The October night was chilly. Rain fell heavily, but we took shelter in the precipice of the building that I was assigned to. My jeans were tattered. The bottoms had long been worn down, the result of which was an unintentional flare that draped over all but just the toe of my veteran brown suede boots. I had earned the gaping hole in the knee. That had not come fashionably prepackaged. Years of being stabbed by my wet bare feet, freshly showered, carved the first cavity while I was dressing. Sharp corners, undetected branches, and the pointed knee itself contributed to the gaping final product. The holes in my brown gloves, however, were not store-bought or the culmination of some accidental weathering, but a last minute decision to free my fingers. We had no scissors, only a keychain pocketknife. My gloves turned out to be as ragged as my jeans, as well as my face, which had not been shaven in two weeks. A brown knit hat and a long sleeved thermal, covered at the chest by a feather-down orange striped green vest completed my attire. I looked the part. I grabbed my guitar. I played.
I was five when my lessons began. To this day, my mother claims that the cause of it all was the application of headphones on her swollen belly. Who am I to argue? My first gig was a fifth grade talent show. Full gymnasium. Folded up basketball rims. A piano. Fur Elise. Beethoven. It was the only classical song that I could assume everyone else would know. It was the only one I could recognize by name. I played.
Still a fifth-grader, I enter a music invitational. My instructor chooses a piece unknown to me, called Tyrannosaurus Rex. The music’s marching rhythm and ominous tones are designed for the listener to imagine a stampeding dinosaur. I don’t get it. With sheet music in hand and the number on my tuxedoed back, I open the door to a small room with only a piano and three impatient elderly judges. My parents hug me. They tell me they love me. They wish me luck. I enter.
Out of boredom, necessity, and curiosity, I answered a Craigslist ad for a street musician. I had been considering an attempt at street performing, mainly as an excuse to try out some new material, but was worried about the legal ramifications of loitering and pan-handling. Sarah, the event coordinator, assured me over the phone that she would pay fifty dollars up front and that tip collection would be allowed since I was being hired by the city of Rochester. I didn’t have to worry about the police. I was a municipal worker for the evening. I was also comforted by the fact that my girlfriend Katelyn wanted to accompany me.
I tried the saxophone first. I didn’t want to get stuck in the middle school concert band playing the flute or the trumpet or something which I had deemed far too effeminate. It turned out that our conductor’s primary instrument was the saxophone, and his primary character was the asshole. After a week I switched to percussion.
It is six o’clock as I began to sing, and I keep in mind that I’m supposed to provide the city of Rochester with a faux downtown atmosphere for three hours. The event is some sort of Ladies’ Night— designed to provide the shopping elite with some ambience and culture.
In addition to me, the city provided the ladies with several limousines to chauffeur them to different stores throughout the city. They’ve also hired tuxedoed men with umbrellas to escort the ladies across the street and keep them dry during their shopping excursions.
Before I began playing, I planted about two dollars in change inside of my open guitar case to entice people to tip. I figured if someone saw that I had already received tips that they would be more susceptible to tipping me themselves. I learned afterwards that this practice is common among street musicians, and is referred to as “seeding.” I can’t help but remember a comical moment in the movie “Once,” where a fellow panhandler takes off with the protagonists tips. I don’t believe it to be a likely scenario, but I’ll keep an eye on my case just the same.
It is interesting to watch people as they pass. Some of them reach into their pockets for change before they reach me, dropping in quarters without breaking stride. Some stop and listen before they tip.
A man and his young son walk by. The little boy stops, transfixed at the sight of the guitar, with eyes wide and mouth open. I laugh a little.
By the end of the eighth grade, my piano skills were less of a rarity, and less impressive to both myself and those I had aimed the music at – girls. Our Lady Peace, Green Day, Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, Black Sabbath and more began to seep into my ear, and drive the piano out. My uncle Andy played the guitar. I used to watch him play Led Zeppelin at birthday parties or on the Fourth of July. I wanted one.
The man stares fondly down at his son. They are in no hurry to leave. The father gives his son some money to put in the case. He drops it in, still looking at the guitar, and slowly backs away, as if he’ll never see one again.
