“None of us wanted to be the bass player. In our minds he was the fat guy who always played in the back.” – Paul McCartney

I’m no rock star, but I’m somewhat (or more) of a rock star wannabe. Yes, it’s true that I play in a local rock band. We play pretty hard, original rock ‘n’ roll. We rehearse once a week and get to hit the stage at some very cool venues around town at least a couple times each month. We have a fairly large and loyal following, and are considered to be one of the good bands in a town that has many good (and not so good) bands. We are fast-approaching middle age (I’m already there), yet we dance around like teenagers in our skinny jeans as we loudly bang on our instruments. It’s a lot of fun, and something I also take very seriously.

Still, I’m no rock star. Rock stars tend to be divorced and estranged from their children. I’m happily married and spend a ton of time with my kids. Rock stars party all night and sleep all day. If I’m up past 10:30 on a weeknight it’s probably because I got out of bed to pee or due to realizing that I forgot to take my multi-vitamin. Rock stars drink Budweiser in the morning, then wash down various drugs with jugs of whiskey at night. I enjoy a few craft beers on occasion. Rock stars are rich and have personal trainers, personal chefs, and personal assistants. They drive fast cars and jet-set around the world. They have mansions with mirrored ceilings, six-car garages, swimming pools, and hot-tubs.

Like I said, I’m no rock star — and I actually have no desire to lead that kind of lifestyle — but I do wish I could simply master the art of the “cool vibe” that we all see in our musical idols. You know, the cocky swagger of a lead singer belting out a scream as he simultaneously catches a woman’s bra being heaved onto the stage. The effortless drum solo that includes stick twirling and tossing, plenty of cowbell, two bass drums, and the thunderous hammering of a gong. The blistering guitar solo, perfectly executed as the shirtless virtuoso squints through the smoke coming from his dangling cigarette…and then, my favorite part, the flick of the guitar pick into the crowd. A mob dives after it like a foul ball in the seventh game of a World Series. These people define cool. These are the rock stars.

But there’s a problem. You see, I’m not lead singer, a drummer, or a guitarist. I’m just, well, I’m a bass player. That’s right, the guitar’s ugly, long-necked cousin. The instrument that most people can’t even pick out in a song. The member of the band who people can’t name and never seek autographs from. The guy who is usually mistaken for a fan or, if lucky, a roadie (probably because he is carrying the rest of the bands’ gear). Once a bassist proves to security that he is part of the band, he still may not be allowed backstage. The person who wasted groupies accidentally sleep with because they thought he was the guitarist. The butt of endless jokes:

How do you get a bass player off your front porch? Pay for the pizza.

Why don’t bass players play hide and seek? Because no one will look for them.

Why do bass players have trouble opening locked doors? They can never find the right key.

How many bass players does it take to change a light bulb? Never mind, the keyboard player will just do it with his left hand.

What do you call someone who is always trying to hang out with musicians? A bass player.

And so on… But enough bad jokes, how about some boring technical stuff.

There are generally two types of bass players — those who use a pick and those who use their fingers. A pick typically creates more volume, more “attack” (an edgier, grittier sound), and sometimes makes it a little easier to play faster. Playing with your fingers creates a smoother sound, a deeper thump, and makes it easier (in my opinion) to get into the groove and really feel the music. As a result, I’ve never been one to use a pick. However, my band recently added a new tune that just sounds better with a pick. It’s been fun for me because it’s a fresh, new approach to playing. But more importantly, playing with a pick gives me a chance to do something cool.

We debuted the song at a gig last week, and in the days leading up to the show I was incredibly excited about the rock star opportunity that had presented itself to me: throwing my pick into the audience when the song ended. I had played the scene over many times in my head — always in slow motion. As the last note of the song rings out, I loft my pick out over the crowd, all of whom (thousands it seems like) are jumping and stretching, eyes focused and mouths open in anticipation of grasping this $0.10 piece of plastic used by a guy they’ve never heard of. I knew it would be so awesome. When the time actually came, my heart was pounding. Don’t let the pick slip out of your hand, I kept thinking. The song ended and — trying to keep from smiling so I was sure to look even extra cool — I threw the pick…

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite right. Rather than have the pick softly soar over the outstretched, screaming fans, it instead somehow took off like one of those old round plastic discs that were shot from toy guns in the 1980s. You know, those guns that were banned in most countries due to causing so many injuries to children. Yes, the pick became a dangerous projectile and struck some poor, unsuspecting dude square in the eye.

I’m not sure he ever saw it coming, although I saw the whole thing. After impact, he briefly lowered his head, then raised it so I could see his spastically blinking, red, watering eye. I was doing a frantic, awkward “I’m so sorry” wave/gesture thingy from the stage, but I don’t think he had regained enough focus to see me. Thankfully, he seemed to recover quickly and didn’t appear to be seriously injured. A woman next to him grabbed the pick off the floor and offered it to him, but he put his hands up and looked away, adamantly shaking his head no. The woman happily smiled as she looked at her souvenir. She must have thought our guitarist threw it. I tried to find the guy after the show to apologize, but he was gone. I can only hope he didn’t rush out to seek medical attention.

