“All art is but imitation of nature.” (Seneca)
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” (Oscar Wilde)
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If you asked me ten years ago if I thought my life would be like this, of course I would have said no. Most likely, I’d have shown great disdain toward the idea of playing in what I would have then referred to as a “glorified cover band.”
Life is just a series of little decisions, though, and it goes from just trying to keep the dream alive until you get that legendary big break, to one day waking up and realizing that the only reason you’re still able to get paying gigs is that you’re playing someone else’s songs the exact same way they did three decades before.
It’d be different if the guys in the band we “tribute” were dead. Even if just the lead singer were dead, this whole endeavor would have more gravitas, and less of a cheap Chinese knock-off feel to it. A tribute band is more than just a cover band. But still, I wonder what I would have said about all this ten years ago.
Peeking out from backstage before the intro, I can see it’s a lighter crowd than usual tonight… I wonder why? Still, lots of familiar faces out there, and not just the friends and family, either. We encourage repeat ticket buyers by offering a frequent concertgoer discount. Hey, it’s a business, after all…
It’s easy to linger too long on the few new faces in the audience, those rare non-initiates who don’t already know the entire set list by heart. I always wonder how the new faces come to be here… and how long they’ll keep coming.
Tonight, there’s a lot on my mind, and it’s bleeding through my “tribute” persona.
I’m thinking about how I came to this point. And I’m wondering how much longer I’m going to do this.
Lots of people have Hollywood dreams, but I never did. I never wanted to be an actor—I wanted to be a rock star. And not “rock star” in the stupid way guys in suits use the term these days, referring to great athletes or prominent politicians or the standout salesman of the month, but the way it was in the 1970’s: real rock stars, all-out, admired for musicianship and creative credibility and yeah, maybe sometimes for the way they looked in tight jeans.
That’s what got me started—what would you call it? Envy? Jealousy? I wanted that life. I may not have seen much of the 70’s (born January 8, 1976) but I’ve got plenty of videos (bootleg and legit), plus tons of rock magazines from the era, that pretty much tell me how great it was.
My first attempts at stardom were in high school, singing and writing songs in various amateur rock bands and getting some attention from the girls, which only reinforced the dream. By graduation, I had a good band playing around me, but the Seattle scene had burned itself out and MTV seemed to play nothing but rap videos. The outlook for prospective rock stars was bleak.
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All of the guys in the band went to local colleges except Wes, who became an electrician like his dad. The band trudged on, rehearsing regularly, playing gigs when we could get them. We played in front of talent scouts and agents, some of whom said to keep at it, most of who said we were wasting our time. Then, seemingly overnight, four years had passed and it was time to make a decision.
Here’s some advice: never go into business with musicians if you can avoid it. Unfortunately, it’s a tough path to circumvent when the business you want into is making music. The guys and I made a ten-year pact after college. We said we’d stick it out that long—play anywhere, do anything, shun nine to five jobs, postpone marriage and kids, live together in a van if we had to—to be able to say we gave music our best shot. If it didn’t work out after ten years, we’d be free to move on, no hard feelings. “At least we’ll have tried,” we told ourselves.
Of course, Wes got married a year later, and even though we had specifically addressed the possibility of marriage in our pact, even though we’d all said that if any of us did get married it still wouldn’t change things, it did. It wasn’t a Yoko Ono breaking up the band thing or anything like that, Wes just started caring a lot more about buying a house and having his own car than he did about the music. Being an electrician started as his “temporary career,” then became his “backup career,” and finally just his career. He started to look at us as if we were dumb kids trying too hard to hold on to our childhoods.
Karin left me around that time, too. She wanted a “normal life,” whatever that is. I loved her, but everyone knows pursuing your dream requires sacrifices. So I marked that one down on my list of sacrifices made, having convinced myself that when the list grew long enough, the rock gods would deem me worthy of some serious good fortune to even up the scales.
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Wes left the band six months later. We got another drummer, but the number of venues booking live talent was dwindling in favor of DJs and other poor man’s substitutes. At the gigs we did get, the owners would request we not play our own songs. “Nothing against you guys,” they’d say, “it’s just that people want music they know, stuff they’re comfortable with.”
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go from a band that did covers of lots of different groups’ songs, to a tribute band that focused on only one group. It wasn’t my idea, I know that. But after playing covers almost exclusively for six months, the idea of a tribute band no longer seemed repugnant. On the contrary, it seemed like sort of a higher calling. We debated which band we should focus on, based on which bands we liked, their popularity, whether they were still actively touring, who I sounded like, who we looked like, et cetera.
