Saturday, November 6, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get out of the Spotlight. Part 3.

At The Place

All we had for a map, when our little convoy entered Los Angeles County, was one of those general state maps, the kind the gas stations used to sell, with the major highways shown but with very little detail about the major cities. Thus, when we drove into the city of Los Angeles, we exited the freeway at some distance west of our final destination. I found the street we were seeking, but we had some way to go to reach the address where Carol’s sister was renting a house. We were going to rent space in that house for a while until we figured out what we were going to do in Los Angles. As we drove through the city, which I was later to learn was Hollywood, the neighborhoods appeared to be somewhat less than desirable. Certainly, I thought, this is not anywhere I want to live. As we got closer to the address of the house, the neighborhoods got better and better and I was encouraged. When we found the house, it turned out to be a rather nice old place in what appeared to be a clean and safe neighborhood.

If, in the course of this tale, I’ve given you the impression that we simply sold almost everything we owned in Colorado, packed up the rest and moved to Los Angeles without any other plan, you’d be correct. What the hell, we said. We didn’t have a plan when we were living in Steamboat Springs, why would we need a plan in Los Angeles? Really, I mean it’s Los Angeles, the Big City, Land of Opportunity, Home of Hollywood. What could go wrong? Okay, sure, it’s 104 degrees, our cars barely survived the trip and we’re moving into a house already full of people, some of which are teenagers, but, hey, it’s California, right? Yep, look out Los Angeles, we have arrived!!

A brief word of advice for anyone who is planning on selling almost everything, packing the rest in a truck and heading off to some other city: Always Have a Plan. Always. Have a Plan. Always. Fly out to the place you are thinking of moving to and do a bit of exploring. While you are there, line up some possible jobs, get an idea of the cost of living, do a bit of research on the economy and the culture. When you have done all that, go home and put together a plan. Make a few phone calls to the contacts you made in what will be your new home. Set up a few job interviews. Get hired to work for someone at a salary that will make it possible for you to afford to live in your new home. Put down a deposit on a place to rent. Then, when you arrive, you can move into your new digs, report for your new job and be confident in your future. Or you can do it the way we did it, with no plan, no research, no jobs and no clue.

After we unloaded the truck and unhooked the cars from each other, we sat on the front porch of the house where we were going to be living and had a glass of half-strength lemonade, made from concentrate. It was still brutally hot and we were exhausted. Carol’s sister Terry took us out for a walk, down three or four blocks to the House of Pies. The House of Pies was great, it had an all-American menu and they served pies and ice cream, lots of different pies and lots of ice cream. From then on, it was a tradition. Anyone who came to visit us was, at some point, treated to a walk and some sugary dessert at the House of Pies. We had another landmark, another point from which to navigate the great unknown City of Los Angeles.

One of the first things that I discovered after we had settled into our new home was that neither of our cars was working. Actually, I had heard, as we drove in, an extremely loud squeaking sound from the underside of our big Jeep Wagoneer. Once we got it parked I discovered that the constant velocity joint on the driveshaft was completely worn out; so worn, in fact, that it was almost a miracle that we had made it as far as we had. When I went to start up the little VW station wagon, it too was making a very loud sound. The bolt holding the engine cooling fan had rattled loose on the trip out. Once I got it tightened up, the car seemed to run just fine, so we, at least, had a way to get around the city. We were going to need that car, and the Jeep, too. As everyone else already knew, and we were immediately to discover, Californians love their cars. That’s not to say that there are not lots and lots of buses travelling all around the streets in Los Angeles; it’s just that, most of the time, the bus doesn’t really go where you need to be at the time when you need to be there. If you are willing to arrange your schedule around the length of time it will take you to get to any given place by bus, it is quite possible to get around that way, but a good part of your day will be spent on buses. That’s fine and it works, if you have no other way to get around, but the most popular and convenient method to get around the city is by private automobile.

I understand that in some cities, it is possible to get around quite easily using the public transportation system; places like Chicago and New York, for instance. Los Angeles is not like those places. Chicago and New York have neighborhoods where everyone lives in apartment buildings, with apartments that are stacked up top of each other and side-by-side for blocks and blocks. Los Angeles is made up of little suburbs filled with single-family homes, interspersed with an apartment building or some condominiums here and there. Everything is spread out for miles and miles and miles. There is just no way that any sort of existing public transportation technology can deal with the way Los Angeles is laid out. Perhaps if we ever get those anti-gravity belts we’ve been promised, there will be a more efficient way to get around in Los Angeles, but, until we do, you need a car.

