Suppose you have a day job working at a premium grocery store. You have a co-worker, young, who is in a band. He doesn’t brag about it. You learn of it through other employees. Occasionally he snaps his fingers, bops his head and sings along with the piped in music on the store channel, not as a performer, but the way a fan would. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know of his ambitions unless you asked. You don’t think much of it one way or another. Every third person in LA under 30 is in a band. Or in a play. Or humping scripts around town. It’s the natural order of things.
Live in LA long enough, you meet a lot of people outside the glass walls of the industry, peering in. Hollywood can be a great big machine designed to take money away from people who want to be famous.
You have an actor friend who hasn’t booked a gig in eight years, but bought a house in Bronson Canyon with his earnings from teaching “acting for film” at a local for-profit arts school which charges Ivy League prices. You have, or had, another friend who squandered a substantial inheritance on an autobiographical film which he wrote, directed and cast himself in the lead -despite the fact he had never acted before- a film which never saw the inside of a DVD player, let alone a theater, and for good reason. You have, or had, a writer friend who wrote an A-list film with Brad Pitt, which plays perpetually on cable, and hasn’t sold anything in over a decade, and now drinks.
These are the happy stories. Most people don’t get that far.
In the Big Sort of talent, ambition and human frailty, the trend line leads to day work at Starbucks, and anonymity, and half-truths to friends and family back home. Months of rehearsals can lead to pay-to-play gigs with 15 people in the audience, ten of whom are friends you put on the list. A year of fruitless auditions can offer up a “break” in the form of a one-act play in a black box theater on Santa Monica with porous walls where the sound of passing buses drowns out the dialogue at crucial moments. Which is just as well cause the dialogue is nearly unspeakable, and the ten friends in the audience are weary of social obligation theater. You tell your parents you can’t come home for Christmas because you have ‘a big gig booked for the holidays’. What you don’t tell them is it will be in a convalescent home in Chatsworth, for which you had to pay your accompanist $200, drawn from a credit card advance. Better to labor through a rendition of ‘Evergreen’ to the cacophony of spoons banging against wheelchairs than to sit in an empty apartment facing another year gone and nothing to show for it.
You knew this woman who played the gig at the convalescent home. She lived downstairs in a courtyard apartment building in Los Feliz and was a classically trained vocalist. Her life went into a spiral afterward. She stopped working so as to dedicate herself full time to her craft. Total commitment did not yield further gigs. She began ducking the landlord. She became a recluse, coming out of her apartment only to borrow money from neighbors to get the electricity turned back on, and to expel mewling kittens her un-neutered feline managed to create every few months, like clockwork. We spoke of her the way the neighbors probably spoke of Mrs. Havisham in the early years of her decline, before the cobwebs overran the house.
Then one day she announced with great excitement she was having a dinner party. Chris Douridas, of KCRW, was coming over, and we were all invited.
You weren’t sure what she was expecting would happen, but she managed to put together a lovely candlelit event, catered, much to the consternation of those she owed money. Chris Douridas defied our cynical impulses and showed up, and was a gracious guest. We all sipped good wine, and noshed on lovely comestibles, and after a respectful amount of industry-related conversation, he excused himself and departed, leaving her right where she started. In the days that followed, she retreated into her dark apartment and her cigarettes and was seldom seen again until she was finally evicted.
You have no idea what happened to her. Maybe she went back to Texas. You hope she didn’t end up downtown.
This is the long tail of memory you bring with you when you go to a co-worker’s gig.
So there you are at Club Bardot, all of you from the store. There’s Derek, a nice boy from Sacramento, up on stage. From the balcony you try to reconcile the quiet, bespectacled clerk from earlier in the day, anonymously dispensing charcuterie to rich housewives, and the pop star in front you now. The hair flipping, hip swiveling, belting pop star, and the adoring females lining the stage. You think of Bruce Wayne and his Batman cape. For pop music is a form of conjuring, a transformation of ordinary longing into art. Read the lyrics of your favorite songs and you will be left non-plussed. Hear them sung in proper harmony, and they stay with you for days. Music almost always sounds better live, and the interaction between performer and audience is part of the alchemical magic.
You remember something Derek mentioned before. They started out as a wedding band, specializing in Sinatra tunes, and they’ve been playing together for five years. The Sinatra angle piqued your curiosity. It’s why you went to the gig. Now you realize you’re watching four people who have their shit together. They can play their instruments and play them well. They understand song construction, and the importance of a hook. The songs are catchy. They’ve known each other since t-ball and they came down from Sacramento together.
Afterward you meet them all on the smokers balcony, amid the press of well-wishers. They’re nice boys, unpretentious and wholesome. You feel ten years younger just hanging out with them.
Who should re-appear at this very moment, like Banquo’s ghost, but none other than Chris Douridas. He offers the bandmates friendly advice: “Hold on to your land as long as you can.”
Driving back to the Valley, you remember a different bit of advice, attributed to Vince Lombardi: “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence”.
You can hear their single here: