On Turning 40 – An Actual Blog PostThursday, May 26th, 2011
I just turned 40 years old. It’s funny: my mind is sharper and more at peace than ever with the rigors of freelance musician travel, yet my body is showing signs of begging to differ, most notably when my back went out carrying gear an hour into my big four-oh birthday. When I was 25 I used to be able to hoist a 4×10 cabinet over my head and walk between tightly parked cars in a city lot. If I tried that now they’d be scooping up my bones with a snow shovel. But my time (as in “internal clock”) is better now. All things considered, I’ll take it.
As I write this, my wife Kira Small and I are on tour together DIY-style in a minivan. Right now we’re crashing at my parents’ place in New Jersey for a few days in the middle of a northeastern run. Seeing family mid-tour is always an interesting experience. For weeks we’ve gone from venue to venue, city to city, state to state, playing for very appreciative people, or maybe even fellow musicians in a music store during a clinic, enjoying the “special attention” we get as performers. Then we come back to my parents’ place, and my mother asks us “Are you hungry?” and begins serving up the deli meats and potato salad before we have a chance to answer, just as she did when I was 16. Then it hits me: when I was 16, my mother was younger than I am now.
My mom’s a New Jersey schoolteacher and my dad’s in financial services. Initially they didn’t know what to think when their eldest son decided he wanted to be a professional bassist, as opposed to, say, a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. They didn’t know anything about basses or amplifiers or speaker cabinets, other than what they heard from the salesperson at Sam Ash when they bought me my first rig (for the record: a Gallien Krueger RB-400 and a Trace Elliott 4×10, plus an Ibanez Soundgear 1000 bass). The bass-driven conversational nerdery in my clinics still confounds them. But they know a good groove when they hear it. I can tell by the way their necks move while the music is playing. I know I’ve done my job when necks are moving and heads are bobbing. It’s kind of like a lawyer winning a case for a client. My rates are more reasonable, though.
They’re also fascinated by the disparity in the size of the crowds I play for. Kira and I do straight-up R&B and soul on the modern singer/songwriter circuit: house concerts, coffeehouses, intimate venues, 40-50 people at a time. In July I’ve got a gig with a metal band based on a television cartoon (you know, that Dethklok thing) and I’ll play for 30,000 people. In June it’s mix-and-match instrumental fusion time for several gigs with either my own band, The Mike Keneally Band (I can’t believe I’ve been playing with Keneally for 17 years now), or a new project called The Aristocrats featuring British phenom guitarist Guthrie Govan, German uber-drummer Marco Minnemann, and li’l ol’ me. We’ll probably play for 100-150 folks at a shot. Plus I’m doing a one-off benefit concert with Steve Vai, who I haven’t played with in nearly 4 years. That’ll be for a few hundred folks, maybe a thousand. “It must be incredible to do all these different things all the time,” my parents ask. “How do you manage it without losing your mind?” It’s a good question, and one I’ve only come up with a coherent answer to recently.
I’m a bassist. A musician. A professional in the “music business,” as we call it. But I’ve come to think of the music business as a bit of a misnomer. I feel like I’m actually in the “entertainment business.” Sure, I play bass, and I play music, but the people who pay money to see me play, or buy a CD or DVD to watch me play at home, are making a choice. They’ve got jobs, or kids, or both. They’ve got their own personal struggles whatever they happen to be. They’re busy trying to make it all work somehow. And they just want to be entertained for a little while, and for whatever reason they chose a band I happen to be in for that entertainment. My job is to entertain them by playing music, on the bass guitar, to the best of my ability. So I really try and focus on giving that to them, and not being hung up on whatever happens to be consuming me that particular day. I find that when I think of playing music as a “giving” act, everything just works better – for both the audience and myself as a bassist. It only took me about 37 years to figure that out.
Even other musicians who come to see me play are making a choice. They could be practicing, or watching a movie, or whatever. Instead they’re listening to me. I might as well focus on entertaining them, and giving to them, as opposed to trying to get something – approval, admiration, respect, etc. – from them. In my view, playing bass is a giving thing by definition, especially in the context of a band. I feel like I’m there to support the group’s foundation, and to provide the natural musical bridge between the rhythmic and the harmonic elements of the music. That’s something worth giving, right?
I honestly don’t know how I ended up being this Bass Player Magazine muzo player dude. When I was 22 years old I was three weeks away from moving to New York with an original blues/rock band when Dweezil Zappa first called me, and suddenly I was playing wacky, difficult music all the time, and people starting looking at me differently. It became a head trip at times, and I didn’t always know how to handle it, especially in my twenties. I can tell you, it’s a lot easier playing tough material with the perspective of a 40-year-old. At 28, I was doing it for me. Now I feel like I do it for others. That shift in context, for me, is the difference between daily struggle and lasting fulfillment.
Nearly 20 years later, I look around at the players I get associated with and I’m like, Me? Really? Seriously? All I’ve ever wanted to do was lock with a drummer and make the band groove as hard as it could. Nowadays, I just want to see the necks moving and the heads bobbing. I just want the audience entertained for an hour, a song, even just a minute.
At 40, that’s enough for me. That, and maybe a couple of Advils.