My main read for this tour has been The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (thanks Paige for the recommendation). I've since learned that she's become quite the hero for the Tea Party movement. Just from reading The Fountainhead I'm not quite sure why and I haven't let that knowledge ruin it for me. It's actually a great book and I'm finding a lot to relate to especially in the two extreme and opposing characters of the main protagonists. For those who haven't read the book (which I seem to be one of the last to be getting around to it), Peter Keating and Howard Roark are both young architects who have come up in the same school but take the careers in front of them with very different intents and styles. Keating was always the most popular kid at school, a favorite among his peers and teachers for his charm and good looks and graduated top of his class. He is very good at working people and making them feel friendly enough with him so that he can get them to do what he wants. He moves very quickly from the draftsman's table to becoming a partner at one of the top architecture firms in New York. His work is good; nothing anyone's never seen before, but exactly what people want and his charm leads people perhaps to believe that it's better than it is. Inwardly he is conflicted between a sense of personal triumph and this feeling of vacantness and loss of humanity. Roark was expelled from the same school for not following the "correct" method of architecture and refuting the institution's entire set of principles that it is founded. His art is his religion. The only thing that matters to him is making his visions a reality, compromising nothing from how he originally conceives it. He is not popular. Most people don't like him and are even a little afraid of the intensity he radiates like a man on a mission from God. His work is like nothing anyone has ever seen before; some people don't get it and others are breathtaken. He gets very few jobs and many of the ones he does get he turns down because they won't let him have 100% control of his vision. He's admired by some who "get" him and despised by many, especially the architecture elite who seem as somewhere between a joke and a serious threat. He would rather work construction than to go anywhere near an established architectural firm that won't let him have complete creative control. He is a shrine unto himself and a vessel for something everything he knows to be beautiful about the world, the human spirit, and the essence of imagination even if he is the only one to see it.
I hopefully never get too close to either of these extremes, but the book has had me thinking about whether I lean one way or the other in my own artistic pursuit and if there is any middle ground at all. In intent I feel more akin to Roark. This is all only worth it to me if it stays real and I'm able to create according to my own uncompromised vision. On the other hand, I'm performing my "uncompromised vision" every night at venues all over the country, more often than not playing to nearly empty rooms and making very little money, basically living day to day in an existence that really only runs off the charity of others. Is that enough for me? Is this what I want? Probably not if I'm honest. So what do I do? Most people flock around a certain music performer or trend for what I consider to be all the wrong reasons that have nothing to do with beauty or music at all, but it sometimes seems that there is no easy alternative to pulling those same people towards me by all the same methods. And the reason why I do this in the first place is because I can perform the songs I write the way I want to and if I have an intent, it's to lead the culture into embracing music for what it is and not because it's attached to anything spiritually or musically vapid. The last thing I want to be is Peter Keating. I also want to be successful at this though, and every artist is faced with this dilemma of finding the magic balance between making the art you want to make and giving the people what they want. There's not a day on or off tour that I'm not faced with having to work to achieve this balance.
I've been touring alone for a week now. I haven't started talking to myself yet, but I have been having lovely conversations with a volleyball I found, painted a face on and named Wilson...;) No it hasn't reached that point either. Actually the interesting thing is that I've definitely been doing a lot more singing than speaking. I'll show up at the gig after a day of driving and say hello to the bartender or sound guy and realize that's the first usage my vocal chords have gotten all day. Then after a little bit of small talk, I'll sing for an hour or so and then leave. It's probably for the best too since I've been dancing dangerously close to a sore throat all week and the best cure for that is speaking as little as possible. I've learned this week that I could feasibly tour alone--the driving hasn't been overly strenuous and I've been able to handle all the daily activities fine on my own--but I would never want to. It definitely makes a huge difference having someone there you can share all these memories with and to commiserate with if there's misery to be shared as well.
