A trio in Toronto covering The Sarge. This has made my musical year.
I actually wrote most of Part 1 of the following (on paper!) on my first trip to Boston, which was what my last post was about. But its content has much more to do with what was flying like bats in my brain on the second trip up, which was to Tommy Doyle’s. You’ll see.
Part 1 – The Good Screen
Boston is beautiful in a drizzly mist. Who knows if it is beautiful in general, and who knows, maybe a drizzly mist could make a pile of trash look beautiful, but since this is my first time to Boston I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and grant it the adjective. I found my way to the venue easily by trading cigarettes to bums for geographical information. They spoke with such a thick Boston accent that I thought they were putting me on. (I had this same idiotic reaction when I went to Ireland for the first time last May: I was stunned to hear that they really do talk like that!)The Megabus ride up was smooth and fine. I experimented with the popular Instagram filters and came up with these….
I’ve been thinking a lot about the two types of modern existence: physical and virtual. The life I’ve got here in my body and mind in the moment, which is ephemeral; and the life of my body image and brain image live on screens, which is in some ways ephemeral and in some ways eternal. Tonight I’ll play a show at [Tommy Doyle’s] in Boston. I have no idea how it will go for my physical existence. I might play well to a large crowd or crappy to a small not-so-crowd. What I do there will certainly affect the people who are physically there: They will either buy a CD or not; they will either come to my next Boston show or not; the booker will either be impressed or not. Of course, physical existence is still necessary and good, and it matters to encounter other physical existences. But what matters more and more of course is my virtual existence. If I play well physically tonight then I will turn into virtual-me through tweets or possible reviews. If there happen to be any physical existences there tonight it will be because I presented them with my virtual existence as a promotion for my “live” physical existence. If people come and like it, well my physical and virtual existences can ride the high together. And if it goes crappy–if there’s no one there, or I can’t stop coughing while singing, say–well, I will feel it in my physical existence, but my virtual self need not take that hit. Instead, I might post this the next day: “Thanks for coming out Boston! What a great night.” And KAPOW, I’ve fooled all physical people who weren’t there that my physical experience was amazing.
Part 2 – The Bad Screen
Gideon Brown is playing at Tommy Doyle’s and he’s good. He has a voice like Michael Buble, but “cooler.” We’re playing in the chilly downstairs bar. There are three other levels above our head, one of which has a much bigger stage in it, and supposedly a band with a bigger draw. The bar is pretty empty, save for three women who’ve come to see Gideon, and a few middle-aged dudes vociferating about fairy tales. (It’s not hard to remember that you’re across the street from Harvard here. Earlier, I heard above the music and drunken crowd a slurring twenty-something man, shout, “I’ll just have to find some literature to back it up!”) It’s a smaller crowd than I had hoped for, but I am feeling like it’ll be a fine show anyway, especially since I am getting $75 for it. But then I look over at the bartender, and I see him looking at that huge TV screen, which is hanging on the wall at the end of the bar closest to where Gideon is playing.
Now, I have been at bars with TVs before, and so have you. And I have to say that there are only two instances in which I do not HATE the TV in the bar: 1- I do not have it when there is a game on, and 2- I do not hate it when I am, for some reason, at the bar alone and I need a place to point my eyes at so that I don’t come off as creepy and so I don’t feel like a loser. Otherwise I hate the TV in the bar, as I’ve caught myself so many times watching the thing for minutes EVEN though there is no sound, and even though I don’t have a damn clue about what’s going on. In essence, I catch myself being sucked in by the light, and especially by the habit of looking at the light, even when what’s being presented in that light–the news, a sitcom, whatever–cannot possibly make any sense to me.True, it is very interesting how attracted we are to that light, but it is also sad and terrifying.
