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.

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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.

A Study In Contrasts, Part One

Hank Green Dallas Poster

I wish I could get away with doing this kind of venue poster… ’cause this rocks!

I am still looking for a daytime gig. Lately, my search has been hampered by my schedule: I walk into a job interview, and good manners dictates that I warn my prospective employer that if they hire me, the first thing they have to do is give me a couple of days off. Without pay, of course – no entitlements here, I don’t expect to be paid if I don’t work – but the dates I need off have been on my calendar for weeks, and I can’t bail on contractual obligations. This is the kind of confession that makes for awkward interviews – I’m glad that last week is now last week and firmly in my rearview mirror.

Last Tuesday, my wife and I had a concert date in Dallas. Last Thursday, The East Texas Garage Band was the opening act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. Last Saturday night/Sunday morning at 12:30 am, The East Texas Garage Band was the closing act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. So last week was one extremely busy week.

The first half of the week:

My lovely Lady Fair and I are big fans of John and Hank Green, collectively known as The Vlog Brothers. Long story short, years ago they attempted a social experiment on a then unknown new media platform called YouTube: they would only communicate to each other through video chats (video blogs, or vlogs for short) for a year; no phone calls, no emails, no letters – just over YouTube. Vlogs had to be less than four minutes (unless explaining something academic) and messages had to occur everyday, or the offending brother had to perform a punishment, usually picked by the viewers. Back when nobody knew what YouTube could be used for, this concept was revolutionary; given the parameters, Hank and John were forced to be as original and creative as possible. Their experiment soon became one of the Must Watch channels of the fledgling media platform.

John went on to become a very successful writer of Young Adult novels, with two of my favorites (The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns) being adapted into fantastic movies. Hank took his knowledge of the World Wide Web and YouTube in particular and started producing new content, my favorite being the web series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice using only vlogs to forward the story). Nearly a decade later, they still chat to each other via YouTube – still under four minutes, still can’t miss a day, but now only on Tuesdays and Fridays – and it is still Must Watch for me and the lovely Lady Fair.

Hank Green

Hank Green, photo courtesy of US News

During the initial run of The Vlog Brothers, John convinced Hank to give songwriting a try, which resulted in the wildly entertaining Accio, Deathly Hallows,” a song about how Hank wanted author JK Rowlings to hurry up and finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so he could read it. That video of Hank singing his first song ended up being so popular it appeared on YouTube’s landing page, netting The Vlog Brothers thousands of new fans. Soon, John and Hank had dubbed this community The Nerdfighters, with a simple and glorious mission statement: we were here to stop world suck. To that end, they organized a charitable institution, challenged the Nerdfighters to make videos promoting their good cause of choice, and gave money to the charities with the most votes during the annual Project for Awesome. Last year, twenty charities collectively received over $1 Million in donations from Project for Awesome and The Nerdfighters.

It kind of goes without saying… my lovely Lady Fair and I are proud to be Nerdfighters.

Over the years, Hank’s songwriting has morphed into a singing career. He writes and sings delightfully goofy and rocking songs called The Universe Is Weird and I Love Science.” When he isn’t busy producing and starring in videos and running the Nerdfighters’ warehouse of swag (known has the DFTBA Warehouse, DFTBA being the initialism of The Nerdfighters’ motto, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), Hank records songs, produces CDs, and every so often goes on a tour. Somehow, the stars aligned just so, and Hank and his merry band of musical cohorts decided to visit the middle of the country, with stops in Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

I saw that one of the stops was Dallas. I saw that the date was on a Tuesday night, before my lovely Lady Fair’s day off on Wednesday. I still didn’t have a job to wake up for. The tickets were stupid cheap. I told the lovely Lady Fair, “This is too good of an opportunity to pass up. I don’t care if we are broke as hell – we have to go. This might be our only chance.” Just so happened my Mother-in-Law felt bad she hadn’t taken me out for dinner on my Birthday, and wanted to make amends – she bought the tickets. The show would be in Deep Ellum, which meant we only needed to drive about twenty minutes to get to the club.

