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Andrew Peterson usually gets interviewed by publications like CCM Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, and World Magazine. He was kind enough to take a break from talking to respectable journalists in order to tell me about his public humiliations in pursuit of rock and roll stardom and literary greatness.
Welcome, Andrew Peterson, to Sad Stories Told for Laughs.
It’s an honor. I’m ready to bare my soul.
Good. The Rabbit Room readers have come to expect nothing less from my guests.
I’ve read all the other entries in this esteemed series, and I have to say, it’s been encouraging to know I’m not alone. I could relate to all of them–except for Nick Flora’s weird nudist story.
That was weird, wasn’t it?
You were a character yourself in a few of those stories.
I think you were in Jill P’s “Promoter who ran off with the money” story.
Oh, man! That’s the only story I’ve been a part of that got legal. Litigious? Whatever.
I did have the cops show up at a show of mine a long time ago…
Tell us about it.
I saw them lurking around the lobby, and when I asked the promoter about it he got all vague and shifty. I didn’t let up, and he finally admitted that there was a creepy stalker guy who claimed that Rich Mullins had sat next to him in class in college and stolen all his song lyrics.
That’s not the weird part.
Let’s hear the weird part, then.
The weird part is, for some reason he had it in his mind that I was Rich Mullins, and had been calling the church demanding to meet with me so he could extract the millions of dollars I supposedly owed him.
You mean he thought you were Rich Mullins in disguise? Or he was just utterly confused?
No, I think he was utterly confused. Deluded. Who isn’t deluded?
I’m not. At least, I’m not deluded enough to mistake you for Rich Mullins.
Anyway, they called the cops and they chased him off, and tried to keep it from me because they thought I’d be freaked out. I was delighted. I would have loved to have met that guy. I think.
Yes. That would have been better. You’re a man who’s willing to embrace the odd for the sake of a story.
As Ira Glass said (maybe he was quoting somebody), Great stories happen to those who can tell them.
That’s good. Maybe great stories happen to those who are willing to embellish.
That’s also true.
I have a cousin like that. He’s in prison now.
Is there a direct link between his willingness to embellish and his being imprisoned?
Time for me to do some soul-searching, then.
He was going around telling folks I had stolen his songs in college.
So if you’ve read previous episodes of this series, you know the main categories…odd venue, shifty promoter, finger puppets, public nudity.
Right. I have one that sort of falls in the Finger Puppets category. Last night some neighbors came over for a movie night, and their son Harrison was telling me that he had a traumatic experience when he was about 10 with the song “Sweet Home Alabama.”
One suspects many traumas have played out with that song as background. Most involving rope swings and bodies of water, probably.
Well, this one is the emotional equivalent of being pushed off a cliff into the muddy river before you could grab the rope.
Harrison was in this school of rock-type camp and was supposed to play electric guitar on that song, but right before he went on stage the kid who was supposed to sing backed out, so they made poor Harrison sing it. He said that was more or less the end of his music career. I tried to make him feel better with the following story.
The year after high school I toured with a terrible–and I mean terrible–rock band. We played top 40 and rock songs for middle and high school assemblies.
What was the name of this band?
I’d rather not say, what with Google and everything. One of my keep-me-up-at-night fears is that one day some video of this band will show up on YouTube.
Anyway, it was pretty rock and roll. We got paid $95 a week, and had to buy our own food. We did about fifteen shows a week: one in the morning at, say, the middle school; one in the afternoon at the high school; then we’d drive back to the town from the day before and do a night show. Five days a week, plus a show on Saturday, for eight months.
In some ways, for a kid from Lake Butler, Florida, it was a dream. In most ways, it was a nightmare.
I’m no personal finance genius, but that was terrible pay. Even for a boy from Lake Butler.
