David Dickow (pronounced as though there is no W) has learned that there’s no time limit on realizing a dream. Stoically visualizing this moment required patience, endurance and determination. Add a busload of genuine sincerity – and what emerges is a writer of as many times and experiences as Doctor Who! What follows is the first of a series of interviews we had to discuss his life, art, and philosophies.
I get the feeling that your entire life has come down to this moment in time. First question? Well, it has in a way. You see, I’ve come to a place that allows me to finally express my life’s work through the artistic projects I’d been creating and putting on hold for most of that time. I’m taking the accumulated insights and foresights of my life story off the shelves and sharing them for the first time as they were visualized.
Alright, so what is your story? It’s a story of disillusionment, pain, perseverance, and love.
In that order? Pretty much. But it begins with love, as being one of five children in a caring family with extraordinary parents. My mom ran the household, which included selfless care of our sister born with cerebral palsy. My dad supported us from earning a college education via the G.I.Bill and becoming the managing editor of one of America’s largest trade union magazines. But it was my dad’s multi-dimensional interests and creativity that had the most impact on me. He had a true liberal understanding of humanity, which he fought to affect, while living out the finest example of a values-based life I’ve ever encountered.
So where does the disillusionment come in? I’m getting to it, but I thought you were looking for background bio stuff, also?
I am. Go on, where were you born? Born in Chicago in 1952 -I grew up on the city’s north side in a street corner apartment before my parents achieved their American Dream of moving into their first (and only) house in the western suburb of Addison. No longer relegated to a single city block area, this new world allowed freedom to roam (on bike) throughout miles and miles of territory – containing a farm (with cows) at the end of our street, wheat fields, parks, a front and back yard, and the innocent expansions of a soon-to-be relentless megalopolis. City and suburban perspectives have long influenced my writings.
But you came of age in the sixties…that had to be pretty cool! It was…but I came of age in the sixties thanks to my family and an above average public education that included the opportunity of formal music instruction. I was immersed in the full spectrum of my parents’ music, schools’ advancing classical music, and my own interests in folk music – leading up to “The Beatles” and rock and roll. By high school I had established running talent in sports by winning All-State and Conference Champion titles. With a personal best mile time of 4:24.5 and college scholarship offers, my senior year shaped up to be choosing which school I wanted to attend. But mostly, my awareness of the outside world and politics blossomed in the sixties and had a profound effect. Thanks to my father’s work and support, I became involved in school efforts opposed to the Vietnam War, as well as writing about other major issues in the news. But disappointment and disillusionment hit hard a few months prior to graduation when, in a fit of pique, my coach summarily kicked me off the track team with an incommensurate knee-jerk decision and abuse of power. Despite the protests by faculty and others, I lost the college offers and was thrown into a tailspin.
Yeah, that had to be rough during draft times. What was your lottery number? 13. Crap! What did you do? It was last minute, but I found a state teacher scholarship that paid my tuition and I did go on to college, but for many years I felt as if I was consistently reacting to circumstances beyond my control. I got married at age 20 (she was 18) before becoming a junior in college. During my senior year she informed me that she had taken herself off the pill and was pregnant. I quit school to work construction in order to pay the imminent bills. Two years later, after our second child was born I was stuck and faced years of financial erosion as the sole breadwinner. Ultimately, she left us for financial security and divorce. The pain led me to a suicide attempt and a long process of re-building – while still stuck working in construction - now as a single parent. Eventually, the legal system split the large marital debt in half, she declared bankruptcy and quickly remarried. I wound up repaying every penny and being the sole parental support of my kids, despite facing another major setback. In 1992, days after moving my freshman son into college, I was backed over and crushed by a 20-ton road grader that injured me from the waist down. The pain and trauma was devastating. Though a faulty beeper signal was the cause, I endured months of rehabilitation to walk and function again. But perseverance, worker’s compensation, and the doctors saying I can never walk on uneven surfaces again became the next chapter of my life.