That’s how it started.
That was almost ten years ago.
We take the stage and the show begins, the same way it always does. My mind begins to wander, even as I’m singing. Tonight’s another small club, and normally the size of the venue, or the audience, doesn’t affect me much because it’s never really “me” on stage. Rather, it’s me as Steve Smith, lead singer for the original—some would say real—band, a man with the poise, swagger, and feathered hair of someone who knows he’s on top of the world circa 1976, touring in support of a record that had already gone gold and showed no signs of stopping there. But tonight the transformation is incomplete, and my self-confidence is flagging.
Lack of respect is the bane of a tribute band’s existence, and unless you keep your emotional armor well oiled and polished, it can lead to these occasional crises of confidence. We in the tribute biz catch flak from both sides—the high-minded classical and jazz aficionados who believe the music we play is too unsophisticated to be taken seriously, and the rock fans who feel that if you’re not writing your own stuff, you’re not being “authentic.” A tribute band is nothing if not authentic, from using vintage, precisely tuned instruments to matching just the right colors on the stage backdrop.
Here’s my question—why do people think that being one of seventy orchestra members in black suits and starched collars playing Beethoven or Bach as interpreted through the cracked perceptions of some weird-haired conductor is a noble profession, while being one of five members of a band who play popular music nearly identically to the original performances is cause for career embarrassment? Maybe our music isn’t as intricate, but pick any five members of that orchestra and let them go head to head against us in a crowded bar, and we’ll see who the people like better.
Mine is as disciplined a vocation as any—for two hours, I respond to stimuli not as I, Larry Candela, would, but as Steve Smith did. I say nothing that he did not say to his audience. Every stutter he uttered, every outfit he fit out, it’s all been corroborated, triple-checked for accuracy. Some would call this obsessive, but I call it dedication, what the fans deserve. I’ve rehearsed every move until its part of who I am. I am channeling the being of someone else. I am becoming someone else. And the audience wants me to be Steve Smith so badly that it helps me to forget I’m not really him. It’s a mutual suspension of disbelief.
This, then, is the difference between a tribute band and a band that just does covers. To quote The Who (or one of the major Who tribute bands, The What or Who’s Best or Behind Blue Eyes): “I’m a substitute for another man.”
If I remember correctly from my college philosophy classes, Plato and Aristotle both acknowledged all art as imitation. The difference is that Plato thought this was a bad thing, while Aristotle was a little more open-minded. Sometimes during our performances, I picture Aristotle in the audience, robed and sandaled, rocking out.
“Congratulations to our manager, who just tied the knot recently. In his honor, this is a song called ‘Knotty Problems.’” I hear myself make the introduction—perfectly, spot-on. The marriage in question happened almost thirty years ago, joining two people none of us knew then or now, but the reference was an integral part of that original concert, so it had to be used.
If, for the serious music listener, discovering a new band is like falling in love (and I would say that it is), then joining a tribute band is a lot like getting married. But you’re not marrying the other members of the band—you’re marrying the music. It’s a serious commitment, a decision to focus all your energies on a finite, limited body of work. And if joining a tribute band is like getting married, you could say I’m like the kid you went to school with who got married really young.
Maintaining one band as your favorite for ten, and even twenty years is a difficult thing. You have to sort of delude yourself, put blinders on so as not to fully notice new and undiscovered music that comes across your path. Repetition has to be made comforting instead of sleep inducing. You need to constantly reassess, search for new meaning in the familiar.
Both love and music start with infatuation, when you’ll want nothing but to listen to that one band or be around that one person. Then the sheen starts to fade, and you either discover new layers of interest or you break up and search for something better. Sometimes you’re still in the throes of infatuation when some other band (or woman) will steal your attention. But it’s normal to bounce around like this until, at some point, you become tired of bouncing around. You’re less interested in searching for new music (dating), and the work of staying informed on the latest bands gets crowded out in favor of more practical day-to-day demands. The stuff you’ve been listening to becomes very… comfortable. You can’t imagine anything better, or maybe you just can’t imagine continuing to look for something better. Finally, you settle down with one band designated as your favorite. Like marriage, sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. There are the couples in the newspaper celebrating 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries, their photos positioned (not unintentionally) right between the wedding announcements on one side and the obituaries on the other. Then there are the ugly divorces—the ones that are rarely announced in the newspaper, even though that’s what people really want to read about. You get older and you change, but the music always sounds the same, perfectly recorded, perfectly…static. You grow apart. You split up. It happens all the time.
