The Soul of It All My Music, My Life
By Michael Bolton
Center Street Copyright © 2013 Michael Bolton
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455523658
This Is the Tale of Captain Jack Sparrow
Somewhere in my forty years as an artist and performer, I picked up a reputation for being a serious guy.
Many of my fans don’t realize that I was never bar mitzvahed because I was the kid betting on the dreidel in Hebrew class and smoking cigarettes during breaks. If you were beaned by a water balloon or splattered by a flying tomato in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, it was likely launched from the rooftops by yours truly.
You may be surprised to learn that I’m secretly a prankster and a fun-loving kind of guy.
That’s why I did not hesitate when Saturday Night Live’s Lonely Island crew called me to join them in a music video.
Well, maybe I hesitated a little. I mean, these are the guys who convinced Justin Timberlake to put his dick in a box—and sing about it. He was freakin’ hilarious, and of course Justin made it look fun and easy, just as he would any other video.
Justin’s video won a Creative Arts Emmy for outstanding original music and lyrics, and he seemed to enjoy himself doing it. I was a fan of the Lonely Island guys and thought it would be fun working with them, though I worried what they might have me do. As hilarious as Justin’s video was, I found it a little scary to contemplate what they would come up with for me. Justin sang in the Baptist choir as a kid. I sang on crusty street corners for spare change.
The SNL guys assured me they wanted to build a hip-hop song around me singing “a big sexy hook.” They thought I’d be perfect for the job.
Jorm later told an interviewer who asked about my role in the video, “You can’t fake funk like that.”
From the start, Andy, Kiv, and Jorm promised to come up with a shocker skit that people would want to watch again and again, and they did just that.
The next thing I knew, I was in a crow’s nest on a pirate ship decked out like Jack Sparrow, doing Forrest Gump on a park bench, cross-dressed as Erin Brockovich, and flashing my guns as Scarface.
And that was the tamest idea they came up with.
Initially, the mad geniuses of the Lonely Island presented me with a “Lord Boltron” song and video concept that involved violating laws of nature and each of the Ten Commandments, repeatedly.
It was hilariously funny, but really, really raunchy.
Now, that’s what I expected from these boys without borders, the creators of family classics such as I Just Had Sex, 3-Way, and Jizzed in My Pants. I loved those videos and the Lord Boltron bit, too. But I was concerned that the proposed Lord Boltron video might slightly upset my fans, because the first script was more than disturbing.
So we met for a creative session in L.A. to try to come up with something not quite so dark but still funny. When we met, I told Andy that my daughters were excited we were working together.
“My mother feels the same way about me working with you,” said Andy.
We hatched out some more ideas for our music video at that meeting. Honestly, they were so busy with SNL and all of their movie and record projects, I didn’t know if I’d ever hear from them again. But over the course of an approximately eight-month period, they somehow found time to come up with a script I could do. When they showed me the final Jack Sparrow concept, I loved it!
We met in New York City for two seventeen-hour days of filming the video. Our locations were the Buddakan restaurant in Manhattan and Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Andy, Kiv, and Jorma were a pleasure to work with—funny, entertaining, respectful, and thoughtful—despite the tight deadlines. This is a team of guys who collaborated so well on every detail. Andy, Kiv, and Jorm also went out of their way to include me in making decisions. They kept coming up with new twists and gags on the spot. Then they’d run them by me and make sure I was on board, and they had trusted me to ad-lib and stack harmony parts all over the choruses of the catchy little ditty they wrote.
They kept me laughing through the whole process. I think all three of them were shocked when I agreed to a traumatizing scene in which I dressed as Erin Brockovich and breast-fed a doll. Unfortunately, that scene didn’t make the cut. It may have been too over the top even for the Lonely Island team, but I would have voted to keep it.
To my amazement, they had the music video ready for prime time within forty-eight hours. I went to the music video’s premiere on SNL in New York. I was too nervous to sit in the audience, so my manager Christina Kline and I watched from the back of the house. When they introduced our video, I couldn’t breathe until the first waves of laughter came from the audience.
They loved it!
A fellow Connecticut resident, the phenomenal singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Mayer, was on the set when the video premiered. He was certain that it would go viral and become a huge hit.
“People are going to go nuts,” John told me. “They won’t expect this from you, and new fans who don’t even know your music will… well, you’ll see in the morning.”
