Five years after I saw “Rock Around the Clock” I got my first guitar.
By that time, my mother had moved me and my two brothers and two sisters from Minnesota to Southern California, on the run from domestic chaos. I don’t know exactly when my parents’ marriage started to disintegrate. I was too young to understand, and I guess I still am, but that’s another story. I mention it here only because maybe coming from a “broken home” somehow made me want to be a performer.
Certainly I was a fish out of water in California. Shell-shocked by the divorce, transplanted to an immense and unknowable city, just about to start my teen years, I found myself alone among the super-hip, super laid-back kids of Torrance, California. I was far ahead of them academically, but that didn’t matter to them, and eventually not to me, either.
I started ninth grade with no contacts at the school. There were a thousand kids at Stephen M. White Junior High School, the largest student body I’d ever been part of. Ninth grade was the third year of the three-year program there, so everyone pretty much knew everyone else, except for me, or so I thought. It wasn’t horrible, but I found myself alone a lot. I made a few male friends and mostly fantasized about the beautiful, aloof, tan California girls. It was during that year that I heard live rock’n’roll for the first time, at school dances and assemblies. They were surf bands — lots of twangy electric guitars, lots of reverb, not much singing.
The next year my mom bought me the guitar. We got it at Sears, brand new for about thirty-five dollars. It looked like this:
I had no idea how to play it, but I’d been hanging out with another transplanted misfit, a transfer student from Oregon named John McClain. He’d taken piano lessons for quite a long time, and so he knew chord structure. By that time (1964) the writing was on the wall, and it was clear that the guitar was going to beÂ cooler than piano, not to mention more portable, so John got a guitar, too, and together we figured out how to play chords, translating what he knew from the keyboard to the fretboard. Pretty soon we were copying licks from Rolling Stones records (themselves taken from Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records).
I can’t remember how long it was before we decided we were a band. Maybe six months, maybe a year, but here is where we’re starting to get to my point.
See, a rock band is a team, in some ways like a sports team. There has to be coordination and practice to make it work. The big difference is that in a band, you might find yourself playing with a bunch of people who all want to do something different. In athletic terms, it could be like playing on a team with a power forward, a quarterback, a shortstop and a goalie. Everyone’s a jock, and while this is clearly not the ideal situation, everyone is skilled, and whatever game you happen to be playing, there’s at least a reasonable chance the team can hold it’s own.
In bands, this mix-and-match thing happens because at first, you know who you know, and if one of your friends happens to play drums and you don’t know any other drummers, you sign him up, even if he’s mostly into Sousa marches. It’s not like you have a lot of connections and you can select the perfect drummer to complement your own musical style. Circumstance threw me together with John McClain, and it was a useful collaboration for a while, but in the end he was more Tony Orlando and I was more Hank Ballard. We still played together for a year or so after that.
As you grow up and play more places with more people, you have a better chance of hooking up with the “right” players, musicians who have the ability and the inclination to work in the same sort of musical style that interests you, but in my whole life I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a group or even known a group in which everyone was exactly happy with what was happening and all the players were on the same page musically. Naturally when there’s enough money involved you can take your pick of great players and make them do what you want, but A.) this scenario (tons of dough) is rare, and B.) if you’re a sensitive creative artist you might want to feel as if your bandmates are diggin’ it as much as you are.
Now I will tell all you aspiring musicians a secret. This is not the secret to landing a huge record deal and having a billion fans and hooking up with nubile models in the hotel room. Obviously, I don’t know that secret. This is the secret to making a living playing music. It’s so simple I don’t know why it’s a secret, or why it took me thirty years to discover it. Ready? Here it is: Find a niche and stay in it.
If you want to play the blues, play the blues. Or be a zydeco band, or a klezmer group. You could play R&B, folk-rock or bluegrass. But the key is to be consistent. Develop a style. Be the band your audience expects to hear, every time. Because there is a blues crowd out there, and a soul crowd, and a folk crowd. If you try to do everything, you’ll be competing with everyone. If you try to play a little blues, a little speed metal, a little punk and a little jazz, you won’t be as good at any one style as those who do only that style, and you won’t have an audience, because those who were hoping to hear a little jazz will walk in after you’ve played your jazz number, or they’ll leave before you get to it, and all they’ll hear is your rendition of Black Flag’s “Nothing Left Inside,” and they will never come back.
If you find a niche and stay in it, you’ll probably never have a billion fans. But eventually you’ll have 5,000 fans, and they’ll come to every gig. You’ll be playing music and making a decent living.
So I am dismayed when someone in my band wants to do a song that, in my opinion, doesn’t fit in with anything we’ve been doing, a song that is so not in the groove we’ve been building, a song demanded, perhaps, by some faction in the audience which does not like the niche we are working within.
A song like “Kryptonite.”
I know this was the long way around for this explanation, and I’m sorry. Believe me, I could have gone on for much longer. But down at the bottom, here’s what I’m saying: I can’t play with anyone I want. I have to play with who I know. I’m trying to have fun with this, and if I look for the Perfect Situation, the fun will be delayed, possibly forever. And I want to focus on a particular musical niche, and I want these guys to enjoy what we’re doing, because the pleasure is infectious and feeds on itself and makes everyone (especially me) happy.
We’ve got a gig tomorrow night. Lawyers. Why does it have to be lawyers?