David Brooks' fantastic essay "The Other Education" in The NY Times Op Ed Section on Friday resonated with me on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. Like David, I grew up as a teenager in Main Line Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore in the 70's. At the time, Philadelphia was a musical hotbed with local artists like Hall and Oates, Todd Rundgren, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin and the rest of the Philly International crew who were grabbing national attention. Most importantly, almost all of the major and developing touring singer-songwriters and bands of the day would regularly schedule a performance at the Main Point, a little coffeehouse in Bryn Mawr, the college town close to where I lived. Luckily for me, the place didn't have a liquor license, so I was able to get in starting when I was about 13. What an education that turned out to be.
I had become fascinated with music and musicians as an adolescent. My maternal grandfather had remarried a woman whose nephew was one of the founders of Cameo-Parkway Records, home to Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, the Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp and many other local musicians. So whenever my grandfather and his wife would come to visit, they would bring a box of 45 R.P.M. records. Eventually I stopped using them as Frisbees, and I figured out how to center them on my father's turntable so I could listen to what was on them. I was hooked. My older cousins made me watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and in 1970, my older cousin Alan (who had been to Woodstock), turned me on to an album by a then-new artist named James Taylor called Sweet Baby James. I ditched the obligatory piano lessons my parents had insisted on, and became obsessed with learning to play the acoustic guitar and becoming a performer myself, woodshedding for hours in my bedroom trying learn the songs by picking them off of records by Taylor and other artists of the time like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Dan Fogelberg and, of course, the Beatles. I woke up at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning to be the first to mail in my self-addressed stamped envelope and money so I would get the best possible seats to see James Taylor at the Academy of Music (I ended up getting front row middle seats and James introduced a member of his band who was about to release her own album, Carole King, as the opening act). I played in a bunch of rock cover bands with friends at Bar Mitzvahs and other parties, including a band with my friend Howard Benson who went on to become a major Grammy-nominated record producer. But most of all, it was The Main Point that became my after hours school and laboratory.
At least once a week I would go to a show there, seeing many now iconic musicians early in their careers, up so close in a venue that held maybe 150 people that I could actually see their hands and how they were playing the songs. After each show, I would run home and pick up my guitar or sit down at the piano and try to imitate from memory as best I could what I had just seen. Billy Joel, Livingston Taylor, Fogelberg, Kenny Rankin, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt were just some of the artists I got to see. I even got up the courage to perform myself on a couple of Monday night "open mike" nights. But it was one particular show that I went to see at The Main Point on February 5, 1975 that was truly memorable and is the one which David Brooks wrote about in his column: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
A couple of months before, I had gone with some friends to see Daryl Hall and John Oates at the gym at Villanova University. There was literally a blizzard going on all afternoon and we weren't sure whether the show would be cancelled. We couldn't get through on the phone to find out so, undaunted, we ventured out into the storm and made our way to the concert. As the lights dimmed, Daryl Hall walked out and announced to the crowd that although he and John had made it to Villanova intact, their equipment hadn't so they would have to play it as an acoustic show. He added, however, that the opening act (whom I had never heard of before) had made it into town earlier with all their equipment and would be playing a full set. The act then took the stage (actually, more like took over the stage) right from the first note. I had never before seen or heard anything like this band. I remember thinking at the time that musically Bruce reminded me slightly of Van Morrison, but he was more like a musical preacher and storyteller.
When I learned Bruce would be playing The Main Point a couple of months later, I pulled out all the stops to get tickets. Incredibly, they played for almost 3 hours straight in the tiny club. Luckily, the show was simulcast on the top local rock station, WMMR, so I was able to arrange to have a friend tape it for me. I still listen to the show from time to time and Bruce and the band's performance still stands up after all these years.
The "main point" of David Brooks' essay is that it is our musical and other artists such as Bruce Springsteen who give us a different, but critical, part of our education in life. They portray for us on an emotional level what things are really like for a lot of other people and what they are thinking and feeling. They give us insight into their triumphs and failures, their loves and losses, and their hopes and dreams. We discover kindred spirits in our artists for they are able to articulate for us what we cannot in a way that touches our souls and makes us feel that we are not alone and, like they, we are a part of the human condition and continuum. We relate to them and they to us, and their audience and fans relate to each other, which in turn helps to create and maintain a larger connected community.
It is for this reason that it is imperative that we continue to place the arts and our artists in the highest regard in the educational system in our country. Engagement in the arts is a unique place where developing young minds can safely nurture their imaginations and develop the right brain thinking that is ever so critical for problem solving in an increasingly complex world. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the first line item that gets the ax in school budgets. We cannot allow this to continue if we want to turn out "whole" individuals in our society who are able to think creatively on their feet.
As Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge" and "education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he has learned in school". I will be forever grateful to "Professors" Springsteen, Taylor, Fogelberg and the other artists, famous and not so famous, and mostly to The Main Point, the place where I got my real education growing up. Let's make sure we do all we can to nurture artists and arts education so that the next generation will have the opportunity to be similarly inspired.