Or: How to Love Music When Nobody’s Listening
One night in 2013 or so, I was playing at a restaurant that was world-renowned for its food. It had been featured on food TV shows, which I had not watched, but people drove from all over the country to eat at this place.
It was in a rough part of town, but people still came. The prices were reasonable; the food was uniquely satisfying.
But the restaurant was not world-renowned for its live music, and for good reason; nobody was going there for the music. I played there for three hours, tucked into a corner by the entrance. The PA piped my playing into the dining room, and to most diners, I was pure wallpaper.
On many nights, people would look at me dumbfounded when leaving, saying something to the effect of:
“Oh, that was live music? I thought it was the radio.”
This was an incredible compliment, and I’ll explain why a bit later. But at the time, it was the most grievous insult I could imagine.
I played there regularly for a couple of years.
Each time, I would become more jaded. Nobody gave a damn about the music. Very few people clapped, or even acknowledged me, even when they were standing right next to me.
I felt like a little kid, pushed into the corner to do his talent show while the adults concentrated on truly great things: fine food, good company. There was no reason for me to be there, except that I needed the money ($50, plus tips, which were unpredictable) and the food.
Performers were allotted one dish from the regular menu. Every time I played, I got a steak, which was the best thing there. I would take it home and split it with my partner; it was usually the only great meal we’d have that month.
The final time I played at this place, I stumbled up to the bar after three hours of performance. My voice was raw and my fingers hurt, and I was particularly annoyed at the night’s crowd. I’d made about $10 in tips, and I had to get up early the next morning. I ordered the steak.
“That’s not for you,” the bartender said. “Order something else.”
“I always get that.”
“Not anymore,” he said. “We can do sandwiches, no entrees.”
I felt like a little kid again. I angrily ordered something else and resolved to never play the joint again.
Around that time, my musical life had pulled back.
I was in a band, brotherfather, but we’d put each other in various types of creative headlocks, and no new music was happening. I believe that the Chimps were starting, but we were in early days. And most disturbingly, to me: I hadn’t written a new song in over a year.
This was new to me. As a teenager, I wrote a new song every week. My output had gradually slowed down, but I was always writing; at one point, to restart myself creatively, I wrote a song a day for an entire month (only two or three of the songs were any good, but who’s counting?).
When I sat down with a guitar, nothing happened. I’d just start drinking and put the guitar down. Eventually, I stopped picking it up.
My only truly fulfilling musical outlet was my semi-regular gig at John Brown’s in Marion, Illinois. Even that was becoming endangered; one night, I texted John to set up a date. This is paraphrasing his response, which I’m sure was less harsh but no less direct:
No. You’ve been jaded lately, man. You’re not making it about the music.
That was the first time I’d been called out. John is one of the greatest friends I’ve made through music, and I value his opinion implicitly. And he was done with me — I was playing like an asshole.
The worst part was that I wasn’t sure whether I cared.
I was checked out. Why should I care about playing music if the crowd never cared? Why not just sit at home and watch the latest Netflix 7-part documentary about a white girl who disappeared?
Around that time, I went to an open mic in St. Louis and purposely bombed. I made fun of the Arch, the Blues, and the Cardinals. By the end, two guys wanted to fight me. I was just trying to feel something, anything, and to get any reaction from the crowd. I got the reaction, but I came in angry and left angry. Nothing changed.
I would love to tell you that I snapped out of it, several months later.
I did not. My band remained creatively deadlocked, and I started playing with the Chimps; our shows gained a steady audience, and I wrote a couple new songs.
But I was still angry at certain crowds, and angry at myself when my music didn’t come out the way that it sounded in my head. I was unwilling to do any work to align my art with my actions; I’d already done the work. It was the audience’s fault for not recognizing the time and effort that I’d already spent.
There were moments that started to shake off my rust. The most profound was just prior to a Chimps show, where Jesse Irwin pulled us in for a pre-game huddle. We were nervous; he was nervous.
“There are people in that audience tonight who dream about being able to get up in front of people and sing,” he said. “There are people who would pay anything to be able to do this. And we get to do it.”
Becoming un-jaded is a process, and no single moment shakes you out of it.
Recovery depends on the people you surround yourself with, to a great extent.
I am grateful that I’ve surrounded myself with great people. This is kind of becoming a name-drop piece, but I’ll drop a few more — Chris Turnbaugh and Dustin Sholtes, my bandmates in brotherfather (now otherfather), have a consistently wonderful worldview when it comes to music. My Chimps bandmates also lifted me up.
But it’s easy to slip back into the ether of jealousy and resentment. When my friend Nathan died, I was right back to square one.
We grew up together and we were college roommates. The man was the greatest musician I have ever played with, and I have played, consistently, with great musicians. He was a true genius, and he’d been that way since he was a kid.
Nathan is not pictured above; the embed pulled that image in, and I don’t know who these guys are. Maybe they played on Nathan’s record, Catch? Anyway, if you hover over that photo, you’ll get Play controls for Nathan’s album.
He took his own life for a plethora of personal reasons, but also for no reason at all.
He wasn’t jaded about music, in my experience, but music didn’t save him. I’ve written songs about him, but he will never hear them. We played a memorial show for him, but he was not there.
Eventually, you have to sit down with your art and ask it serious questions. What am I even doing? How much money do I spend on this bullshit? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy?
Who is this for?
My friend, Dana Anderson, struggled with these questions.
The last time I spoke to him, it seemed to me that he’d answered them. He had quit drinking and written songs that were more complex than anything he’d written in years. They were very, very good — but also a lot darker than his earlier stuff, and that was saying something.
Then, he killed himself. When you do that, you take all the pain that’s building up inside you and pass it along to everyone who loves you. You also mess up your art, in a lot of ways; now, every Dana song sounds like a warning sign. All of his magnificent poetry is colored by his last moments.
Dana was frequently jaded. A lot of his bad energy rubbed off on me. But he was also the opposite, as is frequently the case with great artists. We’d play shows where he’d switch from his set of glorious originals to tried-and-true hokum like Wagon Wheel and Folsom Prison Blues. When the crowd was listening, he’d gradually switch back to his own stuff, and keep them on his side. Even if he wasn’t always successful, he knew how to work a crowd.
On many nights, he understood that he was there for the audience, and that the inverse was not necessarily true.
When Dana died, I was playing at John Brown’s the next night.
We put a few of his songs into our set. The crowd did not know his story, but they threw themselves into his songs.
That place consistently has the best audience in the world. They truly love the music, thanks to the owner and staff, who have cultivated that love. I often describe it as an oasis of music in Southern Illinois, a small-town joint that feels quite a bit bigger.
They appreciated us that night. But I would bet that most people drove home thinking about how much they’d spent, or how the baseball game on the TVs had turned out. What they’d do tomorrow, what they had to do next week. The music was at the back of their minds, if it was there at all.
And I absolutely love that.
Nobody needs to care about your music for it to mean something.
A few months ago, I went to see my friend Michael Ahlvers (Lefty Daytona) play a show in Alton with my newest musical friend, Troy Brenningmeyer. Here’s what Mike sounds like.
As you might have gathered, Mike is tremendous. When I played with him for the first time, I remember thinking, this guy sings well, plays well, writes well, and he’s good looking. What the hell am I bringing to the table, again?
Troy is a world-class musician. I was watching his music lessons on YouTube before I figured out that he was local, and I’m still shocked that I’m playing with him. He’s also a fundamentally kind person, and he’ll play shows if he likes the music — I often assume that great players will only play for a certain minimum amount of money, but that’s simply not true. They play music because they love playing.
At this show, there were a few people, but not many. Mike and Troy played like the room was packed. I played a few tunes and truly enjoyed myself.
“I don’t care if people show up,” Mike told me, between sets. “It’s nice if they do, though.”
Becoming unjaded is a journey, but there it is, distilled perfectly into a couple of sentences. If he’d said that to me five years ago, it would have rolled right past me.
But that’s how you become an artist. That’s how you make something that truly matters. That’s the mindset that leads to songs like this:
You can’t write like that when you’re jaded. You write like that when you love something deeply and you need to share it with the world.
Let me engage with those Big Questions that I mentioned earlier.
What am I even doing?
Playing music, you idiot.
How much money do I spend on this bullshit?
Money comes and goes, John. When you were right out of college, you spent a thousand bucks on a hot tub that you used for three months. You got your guitar second-hand from a Brazilian priest (true story) and it cost a lot less. Next question.
Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy?
Maybe, but what? I’m not building any houses for the houseless, and I’m not effecting any great social change. I am a songwriter, and more generally, a writer.
I am good at that. I have spent the time necessary to become good. And it’s vitally important for me.
And the biggest question: Who is this for?
Me. I need to get my thoughts into the world, even if they just bounce off the walls and right back to me. If people listen, that’s tremendous. If the songs connect with them, that’s the greatest thing that can happen. I value every single one of those moments.
Here’s a recent one. I played in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I got the bartender to stop tending bar and come and listen. Every musician knows that’s a big compliment.
It was a great night. The crowd was tremendous and I connected with them in a way that made me profoundly satisfied.
But if I just play for myself and for the other people on stage with me, that’s almost just as good. In fact, it’s essential for making those other moments happen: If I focus on whether people like my music, there’s too much of my ego in this. It’s easy to become disappointed when they ignore a punchline or talk over a Big, Great Lyric.
If I play for myself, I have one person to impress.
And if I have no expectations, I can have more gratitude when a show goes really well. Ironically, I have to play for myself to get rid of my ego as a performer.
That extends to shows where I’m not the focus. Where I’m wallpaper. If someone says, “I thought you were the radio,” that means that they think I’m good enough to be on the radio. It also means that they were able to focus on the great food and company that made them drive out to a sketchy street in Dogtown. I did my job.
Music has infinite utility. That’s why venues pay musicians. It can help people make connections with the people around them (“say, this guy sucks shit, don’t you think?”), it can help people enjoy a meal, it can help set the mood in an art gallery. And most of the time, it’s in the background. Wallpaper. But it can be really good wallpaper.
And yes, occasionally, someone will hear a lyric or listen to a guitar solo and have a profound revelation that changes how they think about life. But if that happened every night, it’d be pretty goddamn exhausting.
If you’re feeling jaded about art, I can tell you confidently that you’re thinking too much about it. Don’t play for those incredible moments of connection; play for yourself.
Art is the most important thing you do, other than maybe spending time with your family.
It’s rarely what pays you the most, and it’s often difficult to do consistently. But money isn’t a great measure of humanity, and “easy” stuff is often the most worthless.
When I meet people, I describe myself as a songwriter, not as a content writer (my day job) or anything else. It is the most interesting thing about me, regardless of whether I play well or not. It’s how I meet new people, and it’s how I stay engaged with the world.
This weekend, we celebrated Dana Anderson’s life. A dozen or so talented musicians played his stuff. The place was completely packed. Everyone was there for Dana’s music.
Halfway through an incredible performance of one of his songs (Bad Tattoo), I looked around the room. Well over half the people were talking. They were probably telling stories about Dana, or just talking about the long drive to Granite from wherever-the-hell they’re from. They were missing some of the best lyrics in his enormous catalog of genius songs, and that was perfectly fine. They were under no pressure to listen, and the fact that they were talking to their friends and family did not mean that they were grieving any less, or that they appreciated our friend any differently from those who were listening actively.
To my left, there was a couple holding onto each other, transfixed. They were silently mouthing every word, hugging one another during the choruses.
I went back to the green room and got ready to sing.