O Holy Night

O Holy Night

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The Seductive Nature of Making the Grade

It’s said that back in ancient Rome, returning Generals were given a triumphant parade, their troops marching behind them, slaves bearing treasures and exotic animals pillaged from far off lands. In the General’s chariot, standing just behind him, was a slave… and as they passed by the adoring throngs of people cheering the General’s name, the slave would whisper in his ear:

“Fame and glory are fleeting. You are only human, and you, too, will someday return to the dust.”

Confession time:

I spent six years in the Army, two and half years in Active Duty, three and a half years in Reserves. I spent my first four years as enlisted, but my last two years, I was an NCO, a non-commissioned officer. A Sergeant.

Contrary to what some folks will tell you, it’s really not all that hard to succeed as a Private in the Army. Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there wearing what you’re supposed to wear, and you are ninety percent there… after that, do what you’re told to do when you’re told to do it, and you’ve aced the last ten percent. Once you’re out of Boot Camp and Advanced Training – and as long as you don’t get shipped off somewhere jerky people are trying to kill you – the Army is not a bad gig.

(Those stories you hear about Boot Camp are true, by the way… so if you have a problem with authority – especially when that authority is doing its best to emasculate you in front of all your compadres – think twice before signing up. I  only just got through by the skin of my teeth.)

I was a very good enlisted soldier. Having spent many years in the Scouts and a couple of years in JROTC, I nailed the daily routine. Being smarter than the average bear, being willing to give way more than what was expected, meant I was noticed by all the right people in all the right places in all the right ways. I began wracking up badges, medals and promotions in nothing flat.

I was back in Texas for maybe a year when I was sent off to Sergeant Camp – Primary Leadership Development Core, or PLDC. Took a month in Active Duty, but the Reserves condensed it down to two weeks. Arkansas sucks in the summer time, hot and humid as Southeast Asia, so I spent a fortnight looking liked I’d been dropped into the deep end of a swimming pool wearing all my gear, I was so sweaty. The training was a blast, though: learning Small Unit Tactics, leading mock assaults, calling cadence, delivering Operational Orders (Op Ords), writing up After Action Reports (AAR), setting up Guard rotations… it felt like being back on Active Duty. I got my PLDC ribbon, and a month or so later, I got my Sergeant Stripes.

Here is where the confession truly begins.

For four years, I had been the high-speed low-drag enlisted kid with all the potential. I was accustomed to being viewed that way, I was accustomed to being treated that way. I knew all my superiors thought highly of me, expected great things from me, and so they treated me differently than the majority of the rest of the enlisted. That was my status quo, and I was good with that. Once the Sergeant Major pinned on my stripes, however, that all changed. The officers visibly relaxed around me. The other NCOs were much more friendly and open around me. All of my superiors were suddenly treating me as… one of them. I was no longer the kid with all the potential – I was the man who had made it. I was now one of the Cool Kids.

It was an intoxicating sensation.

Most of my life, I had been the nerd outsider, fodder for bullies and shunned by cheerleaders – being embraced by the Ruling Class was not something I had ever experienced. I wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t know how to handle it. For about ten minutes, I was walking on air, I was all that and a bag of chips. Luckily for me, my swelled head had the good fortune to swagger up to my Best Bud. I mouthed off something self-centered and aggrandizing… and without missing a beat, my brother gave me the side-eye. “Don’t pull that horse hockey on me, Boyfriend. I remember when you were in Boot Camp about to crap your britches because you couldn’t pass the PT test, crying about how much you missed your girlfriend.”

You could hear the air deflate out of my ego. I got over myself right then and there.

Emotionally, I was appalled. All it took was Making the Grade for me to turn into THAT GUY. Intellectually, I was stunned. I didn’t even notice it had happened – my best friend had to point out I was being THAT GUY before I even saw it. I was damn lucky the Best Bud had been there… that ten minutes could have been much longer. That ten minutes could have been permanent.

I learned my lesson. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing now, it doesn’t matter how much applause I receive or how good the reviews are, I always keep one foot on the ground. I remind myself how blessed I am, how much of the success is based on being born with good genes and not on anything I did to earn those talents… and I keep my ego in check.

All these stories we are now becoming privy to, all these men in positions of authority abusing their power to sexually harass and assault their subordinates… I can’t help but wonder… how many of them would have been different people had they just had a best friend beside them to keep their ego in check? How many were seduced by that intoxicating sensation of having Made the Grade and became THAT GUY with no one there to remind them of where they had come from?  Had someone just warned them in advance about the change in attitudes, been with them to weather the shift in paradigms, how many of these abusive rapist assholes could have otherwise been paragons of humble success?