The next thing I discovered was that all of the things that Carol and I had been doing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which had been in great demand and had produced a nice, viable income for us, were already being supplied in great abundance by many other people. We were now very, very small fish in a very, very large ocean. I say “ocean” because there are no sharks, killer whales, giant squids, or krakens in a pond, not even in a big pond. Here in Los Angeles, there be monsters and they will gobble you up if you don’t keep your wits about you. We were strangers in this big city and we were going to have to figure out how to make a living in it. There was no going back. We had to learn to navigate these dangerous waters and quickly. Carol began looking for secretarial jobs and, having actual skills in that area, was soon gainfully employed in the practice of her craft.

My marketable skills were then, as they are now, difficult to describe and, thus, not really very marketable. I did manage to get some work providing data-base entry and transcription services for a public relations company, and I helped write a few articles and a program manual for a dentist. What I really wanted to do was get back into the music business. I played some open-mic nights and went to some country-western bars. I played bass in a couple of showcase bands. I got one gig playing for a hay ride for one night. That was fun, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I scoured the newspaper want-ads looking for someone who might need what I could do, but there just wasn’t much call for my style of music in the Los Angeles market. I don’t recall exactly how it came to be, but eventually I found this open-mic night in Burbank that featured country music. I started hanging around there, playing a couple of songs every week, and getting to know the other people who showed up to play. I discovered that the country-western community in Los Angeles was much the same as the one that I had left in Colorado; there were the “cool” people, the ones who were already part of the “in” crowd, and there were the people like me, the newcomers, the unproven. I was back at bottom of the ladder, but at least I had found the ladder. This time up the ladder I was bringing some experience with me and that made a big difference in how quickly I was able to get back into the business.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Spotlight. Part 2.

On the Stage in Centennial, Wyoming

I needed to do a lot of research to get the information I would need to become a successful entertainer, and one of the ways to do that was to spend time in bars watching the people who were working to see what they did. Sometimes Carol would go with me; sometimes I went out on my own. I would talk to the entertainers when they took a break, and, once in a while, they would insist that I get up on stage a play a couple of songs. That was always fun since all I had to do was play a couple of my best songs, take the applause, and turn the stage back over to the professionals. I also got to know the guy who owned the music store in town. He was a great resource for me, as he talked to most of the other musicians in town and so knew a bit about what was going on around town. He was also a guitar player, which would eventually become a member of my band.

While making the rounds of the various bar and lounges around town, I took in a show at one of the hotels east of town. The guy playing there had a unique set up which included a reel-to-reel tape deck and some very large speakers. He was a solo act, but using the tape deck he was able to sound like a whole country band. What he had done was record an album at some point. He then had the vocal and lead guitar track removed from the recording. During his performance, he would click on the tape and play and sing along with the recorded band. In addition he had an electronic drum machine with which he would accompany himself as he played and sang songs that were not on his album tape. This was very impressive to me. Here was a guy who had found a way to be a whole band all by himself. I was fascinated and spent several evenings listening to him play. During his breaks we would talk and I got to know him rather well. One of the things I found out about him was that he had rolled his vehicle on the way to Steamboat Springs and it was in the process of being repaired. Towards the end of his stay in Steamboat Springs, his vehicle repairs were completed and I gave him a ride over Rabbit Ears Pass so that he could retrieve it. I had told him that I was trying to break into the entertainment business. He gave me the number of his agent and said that he would recommend me to him.

