The Tesh Touch

I've spent a good chunk of time recently mulling over the possible consequences of a 44-year-old man named John Tesh. Maybe you've heard of him; for ten years, ending three months ago, Tesh and his hair co-hosted Entertainment Tonight, arguably the biggest piece of celebrity "journalism" ever to destroy the argument that television might someday do somebody some good. He also plays keyboards, gives concerts and releases CDs -- 13 at last count. Maybe you saw him perform at the Olympics. If not, you might have heard the stink raised in his aftermath. The night after Atlanta's Tesh-a-thon closing ceremonies, David Letterman faced his audience and tossed them the rhetorical bone, "Aren't you glad I'm not John Tesh?" Letterman's audience roared its affirmation.

Tesh-bashing, of course, is so easy and so obvious as to be no real sport at all. The man's already got a compost heap of stinky press clippings molding away behind his mansion. And anyway, "John Tesh: One Big Joke of a Musician, a Thesis" is unlikely to enlighten his already storming hordes of detractors, or to sway the hearts of his equally loyal fans.

But on the other hand, what's one to say? I mean, fine, he writes and performs instrumental music that's exceedingly professional, careerist, commercial, aim-to-please stuff. It's pleasantly aimed at a demographic described, from the horse's mouth, as "men and women, 35 to 75, who may need to go home and relieve the baby sitters." There's a spectrum of degrees spanning the poles of pure art and pure entertainment, and John Tesh, to all appearances, is an entertainer.

You could talk to Tesh for an hour and surmise that he's just a real levelheaded guy who stumbled so far into the "communications" business that he accidentally ended up co-anchoring Entertainment Tonight for a decade in front of 12 million viewers an evening before finally saving enough money and courage that he was able to resign from his anchor desk ("What they don't realize," he says, "is that I never really cared at all about TV") and pursue music, his first love, for which he has a well-documented passion going back to age six.

Or, truthfully, you could talk to him for that same hour and surmise that Tesh's 25 years in the "communications" business have provided him with a well-developed knowledge of how to successfully sell a manufactured idea of himself to as many different kinds of consumers as possible, including reporters. You never can be sure what you're getting when you're dealing with an expert.

I can, however, tell you the following, because this is what Tesh told me. You may, of course -- and are encouraged to -- interpret the information as you wish.

John Tesh grew up in Garden City, Long Island, the son of Baptist parents he describes as "rough." Dad was a vice president of Hanes, the underwear company, a retired violinist, an expert carpenter, a self-made man who never went to college and president of the local Sunday school. Mom was a registered nurse who, Tesh remembers, "would put an egg timer on the piano for two hours every day, and I had to sit there and play piano, otherwise I didn't get dinner. And as I got older, the deal was [that unless I played] classical music for two hours a day, I couldn't play in the rock band that I was in."

Young Tesh's introduction to the rigors of public performance came early, when his father, hosting parties of friends, would wake the pajamaed boy so he could entertain with Christmas songs on the family piano. "So I'd get up and I'd perform, and I'd make a mistake, obviously, and I'd finish, and my dad would say, 'Now play it again, but don't make a mistake,' " recalls Tesh. "People would be hanging their heads because they realized how embarrassing it would be for me. I didn't want to pull a Menendez on him, it wasn't that bad, but a little bit of therapy helped me. I got involved in some therapy for stage fright, and it's gone now."

While a high school student, Tesh was named to the New York State Symphonic Band twice for his piano skills, and as a budding rock and roller he played organ, then trumpet and then, after getting braces on his teeth, trombone in a series of rock bands. His tastes ran to Yes and Jethro Tull, and he thinks he understands the anti-mainstream bias of today's alt-rock snobbery because he remembers that "my favorite alternative rock band in the '70s was the beginning of Yes, and once 'Roundabout' came out and they were popular on the radio, I wasn't interested anymore."

Tesh left Long Island to enroll at North Carolina State University, where he studied music, physics, whatever, "sort of trying to find myself." He got into communications by chance when someone told him a course in radio was an easy A. That turned out to be true, but Tesh was also "bitten by the bug, and that's how that got started."

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Brad Tyer