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Guitarist Ted Drozdowski Turned His Emotional Axes Into Plowshares

Makes You Wonder If Most Guys Who Play Guitar Have Childhood Sorrows

You know when you know someone, but you don’t really know them; this happens especially in work settings, even in editorial and media jobs, which is the segue to Ted Drozdowski, from magazine The Premier Guitar. Many moons ago, he was a Music Editor at the now defunct Boston Phoenix while yours truly was a newbie Calendar Editor who apparently got the year wrong that JFK was assassinated. (Excuse? Wasn’t born yet.) Ted snickered slightly less than the snarky hipster edit staff, a literal Lord of the Rings confab led by then-editor Peter Kadzis with head snarker Jon, who covered Jazz, and shamed anyone who didn’t know Buddy Guy.

Drozdowski was in a band called Vision Thing back then, but I tried to block that out, lol, being an opera snob. However, the good thing about his band, from the sketchy details, was that he played with his wife, Laurie Hoffma, also a musician and artist with her own light.

Flash forward 30 years. Ted now lives in the South and still plays. We’re still in touch. It’s an editorial network created by the stress of watching the Phoenix go under, as did many publications of its ilk, even The Village Voice, another similar indie publication owned by ‘real people’ not corporate media. What there was to know about Ted then? He loved Metallica, once gave me a serious lecture on why Metallica is “the best band in the world.”

Turns out there is more to TD, and here’s his Thrive story for you…

Quendrith Johnson: Since your days as an Editor of The Boston Phoenix covering music, how has the transition into being a full-time musician been for you?  

Sean Zywick, Ted Drozdowski, Kyra Curenton. Photo by Peter Lee

Ted Drozdowski: Well, I’m not a full-time musician now. I took a day gig at Premier Guitar, the largest guitar magazine. I’ve kept parallel careers as a music journalist and guitarist/songwriter/performer/producer since the late ’80s, and quit my day gig at the Phoenix in 1998 when it became obvious that music was going to work for me on a lot of levels. Between now and then, being a musician has brought some of the best things into my life. It’s a remarkable gift. It’s also allowed me to make friends with people all over the country as I’ve toured everything from dive bars and juke joints to Bonnaroo and Memphis in May, and in Europe as well, playing festivals like Cognac Blues Passions and Switzerland’s Blues Rules.  

Ted Drozdowski of Coyote Motel. Photo by Bill Steber

It’s been full of genuinely life-enriching friendships and experiences—but by 2015, when Premier Guitar made me an offer, it had been 17 years of touring in a van, and I was ready to spend time at home with my wife and dog and house in Nashville. And I feel really good about the decision every day. I still perform a lot and tour a bit, and the strange thing is, I felt this job might temper my creativity, but instead I’m doing my best work as an artist. I think not having to worry about the logistics of booking, touring, paying a band, personal issues and all the rest has lifted a burden that was actually boxing in my creativity. So now, I’m outside my box and loving it.

Quendrith Johnson: “Still Among the Living,” the first song on your new full-length CD Coyote Motel is about abuse, can you elaborate?  

Ted Drozdowski: Another thing being a musician has done is improve my self-esteem and positivity. Getting love and applause and affirmation from an audience has been good for me. My father was a violent man. He routinely threatened and intimated my mother, who, I now realize, he married because he recognized that she was someone he could easily dominate. For me, beatings at home were routine—and often nightly—for the smallest infractions: speaking “out of turn,” saying something “stupid,” and making noise, which could include anything from cooing over my dog to playing with my Hot Wheels to turning the TV on a bit too loud.

Seemingly out of nowhere, since the earliest I can remember, he’d be looming over me and swinging a belt—always careful to be sure to strike my back, buttocks or legs, where the marks didn’t show.

Sometimes, he’d punch me or slap me so hard I’d go to school with bruises on my face, but that was rare. Once, he kicked me down a flight of stairs. And I never knew any better. I figured every kid got this kind of treatment at home from his father, and didn’t realize that was not so until I was in my teens.

The violence kept up until I was around 16, and he shot a punch at me and I grabbed his arm and tried to break it over our stove. He just stepped back and laughed, but he never struck me again.

I’d gotten too big and could fight back. I think he was a coward who was afraid of the world and insecure of his place in it, and me and my mom were the two things over which he had absolute control—until he didn’t.

He died in 1993, and I was, frankly, not filled with sadness about it. While working on Coyote Motel, I was having an especially bad afternoon of raking myself over the coals… and I realized it was not me doing it, but the lingering residue of my father. And to kind of clear my head, I said aloud, “Well, I’m here, so you’re still among the living.”

Instantly, I knew I had a song, and those are its opening lines.  

Going back to music—when I was compelled to step up to the frontman role or quit performing music in the last ’90s, after my band Vision Thing broke up acrimoniously, it forced me to be more open, to talk to a LOT of strangers at a time through the microphone, and really began to change and reform my life in ways that I am very grateful for.

