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Quitting While the Quitting Is Good (or tolerable)

March 2021

Giving up playing music and giving up playing for an audience or public consumption are not the same thing. You can absolutely do the first while never doing the second ever again. A couple of years ago, my failing vision helped me decide to give up motorcycling after more than 50 years on a bike, but I did not give up bicycling. I wrote a little about that decision, more than once, in my Geezer with A Grudge blog, but most recently in in an essay titled “What Really Signals the End?” That decision is a bigger deal for a motorcyclist than for a musician, at least a hobby musician. “Getting killed” on stage is a minor event compared to the same idea on the highway. It is, however, a humiliating event that I’d like to avoid. For my motorcycling benchmark, I drew a line in the asphalt and wrote about it in “Creating A Baseline.” More than 55 years ago, I identified the same moment for my life as a performing musician.

Starting when I was 13, I made regular attempts to get the hell out of Dodge (Dodge City, Kansas) by running away, hiding in some really disgusting places, and (eventually) getting summer jobs with local farmers and using those spring harvest jobs as a cover for going on tour with bands. By the time I was 16, I’d rented a trailer in a south Dodge trailer park that I shared with a series of friends and co-workers. The first of those roommates was the guitarist and co-songwriter from one of my first bands, Ed. We played in a band that had no regular 3rd and 4th members and worked on a road construction crew rebuilding a section of US283 between Dodge and Minneola for the first month of that spring. Ed was a lot smarter than me and he went back to school pretty quickly after a few weeks of that miserable job. I stuck it out for another month until the Tracers went back on summer tour and I was almost crippled from having my boots sealed with asphalt slurry 10 hours a day. Just before Ed evacuated the highway construction business, we’d somehow learned about a guy in Minneola who had a Gibson acoustic guitar for sale. After work one evening, we’d setup an appointment to look at the guitar and at least I was excited about the possibility of owning my first decent acoustic guitar.

This was probably in 1964 and my memory of what happened yesterday is pretty shaky. So, if Ed or anyone reads this and remembers the story completely differently, they are probably right. However, I took away this experience and this very strong feeling about how it relates to my own life as a musician (such as it and I are).

We arrived together at this fairly ramshackle house in a very ramshackle small western Kansas town. None of that was eventful or out-of-the-ordinary for either of us. Western Kansas was well into the economic and cultural decline that it now wallows in oblivious to how hilarious and pitiful it seems to the rest of the world. The guitar owner was an “ancient” (probably younger than I am today), scrawny Levon Helm-looking guy who grudgingly invited us into his hoard-packed hovel. We were there for a guitar, not conversation, but the old guy took advantage of a captive audience and told us stories we had no interest in and, eventually, brought out the guitar. Instead of handing it over to the prospective buyers, he proceeded to claw away at the guitar and . . . sing. As you’d expect, it was awful. Most likely, he was caterwauling Hank Williams or some such hillbilly crap in fine fashion, but to me (maybe also to Ed) he was not just sucking the interest out of me toward his guitar but giving me way too much of a look at my own likely geezerhood. At 16, I don’t think I had any real concept of my own mortality and old-age decay before that moment. But I have had a pretty clear view of the possibilities since. After what felt like at least an hour of a Vogon poetry quality performance, I had lost all interest in his guitar and I don’t remember even touching it, let alone playing it. I just wanted out of that house and away from the painful and humiliating noises that old guy was generating. In fact, I didn’t seriously look at another acoustic guitar until I was 20, married, and stumbled into a great buy on a 60’s Gibson J-45 in a Dallas pawn shop.

The lifetime lesson I took away from that experience was “I don’t ever want to be that guy.” During my studio managing and, later, maintenance years, I did not self-identify as any sort of musician because everyone I came in contact with was infinitely better than I would ever be. After I quit playing in bands, in the late-70s, I quit singing and forgot the lyrics to almost every song I’d performed for the previous 15 years. By the time we closed the studio/sound company, I was done with playing guitar, too.

After a very brief period of working on jingles with a keyboard playing friend in Omaha, I’d ceased identifying as any sort of “musician.” When someone would ask, I’d say “I own a few guitars, but I don’t play them anymore. I’m not a musician.” For the next 40 years, with a few momentary intervals of jamming with friends in odd places, my guitars were just pieces of art on the wall (or in a closet). For an ice-breaker in my record lab tests at McNally Smith College, I’d fumble at playing guitar as a sound source; which usually relaxed my students’ with the thought “I can’t be worse than that.” Between 1978 and 2015, I sold at least 50 guitars originally to generate money for recording studio equipment and later to pay off my Little Canada mortgage. When we moved to Red Wing, I had recently purchased a Composite Acoustics Cargo travel guitar to replace my godawful Martin Backpacker with which I’d tortured my wife as we were stuck in New Mexico with a dead VW-Winnebago camper. Other than her and those abused MSCM students, I hadn’t played for any sort of audience since the 1970s.

When we moved to Red Wing, we ended up often frequenting the local used bookstore, Fair Trade Books, that was being managed by a local kid, Josh Schaefer, a songwriter, performer, and hustler extraordinaire. Every time I was in the store, Josh would bug me to play in the store’s open mic. He could not have been either nicer about it or more insistent. I mean EVERY TIME I saw him it was “When are you going to bring us a song?” Initially, my internal answer was always “never gonna happen.” Eventually, a song latched on to me, Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers,” stuck me as words that described my life. For the first time in at least 40 years, I was playing enough that I not only memorized the chords and lyrics to a song, but felt comfortable enough in a group of very special people that I almost felt like performing it. I’m certain that I sucked, but the Fair Trade audience was the most tolerant, accepting, and fun audience I’d ever experienced and I felt . . . unembarrassed by my performance. Over the next couple of years, I became a regular at the Fair Trade Books open mic until that event ended. By then, I had met a few local musicians, done some recording for a few of them and had moved on to open mic situations at local restaurants and bars. Yeah, I know, “open mics are for losers and amateurs” and I’m fine with that. I have no interest in either playing a full set or focusing my performance on entertaining anyone but myself and my wife and, ideally, a few friends.

However (and the whole point of this essay), I also do not want to either torture anyone like Ed and I were tortured 55 years ago in Minneola or unknowingly humiliate myself like that sad old guy. I don’t want to knowingly humiliate myself, either.

I have asked my wife, repeatedly, to pay attention to both her reaction and any audience reaction to my “performance.” I need her help with that because, when I’m playing, I don’t pay any attention to the audience. It is pretty much the only way I can find what it takes to play for an audience. Fortunately and unfortunately, all of the people I play with are incredibly generous and incredibly tolerant people and I suspect they might not tell me if I accidentally shit on their foot.

I have stopped doing all sorts of things that I once loved doing because of age and the associate disabilities that come with being ancient. Racquetball, basketball, motocross and cross-country motorcycle racing, adventure motorcycle touring, electronic repair and design, and even some of the detail guitar repair and building skills I recently learned. I’m becoming “skilled” at moving on to things I can do. Sooner or later, I’ll have to make the same decision about singing and playing guitar. I’d appreciate it if you helped let me know when that moment arrives.


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