We Not Be Jammin’ Mon

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine October 2017

One of the true pleasures in life is growing old.  You get awesome experiences and wisdom and you get to go to lots of places and do lots of things.  It’s a privilege lots of people don’t get.  Conversely, I could go on and on about how truly horrible it is to grow old, how it’s a drag and all that, but I’ll just focus on one teeny weeny thing.  The tiny insignificant thing is:  my memory.  It just ain’t what it used to be.  Truth be told, I can’t remember sh**.

If I have a yellow stickie telling me to pick up some milk, I’ll pick up some milk.  If I don’t have a yellow stickie, it’s dry cereal and no mash potatoes for you!

This itsy bitsy little problem is why I can’t leave the house for a gig without my Ipad.  I used to have this huge black notebook chock full of lyrics, chord sheets, arrangements, and notes but having dropped the thing resulting in a tangled mess of an un-alphabetized disaster one too many times, and the papers having blown away out to sea at outside gigs one too many times, I finally made the move to this modern electronic memory aid.  It works.

I used to be able to remember things, you know, all kinds of things.  Not no more.

This is my excuse, and I’m sticking with it, why I steer clear of the musical comaraderie-laden team sport known as “OPEN JAMS.”

open_mic_jam

Here’s how it goes down:

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon (or Monday night, or Tuesday night, or Wednesday night, or Thursday night, or Friday night, or Saturday night.)

Wait a minute – why the heck are there so many open jams anyway?

It couldn’t possibly be because the club owners know they can get free music all night, every night, by hosting “open jams” is it?

Hmmm, duh!

Anywho, you get up there “ready to jam” with a bunch of other people.  Somebody yells out a song.  Everybody starts playing.  Except me that is.  Even if I’ve played the song one thousand times, my puny memory defies me, and there I stand.  Befuddled.  Outcast.  Shamed.  Somebody starts throwing tomatos.  It’s a lonely and isolating catastrophe.  Because as I’ve stated, I can’t remember sh**.

It would defeat the purpose to “jam” with an “open jam” if you have to read what you’re playing.  Or to quickly download the chords, hoping the open jam venue has free wifi, then cheat your way through the songs. I think there’s a law about it.  No good mon.

There is a particular art to “jamming” I suppose.  The ability to make stuff up on the fly is cool I guess.  Having the wherewithal to respond to what the other musicians are laying down and contribute your own awesomeness is… awesome… I think.  It’s a fabulous and free way for audiences to enjoy music, I figure.  Jammers have millions of chord progressions and lyrics in their heads, I presume.

But alas, I steer clear of all things jammin’ mon.  No offense to my fellow musical jammers.  And no offense to you club owners – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

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No Listen No Try

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine September 2017

Solo acoustic artists are a courageous bunch.  They’re alone in a corner, like they did something wrong, playing to an audience that is most likely there for the food or the conversation with their friends.  Venue owners hire musicians to stand in corners so they can get more people to come out to their establishment.   “Live Entertainment Tonight” on the sign outside is better than “Tonight – the Franks and Beans Special.”

These guys playing in corners (and I say guys because most of the time it is a guy and not a girl, but I’ll save that discussion for another column – or maybe a book –  Yes –  a WHOLE book about it – stay tuned,) anyhoo, I’m here to tell you that those guys or rare girl in the corner are not having an easy time.  There’s this time-honored belief that as a performer you’re supposed to “draw the audience in,” “make” them listen, “connect” with them, then you’ll “have them.”  But it’s actually pretty darn hard to get their attention, at all.

And don’t even get me started on the TVs blaring when a performer is trying to perform.  This will be covered in the upcoming book, at length.  TRUST ME.

Some venues are built for entertainment, and they’re different.  Playing in “listening rooms” that have actual written or un-written rules like “Don’t Talk,”  “Be Quiet” or  “Listen” are rare gigs to get.  And they usually don’t pay.  Your “pay” is “exposure.”  Sell your merch.  Get people on your mailing list.  Dream of your big break.

So for most of us who are actually trying to make a living playing music, we get the stand in the corner bar gigs, and hope for the best.

sologuitar

We start the show by scanning the crowd trying to read their minds so we can play something they might like; something that will garner some sort of reaction – a smile, a clap, a hoot or a holler.  Then what that doesn’t work we try to pick just one person out who is glancing our way once in a while and try to figure out what she would like.  We try and we try and we try.

A lucky break is when the audience applauds after every song (because the room goes quiet and they figure it’s the right thing to do.)  But most of the time, we have this strange feeling that they don’t know what we just played.  Or what wonderful high notes we just hit.  Or they can’t appreciate that we spent weeks learning a super difficult chord structure that kills our fingers.  They are too busy talking!  Or eating or whatever.

Playing with a band is different.  You have each other.  You play off one another, you have people to joke with and it’s more like a team sport.  It’s fun.  If nobody’s paying attention, it’s not a big deal.  We’re rockin’ it for our own enjoyment.

When I play solo acoustic, for me, it comes down to this:  If you ain’t listening, I ain’t trying.  I know this perpetuates the problem of trying to get the audience’s attention because you’re actually sucking, but it is what it is.  I can only try so much.

Here’s how a recent scenario went down.

I was sitting in the corner of a bar with my guitar.  Nobody was listening so I closed my eyes and tapped open the chords to a random song on my IPad 2.  The song loaded and off I went.

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day

I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay” blah blah blah.

I fuddled through two verses and just…stopped.

Some people at the bar erupted with applause.

“Um thanks,” I said.

“That was great!” somebody said.

“But I wasn’t even trying!” I implored.

“But it was great!” they all hollered back.

“What song was it?” I daringly asked.

“Who cares!  It was great!”

See what I’m saying?