I left off the last blog with the news that Ricky was going to be staying home until she got over her bronchitis which after ten days of antibiotics still didn't seem to be going away. I had one more Nashville show to do before skipping town at a venue called the Listening Room. What a concept! It was one of countless "writers nights" that take place round the clock in Nashville where four or five budding songsmiths play in the round hoping that one song they play will be recognized by someone in the room as being the next Carrie Underwood or Tim McGraw single. I got my own slot as the "special" guest so I didn't have to play in the round. The pressure is always on the most when you only get to play four songs. Most shows I go up and just play whatever comes to mind but when you have such a short set you really have to plan it out. And as it goes with most things in life and especially things to do with music, just because you plan something out doesn't mean it's going to happen that way. The moment I got up there and strummed my guitar to check the line, my D string broke so my setlist had to be revised at the last moment to just include keyboard songs. The set seemed to have gone over well with the audience despite the lack of a guitar and some old friends came out including Robby, Charlie, and Katie Howard who told me the amazing news that she recently became the first American in thirty years to be accepted into the Royal College of Art in London!
That was the night we found out bin Laden had been killed. Apparently the Navy SEALs were able to get inside his compound by writing him on CouchSurfing.org...they had excellent references and were verified and everything, but it just goes to show you never know who you're really letting into your house...;) It was something that had to happen and Obama and everyone involved were very courageous in taking that chance, but it made me a little sick watching crowds of people singing "Na na na na na na na na hey hey goodbye" as if their team had just won the NBA finals. The line between the high people get from war and what they get from sports is very thin (although I think sports is a much healthier choice than war--"make touchdowns not war!"), and while I think it's okay to feel a sense of closure from finally getting rid of our enemy who killed so many of our people, no death should ever bring us joy. We should always be seekers of peace first and foremost and it should grieve us when it is necessary (if ever) to use to violence to achieve it.
Robby and stayed up and watched Obama make his speech and the newsroom noise that followed, and then two hours later I had to wake up to drive to Knoxville for an early morning internet TV program that a friend of Ricky's had set up for us. It's always these morning shows that end up making me sick...literally. One night of less than two hours of sleep is guaranteed to do me in every time and I could already feel the sore throat coming on as I foggily drove to Knoxville. The TV station was really cool and the hosts were very cool people. I got to do six or seven songs on the air and was interviewed in between. There was one song I knew I needed to play in light of bin Laden's death, in some ways the moment this song was written for: "My Sweet Enemy". The song is about seeing the war your fighting through the eyes of the person you're fighting against and realizing they're just as human as you are. It's not about surrendering or even giving up the fight but at least being able to see things through the perspective that whatever monster you've built your enemy up to be may just be a mirror image in yourself and remembering that loving your enemy means seeing true victory as creating a world that you both can peacefully survive in. Getting to play songs like this at times like these is the absolute peak of why I do music. I hope people absorbed the song and took some time to rethink whatever conflicts they may be in on a personal or global scale. I've been doing that song at almost every show since and hopefully it's having some sort of impact. Here's "My Sweet Enemy" from that performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oX4vBN0oPdA
If you want to see the full show, go to http://www.knoxivi.com/eleven_o_clock_rock?eleven and scroll on the bottom until you see my name.
I spent the majority of the rest of the day walking around Knoxville with my old friend from middle school David Zager and then I played that night as the featured performer at a Knoxville open mic. Somebody there reminded me that I was going to be performing on the Blue Plate Special radio program in Knoxville the following morning so I changed my plans of driving to Abingdon, VA that night and just stayed at a Motel 6. The Blue Plate Special is actually somewhat of a Knoxville institution and actually takes place in front of a live audience at the Knoxville tourism center. They boasted some fairly impressive alumni with photos of the Avett Brothers, Nickel Creek, and Jerry Douglas on the walls and I was told that the really impressive photos were on display somewhere else. I did a five song set with an interview. The audience was very attentive which was a nice break from the luck I'd been having for most of the previous week. The other performer on the bill, Amy Speace, was also a terrific songwriter and performer.
