I remember the first time I ever set foot on a stage to perform for an audience. It was back in 1991 in a smoky old blues bar in downtown Kitchener, Ontario called Pop The Gator. We used to go there (using fake ID since I was under age) every Wednesday night for their blues jam night hosted by master guitarist Mel Brown, who had recorded/played with legends like B.B.King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and many more, and ran the jam every week with the house band. So this guy was GOOD…I mean ¨jaw on the floor¨ good and an authentic ¨old blues guy¨ from my young perspective. It certainly made for a bit of an intimidating environment for a first-timer. But since I obviously had the ¨cojones¨ to get past the doorman´s suspicious looks at my ID, after hitting the club for a month or so and getting a bit of a feel for things, one night I finally got the courage to put my name on ¨the list¨.
For you non-musicians or those of you not familiar with this sort of thing, ¨the list¨ I am referring to is the sign up list typical at any well run jam-night. Musicians that want to come up and jam sign-up at the beginning of the night with their name and instrument, and the band-leader or host calls people up on stage over the course of the night to sit-in and rock-out (or in this case ¨blues-out¨ I guess). So I put my name down…Klyde – harmonica….which isn´t even my real name (Claude) but at the time it seemed somehow ¨safer¨ and the nickname stuck.
I first picked up the harmonica a few years before and found it remarkably easy to figure out songs like Love Me Do by The Beatles or Desire by U2, but when I started listening to old Chicago and delta-blues players and copying/playing with those licks that things started to get really fun. Country harmonica like Neil Young was hard to play but blues just seemed the most natural thing in the world.
I was halfway through my 2nd beer, but that didn’t stop my knees from shaking and my heartbeat from instantly doubling when Mel called out: ¨Klyde- Harmonica…¨. The place was packed and I remember having to force myself to move as my friends encouraged me to get up on that stage. When I finally got there Mel leaned over to me and asked ¨Do you sing?¨ to which I replied ¨No, just harmonica…blues in E ok?¨. Then he nodded to me, turned around and through some unseen signal to the rest of the band, launched into the next song.
To be honest, I don´t remember the song, how or what I played, if anybody cheered or even if the zipper on my pants was open. But after it was over, I clearly remember Mel´s smiling nod of approval as I shook his hand. I also got an invitation back for another jam anytime (which I totally did many times over and eventually began singing on songs as well). Now some people might think ¨what a great experience, no wonder he wanted to become a musician after that¨, but that isn´t quite the end of my story.
At the end of the night, my friends and I left the bar and headed off down the street. We had gone about 300m when a group of girls came pouring out of the bar and one of them called out to us (or rather, to me) saying: ¨Hey, were you the guy playing the harmonica?¨ We all turned around and I shouted back: ¨Yes¨. There was a short pause and then the response: ¨Nice organ!¨ followed by a chorus of giggles from the whole group of drunken girls. And THAT, my friend, was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a musician.
All jokes and puns aside, it was that transition from fan to actual ¨guy who was on stage¨ status that really had the lasting effect.
Flash forward years later after writing over 100 songs, producing 8 albums, wining contests and awards, touring through Canada, Japan, Spain and Europe, playing on massive stages in international festivals and doing TV/Radio appearances, I still think about those first days in Pop the Gator with the dirty amplifiers, beer stains on the hardwood floor, the open guitar case with all the stickers on it from everywhere the guy has played, and that slow approving nod from Mel. It’s still that feeling that I crave when I think about my life and career as a musician.
I don’t mean to sell the creative process short. It is obvious that good songwriting and all that artistic crap is essential, and for the listener it’s everything. But to some extent almost anyone can sing or make music.
What I´m talking about is actually BEING a musician and the thousands of musical hours since that day in Pop the Gator, well, there is nothing quite like it in the universe. Those days spent driving from gig to gig hung-over from the night before. Getting lost in Northern Europe in a town whose name you can´t pronounce while following those crappy early-version GPS systems. The smell of stale beer mixed with crowd-sweat and cigarette smoke hitting you halfway through the show in some little club in the middle of nowhere. Or those countless hours spent in rehearsal and in the studio pouring your art and your money into an endless pit of creativity.
And it´s the amazing feeling on the big stage with that Gibson in your hands blasting a squillion watts of crunchy guitar power out over an ocean of people as the spotlights focus in on you (that´s sooooo awesome, really)… then the rush backstage afterwards….and the million other little subtle experiences that define what it means to be a musician.
At least that’s the way it’s been for me.
So it isn´t just knowing the guitar chords, or the number of albums sold, but rather it’s experiencing all those other things first hand that makes me a musician, a veteran, a guy who knows his way a little bit around a guitar, a mixing board and a microphone….
And it all comes back to that wonderful moment of transformation from fan to performer that makes the whole crazy thing worthwhile. I never did get stage fright again since that night (even that one time playing in front of 45,000 people!). But I´ve often thought of that nameless girl and her friends down the street shouting out ¨Nice Organ¨.
On some level, I guess every fan I´ve met since then has been some kind of version of that funny, funny organ-girl (maybe she went on to be a comedian…who knows?) but the point is that it is really YOU, the listener, who really makes all of it matter in the end.
I look forward to many more crazy yet somehow always worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. Here’s to hopping that you are part of it. Maybe you can even come up with a better one-liner than ¨Nice Organ¨.
If you’d like to hear the most recent milestone of that journey, click here to listen to ourlatest album, ‘SOFA KING COOL’ (Clamrecords 2013).
Thank you, really, for being a listener and for making it all matter.
– Daze of Dawn –