In our dreams, we approach ourselves as strangers. Sometimes these strangers kidnap the person we thought we were. That’s what happened to John Langworthy. He lived in a suburb and sold Yellow Pages ads for the phone company. Then he went to bed one night in 1985 and had a dream. He was walking in the desert.
“I get to the top of the sand dune and the eyes of God are looking straight at me and it’s the great Sphinx,” Langworthy recalls. “God said to me, ‘I am.’ So I woke up from that dream and said, ‘Whoa, I can no longer live a wasted life.’ And ever since then, my dreams have been full of beautiful music.”
Langworthy was not the first person to have musical dreams. A seventh-century shepherd named Caedmon went to sleep one night. He was given the “gift of song” in a dream and he became the first English poet known by name and a saint in the Catholic Church. But not everyone who has dreamed music followed the dreams. Neurologist Oliver Sacks uncovered a passage in the memoirs of Berlioz, where the composer described being forced to banish a symphony that kept coming to him in his dreams because he did not have the time or the money to realize it. John Langworthy also ignored his dreams for the first couple of nights. “I thought I must have heard [the music in the dream] on the radio.”
“Then, I had this dream and it’s my first music video,” Langworthy says. “It’s the first song I recorded on my first album, ‘Memories, Oh Memories.’”
For having been born in a dream, ‘Memories, Oh Memories’ is not an especially surreal song. It’s a rather standard poppy, loungy, synthy number with very straightforward lyrics. It goes: “Memories, Oh memories, how we have such memories of the times that we went through . . . but I am still in love with you.” But at the time he dreamed it, nothing could have been more bizarre, more surreal, to John Langworthy.
“I never dreamed of music before that,” says Langworthy. “I had no musical intentions whatsoever. I never talked about music. I talked about basketball, you know, and where we’re going to go have a few beers tonight and that stuff.”
So there he is, this regular guy, living in North Potomac, Maryland, a prosperous Washington suburb, and he goes to bed one night and he wakes up and he’s called on, by God he believes, to do something he has no idea how to do. By this standard, one can see why he classes ‘Memories, Oh Memories’ among the great musical miracles of all time. But it wasn’t just ‘Memories.’ Night after night, new songs came to John.
“He used to wake up and he had a little handheld tape recorder,” says his wife Cindy, a lawyer on K Street in Washington, D.C. “And he’d have to turn on the light to see the controls and he’d turn on the light. Then he’d record it and then he’d play it back and then he’d re-record it because it wasn’t quite what he wanted. The whole thing happened sometimes a couple times a night and I basically told him this wasn’t going to work. I have to go out in the morning and go to a job. So he agreed and he will get up out of bed and take the little recorder somewhere else.”
Langworthy considers the tapes a musical miracle. They consist of dream descriptions and hummed strains of songs that drift off into yawns. Over the years the tapes began to pile up and are now stored in a box, replaced for everyday use by the recorder or video camera on his phone. He estimates that he has dreamed more than 2,000 songs in the last couple of years—and many times more than that in the 30 years since his first dream song.
“After I’d recorded over five hundred songs like this,” John says and then pauses, recalling the day he decided to make music his full-time job. “I remember the song that did it. It was ‘Promised Land.’ I’m sound asleep so this song came to me in a dream.”
Langworthy begins to sing.
“Listen everybody please understand/There’s a promise for every man,/There’s a promise from God’s hand./ We can li-ive in a Promised Land.”
He laughs as he finishes his rendition of the old song. “So, I woke up, recorded it. The next day quit my day job. Dedicated my whole life to turning these musical dreams into reality.”
The reality was that he didn’t even know where to start. He didn’t play an instrument. He didn’t even know any musicians.
“So here I am. I’m out there trying to find musicians to work with and I don’t know anything about music—don’t know how to play an instrument,” he says. “I remember, I walk up to a guy and he had a gig and he was done with the gig and I go, ‘I am dreaming all this music.’ He said, ‘Oh what do you play?’ I said ‘I don’t play anything’ and he turned around and walked away. I was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, you don’t understand.’ Just like it was hard for God to get through to me. It’s been really hard for me to get through to people.”
Did he ever consider, even for a minute, that he was on the wrong track?
“No, no, no. I knew,” Langworthy replies, unwavering. “I mean, God spoke to me in a dream. When you hear the voice of God, you know it. There’s no doubt in your mind about it. No way.”
When most people talk about “living the dream,” they mean that they are pursuing their true aspirations or living the life they’ve always imagined. But T.V. John, he took the phrase literally. He was dedicating his life to turning his dreams, the ones he has at night, into reality. This religious certainty helped him finally find musicians who would work with him.
