I have a regular weekly gig at a really nice restaurant an hour away from here. When we began (“we” = a piano player and myself), we were playing 3 nights a week; a few years ago it went down to two, and now it’s a single Friday night for me. While I do like having the freedom to go do things with SWMBO (google it) on my now-free evenings, I also miss the larger paycheck – and, well, I LIKE my job, so ultimately I’d rather be playing than not playing. But I have opportunities to play elsewhere now, so it’s not so bad. Having played with my pianist (hereafter referred to as “gig spouse”, or GS) over 1400 times on that same stage, you’d think I’d be sick of it. And you’d be ri…. uh, well, no, not rea… uh, well, it’s complicated.
The following is a blow-by-blow depiction of a typical Friday afternoon and evening:
Sometime around noon, I consider which bass I want to play that evening. I have several – dozens, actually – but I require a 5- or 6-string fretted bass for this gig, and I have 3 that meet those requirements. I also make sure that my trusty bass-playing chair – a $35 tall fold-up job from Bed Bath & Beyond – is in the van, ensuring that I will have something I can get onto and off of, and be able to play my bass while sitting on it (chairs with arms are impossible to use for guitarists), as well as my bag of cables and effect pedals. I get the van loaded up (don’t forget the bass, dude!), and then I’m free until about 3:30.
This is a classy joint, so it’s nice slacks for me, and an ironed shirt (not by me or SWMBO, though – I have my gig clothes picked up and delivered pressed). Now, buttons are evil as far as I’m concerned. I almost never wear them if I don’t have to, because trying to fiddle with tiny objects with a nearly-numb right hand is more punishment than challenge. Takes me a good 20 minutes to don shirt, pants, and shoes, partially because I’m also dressing my right leg, a body part that doesn’t move by itself anymore (or if it DOES move, it moves the opposite direction that I want at any given time). Putting on pants is like trying to dress an uncooperative mannequin.
I take the rollator to the gig; since I get the best parking spot in the lot, it’s a whole sixty feet from van to stage, and said stage is elevated about 10 inches, the powerchair would be pointless. Once I’m dressed, I park the chair in the front room, pull the rollator in front of me, push myself up to standing position, and head out to the van. Amazingly enough, it’s approximately 9 minutes from bedroom to driver’s seat, something that throws off my schedule more often than I’d care to admit.
Most folks in a similar situation to me would have electronic controls for their vehicle. Well, I don’t. You see, the state requires you to pay $400 to take a course to prove that you’re capable of running a vehicle with HC controls. Then you have to pay $800+ to purchase them, plus installation. Well, state, I got news for you: I played video games throughout my childhood. I will have zero problems with these controls you want me to use. Can I skip the class? No? Fine, then, I’ll manage without, thank you very much…
Driving post-DX involved some retraining and reassignment for my 3 functioning limbs. My right leg is no longer part of Team Getaround, although it still tags along for moral support. Once I’ve stowed my rollator behind the driver’s seat and shoved my body into place, my right leg gets to rest until I arrive at said destination. My left foot has been trained to use the brake, my right HAND holds a forearm crutch which pushes on the gas pedal, and my left hand holds a knob mounted at 10:00 on the steering wheel, like you’d see on a city bus. I’ve gotten very good at reaching over and moving the gear lever with my left hand when necessary (i.e., backing up) and returning to the wheel. When I’m on the freeway, cruise control is my friend, and is truly the only “electronic control” I need. I’ve driven this way since sometime in ‘09, and have never caused an accident or gotten a ticket in that time span. Interestingly, MS has made me a MUCH better driver, supporting the notion that you don’t drive with your hands and feet, but your eyes, ears, and brain.
The gig starts at 6:30, so I try to leave the house by 4; Friday afternoon traffic means it will take me twice as long to get there as it would otherwise. Depending on the traffic reports, I have something on the order of 3 dozen shortcuts I can take to get to the gig on time. It’s like Marc Cohn singing 29 Ways, tryin’ to get to his baby’s door.
Once I’m finally parked at the gig (HC spot, feet from the front door, like a rockstar), I pry myself out of the driver’s seat, stand up (carefully!), remove my rollator, and balance my bass, chair, and effects bag on top of it; then I push my way inside. Most of the time, the valet on duty knows me, and will often offer to help and hold the door open. Then it’s through the foyer and into the lounge, where I remove each item from the rollator and toss it onstage, lift the rollator onto the stage, then use the piano to push myself up and onto the stage. Onstage, I have an amp, a line to the mixing board, a microphone, and a stand for my bass waiting for me. Setup is 5 minutes max…. UNLESS…
….unless the waitstaff or the players who were there the night before left things in the way or moved things out of place. Often there’s a folding chair or a large barstool where I set up, and I have to ask for help getting it out of the way. Or someone will have moved the amp to where it’s nearly impossible to reach, and moving it back requires a fair bit of contortion (which uses energy that could have been saved for playing bass – google “spoon theory” sometime). It’s one more reminder of the fact that I am limited in my ability to do certain things, and frankly, it’s never welcome, no matter what my mood. It’s often a bad omen too: cables and batteries seem to fail more on nights where my space has been “temporarily repurposed”.