Yeah, but it was ROCK AND ROLL. We were playing Nirvana, Metallica, U2, the Cure, and Van Halen stuff. I knew it was bad, but it got me out of town. And as bad as the band was, I was playing music, and it was my job, and I was seeing the world. Well, I was seeing small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Now, I’m no singer. I can sing, well enough to perform my own songs, but it’s certainly not my forte. Back then I NEVER sang lead.
I couldn’t sing in tune (still can’t, half the time), and had no aspirations to be the lead guy. I sang the occasional background vocal–stuff like, “Whoa-OH!” right before the lead singer sang the words, “Living on a prayer.”
That’s a pretty important Whoa-OH, though.
One more thing you need to know about this gig. We played mostly small farm communities. When a rock band, no matter how lame, comes to Ely, Minnesota, people are generally pleased. There’s not much else to do other than ice fish, and we provided a pleasant diversion, so the students were usually nice enough. They tolerated us and were never outright hostile.
You have a pretty low bar for what makes a suitable crowd.
I’ll take what I can get.
But if we played in a small city, there was a huge difference. The kids had seen bands play, so they knew how bad we were. They were generally harder to impress. So it was with great trepidation that we pulled into White Bear Lake high school in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ah. These kids were used to Prince. The artist formerly known as. Isn’t he from Minneapolis?
Yeah. Minneapolis is a legit music town. Prince AND Sara Groves and PFR and Jason Gray.
So we pulled up to the school, set up our show in the 2,000 seat auditorium, and watched as the students filed in with sleep still in their eyes. I was dreading it.
Our opening song was Van Halen’s “Standing on Top of the World.” Do you remember that one? Sammy Hagar-era.
No. I mostly listened to Amy Grant and Skynyrd back then.
Ah. Well, Sammy sang high. That’s all you need to know.
And Andrew didn’t sing at all. He just played bass and jumped off of speakers.
You speak of yourself in third person now? It’s gotten worse than I thought.
It’s my way of distancing myself from the pain.
So there we were, standing backstage nervously while the vice principal (who also seemed nervous) was explaining to the students that they had a special program for their first period. I noticed our front man, James, looked a little pale.
Right as the vice principal introduced us to a weak applause, James doubled over and puked into a garbage can.
He shouted, “Go! Go, Andrew! I’ll come out when I feel better. You have to–” and he puked some more.
I ran to the center mic with my bass guitar, heard the drummer count off the song, heard the electric riff scream the intro, and I stretched my neck out as far as I possibly could, and screamed “STANDING ON TOP OF THE WORLD.”
Remember that scene in Back to the Future when Michael J. Fox finishes his electric solo and the crowd is staring at him in shock? That.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I had to finish the song.
And then the song after that. And the one after that. James was by now in a fetal position, hugging the trashcan on stage left.
It was terrible, terrible.
Did the crowd ever warm up to you? Take pity? Anything?
Nobody clapped after the songs. Nobody laughed at the jokes. Just 2,000 high school students snickering or yawning or looking at us with loathing.
Here’s the worst part…
That wasn’t already the worst part?
…this part I can still picture vividly. At the very center of the front row, presumably so they would behave, were about ten dudes. Every one of them was grinning wickedly, and every one was covertly (so the teachers wouldn’t see) flipping me the bird. Ten middle fingers presented to me, along with all the mockery.
You’re about their age, right? You don’t have a lot of critical distance from this kind of chicanery.
Nope. I was about a year older than they were.
I recently dreamed that I was supposed to play the lead in a play based on Paradise Lost but hadn’t studied my lines at all. Your true story sounds much worse.
At least there would have been some sense of decorum at a stage play.
That was in 1992. What’s that, 23 years ago?
I still feel echoes of that desperation and embarrassment.
So, finger puppets. Get it? Bird finger puppets.
Why did schools invite you at all. Did you give some kind of “Stay in school, don’t do drugs” talk?
Yeah, it was a motivational “ministry.” “Believe in yourself,” all that jazz.
Then when we came back for the night show the next night, we would tell them that we were Christians.
I don’t know what to say about that.
