Diary of a Fading Rockstar, Part VII

When Did The Midnight-To-Six Become Six-To-Midnight? Or: How The Real World Ruined My Breakfast

Written By Erik Rader

There’s a cliche I think we’re all familiar with that a rockstar’s alarm clock is usually set for noon, but he/she tends to like sleeping in a little past that. I think the whole concept of brunch was invented by a rockstar, or whoever provided that person with food. Since I generally provide my own food, my stomach is more or less my alarm clock these days, beyond the predictable mayhem caused by various small two and four-legged mammals parading about the house.

When we went out and got day jobs (or went back out and got back our day jobs, or whatever order it came in for you) we pretty much had to let go of the rockstar brunch. Maybe it really was a luxury. But in all truthfulness we had a full-time job with weird hours – all day most weekdays for songwriting, arranging, rehearsing, interviews, photo shoots, driving to the next gig, and night shift on the weekends – the gigs themselves, and all that low-rent spec time between paying customers at the big shot recording studio. Plus the fact that we were always expected to take our work home with us. And that’s just the work – there’s all the socializing you’re asked to do on top of that. Let’s see you get up bright and early after a night tossing back brandies at an awards ceremony. Unless there are hairs of the proverbial canine involved, it’s just not a reasonable expectation.

These days I do well with a structured work schedule – I usually get to work early and leave late; sometimes I even get asked to please stick to my scheduled hours. To get out on time, I’ve established a routine whereby I start a series of specific tasks around 5:00 PM, cycling through different areas of my responsibility each hour. It may sound anal, but it helps me not miss details. I’m not really a detail-oriented person, as the friendly credit card company representative reminded me over the phone today.

On unstructured time (you normal people call them “days off” I guess) there was always other activities you could do that were more or less set by the culture. If you weren’t writing, rehearsing, recording or playing a gig, you were supposed to be buying and listening to records, seeing somebody else’s band play, doing “research” on some sort of mind-altering substance, or showing up at some protest rally or other. Oh, and then there’s putting in the necessary “girlfriend time”, which in their minds was usually about 37 hours a day. This involved going to their parents’ house to eat meals in stony silence, or paying nail-biting visits to a doctor’s office to make sure the home pregnancy test was a false alarm, or listening to them talk about what a bitch their best friend is. There were nights when you’d feel torn three ways – having your parental landlords expecting you to be at home in bed before dawn, while having your girlfriend expecting you at her place even sooner, and your band mates expecting you to sleep it off on the rehearsal space carpet with them. It’s no wonder that many musicians burn out from taking too many stimulants and avoiding sleep altogether.

Actual “free time” is hard to find for anyone, especially if like me you have a propensity for making promises. Finding that zone in which one has no responsibilities to anyone or anything, where nothing is due, or overdue, actually requires a focus of mind and effort that takes years to develop. Avoiding responsibility is hard work; most of us fall into responsibility without looking for it or choosing it.

When you are the lead singer of a rock and roll band, this is actually your most important job, second only to actually singing in a rock and roll band. Everybody has something to do at soundcheck except you; and in the studio, you are always the last person to be recorded. You’re expected to stand there and look cool, but not too distracting, during the solos; and interviewers are always more interested in what the guitar player has to say, because they think you’re an idiot. Many people project onto you what has been termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – in other words, the popular perception of you is being about as connected to the daily realities of life as a spoiled housecat.

But you’re the focal point for the audience. Like Jesus Christ, no one may enter the Kingdom of Heaven except through you. You are the doorman at the Gates of Delirium. You are the tribal shaman, your community’s channel for mystical forces. You are expected to be toothless, insane, and needing to be fed. If you exceed these expectations, you are liable to have someone come up to you and say “Excuse me – are you the manager?” (This in and of itself is not so bad, as there is actually a narrow chance that somebody might unintentionally give you the money.)

