Hi — I’m back from an amazing vacation, which I’ll tell you about soon. But first, I wanted to make good on my threat/promise of letting you vote on the funniest musician anecdote, a contest outlined here. I couldn’t narrow it down to 10 faves, so I went with 11. (In retrospect, I probably should have skipped the pre-selection stage, since all the stories were pretty darn good.)
Vote for the ones that make you laugh the most. The authors of the three most popular stories win one of my sketchy homemade stompboxes prototypes.
The only rule: Be cool. Please don’t stuff the ballot box or resort on other sneaky internet tricks. If you win via subterfuge, I’ll still probably send you a prize, though I reserve the right to expose your cheatin’ heart to public ridicule.
Polls close a week from today on Wednesday, May 7th.
The stories appear in random order. The polling widget appears after the last story.
And oh — for the record, don’t take the words “Cro-Mag Comedy Contest” as a slur against our Upper Paleolithic ancestors. Cro-Magnons were fully developed humans, genetically, physically, and mentally indistinguishable from modern homo sapiens. So we can safely assume they did all kinds of stupid shit. Especially the drummers.
The wonders of wireless. One of the bands that I used to run sound for had a percussionist ‘leach’ that would show up uninvited to gigs all the time. He thought he could play conga’s, but he couldn’t. So at first I’d mic him up and then just leave him out of the mix. After a couple week’s I’d mic him up and then not patch him into the board. After a couple more week’s of that I just put an SM81 on a stand and didn’t even bother connecting a cable to it. He didn’t notice for a few weeks and when he finally did, I just assured him it was wireless.
Thanks a lot, Jeff. In the fall of 1980, Jeff Beck came into a club where my band was playing. We were doing a medley of “Hip Hug-Her” and “Green Onions,” and there he was standing back by the sound board, with his perfect English rock hair, bobbing to the beat. We’d heard a rumor he was in Portland, rehearsing before the start of a tour, so it wasn’t a total surprise to see him, just a bit surreal. But things got weird when he followed us backstage after the set, gushing about how much he dug us.
“Brilliant, mates,” he said in his mild English accent. “How would you like to open my show in Seattle?”
We were, in Brit-speak, “gobsmacked,” and felt compelled to make him aware of a couple of pertinent facts. First, we’d never played anything bigger than a 200-seat club. Second, he was talking about the day after tomorrow.
Beck laughed off our concerns. He said, “Just play Green Onions for thirty minutes. It’ll be great!”
We arrived at the Seattle Center Arena plenty early and spent the afternoon hanging around the venue, getting nervous. By the time Beck finished his long and totally intimidating sound check, we were terrified.
With no time for a sound check of our own, we quickly set up our gear in front of Beck’s stuff, and headed back to the dressing room to wait. Soon enough, a guy stuck his head through the door.
“You’re on, let’s go.”
We were walking up the ramp to the stage when the house lights went down. The roar from the packed arena was deafening, like a jet taking off. We made it to the stage in the dark and found our positions. A local DJ walked on stage and grabbed the microphone.
“Seattle!!!!…ARE YOU READY?? Will you PLEASE WELCOME…”
The stage lights came up just as he said our name. Our drummer counted four and we blasted into the first tune; not Booker T, but one of our rockin’ originals that went over so great in the clubs. But something was wrong. I could barely hear the band. We were being drowned out by the ominous roar of five thousand people booing in unison. I looked down at a guy pressed against the lip of the stage. He gave me a death stare and bellowed, “F**k you! We want Beck!!!”
Then it occurred to me. Our presence on the bill had not been advertised in any way. When the house lights went down, these people thought Jeff Beck was taking the stage. We were doomed.
In the corner of my eye I saw a large object making a lazy arc through the air, headed my way. I took a quick side step as a jumbo soda exploded at my feet, drenching my sneakers and soaking my jeans up to the knee. The people down front thought this was hysterical.
“Ha ha ha…you guys suck…get off the stage!!!”
We finished one song and started into another. Now debris was raining down on us. I watched the lead singer recoil as he took a size-twelve Chuck Taylor in the chest. I glanced back at the drummer: he’d been hit square in the forehead by some kind of projectile and his face was dripping blood.
The second tune lurched to a halt. The crowd surged forward, seconds away from a full-scale riot. We looked at each other in total panic. The singer gave us the high sign and we bolted stage right, running for our lives.
