Hey, pass me that drumstick

Nights where I’m working in the venue are often my favorite nights.

The venue is air-conditioned, so I can stay cool in there. And my job when working venue is one of the easier ones. I essentially sit at the curtain leading to backstage and the green room. I check wristbands for access, and make sure nobody gets back there without authorization. I help the musicians out, watch over their personal belongings and gear, and assist them with load out. I can help out the bartenders if it’s a slow night. I watch the crowd for issues and remove people if they get onstage. Crowd control includes watching you while you’re watching the show. I stop people from smoking pot in the venue, and ask people to leave if they are visibly intoxicated or being too touchy with women. And I’ll sometimes physically remove people if they belligerent, non-compliant, or start a fight. That’s the actual ‘bouncer’ part of this job.

But essentially, if nothing is happening that needs to be dealt with, I get to watch a free show from mere feet away from the stage.

Being a musician in a band myself, it’s a perfect job for me. I get to be around musicians and performers and watch them perform their art. I can network with them and pick their brain about things. I love watching a pro touring band pack up their vehicles like Tetris. I usually learn a few things about packing and storing gear for long drives to the next gig.  I often am given free CDs and t-shirts and such from the bands once they figure out that I’m interested in them.

Being a drummer, I am usually slightly more focused on watching the drummer play.  I was happy to discover that one drummer had the exact same Pearl Session Studio Classic kit that I have. Same color even. I definitely see what people mean about drummers making goofy faces while they play. I’ve been told that I actually don’t do that, but I don’t really know if I do or not. I try not to. Some drummers really do look ridiculous and distract from the show with their odd facial mugging.

One drummer poked his set list on the little hi-hat pull rod. This is the pencil-sized metal piece that extends vertically above the hi-hat cymbals. I’ve never seen a drummer do this before and, I’ll be honest, I judged him for it. Every other drummer simply lays the set list on the ground for reference. Some tape it to the side of the drum monitor. But never in my decades of playing shows and attending shows have I seen a drummer stab the set list on this little metal rod. It’s now on your instrument. You might accidentally hit it with your drumstick. Were you concerned about a gale force wind blowing across the stage and your set list flying away? Were you just too in a hurry to put it in an appropriate spot? Did you leave your contact lenses out and you can’t see the list unless it’s a foot from your face? Or are you just trying to be all punk rock rebel about it?

OK, that might be too picky. But this example is certainly a valid one of an unprepared and unprofessional drummer.

A fun band was onstage rocking some funk/dance music. This band shall remain unnamed. The drummer dropped a drum stick while playing.

OK, let me go back here and give you the background before I launch into this guy. Drummers break sticks. Drummers drop sticks. I’m not begrudging him for this, nor am I innocent of this faux pas myself. It happens. You’re gripping these custom cut pieces of wood and hitting things with them thousands and thousands of times during the performance. They chip away as you play, they crack, and then they break. You’re sweating. Shit happens. I pride myself on not dropping sticks very often when I’m playing drums onstage. But I hit pretty hard and the stage lights make you sweaty. I break sticks during shows and occasionally drop one.

But what you do is, keep playing the beat while you grab a replacement stick and forge ahead. Most people don’t even notice this happening unless they are a drummer themselves. You have extra drumsticks placed around your drum set for this very situation. You can just set some on top of your bass drum. Or buy a cheap clamp-on stick holder and clip it to the base of your hi-hat stand or any cymbal stand within reach. Or, your stick bag itself unfolds and hooks onto your floor tom. Any of these methods work to prevent being stick-less after a break/drop of a stick.

But this particular drummer on this particular night had a very unfortunate circumstance. He dropped a drumstick. But instead of it just dropping down to the floor around the drum kit, somehow it was flung sideways towards his fellow musicians. The drumstick went laterally to the right and hit the keyboard. On the keys. Stopping the keyboard player from playing. The stick bounced off the keyboard and hit the other guy in the chin. This completely stopped all keyboard parts in the song and made the musician recoil a foot away from his area.

