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Interview with Voyage Minnesota

Read Alex J Longo's interview with VoyageMinnesota here:

"Today we’d like to introduce you to Alex J. Longo.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started? My mom Diane was my biggest musical influence. I grew up listening to the music from her teenage and college years: The Beatles, John Denver, Janis Joplin, The Beach Boys, Kingston Trio, the list goes on. My dad played piano and was heavy into Jazz and big band but my mom’s eclectic rock country folk style resonated with me more growing up as I started to listen to Bon Jovi, Def Leopard, and Poison in the late 80s. Mom grew up in Duluth, Minnesota and played guitar and sang at open mics around town before moving to Toledo, Ohio before graduating high school. My grandfather also played guitar and was a WWII Navy vet who transitioned to working on cargo boats along the Great Lakes in the 50s and 60s.

Music was all around me growing up with my dad on the piano and him singing with my mom whenever it was time to relax at home. I grew up in a suburb of Houston, Texas but traveled to Minnesota and Ohio to see family when we could. In high school, I taught myself guitar then transitioned to teaching myself drums. Drums came more naturally to me and because there were so few drummers in high school, I was able to form a band with some friends of mine who played guitar and sang better than me. In college, I played in a few bands, but my involvement petered out but whenever there was a guitar around, I always played songs that everyone knew: Country Roads, Twist and Shout…all because my mom planted those seeds. After college, I took a job at a local ABC affiliate in Virginia and settled in for starting my career in TV and hopefully film. A year later I was editing a commercial one quiet Tuesday morning when a producer friend walked in and told me someone crashed a plan into the World Trade Center towers. Walking into the break room I witnessed the second tower being hit and knew we were going to war. I raced to my bosses’ office and turned on the TV for him to see. I asked him if he wanted to go to a recruiter’s office right then and “join up”. He didn’t respond. He was married and I wasn’t.

In the weeks and months to come, I did a lot of soul searching and around the time it sounded like we were going to go into Iraq I made my decision. As a 24-year-old college graduate with a good job and stability, I decided to walk away and join the United States Army. 6 months later after basic training, I was sitting outside our barracks building at Fort Huachuca, Arizona when a slender figure started approaching and my battle buddies and I realized it was the Brigade Commander. Even though we were off duty in civilian clothes, we all jumped up and he told us to knock it off and sit down. I had my guitar with me, and he asked me to play something. I strummed out Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and he enjoyed my rendition. He then proceeded to tell me that when (not if) I get deployed that I should always bring my guitar with me. It always serves as a morale boost as he learned from his deployments to Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere. I replied, “Yes sir!” That commander was Colonel Michael Flynn, later Lieutenant General Flynn and future National Security Advisor. He showed up to my graduation in February from Imagery Analysis school and met my family. I never forgot how much he cared for his Soldiers but most importantly that he told me to take my guitar with me. A year and a half later I deployed from first assignment in Germany to Iraq. Christmas 2005 we put together a small Christmas ‘concert’ in Baghdad for whoever wanted to sing along. Our Battalion Chaplain played guitar (his last name ironically was Godwin) and we sang merry songs and distracted ourselves from being away from home. I spent the next 6 months in Kirkuk, Iraq doing intelligence work and playing guitar after hours when I could.

Colonel Flynn was right; guitars are a huge morale boost when deployed. I would play guitar for my young son who would dance around and clap to the beat. I used to play John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ to him when he was an infant and later while I was deployed, he was being fussy and randomly that song came on the radio, and he immediately quieted down. In 2009, I transitioned to the Army Reserve and contracting as a civilian when an MRI revealed a massive, herniated disc in my upper back. Surgery was recommended and after waking up I had no voice. Weeks turned into months and my voice was raspy, weak, and affecting my contracting job as a training instructor. My laryngeal nerve had been damaged during surgery and after a temporary procedure to restore the paralysis in my left vocal cord I had about 75% of my previous volume back. I spent the summer of 2010 working hard to exercise, sing, and project to strengthen my weakened voice. It worked, and in the process, I suddenly developed better tone. I’d never been a singer really before but now I felt much more confident and thankful to have my voice back, much less be able to sing more than just karaoke. A couple of years later my great aunt passed away in Duluth. She sang and played organ in the church and retired from Duluth public schools.