Count like a drummer, version 1. We were working on a song…trying to get the intro to mesh right…the drummer would count 4…we’d start on the net beat and it just wasn’t working…so…lets count to five and start on 6…the drummer looks down at his kit…shakes his head…five?…the four of us look at each other, then back to him…yea, five…um…how do you count to five? to the disbelief of the four of us…he was serious…he couldn’t wrap his head around it…we even tried, count to four and then start at one again and we’ll start on the 2…nope… ended up reworking the song so that the guitar started…poor guy…
Famous Amos. Back in the late nineties I had the pleasure of hanging out, playing and studying a little with the legendary Amos Garrett (Maria Muldaur, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Great Speckled Bird to name of few bands he recorded with). Anyone who has met Amos will tell you that he is a great raconteur and it always made me a little giddy with excitement when he launched into a story; much like his solos the stories zoom and swoop unexpectedly in novel directions.
One evening between sets he told me of his first public performance as a teenager – at Carnegie Hall. Amos was to back up a folk singer (who’s name unfortunately escapes me) and was dressed up in a rented velvet tux for the concert. He was armed with a couple of acoustics: a Martin six-string and a Gibson 12-sting.
Carnegie Hall was staffed by Teamsters at that time, and they were famously uncooperative.
There were performance stipulations: Amos and the singer were to sit on stools out front of the ancient and heavy velvet curtain which hung from the proscenium. Amos’ extra guitar was to stay out of sight, behind the curtain, and a stagehand was to deliver the guitars as they were needed in the set.
They struck up the first song. Amos played his Martin six-string. It went well. For the second tune Amos needed the Gibson twelve. He looked around for the stagehand. He was nowhere in sight. Amos, feeling his cheeks redden in front of a packed house, panicked and decided to take matters into his own hands. He got up from his stool and, holding his Martin by it’s neck, plunged into the three-foot-deep velvet curtain and shoved his way through it’s ponderous bulk. He got to the other side and grabbed his Gibson twelve, then realized he would need the Martin again a song later. Still no stagehand in sight. He wrapped both guitars in a sort of bear-hug and pushed his way through the curtain again.
It should be mentioned that the curtain at Carnegie didn’t appear to be cleaned all that regularly. When Amos re-emerged from back stage he was holding two wildly out-of-tune acoustics and was covered head to foot in a hundred years of dust bunnies accumulated in the ancient curtain, clinging to his velveteen tux. I gather the rest of the gig didn’t go quite so well as the first number. His FIRST gig!
She’s a brick … house. There was a band that I ran sound for a few times and they had a couple vocalists. One of them was a… bigger lady – tall, but also… lets say thick – very brickish. Whenever I ran sound for them, I’d start picking up a bizarre hum – similar in frequency to ground hum, but behaving like feedback. I tracked it down to her mic, but I couldn’t find a reason for it. The type of mic capsule at that angle to the wedges at that volume wouldn’t explain it. I took the mic apart to check the connections, swapped mics, etc. But it kept showing up. I wanted to solve this puzzle so I isolated and checked everything, and then hooked my laptop up to analyze the signal going through that loop. My final conclusion was… the lady’s appreciable mass had a resonant frequency of 60hz and when she locked her arms and legs in place and held the mic, the energy hitting her from the monitors got transmitted directly to the casing of the mic and back into the system. It was a physical feedback loop. Truly bizarre. I got her a boom stand and problem solved. But that’s the only time I’ve ever seen anything like it. I didn’t dare try to explain it to her though…
Count like a drummer, version 2. In the early ’90s, my friend “Dan” and I decided to form a no-nonsense, loud-guitar rock band, which Dan kept insisting would help us meet girls. We were both just out of college, and had grown up listening to classic rock, punk and (what later became known as) alternative rock. Neither of us were really musicians or had any experience playing in actual bands. We mostly had just spent a lot of time on our own as teenagers, making obnoxious noises with guitars and distortion pedals.
We started off by getting together at his apartment, bashing out some lyrics and barre chords. I would bring along Dr. Rhythm, my trusty old analog drum machine, and we would work out song ideas on Dan’s 4-track. Now, obviously, a cheesy drum machine wasn’t gonna cut it for a “real” rock band, so we had to go out and find an actual human being who would be willing to play with us.
I ended up tracking down another friend of mine from college, “Stacy”, who had just graduated with a degree in world music. She was already an accomplished percussionist and vocalist, and had performed with a handful of smaller national acts. By a sheer stroke of luck, she had recently acquired a well-worn used drum kit, and was (surprisingly) interested in being a part of our band.
Our first attempt at playing together was in an appropriately cramped and dingy basement, covered in scraps salvaged from a carpet store dumpster. As we began to work on our first song, Dan and I were showing Stacy the basic structure. We simply looked at each other and started playing at the tempo we had originally set with the drum machine. Stacy looked a little baffled, and asked me to do a count-off, so that we could all come in together.