Yeah, it was weird. One of the strangest places I’ve ever been, spiritually speaking.
All this reminds me of an old joke about a guy who goes to his psychiatrist.
Patient: ”Doc, I hate my job.”
Psychiatrist: “What’s your job?”
Patient: ”I work for the circus. I follow along behind the elephants and scoop up their poop. All day long.”
Psychiatrist: “That’s a terrible job. Why don’t you quit?
Patient: WHAT? And get out of show business?!
That’s the mindset the management impressed on us.
“Make it happen” was one of their mantras.
Can’t sing? Make it happen.
I made something happen, I’ll tell you that.
I think you’re the first Sad Stories guest who has had both musician humiliations and author humiliations.
Yeah, I have some of those.
You’ve done school visits.
Yup. Which are wonderful.
I completely agree. They’re probably my favorite part of being an author. But like any public performance they contain the potential for mortification.
OH. I just remembered the story I think you’re leading me to.
Well, I was at a school in Memphis–a great school, by the way–and was asked to speak at the end of their Faith and the Arts emphasis week. It was a big honor. But they gave me 70 minutes at the end of the school day on a Friday. For the high schoolers. Several hundred, once again packed into an auditorium.
I’ll say that again: SEVENTY MINUTES on a Friday at 1:45.
That’s an eternity at the end of a Friday.
Right. I asked myself what I would have wanted or needed to hear when I was in high school if I wanted to be a writer or songwriter, and figured I’d just tell them my story. So I did.
All the gritty details, all the ways I felt that God had provided, corrected, called me. I knew I had a lot of time to fill, so I spared no rabbit trails, opined about music and books I was into, just to fill the time.
I wrapped it up. I said everything I could think to say. I had imparted every ounce of wisdom and worldly knowledge in my brain. I thanked them for listening, asked the headmaster if we had time for Q and A.
He leaned forward and whispered loudly, “You’ve only been speaking for 20 minutes.”
I had fifty minutes to go. That, to this day, was one of the most awful things I’ve ever felt.
Praise God, there happened to be a piano on the stage, with a mic. But the problem was, I only knew about five songs on the piano. That got me through about 25 more minutes.
Which left 25 minutes for Q and A.
You’ve got this. You’re in the home stretch. Twenty-five minutes of Q and A is nothing.
You know about Q and A reticence.
I have lived through my share of it, yes.
You have to stand there for an uncomfortably long time sometimes before some blessed courageous soul raises their hand. But you have to just stick it out. After that first question, it’s usually okay.
So the first question finally came from this kid on the third row. It was a good question.
Bless him. Do you remember the question?
Nope. But whatever it was, I answered it eloquently, elaborately, skillfully, and when I looked down to thank him for his question, he was asleep.
And I mean happily, comfortably, unabashedly asleep. Head back, knee on the seat in front of him, drool glistening on his chin. Even at the time I could tell it would make a good story.
Not so with the Minnesota bird boys.
Tragedy + Time = Comedy
Well, Andrew, we’ve come to the end of our allotted time.
I didn’t get to tell you about the time I did a show at a huge church with lights and fog and stacks of speakers and six people showed up. Three of them were the promoter and his family. The other three got up and left after the first song.
Or the time a lady walked down the center aisle during a show and gave me a chili dog.
Or the time I was playing on a truck bed in Iowa with Ben Shive and Andrew Osenga and I looked up and saw, at the back of the crowd, a girl riding a cow.
And how, about two years later I played in Iowa again and told that story, and I heard from the back of the auditorium, “It was me!”
Or the time just about two months ago that I played in a backyard while a bunch of kids played soccer right next to me. While I was singing “The Rain Keeps Faling.”
That’s probably the most soul-baring song ever.
But as I said, Andrew, time is up. If you had wanted to tell all these stories, you could have been more efficient in the first part of the interview.
Sorry. I don’t make the rules.
Well, I’m here if you need me.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.