I’m sitting under semi-muted florescent lights in the orange pall of a Dunkin Donuts about 35 miles north of NYC.
As a little reward following the laundromat or a grocery shopping excursion, I often stop here. It’s a combo deal with Baskin Robbins in the space on the left. Along the long corporate-orchestrated counter/barricade, the Dunkin Donuts sits on the right. The days of a world where even Dunkin damn Donuts can stand alone as mere donut shop have ceased to exist, and a cohabitation of the now outdated, sickly-looking aesthetic of the Baskin Robbins has stuck its cone into a plaza in Anytown, USA.
The music is coming from white drop-ceiling mounted speakers. I don’t want to bash the ‘artists’ whose identity I could immediately find for you with an app such as shazam, but at the risk of sounding ‘uncurrent’ or ‘not on the pulse.’ I really don’t usually care what their names are. To give you an idea, it’s the same shamefully addictive, formulaic songs you hear in the grocery store and laundromat, and I will hear them again when I go into the pharmacy down the street. It will be playing too loud on someone’s headphones on the bus. It will dance its covert manipulation out of the window of a head-bopping stranger’s car as I wait for a light to change. What, to me, is an insipid imposing soundtrack for life’s more mundane tasks will also be playing where I get coffee in the morning before I go to my day job. I will go to battle with younger co-workers to not have to listen to it throughout the entire shift (they hesitate to surrender, but tell me they “just block it out”).
I call this extremely typical playlist: ‘Music for People Who Don’t Really Like Music.’ Yet everywhere I seem to go: WHOOMP, THERE IT IS! I currently sport failing earbuds, which complement somehow, “Science Fiction” by Brand New. I am going to have to change to something instrumental so I can focus on what I am trying to say to you, and simultaneously block out what seems to be America’s omnipresent mind-numbing soundtrack. It’s a lot of work, this audio-aesthetic snobbery.
I am a singer/songwriter (who eschews the label singer/songwriter when prompted on the vast DIY musician forums, or when submitting to vehicles that promise airplay or soundtrack exposure) now middle aged, more comfortable in my skin and probably “better” than I ever was as both a performer and writer, but many ways, panned-Again. Paying my dues-Again. I guess I am what would be classified as a “semi-professional musician,” and have been since I was first handed $30 by some apologetic stranger at CBGB in 1990 stating this was all he could do, because it “wasn’t a big crowd tonight.” I was very naive and didn’t really grasp the sentiment of the experience in its entirety until lately. Whether or not it was fiscally rewarding, in varied venues along the east coast off and on throughout my adult life, I have written and played live and recorded music.
Declaring your band’s Genre-Of-Choice can be a tricky game, or at least for me it is. I typically blank-out when confronted with: “Oh that’s great! What KIND of music do you Play?” “Indie?” “Alternative [to what]?” “Americana?” “Blues?” What the hell do these things mean? It’s Greg Connors Music. I use an acoustic guitar mostly to write and perform with. My bass player/producer, Scott Fragala, calls us ‘Death-Folk.’ I like that, but if I had to, I would call it a more categorical ‘Post-Punk-Folk.’
‘Folk’ is an old, intricate American tradition in its most authentic form. I don’t liken myself to that. I like the stories. ‘Folk-Rock’ conjures up horrible images of grinning, posthumously iconic photos involving paisley and dumb sunglasses with attempts to find ‘meaning’ through a commercially-viable avenue and fist-pumping white people in Birkenstocks and cargo shorts.
My music has elements of sorrow, a light cast on the absurd, isolation and lyrical introspection, influenced strongly by Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Pixies, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, Vic Chesnutt, I also get moved by The Fall, Lee Hazlewood, Link Ray, Motown and (for some reason) Avril Lavigne.
Throughout my musical ‘career,’ moments of some perceived interest in my work have usually been followed by missteps, mismanagement, or blatant self-sabotage. I have back-tracked, dealt with tremendous self-doubt, depression, and I am currently in recovery from substance abuse. So, there have been some periods of time where I may have sucked with the greatest of intentions and sincerity. Part of my survival, Period, has been a recognition of the beauty of imperfection, and MAYBE an arm’s length of power within a world or arena over which I really have no control. Who has ‘cracked the code’ of sustained financial gain or popularity often makes no sense to me or many of my musician or artist friends, those with or without a following of adoring fans of their own. The Music Industry in its most modern and digital approachability has become the Wild West. Not much better than a mere ‘99 cent ringtone culture’ currently. Attention spans can be small and audiences fickle, and as recent (and not so recent) suicides show, even an implied ‘relevance’ is hardly enough to ‘fill the void.’