My daughter Isa, an expert on social media, began monitoring the video’s views on YouTube as soon as it aired. When I walked downstairs the next morning, she looked up at me and said, “You are not going to believe what is going on.” Jack Sparrow was already approaching a million views. She read me comments that included “OMG, I can’t get this song out of my head!”
Just as John Mayer predicted, my music video with the Lonely Island guys went viral and, at last count, had more than ninety million views on YouTube.
Sometimes you have to take risks in life, and this one paid off in a huge way. Ours was the third-most-viewed video on YouTube in 2011, and it received an Emmy nomination, so we were invited to perform it live at the awards show for millions of viewers around the world.
Now I can’t walk through an airport anymore without receiving high fives and fist bumps from eighteen-year-old guys screaming, “Captain Jack Sparrow! Dude, you rock!”
Andy, Kiv, and Jorm, you can call me anytime to do another music video.
So there you have the tale of my latest adventure in a music career that I began seeking at the age of nine while singing in my bedroom closet. What follows is the backstory. You will find many twists and turns—some of them as wild as those in the Jack Sparrow video.
You will also learn about the “soul of it all,” the passion, hard work, striving, sacrifices, joy, and faith it takes to keep the dream alive. It has taken all of that and then some to build and sustain an incredibly rewarding career for more than four decades.
Finding My Voice
My older brother, Orrin, calls himself “the original Bolton,” which refers to the fact that he was the original rock star of our family. In the early sixties, he worked as a roadie for the Shags, one of the many New Haven bands formed in garages and basements in that musical decade. The Shags were among the few local groups to sign a record deal. A couple of their songs, “Don’t Press Your Luck” and “Breathe in My Ear,” received national radio play. Orrin brought some of the Shags to our apartment when I was ten or eleven. He bragged to them that I could sing.
“Michael may be a scrawny Jewish kid, but he sings like a chain-smoking, whiskey-chugging seventy-year-old black bluesman,” Orrin said proudly.
One of the Shags, Carl Augusto, who played guitar and later taught me basic bar chords, patted my mop of curls and said: “Maybe someday you’ll have your own band, little bro.”
I was four years younger than Orrin and still in elementary school when my brother moved on to playing drums and singing in his own bands. Orrin was an enthusiastic early adopter. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other great bands of the sixties inspired a major cultural shift, leading millions of American male teens to grow their hair longer and form their own groups—and my big brother went all in.
One day he was a high school jock. The next he was a hippie flower child rock ’n’ roll sex god. Women of all ages wanted to sleep with him. Guys wanted to be him. He was a very popular guy, though not with the teachers. My first day of junior high was marred first by kids picking on me for my long hair and second by a teacher whose opening salvo to me was “Don’t think you can get away with everything your brother got away with.”
Orrin was a mysterious figure, even to me and my buddies. He would disappear for weeks and months, then pop up with an exotic beauty on each arm and, at one point, with his eyelids darkened by plant oils he discovered in India.
Upon his return from each of these long absences, Orrin would share tales of adventure in faraway places and show us treasures from his import-export business. My brother was our magical mystery tour guide into the music world, too. Orrin had an anthropologist’s interest in the history of the blues especially. He knew of bands like England’s John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers even before Eric Clapton joined the group. He shared his extensive collection of albums with us, explaining that the Beatles, Stones, and Clapton were actually mining black American rhythm and blues and playing it back to U.S. audiences. Their heroes, he explained, were long-neglected black musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.
All this was enlightening and inspiring to me, and it didn’t hurt that Orrin’s record collection also included albums featuring Chicago’s Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield—a couple of Jewish guys like me. Orrin and I were known as the first “heads” in our circle of friends. We had long hair and were into the blues before everyone else. It seemed only natural that I would follow Orrin into music, just as I’d followed him into baseball, running, vegetarianism, and martial arts classes. Like him, I was a good athlete, but after our parents divorced, I dropped out of sports.
Instead, I put all of my energy into growing the longest hair of any male in the public school system, playing in bands, and pretending I’d had sex. (“The first time I had sex, it was very scary. I was alone.” Thank you, Rodney Dangerfield.) My mother had custody, but controlling her wild-child sons was another matter. She had her hands full with three willful teens.
