Saturday, October 10, 2009

Saga Of My Summer, Part One

I'll start with a little bit of background.
Since this will be my first published blog, a good bit more background will be a good thing, and will be here at some point. For the point of this story, however, at least a little is necessary for the setup.
"A little," as you'll come to realize, my dear reader, is not my forte. I'm admittedly wordy, but that's because I feel that English is lacking in genuine descriptiveness and therefore I find myself having to use a lot of it in order to convey some thoughts and ideas as accurately as possible. That's not my fault, I'm just dealing with it.
Here we go:

*cough* *ahem*

I preach "do what you love" a lot, and do my struggling best to live it, but some choices and aptitudes/talents make it difficult.
I am a self-taught sound engineer. I love it with genuine passion for lots of reasons. When I'm working in my field I have the rare pleasure of being someone who can honestly say, "I can't wait to go to work."
I'm also damned good at it, if I do say so myself. And I do. Because there's no one else here right now to say it for me. There are two reasons for that, at least one of which will certainly be preached about at length in some future blog: 1, I have a talent for it, and 2, I love it with a genuine passion. Often you will find, if you haven't already, that the two of those things usually go together.

Being a sound engineer causes certain difficulties. There is little demand for people who do what I do, which means there aren't many jobs available in my field. It's also very much a "who you know" kind of business, which makes it even harder to break into.
I recently told a young design/illustration student that, "the key to lifelong happiness is finding what you love to do for a living; the key to unending frustration is having that be something that there's little demand for."
Anyway, I'm trying very hard to get where I want to be.

I had this other job that really sucked. I mean REALLY sucked, like most of you reading this thinking, "MY job sucks" or, "I've had jobs that sucked" have no idea... and those who do I truly feel sympathy for. It wasn't just that it sucked, most "jobs" do that, but it was done in an abusive environment.
I went home every day dangerously angry, and depression was engulfing me.
So on one particular morning after I thought, "what if I drove my bike right off this bridge here" on my way to work I told them I was sick and went right back home.
My idea at that point was to find any job I could find, even if it meant working at a gas station or something, and I got right to work on it the minute I got back home.
You could say that this job's sucking bad was a good thing in that it was the most powerful motivator I've ever experienced (well, that and the fact that I was paid so poorly that I had to find another job immediately if I quit that one).
I had already gotten a little bit lucky recently in that I had written some passionate and fairly intelligent things on an internet forum and one of the good-hearted members, Mike, had looked into his contacts and come up with a name and number for me to call in upstate NY, a man he had "heard sometimes hires soundguys." (This guy knew me from nothing more than my forum posts... never underestimate the power of good writing.) I had been in very brief contact with this man, Mark, and had sent him my resume (also don't underestimate the power of good writing). That's all. He's a very busy man and it took me over a month to get a real chance to talk to him, which I took as a good sign that he might need smart people. I pushed hard and played persistent.
I finally got the opportunity to have a talk with him the day after I quit my other job. Obviously that couldn't possibly have worked out better.

That was on a Tuesday.

Up to that point I knew very little about the company. At the time of the original forum post that started that whole ball Mike had known that my intent was to "move up" in sound, that while I had plenty of music experience most of my work was in simpler things. Corporate events, weddings, local or regional music, things of that nature. I wasn't expecting to make a sudden lucky jump into the big time, but I wanted to work someplace where at least most of my work would be mixing music. So all I knew or speculated about Mark's company was that that was the kind of place Mike would hopefully be recommending to me.
My first real conversation with Mark let me know fairly quickly that it was more than I'd expected. For example, while I was talking with him he was interrupted by another, obviously more important call on another phone, which I was able to overhear. They were discussing some woman who worked for him who was currently touring Europe as the Stage Manager for Black Sabbath. (I found out soon after that she didn't work for him, she has her own company and they work together most of the time.)
Tired of working in the Little League, trying to get into the Minor League, suddenly I realized that I had made contact with someone who might turn out to be a recruiter for the Majors.
At this point I double-checked my game face.

We talked for maybe 10 minutes about what sorts of things he had going on for the summer. There was a weekly concert in Syracuse they were doing that featured national acts, of which he mentioned a few. Skid Row was one.
I don't know who you are, but I was a teenager in the 1980s, and Rock 'n' Roll/Heavy Metal was my scene. That whole silly '80s thing. (Yeah, you should have seen me.) So that sounded pretty cool to me.
Other things he mentioned were the New York State Blues Festival, K-Rockathon, several regional festivals and Moe.Down. "That's kickass," I thought. My favorite style of music and kind of concert/festival is what they're calling "Jamband," and Moe is one of the best.
The next weekend they would be doing the Syracuse Jazz Festival, which was being headlined by Kenny G. Also very cool, because being that Jazz and Jamband are stylistically closely related, Jazz is tied with Bluegrass (what I like to refer to as "Hillbilly Jazz") as my second favorite kind of music. Over the course of this summer I would get to work closely and grinning with all three.

