Jeff Pearlman

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Jeff Pearlman

#145
We share a pretty boring name, we share being New York Jews with cool wives. But this veteran musician has a ponytail ... and talent. POSTED March 13, 2014

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Confession: I Google myself.

I do. Not all the time, but—especially when a new book comes out—often enough. I guess it’s ego gone crazy, but I want to know that people are reading. I want to know that books are moving. I want to know that there’s a buzz. I want to know …

… that I play the organ.

Um, what?

I don’t play the organ. Or the keyboard. Or any sort of instrument. I once took guitar lessons, and wrote a song for my infant daughter called “Breast Feed, Bird Seed.” But, alas, it sucked, and my guitar now sits in the basement, gathering dust. Fortunately, just because this Jeff Pearlman doesn’t have a sliver of musical talent doesn’t mean The Jeff Pearlman also lacks skill. In fact, The Jeff Pearlman (who I discovered via Google) is a wizard; a man who has played in 1,001 bands, who loves the Dead, who is bringing the Hammond Organ toward the forefront of cool (well, sorta) and who wisely married the great singer/songwriter, Katie Pearlman.

Here, Jeff Pearlman talks life as Jeff Pearlman—minus the eternal threat of a racist relief pitcher knocking on his door with a butcher knife. He explains his love for organs and ponytails, and why Tupac’s greatest song leaves him somewhat unimpressed. One can keep track of Jeff here, and follow his latest musical projects here, here and here.

Jeff Pearlman, my brother in mediocre, uninspired naming, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Well, this is quirky. So Jeff, I’m gonna begin with an odd one. I started really thinking about names when my wife was about to give birth to our daughter. I kept pondering the way names shape people. If you name a kid Sidney, is her life much different—90 years later—than had you named her Olive? I think yes, but I’m not sure why. Or how. So, Jeff Pearlman, what do you think about your/our name? How did you get it? In 2014, are you cool with it?

JEFF PEARLMAN: I was named after my dad’s grandfather. When I was young, I was small and young for my grade, so I was bullied and made fun of a lot, and one of the things I remember happening was having my name made fun of. As a result, I couldn’t stand the sound of my name “Jeffrey”. It probably wasn’t until after high school that those wounds began to heal, I accepted myself more, and I ceased having issues with my name. Now in my life I am very happy with who I am and where I’m at, so I feel that my name as part of who I am in this life serves me just fine. The idea you postulate, that our names perhaps shape us, is an interesting one, that I think may, at least on the margin, be so. My wife, Katie, named our first daughter Emma Lynn because it sounds like the name of a Country singer, which she wouldn’t exactly mind if it came to be.

J.P.: You’re a singer and keyboardist in a bunch of different projects, bands, etc. Where did your love of music come from? When did you realize, “Hmm, this is more than just a hobby for me?” In short, what has been your path—womb to keyboard?

J.P.: This is a pretty cool story. I have always loved music. The first album I remember listening to was Meet the Beatles, which, as I recall, was purchased by my parents for my brother by mistake, as it was supposed to be a Monkees album. This led to a childhood fanaticism with The Beatles. I started singing (outside of the house) in middle school, mostly in the context of musical theater, where I acquired a taste for music of the early 20th Century. For a while I had a real good Al Jolson imitation going, and even won a contest held at the Ziegfeld Theater, which got me a performance gig, a morning television show appearance and a picture on the front cover of the second section of the Saturday edition of the NY Times. Not bad for 13! In high school, I got into singing choral music and had some good experiences in state competitions and sang in All-County Chorus (Nassau County) several times. I never played piano, though, other than some banging on our home spinet. My taste in music evolved through my school years from The Beatles, into folk music, and then into progressive rock (Genesis, Yes, ELP, etc.) in which keyboards played an integral part. It was then that I started appreciating the diversity of the keyboard, and the roles they played in that kind of music. In 1981, a friend took me to my first (of very many) Grateful Dead concerts where I found a passion for that music of the likes I had never known. Among other things, I really fell in love with the Hammond Organ and I found its sound captivating.

Many years later, at the age of 29, I was handed a copy of a local magazine called the “The Music Paper”, because it had a picture of Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart on the front cover. When I was perusing the classified ads in the back (for no actual reason), I saw a want ad for a “beginning keyboard player interested in The Dead and Bob Dylan”. I had previously acquired a basic synthesizer, because I liked to make cool sounds, so I packed it up with my minimal knowledge of the instrument and proceeded to go out and change my life. The folks I went to play with gave me great feedback, and one of the guys I met suggested that I come out and play with another group he jammed with, which was a group of pro-level players. It was an incredible and somewhat overwhelming experience, but I knew this was something that I must keep doing. This is now 23 years later, and I haven’t stopped playing for a second. It’s not, however, how I make a living (for the most part). By day, I’m a high school Earth Science/Astronomy teacher at Hewlett High School on Long Island (NY). In spite of the fact that I don’t make most of my living from it, music is certainly not a hobby. I gig as much as I can (I’ve done up to 100 shows a year in recent years), and have played far and wide around the East Coast and even as far as Arizona and Utah. I have also recorded on about 20 or so albums. I feel my late start in music has given me a unique perspective on it. I knew my life before music and since. I really feel that music essentially dropped out of the sky into my lap, and feel very blessed for it. I feel gratitude each and every time I go out to play, and it has provided me a creative and expressive outlet I could not have imagined. The feedback I’ve gotten from audiences and fellow musicians has let me know that I’m doing something right here. I’ve met most of my good friends and even my wife through playing, so it has truly transformed my life.

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J.P.: I don’t want this to sound self-serving, because I know I’m not famous or even known outside of sports books. But have you ever been confused with a writer named Jeff Pearlman? (“Why the fuck did you do that to John Rocker!”) Or, perhaps, Ronald Perelman, the Revlon chairman? Or Lou Pearlman, the Backstreet Boys founder? And were you, in fact, an original Backstreet Boy?

J.P.: Ha! Don’t start any rumors. Actually, come to think of it, when the Rocker book came out, a friend did make a crack about that to me! The only “Pearlman” I have been repeatedly asked about being related to, though, is Itzhak (actually spelt “Perlman”).

J.P.: According to your bio, you were hugely influenced by the music of the Grateful Dead. Which I love—because I’ve only heard, oh, 2,000 times that being a Dead fan, “isn’t really about the music.” What’s your take on the Dead? On their influence and sound?

J.P.: What I see the Grateful Dead being all about is exploration and reflection (and plenty about the music, I must insist). From the musicians’ standpoint, a good deal of their live performance was improvisational. They would travel together as a unit through a tonal landscape that was new every time, and would do it with skill, passion, energy, imagination, and risk taking. Their lyrics were frequently metaphoric for varying aspects of our existence, and reflective story telling. From the listeners’ standpoint, we got to ride the wave that they were creating, and we used our imagination to see ourselves and the human condition through their music, while celebrating the entirety by channeling the energy through dance. It seemed that the music drove the audience which then in turn drove the band, and both the fans and the band agree that the connection between the audience and the band was an essential part of every show and they would drive each other to energy heights unattainable without that connection. Their influence on music is evident in that since the almost 20 years since Jerry Garcia’s death, the music is going strong with many groups still re-interpreting it (I spend much of my playing time in such a pursuit), and many newer bands, especially (but certainly not limited to) those that fall into the genre of “jam bands” don’t hide their Grateful Dead influence. Also, not too many groups have their own dedicated satellite radio channel, attesting to the number of die-hard fans they still have. In fact, I think the number of fans of the Dead continue to increase as new generations are exposed to their music. There is a kindred connection with many of us longtime Deadheads. It’s kind of like we all went to school together. I can meet a Deadhead I don’t know from another part of the country and have an in-depth conversation like we’re old friends that haven’t spoken in some time, on great variety of topics. Also, I essentially learned how to play by going to school on the music of the Dead. Stylistically, The Grateful Dead draw on all of the American genres such as bluegrass, country, folk, jazz, blues, and rock. This has given me a pretty solid foundation for playing a variety of music in a variety of styles.

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J.P.: You’re big into the Hammond Organ. What the hell is a Hammond Organ?

J.P.: The Hammond Organ was invented in the 1930’s by Laurens Hammond. It was intended to be an alternative to a church pipe organ. It works in a similar fashion in that the sound is based on 9 bars that can be pulled out to different degrees, each bar representing a different length pipe, so the sound of any one note is really up to nine individual tones layered on top of each other. The bars can be manipulated while playing, so the sound is very dynamic and can alter the feeling of different passages of a song. The organ isn’t played through a regular amplifier, rather, it is played through rotating speakers (called a “Leslie” Speaker Cabinet – invented by Don Leslie in the 1940’s) which gives the organ a very big, pulsating sound. It has been a fixture in so many kinds of music, including gospel, jazz, blues and rock. Many of the organists that have been my greatest influence have been gospel players. Look for it in pop music, even on music television programs when a person looks like their playing a huge piece of furniture.

J.P.: Give me the story of the absolute worst musical venue you’ve ever played, and the worst experience as a musician. I love those tales …

J.P.: Oh, where to begin? So many to choose from. OK, in about 2002, I was in an original rock band that was booked to play a festival in Virginia. The festival grounds were described as being rolling hills with orchards and that there would be drum circles and many amenities. We got there after an eight hour drive, and found out that the grounds weren’t at all what were advertised. It was more like someone’s yard (albeit a large one in rural Virginia). There were no rolling hills, no orchards, no drum circles, very few people, and very little money. I don’t remember what we were promised, but we were offered a small sum if we would NOT play, and would pay us nothing if we insisted on playing. Well, we decided that it was more important for us to have our music heard by the few people there then to just turn around and drive eight hours back to NY. So we set up and played our set, the sound man fell asleep at the soundboard (and we weren’t a soft band), broke down, and I got back in the car and drove straight back to NY. Over the years, there have been many gigs cancelled or double booked that we were not informed about until we arrived at the venue. There have been times stiffed, as well. At times, playing rock music can make one feel like Rodney Dangerfield.

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J.P.: Why do you think soooo many musicians drink and smoke? Being serious—they’re bad for you, they certainly don’t enhance skills. So … why?

J.P.: I think that rock and roll is still associated with a “bad boy” image. Many rock and roll musicians that serve as role models can still be seen as portraying a rebellious image that includes all sorts of reckless behavior. Actually, over the years, I see many fewer musicians that smoke cigarettes. Much of that may have to do with the fact that the venues are smoke free now. I was never a smoker, yet I used to come home from gigs with my clothes and hair reeking of smoke, and felt that I had smoked a pack myself! I can’t tell you how happy I am that smoking is no longer allowed in most places. As for the drinking, most bands play in drinking establishments and most gig compensation agreements include the covering of a bar tab, to some extent. I also know that many musicians have some sort of performance anxiety, and a drink or two may help them to relax. I also don’t see as much serious alcohol consumption as I used to. Most musicians I know take their craft very seriously, and don’t want to compromise their performance, or their health. I think, though, that especially with young players, it’s the archetypal image of the rock and roller that drives the unhealthy behavior.

J.P.: What are the complications of trying to “make it” in music? It seems like a field that can eat people alive—but also offers tremendous reward and gratification.

J.P.: You’re right on both fronts, Jeff! Since my music career began after my teaching career, I never had to worry about making ends meet, but my wife, Katie, is a full time musician, and she’s encountered the challenges of which you speak. In this day of the sharing of music among people digitally, there’s very little money in record sales. The only way to make a living, unless you’re really huge, is live performances and selling CDs and merchandise at shows. In order to do that well, and on a regional/national level, you really need managerial and promotional assistance. Everyone gets paid before the artist, and there are never any guarantees. The artist is not just competing with other musicians for the consumer’s bandwidth, but with every other entertainment medium vying for the ever decreasing amount of discretionary dollars available to most folks. That said, there is very little that I’ve encountered that compares with playing a show to an enthusiastic, packed house, or hearing rave reviews of an album of original music that you contributed to. It’s definitely a business with incredibly high peaks and very challenging valleys.

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J.P.: You have a pretty long ponytail—something I’d never, ever, ever be able to pull off. What’s the story of the ol’ tail?

J.P.: Long hair has come and gone (and come again) over the years starting when I was in college. I’ve had it long for about 15 years now. I don’t know, I think, maybe, that it’s an outward representation of the freedom I feel I have in this life, and now I think most of that freedom comes directly or indirectly from music. Besides, my wife likes it (my mom hates it) and my students dig it, although I feel compelled to jacket and tie it to work every day to sort of balance out the look and make it more professionally presentable.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEFF PEARLMAN:

•You list your favorite book as “A Gradual Awakening” by Stephen Levine. Um, where’s the love, bro?: That book has had great impact on my life. I’ve always considered myself a spiritual being (not a religious one, however), and that book helped to crystallize one of the pillars of my beliefs. I’ll try to explain. I think that humans, consciously or not kind of identify themselves (to themselves and perhaps to others as well) by the thoughts that continuously stream through their consciousness. I know that I am not my thoughts. I feel that who I am is a point of awareness, a space that thoughts show up in. They arise, they dwell, and then fade away. Through awareness fostered by meditation, one can get more in touch with the spaces between thoughts and dwell there, seeing the thoughts for just what they are. I think that this gives them less power in my life and as a result, I’m generally calmer, more at peace, happier and more empowered (but, boy, I have much to learn). That is what this book is about. Interestingly, it relates to music in a very fundamental way. The notes that one plays are really meaningless unless they are each surrounded by space or silence. The space is at least as important as the note, for without the space, there is no music.

•Rank in order (favorite to least): Patrick Stewart, Darryl Dawkins, Catherine Bach, Little River Band, watermelon, red hair, Pharrell Williams, Mr. Potato Head, Detroit Red Wings, Paradise By the Dashboard Light: OK, First, Patrick Stewart. He is my favorite actor. I’ll tell you that I’m quite the Trekkie and sci-fi geek in general. Second is Paradise. As a kid of the seventies, how could it not rank high? I think all the rest are tied for last. Now if you included the New York Mets … (Bad Guys not withstanding)

•Three memories from your Bar Mitzvah: Whisky sours! Singing “My Way” with the band! And the cool plaid tuxedo jacket I wore!

•You’re married to Katie Pearlman, a singer/songwriter/probably not my cousin. How’d you meet? How’d you propose?: Katie and I met in a band. We joined the same band at about the same time, she as a percussionist/vocalist and me as a keyboardist. It’s real cool, because the band was based out of East Rutherford, NJ, and with me being from Long Island, I almost never went to audition, and even then, almost didn’t take the gig. I proposed to Katie at a gig we were playing (a different band than we had met in) just before the end of our first set in front of a packed house! She had no clue, and neither did her mom or brother, who were in attendance. After a song, I asked her mom to the stage to ask her permission, then did the whole down on one knee thing, mic in hand, and asked her to marry me. It would have been really embarrassing if she told me no!

•Celine Dion calls. She’s looking for a kick-ass Hammond Organ player. She’ll pay $10 million next year to play the Hammond Organ in her Las Vegas show,“Celine Does Men Without Hats’ One Big Song Repeatedly For Three Hours.” You have to play “Safety Dance” repeatedly for three hours every night—wearing a diaper, with deer antlers glued to your skull. You in?: I can think of a lot worse things that someone could ask me to do for 10 mill! One year, then no strings? I’m down. That’s a small price to pay for relieving the financial burden of our entire family for possibly a couple of generations. Did you say something about musicians and drinking?

•Five greatest keyboardists of our lifetime?: Jimmy Smith (Jazz Hammond organist), McCoy Tyner (John Coltrane’s pianist), Jerry Lee Lewis, Liberace, and Rick Wakeman.

• In 25 words or less, make an argument why Katie Pearlman is better than Katie Perry …: I will preface by stating my lack of familiarity, but I did some research (now you can start my word count): Katie Pearlman plays guitar, drums AND sings great. Katie Pearlman’s songs resonate more with me and connect more on a human level. Katie Pearlman is hotter!

• Five favorite Dead songs: Terrapin Station, Weather Report Suite, Box of Rain, Ripple, and Uncle John’s Band.

This is one of my absolute all-time favorite songs. Being serious—what do you think?: Well, I’ve never been a fan of rap, but here are my thoughts on the song (I checked out the video and looked up the lyrics). I liked the piano on the track (shocking, right?). When I first saw the video, the irony of it was striking given 2pac’s fate. When I read the lyrics, I didn’t see the connection between them and the video. I’ve heard of 2pac’s prowess as a poet, but, as I’ve encountered before in the genre, I can’t really relate to the content. I’m wondering how that becomes your favorite song? (is it my turn to interview you yet?)

• What happens after we die? And how much worry does that bring you?: It doesn’t matter what happens when we die. We won’t know at least until it happens, and the ego will try a million ways to convince itself that somehow it will survive and continue. I ain’t buying it! We’re energy and physics says that energy can’t be lost or destroyed, but that’s not all we are. No worries, just live like this is my only shot at it, because it probably is.

  • Lisa

    Glad I came across your site, looks good.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life