NPF: WHY WE FIGHT

Earlier this week a friend-of-friend very nearly died. My ex-bandmate Rob was playing with his new band Waxeater at a venue in Austin, TX when his bandmate Elliott was electrocuted on stage, presumably due to an ungrounded electrical supply. Fortunately a nurse in the audience was able to re-start his heart and after a week in an induced coma, it looks like he is going to be OK.

To the average person that would seem like a terrible way to go – not merely the electrocution part, which I think we can all agree is undesirable, but to die while playing in a dive bar with bands that few people will ever hear of or care about for what I can only assume was very little if any money. That's the crux of what an excellent writer and friend (who previously brought us the Ballad of Johnny D) argues in his thoughts about the incident. In short, he asks what possesses grown-ups to devote so much time to a creative pursuit like being in a band. Is it worth the strain touring puts on relationships? The inability to hold down a normal job? The constant financial hardships? The risk of being electrocuted in some dive bar or punk shithouse? To most of us it isn't apparent why anyone would put up with the relentless grind of going on the road for the privilege of…well, playing in front of a handful of drunks at a bar in Topeka, KS while the local cadre of scumbags plots a way to steal all of your equipment when you fall asleep at 7 AM on the puke-stained carpet of someone you barely know. It isn't glamorous.

DJ ultimately concludes that people do this to find a community of like-minded people; you'll only win a few hearts wherever you play, but they'll be worth it. They'll have your back. They'll hold benefits and fund-raisers when your uninsured ass ends up with a potentially fatal illness. They'll let you borrow when your shit breaks or gets stolen. They'll feed you and give you a place to sleep. They'll help you out when you're unemployed and the last dollar is gone. All of this is true in my experience (which admittedly is not as extensive as that of people like DJ or Rob).

That said, I have a different take on it. Since I'm no longer actively in a band, I'll use blogging and comedy as examples here. From a rational perspective I shouldn't do either. It could get me fired. It could give people who want to make my life difficult all the ammunition they'd ever need. It diverts time I could spend advancing my career (in theory) or enhancing relationships. The last thing that is going to help me with the necessities of life is to get on a stage or the interwebs and express myself voluminously and without a filter.

So why do I do it? Yes, both have introduced me to some interesting people. But I do it primarily for another reason. Academia is incredibly destructive to self-esteem. It is a continuous and near endless process of accepting rejection and hearing people tell you how much you suck. I've applied for 130 jobs over the last three years and been rejected from all of them. Journals have rejection rates exceeding 90% in most cases. It is very important for me to do something that does not result in complete failure and rejection. When I hear people laugh or see a post cross 50,000 hits it's a subtle reminder that not everything I do results in rejection.

Wilde said that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. It's a good observation, and in my opinion it's the best reason to do whatever it is we choose to do with our lives. You spend so much time on the job you hate, listening to the boss who treats you like shit, and wondering why you bother to get out of bed anymore. So if you want to spend your time writing the great American novel, building birdhouses, attending Star Trek conventions in animal-themed S&M gear, or touring the country in a van with a band no one has ever heard of to play before tiny audiences, so be it. There are always risks, ranging from simple embarrassment to bodily harm depending on the nature of your pursuits. Hell, having any pursuits at all is a risk. Why not get a second job or work harder at your first one instead of wasting your time telling jokes at the Comedy Pouch in Possum Ridge, AR or playing math rock at the 4th Street Vomit Bucket in the worst neighborhood in Newark? Well, not only are some things more important than being practical, but what could be more practical than doing whatever is necessary to make yourself feel like your life is worthwhile? It's OK to remind yourself that you're not quite as worthless as the world makes you feel, even if there are considerable risks and opportunity costs involved.

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37 Responses to “NPF: WHY WE FIGHT”

  1. FMguru Says:

    The "quiet desperation" quote is from Thoreau, not Wilde.