I have to say for the record that in my opinion Kenny G. is barely "Jazz" (I had to use the quotes), and is not particularly pleasing to this fairly seasoned and very well-rounded listener, but you're welcome to enjoy whatever wets your noodle. Everything else that happened on the A stage at Jazz Fest was fantastic, and so was Kenny's band. And yes, I still listen to a lot of Heavy Metal, but a large portion of what's out there is garbage.

During the conversation I made it clear that I was not the "typical" soundguy (sorry guys), that I not only "would" participate and help out in all other areas of show creation, but that I enjoyed it. I would gladly build stages, help with rigging, load trucks, assist with lighting (and can operate them to an extent), etcetera, in addition to being skilled and experienced in pretty much everything that happens on a stage during a concert or festival. I wanted to work. I also, I think, exuded confidence. One of my strengths is that I can do that very well, and it works (in so many ways). Frankly it's not that difficult to do when you truly are confident. I also made it clear that I was available immediately and could be there within a couple of days if necessary.
And... I failed "the two question math test." I tried to impressively spit out a quick answer like someone who still has their multiplication tables memorized, which I don't, instead of taking 5 awkward seconds to do some math in my head.

He said that he might have sound stuff available mainly on his B rig, but that if I'd do other stuff he could definitely work me steadily. Jazz Fest was the next weekend and they would start building the stages on Monday. We decided it would be best if I was going to come up to be there right from the very beginning of a gig, so that I could see everything about how they do one. It was a good one to get thrown into, as it consisted of a full build and then an all-day festival on Friday and Saturday. The idea was for me to come up for a week and we could check each other out... obviously mostly for him to find out if what I had exuded on the phone had actually been bullshit, and if I would actually be useful to him. There was a lot for me to think about too, not the least of which was the possibility/idea of moving to what I'm told is the snow capitol of the world (currently my motorcycle is my only transportation).

As an aside, for anyone who's interested (if you're not you're welcome to feign interest, or simply practice your reading for the next 390 words), the difference between a "festival" and a "concert," from the perspective of those who are producing it: A concert is a single show on one stage, featuring one or two artists. It's not "easy," but it can be simplified a bit by the fact that you can do almost 100% of the setup beforehand for both acts, with a nice, smooth and planned transition between them. The artists and their musical gear are almost always there several hours before the show, and if there are problems you have time (though never "plenty") to deal with them. By the time the show starts it's just "walk out and go." A festival is a show with at least three artists. It's a lot more complicated, and much more labor and thought intensive. The headliner (the last act of the night) and their gear are almost always there several hours before the show, and the act right before them may be too. Everyone else shows up at about the time the band before them is taking the stage (hopefully). Sometimes they use backline (the onstage amplifiers and drums) that's already provided and therefore mostly set up and ready offstage, sometimes they bring their own and it has to all get set up. For the transitions between the bands there is sometimes another, "B" stage, which can allow anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to set up and sound check while the audience is otherwise entertained. If there isn't, you may have as little as 15 minutes to clear a band, their instruments, and some or all of the amplifiers off the stage, get another set of gear set up, miked and checked, and deal with any problems that come up (and there's almost always at least one).

As we ended the conversation, he said to give him another day to think about it and to call him again tomorrow.
I started making preparations for a long trip and not being home for a long time, doing laundry and putting a lot of thought into what all I should bring, that could be packed onto a motorcycle, to be someplace for a few months. That wasn't too hard, but other than that I had no plan whatsoever and very little money.
I have to say that I'm very proud of being someone who's capable of making a decision to travel 1000 miles from home so spontaneously that I don't even know where I'm going to sleep when I get there, with no fear. ("Fear is the mind killer.")
And I had less than $150 to do it with.
Being that this happened so suddenly, I didn't even have a plan yet for what to do about my dog, Lester. I arranged for my ex-girlfriend to take care of him for me, and possibly be his new home.

The phone call the next day was brief, simply letting me know it was a go. I humbly informed him of more of my personal situation (I thought that was a bit of a risk with a potential employer, but I wasn't in a position of having much choice, and he seemed pretty cool), that I was pretty much broke and had no idea what I would do about a place to stay once I got there. I'm happy to camp, and planned on doing that from the start and until I could find something else... and possibly the entire summer, but also by the time I got up there I wouldn't have enough money left for even a night of camping.
He told me he'd hook me up with some money when I got there, and that for a few nights at least I could crash at their warehouse. I could even perhaps set up camp for a while there too. In addition, Jazz Fest was a show that would have trailers/campers backstage for the artists, and it shouldn't be a problem for me to stay nights in one of those once they were delivered.
It was decided for sure that he wanted me there, ready to work, by Monday morning at 8. I said OK, and before I got off the phone I told him I'd send him an email that went a little further into detail about myself, things that don't go into a resume.
I know he's a busy guy, but apparently he did take the time to read that email because he quoted a few things I said back to me, with a smile, during my first workday. (Like my motto, "shit in, shit out.")

