New Year, New You

snow

For Dallas, this is the winter apocalypse…

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

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

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

double-neck guitar

Proof that my bandleader did not kill our drummer…

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

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

ensemble

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

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

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

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

benefit performers

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

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

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

What to do after that is another obstacle.

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

the rhythm section

The Rhythm Section teaching us how it is done…

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

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

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

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains. Think About That For A While.

Bull Durham movie poster

Bull Durham © MGM

I really like the movie “Bull Durham.” In my opinion, it is a perfect movie: romance, humor, tragedy, character development, sports, sex, excellent dialog, wonderful acting, brilliant direction… why it didn’t win the award for Best Picture of the Year is beyond me. One of the aspects I appreciate most about “Bull Durham” is when Annie is explaining that “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” So while Nuke is learning to breathe through his eyelids (old Mayan trick… or Aztec, I get them confused), Bobby is getting released from his contract for being in a hitting slump by The Organization.

It’s a lesson that can be easily applied to any professional artistic endeavor: acting, dancing, singing, fine art, illustration. There’s the magic… and then there’s the nuts and bolts. You can be a fantastic actor or dancer or singer, doing some of the best work of your career, but if the box office isn’t selling any tickets, your show will close and you will be hunting for another job. You can be a wonderfully gifted oil painter or water colorist, but if no one buys your work, you will be manning a cash register during the day. If you are a “professional,” you are expected to deal with both aspects equally well. That’s also part of the job.

It’s hard being a working creative mainly because so many people just don’t understand what it is you do. It’s assumed that you can just turn on your imagination like a faucet and brilliant ideas just flow out. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens: you sit down at your desk and think “I need something like this,” and out comes this brilliant, fully-fleshed out idea that needs no tweaking. That scenario, however, is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you sit there with the equivalent of a blank page in your head, not a clue how to get where you are to where you want to go. So you try a variation of an old idea, then scrap all but a part of that attempt to go in a new direction, then keep the few parts of that idea for a reversal of the original theme, and on and on and on. Finally, you have something that doesn’t suck, and you present it to your boss or your client, and you hope for the best… and when you are really lucky, you’ve been working with this person a while and know what kinds of things pique their interest, you get back your work with just a couple of simple edits. This is also the exception, not the rule – what usually happens is your work comes back looking like someone took an ax to it, it is bleeding so much red ink. At least you now know what the boss-client doesn’t want, and you can redo all the work you spent all that time killing yourself to do.

lightbulb drawing

My day job… or what the public thinks is my day job, anyway. Graphic © bigstockphoto.com

The only thing worse than a boss or client who has no idea what it is you do is a boss or client who does; someone who may not be a creative themselves, but who has seen behind the curtain enough times that they know it’s not black magic you’re conjuring up in your office. They are the ones who say things like “Once you know what I like, once you’ve got the template in place, it shouldn’t take any time at all to do what I want done.” And they are partly right – once the nuts and bolts are in place, it doesn’t take a lot of time to get something done – so you can’t argue with them.

They, however, have completely overlooked how much time and effort it takes to get the nuts and bolts of your template in place.

I was supposed to have an interview Monday. Answered an ad on Friday and was asked to call in and talk to the COO, we set up the interview. Before that could happen, Mr. COO sent me a project. I don’t do spec work, but we did have an interview, so I figured this was an audition; since I didn’t have any plans I would need to cancel, I went to work. After an afternoon of bleeding on the page, I came up with two distinctly different concepts and sent them in.

Sunday, I got a reply – no good. Text was too large, graphics were too small, and the design wasn’t edgy enough. I was thanked for my time.

ETGB at Chasers poster

Honestly… does that look like something I spent an hour creating?

It was the “Thanks for your time” that bothered me. That sounded a lot like a brush off. I was looking forward to the interview, and now I was being dismissed along with my afternoon of effort. I mulled it over and decided to take the high road: I would ignore the brush off, I would take the criticism as constructive, and redo the projects. Since my potential client hadn’t attacked the concepts, I would leave the backgrounds and color schemes in place – I would shrink the texts, add big graphics in their place, and use edgy, grungy fonts. I spent another afternoon on my unsolicited project, then sent the new proofs in.

