Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Caanan Land

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.

Upon arrival in Atlanta, everyone told me to play Eddie’s Attic. In a profession where making a living usually involves late nights and low pay, it seemed to be Canaan. Other musicians knew this quite well, which is why the venue scheduled out three months ahead of time. Two songs and no more than ten minutes, then the waiting commenced. Everyone in the area had given it a whirl once or twice and often more than that.

If audience response was any indication of victory, I’d have been a shoo in. They were appreciative, applauding me for my effort. I stood upright from the stool, feet feeling the wooden stage, my guitar strapped across my front. The judge strode vigorously past me as I exited the stage, a grin on his face. This was a very good sign. But we were only halfway through the contest, and fickle hearts can be easily swayed by new sounds and new combinations. The race was in progress. I was merely the early leader in a horse race.

I’d arrived early, full of nervous energy, barely able to sit at the bar. A waitress took a liking to me and provided insider knowledge. I was not to introduce my songs, because that set off the schedule. Keeping this in mind, I played a good, tight set. The room was wired for sound. I intended to purchase a recording of my performance to plug to college radio stations. Scheduled top of the bill, the recording engineer had yet to get warmed up, neglecting to record the first minute of my first song. Now I only had one song to pass along.

It’s much cheaper to record live. Studio time is expensive. I’d already recorded a few demos, but at $50 an hour, I never had the money to spend the exhaustive effort it takes to really lay down a song the way it needs to be. Everything produced that Saturday morning into afternoon sounded rushed, because I always had my eye on the clock. I could rarely play more than three takes of anything, which had to suffice. I put down the rhythm guitar track, overlaid a basic bass part, made sure the studio drummer was on beat, then immediately recorded lead and background vocals onto the backing track.

I thought I had it figured out, though I knew winning would require more than raw talent. It was mostly luck and chance. Every musician learns that it’s more important to have connections than to be good. Good musicians go hungry every day. I’ve played with many of them. With only one opportunity for career advancement in a large city, it’s impossible to have slots for everyone. It’s even worse now.

I lost to a rare percussive instrument from some obscure African country. The performer felt no desire or inclination to sing. The presentation was interesting, but nothing I’d pay money to see on stage. This is what makes every contest without strict guidelines subjective. I wondered whether or not I might have done a better job by grabbing my guitar and beating the sides of it in rhythmic fashion.

Eddie’s Attic held the power and the keys to the Kingdom. We had nothing to use as a bargaining chip. The experience felt a bit like playing the lottery. The odds are infinitesimal. A person could play every week for an entire lifetime without winning a cent. Many do. Speaking from a strictly mathematical perspective, you might be better flushing your money down the drain, but there is always a chance.

Years later, I understand why Quakers are against games of chance. My one and only trip to Atlantic City saw me gamble, slightly guiltily, the complimentary $20 given me to use on the slot machines. I won enough to cover the cost of my dinner, and considered it a success. I grew up in a state where the Christian Coalition, in an unholy partnership with the Mississippi gambling interests, effectively scuttled a proposed lottery. In Sin City, I saw the worst minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

Musicians self-destruct in slightly different ways. Writers before me have romanticized junkies and addicts as though their own innate sensitivity proved their undoing. I am less sympathetic, because those who make it are part of an elite club. I suppose I’ve never completely forgiven Kurt Cobain for rising above his station in the redneck logging towns of the Pacific Northwest.

I know depression well, but it’s much sexier to live rather than to perish. Breaks are gifts from God, never to be tossed carelessly away, and yet they are. Any group who goes more than three years between albums isn’t being fair to their audience, in my opinion. As I reflect upon contests great and small, I view the similarities and the differences. In the end, everyone’s life is half chance.

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