Deep Ellum is an amazingly eclectic area taking in Pacific Avenue, Main Street, Elm Street, Commerce Street, and Canton as they lay West of Exposition Avenue and East of the 1-75 overpass. Deep Ellum comes from the mispronunciation of “Deep Elm Street” by the early African-American and European immigrant residents in start of the 20th Century. Henry Ford’s first Model T factory was in Deep Ellum, stayed there until the 1930’s. Adams Hats housed their headquarters there for a time. In the 1920’s, Deep Ellum was the place to take in Jazz and Blues, with Robert Parker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly Ledbetter as frequent performers. From the 1980’s to its heyday in the 1990’s, Deep Ellum was the place for new music, with 57 bars and nightclubs hosting local and up-and-coming bands. The Toadies, Old 97s, Tripping Daisy, The Butthole Surfers, and The New Bohemians could all be found honing their craft in venues like Trees and Club Dada 20-25 years ago. A reputation for being crime-ridden and dangerous almost put the area out of business when the recession of the 2000’s hit; and by 2006, most of the bars and nightclubs had closed – here in the last few years, however, there’s been a small renaissance in Deep Ellum, with new music venues seemingly opening up every week. Storefronts, restaurants, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, art galleries… the area just has a groovy, arty vide that appeals to folks who prefer to be just a bit left of center. A musical buddy of mine took in the music scene in Los Angeles, Austin, and Deep Ellum, and decided to relocate to Dallas – out of the three destinations, Deep Ellum had the highest concentration of venues, thus more opportunities for a musician to make some cash.

Harry and The Potters

Harry and The Potters, photo courtesy of their website

I wasn’t surprised Hank Green and his tour landed in Deep Ellum. We got there about an hour before the venue, The Door, opened at 7 pm. Before long, my introvert wife was chiming in on the conversations around us, because one must always chime in when someone asks “Which house were you sorted into?” regardless if they were speaking to you or not – it is a moral imperative. One of our line mates, a Potterhead who may or may not have pre-loaded before heading to the gig, talked about how he and his cohorts had a couple of songs up in YouTube, songs they had shot at various location guerilla-style. Once we got inside and settled, I made it a point to catch the young man’s attention and ask him more about his side-project indy band, which he happily gushed about. Later in the night, after visiting the bar more than once, my new friend came and found me – after raving about how good all the bands were, not just the band he was here to see, he pulled me in close. “Can I ask you a question?”

I put my hand on his shoulder and leaned in so I could hear him. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Why haven’t you offered to take me home yet?”

I stared at him for a second, then gestured to my lovely Lady Fair with my chin. “Because my wife is sitting right there beside me.” His eyes didn’t register what I had said. “I just don’t swing that way.”

His eyes welled with disappointment. “That’s all you had to say.”

I kept my hand on his shoulder and leaned into his ear. “My oldest friend in the world was as queer as a three dollar bill. I went to my first gay bar at 18, didn’t make it to my first straight bar until I was 21. It’s all good.”

He looked miserable. “Then why can’t I find someone? I drive to Memphis just to have breakfast, I have seven brooms on my wall ready for Quidditch – where are my gay nerds?” He looked at the ground, swaying a little. “Why am I alone?”

I looked him in the eye. “I don’t know. I thought you were fascinating the minute I met you, and I would love to know you better. It will happen for you, but it will happen when you stop looking.” I put my free hand on his heart. “All I can tell you is, in the meantime, you’re gonna have to learn to love you.”

I kept his gaze as I watched to see if that sunk in. My new friend pulled me into a light hug and kissed my cheek before wandering back off into the crowd. My lovely wife looked at me with her patented WTF? look. I shrugged. “I was just hit on.”

