Tag Archives: awful gigs

Crazy Gigs Can Be Learning Experiences

Thanks for all the e-mails about the memorable, out-of-the-ordinary, and crazy gigs. Many of these events become learning experiences for the musicians involved. Rich Mansfield, member of Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA) realized after playing a nudist camp gig, that“some people should never take their clothes off.”

There were a lot of funny wedding gig scenarios. Ed Weis, member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), played an outdoor beach wedding in Malibu. He wrote: “when during the ceremony the person presiding said ‘… and if anyone feels that this union should not take place, let them speak now or forever hold their peace …’ the cellphone in a musician’s gigbag started ringing. It was the old “Ma Bell” ringtone. They couldn’t find it right away, and it kept ringing. It took what seemed like an eternity to find it and to shut it off. The lesson of the story: set your phones on vibrate or turn them off when playing.

There were also quite a few “fight” stories. Ellen LaFurn, member of Local 16-248 (Newark-Paterson, NJ), talked about her bar gig on South Orange Avenue in Newark. She wrote: “I was the female singer with an organ, guitar, drums trio. As we were playing on a stage behind the bar, people started slowly leaving the club. By the time we finished the set, there was no one in the place except two men at the bar, the bartender, and us. All of a sudden one guy pulls out a gun and cocks it while arguing with the other guy. Now we knew why the place emptied out. We hit the floor—cowering behind the bar. In a flash, the two guys took off, and the bartender locked the door. We got up and sat at the bar. The guitar player turns to me and says, “Aren’t we taking kind of a long break?”

Then there was this letter from Bo Ayars, a Local 802 (New York City)  musician now living in Portland, Oregon: “Years ago, I was working in a country-western piano bar on North Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. It was right next to another famous country-western establishment, the Palomino Club, and just down the street from a large long-haul trucking firm. The place was always packed with truck drivers. The piano, a small spinet, was positioned behind a piece of furniture made to look like the top of a grand piano. During my first time there, to make friends with the local patrons, I accepted their drink offers. My favorite off-hours exotic drink at the time was Amaretto, straight, on the rocks. I ended up with six shots lined up on my piano bar. At closing, I explained to the bartender that I really wasn’t a drinker, but didn’t want to do or say anything that would hurt his bar business. He told me not to worry and for me to keep asking for shots of Amaretto.

“For the next several nights, that’s what I did. Toward the end of the evening, there were six or seven shots sitting on my piano bar. When I did take a sip now and then, I noticed each one was very weak with just a hint of liquor. Obviously, the bartender was watering my drinks, but that was his department, not mine, so I kept ordering Amarettos.

“Then, about the sixth evening, an older trucker, after buying me a drink, frowned as he noticed all the shots lined up on the piano. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘you can’t be drinkin’ all of those by yourself. You’d be pie-eyed, that’s for sure.’ ‘Well,” I began, ‘I kind of space them out over the evening and …’

“‘Here, let me help you,’ he said, taking one of the shots and downing it. The next few moments are still a blur. It started with his yelling something unprintable to the bartender. He kept yelling and cursing about watered-down drinks, picked up one of the shot glasses and threw it on the floor. He then turned and stomped full steam straight towards the bartender, bumping into people, chairs, and tables as he went. He was really angry, and this mood transferred to some of the other truckers sitting at the piano bar. They, too, started grabbing shot glasses and tasting them. When they realized how the drinks had been poured, they joined trucker number one and headed for the bar, yelling and cursing.

“Arriving at the bar, the first trucker continued yelling about how he’d been robbed, having to pay full price for a watered-down drink, and what kind of place was this, anyway. He was egged on by those sitting at the bar and the other piano bar truckers who had now joined him. The noise intensified until the bartender pulled a handgun from under the bar and fired it once into the ceiling. It was a .45 and made a hell of a racket. That really got everyone’s attention, and it suddenly became very quiet. Looking at the ceiling, I noticed there were several holes; I guess reminders of past disturbances. I can’t remember what the bartender said, but several customers and truckers left, still upset.

“So, what was I doing prior to the gunshot? When the first trucker threw the shot glass on the floor, I instantly stopped playing, ducked down behind the piano, and kept my head low. Then, as the other truckers angrily followed the first trucker, I slowly peeked over the piano’s music rack. All the commotion around the bar reminded me of an old Keystone Cops movie. Without even thinking, I started playing in that genre—the sound of a honky tonk piano playing as the cops all pile into a small car and chase the bad guys. Everything ended all right; no one was hurt, but that was my last night playing that club.”

