Monday, February 14, 2005

Unsigned Melody

Listening to: Giya Hancheli, Morning Prayer

Program note: This was the entry I meant to submit for The Zero Boss's "Blogging For Books" and my sorry ass thought the deadline was SIX P.M. on Monday, not 6 A.M., but oh well, if this entry doesn't make the cut, it was a nice dry run - and there's always March. You, my beloved readers, will go to bat for me, I'm sure. Unless you think this post is dry and pretentious and if that's the case, I assume you'll let me know.

Unsigned Melody

There’s something about spring that, since my early childhood, has charged me with possibility. Waking up in the morning with the window open, greeted by the smell of fresh-cut grass and the distant hum of lawn mowers, I always get the sense that good fortune is imminent, reward for enduring the harsh heart of winter. Everything’s green and glistening, like the cold glass bottle of coke that greeted me every afternoon after baseball practice.

Spring is my re-acquaintance with childhood, each day met with wide-eyed wonder and hope. Renewal, rebirth, a reaffirmation of faith that things change and, in the aggregate, change is for the better.

One spring night, many years ago, my band was playing in Denver. It was unusually warm for that time of the year and the doors of the bar were wide open, people spilling out onto the sidewalk during set breaks, excited, breathless, sweating. We’d just finished our second set and had joined the crowd outside when Shep, the bar owner, sought us out. “There’s a record company guy in there looking for you,” he said, “He’s bought you guys a round and wants to talk to you.”

It was 1991 and the major labels had a hard-on for anything that reeked of The Underground. Since every band in Seattle had been signed (whether they sucked or not); the A&R guys were rolling south to Austin and Denver was a regular piss stop for them.
I didn’t think we’d be on anybody’s radar, since we were relatively new (only about three years on the circuit) and hadn’t “paid our dues” proper. Yet, the hope of discovery was always in the back of my mind. After all, we were doing well and well, we were “alternative” and that was what was hotter than anything in the spring of 1991.

“What do you guys sound like?” I was asked all the time, to which I’d reply, “We sound like shit. But we get a lot of work playing for people who like to listen to shit. Shit sells.”
The Replacements meets Black Sabbath meets Talking Heads meets The Thirteenth-Floor Elevators meets the fat Elvis on acid. Something like that, but different, weirder, more out-there and more-or-less our own thing. The ultimate compliment to me was when people thought our covers were originals and our originals were covers.

Shep led us back inside to a table in the back where the A&R guy sat. He stood up when we approached, shook our hands, “Great show, guys,” he told us, enthused, “I love it. You guys are really rocking this place out. Everybody loves you here.”

The A&R guy had done his homework, said he’d seen our single doing respectable on a lot of college radio play-lists, “I love what you guys are doing,” he said, “love your guy’s sound. Edgy. I love edgy. The record company loves edgy.”

A lot of love, I’m thinking, Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” playing in the back of my mind. Sure, a record deal is my ultimate dream, the culmination of all my fantasies, the chance to become something I never thought I could be.

For the past few months I’d shifted my focus as far as my music and where I wanted to take it. I’d been branching out, playing solo, just me and an acoustic guitar. Free of the noise of a band to back me gave me ample time to reflect, to wonder if I was as good a songwriter and composer as everyone was saying I was, if I really had the stuff to get to the next level.

I had my doubts. I wasn’t sure that I had what it takes and I was looking for something else to land on. Going back to school had been on my mind. We’d been playing at a lot of colleges and I was meeting people who were talking about things I wanted to be able to talk about. Making music was fulfilling a certain urge but a greater need tugged at me; I longed to learn.

Playing solo gigs not only allowed me to work out musical ideas, trying out covers of songs I loved but the band would never play, new originals that were too personal to play with the band, but it gave me a better sense of my limitations as a musician. I’d started my band career playing punk. Although I’d fooled with acoustic guitars here and there, it took me five years to finally buy an acoustic guitar and move past amplified and distorted noise. Electric guitars had allowed me to glide over mistakes but the acoustic was a stern mistress and immediately I noticed how sloppy my playing was.

More than that, playing solo brought back the spirit of my punk roots, the desperation, urgency, and immediacy, no bottom-line to consider but playing only for the sheer joy of making a racket. I played what I liked with no concern with who danced to it or how it went over and, in fact, I preferred that the audience sat and really listened.

