Monday, July 13, 2009

"Here come the lowlifes"

Years ago, when Dharmonia and I both worked at the much-missed Guitar Workshop, an incredible environment of remarkable, idiosyncratic talents which I only experienced similarly and again at, first, Indiana University around 1990, and, again, at my current institution just in the past few years, when the guitar studio let out at 10pm we and colleagues would often be too wound-up, or too much on a nocturnal circadian rhythm, to be prepared to just go home and to sleep. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a member of any creative community, over and above its creative productions, is the simple joy of the companionship of artists. Most performing artists, egomaniacs though they may be, are usually a lot of fun to be around--the performance doesn't start at the downbeat or end at the encore. They like to have a good time and they like the people around them to have a good time.

So those 1980s nights hanging out at the Boylston Street bars with the Guitar Workshop crew were pretty darned fun. The wait-staff always liked to see us (one of the few places that musicians in North America get treated well is in restaurants) because they knew that we would always be polite, that we'd order grown-up drinks, and that we'd always tip well. It's a bullshit fallacy that musicians tend to be obstreperous in public places: one of the last things anybody who spends most of their working nights in bars and restaurants wants is more noise on their night off. So the staff at the steak-joint down the street from the studio were usually happy to see us and we always got good service.

But one night it didn't stop some bunch of ostentatiously-suited Gordan Gekko wannabes from thinking that they might be able to get a little bit of "comic" relief and look good to their teased-haired breast-implanted power-suited dates. So as we walked to our table, one fat old Boston-pol type (red face, whiskey nose, white hair brushed straight back, rep tie unloosened, probably about three whiskeys over his limit) leaned over to his table-mates and said, in a hardy-har-har voice insufficiently hushed "Here come the low-lifes". At which his dumbbass table-mates all chortled with self-congratulatory glee because, for once, one of their own had managed to say something that somebody, somewhere, might find kind of funny. What this drunken old business-bum hadn't sussed out, though, is that if you spend all your time harassing secretaries and abusing underlings (think Steve Carrell in "The Office", only older, more alcoholic, and much less painfully-empathetic), you are NOT getting any of the equipment that you're gonna need to lock horns with people who spend their lives improvising.

It's like the hecklers at comedy clubs, who think they're going to somehow score points by going mano-a-mano verbally with some guy whose profession is to improvise comedy. What, do they think "oh, that's easy..he's just talkin' up there"?!? Typically mainstream culture--they think, because they don't know anything it, that it must be "easy". Well, it ain't, bucko. And if you're stupid enough to walk into our particular bull-ring, you'll be lucky if you only get tossed, rather than gored.

In the event, none of us really cracked an expression. But as we were walking by, the great Jim Carrington, the rock guitar teacher, who made 1970s Steven Tyler/Joe Perry look like models of probity, leaned over to the loud drunk and said,

"That's OK. We buy and sell assholes like you all day."
and we walked on to our table.

Of course, that was bravado: at the time, the guitar studio was scraping by, and we were all glad to be earning the 12 or 14 bucks an hour for 15 or 20 hours per week--and thought we were living high on the hog because we each had a sort-of "steady teaching job" to supplement the one-off gigs that paid little or nothing.

But it did capture something true about our lives: that we had already made choices that separated us from the jackasses with the suits and the hardy-har-har whiskey voices. We were already walking a different road, one much less populated, but with traveling companions we'd chosen ourselves. We'd definitely sold those fuckers down the river--the worst part of the jobs those assholes held wasn't the nature of the work, although that was quite slimy enough, but the absolutely soulless interpersonal value-system they had to buy into.

Now, 20 years later, I sit in the International terminal getting ready to get on a flight so I can go give a paper about music I love--the same music I was playing way back then, when the hardy-har-har businessmen were calling us the "lowlifes"--on someone else's dime. And I can hear Carrington's voice echoing down through the years.

Yes, asshole: we did buy and sell punks like you all day.

And it was a helluva bargain.

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