Take The Hit

Even as a little kid, I knew I could sing. It wasn’t too far into my first year of school that I discovered I could write. After all these years, it never occurred to me to see if I could write a song.

It is both easier and harder than it looks… especially if years into your quest to become a Rock Star, you still can’t play guitar.

I wrote a song, read it, was just about to pat myself on the back for getting it to rhyme where it should when I re-read it and realized it was crap. So I re-wrote the song, pulling out every overly sentimental and overly dramatic turn of a phrase I could think of, read it again, and then patted myself on the back. I had a fully functioning Jim Steinman-inspired hair metal opus about love. I sent it off to my band leader – he was not as impressed. He liked story songs.

So I went back to the drawing board. I had an idea, not quite a story song, but something about taking what the world has to dish out. I pulled out all the stops when it came to all the rhymes, and without meaning to, I had written a Southern Rock song. I sent it to my band leader and… nothing. The band thought the words were clever, but we were too tied up with other projects to compose music for my lyrics.

So I sat on the song for a while. I wrote another song, a rip out my heart and show it to me love song. A couple of years went by, and my nephew was suddenly a guitar guru, playing with his dad’s bands and accompanying me at the anniversary gig. So I showed him the lyrics and he immediately got it: it was a “Simple Man” message set to a “Gimme Three Steps” beat. Within a couple of weeks, he had the guitar riff and chord progressions. Once I had a riff and chord progression, the melody wrote itself. He recorded his guitar tracks and added in a drum loop and sent the music to me – I loaded it up on my GarageBand and recorded the vocals, and BOOM we had ourselves a demo.

The hope was to have some of my musical buddies help me polish it up; sand off the rough edges, put their professional shine to my diamond in the rough… after eight months of asking and everybody being too busy with their own projects, I finally said “Screw it. It’s a solid demo. Put it online, see what happens.”

So I did. My nephew and I are officially songwriters ’cause we have a song.

I’ve got a musical to help produce and star in out in Terrell all Summer, so the hope is next Fall my schedule and my nephew’s schedule will align, allowing us to take our demo and create a full fledged Southern Rock song ready for digital sale. I’ve got nine other songs written at this point… hopefully, if the recording goes well, we can take on the rest, too. In the meantime… my nephew and I have a demo: Take The Hit, copyright 2016 Keith Craker. Music by Kevin Craker, lyrics by Keith Craker.

Hope you like it. I do.

New Year, New You

snow

For Dallas, this is the winter apocalypse…

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

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

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

double-neck guitar

Proof that my bandleader did not kill our drummer…

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

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

ensemble

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

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

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

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

benefit performers

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

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

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

What to do after that is another obstacle.

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

the rhythm section

The Rhythm Section teaching us how it is done…

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

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

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

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

Bull Durham movie poster

Bull Durham © MGM

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

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

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

lightbulb drawing

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

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

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

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

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

ETGB at Chasers poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile DJ set up

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

A Living Entity or Brushing Up Against the Invisible Line

Keith, Kelly, and Tim

Me showing off my brother, Kelly, for Tim’s obligatory selfie. Photo courtesy of Tim Lovick.

There’s the band as a marriage metaphor, which works when all or most of the original band members are still in place; and then there’s the band as a living entity metaphor. I tend to go with the living entity metaphor personally. In my marriage, I have an equal say in things, and while I tend to take a back seat in decisions concerning things like how to decorate the house, my lovely Lady Fair knows my tastes and tries to keep that in mind when picking out colors and designs. As Paul likes to say, “I don’t run my house, but I have veto power.” That’s not the case with the band. I can make suggestions, I can ask questions, I can push for certain decisions, but I don’t actually make those decisions, and I certainly do not have veto power. That’s Paul. The band is Paul’s band. Now, Paul is smart enough and wise enough to take everybody else’s strengths and preferences into account when making decisions, but at the same time, the final Yay or Nay is always his. So no, the band is not a marriage – it is a benevolent dictatorship, and we are all free to leave if we don’t like Paul’s stewardship of the band.