If I was going to become a one-man band, I would need to get a drum machine. With the help of my friend at the local music store, I ordered a machine of the same make and model that my friend for the hotel had been using. When it arrived, I figured out how to get it to do what I needed it to do and practiced using it. I also needed to build my repertoire, so I bought, listen to and learned to play lots and lots of country songs, both old ones and new ones. Country music lends itself very well to solo entertainers, since it is relative simple and relies primarily on melody and lyrics communicate its message. I practiced and practiced until I had put together enough material to play a four-hour show. On the recommendation of my friend, I got myself booked into the same local hotel where he had played. I did well enough there that I felt confident that I could be successful in other places. The next thing I needed was a demo tape and some photographs of myself. I set up a tape recorder and taped one of my performances. One of my friends took a picture of me with my guitar and I had some copies made. Finally, I got in touch with the agent and sent him some tapes, pictures, a song list and some biographical information to use in getting me whatever bookings he could find. A few weeks later, he reported that he had me booked for six weeks into a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama.

Over that summer, I played in Birmingham, Alabama; Edinburg, Texas; and twice in Abilene, Texas. During that time, I blew up the engine in my old Volkswagen station wagon and replaced it myself in the parking lot of the hotel where I was performing in Edinburg. Both of my acoustic guitars where damaged from the heat inside of the car as I drove across Texas. By the time I had finished with my Big Southern Tour, I was ready to break into the entertainment scene in Steamboat Springs. Okay, well maybe “break into” isn’t quite the right choice of words, but I had a enough confidence from my tour that I started getting some work.

In the nine years that I lived in Steamboat Springs, I went from playing single-act gigs to starting my own band. I worked with an increasing number of different local musicians and performed under a variety of band names including Two for the Money, Three for the Money, The Country Flames, and The Slammers. Both Two for the Money and Three for the Money played in the bars in the ski area during the winter season. The Slammers was a brief digression into rock-and-roll and was a short-lived configuration. The Country Flames was the most successful of the bands and had a steady engagement at the new dance hall on the west end of town for nearly a year. I was also did my one-man band show on a regular schedule in Saratoga, Wyoming and Baggs, Wyoming, with casual appearances in Laramie, Wyoming; Centennial, Wyoming; and Elk Mountain, Wyoming.

During the day, I worked with Carol at the secretarial service she had purchased. She bought the business with the idea that she would be able to sit at the reception desk in the building, answer the phones when they rang and sit and read a book when the phones were quiet. It didn’t work out that way. She wound up taking care of somewhere around twenty-seven phone lines and performing a wide variety of secretarial services for the tenants of the building. It got so busy that I would pitch in and help. I worked as the Computer Department, creating resumes, proposals, term papers and doing the bookkeeping on an Apple //e computer. I thought the little Apple computer was great and I talked Carol into letting me buy one with the promise that I would make it pay for itself. It did, indeed, pay for itself and quickly, at that. I would come in a do computer projects for Carol during the day and then go out a play in the bars with the band at night. It was a great life and we were big fish in a little pond there in Steamboat Springs.

Of course, I still wasn’t hanging around with the “cool” people. The people I was hanging around with were local business owners with families. They were certainly not the “in” crowd. The “in” crowd seemed to do a lot of drinking and attended a lot of parties to which I was never invited. The people in my band and who I worked with were mostly hard-working, fun-loving, decent citizens of that little town; one owned the auto parts store west of town, another owned a restaurant, another owned the music store. Carol’s friends were attorneys and real estate brokers and their wives. In other words, we were staunchly and solidly living life in the middle lane where I always seem to find myself. As good as things were for us there in that lovely little mountain town, we felt the need to move west. Carol’s brother and sister where living in Los Angeles, California and they furnished us with a variety of compelling reasons to make a move to the big city. We were at the top of our game and we felt that in order to reach our goals we needed a bigger pond to swim in, so we started planning the move. We put our little trailer house on the market and we offered the business for sale.

Both the house and the business sold rather quickly and for more than we expected them to bring. We found homes for our cats and our dog, and we packed everything we owned into a twenty-two foot rented truck. Carol’s kids had elected to stay in Steamboat Springs with their father, which was difficult and is a very long story all of its own. (Perhaps, I’ll write that story, too, someday.) We hooked the VW station wagon to the back of our Jeep Wagoneer, and set off on our journey to California with Carol driving the Jeep and me behind the wheel of the truck. We had CB radios so we could keep in touch on the road. We had maps and some food for the trip. As we pulled out of the driveway, our life in Steamboat Springs dwindled in our rearview mirrors. Ahead of us was a new adventure. We had no real plan, not too much money and no concept of what life in Los Angeles was like. We were soon to find out.