I took to the streets, wandering from teen hangouts like My Brother’s Place and On the Green in New Haven, on the fringes of the Yale campus, to Greenwich Village. Its Bohemian blend of beatniks, painters, poets, and folksingers was then transitioning into the East Coast epicenter for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
Well, not so much sex for me, at least not right away. I was barely in my teens when I began wandering the streets of the Village with my brother and older friends. Orrin got all the girls in the early days. Even when I began hooking up with my share of women, I often suspected those who came my way were really after my brother, the legendary charmer. I may have seen myself as the scrawny younger brother with John Lennon wire rims, but I was never in danger of becoming a twenty-year-old virgin.
For the record, I lost my virginity at thirteen to my first cougar. She was all of fifteen and smokin’ hot, but more on that later.
Before we dive into the history of my love life, I should provide some of my family background. Let’s begin with the full disclosure of my true identity: In February 1953—two years behind my sister, Sandra, who was two years behind Orrin—I was born of Russian Jewish heritage into the Bolotin family, pronounced Below-tin. Many years later, I switched out a couple letters and pared it down to Bolton so radio deejays, fans, and telephone operators would have an easier time pronouncing and remembering it.
Orrin took the name Bolton, too, even though he considers it a curse when he is mistaken for his kid brother—unless there is a better seat or a beautiful woman involved. The Bolotins-slash-Boltons always have been an idiosyncratic bunch. Ours was not the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s idyllic familial unit sporting cardigans and kitchen aprons.
We were way ahead of our time: In the ’50s and ’60s, we had all the dysfunctions of the ’70s and ’80s. As I was growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, my childhood and teenage years unfolded on the same schedule as every baby boomer’s, but in that time of social upheaval, the Bolotins were upheaving with the best of them.
My parents seemed to get along fine until I was about eight or nine years old. I wasn’t aware of any conflicts until then. My favorite childhood memories are moving into our big house at 1592 Boulevard with its huge backyard, where all the neighborhood kids came to play baseball, basketball, and football. In the winter freeze, we’d turn on the hose spigot and create a skating rink. Orrin, Sandra, and I regard those as our happiest times, but then things changed.
Lacking the counseling resources and marital guides of today, the marriage of George and Helen (née Gubin) began to disintegrate before our young eyes. Both of my parents were beloved by nearly everyone who knew them, but they couldn’t seem to get along with each other.
Dad was a big bellows of a guy; tough as a steel-belted radial tire but one of the most tender, kind, and accepting men I’ve ever known. My father was big in local politics, a behind-the-scenes guy mostly. He was the longtime Democratic chairman of the Twenty-Fourth Ward and property manager of the never-ending redevelopment project in New Haven’s downtown. Dad enjoyed doing things for people in our community, where he was well known and respected.
Mom has always been an unfettered free spirit, a live-and-let-live, creative, artsy, and generous soul, who my buddies thought was the coolest mother in the ’hood.
I don’t take the blame for my parents’ divorce, but I do carry some of the inevitable scars. They verbally flailed at each other in the marital ring of fire for a couple years, but we never expected them to divorce, especially at a time when most couples still stayed together for life.
Most of us, if we are lucky, spend our childhoods in a protective bubble insulated from the struggles of our parents. We are free to focus on issues important to us, such as the condition of our baseball gloves and who will pick us up from band practice.
Only later did we see that Mom and Dad were growing apart and struggling with the day-to-day challenges and demands of middle-class parents. To some extent we are all sold a story that our lives will have happy endings. The prince and princess ride off into the sunset and the credits roll, but the movies rarely mention that the next day the fairy tale turns from something like Disney into something more Grimm.
I did have a happier marriage model in the family, thanks to the fifty-year union of my mother’s parents, Rose and Isadore “Izzy” Gubin. They, too, railed at each other, mostly in Yiddish, yet their jabs were always followed by laughter and long hugs. They would throw the barbs without scorn, giggle, hug each other, and then explain to us in English that Grandpa had just called her “an old cow” and Grandma had just called him “an old horse.”
We all thought this was hilarious, of course.
Grandpa Izzy was a plumber, a proud Mason and Shriner. He smoked big cigars that smelled like burning gym socks. He never really retired as the neighborhood handyman, and, I’m fairly certain, he helped financially support my mother and the rest of us after the divorce.
We assumed they would just continue their warfare while we went about the business of growing up. We were stunned to learn that Dad had packed up and moved out. He was long gone when Mom sat us down and said our father was no longer in residence. I was confused and deeply disturbed.
