2019 is off to one hell of a start.
Before anything else, I have to give huge credit to my lovely Lady Fair. From 2017 to the first half of 2018, in the span of just eighteen months, my beautiful wife lost her youngest uncle, her oldest uncle, her great-uncle, and her grandmother. Her mom’s side of the family has just been decimated, suffering loss after loss… and my Lady Fair kept soldiering on. This marked the first year we didn’t go to her grandmother’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas… and she felt the absence hard. Through the melancholy, he managed to stay strong, and she still manages to stay positive.
Last May, I wrote about how I finally had enough things going on in my personal life, I didn’t have to worry about saying anything about The East Texas Garage Band that might get me in trouble… well, that hasn’t changed – I still have a ton going on – but the biggest news in my life right now IS The East Texas Garage Band. So… yeah, it’s time to talk about the guys.
After six months of convalescing, JC came back to the band… and then promptly disappeared again. He could still drum, but it hurt. A lot. Screaming pain in his forearms after just half an hour or so. Doing a ninety minute set at a rally was out of the question, much less four hours at a bar on bike night. He left to heal up… which never really happened.
Paul brought in an old buddy from back in the day to do some drumming, Ernie, and bless his heart, he tried. He tried hard. Too many years out of practice meant he just couldn’t handle the harder syncopations of the songs we’d been performing with JC. Ernie got us through the one rally we’d promised the year before, then it was time to go hunting for a new drummer.
While JC had been healing up, the band was on hiatus… and then the band still wasn’t gigging while we tried to get Ernie up to speed… so we weren’t earning any money during the downtime. Add that to the fact he was driving an hour one way to rehearsals, throw in his daughter was getting ready to graduate high school and he wanted to spend more time closer to home, and Tim just plain got frustrated. He decided to join a band closer to his crib and extended family, gave us his notice at the rally. We hated to lose him – the band had never sounded better with his guitar and vocals in the mix – but we couldn’t blame him for being tired. He’d been a solid bandmate, a professional the entire time he was with us, so we had no hard feelings. I wished him well as he joined a four-piece doing southern rock and country.
So last year when I was writing about not wanting to discuss the band because it wasn’t just me, it was four other guys… well, that is what was going on. We had lost two of our five members, and I honestly didn’t know if I had a band anymore. Paul the band leader and Dave the bassist both confirmed they were committed to keeping ETGB going, so I crossed my fingers, and Paul started hunting for new players.
I started 2018 recovering from a bout of the flu while I was in rehearsals for a two-man show, the fourth of the Tuna plays, Tuna Does Vegas at the Mesquite Community Theatre. Eight characters with eleven different wardrobe changes, the hardest acting job I’d ever attempted. I also started 2018 as a member of the Board of Trustees for MCT because I decided if I was going to help make the world a more positive place, it was time to put my money where my mouth was. After a few months of meetings, I took on the advertising and social media marketing for MCT.
When school started back up in August, one of my fellow Vagabond Players, the drama teacher out in Wills Point, Jamie, asked me if I would drive out a couple of days a week and help voice coach her students for their fall musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. Jamie is a buddy, Vagabond Players are family, and in my humble opinion, there’s no job more important than helping kids understand and reach their potential. This was another chance for me to walk the walk, so I said “Yes.”
The mayor of Terrell came to see Ron and Gayle, the owners and operators of the Vagabond Players – he was hoping they would consider doing a Christmas play in the defunct Kaufman County Community Theater space in the old Terrell courthouse. Ron and Gayle agreed, and then started making phone calls to their Vagabond family. One of the phone calls was to me – would a take a part? I always say “Yes” when Ron calls, so I was now in the cast of A Christmas Carol. This particular version of the story takes place in Charles Dickens’ attic, with his dinner guests playing multiple roles. I would be playing Forster, a literary critic and best friend to Dickens; Forster would then play the ghost of Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and assorted other characters. This would be the second time I had been in the play – eight years ago, I played Stansfield, an artist friend of Dickens, who goes on to perform as Bob Cratchitt, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Undertaker, and few minor characters. A lot had changed in me personally in the time between my first time with the play and the second: back then, I had just started with the band and hadn’t been in a play in over twenty years; I was still deciding who I was as an artist. Playing the artistic Stansfield and the meek, but still optimistic Cratchitt felt right. Now it was almost a decade later, I’d gone from being just another voice to the frontman of the band, been in three musicals and one play performing the lead twice – I knew exactly who I was as an artist, and exactly what I would and would not stand for. Forster was the insufferable know-it-all that secretly possessed a playful spirit and bleeding heart politics… which meant I would be playing myself.
