Big City Giggin’

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2017

I haven’t lived an extraordinary life. I haven’t survived horrific abuse or imprisonment, haven’t fought for democracy in any foreign wars, and haven’t saved the life of anybody. I’ve never broken a bone. I’ve never been homeless, mentally unstable, starving or unemployed.

But the one thing that has plagued my existence, worse than all these calamities combined, is that I have always fervently believed I would make it in the music business, since I was eight years old.

It was a given, I thought. I could sing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush, on key, A Capella and everything. I wasn’t put on this earth to save the world. I was born to be a rock star. I was the real deal the world had been waiting for.

Because of my eventual awesomeness, I would have the fame, the fortune, the freedom from the day job, and all the freshest salads and pre-cut fruit I could handle. But most importantly, I would have someone to change my guitar strings. This dreadful and sometimes deadly activity should be reserved only for people like my Dad who build antique miniature wooden boats with tiny little sails and rigging with cleverly painted cursive names like Oh Suzanna. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been whacked in the face with an errant high E string, or cut my fingers, or worse still – wrapped the tiny steal devils around the machine heads on the headstock the wrong way and had to start all over again.

Because I most certainly was destined to be a star, I also never learned how to change a flat tire, clean the floors, or get diesel stains out of workpants. Someone else would clearly be doing that stuff for me.

Things haven’t worked out, obviously. I wouldn’t have to write this monthly column and tell you about my monumental failure in judgment if they had. I would be saving the world instead, just like Bono and Springsteen.

After decades of trying, it finally became abundantly clear to me that I most certainly would never be “discovered.” I would never play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or Bonnaroo, or one of those fancy blues cruises. The epiphany happened one night in New York City, somewhere between SoHo and Little Italy.

My band and I had finally secured a gig in New York City at a prestigious club for original bands. My drummer and I arrived around twelve in the afternoon to check the place out. As expected, the stage was wicked small, the sound system was ancient, but the twelve dollar burgers were quite good. We headed back to our hotel and waited for the other guys. The guitar player picked us up and drove us in a harrowing cab-ride-like thrill adventure back to the club and we piled in. The place was jam-packed with young professional drunk New Yorkers. We were told to wait our turn (3 hours from our arrival time.) It was the dead of winter so we elected to wait inside, where there were five seats total. They were taken. So we waited our turn in the corner, with our coats and guitars and chords and water bottles. A lot of bars and restaurants in New York are longer than they are wide, so we were squeezed in behind some not-so-artfully placed poles, amid the hipsters, right by the bathroom. At 9:30 p.m., I used the last two squares of toilet paper in the one-stall unisex closet.

Tip: When doing a gig in New York City, you should always carry your own roll of toilet paper.

So I held the door open for the next customer and yelled, “There’s no more toilet paper!”

“Oh, I’ll survive,” the confident 20-something brunette simply stated. At 1 a.m. the toilet paper had still not been restocked. New Yorkers are incredibly innovative, super resilient, or just plain dirty.

So we waited our turn…waited, waited, waited. The band on stage, consisting of three females and three males (I think I have the gender right) wearing various expertly planned outfits of mismatched plaids and stripes, played an hour and a half over their half-hour time slot while the crowd screamed along to the songs.

We waited in the corner, with no toilet paper. Unforgettable tunes such as, “I Wanna Have a Three-Some,” and “I Want Your Boyfriend,” and the crowd favorite – “F U, F U,” rose to deafening decibels. They finally finished with a punk version of the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” the bar emptied out, and we were on.

So it was hurry up and set up and hurry up and play five songs, so the next band that came in from Washington, D.C. could hurry up and set up and hurry up and play. We played our five songs to the empty bar and collected our thick pay envelope of sixteen one dollar bills. We were paid a percentage of the bar sales that occurred during our set, and apparently a couple people had a couple shots. So between the train ride from Connecticut, the burgers, water bottles, parking, and the hotel, I was down, oh, about $500.

The drummer and I proceeded to hit up a few Irish pubs, drank, danced on bar tops, and put down, another $400.

So you see, it’s just not economically feasible, or hygienic, to EVER make it in the music business.

Besides, I don’t have the guts to say F U over the mic.


Don’t You Know Who I Am?

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2016

Spring is here! But life as a musician ain’t all Easter bunnies and daffodils, I’m sorry to say. Musicianhood is fraught with self-doubt, heartache, disappointment, bloody fingers, late nights and worst of all – anonymity. There are so many of us fighting for the same gigs, marketing to an ever-decreasing audience, trying to secure the best musicians and attempting to balance our rock-star delusions with day-to-day doldrums, we all tend to feel a bit lost in the shuffle. This year, there were two thousand bands at the music festival South By Southwest in Austin, TX who all traveled there from around the globe to play thirty minutes in a bar with its doors open right next to another bar with its doors open hosting another band who competed with thousands of other bands for the right to perform next to the other band. What are any musician’s chances of ever standing out? Musicians and bands with name recognition get the best gigs, the most money, and all sorts of other things I know nothing about. But how are we “discovered” so things get just a tad easier?