Later, I began spending many days in solitude, holed up with my guitar, playing for hours upon hours. I found particular comfort in my bedroom closet. Door closed. Lights out. I worked on my guitar chords and I wrote songs. I’m a loner by nature, which has served me well on long train rides, flights, and many nights in hotel rooms on the road. I still seek out my own quiet, private spaces when I want to create something. When I was writing songs as the kid in the closet, I didn’t have any inkling of what I was doing. I barely knew what chord changes were. I was at the very beginning of my music life. Maybe I felt safe and secure in there, and free to express myself singing and playing without worrying what others would think or say. I can’t recall many of the lyrics I wrote in those early “closet” days, but I’m sure they expressed my hurt and fears over the divorce and the changes it forced upon my life.
Both of my parents assured me in separate conversations that Dad would still be there for me in the stands for Little League, giving the umpires a hard time if he thought I’d been robbed on a call. As I look back, I recall that one of the lingering memories of that time was how much I missed sitting around the television to watch The Ed Sullivan Show as a family.
Our parents retreated to separate corners and separate lives, bruised, battered, and never to marry again, not to each other or to anyone else. They simply grew apart and lost feelings for each other, like so many couples, but they were ahead of the wave, which didn’t help us in dealing with the family breakup. Divorce was not yet the so-what shame-free norm. I didn’t have a big circle of buddies dividing up their weeks between Mom’s apartment and Dad’s place. I didn’t know another kid in my school whose parents were divorced.
I felt the burden of something I was far too young to comprehend. Years later, in therapy, I’d realize that the tension between my parents created a deep impression and planted fears and angst that I would grapple with as I struggled in my own relationships. My mind unconsciously stored snapshots and scenes from their hostilities at the kitchen table, complete with the harsh tones and tensions. Just recently I was somewhere in the world far from my own bed, numb with exhaustion after a concert and trying to sleep, when some memory cell more than fifty years old opened up and invited me in. I saw my mother storming into a room where Orrin and I were, yelling and carrying on. Maybe we were up past our bedtimes or just being typical brothers. I had this very clear and close vision of her face, and I could sense her exhaustion and distress. My mother, who’d wanted to sing and write songs and live as an artist and performer, clearly was not experiencing the life she’d wanted or expected.
She filed for divorce, and I certainly understood her reasons, but from that point on my young brain was imprinted with the fear that a woman could walk away from a relationship at any time. That perception didn’t serve me well as a teen or as an adult. In my teen romances I tended to be highly possessive. Securing a lasting and loving relationship has always been important to me, as it is with most of us. It’s interesting that my career as a performer flourished when I began singing more about seeking love (“Soul Provider”), finding love (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), understanding love (“How Can We Be Lovers If We Can’t Be Friends”), losing love (“How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”), and never giving up on love (“That’s What Love Is All About”).
I’m also very big on making home a safe place to be for everyone. Although most of my charitable work has been aimed at protecting women and children from physical abuse, there was none of that in my family. My father didn’t drink, and he was very much about remaining in control. He often lectured Orrin and me about this, saying that men who physically abused women were shameful and unmanly. Still, my mother and father did not shy away from taking verbal shots at each other before and after the marriage.
Orrin, Sandra, and I tried to ignore or laugh off the insults and animosity they aimed at each other. But we had sympathy for both. Today, there are all sorts of guides to conflict resolution and “healthy divorces,” but my parents didn’t have them. By the time I went through my own marital split twenty-five years later, the Divorce Universe was vast. Couples decoupling were common and well schooled on not disparaging each other in front of the kids, because children translate “Your mother is bad” or “Your father is bad” to “I’m bad.”
My parents did not agree on much, but they had one thing in common. They both loved us dearly—of that we had no doubts. Mom was given primary care of us, but Dad was still a strong presence, though probably not strong enough as far as our mother was concerned. She took on a load. Mom became the head of the household as well as a single parent who worked a full-time job as a secretary and somehow managed to put up with and love her rebellious children.
I may have cost her many hours of sleep, but my mom was my hero because she made sure we felt protected and loved, even as we snarled and ran from her. She worked hard to give us a home, which we even visited now and then. After the divorce, the four of us moved into a town house on Whalley Avenue. Orrin and I tended to roam at will.