Driftless Pony Club

Driftless Pony Club, photo courtesy of their website

She laughed and made a comment about only being seen as a beard for Gay Guys. I just smiled and said, “Watch your step – evidently, I have options.”

Other than Hank, the only other band I had heard of before was Harry and The Potters, Probably the best known band of the mostly unknown music genre of Wizard Rock (Wrock for short). Wrock is bands and songs based on the books and movies devoted to Harry Potter, pure and simple. Draco and The Malfoys, The Moaning Myrtles, The Whomping Willows – all Wrock Bands. Harry and The Potters are known for putting on amazingly fun shows, as videos of their gigs at LeakyCon can attest. Their mastery of the audience coupled with their surprising musical skills made for an incredible set.

Driftless Pony Club is Craig Benzine’s band. Craig is better known as Weezy Waiter on YouTube, another early pioneer of the platform. Back when you could count the number of original content creators on YouTube on one hand, those content creators often contacted each other, helping promote each other’s endeavors, and thus a core friendship developed. Craig is often on Mental Floss’s YouTube channel, substituting for John Green as host; he also hosts the Government addition to Hank’s educational web series Crash Course. Drifless Pony Club was new to me, but I enjoyed them immensely. Craig stated that Weezer was a big influence on his songwriting; listening to the band perform, though, I got the feel of more of a marriage between Kings of Leon and The Knack, and in the best of ways.

Rob Scallon Andrew Huang

Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang, photos courtesy of their YouTube channels

I’d never heard of Rob Scallon or Andrew Huang, two musicians with their own very popular YouTube channels. After hearing them perform, however, I am rectifying that, as they were both incredible. Scallon played an 8-string guitar with a heavy reverb and major delay, creating almost hypnotic instrumental melodies; Huang took a sampler and looped the sound he made from balloons, boxes of quinoa, and cans of chickpeas to create backing tracks for the songs he sang. Both blew me away.

Hank was surprisingly sweet and awkward. It still amazes him that the skinny kid who planned on growing up and going into ecology and web design is singing original tunes in front of screaming crowds, and it shows – he is extremely polite and almost embarrassingly humble. Watching him perform with his backing band, The Perfect Strangers, is to watch pure joy; he doesn’t just dance on stage – he POGOS to his infectious, ridiculously catchy songs tinged with the punk and ska influences of his high school days. With seemingly thousands of words crammed into every lyric, his songs can only be described as Nerd Rock, and honestly, I am now jealous as all get out he gets to perform Nerd Rock and I do not.

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers, photo courtesy of Shelley Jones’ YouTube channel

The most amazing part of seeing Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers was how my lovely wife and I felt being in the crowd, standing in line, then finding our place in the club, and eventually joining the masses near the stage: we felt at home. Welcome. Wasn’t uncomfortable being in a crowded venue, didn’t feel out of place surrounded by kids half our age. Everywhere we looked, we say Harry Potter neckties and DFTBA t-shirts; quotes from The Fault In Our Stars and the Titansgrave web series; and most of all, we saw people being un-ironically enthusiastic about the fun they were experiencing watching their favorite bands. Nobody was trying to be too hip for the room, nobody was trying to be too cool for the proceedings: everybody was loud and dancing and just loving being in the moment. Everybody was nerding out.

This was the sensation that the lovely Lady Fair – and, to and certain degree, I, too – had been missing at my band’s shows. We’re not Bikers – we’re Nerds. We’re proud to be Nerds. For the first time in a very long time, we were with our people – this was our tribe, and we could be who we are with no worries. We left the club exhausted but invigorated… our feet were tired, but our hearts and souls were full.

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.

Somewhere That’s Green

Doo Wops rehearsing

My lovelies, The Doo Wops, during rehearsals: Tracy, Crystal, Becka, and Cheray.

I was planning on writing a small novel about performing in Little Shop of Horrors, but once again Life has a way of changing my plans. So while I am commenting on the musical, this post is about being at the crossroads.