The gig itself is simple, and I’ve actually developed a technique specifically for certain songs we play in the duo: I’ve learned to use my right thumb as a guitar pick, growing out the nail so I get a good attack with both downstroke and upstroke. If I’m careful, and I employ my index finger for popping certain notes on the upbeat, I can elicit what sounds a lot like a drum kit and bass playing in perfect sync. This gives certain songs more of a full band rock feel, and can cover more musical space without having to have a 3rd person on the gig to split the pot with. I don’t do this on every song – I use various picks for others – but it’s been very useful to have around.
Sometimes, however, for whatever reason (too hot, too spent, can’t breathe, etc.), I have a very hard time playing and/or singing. Breathing issues make singing (usually backup, but sometimes lead) quite difficult, but I’ve gotten through gigs with laryngitis before. When my body turns traitor, however, fine motor control is the first to go; this means that my right hand, already quite compromised, is unable to hold onto a pick well and unable to be consistent with my thumb on the strings. If it gets bad enough, I have to resort to my “careersaver” pick, that has a loop that goes around my finger and is impossible to drop. It’s less than ideal, but it sounds okay, and it indeed gets me through the gig. Once again, however, the necessity of needing a “crutch” is rather depressing… some nights I just can’t get over myself, and I fail to remember that I’m still playing bass at a gig instead of lying in bed in the fetal position waiting to die. Even though this is old news, I don’t like it, and never will.
My gig spouse is quite the social butterfly, and knows 90% of the waitstaff as well as nearly half of the clientele. I’m much more of an introvert; usually I’m content to sit in the foyer and phone-surf during breaks, but sometimes I’ll be invited to have a seat and visit with some of GS’s friends/acquaintances. In these cases, it’s a very rare person who isn’t gracious, accommodating, and willing to offer assistance should I need it; pushing the rollator around gets people’s attention, let’s face it, but I’m grateful that I rarely get those people who look away quickly and/or admonish their children not to stare. I sometimes wonder if they’d behave the same way towards me if I wasn’t GS’s bass player, but I guess I’ll never know.
Sometimes, having MS comes in handy: one evening GS and I were visiting people at a nearby table, and one woman in the group apparently had way too many cosmopolitans and insisted on discussing underwear. She loudly demanded to know which of the men at the table preferred boxers over briefs. Each man was accosted in turn, being forced to defend their choice in undergarments while everyone else muttered to each other about how drunk the woman was. Finally, she came to me, stuck her finger in my face, and said, “Okay: boxers, or briefs?”
I smirked, narrowed my eyes, and replied, “Depends.”
It was incredible: her expression went from depends on what? to oh, THOSE depends! to oh my god I’m so embarrassed to that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard to I’m definitely going to hell for laughing at this man in the space of 3 seconds. The entire table got deathly quiet, then someone snorted, and you’d have thought a bomb went off as everyone busted a gut at the same time. I was sure I had ruptured an internal organ trying to keep it in. Ah, sweet pain….
For the record, I don’t wear Depends, but I do keep a stock of Poise pads for men just in case I expect to have a really bad day. Better safe than sorry, you know.
After the third and final set, it’s a quick pack-up-and-get-out-of-Dodge for me, as I rarely feel the need to hang around; I have an hour’s drive ahead of me and want to get home before the sleepies kick in. I’ve learned how to put everything away and push it to the edge of the stage, so I can place the rollator down on the main level, get myself there as well, and then start loading gear up for the trip back to the van. You learn to count pieces you bring in, and count them again on the way out before you start moving (not just at the gig, but every time I move); for me, I have the “big 4”, which means wallet, phone, keys, and mobility apparatus (either rollator or powerchair), and then I have the “small gig 3” which means bass, chair, and effects bag. Diligently counting the items I should have with me all but ensures that I’ll never have to retrace my steps looking for something I forgot. This is a big deal when every step means a push-up, and you’re on limited energy.
The drive home usually includes an egg & cheese burrito (protein is brain food!) and a Powerade from Del Taco or Sonic, as well as listening to a radio program called Coast To Coast, where some of the strangest people get interviewed for our entertainment. Good to have something to keep me awake on the drive home, where I usually arrive about half past midnight.
So there it is, folks; that’s how someone who can’t walk properly gets to, from, and through a performance. It’s still worth it; there’s nothing I’d rather do for a living than play or teach bass lessons. As long as this is as tedious as it gets, I suppose I’ll continue to soldier on. Still beats Disability.