In the midst of this, I was expanding my repertoire and my horizons, listening to musicians who were a million miles away from what I was doing with the band. The experience was disconcerting. As my ears became more discerning to other musician’s craft, as my mind opened to bold lyrical statements, my assessment of my own talents continued to diminish.

The A&R guy ordered us a round of drinks as we sat down, gave us the quick and dirty explanation of what we could expect from a contract. We’d get a small stipend to make the move to L.A. where we’d get “developed”, pay to play in places they’d booked us. We’d recoup that money from gate percentages, he assured us, but it was up to us how we managed our money and kept up with the bookings. We’d have to work day jobs but in the end, as we built a name, there was guaranteed money, for recording and distribution, touring, etc.

He left us with a sample contract and a business card, asked us to give it some thought and get back to him. Shep must have told him we were booked for the weekend in another two weeks because he promised he’d be back for the show if he hadn’t heard from us.

For the next couple of weeks, discussions about signing dominated band rehearsals. Of course the guys were gung-ho, ready to go in an instance but I held all the cards – I wrote all the songs – and I wasn’t sure I was prepared to pull up roots and go to Los Angeles. Yeah, it was exasperating to them, I know, but I was being pulled a thousand different ways by my ego, my doubts, my desire to go to college, the band’s desire to shoot for the moon. It was a lot to handle.

The drummer had his corporate attorney father look at the contract and aside from a few minor details, everything seemed copasetic. Everyone was asking me to call the record company and agree to sign. Everything was pointing to the notion that I should sign. And yet, something inside of me told me that I needed to wait.

When we returned to Shep’s bar, it was another warm spring night. We played ferociously, probably motivated by the expectation that we were about to break loose, into the big time, playing stadiums instead of bars, indulging every fantasy we’d ever entertained. It was one of the tightest most powerful gigs we ever played.

We closed the second set with a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights”, a song I’d brought to the band from my solo-acoustic exploration. God we were jammin’ it, searing it, stretching it out and soaring. I looked at the other guys on stage and we all three had that moment only a musician knows, that absolute transcendence of realization that nothing could sound this good, everything’s clicking, rocking, falling right into the place that the moment has provided for improvised perfection. I tell you, there’s no sex like it, no high like it, nothing compares.

I turned away from the guys to take the mic on the coda, buzzed, ebullient, my moment of satori extending into the final chorus as my realization became clear. Looking out into the bar I could see that the crowd was maniacal, frenzied, everything was perfect for the end of the set.

As we sat down to talk with the A&R guy, he asked Shep to get us anything we wanted. The guys ordered shots of Jameson’s; I ordered a cold bottle of coke. If we were going to hash out the details, I wanted a relatively clear mind.

The A&R guy told us he’d get us booked into top clubs for a lot less than going rate. We had to change our name, though, our name was owned. He wanted to get back to the company’s attorneys regarding the details on the contract we needed changed but said he’d didn’t foresee any problems and we should probably get together the next Monday to sign the papers.

The next day I filled out an application for the local University.

In the springtime, the optimist gets his wings; he doesn’t have to wait for a ringing bell, all he has to do is let the Earth turn. Good things are gonna’ come, they always do. “She’ll come back around,” says the optimist and sure enough, she always does.

I was never so sure. As I grew older and more cynical, I learned that a sure thing was a sucker’s bet. When we were playing “Shoot Out the Lights”, I realized I could never write something that confident, that compelling, that complete, never in a million years, I knew I could never reach those heights. No matter how good it felt feeling otherwise on stage, no matter what all the fans and bar-owners and record company agents said, I knew that my reach was sadly limited.

I did well in school, excelled in a way that I knew I couldn’t match playing music. Although I don’t dwell on what might have been, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about how things might have been different had I gone ahead and taken my shot. No regrets, none at all, and I have three beautiful children to attest to the fact that I made the right decision. But there are times when I’m out watching a band and thinking, “I could do that – I did that. And I did it better.”


seeingdouble said...

Wow, Jim... I really enjoyed reading that. (not that your other writing sucks or anything! LOL) How strange to look back on that now, knowing what has happened since then.

Heather said...

It's interesting to look back on our lives at things that should be "regrets" and realize they aren't at all. You can't go back, but you can look at the choices you made and think "Look at what I wouldn't have now if I'd done that differently."