Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why It Sucks to Be a Musician

So I'm playing a lot better now. But I'm unsure what to do with it. I won't return to the lion's den of the New York City freelance music scene, rife with egotists, poseurs, back-stabbers, crazies, and petty gangsters. I need to find a way to do music without all the head trips and degradation. I figured I'd avoid all that by keeping my goal modest: to play heartfelt notes somewhere in blessed obscurity. I feel no compulsion to impress or to connect. I don't want to "build my reputation." I'll leave the racetrack to the hot rodders, and won't need to ask anything of anyone.

So the other day when my friend Elysa Sunshine (who sang the Chowhound jingle) invited me to her birthday party, and asked me to bring along my trombone, I figured I'd play happily along with nieces and nephews plunking out "Heart & Soul" on the piano, all of us sipping Hawaiian Punch. Nice!

There was some mildly disorganized jamming, which I enjoyed. Then, later, a guitarist appeared, playing dynamite blues. I grabbed my plunger mute - for a funky wa-wa effect - and he kept yelling "Yeah!" as we played together, afterwards telling me how fantastic I sounded. He's from New Orleans, where he leads a well-known blues band (he also regularly appears in that HBO Treme series, which I haven't been watching), and he said he's always looking for trombonists, and that if I ever came to New Orleans, I could work like crazy. The effusive praise went on and on, and seemed heartfelt.

It had been a long time since anyone was so impressed with my playing, and I liked his guitar, too. So I told him that maybe I'd come down one day and we could get together and jam a little more. He smiled enthusiastically, and told me to definitely look him up if I did. And, with that, he turned his head to speak to another partygoer.

I cleared my throat and inquired about how, exactly, I'd go about looking him up if I ever found myself there (like, I should check the phone book under "D" for "Dude from Elysa's Party? I didn't ask that out loud, of course). He stammered uncomfortably, and, finally, obviously feeling cornered, asked me, testily, whether I wanted his phone number. That would help, I replied. He dictated the first three numbers, then paused, and finally, flung me, with suspicious glibness and a flash of contempt, the remaining four. I don't need to try dialing in order to know it was a made up number.

What happened is that, being a TV star, he's being forced to guard his access. And, being a grungy musician, rather than a seasoned public relations professional, he's drawing the line a bit randomly. I sympathize, having had to draw some lines of my own due to Chowhound's popularity. It's not easy to do so without being a jerk.

But from my perspective at that moment, an unsolicited shiny bauble of bait had dropped in my lap, and I gave it only the faintest tug - triggering a gratuitous jerk-around and old familiar feelings of nauseous humiliation. Ah, it's like I never left the music business! You can just imagine how awful it is when actual effort's made to get ahead!

Even beyond music, the determination to rise above is very often futile. No matter how un-needy you make yourself, it's damned hard to maintain any semblance of dignity in this world. Which means, I guess, that the very notion of dignity requires reexamination.

But, hey, I'm just glad someone liked my playing. My musical recuperation what end, I can't possibly imagine.


joshi said...

what WERE you supposed to do? if this was an indian gathering, i'd have understood completely - we (indians) routinely are lavish with compliments and offers that everybody knows aren't meant to be taken seriously.

if that happened to me, i wouldn't resent him passing me a wrong phone number (why didn't he just give me some email address and never bother replying). what i would deeply resent is that his compliments, in the rear view mirror, would be patronizing. and thats insufferable.

a warp on his guitar!

James Leff said...

No, the compliments were sincere. I did soun good. But he has ego issues, and, like a lot of musicians, he doesn't operate linearly real well. I'm just collateral damage.

The issue isn't "what a jerk". It's that the determination to rise above is often futile. No matter what shift of perspective you make, and no matter how un-needy you make yourself, there is simply no way to slice through it all with your dignity intact.

It's a challenge. And I like challenges. The challenges and impediments are where the wisdom is.

Blog Archive