Even as a little kid, I knew I could sing. It wasn’t too far into my first year of school that I discovered I could write. After all these years, it never occurred to me to see if I could write a song.
It is both easier and harder than it looks… especially if years into your quest to become a Rock Star, you still can’t play guitar.
I wrote a song, read it, was just about to pat myself on the back for getting it to rhyme where it should when I re-read it and realized it was crap. So I re-wrote the song, pulling out every overly sentimental and overly dramatic turn of a phrase I could think of, read it again, and then patted myself on the back. I had a fully functioning Jim Steinman-inspired hair metal opus about love. I sent it off to my band leader – he was not as impressed. He liked story songs.
So I went back to the drawing board. I had an idea, not quite a story song, but something about taking what the world has to dish out. I pulled out all the stops when it came to all the rhymes, and without meaning to, I had written a Southern Rock song. I sent it to my band leader and… nothing. The band thought the words were clever, but we were too tied up with other projects to compose music for my lyrics.
So I sat on the song for a while. I wrote another song, a rip out my heart and show it to me love song. A couple of years went by, and my nephew was suddenly a guitar guru, playing with his dad’s bands and accompanying me at the anniversary gig. So I showed him the lyrics and he immediately got it: it was a “Simple Man” message set to a “Gimme Three Steps” beat. Within a couple of weeks, he had the guitar riff and chord progressions. Once I had a riff and chord progression, the melody wrote itself. He recorded his guitar tracks and added in a drum loop and sent the music to me – I loaded it up on my GarageBand and recorded the vocals, and BOOM we had ourselves a demo.
The hope was to have some of my musical buddies help me polish it up; sand off the rough edges, put their professional shine to my diamond in the rough… after eight months of asking and everybody being too busy with their own projects, I finally said “Screw it. It’s a solid demo. Put it online, see what happens.”
So I did. My nephew and I are officially songwriters ’cause we have a song.
I’ve got a musical to help produce and star in out in Terrell all Summer, so the hope is next Fall my schedule and my nephew’s schedule will align, allowing us to take our demo and create a full fledged Southern Rock song ready for digital sale. I’ve got nine other songs written at this point… hopefully, if the recording goes well, we can take on the rest, too. In the meantime… my nephew and I have a demo: Take The Hit, copyright 2016 Keith Craker. Music by Kevin Craker, lyrics by Keith Craker.
Hope you like it. I do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.