irst thing you learn is that you always gotta wait.
Wait to get noticed. Wait to get signed. Wait to get famous.
I’m standing backstage, behind black velour curtains, waiting to go on. Pre-show jitters have me shifting from my right sneaker to my left and back like a kindergartener 10 kids deep in the restroom line. A Pabst longneck sweats in my hand. I take a pull, and dry my palm down the thigh of my girl-cut jeans. Then I lean against a cinderblock wall heavily Sharpied with graffiti.
And I wait.
Biggie pokes his head between the curtains, a Maglite stretching from his mouth like a metal cigar. “We’re set to pop,” he says. He aims the beam at my bass. “Let’s do this.”
“Where’s everybody else?” I say.
He takes the light from his mouth and draws figure eights across the backstage area. “They aren’t back here?”
Before I can shake my head no, Biggie has pulled the curtains shut and disappeared. I take a drink and imagine what waits on the other side.
A sports arena. The floor sold-out from row A to ZZ. Girls smelling like fruit-flavored perfume and bummed cigarettes. Wrapped tight in low-slung jeans. Their belly buttons pierced, their breasts defying gravity thanks to the tautness of youth and the bra engineers at Victoria’s Secret. The girls put one hand on each other’s shoulders and boost themselves onto the folding chairs to see over the heads of the boys standing in front of them. These boys, dough-faced in their new concert t-shirts. Half-drunk on parking lot beers. Converse All-Stars squeaking on the concrete floor. They thwack each other and point out which steroided-up security guards to avoid when, the second the lights go down, they’ll ass and elbow up to the front row.
Until then everybody keeps an eye on the stage, studying a roadie as he puts the gear through the final tweaks—the testing, testing, one-two-threes and waaaank-waaaank power chords—to make doubly and triply sure the guitars and amps are wired for sound. The digitally reproduced voice of AC/DC’s Brian Johnson blasts through the PA at 102dB—FIRE!—saluting those about to rock. Marijuana smoke wafts to the ceiling trusses. And every few minutes the crowd noise swells when a whole section thinks they’ve seen a band member mingling with the stagehands, VIPs and contest-winners that huddle in the wings.
Just before the houselights drop, the stage manager appears. He walks coolly from rig to rig, giving the microphone cables, speaker wires and blinking red lights—the tangled landscape of rock—a final once-over. Then he pulls a Maglite from his back pocket. Shines it toward the mixing board across the sea of the floor, over the backwards ballcaps of the boys in row J, over the hairsprayed heads of the girls in row K, through the rising smoke and devil-horn fists and AC/DC—FIRE!—commanding one and all to stand up and be counted for what they are about to receive.
The message the Maglite carries 52 rows back to the soundman and the light tech and an arena full of kids who’ve paid 50 bucks and waited months for this very moment is this: It’s showtime.
It is showtime. But from my spot backstage—in this Detroit bar, on this Thursday night—here’s what I see when I pull open the curtains: 20 by 20 feet of wide-open floor. No chattering girls in row K. No blustery boys in row J. There aren’t any rows. Hell, there aren’t any seats, so, no, there’s not even one security thug policing the floor. The spot right in front of the stage is anyone’s for the taking. But there aren’t any takers. Tonight in this club, dishearteningly named Small’s Bar, the front row is empty.
I walk through the curtains and out to the floor. There are exactly five people in the audience. Five people who’ve paid five dollars each to see my band Watershed play a 50-minute set. Five paying civilians at five bucks a head means come 2 a.m., Watershed will make $25 at the door. Divided by the four guys in the band, that’s $6.25 each. But none of us will pocket his six-and-a-quarter. We almost never see any cash. Instead we pay. For the gas. For the hotels. For the trips up and down the Wendy’s Supervalue Menu. We dig into our pockets to cover five or six shows in a row, hoping to eventually land a high dollar gig that will get us all reimbursed. Sometimes the gamble works, sometimes not. On our most lucrative tours, we come home with a hundred bucks or so. Usually we lose twice that. So we bankroll the gigs the American way: with credit cards. Rock now, pay later. Even Biggie, the tour manager, is out here on his own nickel. The only member of the Watershed camp guaranteed to land in the black is Ricki C., the roadie, who works for the cut rate of $25 dollars a day. And he only turns a profit because he can eat for a week on Hostess cupcakes and skim milk.
When Biggie filled up the tank in Columbus this afternoon, he paid $3.09 a gallon. The drive to Detroit was 200 miles. At 15 mpg—and 15 is a generous estimate considering the Econoline is loaded with four band members, two crew guys, our bags, and all the guitars, amps, and drums—we’ve already burnt $41.19 in fuel. We haven’t yet played a note, and the one thing I know for sure about tonight’s show is that we’ll lose money. At closing time, Biggie will settle up with the doorman, then he’ll stuff two tens and a five into the gray pouch he keeps stashed in the dashboard. And tomorrow, tonight’s $25 take will get us a third of the way to Milwaukee. Here in the minor leagues, bands don’t play for sex, fortune or fame. They play for gasoline.
An economist would tell us that by driving three hours to perform for five people, we have not behaved in our monetary self-interest. It’s Econ 101, supply and demand. There clearly isn’t much demand for Watershed in Detroit, so we would have been smart to cut off the supply by staying home. Get a good night’s sleep. Wake up tomorrow and commute to our real jobs, jobs that actually pay. I used to think of gigs like this as investments in the future. We’re paying dues now, I’d tell myself, for the big rockstar payoff later. The trouble is I’m now 38 years old. By music business standards, I’m too damn old for the rockstar payoff. So now I have to wonder, what future? Besides, Watershed already had a shot at stardom. And we whiffed.
My buddy Colin and I started the band the summer before our junior year of high school. In the 23 years since, we’ve played over a thousand shows. In 34 states. One hundred and sixteen cities. We’ve humped our amps through the doors at CBGB ten times. We’ve released six full-length albums. A batch of cassettes, 45s and EPs. A couple videos and a DVD. We’ve been together longer than The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana combined. In our mid-20s we signed with Epic Records. A quarter-million-dollar deal. We were shuttled around Manhattan in Town Cars. We recorded in the same studio as AC/DC, Aerosmith and Springsteen. We played arenas and amphitheatres, headlining shows in front of thousands, opening for bands everybody’s heard of. We were treated to obscenely expensive dinners and promised by insiders that we were the Next Big Thing. But we never had a hit song. Never had a video on MTV. Never won the notoriety that comes measured in songwriting residuals or on the Billboard Hot 100. A year and a half after we signed with Epic, the label dropped us. That was 13 years ago. By now most musicians we’ve shared the stage with, famous and not, have packed away their guitars and decided to sell real estate or insurance.
So is it stupid for us to play Small’s tonight? Depends on how you measure stupid. The true economics of this show can’t be found in plus/minus equation of what we take in at the door vs. what we drop into the gas tank. More important is the opportunity cost of what we’ve left at home. All of us are married. My wife Kate and I have been together for 18 years, and she’s as supportive a partner as I could wish for. But still, with every show, I burn more and more capital with her. Tonight at Small’s everyone in Watershed is compromising, as a friend of mine likes to say, the shalom in the home.
So maybe playing this show is a little stupid. Maybe we’ve booked this tour because, after two decades, we’ve built an inertia that’s stronger than our better judgment. But I suspect the real reason is a million times simpler and more complicated. Watershed has hauled ourselves up to Detroit tonight because we are a rock band, and playing live—whether it’s for five people or 15,000—is what rock bands do. Stupid or not.