I know not all gigs are easy. If you got through it, got paid, and learned something from it, that in itself is a plus. You’re a professional. Just go on from there.

Awful Gigs Some AFM Members Have Experienced

Last month I wrote about Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld talking about awful gigs. Jay talked about a bad gig he had done, and Jerry said, “Hey you got paid didn’t you? Don’t complain.” Well, in that respect he’s probably right, but some gigs are definitely worse than others. My e-mail inbox filled up over the past few weeks with your stories about bad gigs. Here are a few examples:

From Alan Thomas of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA): I am sharing my real-life stories about terrible pianos. Fortunately instruments like this are in the minority and most pianos in finer homes are pretty well maintained. But this piano was in a spacious and fine home in a wealthy enclave on the peninsula about 35 miles south of San Francisco. I think I could have actually wrung water from the felts. As I progressed with this gig, more and more keys retreated into the keybed—and didn’t return. My standards turned into minimalist renditions. By the end of the gig I estimated that at least 44 keys or 50% of the keyboard were “down” for the night, slumbering in the keybed.

From Jane Bate of Local 186 (Waterbury, CT): In a community production of Evita, the directors called orchestra members “barbarians” and worse, even though the orchestra was unquestionably the best thing about the production. Things got so bad, that I spent the break between acts dress rehearsal night in the ladies’ room crying. Opening night, the president of the union was there to prevent a walkout by the orchestra personnel. We made it through the performances­—and the orchestra played brilliantly­—but I knew I wanted nothing to do with the group again. Here’s the coda: The following season, that theater group put on The Boyfriend, a piece of musical fluff. The review was headlined something like, “Great Costumes Make Up for Poor Music.” There is a God!

From Robert Michaels of Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA): I have had many awful gigs including drummers getting drunk, playing too fast, sending texts, drinking beer, yelling into the mic; bass players playing too loud and storming out in the middle of gigs; and getting grief from bar owners because we didn’t bring enough people with us and not getting paid because of it. One time, the band I was in got fired from a gig because a drummer attacked me and cracked my ribs.

The most memorable awful gig happened when we were playing a showcase of my band EXPEN$E’s original material at a local club. The bass player I had at the time liked to show off and toss his bass around his body and catch it. It was cool when it worked right. At the end of one of my songs, when the bass player tossed his bass the strap broke and his bass went flying. Fortunately, no one was in the area where his bass landed.

From Mike Anthony of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM): One year in July I took off in my new Explorer to play a wedding on my classical guitar in the Tijeras mountains. I reached my destination greeted by a torrential downpour using my four-wheel drive in the mud. I still had to walk about a quarter-mile following signs to the tent. I was quite alone!

No one showed up for a half-hour. Then a large roar of motorcycles delivered a tribe of Hells Angels and their girlfriends. The wedding was delayed for almost an hour and a half while the bride and groom were having a knockdown drag-out fight in their trailer. Meanwhile, I played some classical, as the bride had requested, and a variety including James Taylor. The attendees only wanted to hear Def Leppard. I was definitely intimidated. Finally, the weather cleared and the bride and groom made up and I sat on a tree stump in the hot sun and played their ceremony. By now, I’d been there longer than the time we’d agreed to and frankly had had enough. The bride became angry with me when I told her I really needed to leave. I was thrilled to return to familiar surroundings. I washed my car and really appreciated my friendly home. I never did get paid.

From Paula Hatcher of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD): My worst gig was an outdoor wedding under Maryland’s tallest Bing cherry tree. The tree was full of ripe cherries and hundreds of birds eating them. The bride’s parents staged the wedding directly under the tree. My polite concerns were ignored. Halfway through the ceremony, the birds “let fly” and bombed purple poop over everyone, even the wedding cake! As people screamed and ran, the parents shrieked at the musicians to “keep playing!”

From Fred Gosbee of Local 1000 (Nongeographic): Like almost any full-time musicians we have had gigs where there was a poor fit, as in “what were they thinking to hire us?” We are an acoustic duo, Celtic harp, guitar, fiddle, vocals, that has done considerable research on the songs of Robert Burns. On his birthday every Scottish society in the world celebrates with a banquet, recitations of Burns’ poetry, and performances of his songs.

We were hired by such a Scottish society when we were on tour a few years ago. It seemed like a match made in heaven; we would be performing the Burns songs that we love to a knowledgeable and appreciative audience.