So feel our pain people!  Pay attention!  (even if it’s just a little).  Ya never know what you’re missing.

Calluses, Meniere’s, and Large Uvulas

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine October 2016

Like a professional athlete, a professional musician must stay in shape, or else you do things like pass out on stage, pee yourself on stage, or get weird leg cramps in the middle of a gig that make you fall over your guitar amp. So every day I walk my dogs and do these awkward stretches I learned from a 1985 Jane Fonda exercise video. One fine day in 2009 I developed this bizarre ear problem which felt like a head cold, except I did not have a cold. It’s like when you get off an airplane, and you’re walking through the terminal trying to figure out where to get your luggage, and your ears haven’t popped yet. That not-popped-yet feeling is how my ears feel all the time. It comes in handy when my husband starts talking about mortgage rates and kitchen paint colors.

Lots of doctors have lots of theories on this, from Meniere’s Disease, to allergies, to stress, to Rock Star ears. They have also given me lots of drugs. Not one single drug on this entire planet has cleared my ears, and believe me, I have tried them all. They crackle, and itch, and burn and ring – all the time. This may or may not have led to some bad decisions in the recording studio. Cloudy, rainy days are the worst so I figure I must be in-tune with the natural elements, but not so much with pharmaceuticals. On these days I just want to sleep and sleep, but I don’t have time to sleep. I have the day job, and have to cook dinner, learn new songs, have band practice, and all that stuff. On these days, I’m the one who looks like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” after they shock him.

Doctors also noticed I have an extremely large uvula. That’s the thing that wiggles in the back of your throat.

My friend Tina has known this since the seventh grade. She used to get particular joy out of watching the thing flap back and forth when I laughed. So this medical mystery was no big deal to me. But apparently, it had grown to epic proportions, and was interfering with little things like swallowing, and breathing. On bad days, I take about six Advil to keep it under control. I pretty much feel like I’m going to drop at any time though, especially at night. My monstrous flap of skin sometimes causes me to completely stop breathing so I often wake up reaching for a huge gasp of air. As my friend Rob says, “Well, it must not be life-threatening, because you’re not dead yet.”

The best part about the ear and throat problem is, and yes, there is a best part! – I haven’t had a cold in over two years! All this blockage is well, blocking, the bad stuff. The last time I had a cold I had a gig at the local Borders Book Store, with the purposes of selling my CD of course. There is nothing worse than having to sing with a cold, with all that crap running down your face and sounding like that comedian Gilbert Gottfried with the whiny voice. So it was basically, the worst gig ever. People sat in the comfy chairs, and kept reading, and tried hard to ignore me, and silently begged for me to go away. I have not been back to a Borders in any town. I blame it on their own bankruptcy.

So in addition to the constant ear and throat problems, in this poor, poor, pitiful me column, are the DAMN CALLUSES guitar players must deal with! I don’t know if there are any books on this subject, but man oh man are these things a pain in the butt! I am constantly peeling off pieces of skin and leaving them everywhere – I mean everywhere. When you play guitar, you have to constantly press the strings against solid wood. If you think this is painless you are wrong! The more you play, the harder the skin on the tips of your fingers become, and everything eventually becomes less painful. But here’s the kicker – if you peel off the calluses in between gigs or practice sessions, you have to start all over with the callous building. It’s a vicious cycle that never ever ends!

My living room floor always looks like there’s potato chip crumbs everywhere, when in fact, it’s just all my dead skin.

There are also a number of other physical ailments that crop up out of nowhere the older I get. There’s this pain that goes up and down my right leg and into my back. It makes it uncomfortable to sit, lie down, or stand still. So I pace back and forth a lot which keeps the dogs and my audiences entertained. I do a lot of moaning and groaning in the night, which keeps my husband entertained. A guy told me it’s my sciatic nerve and he showed me an exercise for it. You lie down on your back, cross your right leg over your left leg making a triangle, then lift your left leg up and hold it there. Yes it’s as awkward as it sounds. I think he just wanted to look up my shorts.

I also can’t see very well anymore. This comes in handy when I start the wrong song on a set list and I yell, “Sorry! I couldn’t see!”

One time I had a urinary tract infection, also known as a UTI, also known as worse than pushing out septuplets all day and all night for a week while you try to eat, cook for everybody else, take care of the dogs, and go about your daily life while convincing yourself you can survive a simple bladder problem. It had burned and hurt when I peed for five days and when I couldn’t pee at all and was completely bloated and near death I went to the doctor. When you go to the doctor with a UTI you have to be able to pee in a cup so the girl with no gloves on can pick it up and look at it and tell the doctor you need the good drugs. You know you really want the good drugs so you try really hard to pee in the cup. I fill the cup and I am proud. I was given some meds, and sent on my way.

I had a gig that night, and it was going to be a long one: Two and a half hours for setup, a three and a half hour show, then another hour and a half breakdown. I was thrilled. Throughout the night whenever I had to pee I just had to psych myself out by chanting “You’re peeing in the cup for the doctor, you’re peeing in the cup for the doctor, you’re peeing in the cup for the doctor.” If I didn’t chant those words I would just get more bloated and start to crouch when I walked. Nobody wants to look at a bloated and crouchy lead singer so I got it done.

The show went fine and no one knew I was dying in front of their eyes.

Then I got Lyme Disease.

When you live in the Northeast, everybody gets Lyme Disease, or you know 10 people who’ve had Lyme Disease, and everybody’s always checking themselves for Lyme Disease more than they’re checking themselves for ticks in the first place. The residual effects of this lovely disease never truly go away so your normal aches and pains are just magnified times ten and make you super tired, blah blah blah. Band practice tonight? Heck no! Write some songs today? Heck no! Gig tonight? THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Stay healthy people! (If that’s even a thing.)