Be Kind To Drummers Week3/31/19
Performing musicians have a dual terror connected with aging. One is of nursing homes. The other is of playing nursing homes.
Overweening trends in the Biz have brought us, that great benevolent herd of players and singers, strummers, honkers and sawyers, to a sorry impasse: you can be the baddest ace in the deck, but if you're over 50 and not already a Known Entity, you're out of the game. In such unsavory circumstances, retirement, assisted living and nursing homes are, as one of my musician friends of a Certain Age put it, "the new circuit."
The bar to entry isn't exactly low, you understand—you stil have to be an actual, y'know, musician to entertain seniors, no matter how feeble or unengaged they may appear. Plus, of course, it doesn't hurt to actually know what tunes get these old party dogs' feet tapping with memories of their unencumbered youth. Anymore, that's just as likely to be Elvis as Ellington. And there are the usual performance issues of audience engagement and showmanship, compounded by the probability that these darling folks don't remember their own names, let alone yours.
Still, like Chance, retirement home gigs have the overwhelming advantage of Being There, in quantities sufficient to keep even the pickiest self-promoter in phones and emails for as much time as they might care to invest. They're no easier to acquire than any other job, but if you've got the goods, they can be had, even if you're no spring chickadee. And while they don't necessarily pay union wages, you can do three a day without breaking a sweat. It's a living, as the saying goes.
I myself have been just as ambivalent as the next temporarily underemployed rock star about chasing the Golden Age crowd (come to think of it, I've always been ambivalent about booking in any form). But without really meaning to, I've lucked or skidded into a couple home gigs that hire me repeatedly for a wage I actually like. Given that my most consistant musical work in the last ten years has been as bum repellent in public parks (a tale for another time), I'm fairly inured to eating what's put before me.
Part of keeping any recurring gig is a certain amount of that all-too-human passtime, politicking. In order to gain entrance to one Jewish home I started playing a once-a-year mitzvah birthday party show that included a few klezmer tunes (manfully approximated on guitar and harmonic minor harmonica in mixolydian mode) (also a tale for another time). In consideration, management gave me a paid concert—just an all-American unspoken quid pro quo, which venerable institution probably built this country more than guns, guts and Gawd ever did. At one of these pro bono natal commemorative affairs I met Jimmy the Drummer.
Jimmy, proudly flourishing in his mid-80s, was no resident, but his wife was. He'd been a pro drummer for many years, he explained, and his wife had been quite the singer. Long retired, he had a garage full of kits and nowhere to play, and he asked whether I needed drums for the party. He could play any style, he assured me, he'd played national tours for big name acts, he'd never been fired. He sold the sizzle out of his steak. Initially skeptical, I decided why not, just this once. Jimmy hustled off and brought out a drumkit the same vintage as himself, and we went at it.
I was...well, not disappointed, but Jimmy sounded all too much like he looked, a nice old guy who used to play drums and wanted to relive his past. His beat was gelid, his fills perfunctory, his style sense every bit the equal of a Wurlitzer drum machine. Ringo he wasn't. But he loved every moment of it, and the audience was inspired at the sight of one of their ilk up front and in color (who, me? You don't understand. I'm not even 70 yet. I'm a kid). They gave us a rousing ovation and I chalked it off to experience and went on about my variegated business.
Until a few months later when I came back for my paid engagement and found Jimmy already camped out in the middle of the performance space.
Yeah, I was angry. While I might play one on TV, I am generally not a peaceful man when it comes to my performances. Strutting my stuff requires so much ego inflation that it's a wonder I don't devolve to hooting and chest-beating mid-set. But however resentful I felt of his impertinence in crashing my stage, I was constrained by two principles. First, Vonnegut's advice to babies: be kind. Jimmy didn't know he was yanking my chain, he was just being enthusiastic. And second, the Japanese Rule: the first one who gets mad in public loses. It's a pity more people don't recognize this timeless homily. I suppose it might be amended to include the stricture "...unless they have a gun."
Anyhoo, I caved. I asked him politely to at least move over and share the space with me, geared up, and did my thang, with Jimmy banging away cheerfully and arrhythmically on the side. I get paid the same either way, and the audience again ate it up and expressed its delight.
Then I spent the following six months and change in awful anticipation of my next mitzvah show. I awoke in the night, a seething conglomerate of hypothalamic rage, bitingly sarcastic diatribes dancing in my head. As the appointed date loomed, I considered asking management to head him off at the stage door or refusing to play if he was squatting on my turf. Eventually I talked myself down, devised a songlist I knew even he couldn't step on, went out to play, and—no Jimmy.
While I was relieved, I didn't have the heart to ask what had happened to my erstwhile accompanist. I was just glad I hadn't gone all Incredible Hulk about the whole thing.