That’s embarrassing and unprofessional. But accidents happen and you must expect misfires, and just deal with them like a trooper. But, this drummer had no replacement sticks set out anywhere on or near his kit. He was just screwed. He kept playing what he could of the beat with just his one hand and his feet, but the beat essentially disappeared. There was a gasp from the audience as they all worried if the keyboard player was ok. Part of me expected the keyboard player to launch himself at the drummer and wrestle him to the floor. A drumstick flung at somebody (accidental or not) could really hurt somebody. Especially hitting you in the eye.

But the keyboard player recovered and moved back up to the keyboard again. At this point I realized the drummer truly had no backup sticks anywhere in sight and this could be what’s called in the business a “Trainwreck”. That’s where somebody screws up the song so badly that the other musicians can’t maintain the song and it falls apart completely. But, the bass player came to the rescue.
He had to stop playing as well, but it was for the salvation of the song and the band at this point. He walked across the entire stage, crossing in front of the drum set and the singer and the guitar player. Somehow he had seen where that drumstick had landed and took it upon himself to go get it. He picked it up and handed it to the drummer, who sheepishly grabbed it and was able to play the full beat again. The other musicians could then return to the same part of the song and keep playing.

I was sitting in the backstage curtain shaking my head. Such a newbie mistake. I’ve seen high school drummers that had no experience bring backup sticks and recover from a dropped stick better than this guy did. It’s the same issue with guitarists having extra picks taped to their mic stand or the guitar itself. You’re gonna drop a pick and you know that you will need another one during the song. For the love of gawd, come prepared. It’s kind of just a given. There are enough other things that can and will happen on stage that you aren’t ready for. But hedge your bets and have a plan for the problems that you can foresee.

I would’ve loved to have been within earshot of the discussion after the show in the green room. The discussion where the keyboard player asks the drummer why he tried to skewer him with a flying machete-drumstick.

Maybe I should just double as a stage hand while I’m working security. I can bring my own drumsticks and carry a pair in my back pocket. When somebody drops a stick and has no replacement, I’ll just scramble up onstage with my flashlight and security shirt and hand the drummer new drumsticks.

I will accept tips, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Onstage with Denzel

Working security at music venues continues to put me in odd situations that I never thought I would be in.

I usually do the expected things like greet patrons, check IDs, scan the concert tickets, stamp wrists, and bounce drunk people out that need to leave the venue.

But some nights I end up onstage.

Some touring bands with a fervent fanbase request that one or two security guards from the venue stand onstage during the set. This is to prevent overzealous (or over-drunk) fans from climbing onstage and interfering with the performance. And to prevent stage-diving or accidental damage to musical equipment.

On this particular night, we had a rapper on tour that requested security presence onstage. With only a DJ table onstage, there was more room than normal for the performers to run around. But also more room to entice a drunk fan to try to come on up and have a moment with their musical idol. So once the show began I positioned myself stage right.

I’ve been on lots of stages performing with various rock bands I’ve been in, so I’m quite comfortable on stage. But, as the drummer, I am the furthest away from the crowd and am somewhat hidden by my drum kit. It is indeed a strange thing to be onstage in full vision of the entire crowd and not be performing in any way. I’m literally just crouching down on the side of the stage looking out at the crowd. I try to make sure that my walkie-talkie is visible by hanging it off the front of my hoodie. The word ‘security’ is clearly printed on my hoodie as well. My boss actually hates being onstage as security, and he probably offers the spot to me because I don’t mind it.

My friends know that I’m a big teddy bear, and friendly as hell. But as a security guard I’m sometimes required to be the tough guy. When on stage as a preventive measure my job is to at least attempt to look intimidating. The message we want to send is, “Security guards are onstage to prevent you from coming up here, so don’t even think about trying to get up here.” So I’m crouched onstage wearing all black scanning the crowd for potential problem patrons.

The rapper is Denzel Curry. I had never heard of him and hadn’t had time to google him before clocking in to work tonight. The show was sold out and the venue was packed. His DJ/partner came out on stage and started playing the intro tracks. Denzel then came out and the crowd went wild. Little clouds of pot smoke puffed up over various spots in the audience. Denzel is an attractive young African-American man with huge thick dreadlocks. He was shirtless and pretty ripped. He reminded me of a leaner and younger Busta Rhymes. I later found out he was 22 years old. This dude wasn’t born until I was already out of college.