Mom never had much of a chance to establish control. Mostly, she surrendered. She was, and remains, a beautiful, loving, always fashionable, and free-spirited woman. When she and my father were still together, the only way Mom could rein us in was the six-word stopper: “Wait until your father comes home!” When Dad was no longer home, she had no leverage over the bold Bolotin brothers. Orrin and I immediately crossed every boundary and pushed every button.
Sandra, the well-mannered and high-achieving child in our family, obeyed Mom, finished high school, and went off to Berkeley University for her master’s in psychology. My sister has the sweet personality of our grandmother Rose. Sandra also has a generous heart and never says an unkind word about anyone. She has done an incredible job raising her son, Adam, a talented musician who is determined to make a difference in his community.
Mom stressed out a lot, for good reason. One night while she was ranting at her wilding sons to clean up our acts, she stopped midsentence and fainted, dropping to the floor at our feet. If she didn’t have our full attention before—and she didn’t—she won it then. It was a frightening moment, but she was fine about ten minutes later. Within a few hours Orrin and I were back to our defiant ways.
THE FATHER-SON GAME
My dad was a rugged, chain-smoking man’s man. Hard-nosed, barrel-chested, and jut-jawed, he was a handsome and imposing guy with many friends of all races and income levels, and, despite the gruff exterior, he was a loving and affectionate father. In my younger days, he’d grab my face with his huge paws and kiss me over and over until I managed to squirm away. Sometimes I didn’t try all that hard to break free. I loved my dad.
He was a devoted liberal, but no softie. His job as the property manager for the New Haven Redevelopment Agency meant he had the keys to the city, or at least to every downtown building. He’d played some small-college football, where he earned the nickname “Bullet Bolotin” for his tenacity and toughness, which served him well in his work and in politics. Part of his job was to collect overdue rent from the tenants of city-owned buildings in New Haven. He wasn’t popular with those who fell behind in their payments, which is why a patrol car was often parked outside our house. I think.
After the divorce, Dad stayed in touch with Orrin and me mostly through politics and sports, his twin passions. He knew all the Democrat and Republican players, big and small, across Connecticut. Many of the future leaders of the Democratic Party found their way to our front door. Orrin and I were their foot soldiers. We’d walk door-to-door or ride our bikes around town distributing campaign flyers for candidates, setting up chairs and tables for events.
Years later, after I came to know politicians like Dick Gephardt and Bill Clinton, they’d sometimes comment on how comfortable I seemed in their world, and they were right. Before the family upheaval, our home was a gathering place for local pols. The two-story house on Boulevard in New Haven’s working-class Beaver Hills neighborhood—just a mile and a half from the Yale University campus—had big porches on both levels, and there were often nights when they sagged under the heft of Connecticut Democrats plotting domination of the Nutmeg State. Many a morning I’d have to dig out my homework and schoolbooks from under their residue of cigar ash, coffee cups, and liquor bottles.
I have many great memories of playing catch with my father in the front yard of the Boulevard house. Those were happy times. I practiced pitching to my dad. He always reminded me to follow through to increase velocity and accuracy.
“Finish the throw,” he’d say.
Sometimes, my adrenaline would kick in and I’d throw it over his head, which meant I had to run down the block to retrieve the ball. Having to chase my own bad throws was a major incentive to improve my accuracy and deliver the ball to his glove.
Many years later, I thought of those games of father-son catch after one of our Bolton’s Bombers celebrity softball games, when former New York Yankee Clete Boyer, a childhood hero of mine, asked, “Where’d you get that arm?”
“From my father,” I said without pause.
The house was not huge, but the backyard seemed to stretch forever. It served as our own sports triplex, with a baseball and football field and a basketball half-court at the far end. All the neighborhood kids seemed to regard it as their playground, too, and the games ran from morning to dusk in my memories of those idyllic times.
Politics aside, sports provided our biggest connection to our father. Dad was present at a lot of our baseball and basketball games. Orrin and I were both good athletes, and Dad cheered us on. No fan of the longhair trend, he still rose to my defense when my sixth grade teacher said I couldn’t play softball with the class during recess if I didn’t cut my shoulder-length locks. I was captain of our sixth grade team, but the teacher said I was a danger to myself and others because my hair was always in my eyes.
