Many years ago, someone asked me, “What do you do?” and it was the first time I’d heard that. It’s a cliche that is apparently considered a bit rude to ask. I was dating into a (not quite) wealthy family, and someone’s wife started in with these questions.
“What do you do?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. I thought about it, as I’d never heard such a question in my twenty years before having this poolside chat. Someone came to my aid, and said, “His father owns Mobile Oil.” I thought to myself, well, my Dad has a gas station franchise, that’s close enough. I don’t know what I said, if anything, but I did sing a song of my own for everyone out by the pool right after that.
There was a point within a year of that incident where I wondered if I should say “I’m a musician,” or, “I work at Bud’s Shell,” or, “I crash parties in Pacific Heights, steal Ray-Bans...and do not suffer fools gladly.” It seemed false to claim being a musician when I paid my bills working as a cashier, wearing a shirt printed with my name. Over time, I found if I could stay alive at the level of poverty on my musician income, only then had I earned the title of Musician, for what that was worth.
Choosing the job title was more like an identity crisis than a problem of committing to a musician’s life. In those days, my idea of “work” was the same as “look busy.” The last “look busy” job I had was stuffing envelopes at a law firm, which was where everyone seemed to work in town before the Internet jobs came along.
These days I work only in music-related jobs. Making recordings, live sound, playing shows; there’s always something plugging into something else. However, I still have the same conundrum if I have to reveal what I do in order to make conversation. Do I say I’m a musician, or a recording or live sound guy?
My answer is that it doesn’t matter. Perceptions become reality. If I start wearing black shorts and a hoodie over my gut, then I’m a fully-realized sound guy. There’s a similarly derisive stereotype of the studio engineer. I’m a musician – I have the uniform. Ultimately it is all I want to do, it’s the reason I do any of those other related things on the side. I’ll consider it a gift that I can figure out the songs and the wiring equally well.
Despite my desire for public attention, I want privacy beyond the point of secrecy. I shut my curtains, never wanting to be seen; I only answer the door for the postman, who actually does ring twice. I think I know myself, but the revelations come when someone else — who knows me well — points out something about me or my actions. It’s as if I am insisting that the world see me as I see myself, and yet at the same time I won’t allow myself to be seen.
I was sitting in Davies Hall waiting for the SF Symphony to begin one night, and a voice inside my head said, “Grow up and start having fun.” I don’t normally hear voices; for me they’re like dreams, not totally real, but in a way I understand it’s something that is coming from inside me. Grow up and start having fun: The only fun I knew then was within the lifestyle that I’d grown accustomed to. The fun I hadn’t been having was to enjoy my life as the person I might not even know yet. I could get away from the past, the old behavior, and just see what comes with a new outlook and attitude. Granted, it helps if you aren’t around any of your old friends and family, who tempt you to engage in something that pulls you right back into the old dance. For me it was a slow change, a strange transition. If I feel different, then maybe I am for a little while.
I can’t imagine today having a much better answer for the fat lady by the pool. If I wanted to get clever, I could just borrow Ray Davies’ line “It’s your life and you can do what you want…”
Michael Israel - Drums; Pete Straus - Bass; Rob Bayne - bongos; CVS- Guitars pianos and singing. Tracked 3/2/08 Hyde St Studios, completed at Tape Vault
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