I’m not making excuses. No one put a gun to their heads and demanded they be serial abusers – they all made their choices. These dirt bags need to be investigated fully, and if found guilty, they need to lose their jobs, be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and go to prison, all while being shunned by their professional communities and the public. What I am saying is those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. The ancient Romans understood the intoxication of success and the seductive nature of adoration… and placed someone next to the Champion’s ear to remind him not to forget where he came from and where he would eventually end up.

Whatever your career goals, be it business or artistic success, do yourself a huge favor and have that friend to whisper in your ear, keep you grounded and humble. Because when it was my turn and left to my own devices… I failed. I became THAT GUY. A brother was there to save me from myself. So don’t chance it – have a brother or sister there in case you need saving, too.

Take The Hit

Even as a little kid, I knew I could sing. It wasn’t too far into my first year of school that I discovered I could write. After all these years, it never occurred to me to see if I could write a song.

It is both easier and harder than it looks… especially if years into your quest to become a Rock Star, you still can’t play guitar.

I wrote a song, read it, was just about to pat myself on the back for getting it to rhyme where it should when I re-read it and realized it was crap. So I re-wrote the song, pulling out every overly sentimental and overly dramatic turn of a phrase I could think of, read it again, and then patted myself on the back. I had a fully functioning Jim Steinman-inspired hair metal opus about love. I sent it off to my band leader – he was not as impressed. He liked story songs.

So I went back to the drawing board. I had an idea, not quite a story song, but something about taking what the world has to dish out. I pulled out all the stops when it came to all the rhymes, and without meaning to, I had written a Southern Rock song. I sent it to my band leader and… nothing. The band thought the words were clever, but we were too tied up with other projects to compose music for my lyrics.

So I sat on the song for a while. I wrote another song, a rip out my heart and show it to me love song. A couple of years went by, and my nephew was suddenly a guitar guru, playing with his dad’s bands and accompanying me at the anniversary gig. So I showed him the lyrics and he immediately got it: it was a “Simple Man” message set to a “Gimme Three Steps” beat. Within a couple of weeks, he had the guitar riff and chord progressions. Once I had a riff and chord progression, the melody wrote itself. He recorded his guitar tracks and added in a drum loop and sent the music to me – I loaded it up on my GarageBand and recorded the vocals, and BOOM we had ourselves a demo.

The hope was to have some of my musical buddies help me polish it up; sand off the rough edges, put their professional shine to my diamond in the rough… after eight months of asking and everybody being too busy with their own projects, I finally said “Screw it. It’s a solid demo. Put it online, see what happens.”

So I did. My nephew and I are officially songwriters ’cause we have a song.

I’ve got a musical to help produce and star in out in Terrell all Summer, so the hope is next Fall my schedule and my nephew’s schedule will align, allowing us to take our demo and create a full fledged Southern Rock song ready for digital sale. I’ve got nine other songs written at this point… hopefully, if the recording goes well, we can take on the rest, too. In the meantime… my nephew and I have a demo: Take The Hit, copyright 2016 Keith Craker. Music by Kevin Craker, lyrics by Keith Craker.

Hope you like it. I do.

Birthday Crossroads

Dentist

“‘Cause I’m a DENNNNTIST!” Photo courtesy of Mesquite Community Theatre

Years ago, I had a blog that was attached to my personal website. I wrote a bunch of stuff I was really proud of, I wrote some fluff I wasn’t so attached to… and then I wrote some stuff that I probably shouldn’t have written; stuff that was technically all about me, but included other people who would rather have those events not discussed so openly and certainly not so confessionally. After catching hell from folks irritated that their dirty laundry was being aired out, I dropped the blog, deleted it, and lost all the old posts. This made a bunch of folks happy, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth… because while they could complain about their dirty laundry, I wasn’t discussing them; I was discussing ME. I was talking about how those decisions they made influenced and changed my life, and if I was going to be honest with my story, I was going to need to include those people in the narrative. But… as it sometimes happens… honesty and artistic integrity get in the way of relationships. To keep those relationships in solid ground, I would need to promise not to discuss certain details of my life in public. So that blog died.

