Living, Breathing, and Sweating the Business OR How I Regained My Faith in Rock’n’Roll (Last Week, Anyway)
by Jon Sarre
The best and quickest way to get sick to death of anything, I figure, is to immerse yourself in it. With that in mind, I must have certifiable rocks in my head to’ve enthusiastically taken on the unenviable task of booking the bands at a club out here in Portland, Oregon. Call me a masochist, I guess, but I figured… ah… nevermind. Anyhow, I usedta think I got inundated with piles of shit doin’ this semi-gig here, writing about stuff, but, Lord, try buzzin’ through demo tapes from every Tom, Dick, and Nikki who own some crappy gear and a beat-up van, never mind dealin’ with said troggs with their assorted neuroses, hang-ups and other, um, to be kind, “issues.” Yikes! Rock’n’rollacaust overkill to degree “n”, kids. No wonder no one else even answers their phones!
Two weeks in and I was ready to tear every last hair outta my fair skull and give up on the whole rotten business to pack up and move to Duluth (where nobody knows your name) and find productive work on a coal scow. On my second day on the job, this drunk-as-shit guitarist from a to-remain-nameless “touring” band (that’s when ya make some calls and leave town with a roadmap, a change of socks and some intoxicants with which to get through the vast expanse of Montana) offered to kick my teeth in after I patiently explained five or six times why there was no money cuz nine paid at the door at four bucks a head doesn’t translate into a big night, never mind put a dent into the cost of renting the PA.
I wear a big red “W” for “weasel” cuz lotsa the job consists of the tired refrain of “sorry, I’d like to give ya more, but all your friends stayed at home in front of the TV, so take this ten bucks and buy some shots.” Most bands ruefully know the score there. I know I do. Most I ever saw after x+Z+q=-y was thirty dollars (which was spent as quickly as possible cuz last call was nigh), nothing was the norm, one time we played for chips, salsa, and free condoms (don’t ask).
Dues paying is a concept that only goes so far. It becomes an empty phrase when the dues are a constant annoyance like a record club membership you enrolled in when you were drunk. Some people just laugh when handed $25 for a night’s work and then thank you cuz it covered the cost of the million handbills they laid on people who stuck ’em in their coat pocket and then downed cheap beer someplace else the night of the show. The norm, though, is the guy who demands an accounting of every dime (yeah, you should know where the money goes, up front, if possible) so he can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m stealing from him (not unheard of, I know, but if there’s no money to begin with, there’s nothin’ to steal). It’s a dirty business, lowest of the low, the bottom rung of the “entertainment industry” sayeth one of my more on-the-ball staffers (with the possible exception of dinner theatre).
Does all this shit kill the visceral thrill of rock’n’roll, the business, I mean? You bet. Something that starts out as a fun thing to do is transformed into a nasty little day-to-day blitz of phone calls, returned calls, returned-your-returned calls, negotiations about idiotic demands, parch-faced agents dictating terms from some office in I-dunno-where, back-stabbing, out-and-out lies, slights of hand, tight-rope-walking over vats of battery acid, disappointment, bad blood, frustration, churned guts, not to mention late night pow-wows with fellow scum who end up with me stumbling into the bright sunlight of a new day wondering why the fuck I didn’t listen to my mother and fast track into law school/power tie/SUV/house in some tract suburb instead of this parody of purism thatis, in reality, only some bad lifestyle haze.
Too often, the music is just a by-product lost in the shuffle of the guest list vs. the guarantee and do ya wanna see this, which is what you’d be into seeing, or do ya wanna make money? It’s no wonder that, in the larger-scale “real world,” yer Time/Warners are monolithic steamrollers who simply flatten the skulls that lesser Mongols useta just stack up like old bowling trophies. It’s Darwinian, that’s it, and aesthetics is something treated like you just farted in the Pope’s face in front of your grandmother.
Not too long ago, though, I presided over someone else’s gigantic loss of our collective shirt (good band, but nobody was there, bad since there was money up front). The opener was a buncha locals called The Viles and I stuck ’em in there (the out-going agent proclaimed himself “too busy” to find one himself). They were the highpoint of the night, loud’n’sleazy’n’plain old vile; they kicked everyone’s ass and then kicked ’em out a few extra times just in case you had yer doubts. Jen, the lead singer, fell off the stage and, in the process of using the mic stand as a sort of lever or something, crushed the two whiskey sours she was working on. After her boyfriend pushed her back up, she finished the number and I felt somethin’ good could come out of this shit. Seriously, that’s all it took – one good fuckin’ band and it just seemed worthwhile. Now, if I could only close the millennium by booking the Cheater Slicks and Zen Guerrilla (who already told me they want no part of playing anywhere on December 31, 1999).
A couple weeks later, Siouxicide City, Iowa’s Chicken Hawks blew me and everyone else away with a set that had the place abuzz with the glory of the faith of rock’n’roll. Everybody had fun, RAFR records newest signing New American Mob likewise won over a buncha people who basically didn’t know who the hell they were. Suddenly a million phone calls a day seemed to not be a waste of time (sometimes they still are, I mean, come on). I figure it’s not too bad a job if it entails trading brain cells with Chris Doherty of Gang Green, talkin’ about “Boston Hahdcoh” and drinkin’ “Budweisah Beeh” (it’s been a long time since I heard that accent). Chris was in town cuz Gang Green (mostly peopled by members of Tree these days) was playin’ with the “Vibratahs” and the almighty Zen Guerrilla and the always great Black Jack (only band to have been kicked offa Estrus, I’m pretty sure, for not being nice to their fellow man). Chris said he’d be back, cuz he had a good time (but I hope he wasn’t doing the driving, I could imagine the headline: “Boston Punk Musician Kills Veteran English Punk Rockers in Fiery I-5 Crash”). I sure wasn’t gonna take the wheel. I’d avoid driving these people around anytime, too: Fireballs Of Freedom (even if they drank all my beer), The Country Teasers (cuz they’re scary hillbillies from Scotland, believe it or not), Richard Meltzer (for not laughing in my face when a mutual acquaintance introduced me as a “colleague”), and Thee Mighty Caesars (yeah, they’re not around anymore, but I’ve been listening to lotsa their stuff as of late).