I drove from there to Abingdon, a small town on the border of Tennessee and Virginia. This was deep country I was entering now, towns that probably had had the same families living there since the town was founded around the same time the country itself was. Another old middle school friends back from my Abintra Montessori days (represent!) Laura Henry was kind enough to host me for a week. Of all my school experiences, my years at Abintra stick out as the most meaningful, and while I don't keep in touch with them as much as I would like, the small group of maybe six or seven classmates I was with the full four years I was there still feel like family to me, such was the closeness we shared during that time. It was good catching up with Laura and David and just keeping track of what had changed and what had stayed the same after all these years.
I played that night in Johnson City, TN at Acoustic Coffeeshop (maybe the most straight forward venue name I've come across), another very small town not really on the map. Sometimes those small town gigs are the best because the venue you play it is often the only venue in town and just kind of the main hang out. I got a really good response at this show, but it was a little frustrating not to sell any CD's. A lot of people came up to me saying they would buy something if they had money, and honestly usually in those situations I just give CD's to the people who want them. It's better to have people go home with my music who are interested in going home with it than not whatever the cost.
As the Johnson City show was my fifth set in 48 hours, I was happy to have Wednesday off to not play a show and just sit at Laura's house and get some work done. My throat was still not feeling in the best condition so it was good to be able to rest it. The next day was Cinco De Mayo and I was to be the live festive entertainment at Live Bar in Greenville, North Carolina. When I was very very little, my dad had this little routine he used to do where he'd pretend to be two scarecrows arguing with each other over which was named Scary and which was named Crowy and which one was from North Carolina and which was from South Carolina. I think my perception as a child from that was that the Carolinas were more foreign to the California culture I was brought up in than Afghanistan. I'm sure the Carolinians feel the same way about California and perhaps being from California then made sense for me to be chosen as an appropriate act for Cinco De Mayo. This gig may have been the low point of the tour thus far. I showed up thinking I would be going on around 8pm to find out that they thought it best for me to start around 11 when more people would be there. More people did show up by 11 but none of them paid any attention to the 45 minute set I played and mainly stayed on the other side of the room offering pretty much no applause. To make matters worse, after the owner told me to take a break, this duo came on and did a 20 minute set of Tenacious D cover songs and the crowd all gathered around the stage and loved every moment of it. How do you beat that? I even tried to find some middle ground by opening up my set with a cover of "Lady Madonna" but the crowd drifted off and the owner had me quit early. The Roark vs Keating quandary was definitely heavy on my mind that night. The show's one redeeming quality was that I did make a good amount of money at the door but half of that ended up having to be spent on a Motel 6 room since the show had gotten out so late.
The next day I drove to another backwoods little town called Mill Spring. This place really was way off the beaten track. All you Sacramentans reading this are familiar with the Crooked Mile at Fairy Tale town and I basically had to drive on that for about thirty minutes just to get into this town. Beautiful drive but it definitely required my utmost attention to the road. The GPS device decided it wasn't getting paid enough to work under those conditions either. The venue was called the Ultimate Basement which really was this warehouse type building that had been made into a teen center as a safe place for the kids in town to come to hang out in and play video games or foozeball or that sort of thing. The owner basically called everyone he knew in town to come down to see the concert going on so there was a decent sized audience (sad to say that comparatively speaking, fifteen people is decent sized) and they all seemed to respond positively to the music.
I played at another teen center called the Edge in another small town called Big Stone Gap, VA. They may want to work on marketing a place called the Edge in Big Stone Gap as a safe place.... But it was a cool venue and there were a good amount of high school kids in attendance even if most of them spent the majority of the show hanging out on the couches in the other room. Apparently they were listening since a lot of them came back and bought CD's and t-shirts. It was somewhat refreshing playing for a younger crowd both of those nights. High schoolers are often too cool to show much enthusiasm for anything but you can tell music means so much to them and I was happy to share it with them even if it was somewhat at a distance.