I had just come back from playing a few break-even shows out of town and was contemplating my grimace as I watched the man formerly known as Vanilla Ice host his new
‘Reality’ show as a master of demolition, general contracting, architectural design and renovation. He wore jeans with factory-manufactured tears and a flat-brimmed baseball cap while being filmed operating large machinery. Robert Matthew Van Winkle energetically tossed about one-line zingers and seemed to float and gloat with awkward teenage confidence through a big-money production, through editorial processes somehow appearing 20 years younger than he must be. “That’s one way to handle your one-hit-wonder clout,” I thought to myself, having also worked construction. It seemed particularly surreal and just wrong, but not surprising. Alas, all of us are “Under Pressure” in one way or another. Or are we?
“Taylor Swift is Entering a ‘Dark Phase,” read a headline at a gas station that Chris, my old pal and quasi-road manager and I, stopped at on the way to Binghamton, NY for a performance. We started discussing the music industry and how it appears amongst our own circles and relatively small panorama. These observations were eerily parroted when we spoke to Jeff Kahn, owner of Cyber Cafe West, in Binghamton, NY about an hour later. It was spooky.
“Basically, you need to throw a fucking party. The musician’s personality or the band’s sound may shape the fashion, cliques, class of people or particular booze or drugs ingested that night, but ultimately, it’s a party and the music’s quality, honesty, or even a great beat—while nice—doesn’t sell booze, food or admission fees. I wish it were different. The music is a backdrop for a ‘scene’. There’s some kind of blueprint people look at and decide to come out or they are told that this is The Happening, and suddenly it is…”
Jeff is a huge music appreciator and a musician in his own right. As my soundman that night, as well as a kindred disgruntled self-marketer, he took particular care of my sound. Jeff is seasoned. He, of course, knew the ins and outs of his own stage equipment (mostly high-end analogue), asked why I used the pedals I used in order to get a quick understanding of what I was trying to accomplish and give me a legitimate soundcheck. Seeing my preferred mic, Jeff, stepping around cafe tables from the soundboard, said, “I can do you even better,” and allowed me to use his Neumann KMS 105. He went above and beyond. I played a solid set. I could hear myself. My sound coming through the monitors had a tastefully dirty sophistication about it, and even with usual jitters I was comfortable and again felt content in my calling and aligned with the fact that this music thing is What I Do. Jeff fed both Chris and me very well. We drank delicious coffee and when I was done he paid me quite fairly, even though it “wasn’t a very big crowd tonight.” My show was advertised on his newsletter and website, well-endowed with subscribers, which also announced a different subject: Cyber Cafe West is financially failing and is for sale.
How can this be?!
The city of Binghamton that night had a trifecta of distractions from Greg Connors Music’s fragile stories of isolation, vulnerability and subtle humor, played mainly in mid-tempo, with the aim of a carnival-game patron, to a self-taught, simple chord structure. It was the first weekend the college kids were back in town and as we roamed the downtown area, we discovered it was ‘First Friday’ (the city’s monthly night for local art to represent). There was also some special light show of images on various historical buildings. There were street vendors, DJs with fantastic beats, scantily-clad college girls falling in and out of bars and dizzying light shows in the clubs. There was a surprisingly cosmopolitan look to the mostly under-30 crowd. Gigantic crowded dark bars illuminated in perforation with colored lights flashing, barely concealing the sophomoric mating rituals, reinforcing our most unevolved animal instincts and unbridled desire. Everything was loud. The Dunkin Donuts music was now insanely drunk and had taken Molly. The dynamic of this sort of scene made me uncomfortable even when I was not almost 30 years senior to its usual audience. It was gross. It was beautiful. It was overwhelming, but that’s just me…I guess.
