Thursday, September 20, 2007

"One of Us...Or One of Them..."

There are times when being good at something can be a real pain in the ass! One of the really dumb-ass things I'm pretty good at is being big. Now there is something to be proud of, isn't it? I had to really hit the books for that one.

During the second half of the eighties, I graduated from "bass player" to "musical director" for a national act and I'm certain that the gig fell into my lap because of my size. Our drummer was a big, burly guy who wasn't to be fucked with. Added to his less than sunny disposition was the very fact that he hit things for a living. Quite simply put, the artist was scared to death of him...and the drummer knew it and used this to his advantage. I know that I was given the job just in case this guy would ever need to be fired. Well... fuck it. A raise is a raise, right?

All I ever really wanted to do was play bass, keep my head at a reasonable cruising altitude, and learn to fall out of limos without spilling my drink. But somehow, here I was again, writing arrangements, running rehearsals and sweating bullets while trying to get my band through customs.

Our operation ran on the streamlined plan. All the musicians sang and the keyboard player had a lot of string and horn parts to cover. But at a certain point, I was able to talk the artist into spending some of the substantial money he was making on a horn section. We had three weeks off and I made the calls, hired the players, wrote the charts and booked the rehearsal hall for a week. After the break we were to leave on a four week stretch of dates, following Michael Macdonald into a San Diego Venue and ending with a week in the Caribbean. My guys were going to make some good dough and fill the dead time with decent rehearsal money.

I learned a lot during rehearsals...about sequencers. I was always amazed at how Tim, our keyboardist, could cover all of the horn and string cues and still be the consummate showman. Turns out that he had most of the parts sequenced to trigger off single keys. Now that we had the horns in place, all he had to do was play the piano and organ parts and a few string pads. The only problem was that his set up had become so complicated and the choreography of his deception so intricate that he no longer knew the goddamn songs. What he had accomplished was cool if he were doing a nightclub act, but the artist found it unacceptable for the concert stage. (Little did we know how prophetic Tim's system would prove to be).

Tim had recently hooked up with some very notable songwriters and had been doing the odd writing sessions while we were off the road. At the first rehearsal, Tim strolled in two hours late with the excuse that his morning session with so-and-so had gone over. We waited while he set up his keyboard rig and started rehearsal a full three hours late. Afterwards, I had a word with him and he assured me that it wouldn't happen again. The next day, same trip...only worse. Tim was an amazing musician who had actually played with Freddie Hubbard as a teen-ager. We were playing songs that were hit records and the parts needed to be played accurately. But this was boring for him so rather than memorize the correct parts, Tim improvised. It was really hip shit too, but way too hip for the gig. Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with Roy Orbison and you get the idea.

Now, Tim was one of my closest friends. I hired him the moment he moved to LA and let him stay at my apartment, so we were close. But he was keeping me from effectively doing the job I was paid to do. So I had more words. I told him that the five hours we had lost waiting for him, when multiplied by the seven other musicians, represented thirty-five man-hours that I, through lack of leadership, had cost my artist. I told him that if he was planning to be late again, that I would like to borrow his phone book so I could get a good replacement.

When Tim wasn't there at the start of the third day's rehearsal, I made a phone call to another old mate who was dying for the gig. He met with me at the artist's home that evening but not before buying the records and learning the songs cold. That night I had to drop the hammer on Tim. It went something like this:

"What time is rehearsal tomorrow?"
"I might be late."
"No Problem. Don't bother."
"You don't need me? You working on horns?"
"Nah, the whole band, but I'll need the time to teach the new keyboard player the vocal parts."
"Yeah, right."
"No bullshit man, here's two week's pay. You're off the band. Sorry."
"You can't do that man, we're leaving in three days for a month of gigs!"
"Already did it... and we're still leaving in two days."
"You'll never find a guy that fast and he'll never learn the show!"
"Found him...and he knows it already."
"I thought we were friends man!"
"We are."
"What do you mean man? You can't fire a friend!"

And this is where I lost it. I let him know that from my perspective, he had used our friendship in a way that made me look like an idiot to my artist. If we were such good friends, why would he force the issue and cause me to do less than the best job I was able to do? As far as I was concerned, we could be the best of friends, but the business between us had come to an end.

As with all shitty situations, I try to glean through the rubble for something positive. I'll never forget his last words to me as he left the apartment to stay with his girlfriend. "Well man," he said, "you're either one of us or one of them." I know how he meant it and I know that he was throwing a cheap shot and refusing to shoulder the responsibility of fucking up. But the statement itself has stayed with me since that time. If "one of us" represents the guys in the trenches and "one of them" stands for the guys standing over them with the lash of authority, I'd rather think of myself as "one of us."

I've always prided myself on having a thick skin, getting the job done, being a good man in a storm, making the tough decisions...fuck that. Being in charge is just the seat closest to the door. I play what I want, write what I want and say what I want to whoever I want. I'd rather stick around for a while, sleep good, have some laughs and be the last guy to the airport for a change. I'm done being "one of them."


Sally said...

Friends don't take advantage of the good nature of their friends. Friends don't make you look bad just to let themselves get out of responsibilities. 'Tim' wasn't a good friend. I hope he realizes by now that you were the friend, not an old rug.

Gary said...

You did the right thing. Tim wasn't being a good friend and let you down twice (would have been three times). If you hadn't sacked him, you would have been sacked.