FVWdoor

Still trying to master the whole “Selfie” thing…

When I started this blog, the mission statement was very narrow: this narrative would be about me and my attempts to not be such a nerd and transform myself into a Rock Star; it would be about losing weight, learning instruments, and performing gigs. With parameters that specific and that tight, worrying about other people and their feelings should never have been a worry… so I didn’t worry. I just started writing.

It was a few months in that I found myself editing myself, not discussing certain matters. I have four other men in my cover band; most of them have significant others, some of them have exes, some of them have kids, and the band itself has a reputation to build and maintain. I do work with two different community theaters, full of troupes of actors and directors, one of which has a board of directors. My wife has aunts and uncles and cousins; I have aunts and uncles and cousins; we both have friends and those friends have family and friends. And even though I had chosen a very specific niche, because I was writing about my life, I still found myself needing to worry about other people’s feelings. As much as I want to be honest, I didn’t want a repeat of last time with its deletions and promises not to ever talk about certain folks and events for as long as I’m writing.

ETGBatVFW

I love doing musical theater… but this? This is where I feel most at home, on a stage with these friends…

It’s been three months since I last blogged. I am finished with my first musical of the year, which, by all accounts, went great. The band had its first gig in eight months a couple of weeks a go, it went well – not perfect, but solid enough to make new fans. I’ve written four more songs, for a total of ten so far, technically enough for an album, but definitely enough for an EP. I am definitely in the summer musical, so much so I just started giving voice lessons to two of the actresses and hopefully growing the class with as many of the other cast members as possible.

And I haven’t written about any of that.

Busking

Nothing better than friends, family, and live music on a sunny day…

My experience with the Winter musical was great. Everyone said I did a good job, I enjoyed the director, I loved the cast, I made some new friends, and I may have opened up a new creative venue for myself. The experience of working in my home town vs working at my parents’ home town was different, though. Not bad… just different. I thought I would be writing about those differences, but I’ve found myself not wanting to… I don’t want my words to be misconstrued and somebody taking an observation as a criticism. I haven’t wanted to talk about the band’s process of getting back into working mode, afraid someone would misconstrue my words and think I’m complaining or criticizing. I don’t want to discuss my voice lessons, afraid one of my cast mates will get my meaning wrong, feel they’re being criticized. I haven’t discussed my songwriting process for fear I will annoy my band mates and musician buddies, or put them all out of sorts.

I haven’t been writing because I’m afraid if I express my opinion, I will hurt or upset somebody. Because I have hurt and upset people before.

I told someone a few nights ago that creating art is the act of ripping open your chest and exposing your heart; that making good art meant always riding that ragged edge of your emotions and risking losing control of them. And since this blog is about a portion of my life that touches other people, for the last three months I have not been taking that risk – I have been keeping my heart securely in my chest, and I have been keeping a very tight reign on my emotions.

Yet again, I now find myself at a crossroads when it comes to this blog. Yet again, I find myself at a loss as to how I’m supposed to create good art with artistic integrity and intellectual honesty while not creating unintentional hurt and needless drama. I am not happy about this particular turn of events. I will have to do some soul searching yet again, decide if I’m going to continue the blog, and, if I do, how I will proceed.

On a happier note, I did just spend a long weekend in the lovely and historic Louisville, Kentucky visiting ETGB’s Biggest Fan. Officially, this was my Birthday Gift to myself, but unofficially, it was the perfect opportunity to grab my mom and a couple of long-time close friends, and carpool up to see our Sister From Another Mister in her gorgeous hometown. Mom had a blast; all the old friends who hadn’t spent any real time together in years got a chance to bond over old memories, great food, and decadent food; and my Kentucky Bestie and I got a chance to be Besties, as opposed to having to settle for texts and a phone call once a week if schedules allow. The trip was worth the exhaustion, though I am very sorry the High School Sweetheart was on her driving shift when the monsoon started coming down. She did great, but I did finish out the trip home behind the wheel just in case the rain got that bad again. I’ve had two nights in a row of eight hours of sleep, so I am back to feeling like my old self once again.

New Year, New You

snow

For Dallas, this is the winter apocalypse…

It’s the start of a new year, and this particular weekend, it is cold. Not “Yay, it’s Winter – better grab my festive scarf!” cold, but “OMG! Are you freaking KIDDING ME?” cold. North Texas doesn’t get too many hard freezes, and we rarely fall below 20ºF, but Saturday morning I checked the news and it was 15º where I live. And before you Yankees start yapping about how that’s nothing, where you live it is routinely in the minus digits, remember I live in a state that routinely hits triple digits during July and August; and not the dry heat you get in Arizona, but the humid heat you get in the Congo, that sweltering heat that means you’re drenched in sweat by the time you walk from your front door to your car. 107º in the summer and 15º in the winter is a bit much for a temperature swing.

