There are many defining moments in ones life. Graduation, marriage, becoming a parent, and that first gig that goes to hell. Sure, not everyone hits that moment in their life. There are quite a few folks that will never know that utter disappointment, embarrassment, and complete crushing defeat of a music gig that falls flat on its face and makes one question their own significance in this world. I am one of the lucky(or unlucky) ones that has this very story to tell. Sit back and I shall tell you a tale of three guys that thought the world would most certainly be their oyster, but as it turns out they merely became chum for life’s hungry Great White(the shark, not the band.)
In 1996 I began playing music with my cousin Josh and my best friend Jason. We started playing covers in my cousin’s basement with Josh on drums, me on guitar, and Jason on bass. I’m sure they were really bad covers as I was probably singing them. Billy Joel, maybe? Regardless, it was nothing to write home about but it was fun. It was our first post-high school taste of being in a band. Feeling out how to play with other musicians. Real people, not recording on a 4-track to yourself. We had all been dabbling in writing songs. In December of 1994 I had bought a Tascam 424 Portastudio cassette recorder and had a handful of cassettes with songs I’d recorded. They weren’t much, but they were at least a beginning. Songs inspired by bands like Procol Harum, The Beatles, Wings, and various Seattle bands. But with this new band thing I wanted to start from scratch. We’d been playing enough that we had probably four or five songs written and pretty well practiced. I can only remember three names, though. “Juliet Wrecks” and “Same As It Ever Was” were written by myself, while “Tonight” was written by Jason. Mine were products of the time. D-tuned most likely, and mildly dark with some minor key shenanigans going on. Jason on the other hand wrote this perfect little pop ditty, something Jeff Lynne would be proud to call his own. These songs weren’t much, but they were ours. My cousin Josh, I must add, was a guitarist by trade but since him and my uncle collected vast amounts of music equipment(including several strange and cool electric mandolins, PA system, and a complete light show) Josh was the drummer of this three-piece outfit. He was the only one who had a drum set for one, so his skills at keeping a beat were much stronger than either Jason or myself. Two, he wasn’t cool with standing front and center so I was given that distinction of being the front and center guy. I really wasn’t cool with it either, but I wrote more songs than Josh did so I was guitarist by default.
It came to our attention that there was this Saturday afternoon music thing going on in my town at the local park. There was a stage already built in the park for “major” acts to play on in the summer. Bands like America, Foghat, and the Spin Doctors have blessed this stage since then, but back then it was still pretty new. To be honest, I have no idea how we got in on this deal. I think there was a church group involved, and since we were in no way,shape, or form a religious group I’m a bit perplexed on the details. My guitar teacher’s band Lovewar was playing so maybe he pulled some strings. They were a Christian rock band. Maybe the “big guy” himself had something to do with this. Divine intervention? Nah, I doubt it. Either way we were opening this little shindig.
With four or five original songs rehearsed, practiced, and memorized ad nauseum for three weeks prior we felt we would conquer the sure to be record crowds lined up to watch us destroy minds with our massive sound. The only thing left was to come up with a name for this power trio of ours. The name we came up with was Houdini Trio. I take full responsibility for that crap-tastic name. The idea of magic and illusions seemed really appealing to me at the time. I don’t know why. Either Josh and Jason were fine with it or I blocked out all negative feedback, I don’t know. It was Houdini Trio and that was it(I will, however, say I had nothing to do with the name Yellow Matter Custard which was the band I played in a couple years later with Josh and my other cousin Tom. That was all them.)