The new proofs worked, much closer to what my soon-to-be interviewer had in mind. I made the last edits he asked for, and my now-employer asks me to let him know how I’d like to be paid, and to expect a bunch of projects coming after lunch.

To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I went from feeling I’d blown the opportunity to winning over the COO by sheer determination, talent, and experience. Got my foot in the door with a ton of work as my reward for not giving up. I was on the top of the world, thinking the Universe is about to give me a much-needed and hopefully deserved break.

The first of the tiny corrections came in. Names were misspelled, one of the participants had dropped out of the program. No problem, I made the edits and sent the project back in. A disclaimer needed to be added to the bottom. Not a problem, I made the edits. The new projects began streaming into my email, along with an inquiry on how I want to be reimbursed for my work – I did the math, realized it would be cheaper to be paid by the hour than by the project, and let him know I can charge less if I’m on a W2. Then I gave him my hours.

“That’s about 3x as much as I would have expected. Now that you know what I want, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to do a project. So let’s keep the hours to a reasonable level.”

According to his math, what he wanted was a project an hour… or, if I was charging by the project, what he was expecting to pay was the equivalent of one hour’s worth of work per project. He knew how long it took to put together the nuts and bolts, so that’s what he was expecting to pay for. He was completely discounting the talent and creativity.

Mobile DJ set up

I know… don’t judge me. As part-time jobs for a college student go, this one didn’t suck. Photo courtesy of weddingdancemusic.wordpress.com

I was already finished with the first of the new projects – I was still staring at it, trying to see if it was up to the level of edgy I had created over the weekend before sending it in – when that email came across my inbox. I read and reread that line about “3x as expected” and “reasonable level” over and over again for the better part of an hour… and then I did the only thing I could do: I turned the job down. I don’t do projects for a quarter of what I’d normally charge, regardless of how much work was about to land on my desk.

Back when I DJ’ed wedding receptions and corporate events, it was a standing rule that if the client wanted you to stay and work past your initial time, it was a standard $50 an hour for each hour of overtime. When the band does private gigs, unless we are up against a venue’s closing time, we are constantly being asked to stay and play passed our contracted time, at which point my band leader says “Love to, but you have to pay us extra.” And invariably, there is always someone who tried to talk me into DJing for free, or tries to talk my band leader to get us to play for free. “The equipment is already set up, you know you’re having a good time, you know we’re a great crowd – stay and play. It’s not about the cash – you know you do this for the love of the music.” It’s that last one that always makes me mad. Because it’s the truth: I DJ’ed and I perform in the band because I love the music, and truth be told, I would have have performed for free, just to indulge that love.

But this is a consumer-based world we live in, and people do not appreciate what they get for free or what they get on the cheap. I don’t charge for my services because I’m a mercenary; I charge for my services because of the level of respect it brings out in other people. And if you discount my talent and my creativity and then expect a discount for my skills and experience, I’m not going to work for you. You, Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for, do not respect talent and creativity.

UPDATE:

After everything went down, I turned off my email and purposely ignored it the rest of the evening, then went to bed early. I didn’t want to be that fourteen year old girl who keeps checking her messages to see if he had texted back. It had been a stressful four days and I was done being stressed out – I took my sick stomach and pounding head and hit the sack.

After I had finished writing this post, I finally opened up my email – Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for had written me back no less than four times: three begging me to work with him on rates, and another asking if I would teach a social media class next month. Evidently, when he low-balled me, he thought that was the return salvo of a bidding war for my services. I was stunned… and then I was appalled. My sick stomach and pounding head returned in record time.

A smart entrepreneur would have gone all mercenary. A smart entrepreneur would have upped his rates to the point of raking high-ranking executive over the coals. I’m not a smart entrepreneur, however, and I don’t know how to be mercenary even at my most pissed off. I do know that when someone tries to screw you over once, they will probably try to screw you over again. So after a lengthy email, I told him I would still have to pass on the job – since he’d already shown he didn’t respect me, my talent, or my experience, I just didn’t want to work with him. I got no reply back today, so I’m guessing it’s safe to open my email again.

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.

Dancing for the Desperate and the Broken-Hearted

I heard something over the weekend that broke my heart.