The musical was amazing. It had been a while since I last acted, so it was a joy to stretch those creative muscles. It was also extremely fulfilling to work with folks who didn’t consider themselves singers, helping to show them that the same artistic choices that go into drama are the same choices that go into musical theatre – as the artist, you’re attempting to convey a message to the audience and create an emotional reaction; the difference is you’re using song instead of prose. Helping turn actors into singers and singers into actors is an experience I won’t soon forget.

I’m looking forward to doing more work with Erin, our piano player and music coach during rehearsals, as we are already putting a show together. My Doo Wops – Tracy, Crystal, Becka, and Cheray  – all stole my heart with their enthusiasm and energy. Our Audrey, Sherri, may be the single most talented person I’ve met in a long time: amazing voice, amazing range, amazing ability with accents, and the single best cold read of a script I’ve ever heard. Our puppeteer, Hayden, never failed to tickle me with his backstage anecdotes, and never failed to make my vocals look good out front. I finally got the opportunity to work with two very talented gentlemen, Mitch and Dorman, a personal dream of mine come true. I am so looking forward to seeing Hannah act, having adored her as our Assistant Director. The Vagabond Player’s founder and my buddy, Ron, gained a whole new respect for what I do as a vocalist as he learned basic singing techniques; while I got to peer behind the curtain to see how the magic is made as he produced mayhem into a show; experiences that have deepened our appreciation of each other. Our director, Jeff, trusted me far more than he had reason to, an act of faith I’ll always cherish. And the remarkable young man Ron and Jeff found to play Seymour, Austin, not only stunned me with his talent and incredible work ethic, but he is rapidly becoming one of my extended family even while he’s off at college. You can never have enough brothers, and Austin quickly became one.

The set

The absolutely stunning set, with my alter ego center stage.

The musical didn’t go off without a hitch, but after six years of performing live, I didn’t expect it to and it didn’t throw me. The rehearsals also didn’t go off without a hitch, but after a lifetime of dealing with creative people, I didn’t expect it to, artists have a reputation for being temperamental; this did throw me a bit, though. I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I would have to certain events – the intensity of my feelings stunned me. I started one of the early rehearsals with a talk about how being an artist meant making a choice to create something where once there was nothing, and how you couldn’t do that while being a victim – you could only do that by being a warrior. That was a particularly interesting week.

I also wasn’t prepared for my reviews once the musical finally opened – evidently, I did great.

I’m a singer, and Twoey the killer plant is mainly a singing role with the least amount of dialog out of anyone in the main cast. I never really had any doubt I’d nail the songs – my worry was always my speaking parts. Bobby always said as an actor you need to know why you’re walking into a scene and why you’re walking out of a scene – you came from somewhere and you’re going to somewhere, and there’s a reason why. He called this “doing your homework.” So I did my homework: I asked myself “Who is Twoey, really?” Answer: a manipulative con man who convinces other people to do things against their better judgement, all to benefit himself and his end game… or in layman’s terms, Twoey is a pimp. I read and reread my sections of the script, comparing my dialog to the dialog of my fellow actors in the scene, asking myself how a pimp would attempt to sell these lines. I did my best to listen to how my cast mates were reacting to my lines and react to them in kind. I did my best to tailor my songs to best suit the dialog instead of showcasing my voice, which immediately improved my delivery.

When it came time to open the show, I was no longer worried I was going to embarrass myself, which meant I could concentrate on doing what I felt I’d be hired to do: knock Twoey’s songs out of the park. When opening night was a success and the cast was meeting with the audience, I was expecting compliments on my singing – I wasn’t expecting compliments on my acting. Yet that night, and every performance afterward, my acting was as praised as my singing.

For a month, there was nothing but the musical, either rehearsing the entire show or performing the entire show. Then it was the last performance and BOOM! Done. Set torn down, everybody heading their separate ways, and Ron and his wonderful wife, Gayle, moving on to their next show set to open in October. I went from 110 mph to zero in the span of about 90 minutes – my mind and my creative soul were not ready for such an abrupt stop.