So I tentatively barked: “One… two… THREEFOUR!”
After several aborted attempts of this, Stacy finally picked up her drumsticks and clicked out an even rhythm, demonstrating how it transitioned into a steady drumbeat. It was then that I had a startling realization: A count-off was not, in fact, simply a stylized way that the Ramones or Led Zeppelin started a song, but actually had the purpose of SETTING THE TEMPO.
Wardrobe malfunction. Back when I was in college, I was in a new pop rock band called the Neverlovers. We were playing on a bill with a bunch of other bands as part of the annual spring Arts First festival. We were scheduled to go on first, so we had our equipment up on the stage ready to go, and I was feeling nervous as hell. The theater had a heavy stage curtain that was lifted by a backstage mechanism. I was so busy going over our set list in my head that even though I could feel the curtain brushing up against my sleeve, I did not realize that my hoodie tangled in it until it was too late. The curtain lifted me up about foot off the ground before they lowered it again and helped me down. I was nervous as hell before the curtain, embarrassed as hell afterwards, but the rest of the gig was fine. My shoulder was sore for about a month, but it makes for a great story. (My wife, who was not at the show but has heard about it many times over the years, loves to bring it up whenever she wants to make a point about how oblivious I am to my own surroundings…)
The wrong kind of fan. One night at Checker’s Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was set up right where the bar conjoined the stage, so it was no big deal to step up on the bar (Paul Butterfield’s ‘Born in Chicago’, if memory serves). No big deal. Except that there’s a collective gasp and looks of disbelief. What up, man, I just jumped up on the bar of a beer joint? Then I feel a little ‘zing’ from the headstock of my 335. I glance over and spot the ceiling fan that just grazed my guitar and nearly took my head off on the way up. A week later I had to surf the most broke-dick table in all of Iowa. Older, no wiser.
Ticket to hell. When I was in college (christian college), we had a lot of fairly prominent people speaking in chapel. As is typical, we always taped the on-switch of the lavs to avoid hassles and kept that channel muted until they started speaking. However, we did of course have that signal live in the booth for the full service and noticed when we solo’d it in our headsets that a lot of these people had terrible singing voices during the worship/music parts of the service. So, one year we made a series of recordings (just for our own amusement) where we did a separate bus mix of ‘famous people singing’. We’d cut the other singers and mix the unsuspecting person’s lav in front of the instruments as if they were the soloist. Many of them were hilariously terrible.
African high life. It was a big day. In a misdirected shot at obtaining responsible employment (midlife crisis?), I entered physiotherapy college at the tender age of 39. There we were, an unlikely ensemble of 18-to-20-year-old women–& me. I also regularly moonlighted as West African bass drummer/bassist in an “audience-participation/interactive band”. And today was my 40th birthday.
I had a day of classes, drive to the airport, a flight, a fully paid gig in another prairie city that night, overnight hotel stay, a flight back, & an important physiotherapy exam the following day back in my town. I could do it. All I had to do was stay awake for about 30 hours. I’d done it before. And, hey, it was my birthday. Classes ended, I leisurely drive to the airport, stow my bags. Ahh, I have an hour to spare. Why not a wheat beer or two at airport pub prices? Good beer. I have a student loan, & everything hereon in is paid for, and I get $175 free & clear on top. And, hey, it’s my birthday, & I’m in the band.
Several delicious pints later, I lazily sense my name cited with increasing urgency over the airport intercom: “Final call for Jjamie Ray! Jjamie Ray report to Gate 3 immediately! Flight A416 will be taxiing immediately!” I awkwardly lurch through the gates, up a mile-long gangway, & into the icy gaze of 200 pairs of eyes, including 8 pairs with whom I’ll be sharing the stage in a few hours. Ned, my friend & an exquisite percussionist, nods, grins at my folly. I order a drink. It’s my birthday.
(The luggage hold of this aircraft contains approximately three-dozen instruments for our stage. And also, since we’re an “interactive band”, about 700 “mini-djembes”, one for each one of our corporate-suits-on-retreat audience, housed in massive touring cases on wheels. We have no roadies. We snake through hotel sub-basements, up ramps, through kitchens, load & unload every one of these instruments at each gig, ready for the crowd. A herculean task for the sober.) We touch down on land, a shuttle to the inn. In the hotel bar, Ned, delighted & amused by my spirited birthday behaviour, reminds me that the band is waiting for me to help set up, change into show garb, do sound check, & work out a few changes. I careen into the ballroom, & in the last-second, hazy rush to place 700 drums, I sense that the stage is not quite right, but I can’t place exactly why.