(I knew a girl from Minnesota, we waited tables together at the local Tex-Mex restaurant – her first winter here and she was all “It doesn’t get cold like this where I’m from! This is that cold that seeps inside your clothes and into your BONES!” So yeah, our humidity creates hellish winters when those Blue Northers come barreling into town. So shut up.)

It is a new year, though. Grand things are on the horizon. Which means the possibility for drama has also increased.

double-neck guitar

Proof that my bandleader did not kill our drummer…

The band is doing its best to rehearse. The holidays and family obligation got in the way, but that always happens November and December. Our bassist has to spend some time away for work a couple of weeks in January, then I’ve got a personal project the last two weekends of February and the first weekend of March – we’re doing the best we can to get together when we can, but sometimes even the weather seems to be fighting us. When we have gotten together, we sound pretty darn good – not quite to where we were before everything blew up, but we are getting there. Hoping to be able to books shows in March, we should definitely be able to book in April.

I have some personal projects this year, the first of which is I’m reprising the role of the voice of the killer plant from outer space, Audrey II, in the Mesquite Community Theatre production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Rehearsals started the first week of January. I am thrilled – I was hoping to get to do some work with the lovely folks at MCT, and being asked to play the part was a dream come true. The cast is wonderful, the director is fantastic, and the music director is amazing. It’s weird to be with a new group of theatre folks, but it is also exciting and invigorating.

ensemble

My new crew with the Mesquite Community Theatre – this is the ensemble.

As it stands right now, I am supposed to be in my friends’, The Vagabond Players, summer musical in August, as well. It’s a wonderful role and an opportunity to be out on stage, showing the local theatre scene what I am capable of. The dates are the same as an out of state venue for ETGB, however, so I am waiting and hoping the dates can be resolved – if the dates can’t be moved, I am stuck disappointing some good people and close friends. Which sucks – as much as I want to do more music work, pursuing more possibilities always came with the threat of conflicting dates. I used to tell myself I was just over-exaggerating the possibility, and yet here it is: my first “Can’t Be In Two Places At One Time” obstacle, and I haven’t even started auditioning for more stage work.

I am so hoping my friends can work this out. Both opportunities are too good to pass up.

I did a benefit for a teacher friend a couple of months ago – she’s taking her theatre kids to New York, needed some help raising money for the air fare, so I sang a couple of show tunes for her. I had a blast – I also made a new contact in the local music scene. Once I’m done with “Little Shop of Horrors,” I’m hoping I can catch up with him, hit an open mic night he frequents with a bunch of the local musical theatre scene, and make even more contacts.

benefit performers

A bunch of pros and semi-pros raising funds for theatre kids to travel to Broadway… Yeah…

I have been writing some lyrics the last few years; a few months ago, I managed to corner my guitar phenom nephew and had him write me some backing music to what I considered to be my best chance at a hit. He added in some rhythm tracks, and I am pleased to say my nephew did a good job – we now have a solid demo of a song we have written. It’s rough, it could use some tweaking by folks who know what they are doing, but it shows real potential: the makings of a hit song are all there.

Now that I have actual proof I can do my part, I’ve been showing lyrics off to friends, and so far, even the cheesy songs read pretty good to them. I’ve got the beginnings of one song started with my good buddy and band leader; I’ve got another sent off to my phenom nephew; I’ve got another sitting with a keyboardist friend; and I waiting to hear back from my other guitarist about maybe taking on a pop rock ditty I’ve got rumbling around in my head. With a fair bit off luck and some hard work, I might be able to get all my lyrics set to music in the next few weeks.

What to do after that is another obstacle.

