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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Money (Still) Changes Everything

[Editor's Note: First offered in 2006]
{Author's Note: There is no editor. }
It is gratifying to see effort rewarded.

My good friend Steve is an excellent father to his two boys. His older son, Flapdoodle, is twenty years old, and wishes to follow in the old man's wake a bit and play music with his friends. My avid readers will recall that Flapdoodle is Mr. Pom Pom's brother, whose brush with death and musical greatness we recounted here before.

Now, I've known Flapdoodle since he was a wee bairn. He's always been a nice kid, and afflicted with a kind of adult poise from a tender age. "Born old," as we say. Every spare minute, he's been plunking on his guitar to learn how to do it. He's got college age friends now who are similarly thoughtful and fun and dedicated to making music for the amusement of others.

"Making music for the amusement of others" is more than just learning how to play Stairway to Heaven, halfway through, in your basement. Everybody wants to be a rock star. But the local bar don't need no rockstar. It needs you to learn how to play your instruments properly, gather the proper equipment, figure out what the audience would want to hear, and show up on time and work hard. And I can assure you that all that in one package is rarer than hen's teeth.

Father Steve is both mildly demanding and helpful. Flapdoodle goes to college now, and spends his summer toiling at a beachside restaurant/nightclub, working hard in the kitchen. Steve used to play in that same nightclub twenty years ago. When Flappy's done, he comes home to the apartment over Steve's garage that he and his musical compatriots rent from Steve.

I'm not sure, but I don't think Steve is getting wealthy off the rent.

Steve cleared out half the basement in his house, painted the floor, and they cobbled together the equipment needed to simply go down there, pick up instruments, and bang out a four chord song. It's much more marvelous for not being lavish.

Steve tells me the band works down there every spare moment, and he's gratified to hear them really applying themselves and trying to get better in an organized and intelligent way. They don't make the mistake most aspiring musicians make --to just plunk away indefinitely at the same old thing, never really learning it, never giving much attention to the wants or desires of any prospective audience. Rock music suffers from festering self-absorption enough without adding any of your own on there. It's not rocket science. But it ain't that easy to be entertaining, either. Steve helps them when he can, and mostly helps them by not intruding much. He always seems to be around when they can't remember the end of "Light My Fire," though, and the door opens up a crack while they argue over it mildly, and Steve says F C D and they're back at it again.

They were going to get their chance last weekend, until nature intervened. Steve's old band [Editor's Note: The author should have admitted he was in that band.] was dragged back from semi-retirement to perform at an annual outdoor party, on the water's edge, at a fine little community called Far Echo Harbor. It's along the shores of the gigantic Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire. Steve's got a summer home there, and helps put on this entertainment as a gesture of neighborliness and goodwill. It's become something of a tradition. And Scrambled Porn, as Flapdoodle's band calls themselves, was going to play for an hour in the middle of the old man's performance.

That's perfect. Big, ready made audience. Instruments already set up. Familiar friendly faces in the audience. The only pressure was the internal kind, the desire to do well and entertain. There's a lot more pressure when you're professional. Money changes everything.

There was a problem. It rained like the first ten pages of the Bible for twelve straight hours. There was no venue large enough to hold the audience and the bands indoors, and it had to be cancelled. Long faces.

But sometimes, marvelous things happen, and minor disappointments only make the story flow better. They had the tent set up for the caterer, and he served that food anyway, and as a hundred or two of us huddled under the tent in the rain and watched the kids splash in the puddles just outside it, something coalesced amongst the disappointment.

The caterer ran a roadhouse restaurant right down the street called the Bad Moose. It's a great place, haunted by locals and tourists alike, serving food in the afternoon and bluesy music and beer at night. That man had hired a band to play on Saturday night. And they didn't show up.

So here's your chance Flapdoodle and friends. First you have to convince Old Steve to let you. He's wise, your father; he didn't say yes right away. He went there first to take one look at the crowd and see if things would be thrown at you if you faltered. Because you were about to be among strangers. And entertaining strangers is ... different.

The Bad Moose crowd at night is prone to motorcycles and tattoos. There are very few drinks with umbrellas in them in evidence. There is a contingent of very large males enamored of high-fives and bottled beer, and some women who might have danced around a pole previously. The bartender works alone, whirling like a dervish, is dressed like a vampire, has some metal in the face and tattoos on the skin, and could probably clear the room in 15 seconds flat. And she's a girl.

There is a lot of commotion and confusion as Steve and I tried to set up the instruments and PA system for unfamiliar idiosyncracies in a crowded bar. The crowd was restless. The manager of the bar looked at the childish faces of the band, old enough to work in a bar, but not old enough to drink in one, and I saw a moment of doubt flash over his face. After we sorted out all the cables and applied all the necessary duct tape, those young fellows let it rip.

Steve and I crouched by the door, winced a little, and prayed or something. I went to Catholic School for seven years, but I couldn't remember for the life of me the name of any Saint that would be the Patron Saint of Bar Fights, so the the prayers may have been of doubtful utility.

And...

They were great. Not polished, but not so's you'd notice. And after about five minutes, you could feel it -- the audience wanted to like them. And when they faltered, the audience picked them up and carried them to the next passage where they knew the way better. There was lots of wild abandon on the dance floor, which is just the same scoured pine planks the band's standing on. And the audience whooped and hollered and beat their spilled beer to sea foam in front of the manchildren drinking water and smiling like they'd just won the world series -- when they got the nerve to look up from their strings. And when they ran out of things to play, the audience made them play it all over again.

The next morning, an emissary came from the Bad Moose. The boys were asleep still, crashed out on every couch and bunkbed in the little summer home like some invading army. Steve was awake, and the fellow pressed two damp and wrinkled fifty-dollar bills in his hand. Give that to the boys and tell them they can play there anytime.

Money changes everything.

4 comments:

TmjUtah said...

I played roadie for a friend's son's band a time or three back in the eighties.

They, too, once had an out-of-the-blue opportunity to play a club gig in a south San Diego County biker bar.

I wish that it had worked out a little bit better than it did, but then you have hit the nail on head with your band posts: it's not about the band, it's about the audience.

Tough, tough lesson to learn. Painful even.

PatHMV said...

That story always gets to me.

My youngest brother recently was hired to play the bagpipes at a local Irish bar. Being only 16, he wasn't allowed in, but had to play from the doorway into the courtyard. Which is where you generally want your bagpipe players, anyway... outside or in some other room from the one you are in.

Del said...

-- I CAN FEEL THE LOVE OF HUMANITY IN EVERY CORNER OF EVERY ROOM IN YOUR MIND YOU LET US INTO. THANK YOU.

SippicanCottage said...

Most. Gratifying. Comment. Evar.