President Harvey Stenger greets Steve Karmen following the composer's moving Commencement address on May 20.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2012: Text of Steve Karmen’s speechTweet
The text of composer Steve Karmen’s Commencement address, “Something That I Love,” delivered at the Professional Schools Ceremony at the Events Center on May 20. Karmen, who received an honorary degree at the ceremony, was given a standing ovation following the address.
First, my sincerest thanks to President Stenger, and to the Board of Trustees of Binghamton University and to Dr. Kim Jaussi [his nominator] for this great honor.
This is really a big deal for me. The last time I received a diploma was in 1954, on the day I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. That was 58 years ago. (Don’t do the math; I checked it.)
Most importantly, I wish to congratulate all the graduates today, because I know that this is a really big deal for you, too. I have watched – from a distance – the time and great sustained effort that it takes to achieve a college diploma, and I hope each of you is enjoying a huge sense of pride in your accomplishment. You should: You’ve earned it!
And your parents have earned it, too; and today, not only are they applauding you, they are finally breathing a welcome sigh of relief – temporary as it will be – that, at least, this part of your struggle is behind you.
Dear Graduates: This week, at commencement ceremonies all over America, speakers are trying to inspire you to go out there and pursue your dreams. While that is certainly appropriate and terrific and wonderful, there are thousands of speeches like that, and I think you can find what you need on YouTube.
So I didn’t even try to come up with the words that “you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.” Instead, I decided to tell you what I know for sure, which is how I got here, and why this day means so much to me. (I think you’ll get the connection.)
When I was growing up, “Follow Your Passion” had not yet been invented. In my parents’ world, if you were interested in music – my field – it was something that you were supposed to do on the weekends, after your regular job, whatever that was.
My parents lived through the Great Depression, and they understood that the only way to survive was to be well educated, and then to become a “professional” man: a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, an accountant; a long list of titles that did not include “musician.”
My dad was a Russian immigrant who learned to speak English, and later graduated from Cooper Union College with a degree in engineering. When “I Love New York” was proclaimed as the Official Song of New York state, I dedicated it in his memory.
My mother, born in America, graduated from City College in New York in 1927, with a business degree. For women to go to college today is a given, but it was not so back then. My mother was a pioneer of sorts, who knew that education was the key to the future.
We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx; my parents had the bedroom; my brother, Arthur – 7 years older – was given the living room to sleep in and to study in on his pre-ordained path to becoming a doctor; and I slept in the kitchen next to the stove.
My brother went on to college on a full academic scholarship, and then to medical school on a full scholarship. And while he was an intern doing research, he discovered that the enzyme transaminase existed in human blood. When someone has a heart attack, transaminase is secreted by the heart muscle into the blood stream, and by measuring the amount, doctors can determine the severity of the heart attack. This test was used on President Eisenhower in the 1950s after his heart attack. One of the units of measure is sometimes referred to as a Karmen Unit, named for the discovery of the enzyme transaminase in blood, by my brother. (My mother thanks you.)
Growing up in the shadow of such academic glory might seem daunting, but I was lucky. I had a gift. I loved music and it came to me naturally. I’ve never studied, nor do I have any formal musical training; but we had an old piano in the apartment that no one ever played – just a piece of furniture that just sat there as far back as I can remember – but when my brother wasn’t at home studying, I found I could play it, by ear, picking out the songs I’d heard on the radio, which was on only, of course, when my brother wasn’t studying; my father had an old mandolin, and when no one was home, I taught myself to play that, too. When a cousin gave me a saxophone that he didn’t want any more, a week later I gave a recital at school.
And…not only could I play music, but I found I could compose music.
I was looking through my old files in preparation for this wonderful day, and found some of the history of my youth, my first fledgling efforts as a composer. When I was 11, the first piece of music I ever wrote was called “Symphony for Marilyn.” Not “Melody for Marilyn,” or “Song for Marilyn,” or “Concerto for Marilyn” or “Opus for Marilyn,” but “SYMPHONY for Marilyn.” The Marilyn of my memory was a 13-year-old girl who lived in the next building, and as an 11-year-old boy, well…Marilyn inspired a “symphony.”
My parents, however, would not listen to it. My father was quietly appreciative of my first steps in music, but my mother ruled. I have learned, after many years of therapy, that it was not that they didn’t love me…they certainly did…and they provided a safe home for me to grow in…but they were seriously afraid of encouraging me into something that might distract from the road to becoming a “professional” man.
So, even though I was accepted at Music and Art High School in New York, my parents insisted that I go to the Bronx High School of Science – where my brother had gone before me – so I might also pursue a career in the sciences…maybe even in the field of medicine.
In high school, I was an average student; truthfully, below average.
But there was another kid at Science, also not a great student, but who also loved music; and we connected, and found a common bond. His name was Bobby Cassotto.