The road to musical fame and fortune is different for everyone, as well as the definition of it. Some musicians are happy to play out only on the weekends and have their day jobs, kids, and lawns to mow. Others are happy to bang around in a van on tour half the year, come home to an apartment to write and record, and head back out. Some prefer to just record, sell the music, and never play out. Some people only want to sell their original songs to well-known acts via basement demos. Some musicians only work on television and movie scores with barely a line of credit at the end of the show. Some people end up somewhere they never even thought of.

One commonality among those who have “made it,” made it to a point where millions of people knew who they were, is that they usually never saw it coming. Whether they were ready or not for the fame, it was thrust on them, and they had to deal with it. Some faltered, some thrived.

Bruce Springsteen played New Jersey clubs for seven years before he was referred to manager and producer Mike Appel in 1972. Appel got Bruce an audition with CBS Records’ John Hammond, which led to Bruce’s first record contract. Bruce worked with Appel on “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”, and the epic “Born to Run.” Eventually, President Reagan thought his song “Born in the USA” was a great patriotic anthem and then he and the E Street Band played a Super Bowl half-time show televised to millions.

Blogger Justin Gage, who runs the Aquarium Drunkard blog, posted a song from an Alabama Shakes EP, and the Internet went nuts. The band then played at the CMJ Music Marathon, and somehow shortly after received some Grammy nominations and the following year, a Grammy.

Bonnie Raitt played solo at Boston coffee houses in between her college classes and soon met blues promoter Dick Waterman, and then, record executives at Warner Brothers. Then she won a ton of Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Lady Gaga, who is really Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, quit, started performing in lower East side clubs, and collaborated with other bands. She got a job with Interscope Records as a songwriter for other artists on the label, including Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, and The Pussycat Dolls. While performing at her own burlesque show, R&B singer Akon saw her, signed her, recorded with her, and then she eventually sang “The Sound of Music” at the Grammys and then pretended she was David Bowie at the Grammys.

Las Vegas area rock band Imagine Dragons were recording and playing out like everybody else when they were asked to step in for the band Train at the Bite of Las Vegas Festival because lead singer Pat Monahan was sick. Then a couple years later they won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.

Aretha Franklin sang in church with her father, a Baptist preacher named Reverend Clarence La Vaughan Franklin, and performed on the road with his traveling revival show. She went to New York, was signed by Columbia Records, and is now the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famer Queen of Soul.

Adele attended the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, cut a three-track demo for a class project, and posted it on MySpace. Executives at XL Recordings heard the tracks, signed her to a record deal, and then she won a million Grammys and did carpool karaoke with James Corben.

Ed Sheeran left home for London at age 14 with a guitar on his back and worked himself into the local singer-songwriter scene. He recorded and posted his songs online, and one tune reached No. 2 on the iTunes chart. He was signed to Atlantic Records and then he was nominated for 109 awards and won 40.

Taylor Swift sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Philadelphia 76ers game at age 11, and started writing her own songs and learning guitar at 12. She talked her parents into moving near to Nashville, Tennessee, she performed at The Bluebird Café, and was signed with Big Machine Records. Then she sold out football stadiums and picked fights and won them with the Apple Corporation and Kanye West. One time, my daughter and her friends were on their way to a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, and I was packing the car up for my own gig. I said, “Taylor Swift gets Gillette Stadium, and I get the Olde Mistick Village Gazebo.” And they laughed and laughed. What else could they do?

The Beatles played Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly covers in Hamburg, Germany bars, and then met Brian Epstein in Liverpool who made them wear Pierre Cardin suits and get haircuts. Then they became the best-selling and most influential band of all time.

Did they all have talent? Yes. Did they have determination and actually try to do something musically? Yes. But why were they the lucky ones? It’s clearly like when Professor McGonagall finds the dead troll in the bathroom at Hogwarts and says to Harry Potter and Ron: “Not many first year students could take on a fully grown mountain troll and live to tell the tale. Five points will be awarded to each of you, for sheer dumb luck.”

It’s just sheer dumb luck. I’m thinkin’.

Those of us stuck in the “I want it so bad I can taste it” road to nowhere still can’t stop trying though, no matter the ridiculous odds of notoriety or slim chance of quitting the day job.

And let’s face it, being able to say, “Don’t you know who I am?” when pulled over by a cop could be quite gratifying, and so could the million dollar paycheck for a two-hour set. But more importantly, what fame and fortune bring, if you choose to use your power for good rather than evil, is a voice. You gain the ability to impact change through your voice.   You can “leave the world better than how you found it,” which isn’t such a bad gig. Good luck! Happy Spring!