More Mediocrity & Music (July 16, 1997)

For one reason or another, I’m on a mission to document the trials and tribulations, the travails, of an adult musician (me) in his (my) efforts to work, even exist, in a small town whose core values are largely false and hypocritical. This entails various logistic as well as psychological difficulties. Right now, I’m exploring the delicate issue of political correctness, vegetarian health food, cosmic consciousness and County & Western music.

There’s a lot of “woo-woo” in the town where I live. If anyone asks, “Where did all the hippies go?” I’ll say a lot of them came here. There’s even a New Age bookstore lined with crystals.

Two blocks from where I live there’s a health food store called the Co-op. More than half of what I eat comes from there; I know a thing or two about nutrition and I don’t like to eat a lot of crap, which is mostly what’s available at the supermarkets.

I have to add here that I’m a bona fide veteran of the 60s. I’ve dodged the draft, smoked my share of pot and hash, taken lots of LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and had those “transcendent” experiences; I know what my astrological chart is, I had long hair back when it was dangerous. I’m conversant with many forms of Eastern philosophy and religions. I’ve read Guerdjieff, Yogananda and all that jolly shit.

Why did I mention all this? Because when I go to the Co-op to get some organic onions or pecorino romano cheese, some of the hippies (sorry, no other word for it) in there give me the big self-righteous, more-enlightened-than-thou stink-eye. Could be because I don’t have long hair any more, don’t wear drawstring pants, tie-die shirts, Birkenstocks or patchouli oil. But I think it’s something else: I behave in a manner that suggests I’m sure of myself, that I know who I am. Even though I’ve never been in a real fistfight (got sucker-punched once, but that’s not being in a fight), I don’t eat much meat and I am an actual non-violent person, the people in the Co-op seem to think I just don’t fit the correct image of a gentle New Age personality and therefore shouldn’t be in there.

To make it all the worse, I play in a country and western band (I also play with a jazz duo but it’s the country group that’s visible). Not country-rock, not billygrass, countrypunk, or any other kind of modern hybrid. We’re talkin’ Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves. Like the waitress in the “Blues Brothers” said, “We got both kinds — County and Western.” We play “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “San Antonio Rose.” “Wild Side of Life” and “Lost Highway.” Although the crowd we get consists mostly of nice retired couples (who still hold hands and dance together), the health-food store hippies apparently associate this music with racist, right-wing gun-toting, wife-beating rednecks because every time I put up a poster there for one of our gigs, someone rips it down. I don’t even bother anymore.

Would you like to guess what forms of music are correct around the Gentle Folk? (What do you get when you play New Age music backwards? New Age music.) Actually, what they really go for is ethnic music. The further it takes them from their own selves, their own upbringing, the more it allows them to pretend they’re not boring white middle-class people, the better. Cajun music is very big here. Of course the fact that there are no real Cajuns around except Tom the sausage maker is irrelevant. Funny, but you don’t see him at the “Cajun” music gigs… Also currently very “happening” is digeridoo music. I don’t have to tell you we have no Australian aboriginals in town. Leading this trend is a fellow called “Christopher of the Wolves.” (Really. I couldn’t make that up.) In the self-promotion piece he had in the local paper, we learned that Christopher of the Wolves has dared to “leave the corporate world and pursue a life of music and counterculture.” The guy looks to be around 45 and has long hair for the first time, in a ponytail of course. It’s like he thinks that now, in 1997, he’s in some kind of hip vanguard. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t putting it in everyone’s face.

And then there’s the marimba band. How bad could that be? I mean, they’re all fixed in a C major scale, so none of these bozos can play a wrong note. But believe me they’re lame. And play in public a lot. One of them is a typesetter at the newspaper who also writes a cutesy-pie column. I want to go into his workplace and say, “Hey, I’m going to go and sit down at the computer and do your job for a while. You don’t mind, do you?” Because that’s what he’s doing, in a way, to me. But people don’t really get irresistible urges or yearnings to go and typeset, do they?

This “lame list” could go on and on, but the point is that mediocrity in America is alive and thriving. People will go out in droves and applaud when they’re trying to play in public. 

