"Every now and then you meet people who say 'life is short, you've got to grab it.' And Robert's one of those people."
As the house lights fade over the murmur of the sell-out crowd at Broad Ripple's Vogue Theater, a tall, angular 32-year-old man dressed in jeans and a stone-washed green t-shirt steps confidently into the spotlight. Robert Meitus '87 is introducing his wife, Bloomington, Indiana-based singer/song-writer Carrie Newcomer, just as he has in concerts across the country since 1994. But unlike past performances, Meitus won't be adding his masterful guitar or mandolin licks to the mix tonight. His introduction hints at an explanation.
"Ten percent of proceeds from sales at tonight's concert will go to Gleaner's Food Bank," Meitus announces, lending his endorsement to the Indianapolis charity's work for the hungry. The donation will be sizable-the Vogue holds 700 patrons. It's part of the couple's "10 percent-back" plan, a sort of tithe to the communities in which Newcomer performs. The contributions are sorely needed, but the publicity the concerts bring to the charities can make an even greater impact on their ability to serve their communities.
Ironically, it's Meitus's own desire to make a greater impact that led to his sabbatical from performing. He's still Newcomer's full-time manager, booking concerts, arranging interviews and appearances, and working with the Rounder Records team that's promoting My True Name, her latest CD. He also produced another Bloomington artist's debut album last year.
But influenced by Washington D.C. entertainment attorney John Simson, former manager for singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, Meitus recently finished his first year at IU law school.
He has no intention of joining the nearest corporate law firm. Meitus sees the J.D. as a tool for merging his creativity and his conscience: a way to unite the creative impetus that drove his 15-year musical career with the interest in social justice that motivated his organization of charitable benefits-events that have raised thousands of dollars for groups such as Gleaners, the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, and Manna, an AIDS nutritional service in Philadelphia. Meitus believes buyouts by large corporations such as Sony and Seagrams of a substantial portion of the entertainment industry is taking a toll on artists-particularly lesser-known artists. He sees the law degree as an effective instrument to change that.
"In this world of huge corporate control over all the forms of art there are many artists getting lost in the shuffle, because supporting them is no longer profitable to a degree that interests these larger corporations," Meitus says.
"Shouldn't there be a home for those artists? Someone representing these acts that refuse to buy into 'the big corporate buyout?'" he asks, considering one of many options he may pursue once he's earned his degree.
Meitus's decision to enter law school surprised many of his friends and fans, but not his wife.
"Robert's kind of fearl ess," Newcomer says. "He has an idea and he does it. He says, 'Come on, hon, let's put in a wood floor ourselves,' I say 'okay.' And we do it. Or, 'let's build an addition to the house,' I say 'okay,' and it turns out great."
So when Meitus woke up in the middle of the night last summer and said "I'm going to law school, Carrie," she said, "Sure, hon." Newcomer laughs. "Every now and then you meet people who say 'life is short, you've got to grab it.' And Robert's one of those people."
The son of a Purdue professor and a university graphic artist, Meitus says the return to academia was inevitable.
"Like being a part of an X-Files episode, where somebody has put a chip in my brain that says 'you can do music for four or five years, and then you have to go back to school and learn something.'"
That pattern of moving from music to education and back again began soon after tragedy struck during his sophomore year at Wabash.
A Lilly Scholar, Meitus pledged Sigma Chi his first semester and was excelling at his studies. The grandson of Montgomery County school teacher Naomi Peterson, he had spent hours at the home of Lee Detchon, Peterson's brother-in-law and the Wabash patron responsible for the renovation of the building that now bears his name. But Robert's favorite Wabash story concerned his grandfather. During an abbreviated Wabash career, Peterson reportedly snuck a cow into the Center Hall belltower. Meitus may have bested grandpa, or so Dean of Students Norm Moore might have said after he got a complaint from police that Meitus's Sigma Chi pledge class was pushing their naked brethren through the Crawfordsville Mall in shopping carts.
The revelry ended in Meitus's second year. His mother was diagnosed with leukemia, his father with prostate cancer. They died within six months of each other. Years after çtheir death, the songwriter found a creative way to express his longing for their times together in a song called "On the Water Again" on his CD Sideways South, which is dedicated to their memory. But as a college sophomore, Meitus was overwhelmed. He's still grateful for the support professors Melissa Butler, Phil Mikesell '63, and Greg Huebner showed when the 19-year-old withdrew from school. They encouraged him "to do what you need to do, then come back and finish up at Wabash when you're ready."
So, after dealing with funerals, life insurance, and the sale of the family home, Meitus pulled together East of Eden, the alternative rock band that through his high school years had been the vehicle for his politically-charged songs. The four teens drove to Los Angeles to try their luck in the studios and clubs of the West Coast.
Meitus recalls the day in the recording studio he encountered rock leg zend Neil Young.
"He was sitting there at a table. So there I was, at 19, in a small room with a big star. I said 'Hi.' He nodded and grunted. I brought in my red Rickenbacker guitar and asked him to sign the back of it. He did. Then he grunted again."
