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Image Is Nothing?
(Soapbox Column #7)
Bass Player Magazine
Published October, 2000

I've been thinking about going for a new look. You know, so I can get more gigs.

Crafting the right stage persona has always been a challenge. The mental and emotional scars inflicted upon me by the director of The Conan O' Brien Show back in '94 still haunt me. It was Conan's first season. David Letterman was the guest (his first time back on the set since leaving for CBS; the NBC staff was apoplectic). It also happened to be the very first professional gig of my career, on national television with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, complete with a slap bass solo (my, how times have changed). The shot of me during the solo was unusually far. I was later informed that a closer angle was available, but the sight of me holding my breath and looking as if I'd been constipated for over five months was deemed too cruel an image to foist on the American viewing public. None of this would've mattered had I chosen to be a taxidermist.

But no, I had to be a musician. And while bassists generally aren't held to the same stage presence standards as lead guitarists, you still have to do something. Now I kind of sway back and forth a little bit, shuffle my feet sometimes, and involuntarily move my lips in the rhythm of whatever I happen to be playing. Videotape of myself nowadays is slightly more forgiving, especially after a couple of shots of vodka. However, room for improvement remains utterly intact.

The jazzers have it easy. They can wear whatever they want as long as it carries the air of (big quotes here) "respectability." It's alright if they use a plain black guitar strap and adjust it so the bass sits just underneath their neck. In jazz, there's no such thing as a showcase for a major label, or a cattle call audition. Think about it - if there were, you would have music biz lackies standing around making remarks like, "That Patitucci, he's great on the fast swing stuff, but the hair is just, well, I don't know. And he keeps staring at the neck of his bass all the time. He's just not projecting very well, is he?" But then again, with the stages they're on, they usually don't have enough room to move around anyway, and the few jazzers with enough money to consider a serious wardrobe are probably saving up for a second tux. And they have to practice more, leaving less time for things like shopping.

Some new threads might be a good place to start. The baggy, oversized look is real big now, isn't it? I could go white-boy hip-hop, up my street cred, get some of that crossover action going on. But then I think about the time I wore an XXL hockey jersey on a gig and the sleeves kept getting caught in between the strings and the pickups, resulting in some unique muting concepts. Another time I tried overalls and workboots (at what point this was considered "in" I'm not quite sure), and the right pant leg got caught around the boot heel as I went to step on my octave pedal. Only an act of God kept me upright, but witnesses were treated to an impromptu Les Claypool impersonation. The baggy clothes thing might not be a good idea after all.

Maybe it's the way I wear my bass. I think I've got it about as low as I can and still play the thing, but lower would definitely be cooler. Look at Norwood Fisher from Fishbone. He has his axe so low the input jack practically touches the ground - and he plays over the bridge pickup! Can someone please tell me how you slap like that? The big clothes don't seem to bother him any, and he even moves around sometimes.

Then there's Fieldy from Korn. Uh, how do you do that? He's holding his bass straight up and down. I wonder how he adjusts his strap for such a look. Wouldn't it be easier if he had a retractable stand mounted to the bottom of his bass, like an acoustic? He hits the strings like a 1930's acoustic string-slapper already. Perhaps that's why he looks so angry all the time; no one told him until it was too late that an electric bass is actually amplified, so he doesn't have to nail the thing so damn hard. How can I get that angry? Where's my motivation?

There must be something to this anger thing. I've been studying the latest MTV videos, and there's a hot new look I keep seeing from today's Modern Rock Bassist. He tilts his head away from the camera but shifts his eyes directly into the lens and makes an angry face, like, "I'm comin' to get you, man. Yeah, man. You!" Then his head starts shaking like someone stuck an electric massager into the back of his neck. Finally he stutter-steps ever so slowly toward the camera, with the eyes shifted, the head convulsing, and the angry face, until the intensity is too great to bear and the shot switches to someone else, usually Fred Durst. I've been practicing that move, just so you label guys out there know.

But I don't have any ink, man. No tats. No piercings either, though we're treading dangerously close to the too-much-information zone. How can I get these gigs when the guy next to me has something resembling the Experience Music Project building tattooed on his chest and a chain link fence between his earlobes and his nipples?

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to get some inside info from the bassist for one of the leading rock acts in the land. This guy was dressed for success - ink, rings, multiple piercings, dreads, you name it. I asked him if he was just walking around looking like that before he had the gig. He said something like, "No way, man. I had some long hair but that was it. Then I knew this guy who got me this audition, and once the music and the hang was all good, [Mr. Famous Artist] asked me, ‘So, you think you could, like, grow dreads, get all inked up, grow a beard, spit blood, that kind of stuff?' And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!'"

I was left wondering in all seriousness if I would spit blood for the right gig.

But because not everyone gets to throw image out the window like, say, Mike Gordon of Phish, these kinds of transformations happen all the time. I see guys who just got signed coming back from the stylist with bleach-blonde hair, multi-colored hair, or maybe no hair at all. They've got new threads, new gear, new attitude. Sometimes even a new name. A guy I've known for almost ten years - a very mellow-fellow, laid-back kind of dude - now has a number for a last name and, when dressed in stage regalia, looks like a cross between The Terminator and The Hellion from Judas Priest's Screaming For Vengeance album cover. And he's happily touring the country in style as a member of a top-selling rock band.

I wonder what I'd look like in a similar outfit, swaying back and forth, shuffling my feet a little bit, my lips moving in rhythm with my right hand. Would I project? Could I pull that off?

Could you?

Reprinted with permission from the October, 2000 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit

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