Yet another epic fail for the bass player. To the fellow I hit, I offer a sincere apology. I genuinely hope your retina is still attached. I vow to continue my quest for rock star coolness, but in as safe a way as possible. I may never quite get there, but I’ll at least be very happy making music with my friends, as I fight off getting old with all my weak bass player power. Here’s to realizing we are all as cool as we want to be — and maybe, just maybe, cooler than we think. Rock on, baby!

Cheers.


Bob Dylan was born 75 years ago today. I must admit that, despite being a musician and lover of music, I never really delved into Dylan’s music. As a teen in the 80s and 90s, I owned his greatest hits collection. The one with the blue and white cover and a silhouette of his head and hair. I learned to play and sing some of those songs — particularly “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It was good music and I appreciated Dylan’s songwriting. That was about it.

One day I was away at college and was really wanting to be home. Not just for a visit, but I wanted to move back home. I didn’t like school, I didn’t know anyone except for a handful of friends from high school who had all joined a fraternity (something I had no interest in), and I had no idea why I was there or what I wanted to do with my life. This was 25 years ago, yet I vividly recall lying on my twin bed, alone in my cell of a dorm room on a rainy Saturday morning, wishing like hell that I was home, when “Like a Rolling Stone” came on the radio.

I had heard the song many times, and I liked it a lot. But that particular day I really heard it. It was like it was written for me. I had always had friends, done well in school, and was expected to be successful at whatever I chose to pursue. Yet here I found myself floundering in college, with no direction or interest. Dylan’s song spoke to me that day as it crackled through my cheap mono radio.

How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. 

It would be kind of cool if I could say that, as the triumphant organ solo faded out, I rose from my bed, threw my few belongings in an old duffle bag, and jumped on the first train home. That’s not how the story ends, though. While Dylan’s song tells the story of someone falling from social grace, it is equally about dealing with uncertainty, isolation, and the unknown. I realized that I wasn’t alone at all — I was actually very similar to many others. Most of us are sometimes lost for a number of different reasons. That was very comforting.

So instead of some dramatic, romantic result, I simply decided to just keep on keepin’-on as well as I could. Boring, I know, but sometimes that’s the best (or maybe the only) choice. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. I think sometimes that means learning to roll with life, rather than running from it. Happy birthday, Bob. Thanks for helping me out that day so long ago — and when I still occasionally feel a little lost now.

  
An interesting thing about musicians dying, for me anyway, is how it takes me back to a time in my life that I might never have thought about again were it not for the artist’s passing. I hope that doesn’t sound selfish, as I’m not trying to make it about me, but music is a very personal thing. I think most artists would be happy to have a legacy of creating unique memories and emotions for their fans.

I first heard Prince in ’84 or ’85 on my best friend Chris Eason’s boombox (meaning no harm and knowing no better, we called it a ghetto blaster), which he brought on the school bus most days. “When Doves Cry” was played over and over again for months, driving many of us crazy. I hated the song originally but, over the course of the school year, grew to like it quite a bit. In part because my buddy did, and in part perhaps because my subconscious convinced me that I might as well accept it. Three decades later, as a musician and music lover, I can truly appreciate the genius of Prince’s work, although I admit I was never a huge fan of his entire catalog, and haven’t really listened to him in a long time. Oddly, I still keep in touch with some of the people who were on that bus — people who were never really close friends — yet I haven’t talked to my pal Chris in well over 20 years. I wonder if Prince’s death made him think about those days on the bus so long ago. I hope so — or maybe it conjured up a different memory. Hopefully a good one.

Sadly, we are on the cusp of losing many of our beloved musicians. Prince went too early, but their are many brilliant, aging artists like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, and Joni Mitchell, just to name a few, who are in the twilight of their careers and lives. They have created memories for multiple generations, and continue to do so today. When the time comes, I will remember them for their contributions to my life. How their music impacted me personally. How it got me through rough times, and also how it made good times better.

When we are young, many of us consider our favorite musicians to be immortal heroes. As we get older, we realize that musicians are very human. Maybe they are more talented and creative in some ways, but they have problems, the suffer, they hurt, and they die — just like the rest of us. The wonderful thing is that they leave something behind for us to enjoy, to remember them by, and to continue being a part of our personal soundtrack of life. 

There is an old saying that heroes get remembered, but legends never die. The truth is, though, that we are all just gathered here today to get through this thing called life, and that’s not always easy. May the heroes, the legends, and all the rest of us continue to rock on as long as possible. 

Cheers.