I suspected we were in trouble when we saw that there was an open bottle of whiskey on every table in the banquet hall, plus the opening act was an 18-piece bagpipe band (indoors!). 

As part of their scholarship fundraising, the society had a silent auction, which was supposed to close after dinner when we started our set, but there weren’t enough bidders so they held it open for another hour. Potential bidders looked over the items, which were displayed at one side of the banquet hall.

Between the whiskey, the adrenalin jolt that bagpipes always cause, and the chatter at the (not so silent) auction, we were generally ignored. There was one table of folks who stayed and listened so we played to them.

We did get paid and we did get fed, but we both came down with food poisoning.

Yikes. These really are awful. To everyone who wrote in, thank you very much. What’s nice about bad gigs, though, is they make the good ones even better!

Click here to read more awful gigs

Had Any Awful Gigs Recently?

Jerry Seinfeld does a show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You can find it online at: ComediansinCarsGettingCoffee.com.

The basic format is that he picks up a well-known comedian in an old classic car, and they talk and joke on the way to a coffee shop. They banter back and forth when they get there, then chat and kibitz back in the car. It’s really (as Seinfeld writer Larry David says) “a show about nothing.” Seinfeld has done bits with Howard Stern, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Don Rickles, Jon Stewart, and a whole bunch of others. It’s very cool and very funny, as well.

One of the ones I got a real kick out of was when he picked up Jay Leno in a 1949 Porsche. Back then, the first Porsches (this was number 40) looked like driving an alien space ship, compared to a ’49 Ford or Chevy.

During the joking around in a Hollywood coffee shop, Leno says to Seinfeld: “Did you ever have any awful gigs?”

Seinfeld replies, “There are no awful gigs.”

Leno responds, “The heck there aren’t!” and went on to say he’s had a lot of awful gigs as a stand-up comic.

Leno talked about doing a stint in a Playboy club where he was graded from “A” to “F” every night on his performance. One night the audience was mostly Portuguese. They didn’t get the jokes. It was hell. He got an “F” and the program director told Leno that he should have been more prepared. Leno said he let the director know how ticked off he was. It was really awful.

Seinfeld says, “Hey, you got paid didn’t you?    Stop your belly-aching.”

Okay, okay, I get it. Maybe there are no “awful” gigs, but some are worse than others. I’m sure you can relate. Maybe you had to fight to get paid at the end of the night. Maybe your audience wasn’t what you expected. Maybe there was chicken wire in front of the stage so you wouldn’t get hit with flying beer bottles. It could be that one of your musicians didn’t show up for the gig. In the end, maybe it was an “awful” gig, but at least you took something from it. You can always chalk it up to a learning experience.

Man, I’ve been out there. I’ve had fire alarms go off where I ended up spending an hour in the parking lot. I’ve had electrical failures where we ended up playing in the dark, and club dates where no one came in. I’ve had staggering drunks who thought they could play better (and feel they should let everyone know), and customers starting fights. I’ve had drinks spilled on my keyboard.

Once I worked in a ballroom where a water pipe burst and the ceiling started to collapse. Big deal. If you play a job that turns out to be an “awful” gig, don’t tell people about it. Forget it. Ninety percent of the people you tell your problems to don’t care, and the other 10% are glad you have the problems anyway.

So in the end, the “awful” gig helped you make rent, a car payment, or pay a few bills, and you go on. Learn from it. I’ve had my share of “awful gigs,” horrible gigs, and really strange gigs. In hindsight, some were just worse than others. Maybe some were a lot worse. I’m sure you’ve had some treacherous, grinding, “awful” playing experiences as well.

If you want to get it out of your system, send me an e-mail about it. If yours is really out of the box, I just may run it in the next column (with your permission). At least you can get it off your chest. (And, hopefully you got paid.) Send your e-mail to: RPopyk@aol.com. Put “awful gigs” in the subject line.

Remember, the nice part about a bad gig (or a bad day) is that it makes the good ones seem great. (I got that from the recent Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day movie.)

Good luck on your next gig. A better one is always just around the corner!

AFM Working Musician Connection

Starting in January, the International Musician will be launching a new AFM Working Musician Connection weekly e-newsletter sent by request to current members and to all new AFM members. This AFM Working Musician Connection will offer advice to get more  gigs, promote the benefits of AFM membership, and help musicians feel more connect to the AFM. Sign up today by sending an e-mail with the subject line “Working Musician” to: im@afm.org.