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interview: Jeff Berlin

By Anthony Garone

Thoughts on his incredibly deep personal transformation.

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Some Context

Below is Part 2 our interview with the incredible Jeff Berlin. Missed part 1? Watch/Listen to Part 1, then!

Don’t know who Jeff Berlin is? Check out his wikipedia page! 

This interview was conducted on Friday, February 5, 2016 at 2PM AZ.

Interview Audio (Podcast)

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Interview video

Interview transcript

Anthony: I remember I used to follow you on Facebook and then I stopped and then a friend of mine (Andy Kub) a couple years later said, “You should follow Jeff Berlin.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” And then I remembered the reason I stopped following you was because it was almost like you were inviting controversy at the time.

Now, just recently, you do a public apology to Victor Wooten  and Steve Bailey , you’re talking about huge personal transformation and growth. Was it primarily your ego getting out of control and then you had a self-realization event? What led to what you’ve been going through and how were you operating at the time before that and how are you operating now?

Jeff: Thanks for asking that because for me, this is more important than maybe music is right now. I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I know a lot of us have. The way that I ended up was hurt, ungrounded, out of balance, and the ego compensated. I’m doing this in a nutshell. All my life, since I was 18 years old, I felt something was wrong with me. I started, actually earlier than that, it was 18 that I went to therapy. Things were not right.

I noticed people seemed to be content, seemed to be grounded. You know, everyone has their problems, but I could not get a grip or a handle on how people kindly and calmly get through life. And I’ve been in and out of therapy, my own voluntary seeking of it, since I was 18 years old. I’m 63 now.

When I was 60, I was just in a period where I did a lot of my Facebook stuff challenging, not polite, very hard-edged–it was just a symptom of even the messages in my columns, in my interviews, how I may have interacted with people–it was all based in fear, all based in shame, it was all unhealthy and I could not resolve it. I tried.

When I turned 60, I fell apart. I literally lost my mind and felt that this is the end. I understood why people commit suicide. I understood it. People commit suicide, I feel, when they feel there’s no option or hope to extract yourself out of the awfulness, the hopelessness, the pain, the fear–when you’re in this, you can’t imagine, people who’ve been through this can–the awfulness, you get to think it’ll never end.

I have a guitar player friend here in Clearwater who recommended somebody who I went to and I went when I was 60. In this time, she was wired differently, let’s say. I still see this person and she was a licensed therapist who renounced her license, not believing in therapeutic things (her thinking) and went into a kind of a spiritual bent and she kind of amalgamated a soupy spiritual thing with therapeutic things and came up with something where, instead of “my mother did” and “you, Anthony, said” and “Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey and all bass players,” instead of this, I went inside.

And man, let me tell you, nothing was harder than to do that. Nothing. Because now whatever was going on wasn’t your doing or your fault or how you’re doing or “you don’t understand.” I spent about 7 or 8 months on the floor of my house, crying, sobbing, shaking like I was in an Exorcist movie, buddy. I mean, it was murder because feelings that I had suppressed–I don’t know. It’s not like, “Oh Mom did this and she said that and this happened and she said and not this,” it’s that these things get internalized and they’re feelings so they started to come up.

I was getting worse and worse and worse by each passing month. I would write to Beth because we have a communication relationship where I would see her and she would sit there and go, “Nope, you’re doing fine. You’re doing fine.” I said, “Beth! That ledge looks really good now, Beth!” “Nope, you’re doing fine.” And what she meant to say was that this was a passage where people often, in fear, don’t go through it all the way. I got on that train and I had to ride that train to its conclusion.

Ultimately, I felt–Can I tell you this? I felt on a Monday, I said, “Beth, it’s worse. I’m getting worse, Beth!” And I wrote her. She says, “Hang in. This is what you gotta go through.” Tuesday, I wrote her again because I was seeing her on Thursday or so. “I’m going crazy, Beth!” She says, “Nope, you’re doing fine. Hang in.” On Wednesday, Anthony, I was so bad I suddenly felt as if I hit bottom. I felt it. I physically felt hitting bottom and I went totally numb and I went, “What is this?” And from that moment, I started to get better. She said later, “You hit the bottom in this dark night of the soul  (it’s called).”

I was into spiritual pursuit and people experience this where the essence of what we construct for ourself collapses. When it collapses, we collapse. If everything you, Anthony, believe in falls apart, what are you? You know what the answer is? Nothing! And that, what you are, you’re nothing in the sense of everything you have and everything you believe in, it’s nothing, it’s false, it’s not real…

When that happens, what do you do? What do you trust? Who are you? What are you to rely on? And that happened to me, man… Talk about losing your essential self as a human being because that’s what happens to people like me in the dark night of the soul. What happens is this is a healing process and then as you come out of it, you reconstruct from another place, not a damaged place.

In the subsequent years, I would practice being nice. “Hi guys, I’m sorry I did this stuff.” Okay, three months later, “You know, you stupid idiots out there, you’re all…” And then I would catch on a couple months later and go, “Whoops, I’m sorry I did it again and I don’t know what happened. I feel so bad, I’m really…” And I did. I would work to be nice. “Hey Anthony! Hey! How you doing? Everything good?” You know.

It wasn’t natural, but I did make the effort. And finally in December of this year (2015), I had another collapse. About a month before, I was dancing in Beth’s office, saying, “Man, I feel as great as I’ve ever felt.” And I did! I had this collapse and I said, “What the hell is going on here?” She said, “People sometimes get strong after their first diminished and long-term depression to be strong enough to experience the next stage in a collapse of something internal.”

And what happened here is I, for better or worse, even lost more ego ground. I feel it like talking to you now that what I’m discussing isn’t the ego part of me, which I recognize that sensation, and try and conscious–I’m conscious all the time. “Ah, there I am. I did this. I see.” The watcher part. I’ll give everyone a little test here to show you the different–if you’re interested.

A: Absolutely! I love this stuff!

J: This stuff and the readings that I’ve done, the dark night of the soul, I’ve gotten videos from her about people lecturing on it, different aspects of spiritual growth. What is spiritualism? It isn’t [hands in prayer] “Ommm” or maybe it is! But, it is the natural you. You without the pollution, the “You know what? I hate the Pittsburgh Steelers! I only love the Raiders!” It’s a construction, in a sense, and if I could do away with and appreciate the Raiders and the Steelers, although I’d probably prefer one or the other, that the sense is that there is a more natural sense of me that should have been before I was hurt and deviated from a healthy growth path. My parents unknowingly did this…

A: Steve Vai had a great example for me. I’m sorry to interrupt. This has been so helpful. He said, “A lot of people are holding this jar and the jar is empty. Every life experience you have gets put into that jar, every opinion you have gets put into that jar. And people end up believing that they are the jar or the contents of the jar. But, you’re still the person holding the jar. You’re not that person that has these experiences. You are the person holding those experiences!” My boss said, “Just because someone makes you a crap sandwich doesn’t mean you need to eat it.”

It’s kind of like: we have a choice of taking what’s in this jar and believing it’s us, or believing that we are the person holding the jar and that the jar and its contents do not define us. Other people, no matter what they stick in there, that doesn’t need to change who we are. We’re not in touch with being that person holding the jar.

Robert Fripp  is all about this notion that we are–well, there’s a guy named Gurdjieff  that he follows, this philosopher, and that most people are in a sleeping walking state, almost like zombies and we’re never truly awakened. So, all of this stuff has been so central to a huge transformation in my own life since September 2014. Just huge for me.

The conversation with Steve and then the guitar camp with Robert Fripp and then all the other experiences and all the reading, so I’m glad I haven’t had a dark night of the soul, I’m lucky and very fortunate to not have had that, but those examples right there really feed into my understanding of what you’re talking about.

J: I think Steve nailed it and it’s true. I agree with him. I’ll give you a little example of the person you are rather than the person who thinks and this goes for everybody else. I’d like to do a little experiment and here it is. In your mind, say the word, “House.” Tell me when you did it.

A: Okay.

J: In your mind, louder, say the word, “House.”

A: Okay.

J: And the final one, in your mind, scream as loud as you can the word, “House.”

A: Okay.

J: Here’s a question and I’m curious what you would say. Did you notice in all three experiences there was a part of you watching?

A: Oh yeah. Absolutely. The third one especially.

J: And this is an indication of something that I’ve been developing because in the sleeping mode that you’re discussing, many of us are sleeping and usually people that are highly opinionated, gossipy people, opinionated to the degree that I know I’m opinionated in music ed, opinionated for its own sake, which is what I used to be, are asleep. We are governed by the thoughts, not only the jar, but the things like, “I like this football team,” and, “Metronomes are bad.” Why? Just because I say so.

A: “The monkey mind ” Fripp calls it.

J: The monkey mind! See, good for Fripp. I’m joining an elite club, and so are you I think. We like to invite people to join us. It’s a good thing, especially us being the sick or the damaged or the mentally unhealthy or the soul-spiritually-imbalanced people that are seeking and getting better. I never thought I’d find this kind of balance and now that it’s happening to me, I never thought it would come, man.

So, I just wanted to point out that in the development, we develop that watcher part and that’s when I began to see this ego part who went, “Ah well, Anthony… Weird! What a funny word. Anthony and his weird .com.” And of course, that’s not the watcher, the guy who screamed, “House,” perhaps. Or screamed “cookie.” That is, in a nutshell, what I am developing. It’s very important to me. I probably talked too much about it.

A: I don’t think so. To me, it’s the stuff of life and you don’t realize the value of it. Like you said, you don’t think you’ll ever get there, and then when you’re there you realize you could have had it the whole time. It’s not so distant, it’s not so hard, but we spend decades defending a worldview with rules and opinions and these kinds of things that we grow to believe, “These must be true!” And when somebody does something that violates some of the rules, or makes us feel jealous or something like that, it’s because we’re defensive. It’s our ego saying to us, “That person doesn’t live by your rules and that person is doing well.” You know? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do that? You know the rules. It’s been hugely transformational stuff.

J: Yeah, and I appreciate that too. By the way, this probably should be a two-parter, shouldn’t it? Maybe a 5-parter.

A: If you need to get going, we can end it.

J: No! I’m happy to chat. It’s just I would assume a lot of this is going to make people go, “Oh yeah.” [Snoring.]

A: I don’t know. The Steve Vai one, people are eating it up. They love the non-musical/musical context. A great exercise that I read about is if you envision in your mind a room with two doors. If you think of a difficult situation, something that made you upset, let that come in through one door. The two doors are on opposite ends of the room. Let it come in to one door and you visualize it and get a sense of what it is and it might look like colors, shapes, sounds, whatever. You watch it from a distance and you get to develop a familiarity with that feeling and you wait for it to leave out the other door.

If you do this mental exercise for long enough, these feelings that you get, these feelings of discomfort or ego or whatever it is, you start to train yourself that things enter and then they leave. You also teach yourself that you can have compassion for these feelings. And, when these things come up in your life, you teach yourself that they will leave, that it’s not permanent. “This feeling, I know what this feeling is.” As soon as you feel it, you know what it is. It’s this thing entering the door and you know what it looks like because you’ve studied it. And we spend so much of our lives avoiding these feelings, but…

J: Which is what my dark night was. It was all my life avoiding things and you said you hope you don’t get it and you probably won’t. The dark night could be different. You could be just sort of depressed or just sort of down. Mine was an utter and absolute loss of self. That, for a highly egotistical being, loss of self is freaking terrifying.