“So I go to the recording studio,” he recalls. “‘Memories, Oh Memories’ is the first song. I had a lot of money because of my day job. They go ahead and record the track, studio musicians. And they’re all there on my dime, right, and they’re coming and they’re trying to teach me to sing in time with the music.”
Langworthy clumsily claps his gigantic hands together in what could be a scene from “The Jerk” as he recalls the lessons. “And I had no idea.”
He can laugh about it now, but it was devastating at the time. He had given up everything to do this.
“Yeah. It’s something I have to do but I don’t know how.” He pauses. “That’s when they started calling me the Dream Man.”
He made the album. And with it, he managed to find a band who would work with him more or less full time. He got a public-access television show—this was when he became T.V. John—and he started making music videos (full disclosure: a band of mine once appeared on the public-access show). With the videos, which he often makes with his public-access collaboraters or his wife, Langworthy tries to capture the flavor of the dreams.
Langworthy is a huge guy, big head, giant hands, gray hair, caterpillar eyebrows. He looks like Bamm-Bamm from “The Flintstones” all grown up, but he dresses like Herb Tarlek, the salesman on “WKRP,” favoring plaid and floral patterns. And in ‘Memories,’ he’s there singing in the median in the middle of the road with cars coming by. When he sings, he is ecstatic. He throws his hands around in big, expansive gestures. He struts and kicks and pretends to surf.
And he manages to talk people into doing all kinds of crazy things for him. In another video, ‘Hey Hey,’ he’s in the middle of a football game and the game’s going on around him—people are really playing—and it ends when they carry him off on their shoulders. In another, ‘Spies Everywhere,’ which was made fifteen years later, he does a similar thing at a karate studio. Sometimes, he uses green screens and special effects, as in the crazy ‘Liar,’ which features him dancing in front of flames—occasionally in a Vishnu-like quadruple figure.
There’s a certain “outsider” quality to the T.V. John experience. Langworthy isn’t hip and his songs are resolutely out of touch and out of time. It is hard to imagine him appearing in the same pop universe as Beyoncé and Katy Perry and yet his songs are unapologetically pop.
As a result of these contradictions, one of the first things people ask when they see T.V. John is: How ironic is this? Is this guy serious? His son Alan, who used to be a punk DJ at the University of Maryland’s radio station, has an answer for them. “It’s a hundred-percent serious,” he says. “It’s comedy but it’s serious.”
“When I’d bring friends over, which I stopped doing pretty fast, he would introduce himself and the first thing he would say to them is, ‘Have you heard my music?’ So, little 10-year-old Alan brings a girl home to, I don’t know, play patty cake and I got my dad trying to play them dream tapes or worked up dream tapes, dream songs.”
He pauses. “So T.V. John and John Langworthy, they get kind of put together for me.”
Even Cindy is not sure where to draw the line. “The musical persona is very much a part of John, of who he is all the time. Which is not to say he can’t be concerned or loving or attentive, but . . . ”
The early songs are especially romantic and Cindy likes these best. The later songs get, well, sillier. Langworthy is highly aware of the disjunction between the sacred and the silly in the mission he’s been called to.
“God revealed himself directly to me so that I would have this insight. That’s why I’m so excited about turning these songs into reality,” he says. “But these are comedy songs. ‘Do the Bird,’ I mean it’s silly. But the song was in the dream. I’m being true to the dream.”
Again he starts singing: “‘Do the bird, do the bird, what are you afraid of?”
He laughs. “You know and to me it’s hilarious that I’m doing this.”
And that is the paradox of T.V. John’s entire life.
“I mean, it’s so laughable. It’s little old dumb me, trying to figure it out. But it’s God working through me,” he says.
“The spiritual motivation I have is serious. But I can’t take it seriously, if you know what I mean. Otherwise, there’s so much frustration. I have so much inability . . . ” he trails off, dreamy but not disheartened.
That’s the really strange thing. This inability—this laughable quality—doesn’t seem to discourage Langworthy. Sure, he still craves success. Cindy told me that when he first quit his job, “we thought it was only going to be a couple of years.” And now, 30 years later, T.V. John still thinks each song will be the break-through song, the hit. But he’s even more enthusiastic and more confident today than he was when ‘Memories, Oh Memories’ came to him in a dream all those years ago. Because his true goal may just be to remind us all that music and dreams are both composed of the sacred and the silly and are, in fact, miracles.
Click here to watch T.V. John’s videos, hear an audio version of this story with bits of his original dream recordings, and more. T.V. John and the Legendary Band will be playing at The
Circuit, in Essex, Jan. 25 and Feb. 8.