Let me tell you about the last gig I did and likely will do. Names have been changed.
I met a sweet, kind woman at one of my many child-friendly outings in the area. She was so different from the other uptight women I met out there in the “circuit”. She was cool and open. But it was not until years after we met and became the most pleasant of acquaintances that I discovered that she was a singer. Well, she sang. She had also been writing some lyrics lately, and would I like to collaborate? I know I had something to do with her having the confidence to try to sing in public again. In fact, she sang with me the last time I played in Durham. It was very nice.
So her sister was a Militant dog rescue advocate, let’s say. She and her coterie of like-minded friends had driven 13 hours from Philadelphia to Georgia to a local animal shelter and found homes for all the dogs that were to be given a one-way ticket to the big sleep. And they made a movie about the experience. A fine movie it was. And among some others, the songs that Melissa and I wrote together were to be used in the film. The lyrics were sort of ambivalent. She could have been singing about a man, or a child, or a dog.
I was excited to be a part of this, even though my love for dogs isn’t nearly as…rabid? Still, the movie was to premiere in Philly at the old Trocodero Theater on August the 19th. And I was invited to take part. For some reason, then, that was enough. But my songwriting partner had arranged it so that I would be playing the VIP room before the show proper while people were getting drinks and food. I was very excited at this prospect, thinking of all the CDs I could sell/give away. And also of finally playing a gig outside of this area, where I felt unappreciated. Ignored.
The decision to go to Philadelphia has turned out to be a terrible one. It cost me $1,000 and a good friend. And netted no positive results, save for having my name on a poster.
I was unprepared for all the ways in which air travel has changed since my last foray into the friendly skies, September 10, 2001, from Denver to Raleigh. Now they make you take everything out of your pockets, and all your metal stuff (I went through three times before someone realized that there was a guitar pick (!) in my pocket setting the thing off.) They charged me $30 to transport my guitar. They charge exorbitant prices for the simplest soft drinks. They charge me $5 to sit in the front of the coach seats. I won’t say which airline this was, but it rhymes with “US Air”.
Let me get to the crux of the matter. How it all fell apart. See, the sister who was organizing this whole thing would occasionally send me notes on Facebook about how big this thing was going to be. “Get ready” she would say, “this is gonna be huge… thousands of people…” and for me, someone who has had little to no success in marketing his tunes to a local scene touting itself as the “next Seattle”, this meant that I would have a chance to play my music for those thousands of people. Why else would she be sending me these messages? Here it was, my chance. Finally. What a serendipitous series of events. Had I not been an abject failure at every attempt at a career, had I not been a stay-at-home father, had I not been a sucker for the good conversation that came with such ease when plied by the very cool mom talking to me while watching our kids play on a gym mat in the middle of the Century Center, had we not broached the topic of music, had we not…had we not…etc.
So I’m in the Radisson in downtown Philadelphia, putting on my new brick-colored short sleeve shirt and black jeans, getting ready to dazzle the thousands of dog-loving altruists that would soon be carrying my CD in their hemp purses, and upon arrival back home, bewildered (aroused?) at the amazing heaven-sent music that had just come out of their car stereos like a gift that defied explanation. I brought 30 copies of “Vultures and Diamonds” with me from the hotel, and about 1/2 hour before I was due to perform, arranged them conspicuously on the little half-tables attendant to the pillars of the old theater’s upstairs bar, with a little gift bag for tips or $$ from CD purchases.
The time had come for me to start playing, but there was nobody in the bar, save for the people arranging the free food on tables in front of the stage, buffet-style. The time had come for me to start playing, but there was no audience. But the time had come. And so I started playing. Was it a good set? Was it a bad one? I don’t really remember. Because for the first time, even though I was accustomed to small/apathetic audiences (and the challenges therein), I could feel myself physically letting go of the desire to do this anymore. It was just too much. Too far a distance to travel, for too much money, one too may times. As my 25-minute set wound down, with people leaking into and out of the room, with various levels of commitment to the tray of teriyaki chicken and duck dumplings, trying to avoid eye contact with the porcine drone singing his guts out, I could hear myself singing into the microphone, but I couldn’t feel anything. It was like being in the early stages of recovery from anesthesia, as I imagined it. No applause, save for my old friend in the audience, no CDs were taken (I offer them for free at every gig, tips optional) and no one spoke to me. And as the reality of the situation dawned on me, that this was over–all of it, from the time I was 17 to now, the countless gigs, countless stages, crumpled dollar bills and cokes with ice, the printed or scribbled set lists, the music on the PA before I appeared, alone or with a band, the smell of smoke and beer and the neon, the gaudy posters of fake-German waitresses smiling and jiggling, the applause, the changed strings and the dodgy amps, the new songs and the old war horses…all over. Gone for good. Such a big part of my life. Of my identity. This is who I was. And I was terrible at what it is that I was.
A sensible, normal adult would read this and say, perhaps, “What a fucking baby.” However, a struggling, gigging musician would probably not.