Children make the most delightful audiences. Most likely, they’ve never seen a street musician before, and nearly all of them turn their heads to watch me as they pass by, with mothers or fathers pulling on their hands.
In tenth-grade, St. Andrew’s Hall held a battle. We were charged with selling at least fifty tickets priced at ten dollars each. It was my first gig with a band. We made no money from the ticket sales, but couldn’t wait to take the stage. Enthralled with the music and politics of Rage Against the Machine, my first band, Downward Trend, attempted to emulate them. Our t-shirts were printed with un-clever phrases like, “under-achiever,” and “oppressed.” Everyone but our singer had their mouth covered in duct tape. We played.
A strange and reliable pattern soon develops. Middle-aged women or older would trudge on, face forward, attempting to ignore my presence entirely. One older woman, however, walked by, stopped, looked up at the open sky, reached into her purse, and said, “You are one brave soul,” as she dropped a dollar into the case.
Young women would slow down, smile, and attempt to see my face. Teenagers and young adults seemed to appreciate my music the most.
One pair of teenagers in particular stopped for two entire songs, and came back to listen to a third later on. They watched, listened, nodded, swayed, and said nothing.
At twenty-one, I stepped off the plane from Las Vegas. Three nights in the city of sin had me wiped out. My dentist had prescribed for me antibiotics and Vicodin to assist in the recovery of the tooth-removal I had endured the day before my flight out. Somewhere on those bottles was the mention of avoiding alcohol consumption while taking those pills. By the time I had arrived at my brother’s bachelor party, there weren’t many labels that I was able to read.
From the airport, I had about an hour to sleep before I had to reassemble myself for that night’s gig. My latest band, One More August, was opening for Seven Mary Three, one of my favorite rock groups from the 90’s. It was big moment for me. I had been writing and performing original songs for five years. On top of the honor I felt, we were paid almost $500 for the show.
When we took the stage, the bar was at capacity. I had learned the great art of self-promotion a long time ago, and it was apparent. The familiar audience was drunk and loud. At one point, while wildly swinging my guitar I hit a member of the audience in the face. His reaction was typical—he cheered, and requested a mid-song fist bump.
After our set, and an announcement from the bar owner that we would be opening for Collective Soul in a few weeks, the bar emptied. With another act to perform before Seven Mary Three, I felt terrible, since the job of the opener was to fire up the audience for the headliner—not to bring a temporary one. When the night was over, I attempted to have a conversation with Seven Mary Three’s lead singer. I was introduced by the bar owner. “Hey,” was all I got.
On the way to my car, two girls that I did not know stood in the parking lot.
Girl 1: “Hey, aren’t you the singer for One More August?”
Me: “Yes, I am.”
Girl 2: “You guys rock. We’re gonna add you on MySpace.”
Girl 1: “Should we make out for the nice man?”
Girl 2: “Absolutely.”
Another musician was hired to play a few blocks down. Katelyn leaves me several times during the course of the night to warm up and to take in the scene, often stopping to listen to him. She proudly reports that he can barely hear him sing, that often he is strumming his guitar without singing at all, and that she can hear me singing from across the street. He was also selling CD’s and passing out fliers. Suddenly, I felt a sense of rivalry. I brought no CD’s. I had no fliers. I hadn’t promoted myself at all. I was proud.
After our song won more votes in a single week than any other three songs put together, we were onto the second round of a Battle of the Bands hosted by 89x Radio in Detroit. It was a live battle, between three bands, whose crowd was dominated by our fans. We played with more sincerity, enthusiasm, and skill than we had ever known. We lost to the eventual winner—a band that had no drummer.