  2. chautauqua Says:

    The "Lives of Desperation" quote is probably from Thoreau:

    Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
    Henry David Thoreau

    That said, you have to decide whether your gig is propping up your self-esteem or is just because you enjoy the Hell out of it. I play Norwegian folk music for aging groups of Norwegian-Americans. They don't have a clue about the song's contents. Me? I just am addicted to Polskas and the mysteries of the timely hemiola. There doesn't have to be a reason, in the final analysis. I do it because I want to.

    As for the Acadamia gig, well, it's your trip.

  3. Jude Says:

    Can I point out how funny it is that in a post about how academia sucks due to the rejection and general making-one-feel-like-a-dumbfuck, the first two comments here are telling you to revise and resubmit your post due to a minor error?

    Man, the Internet lacks any kind of self-awareness.

  4. Jude Says:

    Oh, and keep up the good work, brother.

  5. eau Says:

    Yep. Do it to it, ed. You could do a lot worse than leaving this site as your legacy.

  6. anotherbozo Says:

    50,000 hits: that's more than I dared hope, and great news for a website that uses small type, occasional big words, and tends to provoke serious thought. and reason for optimism re: the citizenry? well, we'll take what we can get.

    another righteous blog, Ed, and well said as usual.

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    Look, we're all here only a short time.

    Enjoy what you can.

    But don't get your enjoyment by stopping others from doing what they enjoy.
    That would make you a Conservative asshole.

  8. Ike Says:

    I've been reading G&T since you were doing reviews of Gin. Always gives me something to think about.

    Is there anything good you can say about being an academic, or is it an entirely soul-crushing experience for you?

  9. The Moar You Know Says:

    I was a touring musician for many, many years, and finally got sick of it for all the reasons you describe. In the end, it wasn't worth it.

    Oddly enough, now that I work in software engineering, I have both more money and more time to devote to musical pursuits. I have a pretty awesome home studio. I can afford any instrument I want. And I don't have to deal with no-life scenesters yelling "Freebird" while I'm trying to get something over to an audience that is only interested in having me be the background music to their frantic attempts to get into somebody's pants.

    So fucking glad I'm out of that business.

    My main point – after getting an "on the floor, unconscious" hit from bad power back when I was first starting out, I did three things:

    1. Learned why it happens. Usually it's due to the house mains being on a different circuit than the stage amps, which can cause some savage voltage differentials between the two circuits. It's rarely – but not never – due to "bad ground". So…

    2. I brought a voltmeter to every one of the thousand-plus gigs I've done since then, and not only tested my own bass/mic combo, but that of anyone else I was playing with as well. That includes keyboardists, by the way. The can get hit by this too if they grab a part of the metal casing of their instrument. I'm a lot better with a voltmeter than I am with CPR. How did that work out? I've gotten sparks from joining the guitar strings to a mic on probably about 10 occasions. Which means there's enough voltage there to stop your heart.

    3. Want to not deal with any of that bullshit? I didn't. So, use active electronics. EMGs and the like don't need to be grounded to the bridge, so you can't form a voltage differential between the amp to the microphone. Don't use vintage amps, some of them are not grounded right and can form BIG voltage differentials. For god's sake, DO NOT USE TUBE AMPS. They are full of high-voltage DC current – the kind that stops your heart but quick. I admit that this approach might be a lot harder for a guitar player to implement than a bassist but it is well worth it.

  10. Elder Futhark Says:

    Succinctly, and quite simply, Ed, you have a dopamine addiction. Oh, don't worry. Everyone has one.

  11. anotherbozo Says:

    @c u n d gulag:

    "But don't get your enjoyment by stopping others from doing what they enjoy.
    That would make you a Conservative asshole."

    reminds me of Mencken's definition of Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

  12. ladiesbane Says:

    Loud cheers! When it seemed the natural evolution of your site reached the point of explosion, and we saw no banner ads or traffic enrichers, I figured this was a pet pony instead of a work horse. No pandering to the audience, no self-censorship. You can flip it to a money maker some day, of course, but for now I'm glad to have the unfiltered version.