I crawled, standing up, down the ancient stairway to the first floor, looking for a place to sit and hide, but there was no such place in the old hall for me to do so. Uncomfortable from the new shoes, and the long Philadelphia walks in hot streets. One doesn’t imagine the place was designed for such a copious amount of flesh to disappear. In fact, the door leading from down right backstage to the audience (“the original door!” I was assured) was designed for the build of a man circa 1910 Vaudeville. And I didn’t want to go backstage. People were there. So I sat in the middle of the floor behind the sound engineer, with my guitar in one hand, and a coke in the other, thinking about leaving. I wanted so badly to leave. It never occurred to me before that I could just…go. But I decided to stay and gut it out. TO preserve my dignity. To keep my word to my partner and…friend? Stupid.
There was a large stage where the main acts were performing for an attentive audience. The local band that served as a sort of house band for the other songs yet to be performed (mine and my co-writers) started their 50-minute set as soon as my last notes faded, almost as if on cue, and I thought them loud, musically not very interesting, and yet in service of a very attentive audience. This only made me more resentful. I was singing for clinking glasses and tattooed lhaso apso owners devouring poultry-on-a-stick. I didn’t get a chance at the main stage. And we are taught that we should keep it in. And we are taught that we should not rock the boat. And we are taught to accept things as they are, and we are taught to not leave when we are needed. To not break promises. I flew all this way to honor a promise.
I detest co-writing. I wish I didn’t, and musicians and friends a hundred times more gifted have been given my lame excuses, but the truth is that I don’t co-write because I have not much time left. I plan to spend the remainder of my musical life writing my own music and singing my own lyrics because music is something I do way better than friendship. But she, my co-writer, made it so easy. She came in with a melody and lyrics and all I had to do was put chords underneath, and make them as simple as possible to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Maybe what happened next was karmic justice for all the years I wasted putting off lifelong friends who know who they are.
Couldn’t keep it in. Just couldn’t. Decided to take my friend aside and vent. As if she could understand. As if she wasn’t going through her own anxiety. She was visibly trying to overcome her stage fright. But I waved her into the dressing room behind the stage. Near as I can recall, it went something like this:
“Why am I here? No one was listening! Not one person took a CD. Not one. Why couldn’t you have had me on the main stage? I thought there were going to be thousands of people watching!”
Something to that effect. For a good minute or two. She told me, not a little frightened and visibly put upon, that she couldn’t deal with my issues right then because she, of course, had her own dilemma to deal with—the hundreds of people about to see her sing two of the songs we co-wrote. She told me that I had somehow cultivated unrealistic expectations.
And all of the sudden, I understood.
Her sister wasn’t telling me that thousands of people were going to show up and that I should get ready for them to see me. They were going to show up to save dogs. And I should be ready because of a great day this was going to be for the dog rescue cause, which assumed that I was as excited about dogs getting rescued as she was. But I admit that it never occurred to me to give a shit about dogs being given the sweet gift of euthanasia or having it withheld. All I cared about was getting a chance to shine as a performer in front of all those people. And I, in turn, assumed that she understood that.
The band on the main stage didn’t have that problem, and neither did the two or three performers that also appeared in the movie and on the stage. I was seething. Bitter. Bitter because this was how it was going to end. Not with a tribute or with a small nod from the glitterati within the realm of the local hoi palloi, but with another perceived indignity. And what’s more, I still had to play guitar on stage and more or less lead the band through my partner’s pristine star turn. And I did. And I thought we were gonna be OK, as it turned out pretty well after I calmed down. My girl seemed to understand, being conciliatory in the face of my tantrum, and we had a drink afterward.
The next morning I joined her, her husband, and her sister for breakfast in the hotel. I was happy that it was over, and happy that soon I would be heading home. Still, the morning left me uneasy, as I really wasn’t sure of my own behavior and what was and what wasn’t appropriate. Maybe I made a dumb joke or maybe I dropped a fork. It was hard to tell, since a sheen of shame was devouring my defenses where I sat. They departed and I was alone in Philadelphia. I took a tour bus, and it was nice. I got on a plane and went home.
Two days later, I sent her a carefully worded, conciliatory (for me) email:
After having time to think about my time in Philly, I have decided that maybe I am selfish.
Maybe my expectations were bolstered by your sister’s messages to me on FB telling me how big this thing was gonna be, and maybe I transferred that to my expectations for the reception of my own performance, but could you really blame me?…Could you honestly have disciplined yourself that way? You asked me to try and understand your nervousness before your own performance…but I don’t think you understand where my disappointment is coming from…
I’d love to talk to you about it, but please try to understand.
Three days later:
Is my version of events so reprehensible that you feel compelled to ignore me at the cost of our friendship? Please respond to my repeated efforts to have a discussion with you.
No response. I left a phone message. No answer.
Three days later:
Please talk to me. I know you did me a big favor by getting me to play at the bar and I appreciate it and I’m sorry for saying anything that might have hurt you. I really am grateful. I was just frustrated at how it all turned out. I thought you would understand. I wish we could speak. But you’re not calling me back or emailing me. So I’ve just got to keep trying, because that’s what I do, I guess. I never thought you would be someone who could just shut me off for good. I’m big on closure…
So I called a few times. No response. Until just this past weekend, when she told me, via email, and in no uncertain terms, that my little tantrum, and my attempts to contact her subsequently, have effectively destroyed our friendship and our partnership. I “freaked her out”. And she knows me pretty well, so if THIS freaked her out…