Keith as the Narrator

I doubled as the opening narrator; I later came out to sing “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” – the looks on people’s faces when they realized it was the dude in the tux who was voicing the plant – PRICELESS!

I never considered myself an actor. I can deliver a line when I need to, but I’m no Olivier – my first art of choice is singing. With this sudden influx of unexpected praise, my definition of myself was thrown into turmoil. Maybe I’m not a singer who can act; maybe I’m a singer AND an actor. Maybe I always shied away from acting because that was Bobby’s domain, and I could never be the artist he was. Maybe I’ve been limiting the ways I could be performing by adhering so strongly with the vocalist label I’d slapped on myself.

The last few weeks have required a lot of soul-searching, a process that is not yet done. I am still considering more acting – I’m not, however, seriously considering television or movie work. Amazingly enough, that possibility actually came up in a couple of conversations and meetings over the last month or so; with my age, my look, and my open schedule, the consensus was I could be doing some non-union acting gigs if I was willing to do some traveling. I’ve decided against that – if I’m going to spend a few days down in Austin earning next to nothing, I’d rather spend it singing in a bar than standing around on a set. And I still don’t see myself as an actor as much as I now see myself as a performer – while I certainly wouldn’t turn down an extras gig if it came my way, I’d much rather do my acting on a stage, preferably in a musical. I want – I NEED – that audience.

Right now, the pressing matter is what to do about my days. Just found out I missed out on a temp-to-hire job because I didn’t have the latest buzz term on my resumé – had all the skills the buzz term encompassed, mind you, but since I wasn’t acquainted with the new technospeak, I was passed over for someone who was. I am very good at what I do, but evidently I have fallen a step, if not two, behind the times. So the question is: do I swallow my pride, dive head first into the newest technologies and coding to get me up to par so I can get a corporate gig? Or do I chuck 20 years of experience and put all my energies into crafting a performing career that is artistically fulfilling but lacks any kind of financial security or even certainty? And how do I get my head and my heart to agree on a course of action?

Because at this moment, I am truly torn. I don’t know what to do.

Alarm Goes Off at Seven, and You Start Uptown…

Valentine's Day Bash

Valentine’s Day Bash

When I originally started the temp job in 2014, it was understood I was there to do grunt work to help get the two full-timers caught up on the back log and give them some breathing room to work on new projects; and for a couple of weeks, that’s what I did. My term for this is “Production Monkey” – basically, it means I was doing work so basic and simple that a chimpanzee could probably be taught to do it if someone had the time and wherewithal. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a problem with being a Production Monkey – it’s easy, it’s relatively stress-free, it needs to get done, and someone has to be paid to do it, so it may as well be ME. And since it is easy work, I don’t charge as much to do it.

Problem was, I didn’t stay the Production Monkey – the next catalog was coming due. The late senior graphic designer had been the primary artist on catalogs, and now he was gone – the only other person in the Graphics department with anywhere near the same amount of catalog production experience was me, so my friend, the acting Marketing Manager, asked me to take on the task. And since she is my friend – and since I knew she was trying to move from acting to permanent Marketing Manager – I agreed. Twelve months later, I finished my second catalog; by this time, my friend had taken a position with a different company after being passed up for Marketing Manager; and I was still being paid as a Production Monkey, even though I had taken on the role of Catalog/Print Production Specialist and Graphic Designer, significantly harder jobs deserving significantly more money.

Customer Appreciation Day

Customer Appreciation Day

So I told the HR department “It’s been a year, and I’m doing far more than what I was contracted to do. I’d love to stick around and keep doing what I’m doing, but if I’m to do that, I need a raise to a rate in keeping with my job duties.” When I didn’t get an answer right away, I pushed the issue, which got me a meeting with the HR director and the new Graphics Department Director – twenty minutes later, I was in my Mustang with my sunglasses on, heading home. Officially, I had completed my contract with the company – unofficially, the company was going to find someone cheaper than me to do work.