It’s hard work playing an instrument, and no mistake. You have to stay in your room and play scales all day while other kids are playing stickball, going out on dates or getting high. You have to sit around sucking on a reed, or checking your pockets for guitar picks, or super-gluing your calluses. It’s especially hard being a drummer because you have to drive everybody around in the vehicle you bought to drive your gear around. Then the lead singer sits on your pedal by accident and breaks the strap, and you have to borrow a pedal from that asshole in the opening band. If you’re the bass player it’s even worse, because you have to pick up the guitar player at his girlfriend’s house, and he’s always late because, well, you know, and plus you have the most cripplingly heavy and unwieldy piece of equipment in the band: The Dreaded Bass Cabinet. Consequently, it is also the most dropped piece of equipment in the band. So is it any wonder that 2/3rds of all technical difficulties on stage are bass-related? But I digress.

It’s hardest of all being the lead singer, because your instrument is your body. You can set fire to your guitar or put explosive charges in your snare drum, but if you do either of those to yourself you’re liable to get killed, or wish you had. If a roadie drops a box of drum hardware, the most likely thing to get damaged is his foot; if he drops you, you’re the one who’s damaged (not even mentioning the fact that you were pretty damaged in the first place, which is why he’s carrying you). Band members can hang around backstage playing with their instruments; the singer can only play with him/herself. Vocal chords are dreadfully susceptible to extremes of temperature, atmospheric contaminants, or bad vibes. You can play guitar when you’re in a bad mood, but when you’re the singer the bad mood affects your instrument directly.

Another thing that sucks about being in a group of instrumental musicians is that they don’t think you play an instrument. You’re as functional as a coat rack in their eyes. They’ll stand there at parties blandly telling you that you should “take up an instrument”, as if using your own body as an instrument onstage is somehow lazy. You’re the lowest priority in the house mix, the monitor mix, even the studio mix. Every show for your first few years on the road will culminate in at least three people saying “You looked great, I wish I could hear you!” or “I wish I could tell what you were singing. Was your microphone even on?” It doesn’t matter how much presence you get in your mix during sound check; fill the house with people, and fill the sound man with cocaine, pot, PCP and Bushmill’s, and all of a sudden the lead guitar is louder than the thoughts inside your own head, followed close second by the drums and bass, and maybe the trombone after that. The trombone player is your hero, because he will never under any circumstances NOT be heard, not if they cut his mike, not if they stick a sock in his trombone, not even if they shoot him and bury him six feet under the stage. If they do that, a flaming trombone from hell will play Dixieland jazz straight up their asses. I think the trombone is an outstanding and often unsung instrument in the rock and roll pantheon. People latch onto the sax because it’s got a certain amount of built-in attitude in its sound, but the trombone wins because there’s no subtlety or pretension about it. Trombone is raw moonshine to the sax’s fancy wine. Trombone steps past the sharpshooter precision of the sax and pulls out a sawed-off shotgun.

I learned some things about being a rockstar from the trombone player. He never, ever, ever took himself seriously onstage or off; when he acted like he did, he was fucking with you. The trombone player made no enemies, was threatened by no one, and was ready with a smile in almost every situation. The trombone player was all about confidence, easiness and humor. If anything the trombone player said or did pissed you off, you knew you were probably being an asshole and should get off your high horse. The trombone player never sulked; it was almost impossible to hurt his feelings, and heaven knows I tried. The trombone player was the first to laugh if a practical joke was played on him; but his revenge was always swift and merciless, and the rest of the horn section were always there to back him up. The trombone player never gave a shit about what anyone else thought; he was only in it for his own entertainment, every minute he was in it. When he was done, he went to college and got himself a real job. He’ll probably be the one who pays for the lead singer’s funeral.

But more importantly, no one ever questioned whether the trombone player was “living in the real world” or not. (Okay, there was that time during his freshman year in college, but everyone’s freshman year is like that.) The trombone player, today, is as much a representative of “the real world” as anyone the lead singer has ever known. And yet he is still, and will always be, the trombone player. His spirit comes and goes across the face of creation with that sound forever following in his wake.

The trombone player represents something pure and eternal about the whole rockstar trip. Something that perhaps used that trip as a springboard to transcend all the shallowness and waste. The trombone player doesn’t have any regrets. The trombone player presents a lesson for us all: Play loud. Be heard. Wear whatever you want. Don’t be afraid to look ridiculous. And don’t bother having enemies – it’s just not worth the effort.

The trombone player understands brunch – that it’s a necessity, and not a luxury, of life.

Read the other part of the series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


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