something has been gnawing at my brain for a little while, and i decided it might be a good idea to address it in a somewhat public forum.
some time back, i decided i never wanted to play live again. there were a lot of reasons behind it…the two main ones were the overwhelming indifference i was met with about six years ago when no one would give me a show anywhere no matter what i did (only to have that change significantly about a year later when certain people heard my music and decided i was “cool” enough to be given some attention, which put a pretty bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing; if i wasn’t good enough before, i certainly wasn’t good enough now just because there was a slight buzz around me locally), and the simple fact that somewhere along the line live performances stopped being fun for me, and became nerve-wracking.
after a hiatus that lasted a good few years, i thought i would tentatively dip my toes back into the water by playing with other people. not being the singer/frontman/center of attention made for a slightly less stressful situation, and in some cases i was even able to kind of enjoy playing live again. after a while the absurd volume of live music got to be a bit too much for me, but i pulled out the extreme isolation headphones i would normally just use when recording drums or loud electric guitar, and they afforded some much-needed hearing protection.
then the other shoe dropped, and i began to see things in a different light. i won’t name names (ooh! gossip!), but one experience in particular was a good lesson in how being nice and going out of your way to help people out can blow up in your face. someone we’ll call “wifflewag” put a band together for a show that was a pretty big deal, and i became a part of that band. we all had a lot of fun, and i was told that the band was put together based on the personalities of the players more than anything else, so it seemed like we would become a long-term band and get together on a regular basis.
that didn’t happen. there were long periods of silence, and then we would get a call from wifflewag out of nowhere, asking us to play a last-minute show. we invariably said yes and, if we were lucky, got to have one or two rehearsals before the show (often it was only one, the night before the show). some of these shows were built up to be big deals as well, only to turn out to be completely unorganized. for one show, the music was advertised to start at 9:00 pm. the opening act didn’t go on-stage until well after 11:00, by which time many people had shown up, waited, seen that nothing at all was happening, and eventually left. by the time we got up on-stage there was barely any audience left, and no one got paid anything. at least that time the sound on-stage was surprisingly good for a change.
another show was part of an outdoor music festival, also touted as a big deal. we ended up playing for about six people (that’s not an exaggeration), and the sound on-stage was so abysmal i couldn’t hear a note i played the whole time. good thing i knew the material well enough to play deaf. that show didn’t pay anything either, even my isolation headphones weren’t enough to protect my ears from the ridiculous volume, and i left feeling incredibly angry and thinking i should have stuck to the “no live shows” credo. we were told by wifflewag that there would be some paying gigs after these shitty free shows were out of the way, played to audiences that exceeded single digit numbers. only, as soon as those paying gigs came along, i never got a call again.
the band dissolved almost overnight. none of us have played together in anything approaching that incarnation since. wifflewag now has a different band, though we were never told about this or even informed that our services were no longer needed. for all i know, all of the guitar/piano parts i wrote have been given to someone else to play and pass off as their own. i wouldn’t know for sure…after all of that, i have no desire to see the new group live.
after that, i cut down on the whole sideman thing, but still had trouble saying no when someone would ask me to play with them. then something happened just recently that involved more last-minute stuff, and made me rethink the whole thing all over again. the details aren’t worth delving into, but i will say that there’s no way i could carve out a comfortable place for myself as a keyboardist in a band i’ve never played with before when the show i’m supposed to be a part of is a few days away and none of the previous rehearsals have included me. practicing to a cd isn’t going to cut it.
i also discovered that the show was being billed as a special performance with me, which seemed kind of odd…that makes it sound like i’m either playing a set of my own, or at least doing a lot more than only playing on a few songs. i guess it’s a way to get more people in the door…come see johnny west playing keyboard in a corner. gawk at his funny headphones.
ultimately i decided to bow out, lest i have a panic attack on-stage from a lack of adequate preparation time. it felt like the only thing i could do if i didn’t want to be incredibly uncomfortable up there once again. the fact that my sleep is a complete mess once again would only make things more stressful. ’cause, you know, sleep-deprivation totally lessens anxiety. maybe pulling out makes me look bad because my name is on the bill in at least some places, but i was never told that my name was going to be showing up anywhere and i’m tired of being put in stressful situations that could have easily been avoided. i also feel a need to make a more public statement than just telling one band i don’t feel up to playing a show with them after saying i was on board.
