Post by DWDRUMS on Jun 7, 2014 3:13:37 GMT -5
By Bert Kreischer on May 31, 2014
From Life of the Party by Bert Kreischer. Copyright © 2014
There was a time in my life when I felt destined to become a rockstar. Not a singer. Not a songwriter. A rockstar. Worshipped by women, their boyfriends, and Cobain-loving, Mountain Dew-swilling loners alike. Then I failed—six feet from the edge of my dream. This is my story.
No matter how successful I may get, I’ll always be a failed musician, sitting at a concert double-fisting overpriced twenty-ounce beers, wishing it was me on stage brooding soulfully to my fans. I had my shot once, but I let it slip through my fingers. I’m sure that ultimately I would never have been taken seriously as a musician. The low-rise leather pants never fit, and they still don’t. (Turns out a size 40 in leather is a bit pricey—lots of cows.) But to know that rock stardom was within reach, and I let it go, will always loom over my head.
I learned to play guitar a couple of months after losing my virginity in eleventh grade. My dad bought me a Martin acoustic, and my childhood friend John Noonan, who was now king of the alt scene at our high school, taught me how to play “She Talks to Angels.” I was hooked. Every day we’d hang out at lunch in the yearbook room, and he and his friends would show me the basics of the guitar and debate who was better, Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Cure, all while subtly inspiring me to grow my hair out. My repertoire started to grow from there. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (beloved at the time), “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Wish You Were Here”—base camp for every high school kid with dreams of college girls. I was always funny, but the soft, sensitive musician was a new hat for me and I liked the shade it gave my face. I graduated from high school, and my guitar and I moved to Tallahassee. I was still a hack, even then, but I’d whip it out at parties, bonfires, any chance I had to impress girls.
It wasn’t until my second sophomore year that things got serious. I was at a fraternity party, playing the same set of songs, when two of my fraternity brothers, Ben Carter and John Dacre, approached me with an idea.
“I have a garage, Ben has a drum set. I say we teach Brackin [John’s roommate and best friend, Brent Brackin] how to play bass, and start a band.”
“What will I play?”
“I’m a better guitar player than you, so we think you should be our frontman.”
My ego exploded as I put imagery to the sentence: me, shirtless, in shape, bottle of whiskey for breakfast, girls listening to my every word, tour buses, a house in Jamaica. I grow a beard, I write a book, I go back on tour, me shirtless again, back in shape, getting led offstage by police, girls screaming, whiskey, cocaine, a hotel room, a Haitian model, room service, grandchildren . . .
“We’ll learn a few songs, get booked at bars, get free beer.”
In a town like Tallahassee, your partying defines you, and the idea of being a band’s frontman—standing on a stage in front of thousands of my peers, leading the night in song, downing as many free beers as I could manage—seemed like a dream. It was more than enough reason for me to say yes. I was sold.
For the first time in my life I started doing my homework. It was easy—I wanted to be a frontman. So I’d listen to songs that my bandmates could play, memorize the words, learn how to sing them. I did my homework dutifully. Or at least I did at first. Every night I’d sit in my room with a case of beer and a pack of cigarettes, listening to a batch of songs. But I found out very quickly that the idea of becoming The Frontman was actually more important to me than minor details like learning lyrics or, better yet, learning how to sing. I started to spend less time practicing the songs and more time watching movies like The Doors. I was enthralled with the idea of creating a character like Jim Morrison. At the time, Nirvana had just taped their Unplugged album, and Dacre gave me a video of the performance. Candles, cardigans, greasy long hair covering Kurt Cobain’s face—I found myself practicing his small nuances more than his lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, the music was great, some of the best ever. But Kurt in the sweater, awkward, fumbling, and distracted—to me, that’s what made the performance. It was the same with the Doors. I loved their music, but the idea that Jim Morrison would hang out of hotel windows hammered on drugs and alcohol—for some reason, it made the music that much richer.
It became my mission. Get large, get loud, and get living. I started by putting a keg in Dacre’s garage, where we practiced. Who sang sober? Singing was like sex: vulnerable, revealing, and done better drunk and in the dark, I thought. I adopted quirks: I would only drink Mountain Dew and eat Cheetos. This would really pay off when we put it on the rider for our first stadium tour. Next were clothes: Doc Martens, jeans, beat-up T-shirts, and cardigans would be my uniform. And lastly, outlandish behavior. I adopted a motto: Never say no. Jim Morrison never said no, Kurt Cobain never said no. You couldn’t have great things to write about if all you did was sit in your living room with your roommates talking about the phone bill. I needed to get out there and start living. I read Hunter S. Thompson for the first time, smoked weed, went on walks in the woods, climbed to the roof of our house and sang to the moon. How could I consider myself on a path to frontman greatness if I turned down opportunity? (More than the quirks or the clothes, this motto sadly has carried on into my adult life.)