So he starts running all over the stage and getting the crowd going. He had a lot of room up there he could cover by running around and engaging with the crowd.  He sees me crouched over on the side of the stage. Now, just to recap, I am a Caucasian man twice his age, probably have 80 pounds on him, also with dreadlocks. I am quite sure that I looked….out of place onstage. I keep trying to look out at the crowd to make eye contact with people. Some patrons are just a foot away from me trying to hold up their smartphones to record the performance.

Some things that run through my head as I’m looking out into the crowd include:

“So if somebody gets up onstage should I throw them back into the audience like fishes into the sea? Or should I escort them off to the side stairs?”

“Man, I don’t even like rap music.”

“Some of these fans would pay money to be able to stand on stage with their rap hero. Maybe I can have one of them trade with me?”

“What if Denzel pulls me out onstage like Bruce Springsteen does with Courtney Cox in the Dancing’ in the Dark video?

Denzel makes his way over to stage right and is standing right by me now. He looks at me. I’m wondering if he doesn’t know that I’m security and is questioning why the hell I’m even onstage right now. I look back at him and he raises his hand high. He wants to give me a high-five. I raise my hand and we give each other a huge high-five clap. I grin a little bit, and the crowd right around us cheers.

Was it that we both had dreads? Was he thanking me for working security onstage tonight? Was he bridging the gap and being inclusive? Did I just get vouched for?
I have no idea, but it was a special little odd moment. I know that the crowd found it quite unique to see this 22-year-old African-American rapper high-five this middle-aged white security guy onstage. I wish somebody would’ve recorded this.
Nobody tried to get onstage for the rest of the night. Denzel put on great performance. Being the only person onstage with a DJ behind you, the responsibility all falls on him to be the entertainment and engage the crowd visually. He probably sweat out 10 pounds during his show. At one point he laid down on the stage and rapped from a prone position, twitching almost convulsively as the music traveled through his body. Great show, great performer, great vantage point.

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow night has in store for me.

Let me stamp your wrist

I’m a security guard at several music venues around Portland, Oregon. It’s probably one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few. You come in to a music venue to see a band or a DJ perform. To dance all night, drink, flirt, and tell loud stories. To make bad decisions and have great stories to tell the next day.

I’m the guy at the door checking IDs. We are going to have a brief little moment together. Usually polite, usually friendly, almost always pretty surfacy. Our special interaction takes anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. In that time I’m trying to do several relatively simple things.

I’m trying to be friendly and welcome you to the venue. Then I’m engaging you in small talk, looking at your eyes and your gait to assess if you are already too drunk or high to allow into the club. I’m checking your ID to be sure that you are actually the person on the ID. I’m making sure that you were born before this date on 1995, and if your ID has expired. I’m examining the ID to see if it looks fake in general. I’m also trying to keep an eye on people in my peripheral vision that might be trying to sneak past while I’m engaged with you. Then, depending on the event or venue, I’m also scanning your concert ticket and giving you stamps on your wrists. Usually you get one stamp for having a valid ID and being of age, and then you get a different stamp for having a valid ticket to the concert.

I’m also the guy who escorts people out if they’re fighting, or simply are too intoxicated to be there. I answer a lot of questions. The most common things I end up saying besides the usual include, “Yes, there is re-entry. The bathroom is over there. No we don’t have a coat check. You can’t take your drinks outside. The ATM is just outside by the door. The box office is just over there. Yes the show is sold out. No there aren’t any more tickets available.”

Depending on the venue, and my specific duties that night, it is possible that I will have anywhere from 150 to 600 small interactions with patrons of the venue. We’re  going to handle all of these things as quickly as possible, and I’ll try to not ask the same questions several hundred times.

Since I’ve lived in Portland for 20 years, it is a rare night that I don’t see at least one person that I know from my various circles of friends and acquaintances while working the door.