Dad had a talk with the principal, demanding that I be allowed to play while I wore my hair as long as I wanted. Dad won. The principal was no fool. He was aware that my father knew people who knew people. Dad, who was not shy about betting a hundred dollars on a bowling match, was intensely competitive, a trait his sons inherited. I used to race Yale students on their green for lunch money, and my friends always bet on me to leave the Yalies in the dust. I was my father’s son, and he advocated the “Winning is everything” philosophy, especially if the victory was sealed with a grand-slam home run, a slam dunk, or a knockout punch.
Dad liked big wins, but when we lost he always encouraged us, saying, “Keep your chin up, you’ll get ’em next week.” He sent us off to each game or match with sports metaphors ringing in our ears, exhorting us to conquer and vanquish. He was of the Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, and Woody Hayes old school. He also believed practice made perfect, and he drove my brother and me to practice our sports religiously.
Well, maybe religious is not the right word, since I was booted out of our temple’s Hebrew school for not taking my faith seriously enough. Neither Dad nor Mom practiced their Jewish faith, even though they sent us off to give it a try. Maybe I should say we practiced our sports as if they were more important than religion.
Even though we were born Yankees fans, my father used to speak highly of iconic athletes that our beloved Yankees competed with, like Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians or Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers. Then there was the unforgettable team that shut us down in the 1963 World Series: the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax both pitching as well as any team or true fan of the game could ever witness. And what could you ever say about the great Ted Williams, even when he was batting against the Yanks? Was he not worthy of our highest praise? What I came to believe at a young age was that there are people who achieve a level of true championship—like our rival Red Sox, one of the greatest teams I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t one moment, even with a solid Yankee lead, that I didn’t have huge respect for that Boston lineup, and I never counted them out. Sometimes your team is going to get beat because the other side rises to a level of excellence when it really counts. All my life (long before free agency) getting past the Yankees in the postseason meant you deserved to be there. My respect for players and champions in all sports who perform at such a heightened level allows me to enjoy sports more. So I’ve never understood and never will understand the mentality of the haters who appear from time to time in a baseball stadium, in the stands, or courtside. That’s not what sports are about. Honoring the game means recognizing the athleticism and the spirit that it takes to be a champion, no matter what team you’re on. To me, great performance earns and deserves due respect. That’s part of the soul of it all.
One of the things Dad drilled into Orrin and me early on was that the most effective way to break out of a tackle while playing football was to keep your legs moving, because the big leg muscles are the most powerful in the body. “Just keep your head down and keep your legs moving and they will have a hard time stopping you boys,” he’d say.
My football was limited to neighborhood games, since I never played in the local leagues, but I took that philosophy and ran with it. My approach to challenges typically has been to put my head down and bull ahead, refusing to surrender. I didn’t become the star athlete that my father had hoped for, but as much as I may have rebelled in other ways, I did adopt his strategy and apply it to the greatest force in nature—passion. In my case, it was a passion for singing and performing.
No one will ever accuse me of holding back, either in my live performances or in the recording studio. For me singing is about expressing passion. Female fans, especially, seem to respond to this aspect of my performances and, oddly enough, so have several big-name male athletes, including some I know, such as Barry Bonds, Joe Carter, and Andre Agassi. They’ve said that they can relate to the intensity of my voice when I sing certain notes because it reminds them of the same explosiveness they strive for in swinging the baseball bat or tennis racket. Maybe it’s just the Bullet Bolotin in me, always pushing for the “out of the park and onto the railroad tracks” grand slam, trying to get a cheer from my dad in the stands.
OUR MOTHER’S PASSION
Orrin’s theory is that he and I played sports mostly to please our father, and we embraced music with even more enthusiasm because it was our mother’s greatest passion. Mom played the keyboards, and she wrote many songs in hopes of making a career in music. We often joked that her best songs had titles like “You Kids Are Killin’ Me!” and “I Hope You Have Kids as Bad as You Someday!”
Mom did have a love for music. Whenever a singer would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, she would say, “Did you hear that note? That was a high C” or “Did you hear the vocal variation there?” I believe her running commentary and the music she sang and played throughout our childhoods helped me develop a musical ear, a strong sense of pitch, and a passion for singing. Many people of my generation remember the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. What struck me and stayed with me from that landmark event was not just how the Beatles performed, but how I heard it. When I listened to that show and my first Beatles records, I found myself sharply focused on their harmonies and how their voices interacted. My musical training was limited to saxophone lessons at L. W. Beecher, my grade school. I never learned to read or write music properly, but, either through my mother’s commentary or something hardwired into my brain, I could visualize the notes in my mind’s eye. When I sang, those notes were there, playing on the screen of my imagination.