So as Gideon gets into his second song the bartender turns around to check out what’s on the tube. Turns out Gran Torino, that pretty-bad Clint Eastwood movie, is just starting up. He grabs the remote from under the bar, and I am thinking, Good for him, he’s gonna turn it off now that the music has started. But no, instead he turns on the subtitles, sets the remote down, and continues to watch it as Gideon Brown plays his heart out. And I’m thinking, well at least there’s me, and at least there are his friends. But then I look up and all three of his female pals are on looking into their phones. They are four feet away from him and are unabashedly ignoring him! Of course, this is hardly rare. I’ve seen my own wife on her phone while I play. Yet the whole thing stinks, because there is absolutely no appreciation for the live man singing in the corner of the room. The bartender, who is, apart from the soundman, the representative of the venue, purposefully made the TV screen more alluring to look at just as Gideon started up. In other words, the bartender was putting Gideon Brown into a competition with the TV … And this really sucks for him, and it sucks for me too as I realize I’ve been taking notes about the whole mess instead of giving Gideon Brown my attention. (I was taking notes because my virtual self would need them later.)
I don’t know what the moral is here, except that bartenders should turn their TVs off. One thing I did notice, though, is that when I got up to play I felt quite hopeless for my prospect of being paid attention to. And while I was resentful of that hopelessness it also challenged me. I told myself that I’d come many miles for the show and I wasn’t going to let a turned-down bad Clint Eastwood movie ruin my set. And so, instead of just plowing through my set, taking my money and leaving, I told a few stories about myself and about my songs. Nobody was listening to them at first, but eventually they did, and I got some laughs here and there. And I think a few of the people there were listening to me. This made me feel real nice-like. I thought, See, people do really crave connection with other human beings. And sure, I think this is deeply true. “Believe in connection, and the need for connection” might as well be a mantra for the singer songwriter who must compete with a huge flat-screen, and hundreds of tinier screens. It’s just such a terrible thing though, when the venue that booked you to play regards you as being enough of a nuisance that they would rather watch a turned-down shitty movie–and make their patrons fight to keep their attention off of it–than the guy they hired to come entertain and provide connection.
Nervous that traffic or some catastrophe would delay my Megabus trip to Boston, I jumped on the 12:30PM instead of the 2:30PM bus. It was the kind of awful cold-and-rainy day that’s bad to be out in, but soothing to look out onto from a bus window. I’d never been to Boston before, and I was giddy to be getting out of town to play, despite the fact that the two people I know in Boston had gotten sick at the last minute and wouldn’t be able to make it. Which meant that I’d be playing for whoever happened to be at the venue, if in fact there would be anyone there at all. So giddy was I that when the bus happened to cruise by a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side I snapped a blurry picture of his building and sent it to him, as if I were a tourist on a Tour of the Stars and not a dude with a guitar riding a bus past a place I’ve been a hundred times. Soon after, we drove by Yankee Stadium and I took a picture of that, too, and tweeted it, because I’d never actually seen it before. And when the city faded into country, my giddiness only got worse, as the newness of it all—first bus gig, first time going to Boston, first time playing alone in a city not-my-own in almost a year, first time seeing this river and that factory—and the raw (and unlikely) potential of what a great gig this could turn out to be overcame me.
I’d written a lot of Boston music blogs about my upcoming shows, and only one had gotten back to me. Kyle was (and is) his name, and he runs a great music blog called MusicSavage. I was bummed because he’d written that very day to say that he wouldn’t be able to make it out to Think Tank, but he said he’d try to catch me at Tommy Doyle’s the next week, so that was fine. About and hour away from Boston I saw that Kyle had tweeted my show, and I got pretty excited about. Then, shortly after, a music blog named Melophobe, tipped off by Kyle, sent out a tweet about it, too. And just for a nice threesome, my show was tweeted by some gal I didn’t know. I have no experience with such things, really. I mean, I am usually the only person tweeting about me. And so if I was holding back any hope for a good show I suddenly let it pour out, because there I was, on a bus cruising through all that newness to a brand new city and people there were tweeting me. Oh, Casey, mind those hopes, man…
I found my way out of the bus station and into the subway station and out to Kendall Square, where the venue was. I scoped it out from the exterior: It was a long. modern, glassy deal, sunken below ground level in a pleasant square with shops and restaurants. I tried not to notice how it seemed quite “dead” in there, and how I could not see my poster up anywhere obvious. Then I moseyed out of the drizzle into a joint across the square named Tommy Doyle’s. I’d be playing another Tommy Doyle’s the next week so I wanted to check it out. Great Guinness, good sandwich. No music, but they did start up trivia, which I thought must be pretty tough, seeing as how MIT and Harvard were right next door.
