Friday, February 25, 2011

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get out of the Spotlight. Part 4.

No One Heard Her Cries

Getting back into the music business in Los Angeles was easy. Succeeding in the music business turned out to be a bit more difficult. Of course, achieving success depends upon what your view of success might be. If you shoot for simply getting paid to practice your craft, than I guess I succeeded. Sometimes.

During my performing years in Los Angeles, I worked with a number of different people, some friends, some strangers who acted like friends but weren’t, and some strangers who became friends and still are. I played with a band whose lead singer was a woman who knew only a few songs, but always hired people to work with her who could fill in the rest of the show. She promised to pay me, but when it came time to collect, after I had worked with her quite a few times, she pled poverty and so we parted ways. It was an odd parting, in that she made it clear that my actually asking her to live up to her part of the bargain was some sort of betrayal on my part.

I played some bass guitar in an alternative music group which was great fun. In Los Angeles, though, you mostly don’t get paid to play your original music; instead you are not only expected to provide entertainment for the venue, but your own audience as well. I also played bass with and for a few friends from time to time. The best group was one where we performed mostly original country music. In that one, we played in Portland, Oregon, and at several county fairs around California, as well as around Los Angeles. I still have friends from that band.

Eventually, though, I ended up going back to my original single act. I found a place in a city called La Puente. It was a bar and restaurant with the unimaginative name “The Place.” It was a small bar, and when I first started playing there it served food in the early evening, but most of the people who came there, came to drink, and drink they did, in quantity and all evening. It had originally been owned by a woman named Maggie, who I was to meet later, but by the time I started playing there it was owned by a man named “Tex.” Tex and I got along and the style of music that I was playing was just what the patrons of that bar were expecting, so everyone was happy. Well, almost everyone. There was some guy who claimed to be a distant cousin of the guy I replaced who would, from time to time, came and sit at the bar near where I was set up and harass me endlessly. Having already done my time as a bully magnet, I was mostly immune to this sort of nonsense. The most difficult part of dealing with this guy was not a self-esteem problem, but more of a self-control problem. I found it difficult not to drag the guy out behind the bar and kick his ass all the way across the parking lot. I restrained myself and eventually this guy went away, probably to search for more susceptible prey.

Other than the occasional drunk and out-of-control idiot, I enjoyed playing at “The Place,” right up until Tex decided to sell the bar and retire. The new owners immediately began to do what a great many new owners do: change things. They wanted to attract a different crowd and imprint the bar with their own personalities. It didn’t work of course and they eventually went out of business. The one thing you don’t want to do with a thriving neighborhood bar which has a built-in clientele who have been drinking there for years is to change everything around. You lose your regulars, you attract a few new people for a while and then you wind up sitting alone at the bar while your expenses mount up and you can no longer make payments on your loan. I saw that one coming and bailed out early.

That was also about the time that I came to the realization that I was never going to be anything more than a lounge act, playing old songs and watching the patrons slowly drink themselves to death. It was time to get a “real” job and stop trying to be Willie Nelson or Don Williams. The country music business already had a Willie Nelson and a Don Williams; and what the fans were looking for was more Garth Brooks and Randy Travis and the like. I never did have the stage presence to be very good at working with the audience. What I was good at was singing and playing. In the music business, singing and playing are only the beginning of what you need to gain acclaim and popularity. You also have to be communicative, open, friendly, and a genuine “people person.” You have to care about each of your audience members. All I cared about was singing and playing. I never really liked working in bars and I never actually went to bars much unless I was getting paid to play there. For some reason, getting drunk and out-of-control, or getting drunk and being artificially happy, never really appealed to me. It’s the getting drunk part I didn’t care for. Intentionally numbing up my mind and poisoning my body have never really held that much appeal for me. I’ve always found more satisfaction in doing something well, in finding a problem and solving it, or in helping somebody with a project. It was time to move on.

Oh, I still have all the guitars and amps and stuff. I still have binders and binders full of song lyrics and chord charts, left over from the days when I could play 400 songs or more, but I don’t really play much anymore and my vocal skills are rather rusty these days. What I finally realized was that, from the very beginning, I was only playing and singing because I thought it would make me “cool,” that it would cause people to like me and want to be my friend. I was always playing to please someone else, to impress someone, to receive admiration and appreciation. None of these was reason enough to continue. I’ll have to get back to a point where I play and sing because it’s enjoyable to me, and where I can give my talents to someone as a gift without expecting anything in return. Only then will I be able to rekindle my interest in performing. Until then, I keep an old classical guitar close at hand so that whenever I feel the need, I can pick it up, strum a few chords and try to remember the words to an old Hank Williams song or two.