For a guy who took voice lessons and sings a little Italian to sound impressive, I’m not that big on opera. I like certain songs, mainly the biggies everybody’s heard – O Solo Mio, Nessum Dorma, etc. – but overall, not my cup of tea. Given the choice between going to a dive bar to listen to a little three-piece blues combo or heading to the Dallas Opera to sit through La Boheme, I’ll take the dive bar.

(Downtown to watch a rap crew or the Dallas Opera? Opera, every time. I am so very, very caucasian.)

For a dude not all that down on opera, I do love me some big, over-blown operatic rock tunes, though. Paradise by Dashboard Light, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), It’s All Coming Back To Me Now, Making Love Out of Nothing At All, and my all-time favorite, Total Eclipse of the Heart – total rock opera, baby, and I LOVE THEM. The melodic, almost music-box beginnings; the build up in thematic intensity; the choral back-up singers; the big crescendo – I mean, DAMN, what is not to love?

Jim Steinman

Looks like the guy who’d write “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red rose?”

Those with a serious musical background will notice more than just a theme running through those songs I picked: they were all written by the great Jim Steinman. Steinman was the composer, lyricist and/or producer on the epic Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II/Back into Hell albums with Meat Loaf, which would be enough to guarantee his inclusion into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but he’s also worked with artists as diverse as Billy Squire, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manillow, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Everly Brothers in his storied four-decade long career. If the song has that epic rock opera feel to it, chances are it was written and/or produced by Steinman.

Two of my favorite songs by Steinman appeared in a movie nobody but I and about three other people saw when it came out in theaters, Streets of Fire. Streets of Fire, directed by Walter Hill, is touted as a “Rock and Roll Fable,” and it tries really hard to deliver on that regard: the sets and wardrobe are all straight out of the 1950’s, but the music is all 1980’s pop and bar rock. The story is ridiculous: the leader of the outlaw bikers from across the way, Raven (played deliciously by a young Willem Dafoe) decides to kidnap the home town girl does good, rocker Ellen Aim (a barely legal Diane Lane, looking ever so rock n roll) for his own nefarious delights; Ellen’s ex-boyfriend, bad boy Tom Cody (Michael Paré, hot off of Eddie and The Cruisers), gets called in to rescue her; and along the way meets up with a tomboy ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan playing against type), manager with little-man syndrome Billy Fish (the perfectly cast Rick Moranis), and doo-wop quartet The Sorels (featuring the then-unknown Robert Townsend); Elizabeth Daily and Ed Begley, Jr. also show up in the film because it’s the 80’s and they were in everything else back then. The film ends with a showdown between Cody and Raven featuring pickaxes, and Cody leaving Ellen to pursue her music career Bogie-style, driving off into the night with new best friend, McCoy.

Streets of Fire movie poster

I miss the days when movie posters looked like this…

You don’t watch Streets of Fire for the movie – you watch Streets of Fire for the music. The soundtrack is awesome – incidental music composed and performed by Ry Cooder, and features songs written or performed by Cooder, Dan Hartman, Stevie Nicks, The Fixx, and Jim Steinman. The two Steinman songs are the two tunes Ellen’s band, The Attackers, perform at the start and the end of the film: Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young. Both songs are performed by session musicians under the name of Fire Inc., with lead vocals handled by a blending of the voices of vocalists Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Nowhere Fast is a hard-driving rock anthem with a great beat, but Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young, with The Sorels joining The Attackers on stage to fill in all the choral parts, is pure unadulterated Wagnerian rock opera.

I found the song on YouTube and played it for my Lady Fair, who immediately added it to her list of tunes to add to her mp3 player. We were driving out to my parents’ house for a day of poker and smack talk, when the tune came on – my lovely wife was piping her mp3’s through the SUV’s stereo – and the Lady Fair commented that while she adored the chorus, she kinda hated the verses.

“Hate the verses?” I responded. “How can you hate the verses? The verses are great! The verses are cheesy and sugary and over-emotional and completely overblown – I LOVE the verses!”

“I’ve got a dream ’bout a boy in a castle
And he’s dancing like a cat on the stairs.
He’s got the fire of a prince in his eyes
And the thunder of a drum in his ears.”

“But it’s only a dream and tonight is for real
You’ll never know what it means
But you’ll know how it feels
It’s gonna be over (over)
Before you know it’s begun
(Before you know it’s begun).”