That was six months ago. I’m still looking for a daytime gig to help keep the lights turned on. So far, I’ve interviewed with three different temporary/placement agencies who all seem very enthusiastic about getting me into a position, they send off my packet, and then I don’t hear from the account reps again. Evidently, the enthusiasm is for having a fresh new packet to send off to their clients, not for the prospect of earning some money off of my work ethic.

I should be horribly depressed. I should be shaken to my core what I thought would be a few days, maybe a couple of weeks off, has developed into nearly half a year without a steady paycheck. But I’m not. I feel great.

That’s what a steady diet of singing will do for you – it keeps you feeling great.

I don't see the resemblance, either, but I was asked to do the gig...

I don’t see the resemblance, either, but I was asked to do the gig…

Friends of my parents are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary in November, asked if I would be the evening’s entertainment. My guitar wizard nephew agreed to accompany me, so I’ve been rehearsing new songs for the private show. We’re a little-pigeon-holed by only having the one acoustic guitar for the show, but that’s also forced me to consider songs I wouldn’t normally – got tunes from Wilco, The Verve Pipe, Death Cab for Cutie, Kings of Leon, and maybe even The Foo Fighters in the mix with the classics from The Beatles, Ben E. King, and Dion I made sure to include for the older folks in the crowd. The band had gigs all Spring, took a couple of weeks off to spend some time with the families, and started up rehearsals in June for the two July gigs on the calendar. Because the guys aren’t content to rest of their laurels, the band is learning some new songs, a couple that are a major stretch of our skills. Because I’m crazy and don’t know how to say “No,” I agreed to join the cast of The Vagabond Players’ first-ever musical, Little Shop of Horrors, as the voice of Twoey, the singing killer plant from outer-space. As one of the few members of the cast with actual professional singing experience, I sort of slid into the role of co-musical director with the lovely, extremely talented woman playing Audrey, who spends her days as the theatre teacher at a local high school – out of the blue, I’m teaching actors (some of whom have never sung a day in their lives) basic singing techniques, finding and correcting sour notes in the chord, and expounding the virtue of making that emotional connection to the song to better convey the story to the audience.

Not doing a Peace Sign, I promise... just singing some Eddie Money at The Rally in the Crater...

Not doing a Peace Sign, I promise… just singing some Eddie Money at The Rally in the Crater…

So for the past few weeks, I’ve been officially rehearsing six days a week, sometimes twice a day; and unofficially rehearsing all seven days: singing songs from my band, my private show, and my musical in the shower, the car, parking lots, and even in my sleep. I’m always on my way somewhere else, so I’m grabbing sandwiches and snacks to munch in the car. I’m getting to bed later and later. I am in a state of constant worry, fretting that I’m not doing enough or that I’ve taken on too much, I can’t decide which.

And I’m all smiles. I’m singing all the time. I’m learning new songs and what the songs mean to me. I’m testing the boundaries of my range. I’m sharing my knowledge with others. I’m rehearsing for events outside my comfort zone.

It is so cool.

Still looking for that daytime gig – the world still revolves around those little green fun tickets, and we don’t have any left at my house – which I do every morning before I start anything else. But once the disappointment of being turned down for a job I’m suited for yet again is over, I’m back to music, and immediately, my day turns fantastic. Time to turn this into a paying proposition, I just enjoy this feeling too much.

Operation: Rock Star 2.0

It’s June. Another seven months have gone by without me writing on this blog.

Nineteen months ago, I wrote a post about how I hadn’t been writing any posts and the various reasons why: this blog has a very narrow mission statement, a lot of the stuff that happened didn’t fit into that mission statement, and some of the stuff might be harmful to friends and family if discussed in a public forum. I was going to contemplate whether or not it was worth it to continue the blog given those circumstances after the start of the new year, 2014.

Then 2014 went to hell in a handbasket.

