For The Love Of Money|
(Soapbox Column #10)
Bass Player Magazine
Published August, 2001
There are gigs you only do for money, and then there are gigs you only do for a pile of money. Last year I played one of the latter that, as I look back, qualifies as a low point in my history as a freelance bassist.
It was, as they say, a Corporate Gig. Corporate Gigs are like Cover Gigs except (a) you get paid more, (b) you can't wear a t-shirt that says "Liquor in the front, poker in the rear!", (c) you can't eat the food at the function, (d) you do whatever The Client wants, whenever they want it. A Cover Gig can betray the pretense of actual music, be it a song arrangement, an extended solo section, a custom-made segue from "Love Rollercoaster" into "Play That Funky Music," or what have you. A Corporate Gig gives no such artistic quarter. There is only The Client.
Not having the option to take that New Year's Eve gig with Barbara Streisand (I'm guessing the taxes Neil Stubenhaus paid on that job alone could provide me with a comfortable year's income), I took the deal on the table. One three-hour show in a posh hotel ballroom in Boca Raton, Florida, for a party thrown by a well-known purveyor of fine tobacco products. The event's theme: Austin Powers. You know, groovy, baby. Fly in one day, play the show the next day, fly out the following day. No rehearsal, here's the song tape, learn it. Figure out the endings in soundcheck. Five Benjamins. Possibility of several future gigs with same client. Oh, sure, why not.
The song tape contained one of the most schizophrenic collections of tunes ever compiled. The Village People's "YMCA." The Go-Go's "We Got The Beat." Martha & The Vandellas' "Dancing In The Streets." The interminable "Play That Funky Music" (sans "Love Rollercoaster," thank goodness). Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown." The Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian." There were others, most as tangentially connected to Austin Powers as would be a sock hop. I learned them all diligently, thought about the five C-notes and an upcoming 15,000-mile service on my '93 Eagle Summit Wagon, and left for the airport.
After a decent flight by commercial standards (only a one-hour delay) and a decent night's sleep, we arrived at the venue the following morning. The ballroom was uncontrolled chaos. There would be two bands, one set up on one side of the stage and one on the other. We would alternate somehow, depending on what the set list turned out to be. Also present was a group of mostly female dancers and wardrobe people. The dancers had not met before this very morning and were practicing basic steps together. Badly. This in no way prevented the testosterone-driven musicians - over fifteen in all - from appreciating their every half-hearted move.
Soundcheck was an adventure all its own. Both bands were given the same allotment of time: 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Which meant that both bands checked at once. Think Burl Ives. Endings received one run-through and no more, right or wrong. Tunes were scrapped when we found out the drummer didn't get the same tape as the rest of us, or the singers didn't know the words. The dancers tried practicing their moves along with us, but we kept stopping and eventually they gave up.
Then our bandleader, the guy who'd contracted me (let's call him Ted), summoned a double-band meeting. There was a crisis at hand. The Client was very upset because a band member took a piece of bread off a serving tray earlier that morning. Ted pointed to The Client's Liaison, a thin, well-dressed, well-heeled, very-well-made-up woman in her mid-forties. Think Katherine Harris with an attitude. She was busy dressing down some poor lackey in a corner of the room, her finger jabbing him in the face. Ted needed to know who the bread thief was. Right away.
My throat dried up. It was me. I wasn't aware of the No Food Rule, and I'd snatched a croissant on my way in that morning. I stepped forward. Ted's eyes widened. I was supposed to be one of the "pros" on this job. Now, not only did Ted have to grovel on my behalf, I had to apologize to The Client's Liaison myself. That's what she wanted. Gulping down my pride - and thinking once again of my car's long-term health - I did the deed with grace. In return, she gave me the kind of smile an aristocrat might offer a drooling homeless person.
Showtime. Ted informs me that The Client's Liaison and the front-of-house soundmen will all be communicating through headsets and transmitters, and that one member of each band will be required to do the same so as to fulfill The Client's requests in real time. This person is me. (Why bassists are consistently saddled with extra-musical responsibilities is beyond me to this day.) I am handed a bulky set of headphones and a belt-clip transmitter sixty seconds before downbeat. The belt clip is broken. It's not wireless, and the headphone cable is a black spiral job that barely reaches the side-stage monitor board, pulling my head slightly to the left. I scream over to the monitor guy for duct tape, which he throws at me. Using about half the roll, I tape the transmitter to the side of my leg.
The first two tunes go well enough. Everybody loves The Village People, especially purveyors of fine tobacco products. I'm communicating with the soundmen via intercom and hand signals. In mid-tune, they say, "Two more and then you're off." I hammer-on with my left hand and give the "OK" signal with my right. Then my custom tape job on the transmitter fails and it drops to ankle-level, dangling by a tape thread and pulling my pants downward. I bend over to fix it and the headphones go sailing off my head in the direction of the monitor board. I recover completely just in time for the bass solo in "You Can Call Me Al." What a rush.
Half-hour break backstage. Male and female dancers are frantically changing wardrobes with little regard for the musicians present. There's coffee and various pastries. I'm too scared to eat anything not officially sanctioned in writing by The Client's Liaison.
Back onstage, during "Dancing In The Streets," I hear a familiar female voice. It's Miss T.C.L. with an urgent message: "Everyone off the stage. Now." We're only in the second verse. I shoot an incredulous look at the main soundmen, shrugging my shoulders and making the "Huh?" face. She transmits again from an undisclosed location. "I said NOW!"
I step to the front of our side of the stage, grab Ted (who's singing), and tell him what's up. "Are you sure?" he asks. I point to the headset. He kills the song with a wave of his hand, and both musicians and dancers head for break.
Forty-five seconds later, Ted tears into the backstage area, his eyes protruding from their sockets. "The Client wants to know why the hell we stopped!"
I panic. "She said so herself on the intercom! She said, ‘Everyone off the stage!'"
"That was for the dancers only! Everyone back up and restart ‘Dancing In The Streets' with no dancers. Go, go, GO!"
Folding chairs, full coffee cups, half-eaten pastries and still-lit fine tobacco products all go flying in the direction of the half-naked dancers as the musicians scramble towards the stage, clanging the drummer's cymbals on their way up the riser. My transmitter is dangling again and the duct tape residue has ruined my black show pants, but I can still hear the soundmen talking in my headphones. "Oh my God. What a clusterfuck. Who are these clowns?"
Meanwhile, for the second time: Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?
* * * * *
So what happened to the players in this drama, you ask?
The Client's Liaison expressed her sincere satisfaction in person to Ted after the show. He hasn't heard from her since.
The Dancers and Musicians hit the closest post-show watering hole and closed the place down. During the plane ride home, several musicians were politely "cut off" by the stewardesses from ordering any more alcohol.
Ted hasn't given up on tapping the corporate market, and continues to manage two highly successful cover projects in Southern California. He has, thankfully, forgiven me for the croissant incident.
Me? I got my car serviced. I learned the difference between a Cover Gig and a Corporate Gig. I discovered I could play bass and work an intercom system at the same time, adequately if not well. Best of all, I extracted a column's worth of material from the ordeal. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.
On second thought, there was a cost. The next time I hear "Dancing In The Streets," I fear I may be prone to violence.
Reprinted with permission from the August, 2001 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.