“It’s all we really got tonight
Stop your cryin’ hold on (tonight)
Before you know it it’s gone (tonight)
Tonight is what it means to be young.”

My wife kept looking at me like I was speaking Klingon. “Sweetie, the song is about being 19, 20, 21 yrs old; old enough to start making a mark in the world, but still young enough not to have given in to cynicism, to still believe you can conquer all as long as you keep your faith. It’s about feeling your blood flow and your heart race, too inexperienced to know why, but just mature enough to realize you have to act on that emotion now before you lose the momentum. And it’s about sharing that momentum with someone else, some other young maverick, if only for one night, in that one perfect moment. ‘You never know what it means, but you know how it feels – it’s gonna be over before you know it’s begun, Tonight is what it means to be young.’ DAMN. That’s EXACTLY how I felt at 21.”

I got serious, and pointed at the radio. “When I’m on stage with the band, and everything is gelling – the guitars are in synch, everybody is feeling the beat, the crowd has joined in and the entire band feeding off that energy, and I hit that one note strong and true, and it soars, and the crowd responds – THAT is what it feels like. THAT is why I’m trying so hard to make this band work: so I can keep feeling THAT.”

For a long moment, she didn’t say anything. Then my Lady Fair, the love of my life, my soul and inspiration, looked at me with tears in her eyes and admitted, “I’ve never felt that way in my life.”

And my heart broke.

I never met my father-in-law, he died of cancer my wife’s senior year. The sickness had been slow and ugly, and as much as it pained everyone involved, his passing had also been a relief since it meant the suffering was over – it also meant my wife’s childhood was over. I’ve spoken before about my Lady Fair’s ongoing struggle with Depression, but I haven’t mentioned her struggle with dyslexia and its lesser-known cousin, dyscalculia (just like her letters, my lovely bride gets her numbers out of order, making it almost impossible to do long-division or algebra). Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, back before everybody and their dog admitted they have learning disabilities, my wife’s pretty freakin’ obvious problems were just dismissed by her teachers and administrators. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, didn’t know how to respond, so she just went along with the school’s assessment – as a result, one of the smartest women I’ve ever met grew up thinking she was dumb; and not just dumb, but unteachable. My wife – who can take apart and reassemble the VCR, wired the living room for surround sound, and installed the battery and battery cables in my Mustang – was flat-out told she’d never be able to attend college. “You don’t have the capacity, dear, but don’t worry – not every little girl is meant to get a higher education. You’ll just need to find yourself a husband, be a good housewife.” Because she wasn’t part of the norm, my Kristi was ignored; worse, because she was a girl, my Kristi was written off.

And I knew all of this, knew about the blow she took from losing her dad, knew about the learning issues, knew most of her teachers never gave her the attention she needed or deserved, knew it all contributed to decimating her self-esteem – it just never occurred to me it all contributed to my beautiful Kristi growing up without inspiration, without passion.

I still think it’s counter-productive to give out awards to kids for just showing up on game day, but I also think it’s vitally important that kids feel supported in whatever they feel passionately about, that they be given all the help and tools they need to be successful. No one deserves to be ignored or written off, everyone deserves to feel the passion and inspiration I get to enjoy as a band member, writer and artist. I am very, very lucky, but right now I’d give anything to give any and all of that luck to Kristi.

Go hug your kids.

Dookie Occurs

Last Friday night was going according to plan as best it could – David had been feeling poorly most of the week, so I scuttled our last chance at a rehearsal so he could stay horizontal for a couple of days, heal up before our gig; but beyond that, everything was copacetic: got a last-second Facebook announcement out, had more than a few RSVPs from my email blast earlier in the week, the Lady Fair had gotten home late, but early enough to hit the road with time to spare, the PA was in the SUV, and my hair looked fabulous. My sweetie changed her cloths, I splashed on some cologne, we piled into the Saturn, and we sped off to Greenville – with the normal slowdowns over the lake heading to Rockwall, I was only going to be maybe ten minutes late – completely acceptable when you’re aiming for an hour early and you only need a half-hour at most to set up the gear. Just as I pulled up to the venue, I could see the patio was packed; I could also see the guitarist serenading the guests. My thought was, “We’ve got an opening act. Okie-dokie. Let’s hope he finishes quick.” I pulled into the crowded loading dock and was met by my visibly upset partner before I could kill the SUV’s engine. “We’re cancelled. Gig’s been double-booked.”

