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.

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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.

A Study In Contrasts, Part Two

Main Stage

The Crater Rally main stage after dark

Even you haven’t read Part One, start here.

The second half of the week:

Planning outdoor events in Texas requires choosing the lesser of two evils. Summer in Texas is almost always dry, almost to the point of drought, from mid June through early September; the trade-off for the dry weather is that it is hot. Damn hot. You have got to be kidding me HOT: June is traditionally in the upper 90’s, but it is not uncommon to have 100º days; July and August are routinely in triple digits. Add in the humidity and night not happening until about 9 pm, and summertime outdoor events in Texas get pretty miserable pretty quick.

Spring and Fall temperatures, however, are delicious: upper 70’s to low 80’s during the day, 60’s at night. The problem is there is always, ALWAYS the chance of rain; and not just rain, but Holy Freaking Hell Is This The End Times? thunder storms, softball-sized hail stones, and freak tornadoes. When it rains here in Spring or Fall, you count yourself lucky if all it did was drown your plants – a couple of months ago, my buddy opened up the closet door he’d thrown the family into after the alarms started blaring only to see the night sky – his ceiling, along with the rest of his house, was somewhere else.

So you either schedule your outdoor event in Summer and plan on having medics on hand to deal with the heat strokes and dehydration cases; or Spring or Fall and pray to all the gods new and old that it stays dry. The absolutely no one under 21 allowed Crater Rally in Mt. Enterprises opts for Curtain Number Two, which is why out of the seven times the band has been out there, it has rained four.

Paul

My band leader, Paul, doing what he does best…

Last Thursday was no exception. Ownership of the rally itself changed hands, as these events often do. The new owners didn’t know anything about us as a band, but had at least heard decent things; after months of hemming and hawing, they finally booked us to bookend the event: we would be the opening act on the opening Thursday, and we would be the closing act Saturday night, with vendors and guests leaving on Sunday. Mt. Enterprise is twenty minutes East of Henderson, which is twenty minutes South of Kilgore, which is just over two hours from Dallas – being the opening act on a weekday means taking the entire day off. Normally, it is a nice drive – East Texas is lovely, with tall, piny trees and lazy hills – this particular drive was a white-knuckler, however: the further East you went, the harder the rain came down. Texas highways are full of semi-trucks hauling anything you can think off East and West across the country; and there is nothing like the special terror of driving along side one of those behemoths with your windshield wipers on full boogie to deal with all the water the truck is kicking up off the pavement along with the thunder shower you’ve been dealing with for the last sixty miles. Your bootie puckers up enough to suck your underwear into your sphincter.

In Texas, the speed limit is the speed limit… unless everybody else on the road with you is either driving significantly faster or slower: in that case, you are required by law to match everybody else’s speed so you are not a hazard. In the summer when the weather is clear, this means hauling butt at 85 mph is not only allowed, it is mandatory; in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, however, when you are in a Mustang with a light tail, rear wheel drive, and a tendency to aim for the ditches when the road is slick, it means you stick to the speed limit even though you’d give a body part to be driving 10 mph slower.

It also means your normal 2.5 hour road trip is now closer to 3.5.

JC, our drummer, getting into the groove...

JC, our drummer, getting into the groove…

I’d been shooting to get out of town by noon, but after conversing with the lovely Lady Fair and stocking up on Red Bulls, it was coming up on 1 pm before I got firmly on the road. I spent the next three plus hours cursing Peterbuilts and trying not to end up in a ditch with the other poor souls who’d lost it on I-20, of which there were multiple instances. Nothing like seeing the barest hint of the top of the semi’s cab from the other side of a highway embankment to make you want to rethink your priorities… like just how bad do I want to get to the gig on time? That kind of thing. I kept up with the saner portion of traffic, stayed off my brake as much as possible, and made decent, though not great, time to the rally.

The first thing you do at a rally is check in at the front gate. I parked the Mustang, tossed my hat on to keep the rain off my coiffure, and ambled over to the gatehouse. I flashed the rally worker my band pass, signed the release form stating if I fell down and broke my leg it was my own damn fault, and got my wristband making me legal. After confirming that I did know my way to the main stage, I climbed back into the Mustang and slowly made my way back to the crater.

One of the reasons I like playing this gig is the main stage – it is awesome, as big as a pro outdoor event, with a large Texas flag-decorated wood wall behind you, and a roof about two stories or so above your head. Sound depends on the vendor, but the times we’ve played the main stage, sound has been great, with good monitors and decent stage volume. The main stage is open on three sides, though, so anything above a light rain shower and you are risking electrocution – forecast was the drizzle we were dealing with should be over by 5 pm. We were scheduled to take the stage at 5:30 pm. As band members arrived, we unloaded and set up best we could. Lo and behold, at around 4:45 pm, the drizzle came to a stop. Temperature topped out in the upper 60’s, it was gray skies as far as the eye could see, but the rain was over – we would be going on as planned.

Lil Devils

This was the cleanest photo I took…

Another one of the reasons I like playing this gig is bikers are not dainty. They don’t care about rain, mud, bugs, or anything else the outdoors may throw their way – bikers just want to have a good time. So even though it had been rainy all day, when we hit our first down beat, a crowd was there to listen and enjoy; the longer we played, the bigger the crowd became. The size of the stage threw the guys a bit – being spread out changed the way the guys sounded to each other – so the first couple of songs were good, but not as tight as we had rehearsed. Once the band got used to the stage sound, however, the boys nailed it, better than my birthday gig back in March and they were fantastic then. We played the first set, took a quick break, then decimated the second set. As it came time to close out our portion of the night, I looked over to the left: waiting for their turn on the stage was a small gaggle of young women in lingerie, all dressed in varying degrees of red, some with horns, some with spiked tails, and at least one with a small pitchfork. I didn’t know what was up next, but they were dressed perfectly. I grabbed the microphone and addressed the women:

“I see some lovely ladies off to my left. We have the perfect song for all of you, so come on up and join us on stage – this is the one you’ve been waiting for all afternoon.”

Tim started into Highway To Hell, the ladies all caught the clue at the same time, and as Paul growled out his vocals, the lovelies began to dirty dance on the front edge of the stage. It was amazing how fast the audience began crowding around. We ended our opening night on a fantastic high note, thanked the crowd, thanked the lovelies, and exited Stage Left.

