“No one came from miles around… and said ‘man, who’s he?’ ” – Ian Gillan
The great thing about the mid-life crisis is that it forces you to find out who you really are. Some people go into that dark abyss and don’t come out, some come out an buy a sports car, some come out the other side looking tired and worn; while some come out looking like a shiny, new penny.
Right now, I’m somewhere in between, but the ride is pretty amazing.
After publishing Split Rock Road last year, the most popular question I heard was, “When is the next one coming out?” My usual answer is “soon”, but the truth is, maybe next year, maybe never. Writing the book was a dream fulfilled, and a wish crossed off the list. Then I moved onto other endeavors. Namely, the stage and the microphone. It’s nice to get good reviews on Amazon, and win an award at the Javits, but its nothing like hearing a crowd applaud. And it’s nothing like hearing a crowd in total silence. That’s pure adrenaline.
The goal for this year was to get back on a stage and sing in front of an audience. A big audience.
Late last year, Valarie and I happened into the Rockwood Music Hall on Allen Street and saw this amazing singer-songwriter named Sam King and we were blown away. A few weeks later, we saw Pearl Jam in Brooklyn, and I started to get the itch. In January, I resolved to go see a vocal coach. I went in, full of nerves and anxiety and began spouting before I sat down; “I can’t really sing, I smoked for too long, I’m just mediocre, I just came to check it out…” and on and on.
The instructor, David said, “well, your modesty is refreshing, but let’s found out what the truth is.” After a few excercises, he said simply, “We can work with you.”
And we did. For 10 consecutive Wednesday’s, I showed up at the NewYorkVocalCoaching Studios with my laptop and my cup of hot tea, and I nervously went through a multitude of vocal exercises designed to stretch and strengthen my vocal chords. I’m sure that it helped tremendously, but I left there with something far more important; a truckload of confidence.
Ok, maybe not a truckload. But confidence, nonetheless.
After that, I began to meet up every week with my good friend Thomas, to hang out and jam on some old classic Rock and Roll tunes. Eventually, we asked Robbie Emery to join us, and one night he asked if we wanted to open up for his band Ragtag.
Tommy agreed right away. My stomach dropped and my colon quivered. Sure I liked singing in the basement, but to get on an actual stage? At 48? At 240 pounds? After the initial shock wore off, I agreed as well.
I didn’t tell anyone, of course, but Valarie began to grow suspucicious of my Wednesday night forays, and began to ask questions. Eventually, I let her know little bits and pieces about what was going on, but never telling her the whole story until the last moment. I finally got around to telling her what I was planning to do and she was very excited for me.
“What songs are you planning on doing?”
I wanted everything to be a surprise, so the only song that I revealed to her was Springsteen’s “Growing up.”
After that, every time I came home from rehearsal, she would ask the same question, and she’d get the same answer.
Somewhere along the way, I started meeting separately with my old partner, Steve McEvoy. When we were young and ambitious, Steve and I set out to conquer the world with thoughtful and well arranged songs. Well, our talent didn’t match our ambition, (or vice-versa), and the songs didn’t make it much past Kenny’s Castaway’s. We ressurrected a few of them and played them at an open mic night at Greenhouse Cafe in BayRidge. It went better than expected, so we agreed to do it again.
As fate would have it, the next available slot was July 17th, two days before Robbie’s scheduled gig at Peggy O’neil’s in Coney Island. To add salt to the soup, Friday the 18th was the Bay Ridge Summer Stroll, and of course, Steve Mac had a gig there as well. So rather than preparing a few songs for an opening slot at an afternoon festival, I now had 3 mini-gigs on three consecutive days.
The 2014 Belt Parkway Tour was underway.
I won’t give you the blow-by-blow of every emotion I had over the three days, but I will give you the highlights.
I woke up Thursday with a headache, a sore throat, a runny nose, and body aches. Valarie convinced me that it was all in my head, and after two aspirin and two cups of tea, I felt better.
Thursday’s gig went pretty smoothly. Mac and I did 4 originals from back in the day, and it went over quite well. Of course there were only 10 people there and 8 of them were related to me, but that’s not the point.
Friday was a disaster.
