Out of my comfort zone
Here’s the problem with art: It’s subjective.
With other professions, talent is more easily measured. If an accountant’s calculations are correct, he has done a good job. If a dentist fills a cavity, she has earned her pay. The value of art? It’s up to the preference of the listener or viewer, or reader. Who’s to say what’s good when “good” can’t be objectively decided?
Example: In 1994, Pearl Jam was one of the biggest bands in the world. I confess, back then, I listened to Pearl Jam from morning till night. Eddie Vedder sings with raw emotion and pours his heart into his songs. Even today, I think Eddie Vedder has one of the most inspiring, honest voices in all of rock music.
Doesn’t everyone think so? Well, that year I went home for Christmas. While there, I played a Pearl Jam song for my mother. Her face wrinkled—that sucking-on-a-lemon expression—and she (actually) groaned. “Yuck. He can’t sing.”
Who’s to say what’s good when “good” can’t be objectively decided?
Her comment left me speechless. Was I wrong? Could Eddie Vedder sing, or was he a fake? The artistic gravity of this unanswerable question, its implications for my future life’s calling, nagged me for the rest of the day, and well, ever since.
Of course, Eddie Vedder could sing. I knew it. Millions of fans knew it. But my mother’s comment was worrisome. Why? Because she’d said the same of me! She had overheard me singing at times, and she had made the same face. Bitter lemons.
Not even hearing her own son making music could curb my mother’s natural reaction. She couldn’t hide what she really thought (which was that Eddie and I sucked).
How could my mother listen to a song and cringe? How could I hear the same song, and my life was changed? The passion in that voice. The feeling behind it.
If I learned one thing from this paradox at a tender age, it was this. Art wouldn’t be easy.
Jason knew nothing of the bar. It was a venue that hired us.
Today, I know the true goal of art is to relate on an emotional level. If this happens, the artist has done well. He can sing. He can act. But this knowledge isn’t ingrained. It must be learned. For me, it was a decades-long process that started in grunge-era Seattle in the mid-90s.
It all began at the Renton Pub.
Every band has to start somewhere. For our band, named Isabel Rings, that place was the Renton Pub—the site of our very first gig. It would be the humble beginnings we would look back on when we had made it. Our guitarist Jason had hustled to get us out here. Renton was a suburb of Seattle, an industrial town near the airport. Jason knew nothing of the bar. It was a venue that hired us.
We arrived early like a band eager to please. Jason pulled his gold Honda Civic into the parking lot beside two Harleys. From the passenger seat, I eyed the crooked sign above the bar’s door. The “e” and the “t” were burned out. I got out of the car. Cigarette butts marked the sidewalk. Shreds of a hotdog bun lay by the door. I shrugged my shoulders. Every band has to start somewhere.
The inside wasn’t cleaned up any. I looked through a haze of smoke. The Renton Pub was a large, working-class bar. The sticky floor pulled at the soles of my boots as I moved forward. In the back of the pub stood a pool table with a Jägermeister logo covering the felt, which was ripped in spots. (I knew my way around a pool table—you couldn’t play coherent pool with ripped felt.) I wandered over to the jukebox in the corner. All the songs were from the ‘70s classic rock era: Steppenwolf, Molly Hatchet, Boston. Did our ‘90s grunge-inspired band Isabel Rings play this kind of music? Not so much.
Jason found the booking agent behind the bar. The bartender shook hands and welcomed us. “I’m Shawn.”
I climbed on stage and imagined the lights going up soon. The crowd would be watching.
The Renton Pub stage was bigger than I’d expected. Usually, the stage in a bar was an afterthought. Here, it was a proper distance off the ground, and it stretched several feet back, giving plenty of room for the drum kit. The stage aesthetic was black, metal-edged. A mountain-sized speaker towered to the right. I climbed on stage and imagined the lights going up soon. The crowd would be watching.
As of now, I saw what looked to be regulars at the bar drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two guys wore mechanics’ shirts and work boots. Around the pool table or sitting and watching the Mariners game, those who were here looked our way but didn’t pay us much mind.
Jason wore new jeans, a red Lands’ End T-shirt—his idea of dressing up—and white New Balance sneakers. I was wearing black high-laced boots and a leather vest. I’d taken my hair out of its ponytail. (Should I have kept it?)
“You can set up now,” Shawn said. “Dino, the sound man, should be here in a few. If you want a drink, let me know.”
He left to get us two Red Hook beers. We unloaded Jason’s gear from the car and set it up. Damien, the drummer, arrived a few minutes later.
I reentered the bar, carrying Damien’s snare and stand. I noticed a new arrival, a big man wearing a sleeveless denim shirt that exposed thick gray hair covering his arms. On his forearm was a tattoo of a Native American woman wearing a headdress. This imposing guy sat at the table nearest the stage. I saw a tin bucket filled with Miller Lite bottles, four empty, two full. All for himself. This guy sneered at me. He actually flexed his arm at me like we were prison rivals or something. His bulging bicep was a serious winner. With a forced grin, I returned a hello and hurried past.
Nerves were announcing themselves in a big way now. This was real; this was happening.
It wasn’t just the man who’d made my lips quiver. I’d been freaking out all day, an orb of nerves moving through my chest up to my throat. I’d tried every trick I knew of to calm myself, every sort of mind game, counting to ten, squeezing my hands into fists, muttering little motivational speeches to myself. Nerves were announcing themselves in a big way now. This was real; this was happening. The moment I’d envisioned for years was here—my first rock show. The stuff of dreams.