I started living the life. Getting naked in public became the norm, taunting police while hanging, Gene Autry–style, from a light post on Tennessee Street was a typical Monday night. Practicing music, however, was not on my list of things to do, and it showed at our first band practice. Our bassist, Brackin, was new to the instrument, and much to our chagrin, he had been practicing the bass as much as I had been practicing my vocals, which is to say not at all. This, coupled with the fact that we had a fresh keg of beer at the ready, made getting through an entire song impossible. Not to be dissuaded, we convinced ourselves that no band starts off sounding like the Beatles, not even the Beatles. So we let our two good musicians, Ben and Dacre, jam while Brackin and I got drunk and watched.
This is how our first month of band practices proceeded. We would all meet in Dacre’s garage and struggle to get through a Nine Inch Nails song until Brackin and I gave up. We drank and Dacre and Ben jammed on. Until one day everything clicked. For the first time, after being together for a mere month and a half, we actually played an entire song together. We were so pumped that we played it again, even better, and again, maybe this time a little worse. On our third time through the same song, I lost my voice. We laughed it off, high on our own praise. It was just a fluke. We proceeded to put aside our instruments and get down to killing beers.
The next day at band practice we realized two things: (1) It was not a fluke; and (2) when I did have a voice, I more often than not sang the wrong lyrics. Ben kept interrupting run-throughs of our one song, “Wish,” by Nine Inch Nails. He would simply stop drumming and yell, “What the fuck are you saying?” I would tell him I was only singing the lyrics that ol’ Trent had written. Ben would inform me that the phrase “pony ride to Applebee’s” was not in the lyrics. I would get defensive and tell him that I was being interpretive, putting my own spin on the song. Why could they improvise and make the sound their own while I was forced to sing the exact words of the song?
“That’s the point of a fucking cover band—to sing songs people know so they can sing along. What you are doing is like Weird Al, but not funny.”
“We aren’t going to be a cover band for long, anyway, Ben!” I reminded him. “Wish” and the other songs were just stepping-stones until we came up with our own material.
And those songs are what we focused on for our second and third month as a band. They’d start playing and I’d go back to butchering lyrics at the top of my lungs.
Beer flowed freely, and it was only a matter of time before everyone was drunk and our rhythm was so far off that we would have to call it a day.
By the end of three months, we had three songs firmly under our belt: “Wish,” Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song,” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But I was already mentally scrapping these songs, to be replaced with the new material I was writing in my spare time.
In the months of drinking, eating Cheetos, and saying yes, I discovered my sensitive side. I had started reading poetry, Maya Angelou to be specific. Odd, I’m sure, that a twenty-one-year-old frat boy was connecting with an elder woman, but I liked it. That cleared the path for me to begin writing poetry, which lent itself fairly easily to songwriting. All of this was even better fuel for sitting by myself in my room drinking.
The first and last song I ever wrote was a ballad I was quite proud of, and one I would play for anyone, anywhere. My buddies would see me come into a crowded room and all clamor for a good seat, begging me to play my new song for all the people who hadn’t heard it yet. I would nod knowingly, like a celebrity obliging the paparazzi. I’d grab my guitar, improv some riffs and some lyrics, and slide gently into my ballad. What I didn’t know was that my friends were only asking to hear it so they could laugh at me behind my back. It was a ballad about date rape called “Mary Margaret” (I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it), and to say it gently borrowed its chord structure from the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” would be an understatement. I’ll never forget the look on my bandmates’ faces when I played it for them for the first time. It was the same look, interestingly enough, that a person gives when they walk in on someone masturbating, only fixed and prolonged.
“Look, this song may not sell a million records, but I got a ton more like it just swimming inside of me and we need to get them out of there and see which ones rise to the surface.”
Brackin was the only one on board, mainly because my song asked very little of him as a bassist. Ben and Dacre did their best to go along with it, and within a week we had four songs in our repertoire.
That is when they invited him into the band.
He was a fraternity brother of ours but a transfer from south Florida. He had gotten into a conversation at the house about wanting to start a band, and they sent him our way. He was a guitar player and had a bunch of equipment, so Ben and Dacre loved him immediately (we were all playing off cheap amps at the time).
The next thing you know he was in our band.
His name was Mark and he was actually a really nice guy. The only problem was this: He was an awesome musician, and the equipment he brought into the garage dwarfed ours. As it stood now, you could be in our band and suck, but he raised the bar so high that when you sucked around him, it became painfully clear. It was like Dacre and Ben had found a porn star to bring to prom, and Brackin and I were their original, ordinary dates. We felt left behind, ignored, fat. Mark, Dacre, and Ben would just start jamming, leaving us no other choice but to start drinking. And, of course, to paraphrase Trent Reznor, therein starts the downward spiral.
The worst part was that as much as Brackin and I hated losing control of our band, drinking beers and listening to three guys shred was actually really fun. One day, I walked into the garage to them playing a beast of a song. A hit for sure. A song that, the second I heard it, I knew would sell a million records. They were so good and so natural, playing off each other like a Brazilian soccer team, that I stopped Brackin from trying to keep up on the bass and poured us both beers so we could sit and listen. When they finished I applauded them.