Actually, it was ok. I sang two songs with Mac, and three with Robby and Thomas. It sounded fine and every one there enjoyed it. Everyone except me. There were a lot of people at the Summer Stroll, and I had an opportunity to hit it out of the park.
I hit a bloop double. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t find a groove. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
On Thursday, my brother filmed the performance. I was so happy that he didn’t bring his camera on Friday, otherwise I would have watched the mistakes all night. It’s like Dick Vermeil used to say about game films, – you watch the victories once, you watch the losses over and over.
I tossed and turned for hours before falling asleep. In the morning, the sore throat returned. Val just laughed when I told her. At 8am, I got up and started texting everyone; Thomas, Robbie, Mac, my brother – no one responded.
I got to Peggy O’neil’s at 1pm. I was the first one there. It reminded me of little league, first kid at the ball-field.
I put on my headphones and proceeded to pace for the next hour. 20 different people told me to calm down and relax, but to tell you the truth, I was relaxed. Of course, I was nervous, but I loved the adrenaline.
Finally, the moment had arrived. We named our band Grain Of Salt, being that a grain of salt is insignificant, unless you get it in a wound.
We took the stage, opened the show, and in a moment it was over. It flew by in an eyeblink. I wish we had asked for more time. It was as good of an experience as I could have hoped for; a three-run homer that cleared the fence with room to spare. I was so happy and grateful for the opportunity. The rest of the day was a blur of friends and bands and music. Each of the bands were different and all were good in their own right, but even in my newfound humility, every time a new band came onstage, I whispered to Valarie:
“We were better.”
She indulged me with a smile or a pat on the head.
Then Robbie’s band, Ragtag took the stage. I’ve seen them several times in the past, and they were much improved this time. They were clearly the most professional outfit on the bill and clearly deserving of the headlining slot.
“Ok, we weren’t better than everybody”
As the day moved on, a lot of strangers came up and told me how much they enjoyed the performance, and a lot of friends came up and told me that they never knew I sang.
When all was said and done, Val and I went inside Peggy’s to get something to eat. As we were waiting for a table, I had my first brush with celebrity. A drunk came over to tell me how great I was. It was nice. It felt good to be complimented. He asked if he could buy me a beer, but I declined.
He asked again. I told him I don’t drink.
“Let me get you something.”
“Ok, a coke” I replied.
He returned a minute later with a fruit colored drink. “What’s this?” I asked as I sniffed the top. It reeked of some horrible spirits.
“Tequila Sunrise.” he replied eagerly. I frowned and shook his hand. As I did, I looked down and saw that he was wearing green-striped shorts and velcro beach slippers. A 40-year old frat boy.
We made our way to our table and ordered some apetizers. In the middle of the meal, the frat boy showed up at my shoulder again.
“How’s the drink,” he asked. I was so tempted to say, “how would I know, you moron, I don’t drink”, but I simply nodded my head and continued to eat.
“Hey, do you know anyone looking for a guitarist?”
I told him that I didn’t know anyone offhand, and turned back to my meal.
“Hey, I play guitar, do you know anyone looking for a guitar player?”
Evidently, he was hearing impaired, because he hadn’t heard a word I said all night.
Needless to say, I was growing a little bit frustrated. I remembered an interview with Flea of the Chilli Peppers, where he complained that the only time he minded being a rock star was when he was eating in a restaurant and someone bothered him. He once wanted to smash a girl in the face with a bowl of rice and beans, but he thought better of it and smiled through the encounter.
I turned back to my apetizers, but my new found friend wanted to shake my hand for the 11th time. I was eating chicken wings and mussels marinara at the time. I didn’t want to be rude and arrogant, so I did the only prudent thing I could do.
I shook his hand, grease and all.
He wiped a handful of buffalo juice on his green shorts and made his way over to his next victim.
The day was complete.
The next day, I got a bunch of texts and facebook messages congratulating me on the weekend’s events, and ultimately asking the inevitable, “when are you playing again?”
Truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to. I slayed a dragon this weekend, maybe it’s time to move on to something different. Maybe I’ll go back to one of the half-finished novels.
Valarie has some real artisic talent; I always wanted to paint.
“If I were a sculptor… but then again, no” – B. Taupin.
Maybe ballet, or interpretive dance. Who knows?
But I’d stay tuned if I were you…