When I ask to give you a stamp on your wrist, we have a strange little physical interaction where a complete stranger is touching your wrist and putting a little ink mark on you. It’s actually sort of intimate. I’m cradling your hand in mine with one hand, then stamping your wrist with my other hand. We’re close and looking in each other’s eyes. It’s almost the way you would cradle your lover’s hand if you were proposing. Sometimes you have to remove gloves, move bracelets, or switch your phone or beer to your other hand. Very often you have wrist tattoos that make it difficult to find a good visible place to put the stamp. And sometimes you have a scar on your wrist.

This happens far more than you would think. I look at the scar on your wrist and sometimes I know it’s from a suicide attempt. Or that you are or were a cutter. If you and I ever had a personal talk you’d probably tell me it was from a car crash. I’d probably smile and agree with you. But cuts from windshield safety glass can look like cuts from your broken wine glass in the bathtub. Or a straight-razor. If the scars go across the wrist like where your wristwatch band would be, maybe you weren’t that serious. If the scars go up the length of the forearm, you were more dedicated. If there were numerous scars of differing healing patterns, colors, and scar tissue, you might have tried a few times.

I think about all of this in the few seconds before I stamp your wrist. Occasionally I have a debate in my mind deciding if I should put the ink stamp off to the side of your scar, or directly on top of it. Some people must wonder, “Why did that door guy just stamp my scar?”  It’s a strange little moment we have where neither of us acknowledges it or says anything, but we both know what just happened. Two complete strangers now sort of share a secret. When I stamp you on your scar I think of it as a protective seal. It is a magical binding. Don’t open this again. It’s me placing my sigil of safety over your wound.

It is a sobering thought to imagine that every person who has a scar on their wrist may have been so depressed and dejected that they tried to end their life at one point. I hope I’m wrong about this. Because I see a bunch of them each night. But here you are, out and about trying to have fun. Not staying home in your apartment where the darkness can take too strong a hold of you. Don’t paint it black.

Maybe someday you’ll try to take your own life again and succeed. Maybe you’ll never try it again. Maybe that was a specific dark time in your life. Or maybe you have to fight off suicidal thoughts every day. You may be here because music is the only thing in your life that keeps you going. Or you’re here meeting the one person that you’ve met that understands you and gives you reason to keep going.

I’m just glad that you are here. And I want to see you here again. Music heals.
Maybe tomorrow morning you’ll wake up and wash the stamp off of your wrist and remember what a great night it was. And maybe you’ll think again about how that scar got there in the first place.

Maybe I’m overthinking all this and I’m just a guy putting a stamp on your wrist.

But I don’t think so.

I’ve been having this dream where dozens of people are stumbling into the venue holding their bleeding wrists out towards me. I’m supposed to suture everybody’s cuts shut but there’s too many of them and I can’t close the wounds fast enough. They all are asking me to help them and pulling up their sleeves to show me their wrists. The crowd starts pushing past me into the venue. Both wrists of every single person have been slashed open and they won’t stop bleeding.

Everybody streams past me into the venue and I hear the music start. Then a figure slowly strides through the doors and stands in front of me. This tall robed figure gently lifts up my wrist and pours candle wax on it. This doesn’t hurt. Then he stamps a sign into the wax, just like Kings in ancient times would do after sealing a private letter. I look up to see his face and I just see light. And then I wake up.

Going on tour

I’m in a rock band called The Shrike. We go on a small tour annually in October.

As we just recently completed our Chase the Sun tour, I have lots of recent memories and observations to blog about.

Most of my friends probably don’t understand the gritty realities that being on tour actually entails. It’s certainly not glamorous or particularly easy. Touring is quite possibly the most fun I have playing in a band, yet also the most challenging. Many better writers than me have written entire books about tour life. But here is a glimpse of my shift from regular dude to on-the-road musician.

Before leaving for tour, my life centers around the regular things that we all do.

I am a new stepfather, so I spend a lot of time with my step kids. We have one girl and one boy in elementary school. I wake up at 6:15am no matter how tired I am to get them ready for school and walk them to the bus stop. I’ll go to their school with their Mom to meet with their teachers. Set up some volunteering opportunities at their school.

