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 years 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 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, how was I good enough now just because there was a bit of buzz around me locally?), and the strange, simple truth that somewhere along the line live performances stopped being fun for me and became nerve-wracking.
After a hiatus that lasted a few years, I thought I would dip my toes back into the water by playing with other people. Not being the singer/frontman/center of attention made for a 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 use when recording drums or loud electric guitars at home and got over the idea of looking funny pretty quick because it meant my ears had some 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 recent experience was a good lesson in how being nice and going out of your way to help people out can blow up in your face and rob you of your sense of smell. Someone we’ll call “Wifflewag” put a band together for a show that was a pretty Big Deal. I became a part of that band. The show was a success, and we all had a lot of fun. Wifflewag told me they put the band together based on the personalities of the players more than anything else. They led me and everyone else in the band to believe it would become a long-term project and we would get together on a regular basis.
That didn’t happen. There were long periods of silence. 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 rehearsal, and more than once that rehearsal would happen the night before the show because that was all the time Wifflewag gave us to prepare.
Some of these shows were built up to be Big Deals like the first one was. They weren’t. They were poorly-organized messes. For one show, the music was advertised to start at 9:00 pm. The opening act didn’t get onstage until well after 11:00. By then many people had shown up, waited, seen that nothing at all was happening, and left. By the time we got onstage there was almost no audience left, and no one got paid anything. At least that time the sound onstage was really good for a change.
Another show was part of an outdoor music festival. It was also touted as a Big Deal. I didn’t want to play another last-minute show I would have no time to prepare for without getting paid anything, but Wifflewag begged me to do it, telling me my name had already been mentioned in the paper as part of the band and there would be a lot of people there expecting to see me. We ended up playing for about six people and some mosquitoes. That’s not an exaggeration. The sound onstage was such a mess I couldn’t hear a note I played the whole time. Good thing I knew the material well enough to play deaf. My headphones weren’t enough to protect my ears from the ridiculous volume (even if I couldn’t hear myself, I heard a whole lot of the bass), and I left feeling angry, telling myself I should have stuck to never playing live again.
Wifflewag kept telling us there would be better, paying gigs after these shitty free shows were out of the way, with us playing to audiences that exceeded single digit numbers.
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 whole new band and likes to pretend our band never existed. We were never told about any of this. We were never even informed our services were no longer needed. For all I know, all the guitar and piano parts I came up with 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.
I cut back on the whole sideman thing after that experience. But I still had trouble saying no when someone would ask me to play with them. I wanted to help if I could.
Then something happened that involved more last-minute stuff, and it made me rethink the whole thing all over again. The details aren’t worth delving into, but I will say 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 found out the show was being billed as a special performance featuring me, which seemed kind of…odd. That makes it sound like I’m either playing a set of my own or I’m at least doing a lot more than only playing in the background 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.
I decided to bow out, lest I have a panic attack onstage from a lack of preparation. It felt like the only thing I could do if I didn’t want to be incredibly uncomfortable up there once again. My sleep being a complete mess right now 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 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.
Here’s a picture of a dog.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
The whole sideman thing was fun for a while, but it’s not so much fun anymore. Everyone seems to think I’m some kind of superhuman session musician who doesn’t need time to prepare like other people do. As if I can just get up there onstage 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. I think maybe it’s time to start thinking about myself for a change.
One thing I’ve learned through all of this is that I’m not a sideman. I can pretend to be one, and it’ll be pretty 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 kind of 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 we were both comfortable up there. Ryan Fields also made sure we could hear what we were doing onstage without being deafened by it, 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 show off my versatility. 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 an instrument 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 to playing one instrument each, 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 I have. I don’t like being put in a box or having to operate 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. If I said I wanted to do a show with him where we each took turns playing our own songs, songwriter’s circle style, 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 that douchebag 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 some really enjoyable experiences, but I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve squeezed just about everything I can 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.
(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. 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 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.