The patio was a wedding reception; inside had a jazz-ish duo on a keyboard and guitar. My partner and I were one musical act too many.

David & Keith @ Landon's Winery & Bistro

Not quite…

I got out of the car and grabbed my smart phone, quickly posting to my Facebook page the gig was kaput. I posted on the event page, then tried to contact my parents to warn them off – too late, they’d already been there 10 minutes, they’d been inside confusing the hostess about who they were there to see. With Mom’s help, called the other RSVPs of the scheduling conflict. Once all the announcements and phone calls were made, I invited David and our booker, Julie, back to the parent’s place for some wine and fellowship – they declined and headed off to their necks of the woods; my Lady Fair and I headed to Mom and Dad’s to ponder life’s mysteries and view my folks’ photos of their trip to Ireland.

Julie, bless her heart, spent the majority of Saturday morning beating herself up over the snafu; separately, David and I told her the same thing: don’t take it personally, it’s just business. Jules got the message and is now hard at work trying to pin down a new location for the David & Keith Show.

I’ve spent the last eighteen years as a graphic designer, web designer and production artist, three jobs that just thirty years ago would have all been lumped together as commercial artist. In the commercial art field, you’re expected to have all the creativity, talent, and skills of an artist while maintaining all the discipline, ambition, and teamwork found in a business professional – you literally have to keep one foot in one world ruled by half of your brain and the other foot in another world ruled by the other half of your brain; and it’s the inability to keep those conflicting demands balanced that scuttles most rookies. I can do the balancing act, I can keep all the plates spinning, but I don’t enjoy it – one of the biggest reasons why I’m trying to become a rock star.

The upside to the eighteen years of playing with crayons while wearing a tie and sports coat is I learned a while back not to take things personally. The suit from the suite on the 18th floor didn’t like the layout – that’s not the same as being told you did a lousy job or that you’re a crappy artist; it only means the suit from the suite on the 18th floor didn’t like the layout. Once you understand this, once you understand your job isn’t to create the most awesome layout ever, your job is to make the suit happy by making their sometimes bass-ackwards ideas the best the idea can possibly be, you find your job gets a hell of a lot easier. Not easy, mind you. But easier.

Same holds true for gigging, especially in a city full of locations but lacking in hard-core fans. Bars in Dallas, Fort Worth, and the surrounding metroplex are primarily owned by entrepreneurs – there’s a handful of big name franchises like the House of Blues and Gilley’s, there’s a resort or two like the Gaylord Texan, but by and large the places willing to book me and my crews are mom-and-pop joints. It takes two personality traits to open a bar: an insane belief in yourself and an utter disgust of the 9-to-5 grind. These traits make for some damn fun people to have at your party, but a booger-bear to deal with on a professional basis: always expecting you to make time for them, always expecting you to be gracious while they’re allowed to chip at your pride, always expecting some kind of compromise which entails them getting everything they want while you get to feel fortunate you got a deal at all. And God bless ’em, that’s part of their job as owner and operator of a venue: paying as little as possible for as much value as possible. Would be nice if some of them were a little less dick-ish about the process, but like I said, it takes some major stones to think you’ve got what it takes to succeed as a bar owner in this town – superiority complexes come with the territory.

And it’s not like musicians are that much better. The better the artist, the more they’re apt to think they walk on water while needing constant ego stroking – which manifest in them being just flat-out flaky. Forget about trying to get  a decision on something pertinent, signatures on a contract, or getting your phone calls and emails returned in a timely fashion – you’re lucky to hear from them within the week. AND THEY ARE NEVER SATISFIED: Lead guitarists are pissed they’re not getting as much of the spotlight as the lead singer; lead singers are pissed the lead guitarist never has to worry about sore throats or sinus infections; bass players are pissed they’re constantly overlooked by the audience and taken for granted by the band; and drummers just want all the gawd-dang drama to go away so they can get back to beating the skins and having a good time. If you’re lucky, you get to deal with professional musicians that are professional; if you’re unlucky, you get to deal with prima-freaking-donnas. And today’s professional can be tomorrow’s prima donna at any time.

