It was a sunny day in September, South Buffalo. Outside, at a thing called Mercy Fest. A benefit for the hospital at which I was born, ironically.
I was 15 years old. I look at 15 year old kids now, and wonder what I could possibly have been thinking or expecting. No older siblings or peers to tell me what to expect. We were all so young. When the opportunity came, all we heard was the word “yes”, kind of like now. Nothing’s changed much.
I had worked all summer long to be able to afford a new amp. A gigantic Fender Twin. So heavy, so unwieldy. So loud. That, along with my freshly oiled Morley Power Wah Fuzz (which made the thing lose all it’s tension, and make the pedal go into engaged down position by default instead of staying up and silent) made my set-up monstrous and difficult by default. And the pedal, when I bought it, was disappointing to me, as I knew not the difference between “fuzz” and “distortion”, a vital distinction. When you combined distortion with wah, you got Jimi Hendrix. When you combined fuzz with wah, you got a swarm of angry rock-n-roll bees.
We were a threesome. The City Victims were Paul Rinedoller, rock-steady on drums, and Dan Lewis, coming into his own as a unique guitar player. Kind of a Pete Townshend/Alex Lifeson hybrid at that point. And me. I would dutifully play the two thickest strings on my Les Paul copy of a copy while turning down the treble to approximate a bass guitar/rhythm guitar sort of amalgam in the EQ spectrum. It’s what I had always done to that point, since I couldn’t afford a bass guitar. Well, I worked all summer to afford SOMETHING. If someone would have told me I could have had a neat little bass set-up for the $500 I had earned, I would have done that, but no one told me it was a possibility. How insular our little band was!
And this was our first gig. We opened with a song I wrote called “A Journey“. With attendant blast of wah/fuzz anger to signify…I dunno, a space ship? And while, in our imaginations we would be greeted by hotties within our demographic, what we saw before us on a stage too big for us to possibly occupy were nuns. Just…nuns. And with that first blast of rock and roll apiculture, they parted. They, as if one, ran under the nearest tent to escape this horrible, horrible noise that this unkempt, greasy, greasy boy was making. A calmer musician would have turned to his amp and coolly turned it down to match the dynamic of his audience. I was too paralyzed with fear and bewilderment at this magnificent new machine into which my $50 faux guitar was plugged to control or finesse anything.
I turned to look at Dan, who was fighting a battle of his own. He, like me, envisioned a soft herd of willing South Buffalo girls drooling at our well-conceived compositions (we were good songwriters, WAY above average in that regard, but the world would never know) and had applied a healthy dose of cologne to prepare himself for the inevitable intimacy. Dan was attracting real bees, drawn to his liberally applied sex-in-a-plastic-bottle. As he battled the swarm, our set slowly unwound. No praise. No girls. No pleasure. No momentum. I quit the net day, knowing I never wanted to feel so helpless again. So inept and hurt. Why couldn’t they hear what we did?
We still laugh about it sometimes.
Last summer I played the Carrboro Music Festival. I’d done it before, three times. This time I played at a local storefront, on the porch. The porch faced the sound that came from the main square. The main square featured some kind of Motown/Blues group with a powerful female vocalist. And when I stopped playing a song, the sound of that band across the square would inundate my consciousness. It was like they were right there in front of me. It made remembering lyrics or even focusing on the beginning of a song difficult.
I played to four people.
And after I finished my third or fourth song, the strains of that group knocking ‘em dead with “Knock on Wood” blasting in my face, combined with the heat, the bad sound, the small audience…it made me remember all the bad times. All the bad gigs. All the promises. All the expectations. The people to whom I tried to give CDs, free CDs, only to be rejected.
The day in 2006 when “Drink The Beast With Me” came via UPS, 1000 copies (I still have a couple boxes, even though I promised myself I’d never be one of those people), I was so excited that I drove to Barnes and Noble with a small box with 10 of them in tow, and thought I’d give them away to people in the parking lot. The first girl’s reaction was terror. Her eyes said “please don’t hurt me”. But she gamely accepted one. And I expected her to call me or email me that evening to let me know I changed her life. To thank me. To worship me. That’s the way I felt that day. Of course, as far as I know, she put it on Ebay the next day. In any event I never heard from her again. That was a possibility that never entered my mind. That it would have no effect. That my “largess” would be met with…nothing. But that’s pretty much how it always went, with one or two exceptions. And I have learned not one thing from it. I still do it. Because I still believe that some day someone will listen and fall in love with my rinky-dink tunes. I still believe because to not believe would be unbearable.