Wow, that got personal. Do you feel you’ve still got an axe to grind? No. Not at all. (Pause) That was a superficial explanation of times taken too seriously to diminish with pettiness. Going into intimate detail would have made it worse. I take full responsibility for the choices I made throughout the seventies and eighties and 50% of the relationship woes. It took many years to come to the realization that having hit bottom and accepting treatment for depression led to dismantling the previous foundation of immature decision-making and dysfunction. By the nineties I was growing upon a solid foundation that has since strengthened all my relationships.
All right, you survived a harrowing ordeal…what was the next chapter? I went back to college in my forties and finished what I’d begun. It might seem a little crazy to say but surviving the pain and trauma of that accident was the silver lining that enabled me to get unstuck. Armed with a full teaching degree in political science and history, I was blessed beyond belief to join the faculty of one of the highest-ranked high schools in the country. As a part of the humanities department at Naperville Central, I taught tolerance and the diverse history of Minorities in American Society, as well as, American Government. Plus, I created and taught a new college-level course focused almost exclusively on The Decade of the 1960’s, in addition to a course surveying American History via American Cinema.
Hey, that had to be pretty satisfying to come full circle. It was. I love teaching and challenging young people’s thinking. The opportunity to motivate students not to give up was directly connected to relating some of my own life experience. But a few years after the accident also presented the most unforgettable meeting that I’m forever grateful for. I met a strong, intelligent woman whose faith in me matches her love. Katrin became a dream fulfilled, as well as my wife, six years later. Along with my children and their families, they are the love that shines in my life. In 2012 I retired from teaching to go out on a limb and seek a third career. I’ve visualized getting my writing published for so long that the time had come to follow through on my dreams. So here I am and that’s my story.
Explain your desire to begin these interviews on such a personal level? I’m not an emerging artist with a blank slate ahead of me. I come with baggage that has more to do with who I am than what I may create. I had originally planned a career in journalism to follow my father’s example. Never in a million years would I have ever imagined myself spending almost 20 years laboring in construction. But I did what I did for the sake of my family. You cannot understand the depth of my art without knowing that much of it was a result of those years. I found solace in writing on the backend of an asphalt-paving machine. I’d stay up after the kids went to bed to write after 12-14 hour workdays. Seasonal layoffs were prolific, when I wasn’t searching for work or in financial despair. But conflicted thoughts of abandoning the family and seeking my fortune as a writer on the coasts was never an option. I stuck it out, survived and am still here. I have the love and respect of two fantastic kids who have grown into beautiful adults. And though the kids are grown and moved out, they’ve always known where to find me…and where to find home.
Do you have any regrets? I would have if I hadn’t embarked upon this writer’s journey. It kept me grounded during some shaky, depressing times. Otherwise, no. I’ve grown to better accept and understand the past and appreciate how it’s made me stronger.
How has the past affected the projects you’ve written? I think that writing was a catharsis for a long time that kept me in touch with a sensitive soul. That no matter what sacrifice or suffering was occurring, I could be found in the words left on the pages.
Let’s wrap up with a look at your art. What is the body of work that you’ve been talking about and what do you plan to do with it? I wrote my first full-blown song in 1972, at the age of twenty. Ever since, dozens of songs have been completed that cover various genres of music. I’ve written an entire six-story series of children’s books and am on book two of the next series. I’ve outlined four divergent screenplays, a television pilot, and a pretty unique graphic novel. Though I’ve developed the conveyance for the stories, my plan is to focus on the release of my music and test those waters for the immediate future.
Then that’s where we will begin the second interview…
Let’s talk about your work, specifically, the music. You’ve been composing for over forty years and have amassed an assortment of music that only a few people have heard. Do you fear that you’re a bit late to the party at your age? Are you kidding? I’ve been watching the party my whole life and it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Why should I? Music transcends time. Variations of classical music themes are historically found in popular songs. Hell, edits of old songs, as well as recent, pop out in electro and club mixes. I’m arriving at the party with a basket full of goodies to share just like everyone else.