    Whatever work we do for money rarely gives us pleasure, so it's a real treat to apply ourselves to what does. Like playing sports for fun rather than doing calisthenics at the gym. What's the difference between work and play? It's not the pay, it's the pleasure. As Coolio said, "If hip hop didn't pay, I'd rap for free."

  13. c u n d gulag Says:

    anotherbozo,
    Yeah, maybe that's where I got idea from. I love Menchen.

  14. Rick Massimo Says:

    WhoTF cares how your gig/tour went? WhoTF cares how I did in the chess tournament last weekend? WhoTF cares that you got the weeds out of your tomato plants?

    Everyone – EVERYONE – does something that there's "no good reason" to do. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

  15. bb in GA Says:

    I am a multi-decade musician and I have found that one of the things that propels you forward is very subjective, but at the same time I have confirmed the reality of it with other musicians: the collective shout.

    It is a spiritual experience where you're very much in the moment when everybody's "hittin' the note" or whatever the applicable cliche' du jour in your circle might be.

    (H)it don't matter whether the audience or congregation goes with you or not – it is a great place to be.

    //bb

  16. SeaTea Says:

    Like "The Moar You Know", I've been a professional musician basically all my adult life… many more years than not. I got out of the scene for the reasons you describe, but am back in it now thanks to an amazing opportunity to play with a very successful local cover band. No, I'm no longer paying money out of my own pocket to play my original music. I did that for years and years and years. Surprisingly, it's more than enough for me to just play songs people want to hear and get paid well for that. I know lots of people (probably even Ed, as judgmental as he can be about music) feel like I'm a sell-out. Here's the thing…

    It's not all about me. It's just not. Having enough talent to get up in front of people and, for a few hours, make them utterly forget all their problems and really enjoy themselves? It's priceless. It's a blessing. Those of us who are fortunate enough to make so many people happy at once should thank whatever gods we pray to that we have that opportunity. When I look out at 200 or sometimes 2000 partying, cheering, smiling people… dancing, making out, high-fiving, taking photos of themselves to put on Facebook… it's worth it. All the bullshit of getting home at 4am and the long hours of rehearsal are worth it.

    Because it's not all about me.

  17. The Moar You Know Says:

    @SeaTea:

    "No, I'm no longer paying money out of my own pocket to play my original music."

    That's the most outrageous part of the whole deal. If you go to hear a local band playing original music, if they're any good, buy something from them. It's going to be the only money they make that night.

    As for what you're doing now, rest assured that you're not a sellout. I've done plenty of music that wasn't mine, a boatload of session work and quite a bit of cover band work. Gotta pay those bills, you know. Good cover band work is hard to do. People expect it to sound like it does on their radio/iPod/CD. That's not easy, even for a bassist like myself. Good session work can be even harder, and often really irritating, but very lucrative. Some of my session work was to this day, by the hour, the most I've ever been paid for anything. A shame those gigs are few and far between.

    I also wanted to add that the fourth way you can make sure you're not going to get fried is to play at home in your own studio, and – important – make sure that every single item in it is on the same circuit breaker. I do this and can use all the old-school tube equipment I want with no worries – nice for guitar tracks.

  18. mothra Says:

    I'd far sooner die doing something I love to do rather than die with the song still in me at my desk.

  19. OhioCane Says:

    Well said, Ed.

    Kudos.

  20. DJ Says:

    Yeah, there's the whole "let me do something where i don't feel like an abject failure" side of it, too, for sure.

    We're heading out on tour in August, and it's likely to be another shit-eater, but the thing exciting me is knowing that i'm going to go to a bunch of towns where i get to hang out with pals. Like Athens!

    Thanks for the shout-out and the additional perspective, buddy. See you in August!

  21. JohnR Says:

    Alright, back to the rants – we don't pay you to introspect!
    Oh, wait – we don't pay you. [Emilylitella] Never mind [/Emilylitella]
    Hey, you should have known that Wilde never said anything like that – it was neither bitchy nor funny..

