Monday, February 06, 2006

So many stories to tell

I have so many stories to tell. I will remember a funny story from the past and need to sit down and write it so it can be incorporated in a larger book I will write someday about playing in bands. So here's a couple plus some philosophizing about the social dynamics of playing in a band.

I've observed that a big part of band life is the accumulation of lore, especially funny stories. The group members retell these stories, and through the retelling they help forge the essential group identity or esprit de corps that helps keep the group going through thick and thin. Most of these stories are privately held between band members and a few inside confidants, and they rarely come to the attention of the audience.

And so what about the "pants emergency?" That's a story for the Inner Light book. But here's a capsule summary: Back in the mid 1970s I played in a band called "Inner Light" that played a lot of "tuxedo jobs." Our first year (1974) was spent playing 8:30-Midnight every Friday-Sat night at the Olney Inn in the DC suburbs of Maryland. The next two and a half years that I was with the band (until April 1977), we worked on a contract basis for Washington Talent, one of the biggest agencies in the DC area.

For the first few months of our post-Olney Inn life, the guys in the band wore leisure suits, which we got at a cheap price and served us fairly well until later that year when we invested in decent tuxes (velvet collars, ruffled shirts, all the typical 70s style).

My wife at that time came along with me one night to a show. The guitar player and I were lugging the band's heavy PA speakers, and as he bent over we all heard the unmistakable riiiiiiiiiiip of the seam of his pants tearing, right down the middle of the seat! Luckily we carried a sewing kit in our glove box, so the three of us rode around for about 30 minutes in our car. The guitar player sat in the back seat with a blanket draped over his lap while my wife frantically sewed his pants back together. It's a lot funnier now than it was then, but I think we all realized that it would become a classic band story.

The story of the serial numbers involved me, the guitar player and the bass player (the three men in the band). After the Olney Inn year, we always played one-nighters, such as wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, country club dances (and even a Greek christening for which we had to learn a traditional Greek song called "Parme Zvakah" or something like that - but that's another story). After setting up the equipment, we would change into our tuxedos in the men's room (or the locker room if the country club would let us change there). I kept a written log book of every gig we played for my tax purposes. Somehow we hit on the idea of putting our initials in an inconspicuous place at every place we changed clothes. Usually it would be under the sink or above a locker in the corner - somewhere they wouldn't wash it off. The format was "IL-date-X" where "X" was a serial number, beginning from 1 and continuing on. I posted this serial number in my log book, so whenever we played somewhere a second or third time, it was a challenge to remember where we'd posted our initials, so we could post that job too.

I've found that playing in bands is a little like creating a separate little tribe. You gradually evolve a common language - mostly jokes and sayings to which only the band members can relate. Playing in a band is a little like the combination of a fraternity, sports team and small business. The teamwork aspect is critical to forging a band identity. You work closely together, and over the years you overcome hardships and gradually build a group identity. Few people outside the business are aware of this aspect, because it's entirely behind the scenes. However, I've found it to be one of the essential elements that keeps a small group cohesive and helps make the hardships easier to bear. The common lingo is usually quite silly, and over the years it acquires more and more ornamentation. Funny stories get told and re-told, until all that is required is the mention of a single word to send the members into hysterics. Then when the band breaks up, as they always do, the stories vanish and the experience dies unless someone like me puts them down in writing.

Yesterday was a good Super Bowl. The Rolling Stones entertained at halftime. My wife said, "That's YOU!" pointing to Mick Jagger, strutting and screaming at the ripe old age of 63 (I turn 60 in eight days). But those dudes get off stage, hop into limos and are whisked away on private jets, whereas I lug, set up and tear down my own equipment, dodging tables and drunks on the way in and the way out. Believe me, it's a physical challenge, one that few 60 year-olds would be up to. Musicians always joke that they play for free but get paid to pack, carry, set up and tear down their equipment. This is most true for drummers and keyboard players, who have the most gear to lug. My rig probably weighs over 200 lbs., including two keyboards, a 150-watt amp, bag full of cables and connectors, briefcase full of pedals, keyboard stand, amp stand, bench and music stand. Fortunately in Nashville most clubs have their own PA and light systems, which at least provides some relief from the major hauling I did before coming here. Owning and operating a PA and light system is a major responsibility, quite separate from learning to play one's own instrument. Sonic feedback and any one of an infinite number of potential equipment breakdowns can ruin a perfectly good gig. I've learned how to "ring out" the monitor system, which involves finding the worst resonant frequencies and dampening them down via the equalizer. This must be done for every setup. But I've pretty much retired my PA system to the basement where it serves for rehearsals.

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