I was doing a work event with the Army Reserve in California and rearranged my travel to be at her funeral. At some point, it occurred to me that at my late uncle’s funeral many years ago, my other uncle sang at the memorial service, and I remember thinking how great his voice was. Maybe my aunt would be proud to have me sing at her funeral. I called my other uncle who was arranging the details and asked if I could sing the same song at my aunt’s funeral. He and his wife were taken back; “You sing?” they asked. Turns out the priest played the piano and after a quick rehearsal it was time. My family stood at the back of the cathedral with wide eyes as I sang my heart out in my dress blue uniform and made my late aunt proud. They didn’t know where my voice had come from, and frankly neither did I. Later that year, I found myself divorced, quickly racking up legal debt, mobilized for a deployment to Afghanistan, and unsure how or when I would ever see my two young kids again. I wanted to end all of my pain, but thankfully I crawled away from the darkness. I knew hurting myself would only pass the pain onto my children forever and I could never do that to them. As a new First Lieutenant in the Army Reserve, I deployed to Afghanistan right before Christmas 2012, and again I brought my guitar. I sang and played at church solo at first then others joined me to create a Catholic Choir. Before I redeployed in September 2013, we had created a full ensemble of singers that increased attendance at our little plywood church in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Other times I sang the national anthem, sang and played guitar at Fourth of July events, and essentially lent my voice wherever I could. It was a morale boost, and I never tried to make it about me. It was for the Soldiers. If they clapped and praised me great, but I enjoyed it much more when it was never about me.

A few of us formed a deployment ‘band’ with a drummer, bassist, and lead guitar player and we called ourselves “The Retrogrades” (reference to our unit’s logistics mission of retrograding equipment out of Afghanistan).

After returning from Afghanistan I, like many other Veterans, found that my job had disappeared, and I was struggling in the job market for a time. It took me a while to get set back up but eventually, I got a lower-level position at my old company and settled in for a new life. Being single I found myself with a lot of extra time, so I began searching for open mic venues around Houston and before long I was a regular in several places, including my favorite spot where every Wednesday they held a Beatles open mic night. The one rule: Only Beatles songs. My singing and playing got progressively better. Then my mom’s health took a dramatic turn and she needed full time care. At only 64 years old, she moved into a nursing home after Parkinson’s and Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA) caused her to fall and injure herself regularly as her motor and balance skills degenerated. I was angry. My mom was too young to be dying, yet here she was in a nursing home losing her ability to walk, speak, and take care of her own basic needs. I searched and searched and the only thing I could do besides pray was to bring my guitar to the nursing home. It was all I had to offer besides my time. She loved to hear me play. Later my dad brought his keyboard in and we would jam and sing along to all the songs I grew up with at home.

The next time I brought my kids to the nursing home I purchased a tambourine and an egg shaker and now we had a rhythm section and backup singers for our rendition of “Twist and Shout”. We were quickly becoming the Von Trapp family band. Seeing us sing and play was one of the few times my mom could smile as her body robbed her of most of her muscle functions. In November 2020 she passed away with my father lying beside her in the nursing home. I sang that same song at her funeral and barely made it thru. There’s just no one who can replace a mother’s love. But from what she taught me, I still sing and play to give back to others the way she gave to me. I choose hope and faith. And I try to live the way my mom taught me, doing what I love with passion and soul. All you need is love. My mom taught me that. I live by that phrase today, because choosing love has never failed me. Thank you, mom, for teaching me about love.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road? Losing my voice. Losing my mom. My marriage ending. But all in all, I turned to music as solace and chose hope over hate and instead of anger I chose love. It has never failed me.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on? I am an Army Major on active duty in the Army Reserve. I recently finished my master’s degree at the Naval War College in Newport, RI and am moving to my next assignment in Florida but I do music as full time as I can too. I’m working to start a PhD program this fall in Florida pending acceptance. I’m working on my 3rd record this year (2022) and will release my second album on vinyl later in 2022. I also play all my own instruments when I record, I sing, play rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, drums, harmonica, and of course, cowbell. I did have one guitarist help me out on two tracks on my last album but for now, I prefer to record all my own instruments.

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years? More streaming, more independence from artists, more ability for artists to demand more from publishing/management companies, and hopefully more transparency for greedy business practices in the record industry"

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