From Rip Van Winkle to Arsenio Hall, there's something fascinating about people who attempt a comeback after a two-decade absence. To change direction once is hardly surprising in this economy: We've all read the trend pieces about the laid-off bankers who found peace baking gluten-free cupcakes. But twice? They say it takes ten years of hard work to get any good at something, but after that can you ever forget what you've learned? What kind of people abandon their passion for nearly twenty years only to wake up one day and feel inexplicably drawn back in?
In the spirit of the rebooted edition of The Arsenio Hall Show, which began airing this past Monday on KTLA and Tribune-affiliated stations around the country, L.A. Weekly spoke with three people who truly believe in (long-delayed) second chances.
Brad Roberts, 63
Just after 11p.m. on Monday, August 1, 2005, Brad Roberts was flipping through the channels when something caught his attention and changed his life forever. It was the music video for Arcade Fire's first big hit, “Rebellion (Lies),” and he was stunned.
“Oh my god,” he thought, “people are making music again.”
At that point, Roberts hadn't listened to new rock and roll in 25 years.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Roberts started with the Stones and the Beatles of course, but soon graduated to Frank Zappa, Arlo Guthrie, Poco and The Kinks. The day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, in 1969, Roberts was at a Joni Mitchell concert; later that summer, he made the pilgrimage to Woodstock to see Jefferson Airplane. But a decade later, at the end of the 70s, rock and roll was dead and it was time to grow up, so he moved to Los Angeles to work in film.
“Lawyers took over the record companies, and they tried to fit everyone in a pigeonhole, and aerobics became as much as part of an act as the music, and the lipsyncing! It all became so techno,” he says.
For a while he lived down the street from the Whiskey A Go Go but never went, continuing instead to listen to his old favorites, as well as classical music and movie and Broadway soundtracks. The ex-hippie spent almost two decades under the tutelage of legendary logo and title designer Saul Bass, who created title sequences for Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese, among others.
But then, Arcade Fire happened. He bought headphones, a Discman and a copy of “Funeral” the day after he saw the video on Refused TV, a public access show run by the now-defunct music video production company of the same name. He started watching the show religiously each week, searching for new bands to follow, and soon discovered that the weakened record companies of the post-Napster world once again allowed for bands with meaningful lyrics and instrumentation to flourish.
That fall, he tentatively ventured out to his first concert since the B-52s at the Hollywood Palladium in 1980. He was 55, and it was the Super Furry Animals at the Avalon.
“I really didn't know if people would point at me and say, 'Look at the old man!' or 'What is he doing here?'” Roberts says. “But it felt right.”
Roberts' grey ponytail and gleeful grin became a fixture on the indie scene, and he soon befriended the musicians, grew his hair longer and exchanged his boring wardrobe for thrift store duds.
In 2008 he started a blog called Feed Your Head, after a Jefferson Airplane lyric. Manning the welcome desk during his day job at Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he'd pour out his thoughts about new music and recent shows in long hand on a yellow legal pad, four or five pages at a time, and then type everything out at an Internet café. Six months later, he invested in a laptop.
Now, he goes to a handful of concerts each week, writes a weekly rundown of upcoming shows for Radio Free Silver Lake, and books bands for a Feed Your Head show on the first Saturday of every month at Lot 1 Cafe in Echo Park.
And his rekindled love for new and live music has left him feeling better than ever, reinvigorated and somewhat giddy. The only difference, at this point, between Roberts and the rest of the indie rock superfans crowding the Satellite or the Bootleg, trying to figure out whether or not this band is any good, is that Roberts actually pays for all of the music he listens to. (He picks up eight to ten albums a month at Amoeba.)
“Because when everybody's in a room, focused on the music, you almost feel like you're alone with the band,” he says, comparing the experience to his anti-war protest days. “You almost feel like everyone around you has that same sense of focus, and that really takes me back, that really takes me back.”
Up next: quitting teaching
Joel Fox, 66
Joel Fox has often found himself at the mercy of historical circumstance. When he graduated from UCLA, everyone he knew was looking for a way to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Some purposely failed their physicals, but Fox found an out in an internship program with LA Unified School District that compressed a year-long teacher training program into ten weeks. Instead of trudging through the muck and moral hazards of southeast Asia, he taught 5th grade and ran a reading lab at an elementary school in Huntington Park.
But after seven years, he worried his detour was leading him permanently astray.
“I thought that I would just be in it until the end and they would bury me by the flagpole, and I didn't really want that to happen” he says.