Since all I had to personally load as my tambourin and cow bell, Paul sent me back to the front gate to get us paid. Easier said than done – the new venue owner had the envelopes to pay the band, and he was nowhere to be found; he was dealing with his wife, who had fallen down and more than likely broken her ankle. I spent the next half-hour reassuring the gate staff I had no problem standing around, doo-doo happens and I certainly didn’t expect the boss to drop everything to bring me my cash when his spouse was down for the count. Just as we cleared the half-hour mark, I got a phone call from Paul just as the staff heard from the boss – the boss was at the main stage, Paul had the cash. I thanked the front gate staff for their pleasant company, headed back to the main stage, got a hug from Paul and my cut of the night’s work, and I heading back home. After a blessedly uneventful drive home, I grabbed a shower, I filled in the lovely Lady Fair on the gig, and showed her the photos of the band and the hotties off my cell phone. I also took a pair of scissor and cut off my wrist band – I don’t sleep wearing jewelry, so if I was to get any rest the next two nights, my bona fides for the rally had to go.

Tim

Our other guitarist and vocalist, Tim, enjoying himself…

The rest of the weekend was forecasted to be bright and sunny. I spent most of Friday either filling in folks on how the last night went or running errands with the lovely Lady Fair. The initial question about Saturday night’s gig would be what time did I want to get there. Sitting around for hours on end waiting to go on stage is not a lot of fun, especially when you’re outside in the heat and bugs; driving three hours in the dark, trying to recognize landmarks with no light to go by is also not a lot of fun. I decided to compromise: I’d leave around 5 pm, hope to get there just as the sun was going down around 8 pm. I’d still need to sit around and wait on starting the gig for four plus hours, but at least I wouldn’t be driving after dark. Added bonus – Paul would know where the hell I was, have one less thing to worry about as band leader.

The drive back to Mt. Enterprise was a breeze. I stopped in Henderson to fill up the gas tank so I wouldn’t need to break for gas at 4 am on the way home. I pulled up to the shack at the front gate and motioned to the outside staff member I needed a new wrist band. I sauntered up to the gatehouse, slapped my band pass on the counter and grinned. “Hi! I’m with the band!”

The lady in the shack was not the same lady as my pleasant half-hour wait Thursday night. She looked at the band pass, then looked back down at her clipboard. “That means nothing to me, that is not one of ours, so I don’t care what it is. There’s no need to slap it down on the counter.”

My neck stiffened, but I kept smiling. “Okay.” I pulled my band pass off of the counter. She kept looking at her clipboard. “What band are you with?”

I raised my band pass with band’s name and logo displayed across the top. “The East Texas Garage Band.”

The lady eyed my badge, eyed me, then put her clipboard on the counter. “Sign in.” I printed, then signed my name on Saturday’s sheet. I held up my left arm so she could put on my new wrist band. “Can you lower your arm?”

I dropped my hand down in front of her. “Anything to help.” She got the clasp fashioned. “Thank you, ma’am.” She looked over at another staff member, thought better of it, and said. “Let me get you a guide.”

I frowned. “Do I really need one?” I asked. “I’ve been here about six times, I know my way to the Back Stage.”

She frowned, eyebrows furrowed. “Everybody gets a guide.” I decided not to mention I hadn’t needed a guide on Thursday.

“Okay. I would love a guide.”

“Hey, if you don’t think you need a guide, drive you own self down there.”

I held up my hands in the universal sign of surrender. “Ma’am, I am not trying to be difficult. I just didn’t want you to waste a resource on me if it wasn’t necessary. I’ll take the guide.”

Dave and Tim

Super Dave, our bassist, getting some love from Tim…

She didn’t reply to that. She pointed at a staff member, then pointed to me. I walked over and fired up the Mustang, watching my “guide” get into a nearby staff golf cart. He looked back to see me pull in behind him, and we slowly made our way up the hill and away from the front gatehouse. Now, at the Crater Rally, once you get up to the top of the main hill, there is a fork in the road. If you are coming from the front gate, the road forks to the Main Stage on the left and the Back Forty Stage on the right; if you’re coming from the Main Stage, the road forks to the left to the Back Forty Stage and to the right to go to the front gate; and if you are coming from the Back Forty Stage, the road forks on the left to the front gate, and to the right to the Main Stage. All the forks come together to form a triangle, and it is the closest thing to an intersection the Crater Rally has to worry about. I’m following my guide when my guide takes the left fork to the Main Stage. I stop the Mustang and wait for him to notice I’m no longer behind him – nothing. The dude had left me.

I waited a moment, Mustang running, parked just down the hill from the triangle intersection. I picked up my cell and called Paul.

“Me Bruddah.”

“Hey, Boss. We are at the Back Forty stage tonight, right?”

“That is correct.”

“And the Back Forty stage is where it’s always been, right?”

“That is also correct.”

I frowned. “Well, my guide just left my ass and headed down to the Main Stage.”

Paul didn’t miss a beat. “All righty then. Come on back.”

“Be there in a minute.”

I dropped my cell, put the Mustang in First Gear, and made my way to the right and the Back Forty Stage. I quickly spotted Paul’s truck hauling the band’s equipment trailer and pulled in beside him and the new stage. I bounced out of Mustang and joined the group. “What happened to the old Back Forty Stage?” I enquired.

Paul shrugged. “Old owner tried to sell it to the campsite, campsite wouldn’t pony up for it, so he hooked it up to a trailer and hauled it away.” Perfectly reasonable response, we all thought.

The new stage wasn’t as long as the old, but was much deeper, practically forming a square; with the right placement of the instruments, amps and speakers, there would be plenty of room for all the performers to move around. Halogens were mounted up front, with two pole lights illuminating the world behind the stage. Only real downside was no roof – there was nothing above the stage but empty air. Would have been a deal breaker had the weather been bad, but luckily for us, we had clear skies as far as the eye could see.

rear view

The view from the back of the Back Forty stage as the crew sets up… full moon… should have known…

I’d been there less than five minutes when a golf cart bearing the lady from the front gate and an extremely hairy biker came pulling up to the stage to apparently talk to a couple of regulars. My girlfriend had her foot elevated so I could her walking cast – I quickly added two and two together and realized she was the owner’s wife… which meant the grizzly bear sitting beside her was her husband, the owner of the event. As I was finishing my arithmetic, I saw the lady stop her conversation just long enough to point at her husband, and then point at me. She went back to conversing with her buddies as her husband left the golf cart and motioned me over to him as he walked a way from the group. I moseyed up beside him and raised my eyebrows.

“I don’t appreciate you disrespecting my wife.”

All the oxygen in my brain took a powder. The whole reason why the band agreed to do the opening night and closing night with nothing in between was because this guy owns two other rallies we’d like to play, this was our one opportunity to show him what we could do – he’s now pissed off at me because I have pissed off his wife. Brilliant. Yay Keith.

