Playing rock music in front of thousands of screaming fans might be a challenge for a shy guy with self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. But for Donivan Blair, a taekwondo black belt who plays bass for Fort Worth titans the Toadies, performing live is actually more comfortable than practicing kicks with a small group of martial arts students.
In his new book, Even if it Kills Me, Martial Arts, Rock and Roll, and Mortality (YMAA Publication Center), Blair tackles his life in music and his journey into martial arts through his lens as a 40-something guy who recognizes he won't feel complete until he actually finishes something he started long ago. As it does for many, regardless of profession, growing older brings with it a sense of comfort which can lead to complacency. That middling stagnation, convenient though it may be, isn't a part of Blair's DNA, and he wasn't ready to allow it to form in 2013, near his 41st birthday, when his band decided to take a break from touring.
Blair traded in his bass for a beginner's white belt.
"My brother and I were born in a way that we have always pushed ourselves," Blair says over the phone about himself and his brother, Zach, who plays lead guitar for successful rock band Rise Against. "We didn't necessarily have the natural talent some of our friends had, but we're good learners and are very driven. Once we start something, finishing it becomes a goal we have to achieve in order to ever move on."
The guitar-slinging Blair boys had taken their first karate lessons as grade-schoolers in Sherman, Texas, at the local YMCA. But in 1982, times were tough and the family budget was tight thanks to their parents' ebbs and flows in employment. Before collecting a number of different colored belts, the lessons stopped, but the passion for all-things martial arts never died for Donivan.
The book, written in an enjoyable, conversational manner, dives into specifics of both playing bass and of martial arts, but overall, it isn't about one or the other.
Just like how the best sports movies are really about the people playing the sports and not the sports themselves, Blair's book is about his life, no prior knowledge or present interest in music or taekwondo required.
"I really want people to see something from themselves in my stories from this book," he says. "I've had guys tell me they don't care much for the martial arts stuff in the book, but they still liked it. I'm a big reader of Anthony Bourdain's stuff, but I don't know what duck confit is or anything like that. I just enjoy his stories."
The paradoxical feel that comes with a bashful rocker who desires strict structure is compelling enough. Looking from the outside, it would be easy to see Blair as a man with it all figured out, though internally, he was missing more than he wanted to. "The band would be on tour in a new city," he says. "And we'd pass a dojo where I'd see a guy my age going in to train and I'd be jealous of him."
Once Blair made the decision to re-start learning martial arts, the mental hurdles associated with the beginning of that process were more daunting than any of the kicks and punches he would soon take.
"In music, I gravitated towards the bass because no one looks at the bass player," he says. "But when I'm on tour and go into a dojo in a new town where no one knows me, I feel like I'm starting over, and it's weird for me to the point where I have to genuinely talk myself into doing it. That part hasn't gotten easier for me, and it's a hurdle I have to jump every time I go in. The physical toll of martial arts is easy for me; if I bruise, I'll heal, if I sweat, I'll cool down, but stepping in the door is always my biggest challenge because I'm that shy."
The book isn't a self-help volume, nor is it meant to be overtly inspirational. But Blair admits he enjoys hearing that people have challenged themselves in new ways after reading his book.
"My hope is that someone reads the book," he says. "And it makes them want to do something, anything, that they've always wanted to do but haven't. I'm still going. I've started jujitsu, so I'm back to getting my ass handed to me every day."
Donivan Blair will appear at Interabang Books in Dallas on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. He performs with the Toadies that night at Festival at the Switchyard in Carrollton, which is free.