Dad sang, too, by the way, but did it to combat his raucous children. Whenever we were traveling in the car and the kids became too loud or disruptive, my father belted out his brassy Ethel Merman rendition of “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you….”
This was Dad’s peaceful yet persuasive method for telling us to shut the hell up. If we continued to fight or yell, Dad would sing so loudly and with such enthusiasm that we had no choice but to quiet down for fear of going deaf or insane or both.
My mother was more passionate about music. She had an extensive record collection of show tunes, and like many women of her era, she was a big fan of the dashing Mario Lanza, an operatic tenor who became a movie star. Mom had a good strong voice, and she was always taking singing lessons in hopes of performing one day. She also dreamed of making it as a songwriter. She never made it, but if you wanted to practice armchair psychology and say that I am living out my mother’s dream, complete with my excursions into opera, go right ahead.
The first time I can remember someone commenting on my singing voice was when I was around the age of ten. It was my mother who heard me singing along with the radio and said, “You have a very good voice, Michael.” It was my first good review.
Time after time, those closest to me, and strangers, too, noted that my singing voice sounded nothing like that of a skinny white kid. It took me years to grow into my voice, and my parents always supported and encouraged me.
Mom has been the biggest long-term supporter in my musical career. She still shows up at my concerts when they are within a hundred-mile radius of her home.
She and my father always supported our musical pursuits, even when they struggled to support us financially. Orrin may be the only aspiring drummer to receive his first drum kit one cymbal, one drumstick, and one drum at a time. He claims it took a year or so before he had a full set.
CHORDS AND DISCORDS
My father died about seven years before I made it big as an artist, which saddened me because he had always encouraged me as much with my singing as with my playing baseball and running track. With his booming voice, he was a great cheerleader at my games. The same held true with my singing. He’d always say the same thing after hearing me perform. He’d stick out that big Jay Leno chin and say: “Son, you’re gonna be big, big, BIG!”
He always gave me three “bigs” in just that way, and that’s how I hear him in my mind even today.
My father’s faith in my talent helped me believe in myself. He and my mother were divorced and still combatants when they called a truce and teamed up to buy me my first guitar, a one-hundred-dollar Kay. I’d opted for the saxophone as my grade school band choice because I loved the rasp of that instrument, but there weren’t many sax players in rock bands other than the Dave Clark Five back then. I never really learned to play my rented sax, but that raspy sound seemed to find its way into my singing voice.
My friend Johnny taught me my first three guitar chords, and I returned the favor by turning him on to his first joint. (It was considered a public service in those days, following the Beatles lyrics and hippie mantra that went: “I’d love to turn you on.”)
I taught Johnny the proper procedures and techniques for inhaling, cautioning him not to suck in too much on his maiden toke. He performed admirably, though he bogarted the joint. That was my fault. I hadn’t included the lesson on pot etiquette. Still, Johnny was not impressed with the experience.
“I don’t feel anything,” he said.
Disappointed, he went home.
He called me upon arriving.
“People were staring and following me all the way home,” he said. “I could hear them talking about me.”
I found it hysterical, given that he “couldn’t feel anything” from the pot when he left the house. I talked him down.
Johnny and all my friends came to regard my mother as “the cool mom” because she didn’t buy into the reefer-madness mentality of most parents, though there were limits to her tolerance. Her coolness quotient in our eyes was established one day when she burst into my bedroom during a serious joint-rolling, pot-smoking session involving six or seven of my buddies, band members, and a couple of our girlfriends. None of us was more than sixteen years old. We had rolled massive joints using as many as eight sheets of rolling paper to create doobies the size of Cuban cigars.
When the bedroom door flew open and my mother appeared, my friends freaked out. Everyone scrambled to hide the rolling papers, the bags of pot, and the joints. Our keyboard player was so frantic he plucked a burning joint from his mouth and put it in his shirt pocket, where it nearly smoked a nipple. Mom had to wait for the smoke to clear before she could identify all the suspects. She squinted down for a second or two before finding my face in the stoned crowd. Then she threw out an arm and opened her hand to reveal three of our giant joints in her palm.