Here’s an analogy: It’s also a true story. A drummer from a nearby town, not a particularly bad drummer but certainly not a great one, who plays in a band with a bass player friend of mine, has taken to karaoke. That’s right, all of a sudden this 50-year old working musician started going to karaoke bars and singing with the machine. By doing this, he’s become a big fish in a very small and polluted pond. My friend the bass player is embarrassed by this. One night the drummer actually talked a female jazz singer, a very good one from Seattle, into going to karaoke and singing. When she got up and sang she was greeted with cold silence. She had spoiled the game by being good, by being a real singer.

This lesson is that being an actual, competent, experienced musician is an affront to many people. I’ve found almost universally that most like their musicians, the real ones, at a distance. If they see you at a grocery store every day they don’t want you to be a real guitar player. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened: I’m introduced as a guitar player to someone, it may even be at my gig, and the person I’m introduced to starts right in jabbering about how great Eric Clapton is. Now Eric is probably a pretty decent guy, I’ve never met him but I almost hate him now and it’s not even his fault.

Sometimes it’s like this: I was at a local club to hear Dave Conant’s band. Dave’s from Seattle, and a triple-A class white blues player. So I’m sitting there with two guys I know, non-musicians. In walks this other guy, Dick, and sits down at our table. I’m introduced to him as “a guitar player.” Right away, I mean instantly, Dick says directly to me, “Dave Conant is really good.”

“I know,” I replied.

“I mean, he’s really god.”

“Yes, he is. That’s why I’m here. To hear him play, because he’s really good.”

“I mean, really good.”

“Yep. Really good.”

But the fucker just couldn’t let it go. He went on, “He was good 20 years ago.”

“Yes. I’m sure he was.”

Even this didn’t satisfy him. What he wanted was for me to say, “He’s better than I could possibly be.” I didn’t mention that Dave and I worked on an album together (he played the pedal steel) or that I played an entire night sitting in with his band (invited) at the same club.

And then there’s fiddle tunes. 

Centrum, Port Townsend’s “non-profit” arts corporation, has an annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. People come from everywhere for this, and pay and pay. A few genuine fiddlers come and have a good-paying gig, and it has spawned a mini-culture of fiddlers in town.

Last year’s Centrum Fiddle Tunes poster had a photo of a crusty, rather menacing-looking South American guy, probably circa 1930s, smoking a black twisty cigar, leaning on a village square fountain and playing a crude, homemade violin. They’re using this image to promote the festival and I GUARANTEE that if THAT GUY, the one in the picture, walked into that gig or Centrum’s office, they’d have had him arrested.

The latest development: Saturday night my country band played for a dance at the legion hall. And who walks in but the musical director of the fiddle festival, who happens to be a fiddler himself. He’s the one who even stated that Centrum doesn’t, wouldn’t, book local talent. Ever the snide sonofabitch, when I bumped into him I said, “What the hell are you doing at a local gig?”

“I just wanted to hear some country music,” he says, trying to sound innocent.

After the next set he waves me over to his table.

“You guys should have a fiddle player, it’s natural,” he says.

Without hesitation I tell him, “There’s no way we’re going to add another person to this group. We don’t even use the drummer in smaller places. You know how tough it is in this town, and we’re not about to split the money another way.”

Here it comes… “I’d play for free. I’m serious.”

“Shit man, I’m serious.” 

He goes on. “I want to get involved.”

What I haven’t been cruel enough to say is personally, I can’t stand most fiddle music. For one thing, when fiddle people get together it’s like there are rules that go with the music. They name a tune and it’s like, “Okay, number 47,” and it has to be done exactly, totally pat, the way tradition dictates and usually with grim determination. I can handle Itzhak Perlman playing Paganini, but there’s no fucking way in hell for a fiddle player to get into my band.

“I’m serious,” the fiddler repeated. “Call me. You’ll call me, won’t you?”

“Are you in the phone book?”

“Yeah. Will you call me?”

“Okay.” I realize now that was a lie. I don’t intend to call him. But if I bump into him on the street I know what to say. “You know Centrum’s policy towards local musicians? Well, we have a policy, too: we don’t work with Centrum people.”

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