Then, what’s in the basket? Alright, now we’re getting to it. The basket’s filled with forty-plus years of music that spans a number of genres. When I started songwriting I quickly realized that success depended as much on being at the right place at the right time or whom you know, than on a song’s quality. If you stick to one style and bump into someone who could change your life but is seeking a different style; it doesn’t matter how good your one style of songwriting is. Plus, in the universe of music there is no one-style – no matter how popular one style may be at the time. So I set out to study the gamut of popular music back then and be prepared with an example of as many styles, both up-tempo and slow, as I could. You never knew whom you might make a contact with.
How did you keep your writing current? As time went on the new stuff kept pace and some of the old stuff got tweaked to adapt. Songs are elastic and can change shape to fit varieties of genres and styles. That is if you’re willing to accept that what you created isn’t etched in stone.
When “studying” popular music…how broad was your range? I’m a baby boomer! We were exposed to the broadest spectrum of popular sounds (dare I say it?) of any generation. Man, if I even tried to list them all…I’d leave most of them out. We had instrumentals, Sinatra, soundtracks, you name it, in the Top Forty, along with almost every permutation of rock and R&B experiments imagined. What a time to grow up in that was! I make no bones about the fact that those roots go very deep in all of my music. I feel like I’ve been a tortoise who’s been following the footsteps of giants. The artists and writers who came out of those times were the heroes of my generation and had a direct influence on me wanting to emulate them. That’s probably true in the hearts of most baby boomers. Not that I haven’t relished the pleasures in studying subsequent popular styles and artists whom I’ve admired and respected over the years, but this whole adventure of producing my music at this time of my life has been like emerging from suspended animation to share the sounds that they inspired in me.
That’s cool. Explain how you got out of suspended animation. What happened? Not long ago I began thinking about starting a new chapter: what that meant and if I could handle it. I loved teaching and I still knew I had plenty to give to my students, but there were big problems looming on the horizon and the profession had already undergone drastic changes during my tenure. I was healthy, secure, and still feeling young, creatively. So with my wife’s cooperation and blessing, I set a retirement date and mapped out a goal for sampling some of my songs and taking a chance on a third career.
Describe the process of planning something like this. Well, the catalogue of songs I’ve accumulated fell into basically three genres that I wanted to promote. However, my vocal limitations precluded my ever performing my songs in public. So I needed studio renditions to demonstrate my work. I found a local recording studio that I could afford with a stable of musicians and knocked the first demo out in 2009. It was called “Words & Music: Volume One” which sampled six adult contemporary - easy listening compositions. “Words & Music: Volume Two” was released in 2011 and showcased six country music songs. Volume Three emerged in 2014 as a full, twelve-song rock album under the title of “Terra Incognito.”
How did you come up with that title? Terra Incognito refers to where I’m at right now – unknown land. Actually, it came from seeing a really old map that identified most of the South American continent as Terra Incognito. I’m in uncharted (pun intended) territory right now trying to break into the music business and get my music heard and/or reproduced by other artists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not lost, but there’s no clear path to success. So the title seemed to fit.
Let’s talk about the new album and your plans to get it heard… My strategy all along has been to be patient with each project until all three volumes have been completed. I didn’t want to jump the gun and risk being deficient of particular styles or genres. Hell, I’d already waited decades to begin the recording process. The new album presents options I’m excited to be facing. I’ve got twice the number of songs to showcase and there’s a potential that it could sell on its own. I’m happy to be finally at this stage. I’m moving forward.
So is the focus the new album or what? As much as I’d like to believe that the new album can stand on its own and sell a zillion copies, in the end I’m just a songwriter trying to sell one song at a time. The composing, development, and recording stages of all three projects are complete. As producer of each, I intended them to be as open to interpretations from other artists as possible in the event they get covered. So the focus is locating connections to any of the three projects through the various opportunities available to songwriters, as well as a list of connections compiled throughout the years. If Terra Incognito gains a following as an album - that would be fantastic!
Let’s back-up to your comment about being the producer of your three albums. I understand the songwriter role of creating words and music, but describe your role as producer? The producer in the studio is like the stage or movie director. You basically call all the shots – from choosing the musicians to choosing from myriads of instrument “sounds” to often setting the course of solos and performances by either humming to non-readers or writing out the sheet music for the musicians who read musical notation – everything. We’re talking about setting the tempo from the scratch track - all the way to design and layout of the finished product. Along with financing the entire project, there are countless decisions to be made and countless directions given. I earned praise from the studio staff for providing clear communication through the use of specific performance notes and detailed samples, despite at times, settling on compromises due to studio limitations.
Tell me more about what’s in Terra Incognito. You said there was some history going back into some of the songs. Was that your goal – to survey the spectrum of rock history? Not really. Diversity has been the conscious goal for all three albums. As I said, I set out to prepare as many diverse styles of songs as I could showcase. And because I don’t perform in public, I’m not playing to strengths or public demands. So I’ve been free with each project to select songs I wrote that are clearly different from each other, despite being under the umbrella of a general genre.
Take me through the overall soundscape of what you intended for Terra Incognito. Ok, it begins with a progressive rock instrumental [Euphonic Googolplex] designed as a sort of “overture” reminiscent of The Who or Yes. The First Cut is pop rock with country overtones channeling a REM/Bryan Adams vibe. Mirror, Mirror is heavy progressive rock shooting for the sounds of Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. I Am…It’s Purple! is ethereal and psychedelic. Replacements-like power pop was the goal for On Cherry Street. The immediate consensus favorite is Neil Young/Eleventh Dream Day inspired; It’s a Good Day To Die - featuring the incredible EDD guest artist Rick Rizzo on guitar. Next is a retro (think, ‘prom’) ballad called You Know (Me By Heart). Mad is an attempt at punk ala The Clash or Not Rebecca. It would be too cool if Bonnie Raitt picked up on the bluesy, swing number, I Wanna (BuildMyArmsAroundYou). My Little Ones starts as a rock lullaby aiming for an arena rock sound. Stormking is epic progressive rock complete with three movements and a reprise, highly influenced by Fairport Convention and early Genesis. Finally, one of my favorites is the electric folk song, We’re Not Getting Smarter, inspired by Dylan and Bob Mould.
That's an interesting mix of influences. Terra Incognito exists because of all the great individuals and bands that inspired it. The roots go very deep. And if nothing comes of my efforts, I’ll be forever grateful for their work – and the work of the musicians I was privileged to work with on these projects. A big thanks goes out to them.
But it all comes down to the songs. Do you have any thoughts on songwriting that you care to share? For me songwriting is like being a pitcher in baseball. They’re not expected to hit well just pitch well. I play and sing well enough to write my songs and that’s what I put my work into. Crafting the words and music is all I want to do.
And then “pitch” them in a finished format? Well, that’s just a reflection on how the business changed since 1972. Back then songwriting amounted to securing a copyright and submitting a song to a record company in a very raw recorded format – vocal/guitar or vocal/piano. The industry had professionals trained to spot the essence of a song’s quality and its’ potential embellishments by a label’s artists. Today, corporations require expensive “radio-worthy” submissions geared generally toward young people only. The finished format is the reality, however, so I’ve taken great care to write music of as universal a nature as possible, given my influences. With my stuff, the beauty is that the arrangements or mixes aren’t etched in stone. I’ve always felt that it’s essential to the process of “selling” songs that someone interested in the work has the capacity to realize their own interpretations. If you know anyone or any band that’s on the look out for some great songs to perform, give me a call and we’ll work something out.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to say about Terra Incognito? [Smiling] Buy it! It’s a bargain! It clocks in at slightly over sixty-five minutes – so you’re going to get your money’s worth! [Pause] The album and me are products of my time. I hope people check it out and like what they hear.
