He was married, the proud father of three. He'd founded a construction company that was doing well, even in the midst of a recession. And after years of working what he calls "32-hour days," Michael Pomory was even finding time for a hobby he'd dropped years before: jamming with friends on his guitar.
"I really thought I'd found a groove that would last the rest of my life," says Pomory, a South Baltimore native, in a voice made gravelly from years of smoking.
Then he lost it all.
Even now, it's hard to grasp how so much hard luck could hit one person in a single year: the divorce, the foundering of the company, the depression that set in and wouldn't go away. But as he strums the chords of an old Alice Cooper song on an acoustic guitar in his Pasadena study, Pomory (pronounced Pommery) says that without the dark times, he'd never have entered the strange spotlight he finds himself in now.
This month, Pomory, 47, released his first album of original music, "Perspectives," a 13-song collection of progressive rock with a foot in the Christian genre. He's working on a second CD for the small Oklahoma-based label that signed him last year and is prepping for a spring tour. By the looks of it, he has started a new career.
No one knows better than Pomory — also known by his stage name, Strive Michael — how few rock stars get their start after age 30, let alone when they're pushing 50. This fork in the road could prove a wrong turn. But a thought came to him when things were at their worst, and he's choosing to trust it now.
"I can't think of a time when music has steered me wrong," he says.
He grew up in Locust Point, the youngest of seven children in a working-class Roman Catholic family. His father, Louis Pomory, a welder, was 45 when Michael was born. His eldest brother, Robert, was 25.
"I was the 'whoops-not-another-one' kid,'" Pomory says with a laugh.
He might never have discovered music were it not for Robert, who got a job as an usher at a Baltimore theater as a young man, stayed with it and ended up running the Lyric Opera House as president. "We're achievers," Michael says of the Pomory clan.
He attended his first symphony at age 3, and the impression it made formed his earliest memory.
"I was just this little person, walking around among all these grown-up's legs," Pomory says. "I remember the first strike of the strings. I couldn't articulate this at the time, but I leaned back in my seat and thought, 'There it is — the meaning of life.'"
His mother, Irene, told him he'd all but been in a trance that day. For the next three weeks, he banged on pots and pans around the house. Over the next 10 years, he badgered everyone he could to take him to the symphony.
The family lacked the resources for music lessons, let alone instruments, but his mother did the next best thing. She gave Michael a transistor radio when he was 6. He remembers being floored by the sweeping complexity of a song he dialed up — "25 or 6 to 4," a hit by the band Chicago — but it wasn't until he was 10 that a boyfriend of his sister's bought him his first guitar.
He took to it with the kind of fervor that seemed to drive his family. "I played that thing until my fingers bled," he says.
For the next year or so, he turned South Baltimore into his personal conservatory, approaching every teen-ager who fancied himself a young Keith Richards or Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist in the progressive rock band Rush, begging them to teach him licks.
When Pomory's parents divorced, music became even more important. By 13, he and a friend, a drummer named Michael Allen, were regulars in bands that played joints like Jane's in Brooklyn and the Sandbar in Pasadena.
"It was pop stuff, a little rock-y, even a bit of disco," Pomory says, still a bit apologetic at the notion of pandering to mass tastes. "My heart was in stuff that's a bit more challenging."
When he thinks back on that transistor radio, Pomory remembers 1970, the year he got it — how he kept it throughout each school day, waiting for the final bell so he could listen all he liked.
He also remembers something that drove him nuts. For months, he flipped the dial in search of "25 or 6 to 4." He never found it on that radio again. In many ways, his life became like that.
His parents' divorce shook Michael so badly that he left school after eighth grade. At 17, he got a girlfriend pregnant. Vowing to be a good dad, he got his high school equivalency certificate, studied accounting at a community college and talked his way into a job with Bensky Construction in Catonsville.
Pomory constructed a life as he'd built his musical repertoire: seeking those who knew their stuff, asking questions and leaving smarter than he came in. At 21, he was hired to supervise construction on a high-rise project in Ocean City. Two years later, he started Maryland Mansard, a company that renovated shopping centers in Baltimore and at one point employed 55.
Pomory kept the place going for more than a decade, even through the building decline of the early 1990s. In 1986, he married Joan Horant, a Brooklyn Park girl, and they had two sons, Joshua and Christopher, to go with Little Mike.