When I graduated from Science – barely – I registered, at my parents’ urging, as a pre-med freshman at New York University. NYU was the same college that my brother had attended.
I lasted a month. I hated it. And when Bobby dropped out of Hunter College in his first year to pursue a career as an entertainer, he wanted to form a singing act, so I quit school to join him. He sang the lead and I played guitar and sang the harmony parts. Bobby later changed his name to Bobby Darin, and you know him today as the singer of “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife.” I am forever grateful that some of Bobby’s amazing self-confidence rubbed off on me.
Quitting school, however, was a devastating blow to my parents. No one in our family had ever dropped out of anything. No, my mother would refer to her children as…“this is my son, the intern, doing research in hematology at Sloan Kettering…and this is my other son…”
Bobby and I worked together for a year or so, and then I went out on my own, doing my own act, singing and playing guitar.
When Dick Clark died recently, I was reminded that I appeared on American Bandstand in 1957, during the first week it was on the ABC Television Network. I was a young rock-and-roll singer promoting my first record on the Mercury Label. It was called “She Had Wild Eyes and Tender Lips.” (Thank you for remembering.)
The show was broadcast on weekdays at 3:30 in the afternoon. When I asked my mother if she had watched, she said: “at 3:30 in the afternoon, most people are working!”
I had always been writing music, and one day, after making lots of records that didn’t sell, someone offered me the opportunity to write the background score for a low-budget movie. And that’s how I learned a craft.
And, later, when someone offered me the job of writing an advertising jingle for a commercial, I found a musical home.
But even after I became a successful composer, I could never quite shake the feeling that my path had been a disappointment to my mother – my dad had already passed – and for years I was constantly plagued by the need to achieve something that would win my mother’s approval.
There is a wonderful parable that describes how I felt better than any words I could write myself, and I’d like to share it with you.
“The first Jewish president of the United States—the first JEWISH president – calls his mother in Miami: ‘Mama, I want you to come to the White House. It’s the greatest building in the world. You can sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. This is the same desk that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman used. You can sleep in Abraham Lincoln’s bed. You can sit in the chair that Lincoln sat in when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I can even show you the secret place where John Kennedy slept with Marilyn Monroe. Please mom! Please come for a visit!’
[In mother’s voice]: ‘I don’t know how to travel. How would I get there?’
‘Mom, I’m going to send Air Force One. It’s the greatest plane in the world. You can sit in the president’s cabin. It will make any kind of food you’d like to eat. You can watch any kind of show on television. Please come for a visit!’
[In mother’s voice]: ‘When I get to Washington, how will I find where you live?’
‘Mom, I’m going to send a helicopter for you. It will pick you up at Andrews Air Force Base and bring you right into the backyard of the White House – right into Jackie Kennedy’s Rose Garden, where I will have the entire Cabinet and the Supreme Court of the United States waiting to greet you as the great, great lady that you are.’
[In mother’s voice]: ‘Well, I’ll have to cancel my Canasta.’
‘And as she’s leaving her building surrounded by Secret Servicemen, SWAT cars with their lights flashing, police everywhere – a neighbor looks out the window and calls down: ‘Sophie, where are you going?’’
[In mother’s voice]: ‘You know my son, the doctor? I’m going to visit his brother.’
I think my life has turned out pretty well. I have been privileged to make a living doing something that I truly love.
There was a time when I could say, without humility, that you were probably hearing more of my music in your life than anyone else’s…whether it was “This Bud’s for You,” or “Nationwide is on Your Side,” or “Trust the Midas Touch,” or “Weekends Were Made for Michelob,” or “Hershey is the Great American Chocolate Bar” or “I Love New York,” my music represented the face of America’s economy.
Whenever there was a crisis or trauma in my life, it was music that pulled me back in, and saved me, and kept me going.
I have three wonderful daughters…who were 10, 8 and 7 when their mother died, and I raised them alone; and I quickly came to understand my mother’s fears that without college, I would not amount to anything. And it wasn’t until my daughter, Abbe, received her doctorate, that I fully understood the depth of pride that I knew my mother felt about my brother. And why she wanted the same achievement for me.
So, what is the moral of this story? Just this: If your parents support your dreams, say thank you. Over and over and over again.
And if they don’t? Well, you’ll just have to show them, won’t you?! You’ll just have to do it yourself, won’t you?! That gets you there (works), too!
Either way, doing what you love is not only the path to success, but to a happy life!
Still, just as the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz” needed a diploma − a piece of paper − to affirm the wisdom that he already had, my profound gratitude for this wonderful recognition today is particularly poignant for me, because is it not only for me. I must share it with a wonderful lady who couldn’t be here with me today – my mother – whom I hope is looking down and applauding what is going on this afternoon in Binghamton.
And one day, perhaps, when our family is reunited – somewhere out there – I like to believe that she will now be able to proudly introduce both her sons: “This is my son, Arthur, the doctor … and this is my son, Steve … the Doctor!”