KC_1For the most part, nothing bad happened to me or my immediate family, but someone I cared about lost someone they loved about once every five weeks. I say “for the most part” because even though we didn’t share the last name, Bobby was my brother in everything but blood – losing him felt like losing a member of the immediate family, a feeling shared by the rest of my immediate family; a feeling my immediate family still deals with today, a year later. You can’t mention Bobby without my mother crying. I’m still practicing talking about Bobby without crying myself.

My old workmate died. My old boss died. My cousin died. My adopted brother died. My friend’s mother died. My friend’s father died. Another friend’s mother died. My adopted brother’s sister died. My friend’s son died. My high school sweetheart’s husband died. I missed two funerals because I was already attended funerals; I missed one funeral because I was sitting in the ICU, waiting to see if my friend’s sister was going to wake up, knowing she never would. I wrote two obituaries. I wrote two eulogies. I officiated two funerals and two graveside services. I spent the night outside Houston so I could support a close friend at her husband’s memorial service. I spent a week visiting a close friend in Louisville so she would know she was not now nor would she ever be alone after losing her soulmate. I drove to Raleigh so I could share some love with my best buddy and his amazing family. I drove to Virginia Beach so I could honor a promise to sing at a wedding still deemed illegal in my friend’s home state.

KC_2Since the mission statement of this blog was about my quest to become a Rock Star, I didn’t write about the grieving process here, though I did on my Facebook page. I logged the anniversaries as they came by, one by one, marking the year since Bobby died and how I was personally dealing with his loss. I wrote about my High School sweetheart on her birthday, something I should have done long ago. I wrote about institutional misogyny. I wrote about Leonard Nimoy’s passing. I wrote about standing up for myself and losing my temp job as a result. I wrote about how the last question Bobby asked me was “Am I going to die?” and how it still feels like a lie that I said “No. Not your time.” I wrote about not being understood growing up, how I and my friends had to create a second family for ourselves so we’d feel like we belonged somewhere. I wrote about how holidays are supposed to be imperfect, it’s the imperfections that make the memories. I wrote about how my family stood up to be counted when bad things began to happen in rapid succession, and how thankful I was I could honestly say I was proud of them all. I wrote about how publicly stateing how proud I was of my family didn’t keep me from being chewed out by someone who had struck me out of their life months earlier. I wrote about how some folks seem to want to stay blissfully ignorant about the inequalities around them. I wrote about how proud I was of Emma Watson and her speech to the UN about Equality. I wrote about how, even though Bobby was gone and I’d finished laying him to rest, my job as his brother and advocate wasn’t over. I wrote about the week of Bobby’s death and his funeral, my attempt at keeping it together until all my work was all done, then finally, gratefully, being allowed to let go.

KC_3I did not write about my high school choir director passing away. I did not write about canceling our first band gig of the year. I did not write about canceling a month’s worth of rehearsals. I did not write about not recording any songs last summer. I did not write about these events even though they all fell in the purview of this blog as well as my Facebook page.

Those events weren’t just about me – those events also involved members of the band. Talking about my part was one thing, but writing about my bandmates, my friends, was something else entirely. They didn’t sign up to have their lives scrutinized under a microscope; so even though I was directly affected, I didn’t discuss it here or on my Facebook page – as far as the chronicle of my life is concerned, those events didn’t happen.

But the events did happen, and I am struck with a second conundrum beyond “Do I continue this blog?” If I do continue this blog, how do I reconcile the events I can’t discuss because doing so requires involving someone else’s role?

It’s June. My birthday is over. My trip to Raleigh and Virginia Beach is over. The weekend gig at The Rally In The Crater is over. The one year anniversary of Bobby’s death is over. Memorial Day is over. There’s no reason to keep this blog on hold any longer other than the questions posed above. And it’s time to start answering those questions, here, publicly and honestly. It’s also time to get my life back on track after the derailment that was the year 2014.

Operation: Rock Star 2.0 starts today.