On the night of the audition I drove out to the band’s practice facility, located in a rough part of the city. I was a bit leery as I pulled into the half-lit parking lot. The place was in shambles, and covered with half-painted brick and graffiti. I walked up to the back entrance and pounded on the black metal door. Nobody answered. I double checked the address, and another knock went unanswered. For a few minutes I paced the parking lot looking for a sign of life. It started to feel like I’d been duped. Suddenly, the back door swung open and out popped Mike with that familiar grin on his face.
The inside looked like a converted whore house, and smelled like a combination of a dirty bar and a gym locker room. It had rock and roll written all over it. There was a long hallway with a series of rooms that were being occupied by other bands. I could faintly hear music being played down the long corridor as I lugged my equipment inside. The band practiced behind the first door on the left. The room was partitioned, and the seating area and practice room were separated by a large Plexiglass window.
The room was full of amplifiers, guitars, and sound equipment, and the floor was covered with empty beer bottles and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. I set up in the corner of the room and went through my normal warm-up routine. I tried my best to chop through the nerves. The band was sitting in the next room behind the glass window, paying little attention while I warmed up. Everyone sat around talking and drinking – business as usual.
As soon as I finished, the band filtered into the room and we went through introductions again. I taped the playlist to the top of my kick drum while everyone else plugged in. The sound of the amplifiers heating up energized the room and I could feel myself welling up with nerves.
I struggled for the first half of the set, confusing songs and getting mixed up on some of the parts. I didn’t feel all that comfortable – mainly from the enormous amount of self-induced pressure. The guys could sense it I think, and decided to take a break after the first run through of the set list. Everyone left the practice area and went back behind the glass. I knew they were talking about me. It wasn’t a great first impression by any stretch. The opportunity that I’d been offered was slipping away from me. I needed to find a way to salvage it — fast.
After everyone left, I stayed seated behind the kit and exhaled my frustration. The room was quiet with the exception of the low frequency buzzing of the amps. My mind tossed around a number of self-defeating thoughts, and I was starting to feel like I’d forgotten everything. I needed to get to a better state of mind – and quickly — so I started playing some familiar cover tunes. It was the same old crap I’d rehearsed a million times before.
I was so wrapped up in the moment that I didn’t notice the guys watching from behind the glass the entire time. When I stopped playing I was surprised to see everyone in the next room pressed up against the window, their mouths agape. I guess that’s all I needed to do, because that ended up being the night I officially took over as the new drummer for the band. The magical feeling was short-lived though. The clock was now ticking. We had one month to prepare for the biggest show to date, and the first show ever for me.
For the next few weeks in felt like we never left the practice studio. Every night we’d hammer out the set list, drink a few beers, and do it all over again. It was a time to bond and get loose — have some fun. Some nights I would go to the studio alone and practice. I’d crack a beer and run through our songs, then finish up with some cover tunes. I don’t recall getting a whole lot of sleep during that time span. It was pure, nonstop adrenaline keeping me functioning.
On the eve of the first show I went to the studio alone. My kit was looking a bit neglected from being in the dirty whore house for so long — it was desperately in need of a good polishing. I wanted it to look immaculate for the show. I shined up the whole kit. The cymbals looked like mirrors, and the blood-red finish on the drums looked as deadly as the day I bought them. After I finished, I packed everything up and headed home for the night. It was time to get some rest.
The following morning was a complete blur and evening came fast. The radio station that was sponsoring the show had arranged a shuttle bus for all the bands on the ticket. There were five in total and they were the best that the local scene had to offer. I met with my group at the scheduled time at our rendezvous point, and all five groups piled on the bus. Attendance was expected to be through the roof that night. It was completely sold out – unprecedented for a local show at that venue.
I sat nervously on the bus. Everyone else seemed relaxed. All the guys except me were seasoned – I was still a virgin. I tried not to think about it. The radio station spotted an advertisement for the show too, and we’d down a shot of whiskey together whenever it came on the radio. For as anxious as I was, it was a cool feeling being behind the scenes for once. For so many years I was the guy in the audience. Not tonight.
We pulled up to the venue and the place was hoppin’. It looked sold out. People were lined up out the doors. The bus cleared out and we went in through the backstage area. Each of us were given an all access pass on the way in. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a backstage pass also meant free drinks for the bands and their crews. Good thing — I needed it.
We were scheduled to perform before the headline act. Most of the night was nothing but mulling about, nervously killing time. I watched the crowd from one of the balconies. The main floor was packed to the gills. It was nothing but a mass of drunken idiots swirling around in front of the stage – thirsty for a good show. I watched the minutes tick by, and as it got closer I started to grow even more restless. The group before us began setting up on stage, and I decided to go outside to get some fresh air. I was a nervous wreck.
The whole experience was overwhelming and I started feeling sick. I could feel the sweat bead up and trickle down my back, bringing a chill to my body as I stood outside. The music started and was audible through the stage doors. I needed to get away from it. The further I walked the more I thought about leaving – walking away from the whole thing. I wasn’t ready for it.
I quickly walked down Main Street past the storefronts. My heart felt like it was gonna explode inside of me. I could see and feel the wispy strands of steam being pulled from my body by the frigid night air, and my mind raced with thoughts that I didn’t want to entertain. Underneath all of the horrible thoughts was a deep-seeded fear of failure. I was afraid of letting everyone down – including myself. The warm breaths poured out in shallow bursts as I stopped and stood on the street.
Suddenly, I felt something come over me – an impromptu feeling of calm. It felt for a moment like somebody else had been standing there with me, talking some sense into me – like a family member that had passed on.
My mind flashed – recalling all of the events and memories that had lead up to this point.
I saw myself at the studio with the guys practicing, and all the nights that I spent out there alone – I saw all of the shows again in vivid detail, and the two-man band with our crappy Van Halen cover songs – I saw myself muscling through all of the rudiments for hours on end – I revisited the giddy feeling the first time I saw Excalibur gleaming under the music shop lights – I remembered the very first jam sessions with the dorky kid from high school…
…and then I remembered the buckets – the noble first attempt to try and imitate John Bonham, my adolescent-hood musical hero. I remembered the nightly dreams of being on stage — the conductor of an aggressive symphony — threatening to shake the stadium to a pile of dusty rubble. I could hear the sounds again of the guitars shredding through the air – electrifying the building, and the vocalist sending the crowd deeper into frenzy…
…tonight was that night I’d dreamt about, and I was only three city blocks away from the spot where I’d finally live out that dream…
Snap back to reality. Oh shit. What time is it?
I ran back to the venue at full sprint and stomped out a cigarette in front of the backstage doors. Just before I could tear open the door, something in my peripherals caught my attention. I turned and noticed beyond the parking lot a three-story, strobe-lit marquee next to the venue. How in the hell did I miss that? I watched the screen for a minute as it scrolled through the show advertisement. Our band flashed across the bright square in front of the entire downtown district. How observant of me. I guess I was too caught up before to even notice…
I got back just in time. The band that had been playing finished their set. While the stage was being cleared I ran through a mental checklist: Get the arms warm again – shake off the cold – get loose – set list – sticks – equipment – where’s my gear? – it’s right there – what happened to my drink? – bum me a smoke, I can’t find mine – where’s Mike? – I need some tape – 10 minutes until sound check guys – let’s go, we’re on the clock.
I ran through the set list in my head one last time as I got situated on stage. The crowd was starting to fill out, and was bigger than it was for any of the other acts. The sound guy mic’d up my drums and ran through sound check. I’ll never forget the exchange: “This your first show?” he asked. “Yeah”, I replied nervously. “Get ready, it’s better than sex.”
Everything was ready to go. The crowd was electric that night. The lights turned on front-stage and I could feel the heat on my forehead. I could taste the bronze on my tongue from the glistening cymbals standing in front of me. As the amplifiers began to heat up, the audience grew anxious, collectively bracing for the sonic onslaught. Then, in a split-second, I heard that familiar guitar intro scream through the air, sending a shot of adrenaline ripping through my arms and legs. With a four-count click of the teeth, and by the grace of the gods of rock, my arms came simultaneously crashing down onto the mighty Excalibur, sending a thunder-crack roaring into the frenzied crowd. The audience exploded at the sound of the crash. The electrical charge that blasted from the stage reverberated off the back of the auditorium and shot back through my chest. The impact sent me out of body momentarily, and I watched my limbs flying effortlessly through the air from above the stage — each and every meaningful note being played by something much bigger than me.
It was a spiritual moment – a moment when everything seemed as real as it could ever get. It was in that very moment – in that strange place in time – when I’d finally validated a lifelong dream. I’d officially become an ordained minister of rock that night. I’d become the conductor of an aggressive symphony – just like John Bonham.
After the show was over we all went out to a local pub to celebrate. We ended up drawing the largest crowd out of all of the bands on the bill that night – including the headline act. We had a good laugh about it, a lot of drinks on the bar top, and recounted the entire experience together. I felt relieved. It felt good to finally get that first show under my belt. As we left the bar, we even signed a couple autographs – what a trip. I’m pretty sure those signatures never made it to Ebay…
When I got home that night I fell face first to the bed and didn’t move the entire night. The whole experience was exhausting – both physically and emotionally. The next morning I rolled over in bed and relived that night all over again. It was hard not to smile. “I don’t wanna be a rock star”, I thought to myself…”I am one”.
Chase your dreams…
We (the band) continued the local circuit for the next couple of years after that first show together. We were fortunate enough to play some larger, radio-sponsored venues, and even got a spin on the radio at one point. I eventually left the band to pursue a college degree, and the group disbanded shortly after.
A few months after I left, I was invited out to audition with one of the biggest Rock groups in Detroit at the time. The band was a signed, national act. I was offered the position after the try out, but ended up respectfully turning it down. The experience made me realize that my love for music ran much deeper than any shallow dream of becoming a rock star ever did. The road to stardom is always costly in the end.
Oh, and I still play Excalibur to this day…
Outro: Led Zeppelin, Black Dog – Live at Madison Square Gardens. The Song Remains the Same (film), 1976
– Happy Blogging Bitchers
- The Conductor of an Aggressive Symphony (part 3 of 4) (righttobitch.com)
- Bands breaking up/meltdowns in the studio (gearslutz.com)
- Bands vs. Venues: Who promotes? Who makes money? Can everyone “win”? (aixelsyd13.wordpress.com)