When I made the decision to branch out musically, the first person I contacted after clearing my plans with Paul and getting on the same page as David was Julie – Julie was starting a promotion company, I knew I didn’t want to book gigs if I could avoid it, so I happily partnered up with her. I knew from the first day there would be problems from time to time: she’s an attractive women in a town filled with good ol’ boys dealing primarily with alpha males on one side of the business and touchy-feely creative types on the other – shit would happen, there’d be no way to avoid it. With luck, when the dookie did occur it would be the alpha makes and/or touchy-feely creative types to blame and not my dear Jules, but I was still prepared to not take it personally if Julie stumbled.

I don’t know what happened Friday. I didn’t take it personally. Moving on.

I’ve got David’s open mic night tomorrow, the band is playing a rare mid-week gig Wednesday, then I’m headed to see my brother’s band Friday for what is rumored to be their lead singer’s last gig – if I have any energy left over, one of my other favorite groups is playing the nearby biker bar Saturday night, would love to hear more from their completely amazing new female lead singer. With any luck and more than a bit of hard work, by the time next month’s Friday night David & Keith gig arrives, the snafu will have been sorted out or a new venue will have been located.

Apologizing

Apologizing: does not mean you are wrong and the other person is right; it means you value your relationship more than your ego.

from my Lady Fair’s Pinterest page

It’s been over a month since my last post, and be now I should have written about my birthday gig, my first David and Keith gig, the Buzzards Roost gig, and any number of other happenings, in one blog or maybe two – I haven’t, because I haven’t wanted to.

I wrote on my Facebook page a few days ago that I get depressed, but I do not have depression, or as we call it at my house, “Depression with a capital D versus depression with a lowercase d.” I am firmly in the lowercase camp; my lovely Lady Fair, some family, and more than a few friends are capital D’s and have been for years. Which means all the well-meaning but essentially useless advice ignorant people give to the capitals work just fine on me: getting out of the house and soaking up the sunshine, exercise, journal writing, seeing a funny movie, visiting friends and family, or just flat out deciding to be happy – all effective. I just have to make the choice I’m no longer going to feel bad, then do the proper acts to not feel bad.

(The point of my Facebook post was all those acts and activities that work on me DO NOT work on my lovely wife and our friends and family. Depression with a capital D is biological – the brain’s chemistry is fighting against its own best interests. And while getting some sun, exercising, writing and socializing can help mitigate the triggers leading up to a tumble down the rabbit hole, once the tumble is taken the only things that can help are loads of therapy and an effective drug cocktail, and not necessarily in that order. So the next time you decide your loved one with capital D Depression just needs to get over themselves, feel free to punch yourself in the face repeatedly until you get some education and develop some compassion.)

I made the choice not to do the healthy things; I made the choice to bask in the shadows and indulge the hurt. While my intentions were to finally face that particular pain, in my bad place I said some things to people that were not in keeping with the person I want to be. And since the choice to be in the dark had been mine in the first place, I had no one to blame but myself.

I sent out two apologies today. May not do any good, those bridges may be burned to the ground, but that wasn’t what was important – what was important is that the two friends deserved the apologies, so the apologies got sent. Another hard lesson learned: sunlight may be the best antiseptic, but shining a light on dark place isn’t the same thing.

My new partner, David Fox, and I have our second piano lounge gig tonight, hoping we don’t get rained out (May in Texas, got to love it). Please check out the final song of our first outing as a duet. And remember: it’s far easier to find the light if you stay in the light.

April is POPPING

Things are FINALLY popping, and they are popping quick:

Popping #1: Birthday-Palooza, as we like to call it, was over the weekend. My birthday was Sunday, and for the last few years the one and only thing I’ve asked for is to sing with my band. Just so happens that my new manager’s birthday is a few days before mine; the band’s volunteer roadie is a couple of days after; Pauly’s mom’s birthday is within a couple of days of mine; our adopted sister’s birthday is the week before; and my mom’s is at the end of the month – so my birthday gig turns into Birthday-Palooza, and it is usually one of my favorite gigs of the year. This year was no exception, it was off the chain, and I’ll have a big write-up if a few days once my lovely Lady Fair gets done going through all of her photos of the festivities.