I then set about finishing my preparation and planning. I mapped out the route I would take to get there, which would be my longest motorcycle trip so far, 970 miles. That would take me two days... yes, I drive a bike faster than most cars, but I also make more stops and butt-fatigue will only allow one to handle so many hours in a single day. I decided to make it three days, with a day stop to visit my best friend, Chris, just South of Richmond, VA, do some drinking and possibly get a new tattoo.
That meant leaving early Friday morning, and it was already Wednesday. I arranged for Kay to pick up Lester on Thursday and set about packing my luggage and saddlebags for a trip I had no idea when I'd come home from (I was NOT planning on being there for just a week, I was planning on knocking Mark's socks off and getting a JOB). THAT, my dear reader, is no simple task, but it teaches you a lot about what you really "need" (something I already know quite a bit about, is part of my philosophy, and I'm sure I'll blog about to great lenghts... so I already had an advantage over most people who would be attempting the same thing).

Well, come Thursday Kay called me and informed me that she was in a fight with her sister and she wouldn't be able to get Lester. BIG freakin' problem. Sudden stress. Yay.
I couldn't think of many other options... I don't have a lot of friends, I've always been more of a "few good friends" person. I called the only friend I thought would be able to help me out with that at literally a moment's notice, and for his own reasons he couldn't do it. I then swallowed my pride and called a former landlord who I knew liked my dog and loves dogs in general. He hardly knows me and we haven't hung out much, so it's hard to technically call him a "friend," but we do have a lot in common and since he said "yes" I have to say he definitely is one, and a good one. It was raining, so Kay did come by and give us a ride over to his house, which is close to where I live now (which was good... time was getting shorter and shorter on me). It was an incredible load off my chest, as I had almost lost it when I thought I wouldn't be able to go because of my dog, and I love him too much to just give him to anybody.

So, everything was pretty much taken care of.
I tried to get to bed early that night so I would be plenty rested for my ride, but of course I didn't sleep as well as I should have. I was still very stressed from my situation (just because relief is in sight, or even already here, doesn't mean the stress just dissolves), and between that and also being excited I'm lucky I slept at all.
Sleep or no sleep, I managed to get up early Friday morning. That's good, because it took me longer to pack everything safely onto my bike than I thought it would, like an hour and a half. Hey, it was my first time. I had luggage (designed for a bike, and chosen for it's large capacity since I need it constantly for going for groceries, etcetera), rain gear, my US Army sleeping bag (best warmth-to-weight ratio you can get in a sleeping bag, and far cheaper than civilian camping/backpacking alternatives), camping supplies - which in my case consisted of a pair of Army ponchos, they can make a tent and they can do so much more - toiletries, a hatchet, tent stakes, a pair of antique linen towels (also great to have, more absorbent than terry towels, smaller, dry quicker......), shoes, lots of stuff.
I got it all strapped on proudly, spent a few minutes just looking at it (many of us like to spend time just looking at our bikes), and wrapped one of the ponchos around the whole load because there was a slight possibility of rain along my route that day.
I finished my second cup of coffee, went to the bathroom to get rid of the first cup, geared up, made a rockin' selection on my iPod, and set out on the road for what was to be the biggest adventure of my life so far.

And thus, my dear reader, begins the saga of my summer.


  1. Great first post. The dog would have been an issue for me as well. What can I say? I wasnt' a dog person until I met my husband and now we have a German Shorthaired Pointer that is, for all intensive purposes, my baby. I'm not sure I could leave him. I admire your courage and I can't wait to read what happens/happened next. =)

  2. Thanks for my first comment, Theadra.
    I really appreciate it.
    Now I have to figure out how to let my comments show up automatically instead of having to moderate and "publish" them. I can't seem to find where to do that... think you can help me out?

  3. Came here from Theadra's blog...great first post. (Wordy? My kind of blogging.) :)

    I want to know how the summer saga turns out.

    Also, I'm envious. I love music, and would love to be able to make a living either making it or being around it all the time. In fact, I played in several local bands back in the early/mid '90s. It was a hell of a lot of fun; I thought for sure I'd be a rock star someday. Well...yeah. Haven't been in a band in 10 years now, and haven't picked up the bass in 10 months. But you never know, there might be a market out there that'll let me relive my glory days. 80s metal seems to be kind of coming back, so there might be a slot for me there; I'm all over that stuff. :)

    So what's next in the world of sound engineering?