”
And then it was dinner time.
I never had a desire to sing. Ever. I mean, I HAD sung, in carol groups or school plays or something, like, all gun-to-my-head [or, the glare of the father] and whatnot, but I would’ve rather been dump-trucked by Bruce Smith than thrown up on stage, lights ablaze, belting out the tune of god-knows-what.
And karaoke? Well, that drunken amateur shit-show can go take it’s teleprompter-wielding ass right over the tar pits. You need to inject me with an IV of The Glenlivet and a handful of Percocet before you catch me anywhere near a microphone at a karaoke bar. I can sing bad renditions of classic rock covers in my car, thanks. And it would actually be illegal for me to be that drunk to do so.
One day, Senior year of High School, I was in the process of drumming for a soft-rock band in an attempt to get into a school-sponsored talent show. Due to our incapability of ruffling any feathers whatsoever, we selected this lame-ass Peabo Bryson Adult Contemporary take-a-blow-torch-to-my-ears-piece-of-shit-not-even-music song for some doucheasaurus rex friend of ours to croon along to. Ahem, sorry for the language. But, I mean, LISTEN TO THIS MUSICAUST: You’ll agree:
You know what? Even better. The song’s by KENNY FUCKING G. I apologize if you vomited on your laptops. Spit-up bucket’s to your left.
Anyways, so said douchesaurus rex decided to skip out on rehearsal the night we were supposed to audition.
Look. I’m not going to lie to you. We didn’t know the song anyway. Let me repeat that. We DID NOT KNOW THE SONG.
So we sat there, me behind the drum set, my boy rocking some bongos, my other boy with his idle guitar, my man with a sax on a stand, and my otha brotha (white… naturally) with a bass around his neck. There was yelling. There was chaos, and I believe me and the bongoist (what, that’s not a word?) were playing a game of “Would you do?” with girls from the high school soccer team.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I decide we would attempt Creep by Radiohead. Our singer could easily learn the lyrics to that, and we all liked the song well enough. We ran through it a couple of times in rehearsal that day, so boom! Ready!
Right!! So we went through and decided to play it for the audition. Well, lo and behold, we got ourselves a gig for the talent show that night!! We are about to be rock stars! We are about to slay the school with some edgy grunge straight out of the Seattle glory days! Screaming guitar! Driving bass! All we have to do is get everybody together before we went on, and…
Well, as fate would have it… the singer picked a fight and quit 15 minutes before we were slated to appear on stage.
The other kids in the band came over to me, and might as well have been carrying a vitals chart and delivering an ETD.
“So, ummm … he’s not going to sing with us tonight.”
Cue my understated calm: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”
“Yeah… ummm… we can’t play. We have no singer.”
Cue my borderline Tourette’s: “That’s bullshit!!! Fuck him, man! Where is he! I’m gonna talk to him and ring his fucking neck!” Well spoken. Tactful.
10 Minutes to show time. Dude, we can’t back out now. We gotta be rock stars! We gotta show the entire world that we are more than just band nerds and degenerate in-school drunks!
This is my time to rise up and do something completely out of character.
“Dude, you can’t sing – you’re the fucking drummer.”
The kid on bongos, with feeling: “I’ll be the fucking drummer! Yeah! Brahahahahaha!” With that kind of intensity, I wish he discovered his true calling as a professional wrestler.
I stuttered, “Yeah, man… I’ll do it. It can’t be that hard. I know the words and whatever.
And so we all went backstage to get our shit set up. I had to clear my mind.
My head was buzzing. You know that feeling you get after you accidentally realized you snorted half the bag of cocaine, when you were really only looking to get a key bump? No? Oh… me neither.
I was running around outside the auditorium trying to calm myself down. I couldn’t carry a tune if it was made of sticky-tack. Doctor! I need 200cc’s of Xanax! Stat! I very quickly realized I needed to duck back outside one last time – and start a tradition unlike any other – I would go to vomit.
I waltz back inside and the last act before us is finishing putting the audience to sleep. Muted applause follows. We’re going to blow the fucking doors off this place.
So I get up on stage and I am all sorts of freaked out. I could walk up a wall right now. The curtain opens, the spotlight shines. This was a bad idea.
The opening bars of our Radiohead salvo begin. I am listening to the soothing sound of the guitar, bass, and drums. And then, some jibberish escapes my neck.
“When you were here before…”
Oh my god, my heart! Jesus! I am going to pull a G.G. Allin right here!
“Couldn’t look you in the eye…”
Hold it together, you leather-throated freak.
“You’re just like an angel…”
DON’T LOOK. AT ANYONE. Stare off into space and gaze like you just swallowed 17 hydro-codone. Worked for Syd Barrett.
We break into the bridge, where there is this whole part of non-sensical vamping done an octave higher than any human’s natural register. To my ears it sounded like seagulls bleeding to death while mating.
I walked into the audience and kissed a random girl I had never seen before. Her boyfriend threatened to whoop my ass 20 minutes later. You should have looked after her better.
As the lights went down and the music faded, I stared at the ceiling, stared at nothing, trembling. What followed was as religious of an experience as I have ever afforded myself – the closest I’ve been to seeing and being God.