His “time” is where we’ll begin the next interview…
At the end of this year (2014), every baby boomer will have turned 50. Many are looking to reinvent themselves in middle age. I would imagine that many would identify themselves with your story and support your efforts to take a risk. You’re an independent artist putting up your own money to get your music appreciated. Are baby boomers your target market? That’s a very tricky one to answer. I would love to assume that we share a generation of values together, especially classic music and the experiences of actually paying for it. Record stores were like our generation’s Starbucks, you know. But although the post-WWII “baby boom” impacted American society with a powerful 40% of the population, we became part of the polarization of the 60’s and 70’s, too. What I mean is that some argue that people born between 1946-1955 are true boomers due to the fact that those born after 1955 were not faced with the draft. Boomers born between 1955-1964 tend to be less optimistic, distrust government, and are generally cynical due to Watergate, Nixon, inflation, and gas shortages. I get that. The earlier boomers (like me) tend to be experimental, free spirited, and social cause oriented due to the Kennedy years, Dr. King, Vietnam, recreational drugs, and all the various protests and movements toward changing the world. By the mid-seventies we were all being called “the me generation” as young adults became more focused on themselves. We showed the world the power of the people, but then walked away. So to answer your question – I think it’s very difficult to predict how to mobilize the baby boomers.
Then who is your target market? Short of any music lover, I hope young people will get into my stuff. When I taught my class on the sixties I was amazed at the number of students who signed up mostly to hear and learn about the music! I mean it was incredible to realize the impact that generation of artists had on them. So I’m hitching my wagon to young people ‘cause they’re still the hope of the future.
You mentioned the impact of the [Vietnam] draft on your generation. Do you think “the youth movement” protests were self-serving designs to avoid service and leave the appearance of changing the world? Hell no…not even close. That war was clearly not in the nation’s interest (sound familiar?) and most who were sent over there were too young to voice their vote. Besides, that generation of activists were on the front line of most of the major changes happening throughout the sixties – whether it directly impacted their lives or not. I think you’re way off base to suggest otherwise. But speaking of the draft, I used to float the idea to my government students that a draft becomes automatic to any large military incursion - males and females. It never went over well with them, of course, but my point was that if middle-class parents knew their kid’s lives were at stake they would be motivated to restrain the politicians and prevent more wars. A legacy of the Vietnam War is a government that now has free reign with a “volunteer” military to get away with ridiculously costly policies that have affected a much smaller number of Americans lives directly, despite affecting everyone else indirectly. Therefore, I think politicians should be duly recognizing those who serve by increasing benefits for military families.
Judging by the lyrics to ‘Mad’ you don’t seem to care for politicians very much. Remember, it’s only a song. [Laughs] I love the democratic process…when it’s democratic. Today it’s a dysfunctional sandbox based upon moneyed interests. That makes me “really, really mad.”
