I graduated from prep school in New Jersey when I was 16 in June of 1967. I was going to go straight to college – I was accepted at Cornell University [in New York State] – but my dad, who was an interesting fellow, said, “Look, you’re young and there’s only one more thing I’m going to make you do. As far as I’m concerned, you’re educated.” I’d been to an aggressive prep school and he felt that education occurs at the high school level so that was all I needed. He said, “Look, here’s what I want to do. Don’t go to college, not yet. Take a year off and bum around Europe.” In July I turned 17 and in August, at my father’s direction, I took my harmonica and busked my way throughout Europe and north Africa for a year.
I wouldn’t advise my younger self to do anything differently. It was a really great idea. I don’t know that you could do it now, I’m not sure I’d want my 16-year-old kid to go hitchhiking through Europe, but it worked out for me.
After that I came back and went to Cornell University, for like five minutes over a two-year period. It was a particularly turbulent time at Cornell, when the African-American students had taken over the student union, all this kind of stuff. It disrupted classes so bad you were able to take pass/fail courses, which I took and passed. So I really just joined and played in bands for a year-and-a-half. Then the work started to catch up with me. I called my old man, I said, “Pops I’m dropping out, I want to be a musician.” And he went, “Well, you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. Good luck.” And it looked like a very bad decision for a long time.
My hearing fluctuates episodically. It’ll be terrible for a day or for six weeks, then it’ll get better for a day to six weeks
When I was nine or 10 I remember falling for music. My old man was a Dixieland drummer. He used to play with Ralph Sutton, a great stride piano player from a band called the World’s Greatest Jazz Band. I had [legendary saxophonist] Ben Webster in my living room at one point. On a Sunday my old man would have these jam sessions at a place called The Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley. My mom would make spaghetti and the kids would run around as the bands played. I remember going, “Wow, I gotta figure out how to get up on that stage.”
My advice to my 16-year-old self would be: relax. I was pushing so hard and was so ambitious in those days. Maybe I would rather have just appreciated it a little more. All I cared about was being able to make a living playing music. That’s all I wanted to do. So I would tell my younger self it’s going to be OK.
There are so many moments that my younger self would be impressed by. We Are The World, winning a Grammy. We had some memorable concerts in Japan and one night in Paris I jammed with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Geldof. We did a version of Barefootin’ by Robert Parker who just died in January, actually. Robert Parker, 89 years old from New Orleans, a great R&B singer.