I remember being totally frustrated by the lack of support I was getting in my brother’s bedroom. I was blasting away on my Jackson guitar, playing it through my Princeton Chorus, I think. Although I could have been using one of my brothers’ amplifiers…I can’t remember. I was always using my brothers’ gear. I had no idea what I wanted to sound like, but I knew that they knew what they wanted to sound like. So whenever possible, I just used their gear.
It was 1996, the same year as my first live performance ever. During that initial show, Vic, Bob, and I took the stage at the Wonder Bar in Wonder Lake, WI, to polite cheers from our too-polite parents, and of course a rowdy welcome from Scotty Dennis, who was probably drunk and was being more ironic in his applause than helpful. He was a hipster before being a hipster was a thing – a deep well of wisdom and humor. But on this night, he was there to see my brothers’ band, Juvenocracy, which had just released its double-disc opus, 2 of a Kind. And he was just being an asshole to us. But I appreciated his efforts, anyway, not knowing what else to do but appreciate it.
So we played through our hour-long set, boring all within earshot with our endless choruses and even endlesser verses. If I thought harder, I could probably remember some lyrics for you, but what would be the point? Just think about a movie starring a lawnmower on a dirt path, and you get the idea. Really boring stuff. But it was my music, and I thought it was amazing! Still do, actually. It takes something special to stand in front of an audience and perform original music. It’s a feeling you can only get by doing it, and whether or not you have a whole stadium singing along or if you are playing to an empty room, nothing compares. It’s the height of sadness and credulity, depending on how much of the audience’s attention you are able to commandeer. For me, the pursuit of musical performance excellence has always been wrought with sadness. I have had a few bright spots, though.
Like the first time my brother, Noah, performed with The Corrupt Senators. It was summer 1996 Vic had left the band by then – can’t say I blamed him – but Noah brought a whole new energy to the sound. It truly was night and day, as Noah was able to open up musical expression in us that didn’t exist before. And he did it in a way that only Noah can.
Noah is a born leader, as anyone who has stepped into his line of vision can attest. We would all follow Noah into battle without a moment’s hesitation. Not because he’s brilliant, but because he’s a natural leader of people. Maybe you know a natural leader of people, maybe you don’t. Noah is one. Scotty Dennis was one as well, for that matter. But Scotty had a harder life than most of us – a broken home, a drunk dad – that sort of thing is hard to get past.
Noah became our conductor, speeding up our tempo and the pace of our songwriting in the process. Honestly, it was a breath of fresh air, and Bob and I felt the difference immediately. Where Vic was deliberate, Noah was surprising. Where Vic was quiet, Noah was staccato. They couldn’t have felt more different. As I took to strumming my Jackson, the sounds it produced with Noah on drums were inherently more beautiful than those that I was able to coax out with Vic at the helm.
I am not a natural leader, though I have always wished to be one. It’s a sad fact that I am only now able to recognize after decades of failure. So we went from an aimless band to a band with clear direction from the moment Noah took over on drums. It’s like we were on a treasure hunt for a year and then someone handed us a map, and we learned we were standing on the treasure – all we had to do was dig.
It was a hot night, that first show with Noah at the helm, in a tent across the street from The Wonder Bar, of all places. But this show couldn’t have been more different from our dalliance mere months earlier. To say we stole the show is ridiculous, but we did. We came out firing, and I’m not sure I’ve played a better show since. We were on a mission to kill it, and we did. It was 12:30 a.m. and the tent was full of rowdy drunks by the time we got started. They went berzerk. We felt fucking amazing! It truly was awesome.
I’ve only felt that feeling one other time in my life. The feeling that everything is hitting on all cylinders and that nothing can possibly go wrong. I felt that one other time, and over a year later and on a basketball court. I’ll save that story for a different day, but the feeling is still in me, and even as I write this, I can feel bumps growing and hair standing up on my arms. It is a feeling that can only be felt by those that take great risks. And while I am not a great leader of men, I was born with (or maybe developed) an ability to take great risks. And getting on stage and putting my art out there in the form of music is one of the greatest risks a person in the first world can take. And I took that risk. I have taken that risk hundreds of times since.
I don’t remember which songs we played that night. I do know that for the first and probably only time, my brothers’ band, Juvenocracy, had been upstaged. It was an occurrence so rare that I truly don’t think it ever happened before or after that night.
Juvenocracy was among the greatest bands ever. I am not joking, and I am not exaggerating. If you ask people who were there to witness the band in its prime – the foursome of Nate, Jefe, Brad, and Noah – it was something to behold. When I say, “great”, I mean that they captured the imagination of a large group of people. Not so large a group as the Beatles or The Stones, but the impact was similar. They gave us hope where we had felt none before. And not only for me. But a whole generation of musicians who grew up after Juvenocracy grew up thinking that musical pursuits were possible and fruitful. Prior to Juvenocracy, the kids in our little town thought of music as something geeks did. But here were some cool people in a band fronted by the most popular guy in town, Noah, and they were killing it! It truly opened eyes and opened doors.
And they were really fucking good. I was in a Guitar Center with Nate and Jefe one time, and they were jamming some stuff on two acoustic guitars in the store. A fucking crowd was developing around them! I have never seen anything like it since! A fucking crowd of shoppers in Guitar Center was gathering to see who the fuck was making this amazing music over in the guitar section. And my recollection is that it truly was unique and beautiful, though today I have no idea what Juvenocracy song they were performing or if it was even a finished song or maybe just something they made up on the spot. But that was Juvenocracy – they were at their peak, really the peak of their profession – and nothing could stop them.
But here I was with Vic and Bob on stage, not having the first idea about what to say into the mic, or even knowing the lyrics to my own damn songs (I didn’t actually start writing lyrics until If Howard Roark Could Dance – a story for a different time). I mumbled and tried not to sing in my natural, high-pitch register, because I was afraid it would sound too much like a girl singing. So instead, I sang an octave down. I sang our long, boring, droning songs an octave down and sounded ridiculous. But nobody was listening, except for my mom and dad. And maybe Bob’s mom and sister, though I’m pretty sure they were chatty a bit more than any musician would like an audience member to be.
At one point, not knowing what to say and being scared of what would happen if I didn’t say anything, I threatened the audience (yes, literally threatened the audience), saying something like, “I dare anyone to come on stage without getting his ass kicked.” I think what I was trying to communicate was, “Please join us on stage for some shenanigans”, but it came out as a threat. But that is part of the risk in giving a microphone to someone who doesn’t know how to wield it. The sad thing is that to this day I remain ashamed of that passing comment and remember it as if it was yesterday. In fact, I remember my dad saying, “What?!?!” in a confusing tone as the words passed my lips. I remain horrified of the video of that night. A night I was hoping would be a triumph was a disaster. But that is the way with risks. The first time is always a disaster and it gets incrementally-better from there (of course with lots of bumps along the way). The great improv artist, Jill Bernard, told me once that the great improv artists are not consistently great. Rather the variability between above average nights and good nights gets less-and-less. And the horrible nights get less-and-less. And so it is with music performing. As we learn our craft, both in stage performance and in instrument performance, the horrible nights become less-and-less, and we are consistently better. But we cannot be great every night, although it’s possible to appear to untrained eyes & ears to have endless great nights when the scale of the performance is great (see Paul McCartney or even Brittney Spears for that matter).
For the rest of us, it’s toil for toil’s sake. But the toil is what makes the victories even sweeter.