Of course I take care of my own mundane life needs like paying bills, grocery shopping, and keeping the household and vehicles going in smooth order

At night I enjoy running the bedtime routine for them. I’m in the bathroom with them, all brushing our teeth together. Or sending them through bath-time. The girl loves to create concoctions like she is a chemist making new cremes and body washes imbued with magical powers and named after celestial bodies. The boy likes to hold his breath underwater while I time him, also searching for bath toys and identifying them by touch. Every night I’ll read out loud to each of them for a long time until they fall asleep.

Before I headed out for our tour I printed a map of our route so they could follow along and know what state and city I was in while I was away.

Then before you know it….we launched our tour.

Now the focus of every day is event planning, coordination, networking, traveling, and juggling the minutia of spending 11 days on the road and managing 9 shows in 7 states.

Most of us have extensive background in attending the Burning Man festival and regional events, so packing some clothes and food in coolers for two weeks is something we can do in our sleep. Most of us have dietary needs and restrictions, so packing our own food is helpful and cheaper. Eating on the road is necessary but challenging to say the least. Some days you really only have time to find some food at the deli in the gas station while you’re gassing up. They’re known mainly for deep fried, unhealthy meat-based items. Or processed desserts and chips and donuts. Teriyaki beef jerky, goodbye to you.

We’re already spending too much time sedentary sitting in a car. We don’t have any opportunity to exercise or work out, so any poor eating choices we make we will pay for later. One of our band members is vegan and one is vegetarian. I decided to try eating vegetarian this tour out of solidarity, and for ease of choosing places to eat. The other band member decided to take that challenge along with me. So when we stopped at the gas station food marts, my stand-by item became egg salad sandwiches. Or, as they became known on this tour due to my tired slurring of my words, exile sandwiches. I must have eaten a dozen of those. Pro-tip: grab the condiment packets before you leave and add relish, mayo, and mustard to the exile sandwich to spice it up. Also, buy one to eat immediately and one to save in your cooler for later.

Your entire day is structured around the 45 minute set you will perform later that night. Sometimes it will be a longer set, depending on if we’re headlining and how many other bands are on the bill. But you don’t really think like you do when you grind away at an office job for 8 hours, looking forward to your breaks, slacking off, and trying to look busy. We are busy. Traveling, securing housing at friends or getting a cheap hotel. Reminding yourself the names of the people I’ve been communicating with for weeks if not months. The minute we enter the venue it’s time to interface with the booking agent, talent buyer, security guard, sound engineer, bartender, the other bands, managers, promoters, radio staff, and anyone else you might need to. Loading in heavy gear, making sure we locate safe storage and never leave the trailer unattended. Staging my drums, warming up, practicing. Creating a custom set list for this venue. Securing any food and drink tickets if applicable. Determining the correct person to find after the show se we can get paid out. Is it a door split or did we work out a guarantee? How much does the venue take out of the money for their expenses? How much does the sound engineer get paid from the door? Are the bands doing an even split, or if we are headlining is it more like 60% for us, and 20% each for the two opening bands?

This year we got to make a stop at a drum store so I could replace some gear. I noticed not one but two cracks in one of my cymbals during one of the early gigs. That makes the cymbal sound like crap, and it could easily destruct onstage during a show. I went to a drum store in Boulder, Colorado and found a great Zildjian rock crash cymbal. I also bought all new drum heads because I hadn’t changed my drum heads in months. I beat the hell out of my heads when I play, so they need more-than-regular changing otherwise they sound bad.

Then let’s load all our gear onstage for a sound check. This is where the sound engineer mics everything and tries everything out to ensure good sound. Each musician tries out their instruments while the sound tech dials it in so it sounds distinct and balanced. We’ll run through a song or part of a song so they can balance everything out in relation to each other. Supposedly these levels are recorded and saved for when we return to the stage later. Often we then remove all gear from the stage and store it backstage somewhere while the other bands go onstage and do the same thing for their soundcheck.

