At some point I lost my day job – running an FM radio station in Lebanon, PA. That’ll make a good post sometime, check back. Oy.
So suddenly my sole source of income was playing music. It seemed like a good time to go for it. So I started spending every morning booking over the phone. I figured that, if for every 50 phone calls I make, I get one gig…well, I’ll just make 350 phone calls and eventually I’ll be playing every night. So that’s what happened. I worked solo occasionally, many duos during the week – every pub had a music night – the trio on weekends and the big band when the bucks were there. I was gigging six nights a week, occasionally 7.
It was a routine: the Dodge Caravan (5-speed manual) permantly held the PA and my amp. Back it down the driveway, and drive – 5 minutes? Two hours? – to the gig. Could be downtown, could be Rochester, NY. Or Wilmington, DE, or wherever. Often I would pick up the drummer du jour, or the bassist, or both, and of course their equipment too. The Dodge Caravan was designed to haul families around, not blues bands. It had a passenger-car suspension, so you can imagine how it looked with a thousand pounds of people and gear. A low-rider, sort of.
Find a place to park, load in the PA, set it up and test it…with occasional (very) help from the other guys. Maybe eat something, hopefully not bar food (the worst, with rare exceptions), then play the gig. 3 sets over four hours, covering all the vocals and solos.
Go back and try to find the owner to get paid. Mose Allison wrote a song about this: The Gettin’ Paid Waltz.
That’s the gist of it: hunting down the clubowner, then waiting waiting waiting for him to hand you an envelope of cash, while your players tap their feet and look at their watches. And when all the money promised doesn’t materialize? Always an excuse for that. Argue? Unless you’re going to pull a gun, you may as well be talking to the wall.
Then divide up the winnings, tear down the PA (with some help sometimes) and load it in the van. My net for the evening, maybe $100.
It was hard to find dependable sidemen. The fact the I was now depending on gig money to live meant anything above a trio required additional income to justify. And even getting two other players to the gig on time, or at all, or sober, or once playing, keeping them engaged in the music for the whole night (there are many distractions in bars, believe it or not), was far more difficult than it should have been. I actually “fired” a couple of people, who were also friends, so that sucked. One bassist I hired – who advertised himself via roadcase stencil as “The Ambassador of Funk” – was shot in what I guess was a drug deal, the night before a gig. He didn’t make it, and I don’t mean the gig. Although, that too.
There was also a time at the Historic Blue Star in Lancaster, PA – I’m naming the name out of pure spite – when the booker double-booked me with his band. I was loaded in and setting up when he arrived. He told me I’d have to leave. I said, no. It was his fault, the other band was his band, eat it. He was pissed but, after a brief argument, gave up – and after the show, I went out to find the driver’s side of my van keyed from bumper to bumper.
There was the gig at the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point, MD. I couldn’t get my A-team, OR my B-team rhythm section, and I went in with a couple of rock and roll! guys. It was not real great, I’ll admit. Owner was not impressed, and I overheard, at some point during the night, the phrase “worst band they’ve ever had.” I assumed I’d shit in the punchbowl, but kept a happy face on just in case I had them fooled. On the way out, the staff and bartender were very friendly, and I explained my C-team situation, and I thought I’d turned it around and would get another booking. As I walked out for the night, guitar over my shoulder, the bartender said, “How did you like the Cat’s Eye?”
I shouldn’t have joked around, but I did. Idiot. I said, “Eh, it was alright,” with an ironic smile on my face that they obviously didn’t read. There were some oohs and grimaces and I tried to explain I was joking but – I killed it. Right there. Dead. Never got in again.
There was an outdoor party at some rich dude’s house, on a flatbed, with the big band, where one of the musicians got completely, over-the-top drunk, staggering around onstage and slurring his words – I’m amazed he could stand up and be an asshole at the same time. Eventually we ushered him away to rest somewhere for the rest of the show. He still wanted, and got, his full cut of the money. This was the same guy who showed up at the end of the first set at a bar gig one night – when pressed, he explained that “It got late.”
Toward the end, after a full-band gig at a local joint called Chick’s, the 3-piece horn section told me they were defecting to another band. I carried on for a bit with a two-saxophone lineup, and they were two really, really great players. So I was surprised and/or dismayed when the owner of something called The Deer Lodge out in Boofoo Noplace, PA told me after a well-attended gig that he was docking me because he was expecting the other horn section. We had a significant argument well into the early morning, until he walked away as I told him I was staying until I got my money. (Bluff did not work. I was tired.)
And so it was after two solid years of this stuff, during a death-defying drive north to Scranton one dark, blizzarding afternoon, rolling up Route 81 passing car after car stranded at odd geometric angles to the highway, on the way to a dismal happy-hour show for disinterested rural yuppies that I thought to myself: This is the Life.
Haha! Actually, I thought, if I’m going to do this shit, I may as well do it where it doesn’t snow.
Once I’d moved to California, it was obvious that, though the climate was more amenable, the economy was not. The cost of living precluded, I felt, subsisting on income from just gigging, at least at my level. I never did it again, and I’m fine with that. As for the King Bees, that’s just some of the story. Believe me, once is enough.