4 April 2012 § 1 Comment
Last night I watched Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s classic autobiographical film depicting the glamour of Rock ‘n roll in the early 70’s.
It sent me on an idealistic nostalgia ride, made me wonder why I ever left working in music, and throughout it I wanted, once again, to be a part of it thirty years before I was. Attempting to quell my nose’s cathartic tingling, I watched two more films before I crashed at four a.m. to distract me from my episodic regret.
Susan walked upstairs this morning, Led Zeppellin’s II in her had, to soundtrack my post-movie daydreams. She put on ‘Ramblin’ Man’ because, she told me, it was me. I wondered for the hundredth time why I couldn’t have been the Rolling Stone writer on the tour buses who failed to interview would-be rock stars, experiencing their world instead on their terms, and subject to the whim of the glamorous shine of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
When I was younger, I wanted to be more in it: I didn’t want to write for Rolling Stone; I wanted to be written about in Rolling Stone. So I took the path that would insert me into the music: Audio Engineering. I would record, mix, and master the albums that went on to influence culture, and there was no one willing to work harder to stop me than I was willing to succeed. Except myself.
I wanted so little to do with the music world after I left it. I reclused into my inner circle of albums and would not venture out from it. I refused to partake in the addictive search for new artists and genres, afraid of the inspiration that might have come with it. I might have even skipped to the next song once or twice in the middle of a drum solo, a sin when I came up. I stopped playing guitar, and Front of House soundbooths disappeared from my stories, fantasies, and recollections.
All the while I depended more on music, and the small part in it I played for my story. People would pick ‘recording studios’ with tweezers from my humble narratives, and say ‘that’s cool. What did you do?’
It didn’t take much for me to regret leaving it behind. I’d been looking for cool since the Power Rangers pilot, so when someone implied that cool was stuck somewhere in my past, in some town I didn’t ever need to see again, I wanted to race back there, pick it up, and return to finish the tale.
But I could never bring myself to be the guy who needed his Before to improve his Present. I was merciless in my accounts of what I’d seen, made sure to imply that there was more raucous sex and drug use than I was ever witness to, magnified for my audience the things about the industry I didn’t like – chauffering drunken vocalists to hotels in the next town at 4 a.m., delivering freezer bags of marijuana to the studio at any hint of a request, rolling people off live room couches and out of their vomit, and then emptying the ashtray of a rockstar I secretly adored, only to find out what a dickwad he could be, telling me to ‘fuck off – get a real job.’
Perhaps he had a point, and more perspective than I gave him credit for.
They were not my favorite memories, to be sure, but I never told anyone that they were also reminders that I had made it. I kept the good shit to myself, like the excitement of being a live sound guy – I controlled the music at the bars & venues where the sound desk was my home. The enjoyment of the crowd on those nights was mostly my responsibility. I was ecstatic to have a guitarist point to his monitor in the middle of a song, nod his head at me, and to know what that meant. It was intimate communication between musician and engineer, and we rarely even knew each other’s names.
I experimented with mic placement like partners tried new positions in bed. The results could be fantastic. The typical concertgoer or bar patron may not have known that the music was better tonight in part because I moved the top Leslie cabinet mic sideways, or added an MD421 to the snare, but I knew, and the palpable energy flowed right into my ears. I had my fingers on the faders, and not until post-encore could anyone take the power away from me.
Not that I expected anyone to understand my joy. My ex-girlfriend would listen, smile at my monologues on the evils of feedback and how to avoid it (a lesson every musician should learn), and how many auxes the perfect live sound board needed. She asked gradually less ignorant questions that let me know she heard me. The assistant engineers at Echo Mountain, only a few years older than I, were wrapped up in getting paid to do what I was willing to do for free. We could talk studio techniques and etiquette for hours at a time, over organic food from Laughing Seed Café and bottles of Knob Creek after sessions. Every week I shifted between wanting to be their best friend (to learn and get better at what we did), and secretly, greedily, wanting their job.
I was an idealist and an amateur, unable and perhaps unwilling to grasp that the glamour of music existed mostly from the outside; it was what a fan saw when she put her face up to the window and cupped her hands around her eyes to block the sun. The ‘Sparkle’ was written up by fans’ peers instead of their idols. It was a hard lesson to learn that for some people, much as they might love the music, that it was a job, and most of the time, they went home at night (or in the morning) not to afterparties, but to their kids and picket fences.
It wasn’t until years later (last night, in fact, as I watched Kate Hudson strut her curves and smiling eyes like my favorite ex) that I realized that once you grok the side of rock ‘n’ roll that is not glamorous, collect your paycheck (which may be in beer or cigarettes), and live that life Crowe lived, knowing what it was and learning what it was not, you become a part of that allure people like me think is so cool: I would not disclose the intimate secrets of my love for the Industry, that I exemplified instead the parties and the drug use as distractions from what I thought was my purpose, that I never felt I was in it because the high I experienced from it became normal so quickly, and these contributed to the mystery and that tendency to bang on the glass window when you don’t think you see everything.
I explained some of this to Susan, a Generation X-er who grew up in the era I was fantasizing about, in the midst of her luxurious home – the sort of mountainside house rock stars buy right before their oldest fans start calling them sell-outs – and she listened. She let me finish my sentences before speaking. And though she wasn’t just waiting for her turn to talk, I reached the part of the story when I left the industry and omitted my reasoning.
“Oh, the ego there must be!” she said, as if she read my mind. “I don’t know if I could handle it.”
Without my saying anything, she reflected my oldest go-to excuse, the easiest one to communicate to those who could only imagine what it was like to meet someone famous. I bit my tongue. I was determined to not talk trash about where I’d been. Not this time. I missed it too much for that. I mourned again my departure from the sound board, from having that creative control. I wondered if and when I’d return.
“If you’re a creative person,” she said, “sometimes you have no choice but to do what you need to do, and dealing with the bullshit is part of that. Those who can’t deal with the bullshit are the ones who leave.”
I hated myself for being a part of the group she was talking about. I can still be a part of that world, I told myself, a full three years after walking away from it. I’m just taking a break from it. When it feels right, I’ll go back.”
My denial nearly deafened me to what she said next:
“Maybe it just wasn’t your calling.”
I considered the things I did not have a choice but to do. That I can enjoy what I’ve done, appreciate and learn from it, and move on.
If I had no choice but to run sound, I would be doing it.
There are two things that I have done my entire life, sometimes without thinking, without consideration for how it would affect others, things that I have had no choice but to do, because to not do them would mean death.
Writing and traveling. Observation and movement. Chronicles and journeys.
I write about the things that I know and love, and travel to find that which I don’t know, and could love. Music is in that category, I figured. I can write about music as much as I like, and if I want to be that idealist of my former career, I can play the merciless and honest role of William the Enemy Rock Journalist, and sharpen, or dull, the Sparkle.
My experiences play keys to the music of the life that I’ve created since. My perspective is wider for them. I could be a music writer. I can be a writer. I am a writer. It follows that I went to audio engineering school to become a better writer, for the stories I wanted to be able to tell. I became a commercial fisherman in Alaska not because it was my destiny, but because I wanted to write the legend. These adventures have been my travels, the stories the soundtrack.