Do It Anyway

Rennie Sparks on playing shitty venues - Pyragraph
Photo by Peri Pakroo.

Few moments in my career as a musician have been as low as the day we pulled up in front of a liquor store in Wichita, Kansas. It was a dusty building surrounded by cattle feed lots full of forlorn and filthy cows mooing in the heat. The air was oppressive, full of manure and mud. I didn’t want to get out of the car.

I’ve played my share of dives over my 20 years in a band. Some of these places turned out to be wonderful memories and some not so wonderful, but I’m usually game to see what awaits when we pull up in front of a sketchy looking venue. Something about this place on this day, though, left me hollowed out. We unloaded and played, of course. This is my job, after all, but it’s sad when your heart isn’t in the very work you’ve dreamed up for yourself.

We played our set, but I played with a bitterness inside that rattled me.

To be fair: This was probably the only venue that would book us in Wichita at the time. It may still be. And, to be honest, this place is still in business and still booking bands. There must be bands happy to play there and people happy to see them play. None of that is any comfort when you’re miserable.

Between piled cases of beer there was a space for us to play ringed with turned-over crates for people to sit on. Our audience sat inches away from us while we played. Now when I say “audience” I mean there were six or seven exhausted looking people perched uncomfortably on plastic crates and a few people milling around in the back, maybe shopping for beer or maybe just taking a break from the heat and stench outside.

This was a free show and that often guarantees that no one feels obliged to pay any attention to the music. Some people were clearly there to drink. Some looked like they’d woken up on a plastic crate in a beer store and were unsure how they’d gotten there. A few looked like they’d come specifically to pick a fight with the band. I felt like even if I doused myself in gasoline and lit myself ablaze not one dull face would have flickered to life nor would anybody have bothered to move from the flames. Yes, I was in a foul mood.

We played our set, but I played with a bitterness inside that rattled me. I knew if I kept on playing shows with that kind of foul heart I wouldn’t be able to do this job much longer—a terrible thought when you’re actually working the very job you dreamed up for yourself.

After our set we half-heartedly passed around a tip jar. I didn’t bother trying to sell CDs. I saw that some people passed the tip jar forward without contributing. I think I saw one guy steal a dollar out of it. In the end we got a few quarters and a few filthy dollar bills, but then at the last minute a guy I hadn’t even noticed in the crowd came up and put a folded note in the jar then turned and left the store without a word.

When I unfolded the paper there was a traveler’s check inside made out for $150 and a note that read, “I am diagnosed with terminal lymphoma and tonight was the first night I’ve smiled in six months. Thank you!”

The point of this story is not to encourage you to play every beer store or to boast about our huge fan base of terminally ill people. What I want is to remind you (as this story still reminds me) that every chance you’re given to offer your art to the world is a chance for adding meaning to life (yours and other people’s). You may not know how meaningful your work is for some time. You may never know. Have faith, though, that what you’ve put your heart into will speak to the heart of another. It might speak to a lot of other people. It might only speak to one and then another one and another. It adds up.

There have been many other “horrible shows” along the path of my musical career, but the amazing thing is this: There have also been just as many times when fans have told me that they first saw us play and fell in love with our music at a show I remember distinctly as being god-awful, ignored, meaningless.

Take a moment now and again to consider if the hopelessness you feel as an artist is coming from within or from without. Leave some cracks in your armor where the light can get in. Have faith.

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  1. Good positive words. I think the most ridiculous I’ve ever felt was in front of a few thousand people, on a huge stage. It was one of those random happenings where suddenly I was playing a gig I had no business playing. Who knows, though, perhaps somebody out there didn’t notice the disaster that played out after the giant reggae band and before the headliner? ha ha, chin up!

  2. I love this. It’s not so much about what you get, but knowing that what you think is going to happen isn’t always what happens. So many times I’ve had expectations that were outsized either way- too high or too low. And, like this, with just about everything, there is something to take away from it. If the takeaway is that you play the gigs you sign up for, no matter what, then you have the dignity of that, even if it means playing shit bars, not getting paid, etc., etc.

  3. Sorry but I’m the grumpy guy here. I’m glad you are doing well, or well enough now, but I’m having a hell of a time making money with my work, and I’m at a place where just making people happy on FB or my blog, etc ain’t cutting it. I need to sell to make a living. I can’t do it for free. I’m making less now than I was three years ago. A day job is probably in my future. Great story, but for everyone of you all, there are a bunch who just couldn’t do it for the long haul because rent needs to be paid and food needs to be eaten.

  4. I had a day job for the first ten years our band was together and still have to be creative to find financing. This article isn’t about making money as a musician. That one is to come soon. Best, Rennie
    PS. Thanks all for the comments, good and bad

  5. The basements, backyards, barracks, bars, and living rooms that I’ve played in Albuquerque over the last 5 years make me realize how true it is what your saying here. These kinds of places can be hard on a performer, but all can be really great places to play too. Present yourself the best you can, no matter where or to who. Couldn’t have been said better, your right on. KUNM did a special set today of songs about bridges,.. “Weightless Again” made the drive home from work far more enjoyable. Great story, thank you for sharing it.

  6. Rennie, that was spot on and a wonderful example! That was an excellent reminder to avoid projecting ones’ mood or judgements onto others. I’m often confounded by this dynamic- playing a show, feeling it was flat, the audience seemed unresponsive, only to be surprised when all these unresponsive people lined up and bought us out of all our cd’s! They were so quiet because they were listening! I guess each audience has its own personality. I feel like I’ve short-changed some audiences by letting my perception of not getting enough from them dampen my performance to the point where I’m feeling contempt! Not a good place to be. And then be practically ashamed when someone comes up and lays on unbridled appreciation. Lot of psychology going on here! Need a reminder of this every week! Thank you.

  7. I’m a random preacher who is here by (very happy!) accident. I love this story, told beautifully, and the important point it makes.

    I swear I’ve preached in that bar, so to speak. Times it seemed up hill all the way: I’m an extemporaneous preacher and need the feedback of the folks in the pews because, as my professor used to say, “a sermon is what happens between the preacher and the people.” So when everybody is studying their hymnals or their fingernails, or counting the light bulbs, I can’t think of anything to say.

    Imagine my astonishment, then, when folks afterward have some specific comments and questions in response to the sermon. They were quiet because they were stimulated! LOL.

  8. Rennie, you and Brett’ s music makes me happier than I can express. It felt mystical when I discovered your band and I then dove head first into the experience. Just know you are appreciated, loved and revered for the art you share with the world.

  9. Thank you for this Rennie! I once had a piece in a large show up in Michigan. I met a guy who had been to the show and he said “I don’t know anything about art, but your piece made me happy.” That has stuck with me ever since. You just never know. Until you do.

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