Birthday Crossroads

Dentist

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

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

FVWdoor

Still trying to master the whole “Selfie” thing…

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

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

ETGBatVFW

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

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

And I haven’t written about any of that.

Busking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Year, New You

snow

For Dallas, this is the winter apocalypse…

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

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

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

double-neck guitar

Proof that my bandleader did not kill our drummer…

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

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

ensemble

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

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

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

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

benefit performers

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

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

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

What to do after that is another obstacle.

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

the rhythm section

The Rhythm Section teaching us how it is done…

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

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

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

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.