Ten years can pass in a happy blur, or it can just be the prelude to a bitter parting of the ways. But every person in a tribute band, like every married person, harbors some doubts. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if you made the right decision. Should you have waited a little longer, seen what other opportunities arose, not settled down just yet—how might things have been different?
To keep the marriage alive, sometimes you have to beat down those doubts till they recede into the dark holes where they hide. But sometimes, like tonight, it seems like a giant game of whack-a- mole, and for every uncertainty you manage to beat down, two more pop up in its place.
I’m off tonight. It’s shaken me, because it’s been so long since I made a mistake, but tonight’s error was so minor it’s likely no one will notice, not even the other guys in the band. See, I told the crowd “thanks,” but Steve Smith never said “thanks,” he always said “thank you.” I wonder, is that just me being lazy? Or could it be something more?
Ten years to become a rock star. The only thing I’ve ever really cared about, the only thing I’ve ever really tried for and failed.
But what’s success or failure? Aren’t those terms subject to interpretation? Does it really have to be all or nothing? Isn’t there room for small successes and minor failures?
Is discipline a bad thing, carried to this extent? Have I stifled my creativity, or simply found a different way to embrace it? Is ten years too much time to give a dream, or not enough? Who’s to decide? What if the person who has to decide doesn’t know the answers?
The keyboard solo, “Friday Night Rondo,” ends, and as we start the next song, “Reflections,” I slip back into my role easily, like a favorite concert tee. A gesture here, a wink there. The fans are eating it up. The weird thing is I really don’t care. I’ve realized I don’t do this for the fans, despite what I said earlier. That was just bravado, false nobility to conceal the truth: I need them. I require an audience, because it’s part of the rock star package—without them, the dream dies.
This all could end at any time. More than likely, it will end soon, since the fans that come to our shows are getting too old to stand at a concert for two hours. They’d rather buy one of the DVD recordings of our shows ($15 apiece) and relax on their couch at home. There are some younger people who come—curiosity seekers, or children (and grandchildren) of fans. But eventually they’ll disappear, too.
I have to make a decision, a big decision—that’s what I’ve decided. I can’t just drift along any more. I’ll either end this now on my terms, or continue, with a new understanding of why I do it.
It’s important that I get this right… and for this, there is no script to memorize, no notes to study, no DVD to reference.
When you stop and look back like this, all of those earlier, seemingly unimportant decisions seem so natural, like this was the way it was all supposed to happen, just one moment flowing into the next, steadily moving you along like a stick in a stream.
The thing about being a stick in a narrow, twisty stream, though, is that you rarely see what’s ahead. You get knocked around, sometimes doing headers off the rocks, but you just keep moving forward. The stream could dry up a mile down the road, leaving you stuck somewhere, or it could open up to whole new, expansive body of water. You just don’t know till you get there.
“Reflections” ends. The mistake I made earlier has my head swirling, but strangely, I feel almost giddy. I grip the microphone tightly, ready to deliver the prescribed between-song banter, and I look out over the audience. No, not over the audience. At the audience.
It’s a different vibe now, a scary one, and I can feel myself tightening up. I’ve never been to an AA meeting, but I suspect this might be pretty similar. Do I really want to do this?
“My name is Larry Candela, and I play in a tribute band.”
Steve Smith never said that, but I just did. It may not be authentic, but it’s real.
I tell them everything, a briefer version of what I’ve said here. Some people in the crowd aren’t happy—I’ve broken the spell, violated the sacred trust between tribute performer and audience.
But soon there comes a connection, a kind I’ve never had before, like I’ve suddenly become transparent right there on stage. It’s terrifying, but at the same time liberating, freeing me of the restrictions I’ve placed on myself these past ten years. It’s a pretty magical experience. I wonder if rock stars ever get to feel something like this. Probably not.
You might think it sad that the major decision of my life thus far is to continue what some would call living someone else’s life. But in the end, it’s my dream. And somewhere between the truth of dreams and the delusion of fantasies, reality lies.
So the dream lives on, albeit in slightly altered form.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton, New Jersey-based writer. His poetry has been featured in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Zillah, The Journal of New Jersey Poets, Apple Valley Review, and more. He has also published two story collections, Prime Movements and Glossolalia, as well as a novel, Mister Dreyfus’ Demons. He is currently writing a graphic novel, called Ark, which will be published in 2009.