Quendrith Johnson: Do you think men have a tougher time talking abuse issues, or has #metoo extended an avenue of communication?  

Ted Drozdowski: I honestly don’t know, but I’ve been horrified by the depth and breadth of the behavior in the world at large that #metoo has revealed. I feel like a dummy. How could this be so widespread, and me be so oblivious? I’ve had several woman friends tell me about their experiences, but somehow I thought these were isolated incidents.

My enlightenment about this and about the depth of racism still in America has been painful and saddening in recent years.  

But back to men, I have two good friends who are musicians who had similar experiences with their fathers growing up, so it’s come up—especially as I’ve felt comfortable talking about it more as a way of hopefully exorcizing my lingering demons and being a more honest and open person. And they both have similar issues, and, like me, have worked to be a very different kind of person.

Quendrith Johnson: Your wife, Laurie Hoffma, has been your long-time musical partner; how did you guys come together in music, or in life first?  

Ted Drozdowski: Well, we met in journalism school at the University of Bridgeport and within months decided we were right for each other.

We’ve been married for 36 years now, so we got that right!

We decided, after we committed to each other, that we wanted to have adventures and work in the arts, so we transitioned into music-making together when some friends in the mid-’80s expressed interest in forming a band.

We were in Vision Thing together for a decade, and then I went my own way musically, and Laurie started performing stand-up, and then she got deeply into photography and art-making. I kept on the musical path.

After all these years, our creative interests are in synch again.

She’s playing some percussion and keys in Coyote Motel, and we’re planning to embark on a duo project soon. But she’s also always been the back-office business person for my musical projects, and is brilliant with organization and numbers. She’s been my “fifth Beatle” forever, so it’s great to carry that back to the stage now.

Quendrith Johnson: What is the most poignant aspect of surviving abuse in your experience?  

Ted Drozdowski: I’m not sure, honestly, but I do know the one positive thing my dad gave me is a primer on how not to be. Perhaps it’s made me more empathetic. I know people who are abused often continue the cycle, but it’s also good to know we have the power to stop it if we try—and really it’s more a need than a power. Maybe my experiences have made me more willing to be open to the world and to others, since I’ve seen what it’s like to live in a self-made cloister. My mom, sadly, never emerged from that cloister and was always consumed with anxiety about every encounter or challenge or task, even decades after my father’s death.

Quendrith Johnson: How can men make the trade from abuse survivor to thriver?  

Ted Drozdowski: If there’s a textbook for this, I’m unaware of it, but the closest thing I’ve discovered, especially in recent years, is mindfulness study. It’s helped me be more centered, lower my overall anxiety about everything, and realize I have more worth than I may often think. It also, through meditation and reflection, helps clarify both the past and present in useful ways. But for the abused who are now abusing, there has to be some point of realization that they don’t want others to endure what they did. And that’s not easy to achieve for them. I get that. But trying to open your heart is key.

Quendrith Johnson: Where can people find your back catalogue of musical excursions?

Ted Drozdowski: Well, as of now I’ve got 10 albums I’ve spearheaded out there—mostly with Scissormen, my previous group, which was inspired by the sounds of Mississippi hill country blues and the years I spent with the musicians who made that music, like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. But that band evolved—growing from a duo to a three-piece, and finally broadening its creative scope to the point where it no longer existed and Coyote Motel came alive. Coyote Motel plays cosmic roots music, where my love of blues, rock, country and folk merge with my passion for psychedelia. And it’s all connected by my writing and arranging. I think we’re a unique-sounding bunch, and, at this point, constantly growing and expanding.

Coyote Motel is the best music I’ve ever done, and the most fun I’ve had writing, recording and performing music. Most of my catalog is on Amazon—and especially the new Coyote Motel album and Learn to Love the Moon EP—which have been released one after the other this year. Learn to Love the Moon comes out September 13, and that’s the first full-band acoustic CD I’ve done. I even played banjo on there for the first time, ‘cause, after all, I do live in Tennessee. It was a lot of fun.

Epilogue: Ted sends me an afterthought email, which is news to me, tells me to reference his “album to get the scoop on what my current band does: ‘Cosmic Roots Music, a distillation of many forms of deeply-rooted American music blended with my passion for psychedelia. At times, with its layering and sonic expansiveness, it’s like Muddy Waters meets Pink Floyd, or Jimi Hendrix joins the Memphis Jug Band.’ I think it’s unique. And it gives me a chance to really put my playing and arranging and production to the fore, without sacrificing the strength of the songs—’cause the songs and the stories they tell are what makes great roots music great. And the brand new Learn to Love the Moon EP, out Sept. 13, to my ears, weds acoustic music with psychedelia, which isn’t often done.

Then it occurs to me this is a Ted Talk, a real one, making someone who used to reside in the same editorial corridors with me 30 years ago, a real human being… not just a musician.

You can find Ted Drozdowski here, and here, and don’t pitch him your guitar playing for Premier Guitar, ps. Have a nice play…

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