In the face of the rock-solid indicators to the contrary, I still believe. In…something. In myself. In what I created.
You know…the gigs, countless gigs where no one came. The band members who drank or got high before a show. My weight. My face. The pathetic studio fights. The tension. The pressure. The lost friends. The unanswered mail/email/phone messages. Countless practices for nothing. Meaningless strategy sessions. The cost of recording/pressing/promoting my music, the post-show apologies from people who didn’t come to see the show (what can you say?), the travel, the rock wars, humiliating, unattended CD release “parties” (there have been three, but none for this latest one), the anxiety before and after every single show, my forgotten lyrics, that single dream, ever amorphous, still, after all these years. I try to look back at the best times, the best shows, the times where everything was perfect, or at least good. When did they dance? Did they ever dance? When did they scream, or hoot or holler? When did they follow me? When were they regulars?
It all hit me at once, and I stopped, like that paralyzed 15-year old kid who didn’t have the composure to turn around and regroup and turn his amp down. I stood there for literally a minute and tried to summon all my strength and keep going. Before that show, even in the face of withering defeat, I could always keep it going under the “me vs. them” flag and finish in defiance. Singing harder, singing louder. Singing to the back of the hall like I was taught from my theater days. Find one person and latch onto them if you can. But I was defeated that day, finally and for all time, and waved the white flag on my career. I’m done. I’m too tired to regroup or put another ad in Craigslist. I can see how this is going to end. It starts one of many ways, but in the end, it’s my fat ass up there not compelling people to listen. It’s me. I’m the only common thread. There’s no other way to put it. I’ve failed.
The big takeaway from that day was this: After playing music for 35 years, in bands big and small, with the only real common thread being myself and my original music, I can now attract 4 people to see me. Four. After all these years, I’m still flying blind. I still take punches daily. There’s no momentum. None. The Carrboro Music Festival was well-advertised. My name was on every program, lots of print ads. On line. Everywhere. And an entire throng of thousands saw my name and said “Meh, pass.”
There weren’t that many good gigs, really good ones in my life. My biggest captive audience was probably at Carrboro Days, an indoor event. Ken Ray Wilemon and I played for 15 minutes to no effect. Bars that could get me for free got me for free because I never asked for more because, frankly, I wasn’t convinced, as good as my music was, that I was worth more. I gleefully took “the bar” which translated to about $15. It’s been that way since I moved here in 1997. My largest venue was at something in Charlotte called the Southeast Music Festival. That was the only time I got a gig through “Sonic Bids”. And when I got the gig I was too excited to note that they were charging ME $100 to play it. it was a huge venue, but again, to no effect.
With Man Against Mauve, East of Idaho, Cabarrus Street All-Stars, and all the musicians I’ve played with in the last few years, I’ve probably played 750 times or more in front of an audience. And given away/sold about 1500 CDs all told. I actually thought enough people would review my work this year to form some sort of critical mass, maybe get on a few year-end lists. That’s how delusional I am. I’m not kidding. I’m laughing as I type this.
There’s something wrong with me. It’s not even a dream at this point. It’s a sick, expensive, aimless hobby. After all these years I haven’t even slightly broken through. All the people from my musical past who have either quit or died or moved on are exactly JUST as far along career-wise as I am. They stopped in the aughts and the 90′s and the 80′s. That’s what any sane person would see as my smartest alternative. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I really don’t see it that way. I just wish I understood where it is that I’ve been going wrong all these years.
I’ve been wrong all these years.
You know what I do now? I wrote songs and think of good ones that no one has heard from my past. I think about how they would sound with a really good drummer in a really good studio. I think about horns and vocals and segues. I think about rewriting lyrics and what a good theme might be. I think about who would do it with me. I drive 40 minutes to work and 40 minutes home, and all that time, in my car, I think about grooves and noises and melodies.
And I can’t fucking stop.