Sarah Jo Marrs

The amazing Sarah Jo Marrs

Popping #2: A few weeks ago, I went out to one of my little brother’s gigs, a Sunday show in the early afternoon at a wonderful bar named Tavern on Main Street. As per usual, Kelly’s band Rock Theory was phenomenal – not as per usual, they had a special guest singer join them for a few songs, the very talented Sarah Jo Marrs.

I met Sarah Jo briefly about four years ago – Kelly’s then band was playing out in Sachse, and I’d been asked to come out and sing “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the one song the band had learned strictly for me. I’d been with my new band just a few weeks, so I happily snagged up Paul and his lovely bride, Margaret, and the Lady Fair and I went out to Monkey’s Pub n Grub for some cold beer and rock n roll. I sang my song early, got a huge round of applause, went back to my beer pumped up and ready to take on the world; a couple of songs later, and Sarah Jo joined Kelly’s crew on stage, plugged in her electric acoustic, and started belting out “Me and Bobby McGee” like there was no tomorrow. When she was done, my first thought was: “Oh my God – I must sing with this girl!” Which was quickly replaced with by my second thought: “Oh my God – I’m not good enough to sing with this girl!” And truth be told, I wasn’t – where I was just under the line between Gifted Amateur and True Professional, Sarah Jo was strictly over the top in the Pro realm. I got her name, friended her on MySpace, kept track of her gigs, and then proceeded to get to work with my new band learning how to perform. Then one day, Sarah Jo just kind of fell off the radar – when she popped back up at Rock Theory’s gig, I hadn’t seen her in years.

Sarah Jo sang with the band, I sang with the band, Sarah Jo and I together sang with the band – it was glorious. When she, Rock and I sang the harmony on “The Weight” and our voices completed the chord, we looked at each other and grinned like school kids playing hooky – I could tell that shiver that ran done my spine had run down hers, as well. In my best creepy stalker fashion, I cornered Sarah Jo and told her in no uncertain terms she was incredible, she had to get back to performing regularly, and I would consider it an amazing honor if she’d sing a duet with me – my heart did cartwheels when she said “Yes.” So sometime in the near future, I hope to report my singing crush and I are slaying audiences with some Lady Antebellum and Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow – just got to see which band is behind us.

Popping #3: If you haven’t done so, check out Amanda Palmer’s TED talk “The Art of Asking,” it is simply amazing, if for no other reason than the discussions it has generated. I fall firmly in the AFP camp – I got what she was trying to convey, felt it in my bones, and was inspired to action: I want to sing, I want to sing more often than my band now performs, I need some kind of accompaniment if I’m to perform without my band, trying to accompany myself is going to take months (if not years) of practicing, but I want to sing NOW. So I did what Amanda suggested: I swallowed down my anxiety, screwed up my courage, and I asked my friend David Fox if he’d consider doing a two-man show with me – David said “Yes” so fast, it stunned and humbled me. So David and I are now partners, and we’re doing our first show this weekend at the Landon Winery and Bistro in Greenville, TX, about 45 minutes East of Dallas. David and I both love ballads, harmonizing, and singing back-up, so I’m expecting amazing things from this show – if nothing else, it will be a lot of fun just getting the chance to sing some of the tunes that just wouldn’t work with my band. I’m also hoping this leads to more work for David and I – I’d love to do some hotel and corporate work.

Keith Craker and David Fox at Landon Winery & Bistro

Keith and David kicking out the slow jams…

Since I’m now officially working with David, I’m hoping if my band can’t get the songs worked up for Sarah Jo and I, maybe David’s band can. Or both bands – that would be awesome.

Popping #4: The mighty East Texas Garage Band is appearing at the Buzzards Roost Run for Homeless Veterans out in Marietta TX April 20th. Half of my crew are bikers and most of my crew are veterans: anything we can do to help our own, we’re there. That’s how I like to roll – I’m proud that’s how my band likes to roll. Way looking forward to this gig, I’m pretty sure we the feature entertainment that Saturday night.

Sarah Jo, David, Birthday-Palooza, my first sans-band gig, and a biker benefit – I am a very happy wannabe rock star!