About an hour early I moseyed back to the venue and went inside. The “stage” was past the host’s stand. It was six by six, say, and it was less a stage than it was a platform for two arcade games. I set my stuff up there and scanned the joint. There were about three people at the bar, which was long, dark and nice. And that was it. Soon enough the fella I’d be playing with, a dude named Max Jeffers showed up, as did Lindsay, the coordinator and booker. They set up the sound together. The sound at Think Tank is actually just a couple lines into the house PA system, and it wasn’t great. Max and I decided to switch off throughout the two-hour slot, playing three songs at a time. I played okay. And Max seemed very good, but I could barely hear him because of the sound system, despite my being ten feet from the stage. When we were done I drank too much and found my way back to the bus. I tried to sleep on the way home, but I couldn’t: I am exactly one inch too tall to sleep on a Megabus. When I got back to the NYC stop at 4AM, freezing and tired, I have to admit I was thinking about whether my Megabus tour was a good idea or not. I was freezing my ass off near dawn having sold zero records and making zero money. Nobody had come on account of those tweets, either.
Yet, as it goes with so many things, the “benefit” of having done that show did not come until weeks later. Max wrote to me saying he was gonna be coming through New York. Did I have any gigs I could hook him up with …?
And this must be 80% of the good of playing whenever you can: you meet good people and you start hooking each other up. I told Max about Ceol, and he came, and he was very well-received. I got a text the next day from Niall Connolly at the Path Café that said Max was there, too, and that I’d done a “good” job by meeting him. And it’s true. Not only is the man a great songwriter, but he’s scratching my back now with an offer to get on a bill with him in Annapolis in April. These kinds of things happen all the time if you get over the fact that your gig isn’t the greatest. Such fine little meetings can be a saving grace for the shitty gig, and—especially at this point in my career—the whole impetus for going out and doing it again.
I am a singer songwriter who is trying to make a living singer songwritering. In order to do that it is necessary that I tour. I like touring, so this is no problem. But I happen to have a lovely wife who, for good good reason, doesn’t want me to be not-at-home for half-my-life. So, this was a big ole problem. I need to tour, but I can’t go away to do it. The thought to tour the Northeast came on pretty fast, and when it did I felt very stupid that I hadn’t thought of it before. I live in New York City, and within a few hours of here are Philly, Boston, DC and Baltimore. I started wondering if I might be able to play these cities and get back the same night to sleep in my own bed. This would please my wife, and it would also subtract a major expense from a tour budget, as I would not have to pay for any lodging. This sounded pretty great to me, but there was still one problem left to solve, which was how to get o these cities and back. Being a New Yorker I don’t own a car, and I also know that train tickets between these cities ain’t exactly cheap. So I turned to buses, and my problem was virtually solved.
Specifically, I began searching the schedules and routes of Megabus. I’d seen plenty of big ole Megabus buses out in Midtown with ads on their sides touting one dollar fares to all the cities I wanted to go to. I like one dollar fares. So I went to Megabus.com and looked at where and when they went, and realized that I was basically looking at my new tour route. Especially as most of the cities I need to get to have a midnight Megabus back to New York. So, I began writing to venues in these cities, and now the tour has begun. On Tuesday and the following Tuesday I’ll ride to Boston and back in the same day. And this Wednesday I’ll be in DC. The total transport cost (excluding local subways) for three round trips was something like $40. In short, not only am I very excited to be “touring,” and excited that my marriage will not suffer from it, but I am feeling sort of like a genius because I’ve essentially cut out the two major expenses of touring in general: lodging and transportation. If I sell 3 CDs on my WHOLE December schedule, I will have covered my costs. Pretty cool.