I wrote last summer about how the band was pushing up against that invisible line that separates one professional tier from the next, and what that might entail. One option is to become a tribute band, which are big in these parts these days; another is to add more variety of songs to our sets, become a full-on party band, which are also big in these parts; and the last option (and my personal favorite) is to start writing and producing our own songs, start marketing ourselves as both a cover band and an originals band. But that’s IF the band wants to try and make the jump up to the next tier. That next tier comes with a new set of responsibilities: an increased workload both out front and behind the scenes, the possibility of needing to bring on a manager and side players, a harder push with the band’s marketing, and on and on and on. Playing the bike rallies, playing the dive bars isn’t all that lucrative, but it is FUN, and more than a good enough time to make all the hassles to book the gig worth the time and effort – that isn’t a guarantee when you’re looking to book festivals, outdoor stages, and bigger bar venues. It definitely means it’s now your full-time job, regardless of how well or not well you are getting paid.

the rhythm section

The Rhythm Section teaching us how it is done…

Every indication, every conversation I’ve had with my band leader says he’s happy where the band is, and he’s still cool with the amount of hassle he has to put up with to keep us there. He may change his mind about writing original songs at a later date, but if he does, it will be for the fun of writing original songs, NOT with a mind to move the band up to the next tier. Playing the rallies, playing a dive bar here and there is where he wants to be. Honestly, I don’t blame him – the band has proven time and again that is what we excel at.

I’m ready to grow as an artist, though. I’m ready to add “Songwriter” to my resumé. If I find myself with a dozen songs ready to be recorded and my band isn’t in a place to cut them… I’ll cut them myself. My band has first dibs – the demo I made with my nephew was produced with my band in mind; my band is full of amazing musicians – if I do record the songs myself, they’ll be the first people I ask to help me out in the studio; but one way or another, my plan for 2017 is to have at least an EP (preferably a full album) of original songs co-written by me and my music buddies ready by Christmas. What comes after that is a worry for next year.

The band is getting closer to hitting the rallies and bars again. I hopefully have two musicals scheduled. I have one new contact made, with the possibility of more down the road in eight weeks or so. I have people saying they are on board with helping me complete my songs. It’s the first week of January, and so far 2017 is already looking pretty darn good.

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains. Think About That For A While.

Bull Durham movie poster

Bull Durham © MGM

I really like the movie “Bull Durham.” In my opinion, it is a perfect movie: romance, humor, tragedy, character development, sports, sex, excellent dialog, wonderful acting, brilliant direction… why it didn’t win the award for Best Picture of the Year is beyond me. One of the aspects I appreciate most about “Bull Durham” is when Annie is explaining that “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” So while Nuke is learning to breathe through his eyelids (old Mayan trick… or Aztec, I get them confused), Bobby is getting released from his contract for being in a hitting slump by The Organization.

It’s a lesson that can be easily applied to any professional artistic endeavor: acting, dancing, singing, fine art, illustration. There’s the magic… and then there’s the nuts and bolts. You can be a fantastic actor or dancer or singer, doing some of the best work of your career, but if the box office isn’t selling any tickets, your show will close and you will be hunting for another job. You can be a wonderfully gifted oil painter or water colorist, but if no one buys your work, you will be manning a cash register during the day. If you are a “professional,” you are expected to deal with both aspects equally well. That’s also part of the job.

It’s hard being a working creative mainly because so many people just don’t understand what it is you do. It’s assumed that you can just turn on your imagination like a faucet and brilliant ideas just flow out. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens: you sit down at your desk and think “I need something like this,” and out comes this brilliant, fully-fleshed out idea that needs no tweaking. That scenario, however, is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you sit there with the equivalent of a blank page in your head, not a clue how to get where you are to where you want to go. So you try a variation of an old idea, then scrap all but a part of that attempt to go in a new direction, then keep the few parts of that idea for a reversal of the original theme, and on and on and on. Finally, you have something that doesn’t suck, and you present it to your boss or your client, and you hope for the best… and when you are really lucky, you’ve been working with this person a while and know what kinds of things pique their interest, you get back your work with just a couple of simple edits. This is also the exception, not the rule – what usually happens is your work comes back looking like someone took an ax to it, it is bleeding so much red ink. At least you now know what the boss-client doesn’t want, and you can redo all the work you spent all that time killing yourself to do.

lightbulb drawing

My day job… or what the public thinks is my day job, anyway. Graphic © bigstockphoto.com

The only thing worse than a boss or client who has no idea what it is you do is a boss or client who does; someone who may not be a creative themselves, but who has seen behind the curtain enough times that they know it’s not black magic you’re conjuring up in your office. They are the ones who say things like “Once you know what I like, once you’ve got the template in place, it shouldn’t take any time at all to do what I want done.” And they are partly right – once the nuts and bolts are in place, it doesn’t take a lot of time to get something done – so you can’t argue with them.