The day of the gig my cousin Josh and I went and had breakfast, then scoped out the park where we would be rocking out, as it were. We were ready, just as long as our pancakes stayed down. We arrived later in the day to an extremely hot August afternoon. We had to park clear on the other side of the park and wheel our amps and walk our drums to the stage. If we were triumphant in our rocking and rolling it would be an awesome walk back to our vehicles with our guitar cases in hand. If we fall flat on our faces it would be the longest walk of shame ever. There was a small crowd of younger college age kids there looking tanned and ready for some kick ass Christian rock by Lovewar. We were the openers, so they were going to have to endure some secular alternative rock first. I set my Sovtek 60-watt amp head onto its perch a top my 4×12 speaker cabinet, tuned my Rickenbacker, and I was ready to go. Josh was sweating behind the drum set and Jason had my Ric bass slung over his shoulder and ready to roll. The tanned Christian college kids were chanting something to the effect of “We want magic! We want magic!” which I don’t know if they were genuinely excited to hear us or they were being assholes. Either way, magic is what they were going to get. The ultra cool and ultra hip youth pastor that was behind this whole shindig introduced us and we jumped right into “Juliet Wrecks”, a song about death, tragic love, and irony. As I stepped up to the mic I couldn’t remember one lyric. Not even a vowel. I immediately began just making words up as the music rolled along. I could feel the sweat beading quickly on my oversized forehead. The temperature in my skull went up about 20 degrees. The only saving grace was that as a rock n’ roll unit we were doing all right. No one in that audience had any idea what the words were to my song. They didn’t have a clue. It was good. It was all good. We stumbled across the finish line. It wasn’t perfect, but we made it through our first song as the Houdini Trio live. There were a few claps(mostly from my parents and wife), so we were ready to wow them with our next ditty. Jason’s “Tonight” was up next. We found our groove. The song started rolling and smiles were being cracked amongst our faces. This was what it was supposed to feel like. Dudes up on stage connecting and becoming this amazing musical machine. I’d hoped the crowd was feeling just a portion of the amazing buzz we were feeling up there. Then just as we made it to the chorus, there was nothing. My amp ceased to exist. I was strumming but nothing was happening. Instantly the sun concentrated it’s most powerful UV rays onto my already reddened head. Jason and Josh awkwardly continued to play as I turned around and stared at my amp like an idiot. You know those moments of extreme stress where common sense leaves your head and normal thought process no longer exists? That’s where I was at. Tim Bushong, my old guitar teacher and Lovewar singer/guitarist was waiting in the wings and started unplugging cables, fiddling with knobs, and generally giving my amp head the once over. Within the back grill of the amp head you could see the tubes blazing orange as if they were seconds away from exploding or melting down. We’d shut the amp off and turned it back on and got only the faint crackling and buzzing of life from the speakers. By this time Jason and Josh were done with what was left of “Tonight” and Jason had turned into Las Vegas entertainer attempting to keep the tanned Christians at ease, chanting something like “We’re your men! We’re your men”, or something like that. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, honestly. I was in that fuzzy space in my head where anything anyone said to me made no sense. After 5 minutes of fidgeting with the damn Russian amp head Tim said “Well, guess you better tear down. We got a show to play.” Just like that, we were done. I looked out to the crowd and saw family and friends catching up like they were at a family reunion, tanned college kids moseyed on over to the nearby McDonalds for a shake and filet-o-fish. I stood on a fancy concrete stage with a lifeless guitar hanging around my neck, sweating through my underwear.
Rock n’ roll, baby. Rock n’ roll.
The next day Jason had a birthday party for his daughter at his apartment and my wife and I showed up. Jason and I stood outside on the back porch speaking shamefully in low voices of the previous day’s disaster. We were both in agreement that we were done with music. He was going to continue his painting and drawing, while I was going to give up music and start writing gothic children’s bedtime stories starring a blind young girl and her demonic pet chimpanzee. Likewise, Josh felt his music days were over. We had been defeated, no magic was needed. Just some extreme Midwest heat and some fading vacuum tubes.
Well, that wasn’t the end of music for me. It wasn’t really the end of anything. Two years later I was playing gigs with Josh in Yellow Matter Custard across northeast Indiana. I’ve written and recorded over 12 albums since 2002 under different names, not to mention recording with other bands such as Lo Fi, Vandolah, and Mark Hutchins. Gigs like that scorcher at the park in August of 1996, that’s just how things go down sometimes. Those kinds of days are needed in order to make the good days that much better. That much more appreciated. I’ve learned you just roll with the punches. Take it on the chin and just keep right on moving. I’ve also learned to bring an extra amp head to gigs.