This band is a living entity, though. Paul is the brains, Super Dave is the heart beat, JC is the back bone, Tim is the imagination, and I am the voice. And like a living being, the band has ups and downs, peaks and valleys. There are times when the band is on all cylinders and just unstoppable… and then there are days when the band cannot get it’s act together to save it’s damn life. Sometimes, the peak and the valley are on the same damn week.

10th Anniversary Cancerian poster

One of our favorite gigs of the year…

The band has never had a period where it could just cruise, rest on its laurels and enjoy the view – the band has always been in some kind of transition. Before Paul brought me onboard, the band experimented with having two female back up singers. This did not work, mainly because the females in question used a little too much liquid courage to psych themselves out enough to perform in front of a crowd. Not long after they ladies were cut loose, I arrived… so technically, I was brought on to be the ladies’ replacement, singing the pretty back up.

It was unthinkable that we would need to replace Patrick, the drummer… and then suddenly, we did. Seven kids with a vicious recession on was too much stress on Patrick and the entire family, so the band had to go. JC was brought in, and even though he was half the age of the rest of the crew, he got along great… until we had to replace JC, who had decided to move to Los Angeles. Patrick came back, life got too vicious again and he left, and then JC moved back to Texas and he rejoined the crew.

Jon co-founded the band with Paul. Jon is brilliant. Jon is an amazing bassist, with a jazzy kind of interpretation of classic songs. Jon also had very definite ideas about the direction he wanted to go with the music the band was doing; when that didn’t happen, he decided he just wanted to show up and play… but soon, he didn’t want to do that, either. After not returning phone calls or emails for weeks, Paul brought in Super Dave so the band could start booking dates again. Jon found out he’d been replaced by social media, and we haven’t heard from him since. Not our finest hour, and whether he admits it or not, it still haunts Paul.

When Gary’s carpal tunnel took him out of the band and Tim came on board, the only original member of the band Paul created 12 years ago… was Paul. The brain was intact, but everything else in the body had be replaced with a transplant.

The band at Chaser's

The crew and Little Brother, taking care of business. Photo courtesy of the wonderful Michele Moore.

It sucks when you lose a band member, even if it happens with a minimum of fuss, as in Patrick and Gary’s cases. The upside is, though, with the infusion of new blood comes new song ideas. When JC settled in and became THE drummer, the band got a lot better. When Super Dave came in and brought a new wealth of songs, the band got a lot better. When I discovered the meaning behind the songs and found my voice, the band got a lot better. Now that Tim is on board with his tenor harmonies and lead guitar licks, the band has gotten better once again.

With all the transplants in the band, with all the improvements the band has made over the years, The East Texas Garage Band is poised to make a big leap.

There’s a line no one can see, but everyone who deals with any kind of creative, artistic pursuit knows it is there and it is real: it is the line that separates amateurs from professionals. A lot of times, the division is really easy to see: go to a comic convention and take a walk around the art show, you will see a definite difference in quality between the amateur work and the working professional’s art. Some times, the division is almost impossible to see: go online and read some of the fan fiction out there, some of it is as good – if not better – than some of the published novels on book shelves. When you are really lucky, you catch an amateur actor or dancer just before they hit the big time, and you get to say “I saw them when no one knew who they were.” Well, a band faces that same line. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to get to the top of the amateur level, to be the best an amateur can be… and then you stall there. Because the difference between the “extremely gifted amateur” and the “working professional” is incredibly small, yet almost impossible to bridge. A lot of the time, it’s the X factor that separates the two categories, that indefinable ingredient that you know when you see it or hear it. The real bitch is it’s a band – nearly all the members have to have that X factor or be so close to having that X factor before the band as a whole is ready to make that leap to The Show.