That was, more or less, LA's response to the group. Short on funds, Meitus called Dean Moore, who allowed him to use his scholarship travel stipend to live on with a "gentleman's promise" to return to Wabash at some point or pay the money back. A few months later, the band broke up, selling its name to Capitol Records for $5,000. Meitus took his cut and returned to Wabash as he'd pledged, spending the next four semesters on the Dean's List and writing political opinion columns for The Bachelor.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa a year after his class, he picked up his master's in international affairs at Columbia University, certai n he'd left the life of a professional musician behind. But when he began playing acoustic music with Columbia students Jeff Farias, Jon Nilsen, and senior class president Karl Meyer, the music bug bit again. Soon the "bad boys of folk music" were on the road as Robert Shannon Meitus and the New York Dorkestra, playing their acoustic/ folk/rock original music and covers mostly in small venues and the emerging coffee house culture throughout the East and Midwest. They gained a regional reputation and their distinctive sound put them on the bill with nationally-known folk acts Greg Brown and Bill Morrissey.
"We never worked a day" is how Meitus describes performing and traveling with "the Dorks." The group was best in live performances, where the political satire of Meitus's songs could be clarified by the band's sometimes humorous presentation.
"I don't like to hit people over the head with the message in my songs," Meitus once told a reporter. "I like to provoke thought."
After three albums and four years, the band played their last gig as part of a festival that drew 10,000 fans. The days of road trips crammed into a van and nights in budget motels had taken their toll, but Meitus had a more romantic reason for moving on.
Carrie Newcomer remembers her husband's early rock bands from her college days at Purdue, but the two never met until 1990. That's when Meitus asked the already-established singer/songwriter play a concert with he and the Dorkestra in the parking lot at Von's Books in Lafayette.
"I'd been divorced a few years back and I wasn't really looking for a relationship, but every now and then you meet someone and say 'wow,' and I think we both did that at the same time," Newcomer remembers. Subsequent nights of playing music together were replaced by long letters after Meitus returned to New York with the Dorkestra. When the musician would visit Indiana to check-up on his grandmother in Darlington, Newcomer came along. Those visits, as Robert talked, played music with, and attended to his grandmother's needs, became a part of their courtship.
"At that time in my life, it seemed like something so sane," Newcomer remembers. "It was a good thing for me to see-a good way for me to approach falling in love."
Newcomer sums it up in the title song from My True Name:
"You came here in summer, you'd been living in Manhattan/you caught me wide-eyed and half-sane/But you saw to my center, past every imposter/You whispered my true name."
After the Dorkestra broke up, Meitus and another band member joined Newcomer to create the Carrie Newcomer Band, traveling together and making two of Newcomer's commercially-successful and critically-lauded CDs.
While their voices were blending on stage, they were also putting together a family. Meitus became first a friend, and then stepfather, to Amelia, Newcomer's daughter from her first marriage.
"A person may fall in love with you, but they don't always fall in love with your kids. But for me it was esssential," Newcomer says. "In the beginning there was respect and kindness, and that became love. To the day I die I'll be grateful to him for how good he's been to my daughter. And she really loves him, too."
The family building wasn't over yet. In 1994, Naomi Peterson was hurt in a fall in her Darlington home. Meitus packed his grandmother's belongings and moved her into the couple's house in Bloomington. Caring for the 97-year-old woman was taxing financially and emotion-ally, but the family found rewards in hundreds of small moments. Naomi attended some of the couple's concerts, even played harmonica with them there, and long talks and card games became a family pasttime.
Meitus remembers most vividly the day after they finished an addition to their house. A carpenter friend who'd been assisting with the construction was showing Naomi the new structure, relating how such rooms should always be "properly dedicated" with a dance. He took Naomi by the hand and led her slowly across the floor. The image of the matriarch of his family dancing with a carpenter in the house Meitus helped to build is among his most cherished memories.
Naomi died in 1996, and Newcomer's CD of that same year, My Father's Only Son, was co-produced by Meitus, who also accompanied Newcomer on most of the tracks. It was dedicated "to Naomi Peterson: an example of a life well-lived."
Halfway through the concert at the Vogue, Meitus is re-checking the soundboard. His wife is telling the audience a story about Naomi's days living with them-how enriching it was to be able to talk to a woman who had lived almost a century of the world's history.
"What she remembered weren't the big historical events we read about, but the details of life: the curly red hair her cousin had, the day someone brought the person they would marry to supper for the first time . . .
"Hold each moment close and keep it like a photograph," Newcomer sings. "These are the moments you have to seize/put down the weights you carry around/these are the truths that will set you free . . . "
Though he aspires to making sweeping social changes on a large scale, Meitus lives as if those lyrics, inspired by his grandmother's words, are the bedrock of his beliefs. It's the starting point of the activist's maxim "think globally, act locally." Meitus, who keeps the home fires burning and cares for Amelia during his wife's weeks on the road, knows that you make a real difference in your community only after you've practiced dedication to those closest to you. Those people and organizations closest to Meitus are doing well. Now he wants to reach out further.
So while his law degree may be the catalyst in his merging musical creativity and political awareness into something that "really makes a difference"on a larger-scale, those who know him best say he's already well down that road. It's just a matter of fine-tuning and focus.
As he and Newcomer sang in a tune they wrote together; a song that could be Meitus's anthem:
"You can let life get you bitter or you can try to
make it better. You can choose what you give."