I got booked to do a run of cover song shows in an up-scale hotel in Stuttgart, Germany. Cover gigs are a whole other breed of shows than what I’m used to. Firstly, they’re long. You play three sets, roughly 45 minutes each per night – if not longer. Secondly, I got spoiled rotten with a great room, a bath, a free mini-fridge that kept restocking and two free meals a day, as well as good pay. Original gigs vary in length and pay. This adds a little more regimen to any musician’s days – and some much needed income when you’re trying to make ends meet while paying off a debut album.
Since I can remember, I’ve always written songs and performed them. There’s something in me that needs to. If I wasn’t that person up on stage playing, I’d be – and have been – that asshole at a party ruining the moment with a strained rendition of some half-baked ballad, simply ’cause I can’t keep to myself any longer. Call it a call for attention, or a need for expression – I’m not sure what it is. An inability to articulate feelings in a normal fashion seems a good bet, though, if you ask me. Why else would someone need to get up and blare out emotion with such force, unless there’s something pent up behind it.
I wrote songs before I could play anything. As soon as I got my hands on an electric I slid my index finger up and down the fret-board, singing a rough melody. I wrote lyrics, too. And all of it was awful. As well it should be. But I loved it, anyway. I loved every second – even recorded what I had. We listened over and over to me and my best friend, both ten or eleven, making song after song of total nonsense – just for our entertainment. Though melodies and abilities have changed with time that feeling is still identical. Writing and performing stirs something in me that festers without attention, when not properly aired out.
That expression of an inner feeling through a song is the saving grace of the viscerally inarticulate by nature. Singing someone else’s songs is no different – so long as you feel it. If you don’t … then you’re in trouble. I tried to do cover gigs a few years ago, and the lists of requests hasn’t aged an inch. Wonderwall is the most famous request, and it does happen, but it’s not as typical as you’d expect. Galway Girl by Steve Earl is number one. I love Steve Earl. I love Galway. It’s a fine song, but I can’t feel it right. Galway’s in me. My Dad was from there and I called it home for 5 years. It should be a go-to, no-brainer part of my repertoire, but songs don’t work that way. They affect you or they don’t. I’d happily listen to Steve Earl belt that one out, and it’d be great – but it won’t budge anything in me that needs moving.
And so, when asked to play Galway Girl or Country Roads I can’t. Physically I could learn and make the noises, but I shouldn’t. It’ll be lacking something key to music: empathy. There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. I get where they’re coming from, I can sympathise with a tune, as in I understand it and I appreciate, even like it – but that doesn’t mean I can even come close to feeling it. And you can’t fake feeling. You can fake the external gestures, but you can’t trick yourself and so, if I sing something I shouldn’t, you’ll know something’s off. They’ll be no emphatic exchange, no emotion to pick up on. Listening to a tape of it would be much, much better. Emotion can be captured, technology won’t dampen it. But there’s limits. Expecting a musician to like and play every song you do is like expected a jukebox to join your table for a drink after hours.
When you first see Robert Plant vocalise the blues you’re blasted with sheer masculine hedonistic lust. It’s a primal mating call so visceral it can onset puberty in an instant. When you hear Metallica’s frustrated anger you hear the other side of the coin. There’s a reason we’re so affected by groups like these at a certain stage of life. Plant, older now, has swapped metal for folk and world music. And why wouldn’t he? As Leonard Cohen, a famous womanizer in his day, said of his insatiable lust at the end of life: “the bastard dog is tamed”. People change, not through choice, but through impact. You lose some parts and grow some more – and so the emotional core warps and changes, too.
Though Led Zeppelin reunited a few years back, no matter how much you pay you’ll never hear Whole Lotta Love live for real. You’ll hear a group of men going though the motions, but you won’t hear it the way it was meant. Unless, that is – you stick on the record. It’s the next best thing. Taped emotion is still emotion. But of course, eventually, having been paid well, and treated to the luxuries of a fancy hotel you’ll feel obliged to fake it sooner or later. Succumbing to guilt, you’ll play what’s expected of you, and then as many unfeeling favourites you can manage, just cause you stomach saying no once again. So, you force it.
The last night I succumbed, something real ugly churned out. I barely made it through the show, and was told I could stop early. I went back to my room, with barely any tips – strange, I thought, as they’d be flowing the other nights. I recalled there hadn’t been much clapping after the songs, either. The sound was off. I was off. The whole room felt uneasy. The reason: that’s exactly how I felt. Uneasy. Empathy comes about independent of reason or intention. Like a yawn, it’s contagious in a crowd. And so, a musician can spoil or make a room at the drop of a hat by giving off the wrong mood.
Next day, I felt terrible, felt I let the whole hotel down and every musician, booker and teacher who led me there. I felt scared – scared I’d fuck up again. I said to myself I’d only play the classics. My kind of classics – tunes that affected deeply once, that filled me with warmth and awe. I turned toward the fresh room and felt. Fear subsided and the joy returned. I played as long as I could. Then I played some more. I didn’t take any requests, but I listened to them, and talked to each of those who asked about why they like that song, and why I like it, too, or another by Springsteen or whoever else they were after, and wished I could play every single one.
But I simply couldn’t. You can only play what you can express. And if you listen to yourself, they’ll listen too. If you feel good, they’ll feel it, too. Anything else isn’t worth your time or anyone else’s. Anything else isn’t music. And there’s always the radio.
Next Stop: Thiruvananthapuram, India
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