They, however, have completely overlooked how much time and effort it takes to get the nuts and bolts of your template in place.

I was supposed to have an interview Monday. Answered an ad on Friday and was asked to call in and talk to the COO, we set up the interview. Before that could happen, Mr. COO sent me a project. I don’t do spec work, but we did have an interview, so I figured this was an audition; since I didn’t have any plans I would need to cancel, I went to work. After an afternoon of bleeding on the page, I came up with two distinctly different concepts and sent them in.

Sunday, I got a reply – no good. Text was too large, graphics were too small, and the design wasn’t edgy enough. I was thanked for my time.

ETGB at Chasers poster

Honestly… does that look like something I spent an hour creating?

It was the “Thanks for your time” that bothered me. That sounded a lot like a brush off. I was looking forward to the interview, and now I was being dismissed along with my afternoon of effort. I mulled it over and decided to take the high road: I would ignore the brush off, I would take the criticism as constructive, and redo the projects. Since my potential client hadn’t attacked the concepts, I would leave the backgrounds and color schemes in place – I would shrink the texts, add big graphics in their place, and use edgy, grungy fonts. I spent another afternoon on my unsolicited project, then sent the new proofs in.

The new proofs worked, much closer to what my soon-to-be interviewer had in mind. I made the last edits he asked for, and my now-employer asks me to let him know how I’d like to be paid, and to expect a bunch of projects coming after lunch.

To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I went from feeling I’d blown the opportunity to winning over the COO by sheer determination, talent, and experience. Got my foot in the door with a ton of work as my reward for not giving up. I was on the top of the world, thinking the Universe is about to give me a much-needed and hopefully deserved break.

The first of the tiny corrections came in. Names were misspelled, one of the participants had dropped out of the program. No problem, I made the edits and sent the project back in. A disclaimer needed to be added to the bottom. Not a problem, I made the edits. The new projects began streaming into my email, along with an inquiry on how I want to be reimbursed for my work – I did the math, realized it would be cheaper to be paid by the hour than by the project, and let him know I can charge less if I’m on a W2. Then I gave him my hours.

“That’s about 3x as much as I would have expected. Now that you know what I want, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to do a project. So let’s keep the hours to a reasonable level.”

According to his math, what he wanted was a project an hour… or, if I was charging by the project, what he was expecting to pay was the equivalent of one hour’s worth of work per project. He knew how long it took to put together the nuts and bolts, so that’s what he was expecting to pay for. He was completely discounting the talent and creativity.

Mobile DJ set up

I know… don’t judge me. As part-time jobs for a college student go, this one didn’t suck. Photo courtesy of weddingdancemusic.wordpress.com

I was already finished with the first of the new projects – I was still staring at it, trying to see if it was up to the level of edgy I had created over the weekend before sending it in – when that email came across my inbox. I read and reread that line about “3x as expected” and “reasonable level” over and over again for the better part of an hour… and then I did the only thing I could do: I turned the job down. I don’t do projects for a quarter of what I’d normally charge, regardless of how much work was about to land on my desk.

Back when I DJ’ed wedding receptions and corporate events, it was a standing rule that if the client wanted you to stay and work past your initial time, it was a standard $50 an hour for each hour of overtime. When the band does private gigs, unless we are up against a venue’s closing time, we are constantly being asked to stay and play passed our contracted time, at which point my band leader says “Love to, but you have to pay us extra.” And invariably, there is always someone who tried to talk me into DJing for free, or tries to talk my band leader to get us to play for free. “The equipment is already set up, you know you’re having a good time, you know we’re a great crowd – stay and play. It’s not about the cash – you know you do this for the love of the music.” It’s that last one that always makes me mad. Because it’s the truth: I DJ’ed and I perform in the band because I love the music, and truth be told, I would have have performed for free, just to indulge that love.

But this is a consumer-based world we live in, and people do not appreciate what they get for free or what they get on the cheap. I don’t charge for my services because I’m a mercenary; I charge for my services because of the level of respect it brings out in other people. And if you discount my talent and my creativity and then expect a discount for my skills and experience, I’m not going to work for you. You, Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for, do not respect talent and creativity.

UPDATE:

After everything went down, I turned off my email and purposely ignored it the rest of the evening, then went to bed early. I didn’t want to be that fourteen year old girl who keeps checking her messages to see if he had texted back. It had been a stressful four days and I was done being stressed out – I took my sick stomach and pounding head and hit the sack.