This was running through my head while he was still talking:

“We don’t know you. You weren’t on the list for today. That badge doesn’t mean anything to my wife….”

That would be the band pass our contract stipulates we wear when we show up at gigs, so the venue owners not only know we are who we say we are, but they don’t get ripped off my somebody claiming to be us sneaking in for free. That band pass.

“This is my event, and if I say everybody gets a guide, that means everybody gets a guide….”

That would be the event guide no one offered me on Thursday, the event guide that drove to the wrong stage and never noticed he had lost me. That event guide.

I was stunned, flustered, and upset that my nerd personality has turned off a potential employer. I didn’t argue, and I didn’t say the things that were running through my head. “It was not my intention to be disrespectful to your wife, I was not attempting to be disrespectful to your wife. I just have a sarcastic sounding voice. I apologize if she took me wrong.”

He gave me a hard stare, then walked back and climbed into the golf cart beside his wife and her broken ankle. I briefly entertained apologizing to her directly, replayed my stammering reply to the grizzly bear in my mind, decided I was too discombobulated to attempt such politeness with any chance of success, and went back to stand next to my friends. A few moments later, the owner and his wife drove off. I looked over at Paul’s wife, Margaret. “The owner of this event just chastised me for dissing his wife.”

Margaret did a double-take. “He did what?”

“Chastised me. For being disrespectful. To his wife.”

Margaret stared at me. “What happened?”

I relayed the events of barely ten minutes earlier, including the part where the guide had left me and I had called Paul for instructions. “Well, damn.” Margaret replied. She softened a little. “She did break her ankle. She’s probably hot and tired and needs to take much better pain meds.”

“Can’t argue with you, there.” I agreed. “Hey Paul,” I called. “If we don’t get asked to do the September rally, it’s probably my fault. The owner’s wife thinks I’m an asshole.” I relayed the story I had just told to Margaret to him. “I’m sorry, bro. My standing smart-ass voice fucked me again.” My band leader shrugged it off. He still had a midnight-thirty gig and a missing band mate to worry about, so my dry, sarcastic delivery wasn’t his problem at the moment. Kind of loved him for that. He spent the next four hours working out how to get the best show out of what we had to work with, while I tamped down my rising anger – me being me had probably blown a golden opportunity for the band, which was bad; but two people who had never met me had decided I needed to be talked down to as if I was still in junior high, which was not sitting well with me. I was finally getting past my annoyance when Tim arrived around 11 pm. With the crew finally all in attendance, Paul put the finishing touches on the equipment.

All night, we’d been telling people who pulled up we’d be starting sometime between midnight and 12:30, and no, we couldn’t start any sooner than that – contractually, we had to wait until the Main Stage had shut down before we could fire it up. Unless we got a heads up from the owner, we’d be starting at 12:30 and no later. We kept explaining that to the crowd that started to gather around midnight, who kept egging us on to get on with the show. At 12:15, Paul announced “We are now allowed to do a sound check.” We tore through Long Trains Running, getting a big response from the crowd. “More! MORE!” the crowd yelled. “Can’t do it. 12:30. Ten more minutes.” We started counting down.

“Eight.”

“Five.”

“Two.”

“Thirty seconds.”

Paul’s son, Aaron, raised his hand and counted down from ten. When he hit one, he dropped his hands and pulled up the fader on the sound board. Paul played the first chords of American Girl, and it was on. We tore through our first three songs, not missing a beat. “How ya doin’, Crater!” I yelled out to the crowd. “We are the East Texas Garage Band, it’s the closing party on the Back Forty Stage, and it is time to get WEIRD! Make some NOISE, CRATER!” And the crowd yelled and clapped as we made our way into White Room. Halfway through one of the early songs, a curvy lady in a shear body stocking and high heels jumped up on stage – I kept singing while I motioned for her to get back down. Once the song was over, I address the crowd. “We want you to get as wild as you want, just keep it off the stage. I don’t want anyone taking a header off the front of the stage and hurting yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m the most sober person here.” That earned me a couple of boos, but all was forgiven as we threw ourselves into the next song.

Every time we ended a song, if I didn’t hear enough applause, I’d say “I can’t see you, so if I can’t hear you anymore, it’s time for us to shut it down. So if you’re not ready to call it a night, make some noise.” Yelling, screaming, whistling, and clapping would then boom out of the darkness, and we’d kick into the next song.

Around 2 am or so, a tanned woman with huge breasts, a pair of high heels, and nothing else begged Paul to let her come dance up on stage. “One song, Darlin’.” And up she came, showing us and everybody else what her mama had given her while we jammed to Keep Your Hands To Yourself. She did her best to distract Paul and JC, our drummer, who wisely chose not make eye contact with her. When we were done, she asked if she could stay for a second song, but Paul nixed that, so tanned chick left the stage with a huge smile. The crowd was quick to show their appreciation, though whether it was her dancing skills or her lack of clothing they were cheering for was open to debate.

Keith Crater May 2016

The picture of a vocalist who is tired of being misunderstood… and tired of being rained on…

At 2:30, Paul yelled over at Aaron to pull the faders down. Paul exited the stage, so I started saying our goodnights. The crowd as having none of it. “One more song! One more song! Encore! Encore!”

I looked over at the guys. Tim was slinging his guitar back on. “Hell, let’s do TWO more,” he grinned. Paul had returned from the tree line – he needed a pause for the cause – and was slinging his guitar back on. “I don’t care what the second one is, but the first song I want Scary Snare.” Paul called over to JC. “Scary Snare!” and JC started into Surrender – we nailed it. Super Dave the bassist then called out “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” I addressed the crowd.

“Do we have any Beer Drinkers!” Screams.

“Do we have any HELL RAISERS!” Even more screams.

Super Dave counted it off and we roared into ZZ Top. At the start of the guitar solo, two very happy and very naked women jumped up on stage and started dancing next to me. I turned to the side so I could face the women on my left, the woman on my right got behind be, and the three of us started to dirty grind together, a poor man’s Lambada Ménage à Trois. The ladies were still grinding up on me when it came time for me to sing, so I just went with it, turning my head towards the front of the stage so I wouldn’t smack one of my new fans with my wireless microphone. We finished up our dance as we finished up our song. “Give it up for our Solid Gold Dancers!” I called out. Just as I was about to give our goodbyes yet again, JC went into the drum intro for Led Zeppilin’s Rock and Roll. I grabbed my tambourin, and off we went. JC beat his drums like he was trying to tear holes in them during his final drum solo, and Paul sang out, “YEAH! Rock and roll all night! We are The East Texas Garage Band! We love you! We will see you next time, Crater! GOOD NIGHT!”

