Monday, October 08, 2012

Live! Sold Out! Tonight!

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

Live! Sold Out! Tonight!

I didn’t actually begin to play live in front of people until much later in life. Though a proficient guitarist with a strong singing voice, I was too shy and neurotic to appear natural and relaxed in front of an audience. I was always scared, avoiding eye contact with listeners, so to not reach sensory overload. Every performance and every song stretched me almost to the breaking point.

With time, I developed strategies to keep my anxieties away, for the most part. I set an ambitious goal for myself. I would perform as many nights a week as I could for six months. If by the end of those six months, I wasn’t making any headway, I’d set aside the dream of larger fame. And as it turned out, six months was long enough to give me a good idea of the towering odds facing anyone who sought the same ends.

I was twenty-six, aware that most people who are discovered are never older than thirty. The clock was ticking. Surrounded by musicians who were sometimes much younger than me, I never sold into their uber-serious dreams of stardom. I had no starry-eyed pretenses. I just wanted to see if I could eke out a decent living, not end up with a single in heavy rotation.

I knew better. I started out on the open mic circuit, playing to those who weren’t necessarily in attendance to listen to me play. Most were present to drink, flirt, and be social. That didn’t leave much room for me. I was glorified background music. My intention every night, regardless of venue, was to grab the attention of the audience from other pursuits. I worked hard and sometimes was rewarded for my efforts.

Open mics were led by one specific person each venue, each night. Several of them were encouraging, though I never believed their words of comfort. You know that Elton John has a house not far from here, one said. This could be your night. Possibly, but I couldn’t really picture Sir Elton being out late at night at a very ordinary bar which advertised chicken wings on a large banner outside the establishment.

Volume and energy were the tools I had at my disposal. Sometimes I could lose myself in the moment and these were the best nights. Usually, while on stage I resembled Roy Orbison in posture. Orbison’s own substantial stage fright kept him rooted to the ground, as if planted there. His performances were noted for his virtuoso singing voice and quality of composition, not the stage show.

When performing with a group, the attention of the audience is divided among members. In playing solo, a person has nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. I still remember my feet shifting uneasily on the stool beneath me. The self-conscious rush of performing in front of people gave me such an adrenalin rush; the nervous energy stayed with me for whole minutes after I’d left the spotlight.

A few waitresses here and there developed a fondness for me. They served me beer in between sets. In an open mic, each musician is given ten minutes or so to perform. After that, it’s someone else’s turn in front of the lights. The person assigned to lead the open mic makes sure that everyone signed up gets a turn. After making what I hoped was a strong impact on the crowd, I conducted my flirtations. I usually had lots of lag time both before and after my performance.

The waitresses and I struck up a rapport, small talking between customers. We kept each other company during long nights until closing time, which was usually very early in the morning. The net result of these conversations were often as strategic as much as anything else. Because they liked me, I was often sheltered from rude drunks or from the fits of temper commonplace to restaurant owners. In a more opportune setting, we would have had time to really get to know each other. The nature of the job kept them on constantly on the move, on their feet.

Should one attempt to break into the music business, self-promotion is a skill one first must master. Talent is vastly less important than selling oneself. Following a tip from another struggling musician, I’d learned to print up cards with my name and number on them, which I then I distributed them freely. Truthfully, they seemed to be found more in the possession of impressed women than record producers.

One waitress was interested in me but only had the courage to call me once. When I picked up the phone, she sounded like a combination of drunk and overly enthusiastic. It was three o’clock in the morning. She was on Spring Break somewhere in Florida. I’d just gotten back in from another performance out, otherwise I probably would have completely missed it. Her own self-doubt combined with five or six years in age difference were too much for her to disregard.

I could hear the sounds of other women talking loudly in the background. As our conversation progressed, I was told she’d arrived at the beach with several female friends in tow. No doubt talk of men had been constant and I might have been her ace card. She didn’t have to feel left out of the conversation. A flesh and blood man was interested in her, the proof of which was my card, which she’d kept tucked away in her purse. For that moment of high spirits and competition, I was real and tangible, only a phone call away.

But it never went any further than that. Peer pressure is one thing, but I’ve found that self-doubt usually wins out every time. I could show kindness and sympathy, but I couldn’t teach confidence. Many prior partners were deficient in this area themselves and in similar ways. Without courage and confidence, tantalizing possibilities are never given sufficient time to grow and flourish.