In 1976, he left teaching to work for his brother-in-law's electronics company. Most of the work came through government contracts for wiring on ships, satellites, submarines and aircraft, but Fox says he didn't feel as uncomfortable benefiting from the arms race of the Cold War as he would have felt while participating in the proxy conflict in Vietnam.
“I never was anti-military. I was anti-Vietnam,” he says. “When you're selling the fragments that are going into a bigger wire that's going into a cable that's going into the back of a generator that's on a destroyer… you're kind of removed, you know.”
Still, his favorite part about working for the electronics company was helping his customers find the product that was right for them, and he knew deep down that he wanted to be of greater service to people. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did demand for their merchandise, and in 1994 Fox saw an opportunity to get back to teaching.
This time, however, he managed to stay away from the cutesy bulletin board decorations and worked in LAUSD's adult education program, helping dropouts and immigrants earn their GEDs as a teacher and later as an administrator until his retirement last year.
Some of the basic math and reading comprehension lessons covered the same material Fox had taught his younger students two decades earlier, but the atmosphere was profoundly different. Most of the adults worked during the day and took classes at night, or vice versa. “They were very, very appreciative of their education,” he says. “It was free!”
A long-time member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Los Angeles River, Fox says he ultimately felt happiest when his work improved the lives of his fellow Angelenos. Even now, he tutors at his local library.
And he doesn't regret the two decades he spent worrying about the bottom line, but he admits he has imagined what could have been.
“After I got into adult ed,” he says, “and I saw what a great program it was, I thought, 'This would have been nice for all of those years.'”
(In full disclosure, Fox is my roommate's father, but I barely knew him before this interview.)
Up next: quitting art
Kimberly Garrett Sommer, 41
It took five days of phone tag to get Kimberly Garrett Sommer away from the demands of her job, her children and her fiancé for an interview. We speak for a few minutes here and there, in harried snippets as she's driving or supervising her kids, who are 10 and 13, until finally she calls after everyone has gone to bed.
So how in the world did she finally find time this past summer to get back to making art?
Two words: sleepaway camp.
As a teenager, Sommer taught herself how to make keepsake boxes out of wood, mosaic frame tables, decorative baskets and tie-dye clothing that she would sell out of local shops on eastern Long Island, where she grew up. Once, for a boyfriend's birthday, she decoupaged a humidor with cutouts from cigar magazines. When her friends started having babies, she created little wooden benches and chairs to match the colors of the nursery.
At the University of Michigan, she minored in art with a focus in photography. For years, Sommer would stuff her Nikon F3 down the back of her jeans to sneak it into hard rock and heavy metal concerts for bands like Mandrake and Extreme. (A friend would smuggle the detachable zoom lens in her pants.)
After college, she wanted to keep taking photographs of bands, so she worked in music publishing for companies like Tommy Boy and Hit and Run, but it wasn't as fun as she thought it would be. At 25, she went back to school to become a physician's assistant in orthopedics and put her camera on a shelf; at 29 she had her first child and suddenly had no time at all for artistic pursuits.
Sommer does enjoy orthopedics, which is still her day job, largely because it's just as hands-on as woodworking or ceramics. “It's the same kind of tools, in a sense,” she says, chuckling. “You're in construction of the body because you're dealing with bones, and that always appealed to me.”
Still, for years she would walk around boutiques and think, why should I buy that when I could just make it? At the beginning of this past summer, she looked around her suddenly quiet house at the huge glass vases of seashells she'd been collecting for decades and realized how badly she wanted to create something out of these beautiful raw materials.
Her first project was a wall hanging for her summer home in Sag Harbor, in the Hamptons: the word BEACH in foot-high wooden letters, covered with seashells from around the world. Next came stepping-stones for her garden, mosaics and American flags made from reclaimed wood.
It felt good, and she thinks Arsenio might feel the same as he transitions back into late-night wisecracking.
“I have a feeling that it's always been something he loved to do,” she says. “For me, it's like a passion, and when you have time in your life and you finally can get back to it, it's… it's… it's therapeutic, you know what I'm saying?”
She sounds exhausted. It's after 11 p.m. and she's finally able to stretch out in front of the television, but it's been a long day.
“You have to give up on something for so long because of other circumstances and you get back and it's like where you're supposed to be, you know?” she continues. “You feel productive. You feel like you're executing something that you're supposed to do, that you're meant to do.”
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