We all hit the last beat, and Aaron dropped the volume on all the speakers and monitors. It was a quarter hour until 3 am – we’d played for two hours and fifteen minutes, the equivalent of three sets back to back. And the crowd was still calling out for more.

Over the applause, I yelled over at Paul, “Call 911! ‘Cause we KILLED IT!”

Paul grinned from ear to ear.

I jumped down from the stage, unlocked the Mustang, threw my tambourin and cow bell into the back seat and replace my sun shades with my everyday glasses. I went out into the crowd to thank folks for staying so late. One of our longtime Crater fans, Bunny, asked if I was going to stay and party with them, she hadn’t had her chance to corrupt me yet. I smiled and shrugged. “I would love to, but I am married to a very possessive woman who can’t sleep when I’m not home – I need to head back and keep her company.” Bunny made a pouty face. “I will do what I can to get her out here in September – if we’re asked back for September – and we’ll see about that corrupting.”

“You bring her!” Bunny shouted. “That’s our anniversary and we want you here!”

I hugged Tim before he headed off to DFW. Paul paid me, so I assumed The Boss had been down. I hoped that he’d made it while we were still killing it to see we were worth every penny we’d been paid. I hugged the guys, kissed Margaret’s cheek, promised Paul I’d text him as soon as I made it home safe and sound, and I made my exit. If I hurried, if I didn’t stop for a very late dinner, and if I could avoid the local constabulary, I could make it home before dawn – I ended up beating sunlight by about a half-hour.

I spent the drive home and most of Sunday thinking about the snafu at the front gate and my getting chastised, comparing my Saturday night experience with my Tuesday night experience. The band was tight all weekend; as great as we did on the Main Stage, we were even better on the Back Forty stage, and nothing compares to the feeling of being in a group that is firing on all cylinders, especially when the crowd is showing their appreciation. But the people who own the event talked to me for less than five minutes and came to the positive conclusion that I’m an asshole and a troublemaker; I talked to a young man for less than five minutes on Tuesday, and he hugged me for showing him kindness and compassion, for seeing him for who he is. Tuesday night, I never once felt I needed to check myself before I wrecked myself; Saturday, I forgot to keep my enthusiasm in check and immediately got on the last nerve of a woman already having a lousy weekend.

Saturday night, the only time I felt like I belonged was when I was singing. Tuesday night, I felt at home from the moment my lovely Lady Fair got in line to enter the club until I left for the rally Thursday afternoon.

If Paul wants to keep playing rallies, we may need to consider having him take over as the front man – I obviously don’t have the right personality for the crowd.

Begin Again

ETGB w/Kes O'Hara

The first gig of 2016

The biggest reason why I’m not doing more solo work (that is, other than desperately needing an accompanist) is that I won’t do anything to jeopardize my relationship with my band. Seven years ago, the band didn’t need me, there were two people who could sing well enough to earn the fee; and bringing me onboard would require splitting that fee five ways instead of four. My brother from another mother, Paul, liked my voice and liked the idea of the songs the band could attempt with me in the group, so he asked me to join. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had folks ask if I would sing with their bands, and I’ve always said the same thing: “I’d love to… but if there is a scheduling conflict, I’m always going to go with ETGB – they are my first priority.” That has always been a deal-breaker, and while I don’t blame the other musicians for wanting me to put their needs at the top of the priorities list, it just isn’t going to happen. ETGB is my band.

There are pros and cons to being in a band. The biggest pro is that synergy that happens when everything is firing on all cylinders, and the music that comes forth is something you could not have done all by yourself; that moment when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To say those few moments are magic is not an understatement; and it’s a alchemy that only musicians, dancers and actors in a troupe, or athletes on a championship-level team get to experience. The biggest con is that when something bad happens to one member of the group, it affects every member of the group. A band is a living, breathing, growing entity – it’s like being in a marriage, only with multiple spouses: when one spouse ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

When it comes to ETGB, one of our biggest draws is our dueling lead guitars. One guitarist handles leads, the other rhythm, and they swap out seamlessly depending on the song and sometimes depending on where they are in a single song. A few of our tunes require dueling leads, which both our guitarist can and do handle fabulously. The biggest reason we can do all this was Gary, affectionately referred to onstage as “The Secret Weapon.” Gary is the perfect second guitarist – he just wants to play. Doesn’t need the spotlight, doesn’t need the ego boost of being front and center – just wants to shred in a band. Which means Paul can head out and rile up the crowd and I can sing pretty notes knowing full well the music will never suffer.

Last year, Gary started having issues with his hand. Forty years of gripping a guitar neck in a strangle hold had developed into arthritis and carpal tunnels and anything else the doctors could think of that would end his playing career. After toughing it out as long as he could, The Secret Weapon finally said the words we were hoping we’d never hear: “Just can’t do it, guys. I’m done.”

Gary and I have almost nothing in common, yet I love the little dude like a brother; because he’s such a stand-up guy, everybody is the band feels the same way. We weren’t losing a guitarist – we were losing a family member.

The show must go on, though – the band had a couple of obligations in late September and early October. More than once, the idea was floated that we just not replace Gary. So much of the band’s appeal is we honestly like each other, and the joy we get playing music with each other on stage translates out to the audience. Bringing in someone new didn’t guarantee we’d still have that dynamic, but it was finally decided that too much of our music required that second guitar – dropping back to a three-piece with a singer would mean changing up our entire song catalog. Paul got on the horn and started calling folks, then went ahead and put out an ad in Craiglist: Veteran band with upcoming gigs needs a guitarist. Three folks answered the ad; only one showed up for an audition – Tim. Tim’s around Paul and my age, single dad, decades of experience in bands, and willing to drive to rehearsal. Paul jammed with him a bit, then invited Tim to sit in with the entire band. “Got to warn you – we have strong vocals.” The guys were screwing around when I showed up that morning running a little late. We started into my first song and Tim’s eyes shot open – Paul wasn’t kidding, our vocals are strong.

We scrambled together enough songs to get through the next couple of gigs, which went fine – not as strong as our last outing with Gary, but nothing to complain about. Mostly, Paul, Dave, JC, and I could tell we had some real potential with Tim joining the band. I had a solo gig in November for a friend I needed to prepare for, Paul had family obligations, and Tim had holiday gigs already on his calendar, so other than maybe a jam session or two, the band went on hiatus until after the new year.

Keith in Black

Looking spiffy for an anniversary party.

