Sometimes, we look to others for inspiration, guidance, an example. I’ve had a lot of “heroes” throughout my life, but one stands out the most, one who I’ve returned to time and again: Bruce Lee.
At the mention of the name Bruce Lee, most people think of his dynamic martial arts movies, but a further look reveals a lot, lot more.
In 1985, I was an impressionable teenager and the VCR had just become a standard fixture in American homes. Kung-Fu Theater and Ninja movies were all the rage and my friends and I rented them all: 9 Deaths of a Ninja, Revenge of a Ninja, etc… And they were very entertaining, especially all the weaponry and gymnastics. But when we watched Bruce Lee, it was apparent to me that he was something very different, very real and absolutely riveting.
I watched Bruce’s movies over and over, despite my folks and my girlfriend’s dismissive eye-rolls. I mean, I had to admit that the fights were not real, but remained a believer. There was something totally real about Bruce Lee, his intensity jumped through the screen and gripped my imagination. He seemed super-human. And, maybe he was. Looking back now, watching Bruce was an experience for me, a visceral and engaging emotional experience. He didn't just execute his moves, he expressed them.
In my 20s, I revisited Bruce again, this time buying his book “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and actually studying martial arts with a teacher. I read the book over and over and was really impressed with his philosophical writings and most of all, his absolute dedication to the development of his art. It began to dawn on me that Bruce was more than his movies. He had been a dedicated teacher also. A philosopher. Whatever he chose to do, he did it all the way and most importantly, he did it HIS way.
Upon reading The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, I realized that Bruce Lee had invented his own way of martial arts. The meticulous study, hand written drawings, thorough and no-nonsense thought that he put into Jeet Kune Do was beyond anything I’d imagined. But it all made sense. I mean, you could see it in his films; his preparation, choreography, creativity, drive… all of it. No wonder this guy was so amazing.
Martial arts, as appealing as it was at the time, was not in the cards for me as my passion was/is in music. I did study at a local kung-fu studio for a while, but I knew I couldn’t do it all the way, and if I couldn’t do it fully, then I decided I wouldn’t disrespect the art, or myself by taking valuable time away from my music. So, I went on about my life, with Bruce Lee still there, in the back of my mind.
Somehow, Bruce kept coming back into my life and again in my late 30s I became somewhat obsessed with him. At the bookstore one day I picked up a copy of John Little’s “The Art of Expressing the Human Body” which detailed how Bruce trained every part of his body. It was and still is one of the most inspirational books I own.
At this point in my musical development, I was looking for a way to get closer to my own identity. Musically and personally. I’d gone through all my musical heroes and just needed to embrace myself at this point. I’d tried to play like all my heroes: Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, but in trying to emulate them I just found myself further and further away from myself.
So, I thought hard about it and I wondered, who is somebody who did their own thing and was successful with it? Bruce came to mind, of course. I re-read his books and it was striking how much he traveled his own path. I mean, he'd even created his own way of martial arts! Jeet Kune Do. It wasn't easy for him to do this and at first, he wasn't liked or accepted by the martial arts establishment for telling them that he thought most martial arts were not practical and were a "classical mess" and "organized despair". But, he stuck with his believe and now he's seen as the "father of mixed martial arts".
Instead of trying to study martial arts or try to be like Bruce, I decided to be like me. To do what I do and to commit as much to myself as I could.
I had to be able to look in the mirror and like what I saw. I mean, not in a narcissistic way, but in a human way. And when I could do that, which took some work, but when I could do that, everything started to change. I had drifted away from physical wellness and getting back to it was key to finding myself.
One of the first things was that I stopped drinking alcohol and began working out regularly. Not Bruce Lee style, but Matt Kane style, meaning that the inspiration from Bruce was there and put a lot of wind in my sails, but I wasn’t naive enough to embark on his path as everyone has their own path to follow. So, I jumped rope, lifted moderate weights and kept my body healthy. Once my body was feeling good, I re-focused all my attention to my music. I practiced my drums every single day until it became as much of a habit as brushing my teeth. I wrote in my journal a lot. Things got on track.
Another thing that happened was that I wrote down my dreams. Bruce had done this, so I figured if it worked for him, it could work for me. And it did! Soon, the things I wrote down not only happened, but more than what I’d written down happened. Surprises and successes began to build up. Then, I wrote down bigger and bigger dreams and they happened, too. They didn’t happen overnight, some took many years, but they did happen. Some of them are still in the process of happening and I revisit and re-write them from time to time to breathe fresh life into them.
Teaching came into my life next. I embraced my students with as much intensity as I did my own career. It started with one student, at a strip mall music store. When I left the music store after a disagreement with the owner, one of the students followed me and thus began the Matt Kane School of Drumming. More students followed until I had a roster of 20 young drummers I was coaching. To teach something, you must know it inside-out. And, you must be able to convey it, to shine a light on the path that the student has to travel. Only they can travel the path, but it is my responsibility to lead the student to the realization of their dreams.
As all of this was coming together, career and teaching, I began to get a much deeper realization of what Bruce Lee had left for the world. I mean, when you think about the dedication he put into his martial arts, teaching, philosophy and acting, just consider that he did all this without a coach, without a trainer. He did most of it virtually alone.
While it’s true that he had a teacher in Hong Kong, the great Yip Man, once Bruce came to the states, he was on his own. To me, this is probably the most impressive aspect how Bruce lived his life.
When you take a look at Lee’s obsessive training logs or his writings, imagine a guy doing all that with no coach. I mean, think about it: Mike Tyson had Cus D’Amato. Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee. Bruce Lee relied on nobody. To me, that maybe the most impressive aspect of his life and the most inspirational. While it’s true, that many great artists work alone: authors, visual artists, musicians… athletes typically have coaches and trainers, especially nowadays.
Think of Bruce Lee, reading thousands of books on physical training, martial arts of every kind, boxing, fencing, philosophy and nutrition. Think of him waking up every single day at 6am and training to the edge of his ability, all while maintaining a family, a kung fu school and an acting career. Think of the impression he made on the world and how he is still the number one martial arts actor of all time.
My biggest take away from Bruce Lee is that you can do it, it just has to be done. You can dream, you can make it happen. But the main lesson is to be yourself and to be believe that you can do it. Time IS of the essence. We have to decide what’s important, where the priorities are. Sift out the unimportant, give it no time, and dedicate yourself to living a life that is worthy of YOU.
Thank you, sifu, Bruce Lee.