Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nurse the Hate: Disaster In New York

A number of years ago The Cowslingers had a gig opening for The World Famous Blue Jays at the Mercury in NYC.  The Blue Jays were this great band led by Jeremy Tepper, now of Sirius Radio fame, that specialized in truck driving music with a shaggy rock and roll backbeat.  Jeremy started this label called “Diesel Only” that made 45s that would get stocked in truck stop jukeboxes, most of which concerned the truckdriving lifestyle.  Anyone in a touring band should find immediate parallels with the truckdriver life of constant motion, truck stops, lonely nights, and short ill-advised attractions to waitresses and barmaids.  I would immediately seek out anything on Diesel Only including a CD comp they did in the 90s.  It’s a highpoint in the alt country movement in my opinion.

Jeremy must have felt sorry for us and threw us a bone to open for them.  Getting a gig was always a hassle in New York because we immediately got the anti-Ohio bias and didn’t have the advantage of the in person schmooze.  I can’t tell you how many times we got booked in New York as third band on a five band bill and arrived to discover that we had been dicked over to play first or last.  We had more piece of shit New York pseudobands play suckass sets in front of us than any other city I can remember.  Jeremy though is a righteous dude.  He was letting us open at the Mercury, a great venue, and at a high profile gig no less.

The show was an all star tribute type of show where their musician friends all were coming up to play guest appearances on songs.  As these were really good guys that could all play their asses off, they knew everyone in town.  In essence my entire record collection was standing around in a room and going to watch us play.  Yo La Tengo casually leaned on the bar laughing with the Blue Jay guitar player.  Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and Andy York were debating gear with Bobby.  There’s the Swingin Neckbreakers over there.  Oh, Mojo Nixon is in town and going to do a song?  That guy plays with Marty Stuart?  Really?  Do I want to meet Will Rigby?  Yeah.  He’s coming with who?

By the time we had to play, the place had filled up.  I was completely intimidated.  At this point in my music “career” I was much more concerned at being found out as a fraud than I am now.  At this point our appearances would indicate a certain level of “professionalism” or at least “competence”.  At the time of this gig, I could barely sing.  Our band sort of reminded me of something I read about the Grateful Dead in the early 70s.  Like the Dead, we could either be very good or very bad.  This was just about the time we were finding our footing, and Bobby and I were just figuring out how to write decent songs.  What we thought of as “obscure” covers had been on most of the people in this room’s regular rotations for a decade.  We had probably five good originals.  We did have plenty of “ehh” originals though to play for the roots rock royalty.  Lucky them.

I will say this with great confidence.  I sucked.  I totally sucked.  I had one of those nights when I couldn’t seem to hear myself well enough to stay on key.  My vocal stayed in one of two places, flat or sharp.  I could see the crowd look on from being underwhelmed to totally disgusted.  As I struggled to get on point I could see accomplished musicians lean in to yell in Jeremy’s ear “Where did you find these guys?”.  The more I struggled the worse it got.  I was flaming out.  I could see it in the face of the crowd.  I got “The Fear”.

“The Fear” is the worst thing that can happen on stage.  When you suck but don’t know you suck, at least you are performing confidently.  Hell, in the past I have looked confident enough that I know even though I suck I can win people over on attitude alone.  “They must be good!  Look how much that singer guy is into it!”  Meanwhile when “The Fear” creeps in it all falls apart.  I tried to hit notes.  I failed.  I tried harder.  I failed worse.  No matter what I did, it got worse and worse.  My shoulders slumped.  I was dying a slow horrible death.  If I could go back and time and do one gig over, that would be it.   When I think of my life and things I could do over, there’s really only two things.  That’s one of them.

Afterwards I tried to blend into the walls.  No one came up to me with “lip service”, which is a true indication you were really bad.  When you play a show, generally the other bands will say things that sound complimentary but are really just hot air.  The best are the ones that are really jabs but sound like compliments when you first hear them.  Examples include:  “You guys have an interesting sound.”  Or “It looks like you guys had fun up there.” Or “That was really something.”  It’s the next day when you think about it and realize “Hey…  Wait a minute… That wasn’t a compliment!”  It’s a statement meant to convey camaraderie yet at the same time say “You guys aren’t as good as we are.  That’s why you played first. Remember that.”  Lip service.

I didn’t even get that.  That’s a really bad sign.  Really bad.  I remember Ira from Yo La Tengo giving me a look like he felt sorry for me yet still hated that he had to endure our set.  Even Roscoe, who at that point was almost in our employ to produce a full length, said “Oh man… Could you not hear yourself?”.  He looked on at me with the disappointed eyes of an Uncle you had let down on the football field in front of his co-workers.  I stammered out a bunch of flimsy excuses.  He knew.  They all knew.  I had flamed out on a big stage.  It was a disaster.  The Blue Jays then mercifully started and the crowd moved from the back of the room towards the front.  I sat at a round table with a big glass of Labatt Blue.  The Blue Jays set was great.  The guests were all awesome.  People forgot about me quickly enough I suppose.  The Labatt went down slowly.

I had a Labatt last night.  It’s been a long time since I have had one of those.  There’s definitely such a thing as “taste memory”.  As soon as I had a sip the first thing that hit my brain was the dark wooden walls of the club, the tattooed bartender sullenly wiping the bar, and the taste of that Labatt as I waited for the night to mercifully end so we could slink out of the city.  It was like walking into a time machine.  Last night I had two sips.  It all came flooding back to me from nowhere.  I had no choice.  I poured it out.  It was still too soon.         


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