Don’t we all have our share of anxieties stemming from various things that come (or may come) our way? Be you a ‘Little Mary Sunshine’ or ‘Debbie Downer’, or a ‘Happy Sam’ or ‘Gloomy Gus’, there are times when it just gets to be all too much. With that said, before we even get into his life story, take a minute to search for ‘Peter Dankelson#normsrareguitars’ and watch a bit of the YouTube clip of him playing his Gibson SG at Norm’s shop in Los Angeles. Norm always posts clips of interesting players that visit his renowned shop and when I saw this one, I was compelled to purchase Peter’s book How I learned to Rock My Life – The Peter Dankelson Story (Peter and Dede Dankelson, 2022, Pete’s Diary LLC). If you watch closely, you will see all of those amazing sounds he coaxes from the strings are done with four fingers, but we will get to that.
Here is the short version of Pete’s early life in his own words: “I was born at two thirty in the morning on what my Mom describes as the scariest day of her life. It was early October (2000), and I wasn’t due until mid-December. She also knew I had significant birth defects. [After a routine ultrasound my parents] were told that I had birth defects with my kidney and lower jaw. My kidney was in an unusual location, and it appeared that I only had one instead of two. Doctors also noted that my lower jaw was so small that it might block my upper airway. These two birth defects, my parents were told, could result in incompatibility with life. My parents were scared and worried, but they were determined to handle whatever happened. After several sleepless nights and lots of tears, Mom and Dad composed themselves and began preparing for my arrival, They consulted with Mom’s obstetrician and were referred elsewhere for more tests.”
The official name of Peter’s condition is Goldenhar Syndrome. While he was too young to remember the earliest hospitalizations and surgeries, he developed his own set of anxieties about hospitals, operating theaters, and needles. This is not too surprising considering the staggering number of visits to specialists, clinics, and hospitals for treatments, therapy, and the thirty-six surgical procedures. All were needed to correct these life threatening birth defects and were part of his life up to age twenty-one. I do not want to gloss over Peter’s complicated medical history by focusing on his musical gifts, but there would be no way to do justice to his journey. By the time you read this FTV, a copy of his book will be at the Ontonagon Township Library so you can absorb the complete and remarkable arc of his young life. Suffice to say, the confident, outgoing young man that Peter is now is a testament to what human beings can become in the face of enormous challenges.
Dede Dankelson, Peter’s Mom, had her own anxieties to confront: “When Peter was born with craniofacial syndrome, my first concern was for his health, but it was quickly followed by my fear for his future. I spent hours at his hospital bedside worrying if he would one day have friends, if he would be bullied in school, and how we would handle the staring.” She began a journal called Pete’s Diary to help her cope and eventually joined the Board of Directors for Children’s Craniofacial Association and Harmony 4 Hope. Together, Peter and Dede have become a tag team. Together they educate others about the CCA. H4H, and the power of positivity. For all his mother’s worries about how her son would handle the attention his birth defects would attract, Peter has followed the sage advice he was given at age eight to “Be A Difference Maker”.
Mike Babcock, a NHL Head Coach (2002-2019), Stanley Cup Champion (2008), and winner of Olympic Gold Medals (in 2010 and 2014) was at the helm of the Detroit Red Wings from 2005 to 2015. He often invited patients from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan to be his guest at home games and in 2008, it was Peter’s luck to be one of them. Babcock asked the eight year old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When Peter mentioned something about wanting to be famous, the coach said, “That’s good. You can be what my mom taught me to be. You can be a difference maker.” Peter may not have fully understood what Babcock meant, but his mother took it to heart. According to Dankelson, “She had already made it her mission in life to help other families like ours and do whatever she could to raise awareness about craniofacial syndromes. [As part of Dede’s work with the CCA and on behalf of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan] our family even traveled to Washington, D.C, with the hospital to advocate for pediatric healthcare.” Little did Peter realize Dede was laying a foundation for him to truly follow Coach Babcock’s advice.
Dede Dankelson began speaking with hospital faculty about parenting a medically complex child. When he was ten, she began bringing her son along so he could give them his insights as one of those ‘complex kids’. It may not have been a well used term in those days, but the pair also emphasized the need for providers to recognize ‘medical PTSD’: “I had a panic attack whenever a needle was around, and Mom would be anxious knowing it would happen. She tried multiple ways to help me manage the anxiety while simultaneously trying to control her own. I don’t think anyone truly appreciated the constant state of anxiety I lived in. I woke up every day knowing that I would need more surgeries, but I didn’t know when. That unknown is a heavy burden to carry, especially when you’re so young.”
As he neared the end of middle school, Peter’s father, Darin, was spending weeks in Illinois and Wisconsin as his job required frequent travel. The family made the decision to move to Illinois the next summer leaving both Pete and his younger brother Jacob faced with entering new schools. After spending his freshman year at Libertyville High School trying to fly under the radar (socially and academically), he finally found something to become passionate about. Having coped with life in general by listening to the hits of the day, Peter’s Dad pointed out the song Eruption on the radio saying, “You need to hear this.” Van Halen led to AC/DC and near the end of his freshman year, he told his Dad he was thinking about playing the guitar. “Well, you’re in luck,“ his father told him, “I happen to have one in the basement.”
Darin had a Fender Musicmaster electric guitar, a bass, and a Peavey Amp from his high school days. He showed his son the basics and then left Pete to explore the instrument on his own. YouTube provided him with a variety of teachers and self study gave him plenty of time to learn the styles of Malcolm and Angus Young (AC/DC) and Slash (Guns N’ Roses) at his own pace.