The next day, which happened to be Mothers Day, I left Laura's house for good and drove to Richmond for a gig at a billiards bar called the Triple. I should have known that a billiards club on Mothers Day wasn't going to be very packed; besides a couple playing pool in the back who didn't even flinch when I said into the mic that the building was on fire just to test if they were paying attention, I basically played to the two bartenders. At least they enjoyed it and especially seemed to appreciate me stumbling through requested covers of "Tiny Dancer", "I've Got a Woman" and "Superstition".
One of the drags of touring is that there's not a whole lot of time for actual tourism. Usually you drive into a city, play the gig, go to bed wherever you're staying and then wake up and drive to the next city. There was one "attraction" that I had made a point from the get go that I wanted to take the time to experience: Washington D.C. I drove after the gig in Richmond to D.C. so I would be there in the morning. I definitely got chills seeing the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building all lit up on the side of the freeway as I made my way into the city around 1am to stay at a CouchSurfing host's apartment. I left the apartment around noon the next morning and spent about four hours wandering the National Mall. For some reason I get an especially big high off being around famous things. There's something so inspiring about being in the presence of a person or a monument or a building or a work of art that has been and is going to continue to be remembered for centuries. It was truly thrilling to actually get to see in person the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building and the White House which was actually very very white--I don't know if we all appreciate just how white the White House is--and much smaller than I expected. One particularly meaningful stop for me was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the very spot where MLK gave his "I Have A Dream" speech and seeing what he saw when spoke those powerful words (with the exception of the fact that the reflector pool had been drained for renovations). There was no way to see everything. I managed to do quick runs through a few of the Smithsonians, the coolest things there in my opinion being the actual C3PO costume worn in Return of the Jedi and the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz (shows where my interests truly lie). It was all very grand and majestic and a little 1984 at some points if you know what I mean and having experienced D.C. first hand now, America has never felt more like an empire to me. Here's a couple of silly little videos of me wandering Washington:
From D.C. I raced over to Frederick, Maryland for the gig at Cafe Nola. That ended up being a fairly successful gig. The was packed due to another apparently popular local band called the Eureka Birds on the bill and despite being rather chatty throughout my set, the crowd seemed to genuinely like my music and I sold CD's afterwards. It reenforced the idea that the next tour needs to be booked by the strategy of pairing up with bands that make sense rather than just cold calling venues.
All in all it was a fairly staid week. I know some artists do this touring thing, playing for almost no one and losing more money than they make, for close to ten years before they see any results. I guess you have to start somewhere. It's frustrating because I know I'm good at what I do--not saying that to be big headed but just to say honestly that I wouldn't be going through all this trouble if I didn't think I had a good shot at it--and most of the feedback I get is very positive but I just feel like I'm lacking that extra something to inspire people to really jump in all the way and commit. I've gotten a lot of chances to share my music with people in the industry that most artists would kill to get in front of and again the feedback I've gotten from even them has been very enthusiastic but I've yet to convince anyone to be willing to take the plunge and invest their time and energy into whatever potential I may have to be really successful at this. I guess it takes time to find that right match, that person who truly believes in what you do and wants to make your career their career. Or maybe it'll end up being all up to me to win the masses over one person at a time. I've focused most of my life on being good at what I do, the Howard Roark approach. I feel like now I need to really hone in on how I can give the people what they want without sacrificing the very thing that inspires me to make a career in music in the first place. I've been performing all my life; I don't know how good I've always been at connecting. If this tour does nothing else, I hope it can at least shine a huge spotlight on all the major things I could do well to improve on and show me how I can turn something that is good for what it is into something that is literally unavoidable to ignore for anyone who comes in contact with it.
By the time you read this, I will be crossing into one of my favorite chapters of any tour: New York City. I'll be meeting back up with Ricky who flew in late last night and we'll be back on our original track and on to the next adventure...!
*By the way, sorry there's not more video in this blog. With Ricky gone, there's no one to film. I will leave you with this really nice write up of me I posted earlier in the week that was done by a very nice lady named Loretta Sassaman who we met in Seattle: http://www.spinthat45.com/2011/04/am-radio-is-makin-comeback.html For every empty room I play on tour, it definitely is really nice to then read something like this so thanks Loretta for brightening up my week! :)