Opening song, some heavy polyrhythms, I’m the bass drum man, the audience pours in. The first piece is 12 minutes long. Oh, that’s what’s wrong; the stage floor is bare, painted plywood, not a carpet to be seen. With every stick strike on these massive drums, the stage panels bounce about a inch. The bass drums & mics slowly begin to migrate across the back of the stage. I must follow them. I see the free-drinks bar open up at the back of the ballroom. I have to smile, dance, do my thing. I am concentrating fervently on stage presence & locking into the groove.
To my right, the edge of the stage is approaching. My problem-solving skills are less than optimal. We crescendo, arms raised skyward, & my set disappears over the edge of the stage. A four foot drop. The audience laughs appreciatively & applauds. Amusing, clumsy, all for the show! The stage banter twists, lags, stretches to cover the struggle at stage right. I wrestle, tumble over drums, tangle in rigging. It is my birthday. All I must do is stay awake. I had not stayed awake. My next memory is the taste of hotel room carpet, being shuttled down hallways on a luggage cart. I sway precariously onto the plane. This time, I am unaware of its denizens’ eyes’ iciness or lack thereof. Ned shoulders me into my seat.
Back in my home town, I am coherent. I am in a cab, I am in a classroom, I write an exam. I am second in my class. It was my birthday. Ned recounts that, the morning after the show, he had screamed & physically bounced my body repeatedly, ever higher, off the bed as our departure grew near.
“And I’m safe in assuming, Jjamie, that you didn’t hear the announcement as you stumbled into the plane’s cabin?”
“I don’t recall even having boarded the plane.”
“Over the intercom, they said, ‘Jjamie Ray, Jjamie Ray to board Flight A568 immediately. Initiating bag pull.”
My head shot back. “Ouch!” Ned peered at me quizzically, then laughed uproariously, & soon I joined him.
My knee-jerk response was that the “bag pull” procedure would be directed at my anatomy, much deservedly, rather than at my luggage. Needless to tell, I was known exclusively as “Bag Pull” for some time, in honour of my magnificent performance on- & off-stage.
A REAL metal band. My band was scheduled to play at a birthday party. The only thing we knew about the gig was that there would be four or five other bands playing, and it was supposed to be a big, well-attended event. After driving through a desolate industrial district, we arrived at the “venue”, which turned out to be an enormous metalworking shop. Gigantic machines, ranging from the size of a small automobile to nearly the dimensions of a ranch house, were spread out over an expansive cement floor. Resembling medieval torture devices, the machines sprouted spiked, mechanical appendages, sharp-cornered armatures and sinister blades. Raw materials were piled high up along the walls towards a towering open ceiling, and small chunks and shavings of metal scrap were clustered in heaps around many of the machines, like little ferrous sand dunes. A pleasant surprise was that there was a very generously-sized elevated stage constructed near the entrance with a full PA setup. The issue was that it was built entirely out of metal, the upper surface consisting of huge inch-thick steel sheets, stacked somewhat haphazardly, several layers deep. It was not deemed necessary for us to have a soundcheck, as we were playing first and there was only a handful of people there at this point. As we set up, I noticed a faint crackle as I turned on my amp. The sound guy assured us that they had tested out the setup and it was fine. However, as we made a few tentative sounds before starting our first song, our singer was getting severely zapped if he put his mouth anywhere near the mic. Fortunately, the sound guy had already figured out a solution to that problem. He handed our singer a pair of welding gloves, instructing him to hold the mic with them. By the time we left (long after our set), the party was winding down. Four other bands played on the same stage, drunk people cavorted and slid in huge puddles of spilled beer, and a small crowd of people entertained themselves by swinging between the shop machines on a thick rope, suspended from the ceiling. Miraculously, no one was injured or killed over the course of the evening (at least as far as I know).
Tuba players — the new drummers? I studied guitar in college and was required to play in the wind band as an instrument major. Since there are not a lot of guitar parts in this repertoire, I was put on an electric bass and given bassoon charts. I was seated next to a tuba player. One day this tuba player asks me what accidentals I could play. A little confused, I answered, “All of them.” And then I proceeded to explain the frets and how to finger notes on the bass. The next rehearsal, he asks me again about what accidentals I can play on the bass. I again explain how each fret is a half-step, so I can player a fret lower to flat a note or up a fret to sharp a note. This goes on for several rehearsals. I am getting frustrated and can’t understand why he keeps asking me the same question. I don’t remember exactly how many times this happened, but something finally clicked in my head. I pointed to the chart with the bass clef and showed him that I could play from this note on the clef to this note on the clef. He nodded and never asked again. He wanted to know the range of the instrument and called the ledger lines on the staff accidentals.