Money is not payment. Each hesitation is a celebration of talent, in its smallest guise, compensation for countless labored hours. Every pause is recognition, interest, and acceptance. There are no external forces pushing a person to compliment, like friendship, lust, or professional courtesy. No walls surrounding the listeners, no social environment calls attention to a stage, no motivations or manipulations exist for one to become an audience other than music itself. The greatest payment is a process both selfish and selfless: intrusion, diversion, curiosity, digression, submission, absorption—and finally appreciation. Summarized, I would call it a conversion. This conversion applies to busy souls, whose important thoughts are interrupted by the sound of an unfamiliar song in a place where songs, familiar or not, are alien. Closer to the sound, their thoughts are sidetracked, giving way to their searching ears, and upon finding the source, whether out of natural interest or the novelty, afford the priceless gift of a stand-still. They stand, open hearts, open eyes, open ears, and experience the song in their own personal way. When the song ends, some kind words are said. Some ask if I wrote that song. More often than not, I did. Some money falls into the case, and they move on, retrieving their previous preoccupations, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ll appreciate their temporal allowance as much as I did.
In Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent community just outside of Chicago, we were hired to play a Beer fest for $2,000. As we drove through Chicago, we found our names in the Chicago Tribune and on billboards attached to the El. Upon arriving, we were given a key to a building just outside of our stage area that contained nothing but upscale food and top-shelf alcohol.
Our show lasted an hour and a half. Our audience, in the midday, consisted of a handful of our friends who had traveled with us, and about one hundred young men and women who were interested only in the Sam Adams that was on tap. One girl came up to the stage and stood off to the side, seemingly singing along to our original songs. Later on, she came up to me looking for a signed CD. Someone invited her into our party, and throughout the rest of the day, she moved from band member to band member, looking for romance. She eventually gave head to a friend, a non-band member, who became so irritated with her that he prematurely asked her to stop, and forced her to board a train home.
Sarah stood in silence as I finished my song. It was 8:45, fifteen minutes before I was supposed to finish playing. She glanced to the left and the right, looking awkward and uncomfortable, as if she expected me to stop for her. When I finished, she introduced herself as the event coordinator, handed me a $50 dollar check from the city of Rochester, and impatiently fielded a few of my questions about being hired for future events. She continued to look away from me even as she spoke.
She thanked me for coming out, and said that I was free to go. I thanked her for the opportunity, said goodbye, and gathered up my tips with Katelyn from the puddle inside of my guitar case.
The band was dead, and I didn’t mind. It hadn’t stopped me from writing or performing. I accidentally came upon an Open-Mic night when grabbing a random beer with a friend. The host offered his guitar, and I played.
I found myself returning week after week. My audience consisted of several friends, co-workers, and average bar-goers. One of those nights, I had convinced Katelyn to meet me. Until then, we had been talking only casually. It wasn’t long after that we had fallen in love.
These intimate evenings were personal and enjoyable, but during this time I did a lot of reflecting. I realized that in my attempt to be a successful musician that the music had somehow gotten lost. The bar atmosphere of the local music scene and the business itself may have been the cause for this loss, but there was something else. Something fake. I came to the realization that compliments are handed out like condoms at Planned Parenthood clinics, and for the same reason: protection against getting screwed. Whether it was aimed at business or pleasure, failure to grant compliments meant failure to further your own future interest. Everyone was out to kiss either an ass or a mouth. Even at the Open-Mic’s I couldn’t be sure if a compliment was loaded or not. In short, I have found the process of “becoming,” unbecoming. All I wanted was one night of honesty.
Out of the rain and back into the truck, Katelyn and I giddily spread out all of the money from the guitar case. Our fingers go numb from counting the frigid change, making it difficult to peel apart the soaked dollars and arrange them on the middle console in brick-like patterns to dry. I see the joy on her face, and realize that her expression is mirroring mine. We laugh about the ridiculousness of the evening as we count out $19, mostly in singles.
In the kitchen, I pick up my guitar cases, and stare out the window at the rainy October sky. Katelyn carries the stool that I will sit on. My parents hug me. They tell me they love me. My mom reminds me about the headphones. They wish me luck. Katelyn and I walk out into the rain, into my truck, and drive to Rochester.
I tell the judges my name, identification number, and the piece that I will present them. I sit down in a hastily practiced and long forgotten movement that required a prior instruction in etiquette. I play. I finish. There is no applause, only a few “thank-you’s,” and silence. I feel the piano asking for someone to fill the void. I bow and leave. A few moments later, I’m given my score by a stranger, along with my first place trophy. I still don’t hear the dinosaurs.