With my singing, with Tim’s leads, with Super Dave’s playing, with Paul’s leadership and showmanship, and with JC’s outside the box syncopation, as of just a few weeks ago, The East Texas Garage Band was knocking on that line, poised to make the jump. Which, in our case, being a cover band in DFW, meant potentially leaving the B-level of acts and joining the A-level tribute bands. Also meant doubling our fee, and being able to get that. We’d need to have a serious conversation about where the band wanted to go at that point: being an A-level act in DFW means either being a tribute band (which we don’t want to be), adding dance and party music to the repertoire (a possibility, just not a strong one), or create some original tunes and try to go pro (my preferred choice).

JC wrecked his truck.

me at Chasers

Trying to see where the hell the guitarists are going with this song… Photo again courtesy of the lovely Michele Moore.

Just days after our last gig, just over a week until our next gig, and JC lost control of his vehicle while heading home from a concert down in Deep Ellum, woke up in ICU with two broken arms, two broken wrists, some broken ribs, and a cracked bone in his playing foot. One wrist required surgery, his playing foot required surgery. He is laid up for weeks, possibly months, and until he heals up enough for physical therapy, JC has no idea what effect this will have on his ability to drum: could have no effect at all, which is the hope; could be done drumming for the rest of his life, which is a panicky worst case scenario, but is still a possibility.

I took JC flowers from the band a couple of days after they moved him from ICU into a private room. His foot was still swollen like a grapefruit then, the doctors hadn’t gone in after that bone they were worried about. It was the first time I had been to a hospital since Sherry had died almost two years ago, and I was not digging the sensation at all. As his singer, I’m pissed as hell that JC has done this to himself… but as his friend… damn it all… I am just so grateful he’s still alive. Had he been going just a little faster, had the wall he hit been just a little taller, and that might not have been the case. When I couldn’t force out any more words of encouragement, I got the hell out of there… I was wiping away tears by the time I got back out to my car.

I’ve just buried too many people lately. This cut it a little to close for comfort for me.

My brother, Kelly, drums for a local cover band and knows most of our songs; more importantly, he’s all about the playing and doesn’t have time for any drama, his real life is dramatic enough as it is. Paul quickly gave him a call, we scheduled an emergency Friday night rehearsal, and we went out to the middle of nowhere to play the private gig that had been on the calendar for months. We weren’t as tight as we’d been the couple of weeks before, but Kelly is a pro, Paul and Time are pros, and with Super Dave keeping everybody in the mix, we were still pretty dang good. Two weeks later, we showed up at Chasers and did it all over again with the same result.

We just don’t know what’s going to happen with JC, so Paul made the executive decision to go on hiatus for the foreseeable future, which means Chaser’s gig was probably our last of 2016. He and Tim have been getting together to mesh their guitar grooves; hopefully, I’ll get a call soon saying they guitarists are ready for a vocal rehearsal, work on some harmonies. As for what I’m going to do to get my performance fix, I haven’ decided yet. Upside to all the drama the last month? Lost ten pounds. Say what you want about the stress diet – it works.

It also means that invisible line we were just brushing up against has retreating out of reach again.

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.

Working? Playing? What’s the Difference?

Bad Reputation

Bad Reputation, a Joan Jett tribute band and one of my favorite shows to see…

As a graphic designer, especially in the early days after graduating art school, I spent a lot of time at my desk staring at my computer monitor. To the untrained eye, it would appear as if I was just gazing into space, goldbricking on the owner’s dime; those with any experience with computer programs and large files, however, could tell that what I was actually doing was keeping track of the progress bar, waiting for my software to complete its job. On more than one occasion, at more than one job site, I’d have to point to my monitor at the bar/pinwheel and address the shop owner over my shoulder, “See that? That’s my computer chugging away. So if that progress indicator is working, then so am I.” Such honesty wasn’t always appreciated, but I also never mastered the ability to look busy while I waited for my files to load, transfer, batch, save or archive – when I was stuck at my desk at the mercy of my software, I was stick at my desk at the mercy of my software. I did learn a truth early in my career: a lot of people I was going to be doing work for would not understand the ins and outs of my particular profession – a lot of the practices they associated with a desk job wouldn’t apply to my career field, and a lot of the practices that did apply to my career field wouldn’t look like I was working.