He still had his guitar and noodled on it sometimes. He taught himself a little piano. But music had become that tune he could only make out once in a while.
"I knew how important family was, and here I was, a day-to-day daddy," he says, with a wistful smile. "That was a great feeling. I thought it would last."
Shock, then awe
As far as the marriage goes, all Pomory will say is that stresses can build and that he has no hard feelings. But two days before Christmas 1994, when Joan announced she was leaving, it was a shock.
It wouldn't be the last. Within two months, a sister died, a real estate developer withheld a $60,000 payment, and he sank into a funk so deep his neighbors had to break his door down to be sure he was OK. Doctors treated him for depression.
In 2007, he started taking walks in his Pasadena neighborhood, saying fervent prayers in his head.
"God," he thought, "what do you want me to do with my life? Give me a sign."
Pomory says an answer came — not in words, but in the form of a feeling.
"Write an album," it said.
Now he really felt crazy. He'd written songs, studied classical music and done some jamming, but he had little original material and was already in his 40s — a geriatric by industry standards. He walked some more and kept praying. The answer kept coming back the same
The longer his internal debate went on, the more convincing this odd voice sounded. What, after all, did he have to lose? It was time, he thought, for a new direction.
A music deal
As usual, Pomory sought experts. "If I was going to pursue music, I needed a better foundation," he says. He talked his way into classes at Peabody Preparatory, where instructors grilled him on the basics of classical composition and performance.
The lessons were a revelation to a man who had taught himself music, and on the fretboard of a guitar. "Piano's a better songwriting instrument," he says, leaning forward to tease a sprightly glissando from his electric keyboard. In 2008, he started banging out melodies at 5:30 each morning, tunes that became songs.
The music he loved was there — the symphonic rock of Kansas, the progressive leaps of Dream Theater, the vocal acrobatics of Queensryche's Geoff Tate — but his lyrics were positive. They bashed the violence of gang culture ("Whispering Rage"), mocked corporate greed ("Face of God") and hailed the family ("Make the Time"). Four songs touched on Christian themes.
"The music is just well-textured, very diverse," says Mark Fischer, a studio guitarist who has heard the collection. "It's not like a lot of CDs that are out now, where a lot of the songs sound alike. You can listen from start to finish and stay engaged."
It also wowed Allen Finch, a scout with a new label, Tate Music Group, who was searching the Internet for talent one day last December and happened on Pomory's MySpace page.
"There were so many elements to it. It had classical rock, with those soaring guitar solos, but also elements the classic bands like Led Zeppelin never had, like the piano, the acoustic elements, the message," Finch says. Tate offered Pomory a deal.
While it's no EMI CMG, the Christian label behind superstars Amy Grant and Steven Michael Chapman, Tate offers a fresh paradigm. A subsidiary of Tate Publishing LLC, a Christian book publisher, it signs artists, lets them keep their rights, and offers a $40,000 production-and-promotion package that includes CDs and art, radio and TV promotion and support on concert tours.
It has produced records by industry stars Neal McCoy and Regie Hamm, and it recently landed a single by newcomer Jeff Chandler on a Top 10 list in Christian Radio Weekly Magazine.
"[The deal] is no guarantee," Pomory says. "It's a chance."
He can't talk music for long without playing some. In a black T-shirt and a goatee, Strive Michael (he took the stage name, he says, to preserve family privacy) scoots to his keyboard and breaks into song.
"I remember the first time I heard it all so clear," he croons in a surprisingly sweet voice. "Reaching to my weary dreams and taking all my fears. Patiently I want to hear that voice again. Play it again; play it again."
The words are from a song of that name, a cut on "Perspectives" about the transistor radio. Pomory visits his mother, now 87, after church every Sunday and still speaks of the joy that gift gave him — and how it felt to search for music and never find it.
He has found it now. Tate is shopping his tunes to radio stations nationwide. A portion of CD sales will go to OrchKids, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra after-school music program for children. He's rehearsing with the band he plans to take on tour — Len Walls on drums, James Young on bass and Ryan Songy on guitar — all local residents. "We'll be ready. The dates will come," he says.
Wherever things go from here, Pomory is glad he took the risk.
"If I don't sell a single record, this was a project I owed myself," he says. "And who knows? With this part of my life, I could do a lot of good."
Strive Michael will be performing and signing CDs at His Way Christian Bookstore, 8450 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16. To hear samples from "Perspectives," visit tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=812517015374