  22. doug Says:

    after plugging in amps to a circuit the bar owner assured us was OK and subsequently letting all the smoke out of the amps due to that circuit being 220 volts wired to a 110 volt outlet, we bought an outlet tester from Radio Shack and never plugged into an improperly wired outlet again. And NO, the bar owner would not pay for putting the smoke back into the amp….

    To electric users of other people's outlets: please buy an outlet tester. It has 3 leds, easily understood and will prevent a lot of misshaps. Less than $10…

  23. Neal Deesit Says:

    Academia is incredibly destructive to self-esteem. It is a continuous and near endless process of accepting rejection and hearing people tell you how much you suck.

    @Jude Can I point out how funny it is that in a post about how academia sucks due to the rejection and general making-one-feel-like-a-dumbfuck, the first two comments here are telling you to revise and resubmit your post due to a minor error?

    Man, the Internet lacks any kind of self-awareness.

    Of course the Internet lacks any kind of self awareness. As everyone knows, it is just a series of tubes.

    If you'd read carefully, Jude, you might have noticed that the first two commenters told Ed nothing more than that "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation" was written not by Wilde, but by Thoreau. Neither told Ed anything about revising and resubmitting his post.

    As I read this post, I googled the "most men" line to see whether I remembered correctly that it's Thoreau's. And had it gone unremarked, I'd probably have posted something similar to the first two comments. Not because I want to tell Ed how much he sucks, or to make him feel like a dumbfuck.

    No, I'd have commented because from reading G&T, I know that Ed is intelligent, witty, and thoughtful; he addresses complicated social and political topics with his unique voice in well written, well researched and well reasoned prose. He strikes me as the kind of person who cares about "getting it right." So he probably doesn't want small factual errors distracting readers from his ideas.

    Ed says he does this "to do something that does not result in complete failure and rejection," and that "when [he] hear people laugh or see[s] a post cross 50,000 hits it's a subtle reminder that not everything [he does] results in rejection" And when he sees his comments alerting him to minor errors in attribution, I hope he's reminded that his appreciative readers have his back, that they understand the passion he has for this blog, and that they want him to be as good as he wants himself to be.

    Sure, it's not like giving life-saving advice about avoiding electrocution. The Moar You Know has that covered. It' more on the order of "Dude, your fly's unzipped."

  24. jeneria Says:

    Academia is indeed harsh, but it does allow some flexibility for those of us in it to pursue outside interests.

    Of course I'm a prof at a small private engineering school that doesn't have tenure and doesn't believe in publish or perish. So the publishing I do, I do for the inevitable "next move" because in academia, you can't stay still for long. But at least the pressure isn't being put on me by someone who checked out 25 years ago after receiving their tenure or by someone whose relatively new to the game, has no concept of what it's like to teach, and only knows that publishing is important because they read that somewhere (probably the Chronicle of Higher Education, the bastards).

    I sent out 300 applications in 2 years to get my job. I had 10 MLA interviews (over the two years) and three campus visits before I landed my job. You have to keep plugging away at it. And then hope like hell that the job you land is a good job and not just "a job." Because "just a jobs" in academia are like purgatory (which I'm sure you and your readers already know).

  25. Middle Seaman Says:

    The solution is doing what the hell you want (under the constraints in force). If touring and playing is good for you, then it's good for you. It is that simple and ridiculous as that. Desperation is not making a choice. (I thought that Charley Chaplin said it.)

    I write a blog no one knows about because it helps we think; it works for me. I told my boss, the dean, that if he doesn't like he is free to resign; I have been there 30 years and am considered part of the physical building. At 30, I was a VP; I hated it. Now I am a fossil and I like it.

    Do whatever makes you content.

  26. sarah Says:

    academia can be crushing. i'm not as far along as you are, but reading what you said was a relief. you hit the nail right on the head; thanks for explaining what i have been feeling lately.

    also, your review of atlas shrugged remains one of the best things i've ever read. internet high five!