So from August until nearly Christmas, I would be volunteering for two community theaters and one high school drama department, all while the band was looking for not just a drummer, but also a guitarist with enough talent to play leads, but enough humility to do rhythm.
I should have been hip-deep into writing songs, too. Sharon’s job kept going berserk, keeping her at work fourteen-fifteen hours a day for weeks on end. When she wasn’t bogged down with her employment woes, there seemed to be family drama going on every weekend. I reminded her that I understood Life can get in the way, that I completely get that too much bad news in a row can destroy artistic confidence, and that I believe in her always. Her talent and skill not just humbled me, but inspired me to create even more… which was exactly what she needed to hear. The dark cloud over her head started clearing, and after some much needed good news on the family front, her personal skies were blue again.
Paul brought in a couple of guitarist to audition late Summer and early Fall – neither one worked out. Fantastic players, the both of them: one was mainly a blues guy accustomed to three pieces; the other a long-time classic rocker who didn’t show much interest in learning our harder songs. Paul did bring in a new drummer, Ryan, who fit like a glove right off the bat. Played for a local Indianapolis band that recorded a couple of albums in the early 90’s, then busted up after members had to find real jobs. Ryan hadn’t been in a band in a decade or so… but he’d been practicing every night on his electronic kit the entire time. He took to our songs and their oddball syncopation in nothing flat.
In December, Paul found Brett, a guitarist who’d been in a band with both my keyboardist, Sharon, and our buddy, Tim. Sharon and Tim both had nothing but great things to say about him, so Paul brought Brett in for a couple of meet and greets with me and Dave while Ryan was doing holiday stuff with the family. The meet and greets went just fine, but when we put Brett together with Ryan and we had all five of us together, it was as if they’d been playing together for years. And just like Ryan, it turned out the Brett was just a good guy. After eight very frustrating months, we were back to full strength. The East Texas Garage Band was back.
The Drowsy Chaperone was a big success for the Wills Point High students. A Christmas Carol sold out several times with rave reviews, another success. My social media marketing and press release push seemed make an impact, as the summer musical at MCT, Curtains, sold out seven out of nine performances, the most successful musical in MCT’s history. The last play of the year, The Curious Savage, also had multiple sold out shows, so even though the federal grant amounts had been cut in half, MCT still closed out the season in the black.
Which brings us to 2019.
Been back out to Sharon’s for our songwriting – mainly some logistics and planning, but some actual songwriting, as well. Hoping to record the cover of Bobby Goes here in the next few weeks, then dive into the first couple of original tunes.
The East Texas Garage Band has its first gig with the new line up February 9th. Hoping to get some concert footage videoed, but ETGB tends to be LOUD, which then tends to overwhelm the microphones on the video cameras. If we can get some decent sound, Paul wants to use that to go after the bike rally gigs we excel at. We’ve been rehearsing nearly every weekend since the start of the year, and except for a couple of songs the new guys don’t quite know how to end, we are ready. Missing Tim’s tenor vocals, but musically, we’re nearly as good as we’ve ever been, and we just keep on improving every week. Got a great feeling about this coming year on the road, especially if we get the right rallies.
Jamie appreciated all the hard work I volunteered, so she asked me to come back out to Wills Point, help with the One Act Play, Ghetto. It’s set in WWII, in the Jewish ghetto, with actors, singers, dancers, ventriloquists, and comedians performing for the amusing of a Nazi officer who will kill them for a bad show. It’s dark, it’s deep, it’s unsettling… and it has several songs Jamie would like me to help coach the kids.
I’ve got another year on my term with the Board at the Mesquite Community Theatre. One of the big decisions last year was to do a re-branding, try to lose the Community stigma so the theatre can go up against the bigger outfits in the surrounding cities. Most of the rebranding fell to me, the graphic/web designer and production artist. So this year, we are now The Mesquite Arts Theatre or MAT. New logo, new season passes, new complimentary tickets, and a brand new Patreon account for memberships to try and grab that crowdfunding money and monthly passive income. Looking to start printing t-shirts and other swag soon.
January was the annual awards ceremony and silent auction for MCT’s shows the preceding year. The Board gives out awards to Best Show, Best Director, Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Costumes, etc. I was up for Best Actor for Tuna Does Vegas, and honestly, knowing that I was up against OT Mitchell (my amazing co-star from Tuna) and Jimmy-Lee Beard (the break-out star of Curtains), I figured I didn’t stand a chance – I was wrong. I had tears in my eyes as I accepted the award, telling everyone in attendance the honor belonged as much to OT for being such an amazing cast mate;, and Julie Phillips, who did not get enough credit for directing a fantastic show. Julie had taken a big chance with me, since I didn’t originally audition for Tuna Does Vegas – I didn’t think I had the chops. But the Board Chairman, Dennis, asked me to give it a shot; Ron convinced me I could do it; and Julie decided she liked my take on the characters. Winning the award was as much a testament to her skills as a director as my hard work as a performer.