So, somebody like you, who I sense is a sort of a lower-keyed guy, if comes a time where your system decides to auto-correct, you may just sort of, “Man, I don’t feel so great.” And it won’t be as awful, but it is predictable. And you will emerge. And really, often, there’s nothing to do about it except recognize it. You said to, honor those parts that come through the door?

A: Have compassion for.

J: Have compassion for. That’s a good synonym for my world, which is “love it.” There’s a part of me that was so badly hurt that it caused the ego to say, “Well, I’m the best. If you don’t study like I say, you’re a doodoo,” which is an industry term for “poopoo.” In my case, I’ve learned to love this injured part and I would embrace it.

I actually gave myself permission recently, not terribly long ago, I made a declaration and it’s made a difference in my life, which is no matter what I feel, no matter how I feel it, I’m going to honor it and I’m going to feel it. I’m going to let it come and I’m never going to restrict or restrain. If I’m in the middle of a session, I guess I won’t pay too much attention, but later at the hotel, I will lay down and I’ll go back to that and I’ll bring it up. I’ll bring it up.

It’s that integration element that these things that were not known and not dealt with are now–okay, they come up and, “Okay, I feel this, oh my goodness yes, oh I’m so mad! Yes you are.” It sounds a little silly, but I feel a great deal of the ill psyche in me and I’m as grateful as can be, man. I’m really grateful. My bass playing is better.

A: I was gonna ask that. Over the decades, how did your ego influence what you were playing and now that you know that feeling–you said you have a new awareness for when the ego pops in–how does that affect you as a musician and as a bass player?

J: Well, I feel I’ve never played better and I feel that pretty much my entire musical career is a fraud. It’s a fraud in the nature of what I constructed it on. So, it’s an honest and, I feel, a true assessment. I agree I played maybe music that people may enjoy, but I played a lot of stuff that was, “Love me. Love me. Love me! Love me! Love me!! Love me!!

A: All right, well, I’m gonna get rid of this then. [Holds up Bruford’s “One of a Kind.”]

J: Well, that thing endures and I’m grateful for it, those Bruford things. That was the thing of this. I mean, “Love me love me love me,” fast, fusion, grrrr… And now I’ve found a whole new way to play bass. I’ve found other things. My playing isn’t as virtuosic because, quite frankly, I don’t qualify anymore. Not with Hadrien Feraud  and that new young crew of firebrands around. You know, these guys are simply beyond belief! I’d be foolish if I were in my ego state, “All these young kids! I’ll show them a thing or two!” Which probably would have been my bent a while ago.

So now that I’ve kind of abandoned that kind of “need to” whatever, I’ve come 1. to love these guys and respect the living heck out of them, and 2. with a calmer nature as a bass player, I said, “Wow, look at this! I’m finding some interesting new things!” And so, it’s the liberation and allowing the spirit to flow and I never knew what spirit was and I guess I’m still not sure. I guess I take it to mean “the natural me.” What I was, as I said earlier, what I was meant to be. Yeah, my bass playing is satisfying. It’s great! It’s flowing out of me like juice out of a blood orange.

A: Have you written any new songs since going through this?

J: Yes. Not a lot, but I have. I’m not what I would call a gifted composer. I’m more of a “worker at it” composer. Some guys have that gift. I’m sorta like, “Da da da da da da da.” No. “Da da da da DAH da da.” No. “Da da da da DAH da da da DAH da da.” Okay that one.

A: Do you compose on the bass? I see you doing keyboard gestures. Do you write on the keyboard?

J: Yeah, on keyboard and on bass. I write on both. I’m fortunate. I write a lot of nice bass things now that are slightly different. [Bass gesture] This is bass. [Keyboard gesture] This is piano. [Trombone gesture] This is slide trombone.

A: [Violin gesture] This is violin.

J: [Flaps arms like a chicken] This is wock-a-doo-wock-a-doo.