Pete recalls, “I got frustrated a few times, but I never gave up. I have a hypoplastic left thumb, which means it’s not functional. There is no muscle, and it won’t bend. I can’t grip anything with that hand or use it when I am playing guitar. That’s my fretting hand, so I had to get creative with ways to use only four fingers. The issue with my thumb only made me try harder. I was determined to learn.” Dankelson was glad his parents didn’t push him into formal lessons as his own explorations of the instrument became a form of therapy for him. Being a self-taught guitarist may have led him to ‘pick up some unusual habits’ but he is okay with that. For instance, he holds the guitar pick between his thumb and middle finger and not his index finger. He later found out Eddie Van Halen held his pick the same way, but Peter didn’t pick up that piece of information about EVH until much later. The first time I watched a video of Pete playing, I didn’t even notice he was only using four fingers on his fretting hand.
Peter made good progress with his guitar studies and even performed solo for a school talent show and at a CCA convention in 2017. He was also able to get to know Milwaukee musician Trapper Schoepp who serves as Harmony 4 Hope’s musical ambassador. During periods when he was recovering from one of the many surgeries he had to undergo, practicing the guitar was the best form of therapy he could get in and out of the hospital. Another life altering event happened in July of 2017 when the School of Rock Libertyville opened just a few miles from the Dankelson’s home. The week he spent at the camp gave Peter his first experience playing in a band and he became one of the founding students of the SoRL’s first performance group. After several months rehearsing, the group played at a local venue, another first for Peter.
Eventually, Pete found the experience of playing on stage to be his favorite part of being a School of Rock student. The Beatles provided the theme for this first SoRL group. Peter wasn’t a huge fan so he procrastinated learning the songs. His mother reminded him he would be on stage performing whether he learned the songs or not and it was his choice to sound terrible if he didn’t get cracking. He rushed to get the songs down and even though Pete didn’t know them well, he fell in love with performing and being on stage. When his second group session focused on Led Zeppelin tunes, he was all in. The bonus came when they got to play at a concert venue with lights and full effects. The next step up was performing with the SoRL House Band at some even more amazing gigs like one at Summerfest in Milwaukee.
As Peter’s high school career wound down, he wasn’t sure about going to college. Traditional school was hard enough with everything he had stacked on his plate. He began to seriously consider a music career and said, “A music career is not an easy or traditional path, but it parallels my life. I didn’t have a traditional childhood, so doing something non-traditional after high school didn’t seem that crazy. School and academics were always challenging for me, and college didn’t feel like the next step. With Dad’s support, Mom established a limited liability company (LLC) for our motivational speaking business. She felt it was the right time to start charging a fee for our school visits. This could bring in revenue while I pursued my dream of becoming a musician.”
During their travels, Peter would try to squeeze in a visit to some of the guitar stores he had become familiar with while teaching himself on-line. His first stop at Norm’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles put him in touch with both Norm and Mark Agnesi. Mark produced ‘Guitar of the Day’ videos for the store that Pete watched while learning to play. Mark let him play a Stevie Ray Vaughn Stratocastor and Peter was thrilled when they asked if they could film him playing for a post they called ‘Straturday’. After graduating from high school, Peter met up with Agnesi again, this time in Nashville where Mark was now working for Gibson Guitars. When he mentioned to company president Cesar Gueikian and Agnesi he was playing a Taylor acoustic guitar during school programs, they gave him a Gibson G45.
Peter needed one more round of surgeries to close the trach stoma in his neck and the feeding tube port in his stomach. Both had been necessary to keep him alive and while he did not look forward to another round of surgery and recovery, it was a choice he made. His decision to take a gap year after high school opened the time slot in his schedule to take this important step. During his recovery, Dede posted a clip of him playing a Jared James Nichols tune and tagged it to both Nichols and Agnesi. When Jared re-posted the clip and sent him a message, Peter’s Dad encouraged him to call him. One thing led to another and Jared not only invited Peter to come to a show where his band was opening for John 5, but to also play a song with his band. If Pete needed motivation to recover from his last surgery, this would do it.
Pete’s Mom promised him a visit to the Chicago Music Exchange when he was finally discharged from his last hospital stay. The opportunity to visit the store and hold one of Jared’s Les Paul guitars also had great therapeutic value. When they gifted him the guitar at the end of his visit, Peter noted, “Receiving so much kindness motivates me to stay positive and pay it forward. A day that started out with surgery ended with a heartful of gratitude and a new guitar.” The CME also offered to let him borrow a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall amp when he played with Nichols’ band. More accolades, encouragement, and gifts would come Pete’s way as more people found his clips on-line. The next logical step was to form his own band.
The Peter Dankelson Band now includes a fellow Libertyville School of Rock member on drums named Ryan ‘Rockey’ Johnson. After they spent some time jamming together, they recruited the then sixteen year old Mac McRae to sing lead vocals and play bass. There are clips of the band’s work on www.petesdiary.com and they are currently working on an album that should be released sometime in 2023. We have no doubt the album will be well received as the Pete’s Diary social media site has already gained 700,000 followers. Based in Lake County, Illinois, one notes they are not too far away from Upper Michigan – perhaps we will get a chance to see them grace the stage at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival one of these days.
We started this piece talking about anxiety. I highly recommend anyone who needs a pick me up to check out more about this amazing young guitarist. I have a sneaking suspicion we will be hearing more about the Peter Dankelson Band in the years to come.
Top Piece Video: The Peter Dankelson Band doing what they do best – Rocking ANOTHER LONEY NIGHT!