The solo gig had been in the works for a year. Friends of mine and my parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary, and it had been requested that I provide entertainment. After convincing all the concerned parties that ETGB – and ETGB’s volume – would not be appropriate for such a setting, I went to work finding an accompanist. My first choice had recently told the world he we done doing music, so I called up my nephew, Kevin, and asked if he’d be interested in earning some sweet bucks playing for me – to my relief, he agreed. I cooked up an hour or so of songs I though he could do with little trouble, and we started rehearsing. It wasn’t long until I realized Kevin was FAR too good for my song choices – the young musician was BORED. So I began looking for harder songs, most of which he learned with no problem. A couple of songs he couldn’t wrap his head around – the music videos had dual guitars, so he couldn’t decide what he should or should not be playing. A couple of songs, he just flat out didn’t like, so trying to convince him to tough it out and learn the tune was like pulling teeth. We took a break so I could do the musical, then we learned the last two songs for the show, the two requests from our hosts. With no time to spare, we had enough songs to do the gig.

The musical introduced me to a lovely pianist and music instructor, Erin, who had been instrumental in getting the music portion of the show accomplished. As soon as the show was over, I contacted her about putting together a lounge/cabaret style act, hopefully with her doing half the singing. She said she’d be delighted, and I got to work trying to come up with not just songs, but a theme. Love seemed to be the only thing I could agree with myself on, so that became the reason behind my song choices. Erin and I got together to feel each other out as much as anything else – as much as we had in common, we had just as much as polar opposites. I located about half the songs I was after, then just as we were about to fall into a groove, I needed to put us on hold while ETGB got Tim into the fold, and  I got Kevin and the November show behind me.

The anniversary party went great. Kevin was a huge hit, impressing everyone in attendance with his talent and skill, including a couple of professional musicians. My banter needed a little work – I’d gotten lazy, depending on my piano partner to carry half the banter load, so I personally thought I came across stilted, like I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. I paid my nephew his fee, and then gave him the bonus we’d received from doing a fine job, hopeful the experience had inspired him to want to do more.

No such luck. Kevin was a hard rocker. This adult contemporary stuff I’d been force-feeding him the last year just wasn’t his cup of tea. When he wasn’t playing rhythm in his dad’s AC/DC tribute band, Kevin was helping write songs with a lovely young woman with amazing pipes, Jett Moon. Jett Moon had been the act ahead of ETGB at one of the biker rallies last year, and she had impressed me – couldn’t hold it against the young man for wanting to play for her instead of me.

I let Erin know I was free and asked what her schedule looked like – she was working on an album of Broadway show tunes with some folks. I told her to not rush the process, do what she needed to do and enjoy herself, let me know when she was done.

Two accompanists in my rolodex and both were busy working with someone else – I was bummed. I spent ETGB’s hiatus doing nothing.

Well, almost nothing. I turn 50 in 2016. Years ago, I promised my counselor I would treat milestone birthdays with the respect such events deserve – I spent my 40th birthday out of state at a casino with some of my closets friends (which was fantastic, had a great time), hadn’t celebrated since; I was morally and contractually obligated to do something special this year. Two of my best friends, Michele and Kim, were turning 50 as well, just weeks within my birthday – Michele suggested (commanded) we share a birthday party, make it a three-way event – she’d drive down from Kentucky, Kim would drive up from outside of Houston, and we would rock out with ETGB for the night. So instead of learning my love songs and searching for the remaining sheet music or advertising for an acoustic guitarist, I spent my time researching locations and caterers. Once the new year hit, what had been pencilled in would be changed to ink – we’d have our shindig on March 12th, after Michele’s birthday, just before Kim’s, close enough to mine to still be considered my party. I shelved plans to include my 25th wedding anniversary; and plans to include my parent’s belated 50th wedding anniversary fell by the wayside when none of the family could make all of the event. My birthday bash would only be my birthday bash.

Kes O'Hara

The amazing Kes O’Hara

My original idea was to have my brother, Kelly’s band open for us – it would guarantee he and his family could make the event, and maybe we could get in a major jam in at the end of the night. Couldn’t work out the logistics: it would take too long to set them up just to tear them back down again; then ETGB would need to spend an hour at the high point of the party setting up. So I crossed my fingers Kelly wouldn’t get booked into a gig (lost that bet), and instead I contacted one of my favorite female vocalists in town, Kes O’Hara. Kes is one of my musical inspirations: when she isn’t knocking them dead with her originals band, Hush Money, she’s slaying with a covers band, Red Light Special; playing acoustic sets all over town; and hosting karaoke nights. If Janis Joplin was Australian and sang Bon Scott AC/DC tunes, she’d be Kes. The woman is a road warrior, and the fact she makes most of her money with MUSIC keeps me going when I fret I’m too old and unskilled to make this Rock Star thing happen.

Michele suggested we just have the party at the last place we all three were together, Chasers Lounge in East Dallas. If I booked the band that night, I would’t need to rent a venue, and if none of our friends made it to the event, the regulars would still have a band to rock out to all night. ETGB was down for playing on the 12th; the goddess who runs Chasers, Teresa, had an opening that night; we decided to forget catering and settled on chips and snacks; the ladies worked out their travel plans; my lovely Lady Fair cleaned house, I and the rest of the band got rehearsed up.

After such a long break, it felt amazing singing with the guys again. A new player meant new songs, stretching those musical muscles. Biggest obstacle in rehearsals was getting used to the new sound we were making. Tim has a different sensibility to the music than Gary; where Gary would go high, play a fifth or a full octave above Paul, Tim would go low, play a third down. Tim also custom built his guitar, so the quality of the sound was different – songs we’d performed since I joined the band suddenly sounded brand new. And he could sing – Tim could harmonize as well as handle lead vocals. For the first time in years, we had four vocalists again. Weekend after weekend, the music started pulling together. By March 5th, we were all starting to lose our minds – we needed to be in front of a crowd. I named the party “The ‘It’s All Downhill’ Birthday Bash and Concert,” not just as a play on the old adage about us having passed our peak, but from an old “Men’s Health” interview I’d read on Matthew McConaughey. He talked about how he’d finally learned how to enjoy running downhill – not only is it easier, but it’s easier for a reason: you can run just that much faster. I liked that thought. The hard part is behind me now: I know who I am, what I am, and who and what I’m willing to give it all for… everything from this point is all downhill. I can coast, or I can run that much that much faster.

Me singing

I have lost my entire mind.