The audience – 2000 or so strong – broke into a deafening roar that melted and perplexed my fragile soul. I stood there and let it marinate, motionless, baffled, soul in the heavens. Unbelievably and undeniably, I had found something sweet that must not go untended. I had found my voice.
Said the unwashed masses: “Oh my god! That was so amazing!”
“I didn’t know you sang!”
“Holy shit! How long have you been singing?”
“You sounded so good!”
I had just been thrust out of the shadows and into the limelight and I was never going back. Not even on vacation. Except when I had to talk again.
Freshman year of college, I’m doing C7 (CW? UPN? YNN? Whatever it was) News while a student at Syracuse University, and I’m the weather guy every Tuesday and Thursday night. No big deal. Should be fun!
As you’ve probably noted, I have a pretty biting sense of humor, raised almost entirely on Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann’s Gobi-dry wit, I deployed catch-phrases in my weather-casts. I closed every segment with, after predicting cold and clouds on a seemingly endless loop, “The Sun Never Shines Over The City of Syracuse.” (TM)
I developed a bizarre sort of cult following on campus, with strangers approaching me, saying, “You’re my favorite guy on the TV station! You’re SO FUN to watch!” It even got me into bed with a couple gals, which I found completely unfathomable.
But there were whispers. And laughs. And taunts. And some fellas at the station who would watch my live broadcast and mercilessly mock me. And not just me: My voice.
I would walk off set and be stalked by some white-capped bros who doubled as station managers attempting their best impression of my tinny, brassy vocal stylings. “The Sun Never Shines Over The City of Syracuse BWAHAHAHA.” It was merciless. It’d leave me sweating before the newscast, catatonic during it and filled with rage after.
“You have a voice for the newspaper,” they’d tell me. “If I had to listen to you every day, I’d slit my wrists.” It hurt so bad. I fell into a funk. I stopped frequenting the station. Didn’t tell anyone. I quit Syracuse University the following year. My broadcasting career ended. Not in a blaze of glory. Not with a bang. In silence.
My voice would undergo numerous cosmetic changes. Starting about 10 years ago, I began trying, relentlessly, to sound like anyone else. While talking, while singing, anything. I opened my throat. I dug deeper. I let sound escape from my bowels. I tried to stretch and smooth and shine over my voice as I tried to sound less like the mechanical squawk and more like a chocolate-coated french horn.
I started smoking to give my voice a raspier, softer edge. I found this to be particularly useful when singing soul numbers. Since I always thought it’d be totally appropriate for a young suburban white kid to sound like a 60 year-old African-American Delta Blues drifter.
I started drinking whiskey straight to give my voice a sugar-soaked husk. I felt more comfortable telling stories with a glass of single-malt on the rocks. I felt distinguished. Deep. Prophetic.
I also taught myself not to get too excited beyond the scope of what the situation called for. Measured responses to metered discussions. No need to shout.
It was a slow descent and evolution; a journey upon which I am still embarked. My vocal transformation, best I can tell, is only half complete, but that doesn’t mean my voice is lost.
I continued to sing, amassing a fun little following of friends and fans in Buffalo, where I finished up school – not as a sportscaster, but as a psychologist, of course, since I was indeed crazy. And I would sing my own original tunes, as well as cover an eclectic mix of classics and modern stuff.
Occasionally, there’d be the lady or fella in the crowd who’d walk up to me after a set and say, “Hey man, I love your voice.” It took me a long time not ask anyone who uttered those words for a hit of their crack-pipe, but eventually I got used to it – even when it was other singers and bar owners doing the praising. I played festivals. I established residencies in bars. I sold out (very small) venues. I jammed with Soulive, and opened for Howie Day. (Name-dropping. NBD.)
I’m still scared stiff of my voice. I won’t sing in front of anyone (sober) unless there’s a stage and a microphone presented to me and I’ve been properly medicated. I still won’t listen to my voice played back on a video or audio recording. I’ve had songs of mine come up on my iPod and even played on college radio stations across the Northeastern U.S. I’ve never heard any of them. I still don’t have a customized voicemail greeting.
My current girlfriend loves my voice. She says it’s “soothing.” She says it’s a great storytelling voice. I think that’s what I love her … because she’s sweet enough to lie to me when nobody else will.
But something did happen, recently, as a coda to this vocal journey. After years of taking to heart the assessment of, “You have a voice for print,” I began to write. And that writing has been warmly received by a variety of folks, including one who hosts a radio show out in California.
She asked me, “LOVED your column on the Celtics. Would you feel comfortable doing a radio interview?”
But of course I would. And I did. I couldn’t tell you how it sounded … I’ve never listened to it. The thought of listening to 12 minutes of me makes me want to Van Gogh myself.
But I told everyone I knew to listen to it. Every friend. Every family member. Everyone with a pulse. Everyone in radio. “HEY! I’M ON THE RADIO!”
At long last. A decade or so too late. The first stage of a life-long dream materializing before our very … ears.
I believe it will come true, and that I will host radio some day very soon. And I’ll do it whether my voice is smooth or shaky, solid or stuttering. Because whether your voice will be heard has nothing to do with how it sounds … and everything to do with whether or not you have the audacity to speak up for all the world to hear.