Almost 17 years ago I walked out in front of a small crowd for the first time and started playing in a band. To say it was terrifying is an understatement, particularly considering I was a rookie musician at an age when everyone else had been at it for a decade or more.
I really didn’t know what I was doing. My buddy Kurt Wielkens — who had played and toured for years with his band Haere Marue — talked me into forming an acoustic guitar duo. Buoyed by Kurt’s confidence in me, and unaware of how much more I should’ve practiced, I played through the flop sweat that night at the old Fabacher’s bar and grill.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
Kurt and I named our band Glass Joe after the first guy who gets beat up in the old “Mike Tyson’s Punchout” game. It seemed really clever after several drinks. Almost everyone who has ever asked what it means thinks the name is a bong reference, which I guess is pretty edgy. It’s no Steely Dan, but I’ll take it.
James “The Funkmeister” Ellis joined us soon after and the three of us have played together far longer than I would ever have imagined. I like to think we’ve gotten much better over the years as well. But even with our now-amazing skills, we’re like a lot of other part-time musicians playing bars, parties, weddings and festivals. Nobody carries our gear and equipment and we generally end up playing in an area slightly larger than a refrigerator box. But it’s still a blast.
We’ve all seen enough “Behind the Music” episodes to know what it’s like being in a really successful band. There’s money and cocaine and women and divorce, the occasional loss of a limb and death. But most people may not understand what it’s like for the cover bands plying their trade in small venues around the area.
First of all the good news — I don’t know anyone who’s lost a limb playing in a Mobile area cover band. The bad news — the number of local cover band members who have married super hot Hollywood starlets is shockingly low.
While I’m certainly not among the best or longest-serving musicians around town, I do I think I’ve played enough gigs to make some observations about what it’s like. Here are some:
• After three or four hours playing and singing you’re hoarse, your back hurts and for some reason the equipment weighs twice as much as it did before the show.
• Twenty years ago, beer was cheaper, wine was cheaper, food was cheaper and liquor was cheaper. All have gone up tremendously. But for some reason musicians are still paid the same — generally $100 a man. Back then most places would give the band free beer (unless you drank so much they couldn’t pick you up off the floor at closing time), but most now charge the band. The reality is most of us are playing for less than we did 20 years ago. I’d like to hear Hillary or Donald address that issue.
• Any drunk girl who wants to sing Janis Joplin’s hit “Bobby McGee” will not know the words to the song. She might know the first verse and the chorus, but she will never know the second verse. Mostly she just wants to scream “Lada-da-da-da-da-dah, Hey, Hey, HEY Bobby McGee!” over and over at the wrong part of the song.
• The drunk girl also won’t understand she actually needs to sing into the mic and not just sort of near it. And her friends will think she’s amazing, which only encourages her to do it again.
• Anyone who requests “Sweet Home Alabama” is going to stand three feet away from you and scream it — including that “Roll Tide Roll” thing.
• Most bands will not play the “Big Three” — “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Margaritaville” — without at least $20 changing hands or the girl making the request having just appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition. “Wagon Wheel” is fighting for induction into this murderer’s row as well.
• If you choose to perform any of these songs, even with the proper exchange of money, the second you strum the first chord, every serious musician in the community will walk in and judge you as a “hack.” It’s best to steer clear.
• There is a ridiculous force — perhaps alcohol or pills — that will cause people to walk up to three middle-aged white dudes holding acoustic guitars and seriously ask if we know any Janet Jackson or Beyoncé.
• Cover bands are primarily background noise — at least until people get hammered enough to want to sing along or — God forbid — dance. To that end, one of the more humiliating things musicians deal with is being told to “turn it down.”
Mostly this happens at parties where older relatives with hearing aids are bothered by the low-end noises produced during a stellar rendition of “The Wait.” Usually it starts with someone walking up and asking nicely to turn it down, so you do. Subsequent requests become angrier and angrier as if the band is spraying Agent Orange on the crowd. It ends with a woman in her 80s screaming “Turn that s*it down” while making wild downward thumb motions and the band unplugging the PA system.
• The number of gigs attended by your wife/girlfriend is inversely proportionate to the age of your relationship. If you’ve been married more than two years it’s unlikely you’ll even be allowed to play guitar inside your own house.
• You stay in it for the great gigs because the bad ones can really suck. Kurt and I played a party once where we were put out in the dark away from the guests. It was so pitch black we couldn’t even see each other two feet away. Another time all three of us stood outside in the freezing cold playing to no one for three hours while the entire party watched a Bama game inside. They all staggered out just as we were finishing up and wanted us to entertain them. There’s also the time I got pneumonia playing at a guy’s backyard party for five people.
That’ said, we’ve had a lot of fun. A doughnut mogul once paid us $500 to play while he caterwauled four Buffett songs after our set was over. We appeared at Judge Roy Bean’s several times before it burned, and still get to perform at Callaghan’s when JT’s feeling nice. Once we were even lucky enough to share a stage with Wet Willie.
As hobbies go, being in a band beats the hell out of collecting stamps or chasing a little white ball around all Saturday, especially on that very, very rare occasion when the girl isn’t quite so drunk, can sing and actually knows all the words to “Bobby McGee.”