Michele and her wonderful wife, Mary, came down Thursday to stay with me and the lovely Lady Fair. We spoiled them with Whataburger when they arrived, filled them up full of barbecue on Friday, then took them to our favorite taco joint Saturday for lunch before we headed to the gig. Kim and her kids drove up Saturday, making it to Chasers just as Kes was getting ready for her opening set. I’d set the party for 5, then scheduled Kes to start at 6, secure in the knowledge all my peeps would be at least 30 to 45 minutes late – I had miscalculated: at 6, none of my friends, included the birthday girl, Kim, had made it yet. I told Kes she could chill until 6:30, then if my co-conspirator was still not in attendance, she’d just have to miss the start of the show. Just as Kim and the kids showed, my peeps began arriving; and when I state my peeps, I mean MY peeps: friends I hadn’t seen in months and sometimes years, friends who had never been to one of my band’s shows, started streaming through the door. I stopped hugging my friends long enough to introduce Kes, then started making the rounds.

Kes was on fire. The birthday bash was the second of three shows she had booked that day, and evidently her first crowd treated her as background noise all afternoon long. We, on the other hand, were singing along and applauding, enjoying all the song selections. Kes fed on the feedback, and gave an inspired show, one the best I’d ever heard from her – she was not ready to call it quits when I asked the crowd to give her a final big round of happy applause. Kes gave me a big hug as she headed out to her last gig, and ETGB did our soundcheck – another huge round of applause. Evidently, the levels were fine.

Paul and Tim

Pauly and the new guy, Tim, loving life

The band hit the first chords of our opening set, and I looked out towards the back of Chasers Lounge, seeing my oldest friends smiling and laughing along the back wall. Any thoughts about the fact we had three sets to get through completely fled my brain – I opened up and sang like my life depended on it, showing off like a schoolboy in choir. By the end of the set, I knew I was in trouble – my throat was already on fire, and we hadn’t even got to the tougher songs. It came time to showcase Tim and our new songs. He started the opening strumming, then started hitting the chords to “Pinball Wizard.” Right on cue, Paul and Dave hit their power chords – the hair on the back on my neck stood up. By the next power chord, I was nearly in tears, I was so happy. Tim started to sing, so I snuck a glance at the crowd – nothing but smiles, people clapping along, and feet started to move. We had our new signature song.

We took our first break, and I headed over to my friends. “Holy Crap! I had no idea you were so good!” I hugged my buddy and thanked him – it didn’t matter I’d be mute on Sunday, I’d be singing my brains out the rest of the night after that.

The one downside of the night was a mistake in judgement on my part.

The day after I buried Bobby, the band had a gig out at a biker rally in East Texas. I wanted to dedicate a song to him that day, but the band hadn’t had any time to work something up; so in an act of inspired desperation, I picked the song in the dead center of our set, Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” I say “inspired.” because once the gig was over, Michele (who had been staying with me for the funeral and had come with me to the gig) wiped away her tears and explained “If you think about Bobby in context with the song, it makes perfect sense. It’s the perfect tribute song.” And she was right – so since that Saturday, any time the band had performed “You May Be Right,” I had dedicated it to him.

That Saturday, people who had never seen the band, people I had not seen since I buried Bobby almost two years ago, were all standing along the back wall as I raised my shot glass. “So we’re gonna dedicate this next song to our fallen brother, Bobby, the CRAZIEST MOE FOE I ever knew!” Paul played the opening licks, the rest of the band joined in, and I belted out:

“Friday night, I crashed your party. Saturday, I said I’m sorry. 
Sunday came and we trashed it out again.
We were only having fun, wasn’t hurting anyone,
And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change!”

Birthday Cake

Teresa bringing Mary, Michele, me, and Kim our surprise birthday cake.

As I pulled the microphone away from my face, my oldest friends… who had been Bobby’s oldest friends… were hugging each other, crying. I’d been singing this tribute for almost two years – I was no longing getting choked up. Michele knew I’d been dedicating the song to Bobby, my lovely Lady Fair, Kristi, had heard me sing the song to Bobby, so they were ready – my other friends, however, were caught totally off guard. The love and loss and grief welled up inside them as they all but held each other up as I sang. Tears threatened to well up in my eyes, so I looked away as quickly as I could, fixating on Paul and Tim on my left, the bar crowd on my right. We ended the song strong, and I made a mental note I owed nearly everybody I loved an apology – so sorry I didn’t think to give you a heads up.

By the time we ended the night, I had nothing left – my high notes were gone, my low notes were forced, and I was tasting blood in the back of my throat. We called it quits early enough for me to enjoy a beer and a shot for a change, an indulgence I usually skip since I’m usually driving my Mustang home. I paid the band, enjoyed my shot, enjoyed a second shot, and nursed my beer as Kristi and I chatted with Teresa. Could not have asked for a better first gig of the year, could not have asked for a better birthday bash.

My journey to rock stardom is back on track.

25 Years

DSVpatch As far as my musical life is concerned, everything has been turned on its ear. The band lost our secret weapon to health issues; my solo work guitarist joined a band; my new piano player and singing partner got called away to work on a Broadway album; so musically, I was a dead man walking during the holidays. Good news is the band has a new guitarist and vocalist, and our first official show with the new line-up is in two weeks, which just happens to be my annual Birthday Bash – I will have a Rock Star post about the bash soon after; and as soon as I’ve cleared the air with my two musicians, I’m hoping to have another post or two.

In the meantime…

I wrote this over on Facebook, decided I needed to go ahead and share this here. Because even though this blog is supposed to be about me becoming a Rock Star, this is part of who I am, and a big reason I am who I am.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I joined the Army, it was three weeks after the invasion of Kuwait. I did not join because I wanted to get shipped off to the Persian Gulf – I joined because my work life was going nowhere, I was in love with a wonderful woman I could not support, and I was desperate to feel that sense of belonging and purpose I had back when I’d been a kid in Boy Scouts and JROTC. I wanted to belong to something greater than myself… but I also didn’t want anyone asking me why I didn’t have the stones to go off and do my patriotic duty. So even though there was a very good chance I’d find myself in the middle of a desert in six months time, I signed the paperwork, took my oath, and headed off to Basic Training a month later, September 25th, 1990.

I got my orders to go to Desert Storm on February 1st, 1991; I got married on the 3rd, and then graduated on the 8th. I took a quick trip back to Texas so that everyone I cared about would have one last memory of me laughing and smiling; and then I flew back to Augusta, Georgia, where I would spend the next week doing… well, nothing. Somewhere deep inside the Pentagon, it was still being debated exactly how many troops would be necessary for the Persian Gulf; while the Generals and Admirals made up their minds, I spent a week picking up garbage, mowing grass, and trying to stay out from underfoot. Even after I was shipped down the road to Fort Benning to be outfitted, there was still scuttlebutt our particular group of soldiers wouldn’t be called on, more than enough boots were already on the ground. So while we took possession of our still-wet from gun oil M16A1’s and fresh, never-before-used protective masks complete with atropine injectors, the ones of us with something or someone to lose kept hoping and praying we’d get left behind.

