Wednesday, July 13, 2005

So you wanna play guitar, eh?

Last night I had the rare opportunity to step outside my safe radio haven and step into my guitarist suit. I had a gig. Marvel at that. I have been so wrapped up in the now-it's-time-to-talk-into-the-mic-you-idiot syndrome that I have almost completely forgotten what it's like to play a gig. I have forgotten what it's like to be a musician.

The gig made me reflect on this crazy business of music. Now, I really feel like unburdening my soul. I feel like I have been silent on this matter for way too long and now it's time to let the floodgates down. (Isn't the blog a perfect way to be so self-involved? Yes, it is! Go on, Mr. Narcissistic! Go!)

Last night's gig fell within a very safe zone. I had already played this gig last year and was hired by someone I know. But things are weird out there, people. Really weird.

To clarify, when someone calls you asking about your availability for their event, you have no idea who and what you are dealing with. It's a crapshoot and sometimes the resulting gig is really crappy. For example, my flute playing partner and I have agreed to play some really bizarre gigs without realizing what we had agreed to. I recall an outdoor wedding where guests were quickly shuffled inside because it was too cold while we were instructed to continue to play in the 40 degree weather. What are we? Chopped liver? More on this attitude later.

This also includes playing for a funeral for a woman in her late twenties, deceased from the ravaging effects of bulimia. The scence of an icy cold funeral home filled with the grieving, filing past that attractive young woman lying in a casket while we played selections from our dubbed "schmaltz" book, seems almost too surreal even now. I shudder. File this under: never again. Not even for cash.

People have been coming to me for 28 years to learn guitar. They come for all sorts of reasons, but I doubt any of them would continue if I would tell them the tales from the real world of being a local professional musician. If I could take off the rose colored glasses and set them straight, here's what I'd say.

1. Playing guitar is not cool. It's damn hard work.
What? What is this heretic saying? You have crushed all my MTV fantasies! Damn you, eclectic guy!

People have been coming to me for lessons for 28 years. Usually it takes about three lessons before I know who I am teaching, that is, their personality, how they think, etc. Pretty soon after that, I know why that person is there and the reason they are taking lessons. If you think the guitar will increase your coolness quotient, you are sadly mistaken. Playing guitar is such a cliche now that I am amazed that any young person (or anyone for that matter) could possibly think that way. If you are a stock broker by day and want to impress your friends one night, while out on your expensive boat, and you think playing the chords to Hotel California is gonna make you Alpha Coolness Male, then you are an idiot. Please don't waste yours and my time with these baby boomer dreams. You make googles of money and have a boat. Why aren't you happy with that? Besides, didn't GE Smith of SNL prove playing guitar didn't make you cool?

2. Playing guitar does not increase your "social life."

Social life is a metaphor try to keep this as family friendly as possible for obvious reasons. When I was a functional, alcohol-dependent madman trapsing around bars trying to attract the attention of the opposite ( or should I say opposing?) gender, I believed that playing music would benefit my social life. I will tell you this: in the five or so years that I wore my "being in a band" badge of honor, there was only one time that a girl seemed interested in me for that reason. By the time that happened, I was already in a committed relationship (damn!) and could not rendezvous with the young lady. I found out later that another of my bandmates had already taken that same gal upon on a similar offer the week before. Insert the sound of a tire slowly deflating here.

Those of you who are cynical will not doubt cite examples of famous rock stars and their uber-extravagent tales of debachery. Most of that is hyperbole and the most important word in the equation is famous. The really famous get a pass on just about everything. Nobody gets a silver pass because of their ability to play a six-stringed instrument. Give up that dream now.

3. You are now a second class citizen. Congrats!

No matter what your level of education, profession (day job), status in life, IQ, or annual income, when you agree to play for someone's event, you now are a second class citizen. You have said: "Yes, I am a musician and I will play for your neurotically perfectionist daughter's nuptials-at any cost to my self-esteem or pride. Want me to walk on nails to entertain the guests as they arrive?" It's like saying: "I am now willing to be treated like the dog that I am. I know that I don't have a real profession or a real job or make real money, so please, can you help a guy out?"

When you show up at your first wedding, all showered and practiced, with untold amounts of heavy equipment in your car, it does not dawn on you how far you have sold yourself out. You started out the day like a responsible member of society. I mean, your taxes are paid, your affairs are mostly in order, and your picture isn't up in the lobby of the post office. You haven't been recently featured on America's Most Wanted. Heck, you're even an ok guy. WRONG!

You have swum to the bottom of the fish tank, little carpie. Your social class has been lowered to the nether regions. Think I'm kidding? Baby, you are not as important as the caterer-not even close. You are now an "invisible", a support system, a paid-for cheering squad for the people who actually matter. You are the HIRED HELP. Life's good, yes? All those years of patient practice have finally paid off. This is the big time, baby. You might even get a chance at the buffet. Yahoo!

4. Welcome to the world of crappy gigs!

Your little rock star fantasy is about to come crashing down-hard. Here's your wake up call. Welcome to the world of shifty club owners, drunken redneck bar crowds, slave driving mothers of the brides, pyscho-obsessive brides, snobby condescending rich folks, and a host of other truly annoying characters that populate the world of gigs. Have fun! And be sure to keep your meds well regulated. You sho' gonna need 'em.

5. If you really love it, you will hate it.

People, particularly beginners, think that once you learn Sweet Home Alabama or the riff to a Jimmy Eat World song that you just stop and think, "What a good boy am I." You just sit around for hours in self-admiring extascy, drunk on your own accomplishments.

The truth is, once you accomplish that, you'll want to know more. Once you learn more, you realize how awfully ignorant you are. Then when you have become a bit accomplished, you realize how deeply ignorant you are. Then once you become a pro, you realize that you are what you is and you need to be happy with what you gots.

There isn't a decent, serious and most importantly, honest guitarist out there who wouldn't tell you that they have playing days so bad sometimes that they consider quitting-taking all those instruments, pedals, picks, and capos and throwing them into the nearest dumpster and never looking back. Anyone who is entirely happy with his playing is not a true player or they are a liar. Or perhaps they've long since given up, but continue to go through the motions. Perhaps they are just plain dumb.

6. If you really love it, you will never quit.

I have hated it, railed against, doubted, ignored , spewed venom about the guitar, and I have gone weeks without touching it, but I have never ever ever thought that I would one day call it quits.

I remember hearing a Peabody grad talking about quitting the guitar and going into computers. Quit? What? Cutting back? Ok, but quit? White man speak with forked tongue. Or the West Liberty grad who told me that he had quit to go work at the mill. Yes, life is horrible sometimes, but quit?

You posers who drop out, get married and go into stocks and bonds were never for real in the first place. There is no quitting, only a temporary respite. The guitar no longer holds the most important place in my life anymore, but that little satan with strings knows that I'm always gonna be back, despite all my empty protests.

* * * * * * * * * * *
In the end, my gig did go well. I sat discreetly in a corner and close as possible to the exit(you got to get out quietly at awards gigs). It was estimated that 450 people were there and I bet if you asked them about the music at the event, I'm quite sure they'd not know what you were talking about. That comes with the territory and that was expected, but I was not talked down to nor was I treated like a second class citizen.

I did hit "the zone" a few times where time stops, people disappear and the only thing I know is the guitar and the music that seems to come from it. I will even get paid for this gig if I turn in an invoice. Wow. This was one of the few good gigs that makes it bearable to have chosen such a silly way to make money.

I am a guitarist. Only sometimes.

COMING SOON: The Nuptial Nightmare-An Insider's Guide to Wedding Gigs

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