It’s going to be very hard to explain to folks I consider myself a singer who sometimes acts… now that I am officially an award-winning actor. I’m pretty sure I can find a way to bear that particular cross.
And so… here we are. Got a band again. Still volunteering for high school kids. Still volunteering at my local community theatre. Getting close to releasing that first single with my songwriting partner and composer.
In what’s becoming an annual tradition, I’ve recorded another Christmas song. Please enjoy, and I’ll have much more to say very soon.
Back in April of 2017, I wrote about how I didn’t know how to proceed with this blog when it meant not feeling comfortable discussing things that were coming up in ETGB, when ETGB isn’t just me, but four other guys, as well… well, at the moment, that isn’t a problem any more. I have plenty going on all by my lonesome.
It’s been an interested eighteen months or so.
Last thing first:
I’ve written thirteen songs so far. THIRTEEN. I am a little dumbfounded by this fact. Sharon, the lovely woman I met last year when ETGB stepped in at the last second to do music duties at the gig she’d booked is now my writing partner and composer. Sharon is freaking brilliant. She not only hears the chords, she not only hears the harmonies, but she hears layers of music. She’s almost too good – keeping her from writing entire symphonies based on my lyrics is my biggest challenge these days. The best part of her composing the music is the songs I felt may be too weak to put on an album are suddenly sounding like potential singles; so now, instead of being worried I didn’t have enough songs, I’m finding myself cutting songs. We can actually pick and choose. It’s an amazing turn of events from a couple of years ago when I kept asking folks for help, folks would say “Yes,” and then bail on me when it came time to get down to the doing – since we started collaborating, I finished a song I started but put on the back burner, and wrote another less than a week later. We’ve got all but one song charted, Sharon is talking to a rhythm section, and she may even have a line on both a rehearsal space and a recording studio.
It took until a couple of months ago to get really started on composing for the album because the holidays and last fall were horrible. My poor partner had just started a brand new day job when she lost her beloved mother out on the east coast. Even without all the time she spent flying back and forth for the illness, service, and family affairs, Sharon was too heartbroken to consider jumping into music. She needed months to heal. While she was dealing with all that, I was bedridden: first with a bad back; and then with not one, but two bouts of the flu, one case over Thanksgiving, the other over Christmas and New Year’s. While I was trying to get my voice back all January, I also started rehearsals for Tuna Does Vegas, a two-man show where I would play eight different characters with at least ten costume changes. The play and rehearsals would eat up all my free time from the second week of January until the start of the second week of March.
My back gave out because I had spent all summer being not just the music director and voice coach of the Terrell musical, The Addams Family, but the lead actor portraying Gomez Addams, as well… a task that actually started the second week of March, when I started giving voice lessons to the lovely young woman who wanted to play Wednesday. My voice lessons later expanded to the woman auditioning for Alice and the comedian/TV host we nabbed for Lurch. I learned all the songs to the musical, taught everyone the songs, voice directed as necessary, and then still managed to not make a complete fool out of myself playing the lead.
Before I was the lead in Addams Family, before I was giving voice lessons to the cast, I was the voice of Audrey Two in the Mesquite production of Little Shop of Horrors. The lead was out sick the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, so when I wasn’t singing my part, I as filling in as Seymour vocally so the rest of the cast could learn their singing parts. I was also behind the scenes, so I sang with the rest of the ensemble during the crowd numbers. All in all, it was a solid nine months of preparing for and performing musicals last year. I knew I was worn out, I knew what I really needed to do was make an appointment to see my chiropractor… but I kept putting it off. Finally, I put it off one day too many, and my lower back said “Screw this noise – I am taking a vacation.” It had been years since my back had just plain given out on me – usually, I have really good habits and I know when I’m pushing my luck – so I felt like a complete idiot when it happened… an idiot in agony, no less. Lesson learned just in time to come down with the flu.
I have done two singing gigs at the First Presbyterian Church out in Terrell. I have a voice made for hymns, it seems, and some of my best friends are usually in attendance there. Hoping I can do more church singing in the future.
I am still with ETGB, and that won’t change. Paul is my brother, and I will be his singer until he gets sick and tired of me. I do now have another couple of opportunities to get my Rock Star on without being dependent on ETGB, though… and that means guilt-free fodder for the blog.
Also means getting my weight down and instruments learned is back to being Priority Number One. So Operation: Rock Star is still a GO.
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.”
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.
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.