Before any of my suddenly de-mellowed friends could speak or flee, my mother issued her decree: “Stop leaving these around the house!”
She then tossed the three joints into my lap, turned, and walked out, slamming the door on our small band of astonished scofflaws.
“Michael, man, I can’t believe your mom didn’t bust us!”
If anyone else’s parents had caught us with the pot, there would have been serious hell to pay, so I felt a certain pride in my mom’s go-with-the-flow attitude. She didn’t encourage our marijuana use, but she felt we were doing what was typical for the times. Mom also preferred that we smoke at home rather than in public, so she didn’t want to drive us out of the house.
I appreciated her attitude, but I took all the (hemp) rope she gave me and ran with it.
Band of Brothers
When members of my generation reflect on the sixties, they often speak of a powerful sense of liberation, of boundaries disappearing and rules being broken. For some, this meant wandering the planet. For others, it meant experimenting sexually, smoking pot, or flouting the school dress code by growing long hair and wearing blue jeans.
The Bolotin brothers did all that and more. We ran wild.
Again, I followed Orrin’s lead. Tall, charming, witty, and very funny, Orrin was perfectly cast as a Greenwich Village hippie heartthrob. He had a string of beautiful admirers, some of them older than he and many of them wealthy, including fashion models, actresses, flight attendants, and at least one Playboy Club bunny. (Her name was Lolita, and she took him home from a party and kept him.)
I first went to Greenwich Village to visit my brother, but I quickly joined the circus. In those Age of Aquarius days, the Village was like a rock festival every day of the week. Clubs that had featured jazz, folk, and poetry readings transitioned to the venues of choice for artists like Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, the Mamas & the Papas, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, John Prine, and Melanie. Many of them lived in the Village, too. I may have run into them, talked to them, heard them perform, or even befriended them back then, but the fog of those years will likely never lift.
I do recall that in those exuberant times the Village was so overrun with hippies, musicians, and kindred free spirits that straighter-laced tourists were piling onto double-decker tour buses and paying to ride through its streets to observe longhairs in the wild. For the male voyeurs aboard the tour buses—and teenage boys wandering the streets—I’m sure the biggest attraction were the females, who tended to wear gauzy tops and no bras.
Orrin went native in the Village, and I wasn’t far behind. Our mother was probably grateful to have a few days of peace and quiet in the apartment. My father berated her for letting me roam for days at a time, but what was she going to do, kick me out of the house because I was never home? My mother always considered herself an artist and a songwriter, and she was attracted to the Village and its creative energy, too. She also thought that my brother and his friends were there to watch over me, so that gave her some comfort. Really, though, she had no idea where I was, what I was doing, or how far I had strayed beyond the fringe.
My vagabond ways began around the age of twelve in those days of crashing with friends, friends of friends, and total strangers, mostly in New Haven and Greenwich Village, where some young hippies we knew had sublet an apartment. We had shelter, and we foraged for food or panhandled for change on MacDougal Street.
One major draw to the Village for me was the presence of my teen crush, Cory Morrison. She was one of those irresistible hippie girls, blonde and blue-eyed with a dazzling smile. Cory was closer to Orrin’s age, and, though she claimed to “adore” me, I suspect she merely tolerated me as sort of a tagalong little brother who made her laugh. I worked hard at making her laugh, but I had convinced myself that I could win her heart once I grew taller and had some facial hair.
Cory had dropped out of high school and immersed herself in the music and mayhem of Greenwich Village. She lived in some rich hippie’s studio apartment with seven or eight other girls. I was the only boy allowed in this wild girls’ camp. They thought I was harmless because I was younger than all of them. I may have been relatively harmless, but I wasn’t blind. Believe me, I hung out with them as much as possible. For fun we’d throw eggs at people from the roof of their building. The neighbors weren’t amused when the cops showed up and went door-to-door in search of the flying omelet pranksters.
Cory was also my grifter partner in the Village. She’d come with me when I panhandled for pizza money. I’d collar wealthy-looking women on the street and tell them that I needed money so I could send my sister home on the train to our sick mother. Cory was a good actress, so we ate a lot of free pizza. I always reveled in the fact that Cory told me I was her favorite Bolton brother. Orrin usually got all the girls back then. Continues...
Excerpted from The Soul of It All by Michael Bolton Copyright © 2013 by Michael Bolton. Excerpted by permission.
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