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Glimpses Of The Road

THE SOLO PERFORMER: Glimpses of Life on the Road

Written by
Michael Johnson

The teacher went around the room at the little Montessori school my then 4-year old attended, and the question she asked each was, "What does your daddy do?" The job descriptions were typical until she got to my Leo. Without hesitation he said, "He leaves." Yikes. For a while my other boy thought I worked at the airport. I was always being dropped off there.

The first 100,000 miles are fun, they say. Well, for me, it is still an adventure. I may never grow up. My dad took me aside when I was 13. He saw that I was doing nothing with my life but playing "Moonlight In Vermont" on my pawn shop Harmony classic out on the front porch. He said "You wanna be a musician, don't you?" My voice cracked as I said, "Yeah." Knowing what I was in for, he gave me the talk. "Well," he said, "I just want you to know that you're gonna be staying up all night, taking your life in your hands traveling through terrible weather, living in bars, jamming 'til the wee hours, hanging out with strange people and meeting loose women . . . ," and I knew immediately that that was exactly the life I'd been dreaming of. He then gave me the advice I've since learned all parents give their children when they don't know what to say. He said, "So, be careful." I said "OK, thanks, Dad."

It takes a while for a young man to get his priorities straight. In the beginning, I had many motives for making music. It got me out of the house at night, gave me the money I needed to get that fringe suede jacket I'd been coveting, and then of course, there were . . . girls. But somehow, in the midst of my adolescent, directionless fever, by far the deepest love I had was for the music. I am lucky. I'd be dead by now, or at least in jail, if it weren't for music.

A life on the road is a life of trying to find a place to brush your teeth. It's a life of constant changes in all things. I used to make pacts with myself about how much longer I'd give myself to get this "out of my system." Then I'd wake up one day and realize that it was five years past my deadline for becoming an adult. Sure that I was actually supposed to be teaching gymnastics, English or doing something out in the business world (rug shampooing?), I often felt guilty about stealing from my future big-person life. So I'd make another deal with myself about it all and wake up again, years later. One day, when I was about 30, I realized, "This must be what I do!" After that, the fog began to lift. I am an artist.

So the question then becomes, "How do you turn this Jones into a life?" It can play with your mind, for example, waking up in a familiar room but not knowing where you are. The feeling of deja vu, and then the realization that, yes, you have been here before (I call that vuja de). Not being able to find the ignition in your own car because you've been in so many vehicles and been gone so long . . .

What follows are descriptions of bends in the road, and hopefully some useful insights I've gained while touring.

THE UPSIDE  Of course there is the music . . . standing ovations, hopefully . . . the lifelong friends . . . seeing the world (you will truly see the world) . . . the unforgettable crazy experiences . . . meeting the artists you've idolized in earlier times (and tonight you're on the same bill with them!) . . . the camaraderie . . . the "break a leg" . . . the practical jokes. The best people I have ever known are in show business. It is a fantastic thing to do with your life.

THE DOWNSIDE  Being victimized by the travel fairy (the muse of inconvenience) . . . the lousy food . . . the packing . . . the lonelies. The endless silences of long distance phone disagreements at home, trying to keep a marriage and family together. The gossip of your peers—the bitterness and professional jealousies, both theirs and your own. The worst people I have ever known are in show business.

THE CHALLENGE  As I mentioned in my first article, music performance, like dance or theater, is a temporal art. Unlike recording and songwriting, it is witnessed as it is being created. There are no rough drafts, sketches, or second chances. The challenge for a performer is that of delivering a moving and spontaneous show consistently, nightly.

DA MISSION  Arriving in time and in the right presence of mind for a performance. This includes staying healthy, getting enough rest, some decent food, some exercise, maybe a little meditation.

Vocally—When I'm doing consecutive shows on a daily basis, I'm not talking during the day. I avoid talking in cars (heaters and a/c in small rooms will dry you out big time.) I drink water, especially on planes. Each day I try to figure when to start vocalizing so I don't burn out half way through the show. Most difficult for me is learning to save a little something for tomorrow and the day after.

AURALLY  I pay attention to my hearing. Loud shots of feedback during soundchecks are the most damaging; I wear earplugs when I think I'm in the hands of an idiot at the sound console. I wear earplugs on planes too. It really helps to minimize fatigue (and children seem to cry less when they know you can't hear them).

Guitar—I not only have to keep the guitar in good repair, but strung with strings that are not brand new but not played out. It's tricky deciding whether or not to change them before tonight's show, but I've been wrong more often by deciding not to.

This is all typically accomplished in less than ideal situations. For example, you don't eat when you're hungry, you eat when you can—when it's there, unless that happens to be right before the show, then maybe you can't eat at all. Or maybe you have to do your vocalizing in the car on the way, because you know there'll be no privacy to speak of once you're there.

LAYING IN THE WEEDS  Performers don't really come alive 'til showtime. The whole day can be spent in going through the motions of getting there, etc., but they're also saving their chops for the show. I know. It looks lazy. I consider it an art form. If you're dedicated in your preparation, and many working performers are, you'll discover that there is really little time for anything else.

BLINDNESS  Performing songwriters often exhibit a surprising ignorance about the quality of their material. Their belief is that the music is either wonderful beyond all possible understanding and anyone who doesn't agree is nuts, or that it is terrible and not worth performing or even finishing. It takes the objectivity that time brings and the learning to perform the piece, the making it your own, even if (especially if) it is your own, before you can see it for what it is.

FOCUS  Many touring musicians can't seem to write on the road. They say they can get title ideas and write down little half-baked things on napkins in restaurants and bars, but unless it's a song about the road (and Lord knows we need another one of those!), it doesn't seem to happen. For myself, I have to be someplace where I can take most everything for granted, like home in bed, before I can focus on a song.

STAGE PRESENCE  is the opposite of stage fright. If there is a book about how to have charisma, I'm sure it would include learning how to stay out of your own way—how to lose yourself in your work.

THE JUDGE  You can get your feelings hurt on a stage. You've invested a lot of yourself in this by now. A bad night can be hard to get over when you're feeling like another "wouldbe hasbeen." It is true that you are your own worst critic. Eventually you learn to take it with "a grain of salt and a tab of acid" as we used to say, (see "Gigs From Hell"). You know, sometimes it just doesn't happen.

Also, even though I have always believed that if I'm not into it, they can't be, there are times when the audience has a completely different take on the show than I. It's amazing to hear, when I thought it was all falling apart, that the crowd loved it; and even stranger, when I think I'm really happening, and they just sit there. Another magic moment in show biz.

THE JURY  There seems to be a prejudice among writers and their fans these days that says "If you didn't write it, then your version is not the definitive one. In fact, your version is a ripoff." But consider this. No one would approach Andres Segovia or Glen Gould (or Nuryev, or Jack Nicholson for that matter) and say, "What a tremendous performance! That's not yours though, is it?" Even my son will occasionally say, "Dad, did you make that up?" If I say "No," he'll shrug and say "Oh," and walk away. Writing and performing are two distinct and separate art forms, both life-long pursuits, and rarely equally present in one person.

PURISM  I'm a musician, not an audiophile, and there are things you simply have to accept on the road. Like a noisy P.A. (the buzz you eventually come to call silence)—like the quirky things that different barometric pressures do to the feel of the string tension of your guitar—like trying to sing at high altitudes (Breckenridge, Colorado is 9,620 ft.), dealing with your shortness of breath and discovering that you can't phrase your lyrics the same way as usual.

ROAD RUT  You can get very sick of your own stuff after a while. You become aware that if you tell the same truths long enough, they begin to feel like lies, contrived and rehearsed. You feel like you're becoming a caricature of yourself. It's time to lay off for awhile—do some new music.

I used to think I had no control over my own taste—that I just liked what I liked and hated what I hated. Like my friend the concert pianist who loves all the Bach she knows how to play and hates the stuff she hasn't yet learned. I never really thought to question why. But you find that you can change your taste. Ruts are usually pretty easy to get out of if you're willing to go to school on yourself.

FORTUNE  You are self-employed. You live on a cash basis. You have no guaranteed monthly salary. You pay for major items in cash, if possible. My accountant says I should only buy those things on credit which will appreciate in value. This obviously does not include a car. You'll pay dearly for health insurance, if you can afford it at all. You'll need to contribute to a retirement account. (After 30 years of performing on the road, I got a letter this year from the Musicians' Union saying that, if I retire right now, they'll pay me $78 a month for the rest of my life! I knew those dues would pay off someday.) So much for fortune.

FAME  All I know about fame is that it is a sham—a pain in the ass for all concerned. In every way that fame has grazed my career, (they still think I'm Bobby Rydell in the Philippines), I have suffered for it. Of all the reasons for being in the music business, fame is the most damaging, the most dangerous. There is no worse setup in life that falling for your own PR—it is a lousy way to get rich—and how'd you like to have someone entertain the thought of kidnapping one of your kids? Or stalk you because they say you are their long lost son, when actually they just smell money—which you don't have. Forget fame.

In the end I must say, the thing that keeps me out here is simple. I love it and I'm proud of what I do. I think that's rare these days. And now, when someone asks my children what I do for a living, they say, "My dad is an artist."

Don't forget to call home.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 2, Issue 9 - November/December 1994

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