“Basically, you need to throw a fucking party…”
Most smaller venues in NYC subcontract the booking procedure to these little agencies who communicate through emails to set up dates with perhaps-compatible acts. In most cases, they give you a shot or two to play with your promise of aggressive advertising in order to bring in 10-20-50 fans who are willing to pay $5-10 a head with the understanding that the agency, the doorman and often sub-par, coked-out sound man get paid first. There have been times in my past where under that arrangement, my band of three or four guys could leave happily drunk on complimentary crappy beer with 20 bucks…maybe each, maybe not. Things have changed. When it’s all said and done we’ve usually enjoyed ourselves, but basically paid to practice in front of people who may or may not have been listening. The axiom here is if a larger venue doesn’t book you or you’re not well-aligned with a more popular act, you won’t have a live following. But if you don’t have a live following you cannot be booked in a less ‘seat of your pants,’ fiscally-viable manner.
I have been in supporting slots for many famous people and artists with a strong following whom I actually like. Usually, the combined elements felt worthwhile. I feel that until about 15 years ago there was a significant speckling of venues with a nominal guarantee of pay, which was something to feel at least okay about; with a small gesture of appreciation, there would be a premise of presumed professionalism or a nod at all that goes into the entire process. A lot of places now act as if they are doing you a favor. I played a solo show at First Village Coffee in Ossining. Word of mouth and social media brought out local patrons who proved generous with the ‘pass the hat’ concept. A new bar, also in Ossining, Six Degrees of Separation, had a guarantee on the table, and after advertising the hell out of it, no one really came out to hear us. Nick Attila, Scott and I happened to play what was probably our most musically-gelling, tight, yet exploratory set ever. (It should be posted on YouTube soon.) I went home and wrote a new song that night called ‘Invisible Audience (like a seance).’ As far as getting a true perspective on my life, which is managing to still continue, and writing songs that I and some people whose tastes I admire find relevant, there isn’t really a fair price I could charge you for that song, but, if you’re buying, I could come up with something.
There are a lot of talented people with whom I would not consider competing. I’m not competitive or much of a schmoozer by nature. I have trouble with a contrived conversation based on an ‘ends.’ I’m not saying I am guilt-free with regards to some maladaptive, insincere reflexes. Schmooz-er is made to dance while the other is made to judge the dance, and the format of the moves is being laterally choreographed a step or two later by Schmooz-ee, while both act as if the dance is not happening. The lack of willingness to embrace that—and its overt level of bullshit, along with my other proclivities—may or not have ‘held me back.’ Who knows.? “If I had gotten everything I ever wanted, I would probably be dead,” my musician friend, Bill Kelly says. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
The ‘Party Music’ I make is for a party I’m not always sure exists, so I persevere and take care of myself. Perhaps today I focus on making the music for the penultimate scene in the movie with the anti-hero running through the airport to stop the beautiful French girl and her son from boarding the plane. The plane turns out to not be a plane at all, but a dune buggy. He overcomes his fear of driving a dune buggy (PTSD from some desert shit that went down you find out about in the prequel) within a sequence of cascading edits between his face and the steering wheel. The three of them drive to a full-moon-lit oasis with exotic birds and fruit. A brilliant, romantically self-deprecating remark is made and it seems like she’ll give him another try.
I try to learn from, and see it as an honor to coexist with, creative people who know who the Pixies or Secret Caves are, and may or may not have heard of Ed Sheeran. I don’t find that really to be an ageist “get out of my yard!” thing. It’s a yearning to relate what may be something like MY truth. I am not a huge pillar of confidence, and the delusions can flow both ways.
I honestly don’t have a one-word answer to how or whether or not I am even ‘surviving’ in this business. I write music, to express a feeling or make noise within a bigger picture, which may reach someone through means of some invisible protocol. I often have to recalibrate my definition of ‘reward’. The illuminating peak in a backdrop, painted through words of a few of my artistic heroes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed:
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-boppetty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
Just remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember different people have peculiar tastes
And the glory of love
Might see you through
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight
I’m out of range
I used to care, but
Things have changed
Up a little too early, I play guitar and answer a few emails. Having done my little routines at home I empty myself into the deli next door. Smiling faces of the familiar servers in my community, the scents of warm coffee and breakfast waft through the air as the audio confrontation begins:
“The club isn’t the best place to find a lover/so the bar is where I go (mmm)…”
It has a good beat and it sounds like an auto-tuned thumb piano accompaniment. If we HAVE to hear bragging 20-year-olds dress up their attachment issues, encoded drug use, obsessions, sexual prowess and penchant for saving money at the all you can eat buffet (with bar-sought conquest!), please ‘click’ on and sync up that beat with an auto-tuned thumb piano, for God’s sake!
by Greg Connors