  27. Mike Says:

    SeaTea: Classical, blues, jazz, folk musics the world over — are all built on playing music that other people wrote, whether it's called "repertoire" or "standards." Being in a "cover band" just means you are playing music; and music is universal. So nothing sell-out about it!

    (From someone who plays piano wretchedly in the privacy of his own home…)

  28. ripley Says:

    nice post!

    I think the community and the self-esteem are related.

    I'm a grad student and also a dj for 15 years, I was in bands too, and there is something about working together on something that is soul-sustaining. And not just working on being in a band together, which can be so hard.. more the act of playing music together in rehearsal, jam sessions and onstage. Creating, yes, but not creating a thing instead, creating a live interactive experience together, which goes somewhere. And good dj moments are like that too, collaborative with an audience, no product except shared experience and interplay. That's definitely kept me sane through a thousand revise-and-resubmits.

  29. anotherbozo Says:

    Now that this thread is old and abandoned I thought of something related.

    I had an art student years ago, in a small university department, whom I encouraged to go to art school. After he got a BFA, however, he wanted to develop his other talent, for the cello. He got a masters in cello—from Juilliard no less-—but, being Texan and full of ginger, didn't want to get stuck in a city orchestra or tour the world playing the same Bach suites over and over. So he invented himself as the Cajun Cellist and played on New York sidewalks. Then on New York subway platforms. He loved the closeness and appreciation of the crowds, and playing whatever the hell he wanted to, in whatever style. (he supported himself —and family!— giving cello lessons, but the street money wasn't bad either)

    Pretty soon he was being asked to play in local cabarets, and give concerts as far away as Tokyo and Moscow. But then he'd come back to New York sidewalks. I saw him a few times playing and he gave me a CD of his classical encores—that showed off a formidable classical technique—but his real love is a kind of jazz mix that's all his own. Not only did he follow his own path, he invented a persona and a style that hadn't existed before–about as creative as you can get. Talk about making your own rules—and being appreciated for it.

    He's all over YouTube if you're interested:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fg-SZoZv9mQ

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UismPGkPpzA

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTO7jzMUerg

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lT4_MDJsGU

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGOv4Zu5R2o

    The full Thoreau quote is even better than the part we all remember:
    Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

    The moral: don't go to the grave with the song still in you. Sing it, and chances are good somebody will l listen. But sing it.

  30. ixnay Says:

    Likewise, a decades long working musician. My take, is that one of the more important things we do by scuffling along as workaday players is to simply keep the craft alive. As opposed to our teen fantasies of "making it", we now just dig the process of making music, a yogic discipline or meditation, but with bourbon. We may not be Mozart or Stevie Wonder, but by keeping the craft happening, sharing the skill set, we may inadvertently touch someone who does become the next genius. Even if we can't take direct credit, a critical mass of decent players is the ground from which the great will spring.

  31. Ike Says:

    -Anotherbozo:

    Not quite. from http://www.walden.org/Library/Quotations/The_Henry_D._Thoreau_Mis-Quotation_Page,

    [quote]

    Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

    Misquotation. The first half of this quotation is a misquotation from Thoreau's Walden:

    “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

    Misattribution. Second half of this quotation is misattributed to Thoreau and may be a misquotation or misremembering of Oliver Wendell Holmes' (1809-1894) "The Voiceless":

    Alas for those that never sing,
    But die with all their music in them.

    [/quote]

  32. eau Says:

    As a bassist, this post and subsequent thread have made me miss "my" drummer, a great buddy who now lives in Eastern Europe, even more than I already was. I have subsequently spent the weekend listening to John Stanier, in all his various acts. So thanks for that, ed. A weekend well wasted.

  33. eau Says:

    Ha. Subsequently. Proofreading – I should do it more.

  34. anotherbozo Says:

    @Ike: Proof that one shouldn't believe every entry on the internets. I should have remembered "the mass of men" part, anyway, and smelled a rat.

    Happy not to present myself as a scholar.

  35. Maurice Says:

    People perform in shitty bands so they can get laid. I don't where you played…