That also makes you a liberal, right? I make no apologies and pledge allegiance to that fact. The political philosophy of liberalism has been the engine of our social progress. I spent many classes impartially teaching the lesson on the American political spectrum. From radicals to moderates to those in the center, we teach that conservatives believe in maintaining the status quo and liberals believe in change. But during the second Bush era I realized a re-awakening of the concept. Since it’s unlikely that I’ll write the book I intended, here’s the title – Selfish or Selfless: The New Political Spectrum. I’ve come to see that the traditional explanation of differences is too simplistic and nebulous. It lacks accountability and personal responsibility. I now view a spectrum that substitutes selfish and selfless at opposing poles and I analyze how people’s choices and behavior place them along the way. At the very ends I don’t see many who are absolutely selfish or selfless because we all waver in varying degrees on a daily basis. However, when I observe something that smacks of self-serving or discriminatory behavior being explained as simply adhering to an established conservative platform I cut the crap and see selfish behavior. If you’re willing to let people suffer because “ideologically” you have principles – you’re a selfish individual. When a simple majority of Supreme Court judges recently undermined democracy by favoring billionaire spending over campaign finance reforms, they were clearly acting on protecting their own selfish interests and the agenda of their ilk. It is common sense to understand that the size of wallets shouldn’t determine the strength of one’s voice in our political system. So I look beyond ideology and question ulterior motives such as class, racism, gain or power, ignorance, basic intolerance, etc. for underlying reasons to selfish choices along the political spectrum. The base emotional responses transcend ideology. I guarantee that if you try holding all people under this new standard you’ll find new meaning to the words liberal and conservative.
But politicians on both sides have rigged the system in their favor through unlimited finance and restrictive voting laws. How will that ever change? Well, that’s a simple solution that I wanted to make public back in the seventies. I witnessed the absurdity of people paying good money to a guy for a “pet” rock - a common stone with a painted face on it. The guy made millions and I wondered if there might be a venture with socially redeeming value, instead. I thought I’d place cheap national ads guaranteeing real change if people were unhappy with government. For a dollar and your zip code you’d receive a symbolic button along with a list of all the incumbents in offices in an upcoming election. The message was simple – bring the list into your voting booth and vote out all the incumbents. It didn’t matter who the alternative was. If the electorate got on board then there would not only be a regular turnover within government but those who chose to run would be running to achieve serious issues. It would be made clear that the power to retain or reject is truly in the hands of the people to choose if a politician has earned the job. But those were the days before the Internet made it easy to gather up all that national information. Today it’s a simple task. You’d be surprised at the uncomplicated joy it brings me to make choices pertaining to politicians, especially ones I’m totally unfamiliar with!
Wow, I had no idea you were so politically active! Since you’re already on the soapbox, what else would you care to comment on? Sure, there’s stuff…but what concerns me most is the state of education in this country. Public education is under-valued, under-funded, and being forced to dumb-down good teaching in favor of an unrealistic business model approach. Traditional problems such as class size, inequities of facilities, teacher pay and certification; find themselves in competition today with the forces of privatization. Non-transparent private charter schools perform no better and are largely funded with public money. They undermine public schools by breaking unions, diverting needed funds, and fracturing local districts. They create discriminatory potential in a society already prone to discrimination. I’m opposed to gerrymandered school districts targeted the same as gerrymandered voting blocks. The powers that be should be following the lead of seasoned, experienced teachers rather than the latest book-promoting self-professed guru. And it all comes down to priorities. If we want intelligent, enlightened children who will be capable of sorting out truths from messages of fear and paranoia then we have to prioritize funding to the construction of better public schools and the instruction of our future citizens. Otherwise, we’re not getting smarter.
I think you just lost half of the support you’re looking for. You’re probably right! [Laughs] I think there’s a faction of our society that has a special interest in keeping people misinformed and manipulated. I think education is a threat to those people and they want desperately to undermine it.
Well, there’s certainly a lot to digest here. I have nothing to lose…and anything to gain. I think that’ll be my motto…or my business plan!
Is there anything else you’d like to say for this interview? As I’ve thought about your questions, I’m realizing how risky it is to put yourself out there. But controversy, like art, is more than knee-jerk, black-and-white reactions. Getting people to think is a goal I inherited from my father. And if that leads to conscientious dialogue, I want to be part of the conversation. Along with that, my immediate goal is to get people to accept my music. I’ve done a lot of pontificating just now but this was really supposed to be about Terra Incognito and my songwriting. Once again, I’m looking for anyone or any band that needs great original songs to perform…and turn into classics. To all who choose to listen to my stuff, you have my deepest appreciation. No matter how this gets received, I’m happy to still be here taking risks.