A: Frank Zappa [hair curl gesture], this is reggae, right?

J: Frank was an interesting guy, man! He’s a guy that I think would have benefited from spiritual pursuit. He had a lot of angst.

A: You played with him for a while.

J: I did and I got myself thrown out of a band through bad behavior. You know. And rude attitude. I’m telling you, man, I left bodies in the wake. It was a lot of humble pie. A lot of humble pie that I have to eat in order to own my thing and grow from there, so I’ve come to develop a rather appreciative taste for humble pie.

A: So, you did lose opportunities as a result of this attitude.

J: I lost them and I threw them away. I burned bridges. I was fairly out of my mind and fairly out of control. You can find a lot of that stuff on the internet. There’s not too much hidden evidence of that. You know what karma is? You’ve gotta pay the tab, man. You know the dark night? You gotta pay the tab. I put something out, I’ve gotta pay the bill for it.

And that really is in one way why I confess these stories and open up like that because I don’t want anything to be hidden, I don’t want to lie about anything, I don’t want to make one flipping excuse about anything in me that I’ve earned. So, I’m okay with it.

A: Good!

J: You’re getting maybe more of a sense of the kind of guy, at least today, maybe in 3 months I’ll be different again because I feel calmer, I feel more loving, I feel more centered, more grounded, I still think music education needs fixing, I still think I need to practice my bass, I still think Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey are helping people and doing well for people and I owe them an apology and other people, if I’ve cast aspersions against them and all other teachers. I still feel metronomes don’t work, but if people wish to use them, of course they should, so I’m firm in my thing. Apologetic where it needs to be and I’m fine with it all.

A: Have you heard from any of these people that you’ve apologized to or you feel like in the past you might have wronged.

J: Give me a second, I want to answer. Not really. You know, I’ve apologized before and fell back, so I don’t think they’re wrong. “Here Berlin goes again, man. Apologizing and then the next thing he’s like, ‘Don’t slap bass! Don’t use a fretless!’ I’m not sure what.”

A: Well, if I go through a dark night of the soul, your phone’s gonna ring at 2 in the morning.

J: You can call any time and your dark night I’m fairly imbued with a little bit of an understanding of things. Again, that doesn’t make me anywhere qualified as a teacher or expert in any way, but I do have a sense of things now that I didn’t. If you do experience it, it will be a tolerable and less vicious form than mine because you aren’t losing a great deal of that collapse where you’re a more solidly-formed, emotionally-stable guy than I was.

It’s like a house falling down, or the Empire State Building falling down, or (forgive me) the Twin Towers falling down. Bad analogy. It’s that collapse. That collapse was me and it was devastating. And then it was necessary. So you said, “I hope,” and it didn’t happen. You know what ironically happens to guys like me that go through it? We’re as grateful as ever for the experience.

A: Yeah, I bet!

J: I went through murder, man. Really murder. Hell. I thought thoughts. I said, “I can’t tolerate this. Bye world, I’m gone. Do it.” Something said, “I gotta get through this.” Beth helped me out, I read a lot of literature, I cried, I suffered, I shook. I apologized, “Oh what did I do? What did I say? What is this? What is this?” And finally it just began to ease up and now I play bass pretty well.

A: Well thank you so much for sharing this very human story. I really appreciate it and I think it takes a lot of bravery and candor and it’s really kind of you to offer this time and these words. So, thank you so much Jeff.

J: I’m honored to be here and thank you for the chance and the opportunity. I apologize if I talk too much. It’s actually something I’m attending to in my therapy. This need to just go blah blah blah bleh bleh blah blah.

A: I love it. Don’t apologize. There’s no need. Thank you so much, Jeff. Maybe in a few months, we can talk again and see where things are.

J: I would like that. I would like that very much. I wish you well and hi to everybody. Thank you for listening.

A: Thank you.

J: All right, Anthony. Cheers, buddy.

A: Thank you very much, Jeff.

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