basically, the whole sideman thing was fun for a while, but it’s gotten old. everyone seems to think i’m some kind of superhuman session musician who doesn’t need time to prepare like other people do…i can just get up there on-stage and wing it, and it’ll be great. that’s flattering, i guess, but it also feels kind of disrespectful, and there isn’t much truth to it. yes, i can improvise and work without much in the way of rehearsal if i have to, but i’m not a session musician (session musicians get paid, for one thing). i’m not a machine. playing live is an incredibly nerve-wracking experience for me at this point, even under the best of circumstances.
i don’t think it’s fair to be put in situations where it really isn’t possible for me to be prepared or comfortable, just so i can help someone else out at my own expense. i’ve done a whole lot of that, and i think maybe it’s time to start thinking about myself for a change. one thing i’ve learned is that i’m not a sideman. i can pretend to be one and it’ll be fairly convincing, but that isn’t really me. and it feels a little strange to be billed as a selling point of a show when really all i am is wallpaper. i’m not sure what people who want to hear my music get out of seeing me play a supporting role to someone else’s music. if i went to a show hoping to catch a particular artist, only to find them doing nothing but playing the sideman role, i would be disappointed.
maybe it says something that one of the few genuinely positive experiences i’ve had playing live in the past several years was when i played my own stuff with max at the FM lounge. that was my gig, i did what i wanted to do, and i made sure we had enough rehearsal time beforehand so that we were both comfortable up there. ryan fields also made sure we could actually hear what we were doing on-stage, which made a world of difference.
the whole thing is strange to me, though…no one even wants me for what i can really do. while i’m no virtuoso, i can play just about anything you throw at me, as long as it isn’t a wind instrument or a fretless string instrument, but no one wants me to be a jack-of-all trades. generally i’m only wanted as a keyboard player, i guess because it must be hard to find someone who can throw something together at the last minute and then hammer it out on something with keys. or maybe it’s because if i’m juggling piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, percussion, melodica, ukulele and other things, and the other musicians just stick with one instrument, i become more interesting than just a cog in the wheel, and divert attention away from them. i’m there as a wild card more than anything, yet i don’t get to go wild.
it starts to get frustrating after a while. if people come out to see me, what are they getting that has anything to do with me at all? it’s strange to be used as a promotional tool to bring more people in the door when i’m stuck there on a leash, tied to a stake that’s hammered into the ground, and i have to stay within certain confines to serve the music, which sometimes goes against every musical impulse and instinct that i have. i don’t like being put in a box, or being on musical autopilot. i don’t want to play the same song the same way twice, or even play a song more than once to begin with if i can avoid it. good luck finding someone else who feels the same way.
don’t get me wrong — i enjoy having to think in different ways musically, and sometimes it can be rewarding. adam’s a good example…there’s no last-minute bullshit when i play with him, and i’m given free reign to play what i want. hell, if i said i wanted to do a show where we went back and forth playing our own songs, split 50/50, he’d probably be open to that. and doing the unpaid session musician thing in the “studio” is easy enough, because that’s where i’m most comfortable anyway. if i mess up, i can just take another shot at whatever i’m doing until i get it right.
maybe it isn’t even about people thinking i’m some kind of machine…maybe it’s just that some people don’t place that much importance on organization and preparation. who knows. maybe this is just the way things work when it comes to live music. if that’s the case, i can’t mesh with that way of doing things, and it isn’t for me. and maybe some of this sounds bitter, but it isn’t meant to come across that way, and i don’t have any negative feelings about anyone involved, except for maybe wifflewag. i mean, look at the stunning lack of profanity overflow. that should tell you something right there.
it’s really flattering that there are people who have wanted me to play with them in one form or another, and in some cases it’s made for a really enjoyable experience, but i feel like i’m at a point now where i’ve gotten just about everything i can get out of it, and now it just feels like going through the motions. i don’t want to turn into a hall & oates song just yet.
(p.s. if you get that reference, marry me)
the point is, the next time i play live, whenever that happens, it’ll be to play my own songs only. i think i need a break from leading an occasional double life as a fake sideman when all i really get for my trouble is temporary hearing loss, a lot of anxiety i could do without, and an overwhelming desire to drink a vanilla milkshake. if there’s one thing i’ve learned, aside from that other thing i learned, it’s that if you give some people an inch, they won’t just take a mile…they’ll take a whole continent. i need to suppress that “nice guy” instinct and kick it in the head until it stops moving for a while. time to do some weight training to strengthen the old legs…