Were we ready? Was I? We had rehearsed as a band every chance that we got. I had been studying with a voice coach in the University District for three months. I hoped my singing had improved. The truth was I didn’t know. Jason had informed me at the outset, he expected to hear progress with my singing.
My fan in the front row, with the bicep and the sleeveless shirt, twisted the cap off a bottle and took a big swig. Jason crouched over his pedalboard. I leaned down and told him I needed to hit the bathroom.
There was no one in the bathroom’s lone stall. I hummed several vocal warmups that my teacher, Lois, had taught me. I lifted my arms high, exhaled as loudly as I could, and leaned over while letting my arms hang freely to my sides. Lois had told me it would loosen me up. I wasn’t sure it helped. My throat felt like it was being squeezed by the guy at the front table. I had to figure this out and fast.
I rejoined Jason and Damien on stage as Brooke walked up. Our bassist wore all black and her usual glower, which suddenly looked very cool. She wore her bass in a case slung over her shoulder. Her husband trailed her, schlepping her amp.
I stood at center stage and wrapped the cord around the mic stand like we lead singers were supposed to do, gripping the stand, adjusting the height. The bar’s door opened. Jason’s wife entered with friends. Damien’s wife arrived a minute later with her sister and a friend. It was a crowd like I had hoped for, I thought.
I hummed several vocal warmups that my teacher, Lois, had taught me …. I wasn’t sure it helped.
Then more people came. The room was bursting; maybe 70? The nerves that constricted my throat now tightened my chest. I noticed there were now two distinct groups of people in the bar. Our friends and family were in Lands’ End sweaters and short haircuts. The locals made their way to the back of the room, except the man with the biceps. He sat in front the whole time. I wasn’t sure if I’d rather sing to a room of strangers or a room of friends. Best just to sing.
Jason’s wife Sherrill called me over to meet her friends. Their questions came at me like an interrogation.
I didn’t know you sang. How long have you been doing it?
Have you played in many bands?
We’ve never heard your music before. What’s it like?
“I’ll be right back,” I said and headed for the back door.
I paced the parking lot next to a Triumph motorcycle. I imagined hopping on and riding off like a badass, the wind flowing through my long hair through dark, industrial streets. Could I no-show my first gig? My palms were sticky. I wiped them on my jeans. Invisible fingers wrapped around my throat.
Jason joined me outside. He took a small sip of his Red Hook. “You okay?”
“Fine,” I answered.
I would take the stage in three minutes and see if it was enough.
We stood in awkward silence. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to elaborate. Finally, he clapped me on the back and said, “See you inside.”
I checked my watch. We were on in three minutes. My mom’s voice echoed in my head. You can’t sing. I thought I could. I sounded good to me. What qualifies a person as being able to sing? Could nasally Bob Dylan sing? I was in a rock band. It was about emotion, feel. I had to take the stage in three minutes and see if it was enough.
Looking around, I raised my arms and did the relaxation drop in the parking lot. I sang under my breath the first lines to our opening song, “Stage of Mercy.”
Oh, God. I can’t believe this fog … blinding like a shadow.
All I want to do is find the light … can’t see for fear of holding on.
“God, help me,” I said, finally.
We took our places. Jason and Brooke stood on either side of me, the lead singer. The audience clapped. Some shouted our names. Damien sat behind the drum kit and counted out with his drumsticks. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 ….
Jason launched into the loud, distorted opening riff of “Stage of Mercy.” Damien crashed the cymbals. Brooke laid down a thunderous groove.
And I wailed those opening lines: Oh God, I can’t believe this fog.
I was stunned. As if that three-word prayer in the parking lot had been heard, the invisible hand that tightened my throat for the last hour seemingly let go. Adrenaline boosted my voice higher and louder than it had ever gone.
The lyrics I had written for years into spiral notebooks came out of me loud and strong.
It was like an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t daydreaming about being on a stage in Seattle. I was on a stage in Seattle. The lyrics I had written for years into spiral notebooks came out of me loud and strong. I stepped back from the mic and heard Jason unleash a blistering series of notes. I dropped the mic and jumped onto the speaker beside the stage (a bit like my hero, Eddie Vedder). I tossed my hair every which way. I felt I could climb to the ceiling. Instead, I jumped down to sing the next part, looking over at Jason, who had broken a string during his guitar solo. We didn’t care. I sang my last note. Jason let his final chord ring out.
The audience cheered, perhaps louder to my heightened ears. I soaked it in, out of breath. Jason and Damien launched into the next song. My voice was nearly gone. I managed to force out the words, however raspy and strained they were.
We flew through the rest of our set. I tried to look into the dark crowd past the stage lights. I made eye contact with Jason. Brooke ignored me. The loud noise we made enveloped me. It felt strangely peaceful. I jumped off the stage, dehydrated, hoarse, and no longer the center of attention, which felt like a good thing right then.
This was the first gig in an important new stage of my life.
“I enjoyed your energy,” one of our friends said. Everyone had something nice to say. I waited for that one comment that said, you sang great. Our crowd soon left.
The locals reclaimed their turf.
Jason and I loaded his gear back into the Honda. Had I been good? I didn’t know. I’d had an experience. I had expressed myself. I had let go. As Jason drove, I leaned my head against the headrest and closed my eyes. This was the first gig in an important new stage of my life. Would God let me make such a huge mistake?