The same thing holds true for Operation: Rock Star. A lot of what I do looks like I playing or just plain wasting time. That is just not the case.

Singing is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on, and I love it more than I love anything else, but don’t be fooled – singing is work, especially if you’re doing it right and you’re doing all you can to give the audience the show they deserve: you’re utilizing your diaphragm; you’re breathing in all sorts of weird ways to maintain support of the song phrasing; you’re dancing around on stage; you’re coming up with stage banter or adjusting to equipment snafus on the spot; heck, just the being upright for the three to four hours of a show is tiring. If all I did was show up five minutes before the show and leave five minutes after the show, I’d still be exhausted at the end of the night.

But I don’t show up five minutes before the show or leave five minutes after the show – I’m at the venue the same time as the rest of the band for load in, two to four hours before showtime, even if the band leader has enough roadie help that I don’t have to pick up a single piece of equipment; I don’t leave the venue until all the equipment is loaded up, an hour to ninety minutes after my last song, even if our contract stipulated we’d be paid by check. I’m there with the rest of the band for a few reasons; if someone needs to drive to a store to pick up a replacement part or supplies of some kind, I’m available to run errands while the roadies finish setting up the gig; I can schmooze the bartenders, waitresses, venue owner, and/or patrons before the band’s first downbeat while everyone else is tied up making sure the lights and sound work; and most importantly, I’m a member of the band, not a prima donna lead singer – if the band is expected to show up at 7pm for a 9pm showtime, then I’m there at 7pm for a 9pm showtime. Showing up and leaving with the rest of the members of the band means that a four-hour gig 9pm-to-1am gig translates into a seven-hour work shift, not including drive time. That’s a day at the office.

Rock Theory

Rock Theory, my brother’s crew and the best classic rock cover band in Dallas…

That’s just my band’s gigs – attending other bands’ gigs is work, as well. Yes, I’m there to listen to great music while enjoying a beer or two, but that’s the least of what I’m actually doing: I’m looking at their lights and checking out their sound system, comparing it to my band’s set-up looking for a faster, cheaper, better way to put on our show. I’m paying attention to the music in their sets, watching to see what songs the audiences are responding to best and if it’s a good song to add to my band’s wheelhouse. I’m checking out the venue, judging how many patrons are bar regulars versus hard-core band fans, how the bandstand is situated within the venue, how the owners and/or managers treat the musicians, and whether or not my band would be a good fit for the location. I’m listening to the vocals, analyzing the harmonies and the delivery of the melody. I’m studying the front person, listening to how they vamp between songs, watching how they move on stage and interact with the other band members during the songs. I’m networking with the band leaders between sets, because you never know where a gig referral or fill-in vocalist opportunity might come from. Even the open mic nights my partner, David, has been hosting are work shifts. Every opportunity to be onstage is a chance to practice my stage craft, hone my vocal chops, network with other vocalists and musicians, and hopefully make new fans – receiving a comped brew because I nailed the bartender’s favorite song is just a bonus.

I spend hours at my computer finding and printing out lyric sheets, watching and singing along with YouTube videos of songs I’m learning. I spend hours creating band events and uploading gig photos to the band’s Facebook page. I spend hours designing and producing gig flyers and promotional posters. I spend hours researching other band websites. I spend hours listening to other bands and artists perform their renditions of cover songs. I spend hours on t-shirt designs for our fans the band still can’t afford to manufacture. Even writing this blog is me working – not only am I using social media to network with fans, amateurs and aspiring professionals, but I’m forcing myself to analyze every aspect of this journey to document what I can and should be doing better to become a full-time vocalist. The only difference between Operation: Rock Star and my daytime job as a graphic/web designer is I enjoy Operation: Rock Star much, much more.

Gotta get back to work – found an acoustic version of The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down I want to show the rest of the band. In the meantime, check out some of my favorite area bands: Bad Reputation  Rock Theory  Vagrant  

And here’s that acoustic cover I’m in love with: from the AV Club Undercover series: