Honor among the strugglers, strivers

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

By the time you read this, my bandmates and I will have logged another night in the American Bar Band Wilderness, a Thursday night engagement at a gloriously dumpy, postage-stamp sized venue in Culver City, the Cinema Bar.

Though I’m writing this on Wednesday, I feel safe in divining the turnout will have been as expected: about 25. That’s 25 chances to make a new fan, and maybe 25 tips in the jar. And with our cut from the bar, each of the five of us will have likely walked away with about $35.

Why do it, then? It’s a fair question.

The American Bar Band Wilderness is not a club one aspires to join when picking up the rudiments of musical expression, usually as a teenager. And though most members are loathe to admit belonging, it’s nonetheless a vast organization that is never short on recruits.

A common misconception is that it is populated by has-beens, never-beens, and no-talents. But take it from me, a 40-something year veteran of this magnificent ragtag institution, the reality on the beer-soaked ground is much more complex. Many of those engaged in this rough labor are in fact master musicians that, but for a quirk of happenstance, a threshold not crossed, geography, or uncertainty, would be widely renowned and handsomely remunerated members of the elite musical class.

Take for example, Thursday, February 29, when a group of just such veteran artists will gather at 8 p.m. at the Canyon Club in Montclair for “A Concert for George Harrison.” The core band, The Country Squires, is made up of world-class musicians, some from local bands like Mick Rhodes and the Hard Eight (I’ve heard of them) and The Dogs, others who play with bigger acts, such as the “King of California,” Dave Alvin. The players’ pedigrees are impeccable, their talent undeniable, and they’ll be bringing all those years of hard work to bear on some of the most glorious rock music ever written. I’ll be there to sing a few songs with them, and I hope you will be too. Tickets are $10-$15 at axs.com/events, search “George Harrison.”

After so many years of sweating it out on small stages like the Canyon Club — and in hundreds of much smaller venues — with great players, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the artistry, determination, and beauty of these under the radar masters. If the world made sense, they would be stars. But music, like life, just isn’t fair.

Mick Rhodes and the Hard Eight at the Cinema Bar in Culver City, California, on September 2, 2023. Photo/Christopher Lockett

Great poets, actors, comedians, painters, novelists, songwriters, and musicians don’t just “rise to the top.” Talent, hard work, and determination can get you close, but that’s certainly not a guarantee. You’ve got to have some luck too, or at least a familiar surname.

Most young musical hobbyists opt out early, understandably discouraged by that inevitable, bruising first wave of disappointment and degradation. Others soldier on. Why? Some because it’s the only remotely marketable skill they possess. Most toil away at related day jobs — guitar repair, vintage guitar buyer, recording engineer — and keep their dreams alive by night in their second, less financially secure gig. And though a few of my contemporaries have risen up the ranks to respectability and acclaim, most of us are still kicking around the lower rungs, if not content with our lot, resigned.

We dreamed of making music our life’s work. What kind of life it provided was not important. What mattered was the doing.

After a while — a decade or four — a kind of nobility has formed among the strugglers and strivers, us meat and potatoes workers playing three sets a night to ambivalent suburbanites just trying to have a couple hours of boozy fun before Monday comes ‘round again. We’ve learned to transcend the indignities and focus on the moments of beauty. The callouses we have developed aren’t just on our hands.

We became “professional musicians,” but not those you see at the Grammy Awards or Coachella; we’re the ones who load our gear up, drive across town, clock in, set it all up, and then work for a few hours, trying to get our songs heard over the din of conversation. There’s no “hospitality” backstage. Hell, there’s no backstage. There isn’t, and never will be, a case of still water, six bottles of good Champagne, a fresh local fruit and vegetable tray, and 24 clean black hand towels. Our riders (entertainment speak for artists’ backstage requirements) are nonexistent. We hope for clean power and a meal, and even those aren’t always part of the deal.

And then at the end of our shift we break it all down, load it up, clock out, and drive home with a few bucks in our pocket.

Then we wake up and do it all over again.

Some may be surprised to learn that, after adding that time loading, driving, playing, loading, driving home, and unloading, most of these one-nighters actually eat up about eight hours, the same as most workaday shifts. The relatively short period spent playing music is the great reward among the grunt work tedium.

If you’re thinking all this reads like a 1970s Springsteen lyric, you’re right. Though we’re not working in a mine or as rural highway patrolmen, we are similarly sweating away in anonymity, blessed to be doing what we’ve wanted to do since we were kids, but working hard to be sure.

I’ve come to appreciate that there is honor in that work.

Yes, it’s a grind that can sometimes get you down. I’ve always said I’ll quit when it ceases to be fun, and I’m not there yet. Songs are still arriving. Harnessing and honing them, chopping away at everything that’s not the song, playing them for people, and the final act in this long gestation, recording them, is still a singular thrill. Sure, it’d be nice if they had a big life and resonated with a wide audience, but the fact that they’re out there in the digital and physical realms, and will be long after I’m gone, is a source of great comfort and yes, pride, regardless of how many people hear them.

What matters is the doing.

A Concert for George Harrison gets underway at 8 p.m. Thursday, February 29 at the Canyon Club in Montclair. Tickets are $10-$15 at axs.com/events, search “George Harrison.”


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