After I had finished writing this post, I finally opened up my email – Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for had written me back no less than four times: three begging me to work with him on rates, and another asking if I would teach a social media class next month. Evidently, when he low-balled me, he thought that was the return salvo of a bidding war for my services. I was stunned… and then I was appalled. My sick stomach and pounding head returned in record time.

A smart entrepreneur would have gone all mercenary. A smart entrepreneur would have upped his rates to the point of raking high-ranking executive over the coals. I’m not a smart entrepreneur, however, and I don’t know how to be mercenary even at my most pissed off. I do know that when someone tries to screw you over once, they will probably try to screw you over again. So after a lengthy email, I told him I would still have to pass on the job – since he’d already shown he didn’t respect me, my talent, or my experience, I just didn’t want to work with him. I got no reply back today, so I’m guessing it’s safe to open my email again.

A Living Entity or Brushing Up Against the Invisible Line

Keith, Kelly, and Tim

Me showing off my brother, Kelly, for Tim’s obligatory selfie. Photo courtesy of Tim Lovick.

There’s the band as a marriage metaphor, which works when all or most of the original band members are still in place; and then there’s the band as a living entity metaphor. I tend to go with the living entity metaphor personally. In my marriage, I have an equal say in things, and while I tend to take a back seat in decisions concerning things like how to decorate the house, my lovely Lady Fair knows my tastes and tries to keep that in mind when picking out colors and designs. As Paul likes to say, “I don’t run my house, but I have veto power.” That’s not the case with the band. I can make suggestions, I can ask questions, I can push for certain decisions, but I don’t actually make those decisions, and I certainly do not have veto power. That’s Paul. The band is Paul’s band. Now, Paul is smart enough and wise enough to take everybody else’s strengths and preferences into account when making decisions, but at the same time, the final Yay or Nay is always his. So no, the band is not a marriage – it is a benevolent dictatorship, and we are all free to leave if we don’t like Paul’s stewardship of the band.

This band is a living entity, though. Paul is the brains, Super Dave is the heart beat, JC is the back bone, Tim is the imagination, and I am the voice. And like a living being, the band has ups and downs, peaks and valleys. There are times when the band is on all cylinders and just unstoppable… and then there are days when the band cannot get it’s act together to save it’s damn life. Sometimes, the peak and the valley are on the same damn week.

10th Anniversary Cancerian poster

One of our favorite gigs of the year…

The band has never had a period where it could just cruise, rest on its laurels and enjoy the view – the band has always been in some kind of transition. Before Paul brought me onboard, the band experimented with having two female back up singers. This did not work, mainly because the females in question used a little too much liquid courage to psych themselves out enough to perform in front of a crowd. Not long after they ladies were cut loose, I arrived… so technically, I was brought on to be the ladies’ replacement, singing the pretty back up.

It was unthinkable that we would need to replace Patrick, the drummer… and then suddenly, we did. Seven kids with a vicious recession on was too much stress on Patrick and the entire family, so the band had to go. JC was brought in, and even though he was half the age of the rest of the crew, he got along great… until we had to replace JC, who had decided to move to Los Angeles. Patrick came back, life got too vicious again and he left, and then JC moved back to Texas and he rejoined the crew.

Jon co-founded the band with Paul. Jon is brilliant. Jon is an amazing bassist, with a jazzy kind of interpretation of classic songs. Jon also had very definite ideas about the direction he wanted to go with the music the band was doing; when that didn’t happen, he decided he just wanted to show up and play… but soon, he didn’t want to do that, either. After not returning phone calls or emails for weeks, Paul brought in Super Dave so the band could start booking dates again. Jon found out he’d been replaced by social media, and we haven’t heard from him since. Not our finest hour, and whether he admits it or not, it still haunts Paul.

When Gary’s carpal tunnel took him out of the band and Tim came on board, the only original member of the band Paul created 12 years ago… was Paul. The brain was intact, but everything else in the body had be replaced with a transplant.

The band at Chaser's

The crew and Little Brother, taking care of business. Photo courtesy of the wonderful Michele Moore.

It sucks when you lose a band member, even if it happens with a minimum of fuss, as in Patrick and Gary’s cases. The upside is, though, with the infusion of new blood comes new song ideas. When JC settled in and became THE drummer, the band got a lot better. When Super Dave came in and brought a new wealth of songs, the band got a lot better. When I discovered the meaning behind the songs and found my voice, the band got a lot better. Now that Tim is on board with his tenor harmonies and lead guitar licks, the band has gotten better once again.

