A few weeks ago, I sat behind a drum kit on the stage at the Blue Bear School of Music, which is housed in a stuffy enclave of San Francisco's Fort Mason. My audience was the school's director, who was evaluating my candidacy for the drummer slot in their Wednesday night Basic Rock and Blues band workshop.
He called me a few days later. "It looks like our Wednesday band is shaping up to be more.... intermediate," he told me on the phone a few days later. "We do have a band on Saturday afternoons at your skill level, if that would work for you." I was too beginner for a beginner class, it turns out.
"Do you need any singers for the Wednesday class?" I said.
That's how I came to be a lead singer in a temporary band that will have only one concert on Dec. 12, at a place called the Red Devil Lounge. Our drummer, who is 11 years old, exceeds my playing experience by four years. His dad, a talented musician named Aric who also happens to vaguely resemble Eric Clapton, is our lead guitarist.
Our bassist is a quiet high-school sophomore whose face is curtained by straight blond hair and typically teenaged skin, while our rhythm guitarist is a pale-denimed man in his early 40s, I'm guessing. Then there's me -- and our other singer, a buff, twentysomething showboat named Reuben.
Reuben actually swivels his hips when he sings "Use Me" by Bill Withers, one of his appointed song choices. He doesn't seem to get nervous about impromptu performing, really. "It's all stage time," he said in our first rehearsal. "I love that." He clearly loves to be up in front of people.
Reuben provides a nice counterpoint to my performance style, which is to hunch my shoulders as much as possible while looking at the floor and trying to steady the tremors -- hand, voice, whatever -- that plague me while I try to project my voice beyond the microphone stand.
It's a natural and logical assumption that most people who go out for a band or a singing group or any other kind of stage act actually enjoy putting themselves on display. I'm a serious approval addict, so I can't pretend that getting applause from people doesn't gratify me, but I really do not relish being on stage.
Whatever the opposite of "stage presence" is, I have it. In one college video, which my friends once replayed and mocked with gusto, I swiftly and ungracefully retreat from the microphone before the last syllable of my solo number is even out of my mouth. I always preferred the idea of being the backup singer, the ensemble player, the drummer -- someone who is part of the show, but not in the spotlight.
From high school onward, I could never keep myself from auditioning, and it almost didn't matter for what. I loved memorizing a monologue, learning a dance routine or practicing a song for the purpose of performing it exactly one time, as a test. I liked the camaraderie and nervousness and competition: Are you ready, how do you feel, how did you do, who made it? I liked seeing if my name was on the list or not, and usually managed not to stake much emotion on the results. After all, it was just a play or a show chorus or a pom squad -- and what would I have done with myself if I'd actually been talented enough to win a key role?
I went into the audition for my college a capella group with the same attitude, until I got in the room and the people there actually dared to suppose that I could be better than I believed I was. They challenged me, encouraged me, put me through the wringer and then, instead of putting me on a list, arrived at my dorm room en masse with booze and singing and hugs and raucousness.
Yes, thanks, I know that it is dorky. It was still awesome and one of the best things that ever happened in my life. I don't think that anyone has had the luck and/or talent to be in University of Pennsylvania's Off the Beat (laugh it up) and managed to graduate without, for a moment, wishing that they could just be in that group for the rest of their lives. Some of us (Gabriel Mann, Goldspot, Vaeda, Larry Kraut) are honest-to-God serious, bitchin' musical commodities now. The rest of us live in professional shells while still craving that experience of making music, rehearsing, performing and touring with a family just as loving, maddening and dysfunctional as our blood relations.
I won't ever have my college experience again, and I know that. It's OK. But I have continued to seek it out, off and on, for the last 15 years. You can be an 11-year-old kid, a fortysomething dad, a sad-sack, a freak, a diamond-industry scion, a working-class butch lesbian, a grandmother from New Jersey, a bo-hunk, a nerd or a milquetoast office professional, and I will know you in a very specific way, which is that we once stood anxiously together in the wings of a dingy stage somewhere, testing ourselves and briefly delighting peoople and ending the evening triumphant and best friends.