My other infatuation, who I saw every Thursday night, had only recently left a long-term, serious relationship. She was not yet ready to launch back into dating and I sought to respect her reservations. Even then, I fought hard to win her hand, making a habit of playing her favorite song every week, at her request. With time, I began to lose patience, mostly because of the intensity of my affections for her.

Other women and other nights aside, my affections lay with her. 
She encouraged tenderness and compassion, bringing out the best in me. This is why I pursued her as vociferously as I did. She was a good girl, solid, stable, and might have even been a good wife. Musically entrancing a member of the opposite sex is not as easy, nor as fruitful as one might believe. It’s a good ice breaker, but hooking up is far less commonplace than one might think. Perhaps I had standards.

Eventually, I found a way to make a steady, albeit feeble source of income. Open mic pays its participant nothing, but theoretically builds a reputation. Along the way, I encountered a fellow musician whose band played late at night. They took up residence at bars and restaurants in the area. He arranged it so that I regularly opened for them. This might sound romantic, but it's a difficult living, full of dysfunctional people who have never grown into adults. The real challenge is playing for hours and retaining stamina.

A group or artist plays forty-five minutes at a time, then takes a five minute break before starting up again, just as a rule. For the amount of energy and time that goes into it, one only makes a few hundred dollars per night. Should one be part of a group, the night’s take might be divided four or five ways. In that situation, it’s almost not even worth the sweat and toil. I only made a couple hundred dollars at most, as a solo artist, most often opening for a much more popular group.

The culture of the club scene or the bar scene is hard-partying and hard-drinking. I consumed alcohol on top of my medications, when I should have completely abstained. Every night felt like a frat party. For the first time in my life, I began to expand my drinking repertoire beyond beer. Never much of a liquor drinker before, I accepted whatever was bought for me. One fan and regular customer bought me multiple shots of Jagermeister every night, which became my habit.

My alcohol tolerance became incredible. My tolerance for other people, however, deteriorated considerably. I witnessed a fight between a performer and one of his friends. He was convinced that a currently popular musical artist had ripped him off. With an aggressive bitterness, he helped himself to half my pack of cigarettes. I could have complained but I chose not to in this situation. He’d been sullen and brooding most of the night and was ready to strike at someone or something.

Before I knew it, the gloves had come off. The first punch sent his friend sprawling against a table. I’m not sure exactly what happened or how it started. Two men ran in to break it up, but by then the damage had been done. Four mostly full beer bottles spilled across the floor, one fracturing into jagged pieces. A kitchen worker arrived on the scene quickly with a mop. This had been a relatively tame fight, one that hadn't lasted more than two minutes.

I learned that the best strategy I could take in such circumstances was fairly simple. I put as much distance as I could between the pugilists, while nervously cradling my guitar in my arms, ensuring that it wouldn’t be damaged or stolen. The guitar I’d saved up for months to buy was a vintage instrument from the late 1960’s. Though it needed lots of work, when electrified and distorted, it sounded like a mellow swarm of bees.

I saw fights and almost-fights from time to time, though not with any frequency. Most of what I ran across were sloppy drunks, many of whom would throw an arm around me as though I was their instant best friend. After I finished up for the night, one such character promised that’d we’d smoke pot at his loft apartment. That is, he added, if the wicked witch of the west doesn’t show up. By that he meant his long-suffering girlfriend who disapproved of his aimless lifestyle.

He was the king of empty promises, and it took me a few weeks to figure out his generosity would never be fulfilled. She always arrived five minutes after his promises to the rest of the bar, if not the entire outside universe, specifically to lecture him. Insisting that he give up the late nights, the drinking, and the drugging, it came off as theater. It was all a charade. He never changed, but neither did she stop the early morning discussions.

I tapped my foot impatiently, waiting for the melodrama to subside. Thirty minutes became forty-five, forty-five became an hour. I left, disgustedly, somehow sober enough to drive home. Promises were constant, but the only thing people seemed to do with any regularity was buy me a drink. Drinking helped me conquer my stage fright, but if I ever overdid it, I was so numb and sleepy that it was difficult to play an entire song from start to finish with much enthusiasm.

The odds of winning the lottery seemed lower than making it. I knew, if I had the stomach for it, that I might live a life of virtual poverty, always in demand, but never reimbursed enough for my efforts. I couldn’t trust myself around that much temptation. When everyone else is always drunk, it’s easy to not want to feel left out. Our immediate environment shapes us to a large degree, in every situation imaginable. Six months later, I put my cautious dreams aside.  

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