With all the transplants in the band, with all the improvements the band has made over the years, The East Texas Garage Band is poised to make a big leap.

There’s a line no one can see, but everyone who deals with any kind of creative, artistic pursuit knows it is there and it is real: it is the line that separates amateurs from professionals. A lot of times, the division is really easy to see: go to a comic convention and take a walk around the art show, you will see a definite difference in quality between the amateur work and the working professional’s art. Some times, the division is almost impossible to see: go online and read some of the fan fiction out there, some of it is as good – if not better – than some of the published novels on book shelves. When you are really lucky, you catch an amateur actor or dancer just before they hit the big time, and you get to say “I saw them when no one knew who they were.” Well, a band faces that same line. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to get to the top of the amateur level, to be the best an amateur can be… and then you stall there. Because the difference between the “extremely gifted amateur” and the “working professional” is incredibly small, yet almost impossible to bridge. A lot of the time, it’s the X factor that separates the two categories, that indefinable ingredient that you know when you see it or hear it. The real bitch is it’s a band – nearly all the members have to have that X factor or be so close to having that X factor before the band as a whole is ready to make that leap to The Show.

With my singing, with Tim’s leads, with Super Dave’s playing, with Paul’s leadership and showmanship, and with JC’s outside the box syncopation, as of just a few weeks ago, The East Texas Garage Band was knocking on that line, poised to make the jump. Which, in our case, being a cover band in DFW, meant potentially leaving the B-level of acts and joining the A-level tribute bands. Also meant doubling our fee, and being able to get that. We’d need to have a serious conversation about where the band wanted to go at that point: being an A-level act in DFW means either being a tribute band (which we don’t want to be), adding dance and party music to the repertoire (a possibility, just not a strong one), or create some original tunes and try to go pro (my preferred choice).

JC wrecked his truck.

me at Chasers

Trying to see where the hell the guitarists are going with this song… Photo again courtesy of the lovely Michele Moore.

Just days after our last gig, just over a week until our next gig, and JC lost control of his vehicle while heading home from a concert down in Deep Ellum, woke up in ICU with two broken arms, two broken wrists, some broken ribs, and a cracked bone in his playing foot. One wrist required surgery, his playing foot required surgery. He is laid up for weeks, possibly months, and until he heals up enough for physical therapy, JC has no idea what effect this will have on his ability to drum: could have no effect at all, which is the hope; could be done drumming for the rest of his life, which is a panicky worst case scenario, but is still a possibility.

I took JC flowers from the band a couple of days after they moved him from ICU into a private room. His foot was still swollen like a grapefruit then, the doctors hadn’t gone in after that bone they were worried about. It was the first time I had been to a hospital since Sherry had died almost two years ago, and I was not digging the sensation at all. As his singer, I’m pissed as hell that JC has done this to himself… but as his friend… damn it all… I am just so grateful he’s still alive. Had he been going just a little faster, had the wall he hit been just a little taller, and that might not have been the case. When I couldn’t force out any more words of encouragement, I got the hell out of there… I was wiping away tears by the time I got back out to my car.

I’ve just buried too many people lately. This cut it a little to close for comfort for me.

My brother, Kelly, drums for a local cover band and knows most of our songs; more importantly, he’s all about the playing and doesn’t have time for any drama, his real life is dramatic enough as it is. Paul quickly gave him a call, we scheduled an emergency Friday night rehearsal, and we went out to the middle of nowhere to play the private gig that had been on the calendar for months. We weren’t as tight as we’d been the couple of weeks before, but Kelly is a pro, Paul and Time are pros, and with Super Dave keeping everybody in the mix, we were still pretty dang good. Two weeks later, we showed up at Chasers and did it all over again with the same result.

We just don’t know what’s going to happen with JC, so Paul made the executive decision to go on hiatus for the foreseeable future, which means Chaser’s gig was probably our last of 2016. He and Tim have been getting together to mesh their guitar grooves; hopefully, I’ll get a call soon saying they guitarists are ready for a vocal rehearsal, work on some harmonies. As for what I’m going to do to get my performance fix, I haven’ decided yet. Upside to all the drama the last month? Lost ten pounds. Say what you want about the stress diet – it works.

It also means that invisible line we were just brushing up against has retreating out of reach again.