February 19th all that hoping and praying were for nothing. We all loaded up onto a double-decker jumbo jet, wedging all our gear in around us, and took off. First for New York City for fueling and supplies; then to Belguim for more fuel and fresh pilots; and then finally to King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. The trip took nearly twenty hours – even though we’d boarded around 6am, I stayed awake the entire flight. The last thing I wanted to do was rush this trip, so I did all I could to make the flight last as long as possible.

I’ve always had a high opinion of myself – I’m smart, talented, and semi-charming when I’m not trying too hard. I never thought I’d actually end up in a war zone – somehow, someway, the Universe would pull some strings at the last second, poke me in the ribs and exclaim “Psyche!” and put my butt somewhere else out of harm’s way. I was still holding on to that delusion five minutes before the jumbo jet landed – the pilot came over the loud speaker:

“This is your captain speaking. We’re coming up on King Fahd International Airport and are going to start our descent. Since we’re not sure what can of reception to expect, we’re going to corkscrew in so it’s harder to get a bead on us. If at any time I hear bullets bouncing off this aircraft, I will gun the engines and we will head back to Belgium. Attendants, prepare for final approach.”

Never before in my life had I ever prayed to be fired on – my prayers were not answered. Twenty minutes later, I was on the tarmac and carrying my gear towards an airplane hangar full of cots. And it hit me that I was not one of God’s favorites – I wasn’t going to get a last-second reprieve; I was going to war. Worse, I was no longer a person – I was just a thumbtack on a map signifying unit strength and placement. While I could say that I was truly a part of something bigger than myself for the first time in years, I’d done so by sacrificing my individuality. I was just a service number on someone’s clipboard somewhere, a faceless, nameless cog in the military machine. If I died, no one I cared about would know for months, maybe years.

(Maybe not at all. The Army had sent me overseas in such a rush, my records had become lost. I would be stateside six months before my records would catch up with me in Colorado.)

Since the 8th, every time I stepped onto a vehicle, some of the soldiers I knew and had trained with had been pealed away and sent somewhere else. Graduation had sent all the Reservists and Guardsman back to their homes, including my best friend and Best Man; the trip to Fort Benning had separated more of my old company; and after a night at the airport, the replacement detachment people divided up even more of my old squad. By the time I loaded up onto the old, rickety double-decker bus, I was by myself. No one I’d met in Basic Training was still with me. My support system was now the Army. I’d have to depend on the fact we were all in the same uniform to prompt my brothers and sisters to watch my back… just as they’d depend on their uniform to prompt me to watch theirs. Which is how my particular experiences differs from my contemporaries, my other friends around my age with military experience like my band leader – when they were sent into hairy situations, they were with the people they knew, soldiers they had trained with. They knew how each squad member would react in given situations, had some indication as to how their NCO’s and officers would lead them. I had none of that – all my friends, squad members, NCO’s and officers were gone. I was surrounded by hundreds of people wearing my uniform, and yet I was completely alone.

(Well… sort of wearing my uniform. While I had gotten a new rifle, bayonet, helmet, and protective mask, I had not been issued a Desert Camouflage Battle Dress Uniform – I was still wearing the Woodland Green BDU’s I gotten in AIT, the replacements for the set I’d been issued in Basic Training that no longer fit after I’d dropped forty pounds. The other soldiers that had been snatched up directly out of AIT were also in green BDU’s – the joke soon became if some sort of enemy aircraft came in for a strafing run, we should all huddle together and try to camouflage ourselves as an oasis.)

There is scared, and then there is scared… and then there is what I was experiencing. I was numb. It was as if someone had injected novocaine into my emotional core – I was thinking clearly, I knew exactly what was going on, I understood what was being explained to me and I followed orders to the letter… there was just no emotional response to any of it. I was scared past the point my system could process it, so it had stopped processing anything: no fear, no joy, no skepticism, no anger, no longing, no nothing. As far as emotions were concerned, I was a functioning corpse.

(While I was awake – asleep, I had nightmares of being chased by something horrible trying to kill me. One night it was Jason from the “Friday the 13th” series; the next night, it was the Alien aboard The Nostromo; zombies shambled after me one night; and one extra special night, it was the giant spider I’d first dreamed of when I was four years old, the jet-black horror the size of a VW Beetle that had haunted me ever since. Every night, I sat up, jolted awake by whatever it was pursuing me, trying to catch my breath and hoping I didn’t cry out in my sleep… only to realize I was in the Army, sleeping in the dirt with my field jacket as a pillow, in the middle of a war zone. And then I would wish I was still asleep – as terrible as the nightmare had been, it was less terrifying than the reality I was living.)

DesertStorm I was supposed to join an artillery unit that was laying down suppressing fire for the 101st, but my convoy got stuck waiting for a tank division to cross the one and only highway going our direction for four hours; by the time we reached the halfway station, it was after dark. Since it was pitch black and a wrong turn meant finding yourself inside the wrong end of Iraq, our bus driver refused to go any further – we’d carry on at first light. That night, February 22nd, the ground assault officially started; and by first light, the unit I was supposed to be joining was one hundred miles in country. The decision was made that I and the rest of the replacements would stay at the halfway station until our receiving units found a place to park.

(Replacements. The military estimated that there would be 30,000 casualties the first wave of the ground assault, so all of the units had the number of their personnel increased to 125% capacity. I and the rest of the soldiers I was holed up with were to replace those unit members injured or killed during the first wave, which is why a communications graduate was being sent to an artillery unit.)

I don’t pray often. Not because I don’t think it works, but because of the exact opposite – I do think prayer works, and if a prayer of mine is to be answered, I want to make sure it’s a situation completely out of my realm of control, as close to a miracle as possible. It’s rare when I pray, but I found myself gazing into the heavens that night. That far out in the middle of nowhere, there are no ambient city lights to interfere, so stars are visible all across the sky. In all my years of Scouting and volunteering with The Order of The Arrow, I had never seen some many stars. I had listened to everything my drill sergeants had been telling me since late September, I knew what was expected and what had been planned for, and I knew what my chances were expected to be. I wasn’t scared of dying – when you’re dead, you’re dead, nothing left to worry about – but I couldn’t shake something one of our drill sergeants had said weeks earlier:

“It’s not the bullet that has your name on it you have to worry about – it’s going to find you no matter what – it’s the one labeled ‘To Whom It May Concern” you gotta look out for. ‘Cause it don’t care who or what it hits.”

