Starting out as a young singer/songwriter in Austin, I was half of a duet with an “older” guy (I was 21, he was 26). Since I was new to performing, I could get pretty nervous. I counted on him to remain level-headed and help me over the rough spots. We rehearsed for months before we felt ready to launch our music into the competitive Austin scene. Finally, we were sure our time had come so we got an audition at a club on the Drag that featured acoustic music in the evenings. Unfortunately, they featured topless dancers in the afternoon (I think that’s what’s known as being “eclectic”). As it turned out, our audition was scheduled right before the dancers were due to start. Now, it’s hard enough being an opening act, but an opening act for topless dancers?? My partner was supposed to start our first song, a nice Gordon Lightfoot tune called “Second Cup of Coffee,” with a little rhythmic finger-picking thing. Once he had the groove going, I would jump in with a nice lead intro. That was the plan. Unfortunately, when he started his finger-picking, it was totally out of rhythm, bouncing all over the place. I thought to myself, this is weird. I couldn’t figure out when to come in but of course, I didn’t let that stop me. We stumbled through the intro and sang the song. If anyone had been listening (they weren’t, of course), they would have wondered how the sound guy got that powerful tremolo in both our voices. We massacred a couple more songs before limping off stage with our tails between our legs. My friend told me afterwards he was so nervous on the first song, he developed a twitch in his thumb. His thumb was jumping around so much he couldn’t pick the beat…and HE was the “mature one.” As you can imagine, they were quite eager for us to get off the stage. As you can also imagine, we didn’t get the gig.
A gig we did get was at a pizza place in Austin with a six week, Friday-Saturday night run. Initially, things went well, then attendance and interest dropped off. We hung in until the bitter end though. The final nail in the coffin was our last night’s performance. This place had the forerunner of video…some sort of videocassette deal that projected cartoons on the wall. When we took our last break, there was a small group of people who were watching a Flintstones cartoon. When our last set was due to start, the manager shut off the video machine. At that point, the people got up and left. They stayed for the Flintstones. They left for us. That stung!
On several occasions, I’ve played in pubs in Northern Ireland where huge bar fights have broken out. People would be whaling on each other but as soon as the British soldiers came in accompanying the local gendarmes, everyone stopped and begun cursing and threatening them. As one of the soldiers told us afterwards, in the U.S. this would just have been a bar fight. You call the police, they knock a few heads and it’s over. In Northern Ireland, it immediately became a political incident. Those boys carry some big guns! Luckily, we survived that one.
Talent can only take you part of the way. Perseverance and a thick skin get you a lot further. Knowing when to duck helps; being in the right place at the right time helps, too, although you can’t always control that. The main thing I’ve learned from these experiences, along with hundreds of others, is that so far, I’ve survived (see “bar fight in Northern Ireland” above).
So far, no blood has been shed during my career …at least none of mine…although a few times I’ve come close (emotional wounds bleed on the inside…they don’t count).
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that’s true. Any illusions (or delusions) I had starting out that this would be a glamorous and easy life have long since vanished. It’s really hard work, as you would expect a job to be. You’ve got to believe in what you do even if no one else seems to. I’m still out there touring as a professional musician. I love what I do, particularly when things are really cookin’ and folks are enjoying themselves. There’s a certain nobility that comes with enhancing the quality of people’s lives. Sometimes people show their appreciation…and sometimes they holler “bring on the strippers!” As that great philosopher (Ricky Nelson) once said, “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.”