We wait. We get in our stage clothes, put on make up, put in contact lenses, try to find some healthy vegetarian food, finalize the set list. Put some friends on the guest list so they can get in free. We are all crashing on their couch later tonight, after all. If there is a green room, that’s the perfect place to tune guitars, play a challenging solo, warm up, and try to get in the right head space. Often our friends are outside and want to talk with us. Honestly, sometimes we’re on a mission and don’t have time for more than a 30 second check in. I used to think musicians that hid in their dressing rooms before the show were being arrogant wanna-be rock stars who wouldn’t take time for their fans or friends. Now I get it. It’s  possibly the only time where you won’t be ‘ON’ and having to be talking with someone about something. It’s the last-minute calm before the storm. And we’ve got shit to do.

This tour we were on the ball and had a few live interviews set up with some of our favorite internet radio stations and honest-to-goodness real FM radio stations. Gotta set those up from the hotel room, at the venue, or even on the road when we pull over to talk on the phone with less road noise.

Did we make money at the door last night? Great. Let’s use it to fill the gas tank so we can drive for 7 hours to get to our next gig. Did we make more money selling merch last night? Cool, we can use the band bank account card to fill the tank up with gas. Some gigs don’t bring much money at all. But some gigs bring enough to splurge for a Motel 6 room with a shower, and a couple tanks of gas. I call that slingshotting us to the next gig with the money from a show where we actually have a following/crowd. If you can stagger those shows so you either have a decent guarantee, or you know you can bring a bunch of your friends, you’re golden. For this tour, our slingshot gigs were Portland, Billings, Reno, and Boise.

Hopefully we’ve delegated and divided duties so the merchandise table is set up and ready. Our cash box has appropriate change for people buying with cash, and our Square card reader is working and compatible with the smart phones of the band members or friends who are staffing the merch booth for us. For the love of all that is holy, please PLEASE buy some merch from a local band you like. That usually ends up being the only area that they may actually make some money. Door money is unpredictable and at the mercy of many factors and fees and charges that you often don’t know about until you’re being handed a too-small wad of cash at 2am.  If you like a band at all, please drop a little cash to purchase their product and you will be loved forever. It really makes a huge difference. Much as we love playing music in a venue live, most bands are actually trying to run their band as a business and profit from their art. Bands are up against it already. I’ll blog another time about all the expenses and dedication and trying to get people to attend your shows.

Further, all the big established bands that you love  started like this. There’s pretty much no such thing as an overnight success. Bands grind it out in clubs for years and put out numerous albums before that one thing happens that gets them on the radar of a crowd outside their hometown. Support local music. Bands play in small rock clubs charging a cover and trying furiously to build a following and a strong fan base for years before ‘making it big’.

So after the show it all begins again but in reverse. Break down our gear and get it the hell off the stage as fast as possible. Get it in the trailer. Thank all the other bands that played with you and try to get them to play with you again either in your town or theirs. Try to sequester some of your biggest fans to help you load out your gear quickly. Grab the money from the manager, sign any forms you need to sign, and drive to the hotel.

Your night is not over yet. Bands get all of their gear stolen all the time. Any trailer is a target. Any evidence that you are a touring band will draw attention you don’t want. Much as you’d love to have a huge tour bus that has your band name emblazoned across the entire side panel, don’t do it. That basically says, “Hey, there could be $20K of musical equipment in here. Want it?” We spend the extra time to load all of our gear into the hotel room with us. Piece of mind is priceless. If we had any of our gear stolen while on the road it would bankrupt us and possibly end the tour. Can’t take the chance. We have a story of a band we played 2 shows with on tour having this exact thing happen to them. So after loading all of our gear in the tiny hotel room, we might scarf down some leftover Chinese food and take a quick shower before passing out on the beds. Send a quick text to our partners back home so they don’t worry. And dream about starting this process all over again tomorrow.

And I honestly thought that I would have time to read books or write lyrics or blog from the road. Since it was October I even brought some horror films on DVD to play on a laptop at night. Silly Darren. Didn’t happen.