I didn’t want to lose my legs. I didn’t want to end up blind. I didn’t want to be maimed. I didn’t know how strong I could be, and I didn’t want to put my wife of less than a month through a lifetime of nursing me. So I prayed. I asked whoever or whatever it was that had me convinced there was a higher power at work to not let me be crippled; if going home whole was not to be, then please, just go ahead and kill me.

I then told the Universe I’d make it easy. I had every intention of going home. I had a new wife I’d never been on a honeymoon with, never lived with as a married couple with, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get the chance of experiencing the simple joys with her. I was going home, so whatever and whoever got in-between me and her had to go. I’d kill whoever I needed to, I’d destroy whatever I needed to, I’d become whatever monster I needed to be to make that goal. I wasn’t asking forgiveness – I was just stating fact. If I wasn’t to go home, then kill me now, because there would be no middle ground.

Four days later, the cease-fire was called. The middle ground wouldn’t be necessary – I’d be going home. And well sooner than expected: mine had been one of the last planes to land before the ground assault, so I was with stationed with a bunch of Independent Ready Reservists who’d been called up with just days left on their contracts. The IRR’s had careers and families back in the States, and their wives were hard at work, calling their Congresspeople to get their husbands sent back home ricky-tick. Their combined pestering worked, so instead of the six months I’d expected to spend in the Persian Gulf, I spent just under six weeks, long enough to earn a couple of medals and the right to wear a combat patch.

After that, life happened so fast, I didn’t have a lot of time to process what I’d been through… other than to notice my head suddenly sparkled. Where once I’d had a stray silver hair here or there, I now had hundreds of stark white strands all over. I moved my wife to Colorado Springs for two years of active duty; then to Arlington, TX for three years of Reserves while I want to art school at night, holding down a full-time job during the day. It wasn’t until after I got my orders moving my status to the IRR and I graduated that the war began to seep in. Not showering enough love and praise on my deserving wife was the first indication something wasn’t completely up to snuff; a lingering dissatisfaction with my day job and it’s lack of social significance another. But it was after the invasion of Iraq that everything came bursting out.

9-11 had been traumatic, but no more so for me than it was for any other American; the invasion of Afghanistan didn’t bother me, really – if anything, I was disappointed it had taken weeks to get to doing what I thought would be undertaken the week after the Twin Towers came down; but when the military went into Iraq, something inside me snapped. Iraq had been my war, and my war had been over for a decade. I had gotten accustomed to my participation being overlooked or even forgotten… and yet, here it was: boots in Iraq, fighting my war all over again, restarting what I had been led to believe had been finished. As I watched the news, as I saw the troops land inside my war zone, I began to sniffle. Slow tears began to slide down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes and went back to getting ready for my day job, making pretty pictures to sell couches to the Middle class… only the tears kept coming. Not a sobbing fit… just slowly tearing up, clearing my throat and wiping me eyes, over and over and over again, for the next three days.

For three days, the only time I wasn’t crying was when I was asleep. I stayed home from work. The counselor I’d started seeing after my marriage had started to crumble was sympathetic, but not much help. If I wanted the tears to stop, I’d need to confront all the stuff I’d buried a decade earlier.

There’s an unspoken truth to being a soldier: you’re only truly a soldier when you’ve done your job during a war. Whatever you’re particular job specialty, part of what you train for, part of what you prepare for, is doing that job in the field during a combat operation. And while the training and preparation is vitally important, it is still not the real thing; soldiers with combat patches – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – get afforded a higher level of respect than soldiers without. I had a combat patch; I had felt that respect while I served; but I also felt like a fraud – I’d only done half my job. I knew what it was like to stand up and be counted, I knew what it was like to be ready to lay down my life, and I knew what it was like to be in a war zone surrounded by not just enemies, but FEAR… but I didn’t know what it was to be under fire; I didn’t know what it was like to be counted on to protect my brothers and sisters; I didn’t know what it was like to take another life in defense of everything I hold dear; and I especially didn’t know if my courage would hold true in the face of hopeless odds.

During the war, I’d been prepared to do terrible things – now, years later, part of me was thankful I’d never had to do those terrible things; but just as large a part of me was wracked with guilt I hadn’t done those terrible things. Thankful I hadn’t had to do a terrible job, but left feeling like a fake because I hadn’t had to do a terrible job. And now that ground forces were back in Iraq, I was thankful I wasn’t there with them, yet feeling guilty that I wasn’t still serving my country; and worse, even more guilty for feeling thankful it wasn’t me overseas a second time.

For years, my wife and I would see and read reports of people who’d never finished their military contracts finding themselves called back into uniform years later. People a hundred pounds overweight, grandmothers in their 50’s, high-paid executives who had forgotten to resign their commissions, all being backdoor-drafted back into serving. And even though I knew my contract was over, I’d received my letter saying I’d been removed from IRR roll, I still went to the mailbox every day with dread, half-expecting to find the letter commanding me to go to my nearest recruitment center, half-hoping to find that same letter so the dread and the guilt would finally be over.

I was at home, in-between freelance assignments, when the troops officially left Iraq a few years ago. I cried as I watched the convoy cross over the border. Since that day, I haven’t had a nightmare about being reenlisted in the Army – while there were still troops in Iraq, I had that nightmare every six to eight weeks or so.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It’s the middle of an election season, so the anniversary of the ground assault has been overlooked and ignored by the media except for the military magazines and newspapers. It originally took about two years for me to go from being an American hero to a footnote. Back in 1993-94, the economy was starting to improve, unemployment was dropping, and the stock market was beginning a meteoric rise. The Persian Gulf had been the former President’s war, and he was gone, replaced by charismatic Southerner who had never served in uniform. No one was still itching to shake the hand of a veteran any more – they all had important things to do.

After the caskets started coming back week after week, month after month, after “Mission Accomplished” had been declared, suddenly the same folks who’d had important things to do ten years earlier were crying as they hugged me, thanking me for my service. by 2006, I was back to being an American hero again.

Another ten years have passed, and I’m back to being a footnote. The veterans of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are probably starting to experience that sensation, as well. No one is talking about the “advisors” that are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one is talking about the backlogs in the VA hospitals, and no one is talking about the suicide rate among the recently discharged veterans.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Since mid-January, when I haven’t thought about my 50th birthday party bash in March, I’ve looked at the calendar and remembered where I was 25 years ago. This isn’t just my 25th Wedding Anniversary, and this isn’t just my 50th birthday… this is the 25th anniversary of my becoming a Desert Storm veteran, and like it or not, that is just as important as the other two events. I’d be lying if I said there were never times I wished that wasn’t the case… but it is what it is. And I am who I am.