I Used to Love This! What Happened?
Updated: May 15
One night onstage in 1985 I had a "moment of clarity."
I had been working full-time as a performing musician for many years by this time. At least 6 nights a week - sometimes more - in and out of town, on the road about half the time. I started out as a sideman, getting into working bands with older musicians than me that were already going full-tilt. One thing led to another and I wound up leading my own band with all that entails - dealing with internal and external politics; personnel changes, contracts, booking agents, club owners. I owned the PA, I owned the van to haul the PA, lights, clothes, logistics, routing issues, room assignments, checks, issuing 1099's, and on and on and...oh yeah, the music too.
In those days there were lots of 1-week and 2-week stands. Sometimes 3 weeks if they liked you and there was an option in the contract. We would roll into town, set up at the club and play 6 nights a week for a week or two. We would have hotel rooms as part of the deal or sometimes the club would own a "band house." I could write a whole book on band houses - remember that one where the living room was wallpapered with Hustler centerfolds and there was a pay phone on the living room wall? No cellphones in those days. Everybody and his brother had a key, you couldn't leave anything of value - and who knows who or what was going to be passed out on your bed when you got off the gig.
Anyway, on the particular night in question - it was a Friday night. I know that because at this particular club, Friday night was a 5-set night. Most of the time, 4 sets was the usual. Typically 9pm-1am. At this club, Friday was 8pm-1am. I was standing onstage in the dark, right before the longer-than-usual show started waiting for the lights to come on and the curtain to go up, and this thought blazed into my mind like a roman candle:
"What am I doing here? I HATE this!" And I realized I had hated it for quite some time, I just hadn't been aware that I hated it.
Immediately after that thought was this,
"Wait a minute, I used to LOVE this! What happened?"
Lights on - curtain up. BOOM! 1st song of the first set begins! 5 hours and about 45 songs to go. And on to the next gig - and the next one - and the next.
But I didn't forget the question - What happened? It was too searingly significant to forget. Besides, now I was aware I wasn't happy. I thought about it for weeks. What happened?
The answer was two-fold. One part was that things at home weren't real great - and it was mostly my fault. I was trapped in this cycle of in-and-out of town. It's difficult - I would say almost impossible - to be gone half the time and maintain a good marriage and successfully raise kids. I was looking for a solution but it was hard. The choice always came down to; go to boon-dock wherever and be able to make the house payment or stay home and not work. And while I was gone my wife was stuck at home with 3 kids under 5 with no husband-and-father present - sometimes for weeks at a time. My wife wasn't happy and I could see that my kids were going to be messed up if I didn't change something so that I could be home. 95% of happy kids is happy mom and dad.
The other part, and ultimately the realization that paved the way for resolving all the issues was this; I realized that I was onstage every night thinking about the volume, the lights, the clothes, the contract for next week, what's the club owner thinking, what's the booking agent thinking, are we loud enough for the dancers, are we soft enough for the people still eating, we should do a ballad here, I need to avoid that waitress - she's nothing but trouble, the van needs servicing before we drive to the next gig, alert the bouncers to these 2 guys here, there's gonna be a fight - in short, I was thinking about everything except what I dearly love, which is just playing the stupid guitar. My guitar playing and the music was on automatic pilot and I was thinking about everything else - most of which I found distasteful at best and actually hated at worst.
After some soul-searching, I realized that I was not motivated by fame or money - there was a time when I thought I was. But really, I was motivated by simply playing the guitar. Why did I start playing the guitar in the first place? No other reason than I just loved it. Using it as a vehicle to get money, acceptance, popularity, girls - all that stuff came later. I just loved it - plain and simple. Don't know why. If I could keep playing the guitar for a living - somehow - I could be a reasonably happy guy. But for the sake of the family I would have to do it without constant touring - I would have to stay local.
So - the general strategy I came up with was; minimize everything else and maximize the guitar playing. It took a while to extricate myself from contractual obligations; in order to get out of the contract with my agent I had to break up the band. I tried several combinations of activities besides local gigging - studio work, songwriting, writing and tracking for commercials, soundtracks, etc. I had a sweet home recording studio for a while. I even took on some part-time, non-musical jobs here and there when necessary.
As far as local gigging was concerned it was better to go for versatility and not get locked into a specific style or genre. The more styles I was comfortable with the more potential gigs there would be to draw from.
And if I could help it, never be the band leader. Networking with band leaders and other musicians as opposed to booking agents and club owners gets me the kind of calls I prefer rather than having to form and keep a band together in order to keep working - and stay working in order to keep a band together. The thing that ultimately worked was a teaching business coupled with being a local guitarist/singer-for-hire. A hired gun so to speak.
It took a while to build my student load up to the point that I could safely pull the plug on the band and get off the road for good. Fortunately for me, I like teaching. Obviously - I wrote my own method book! There are a lot of great players who hate teaching and aren't very good at it as a result. Performing and teaching are 2 different skill-sets. They take different personality types. I've got both. I guess that makes me a 21st-century schizoid man? (King Crimson reference - you kids can google it!) Or maybe I've integrated both into one. All things being equal, I would prefer to just gig, but all things aren't equal. And sometimes a particular gig can really suck! And when a gig falls through (happens all the time), it's not the end of the world; I can still pay the bills - that's why I teach! The bottom line is, I love the guitar. That's always the bottom line. If I'm dealing with the guitar in any capacity - life is good!
I'm lucky that way. For one thing, it means I don't have to chase the big break - the carrot on the end of the stick. For instance:
I can play a festival - big crowd, big stage, big sound, lights etc. and be totally comfortable. Yup, 20,000 people! This is where I'm supposed to be! Or I can play some kick-ass music in some little neighborhood dive for 10 people and when I go home at night it's the same kind of happy. That's very fortunate.
I have students who sometimes say, "Wow man! It must be excruciating for a musician of your caliber to sit here and listen to me butcher this scale for 20 minutes!" No, not really. It's a guitar. I love the guitar, and I love helping people make progress on the guitar. I could be making $8.00 an hour digging a ditch. I sit in my studio where it's cool in the summer and warm in the winter, dealing with the guitar, and then I go play a gig - with a guitar. I make enough money to get by, then I go home and sleep in my own bed instead of a hotel room, tour bus, van, somebody's couch - or worse.
So by maximizing the guitar playing and minimizing everything else about the music business, I moved from "hating this" back to "loving this" and got to know myself better through the process.
Stay tuned for the next chapter - the story isn't over yet!
P.S. I'm still married (she's a saint!) and my 5 kids have all turned out splendidly.
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