“Did you guys just come up with that?” Ben looked to the two guitarists. “Uh, yeah.” “That was amazing! If we put lyrics to it, I seriously believe it could be a hit!” Dacre leaned in. “You think you could throw some lyrics in there?” They were all smiles. “Definitely!” “Well, let’s get it up on its feet,” said Ben.
And so I let them play as I hit record on a tape player close by and started improvising lyrics into my mic. It was going so smoothly that by the time they just randomly started playing a third jam, I started to see a golden light at the end of the tunnel. Dacre and Ben, with Mark’s help, could make amazing music that literally wrote itself. The music was catchy, hard-hitting, and original. My lyrics could use improvement, sure. But we were onto something. Maybe—and I knew this was sacrilege—if we got rid of Brackin and got a real bassist we could make a run for it. Bars at first, then clubs, small theaters, arenas. I’d solo, rejoin the band, do a reunion tour . . .
“Guys, these are groundbreaking songs. If you give me a little time to work on the lyrics, we could have some real hits on our hands.”
Ben clued me in to what the others already knew: that they had been playing U2 songs. As soon as this came out, the room fell apart laughing. Apparently the only thing more fun than jamming to U2 songs was watching someone try to improve upon Bono’s lyrics.
As Mark laughed along, I looked at Brackin. Mere seconds ago I would have told you that our bond as a group was unbreakable. But Brackin knew exactly what I knew: He could have been the one they were mocking. Our connection to the group was fading.
We had to get Mark out of the band. He was too good. He made our bandmates realize exactly how much we sucked. Our suckery now shined down on them. They were doing U2 covers for now, but they would get better, and it was just a matter of time until they’d need a new frontman and a bassist.
Mark’s playing may have been awesome, but not as awesome as our desire to keep our band together. His death came slow, like a deer trapped in a sulfur pit. At first Brackin just stopped telling him when band practice was. Then Brackin and I would sit in the garage and shrug our shoulders at his absences. “Can you believe this guy?” On days when his profound desire to jam drove him to the garage regardless and he’d find us all there, he’d say nothing and just pick up jamming with Ben and Dacre, leaving Brackin and me to simply drink.
Eventually it was a combination of our lack of commitment and the visible antagonism from me and Brackin that drove him away. “You might want to take your stuff out of the garage,” Dacre finally said to him, joining Brackin and me in the fight after we had a not-so-subtle conversation with him about something Mark may or may not have said. Brackin and I saw this as a victory: Dacre taking our side.
I think Mark was more stunned than anything. His parting words were not of anger but of disbelief. “Seriously? I’m the best guy in the fucking band.” He was right, of course. But he left, we stayed together, and he was now the best guy not in the fucking band. His exit made us even closer, and we finally settled on a name: Givin’ Out Spankin’s.
Mark had apparently told some of our fraternity brothers that our band sucked (something I’m sure they already knew after listening to a couple of my impromptu coffee shop–styled performances) and that his band would blow our band out of the water. His band, we were told, was actually pretty good, and had already, within a short period of time, booked a gig. But it didn’t matter to us. Despite the fact that we were back down to three songs, we were closer as bandmates than we had ever been. So we all decided to go in solidarity to see them play and size up the competition. They played at a restaurant called the Mill. Pedestrian in my opinion, the Mill was better known for its unbreakable muffins than for breaking bands.
That night, the guys set up their equipment in the middle of the floor. Rookie mistake. I would have picked a corner to face. That I could play shy to. We took a table in the back with a pitcher of beer, by this time the bloodline of our band, and we waited.
They took the stage and I’ll never forget the reaction. Dacre and Ben were impressed, which made Brackin and me only more sure that we had made the right decision. Before the set ended, we made a hasty exit out the back so Mark and his band couldn’t see that we’d been there. We mocked them for the entire ride home, laughing hysterically at almost all their decisions. It was as if their frontman had done no research on frontman-ing and only learned how to sing. Mark didn’t throw his guitar in the air, and their covers sounded like originals. But as Brackin and I laughed, we could see it in Ben’s eyes: We were a dead band walking. As much as we mocked them, they were just too good. All the stuff we laughed at were the things that made them better than us.
As the guys dropped me off, you could see the beginning of the end.
“What time is band practice tomorrow?” “We’ll call you.” We tried our best to keep our band together, but within a few months, Mark’s band was playing all the bars in Tallahassee, drinking all the free beer I thought would be mine. Eventually, we had no choice but to call it quits. And that was the last time I ever flirted with music.
A couple of years later, I ran into Mark and some of his bandmates at a grocery store in Tallahassee, just as I was planning my move to New York. They were off to Gainesville, or Atlanta, or following some other trail that Sister Hazel had blazed before them. I wished them luck and they wished me the same.
I walked away from them that day and said to myself, out loud, “I doubt anyone will ever hear of that stupid band Creed.”
Bert Kreischer has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He is the host of Travel Channel’s Trip Flip and previously hosted Hurt Bert and Bert the Conqueror.