I’m not a road warrior by any means, but I play when I can where I can. I’ve played upper-crust places and joints that have seen better days. I’ve played for good wages and I’ve played for no wages. I’ve played for 150 people and I’ve played to one person who was eating a cheeseburger and watching golf on TV…..a TV that was above my head so I pretended he was intently listening. I’ve played solo acoustic, I’ve played in duos, and I’ve played full band shows. I’ve been told I was too loud. I’ve been told I wasn’t loud enough. More times than I can count guys would come up to me while I was singing a song and ask questions like “dude, where’s the bathroom?” Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.
Most of the time people aren’t listening, because they are not at the bar to hear you. They are at the bar to drink. You are the equivalent of the music that is piped into elevators. To the layperson this sounds pretty bad. I mean, why bother playing at all if that’s the case? Well, playing music is fun for one thing. Musicians play for themselves all the time. We get to go out in public and play and get paid for it? People who listen are a bonus.
And they are out there.
I don’t care how jaded you are. When you’re singing “The Weight” for the 400th time, and suddenly the guy at the bar you thought had passed out lifts his head and starts singing “Take a load off Anniiiiiie!!”, and then half the place is trying the 3 part harmony at the end of the chorus, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s hard to explain. We’re up there singing, and we’re watching you. Are you mouthing the words? Are you tapping your foot? Is your head bobbing up and down? If you are, we see you. You make our nights.
(On this topic….it’s no wonder musicians who achieve sudden fame so often go batshit. To go from scanning the bar searching for someone singing along….to instant adulation? If your head ain’t anchored to your neck with pikes from the start, it’s probably inevitable you’ll turn into a self-absorbed jerk.)
There’s lots of folks who live life hard who settle into bar stools for hours at a time. They’re this way because the day is a grind. It’s long and it’s tiring and it’s not glamorous. They’ve got no picket fence to come home to. I don’t want to get all Working Class Hero here….but that’s just reality. There’s some rough looking folks out in our local watering holes. And god bless them all.
They’re the backbone of the operation. The young 20 somethings with the golf shirts who drink too many light beers and yell for “Free Bird” all night long are so common I don’t think most musicians even notice them any more. Or at least, this group all starts to look the same. Traveling in packs, the girls dressed way too nice for a place that has a hole the size of a head in the bathroom door. The guys with their cropped hair and golf tans, trying to look tough but being careful not to antagonize the guy at the bar with the chain hanging from his wallet spilling shots down the front of his Harley Davidson t-shirt. Every night in every bar, there’s sort of an un-easy truce between the regulars and the interlopers. It’s very interesting to observe.
Some of the places I’ve played have reputations of being “rough”. “Oh, that’s a rough bar”. We’ve all heard that one. I’m sure the reputations are hard-earned and well deserved. But, as goes is most places, you won’t find trouble if you’re not looking for it. Musicians never look for trouble. We just arrive, set-up, and play. In all my time out there I’ve been treated fine. Bartenders. Waitresses. The regulars. They just seem to take musicians under their wing. Treat the gig with respect and you’ll get a fair-shake all around. That’s more than I can say for the folks I have to deal with when I leave the bars. You can’t buy class. If you think you’re too good for a bar, the place probably doesn’t want you in the first place.
That being said, it ain’t always pleasant. At a recent show a girl who should not have been wearing a thong wore a thong and sat at the end of the bar, in my sight line. That threw a wrench in a few songs. Later on a guy visited the men’s room, which was about 6 feet from my location, and dropped something so nasty in there I got dizzy. This was after the girl ran into the ladies room saying she had to vomit, and promptly vomited. She had threatened to do so at the bar itself, but the bartender merely pointed an index finger at her and said “don’t you dare do it!”. An impressive display of authority. Which reminds me of the night the drunk girl kept invading the microphone to sing along, until the bartender had enough and actually tackled her during a final stage rush. Athleticism of this sort you rarely see anywhere, much less at 1:30am.
So that’s that I guess. Just felt like getting this out there. The next Friday or Saturday night you crash early, take a moment and think of the music being laid down in bars near and far (real music by real live people) and the folks that music was created for.
In a bit..