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“Business is Terrible”

June 17, 2010

image by Nina H via flickr

I decided to buy a bass. I’d never owned one, but I’d fiddled with a few, and figured it couldn’t be too hard for a guitar player to learn. And then I could have live bass on my home recordings. I went down to a cozy little basement vintage shop hung with scrappy old Teles and fat Gretschs, and a funky Fender Princeton amp that looked like Muddy Waters had not only played through it, but also rode it a ways down the Mississippi River.

The owner stood behind a little glass display case. He was on the phone, and when I pointed at the basses on the wall he nodded his head, then shouted – “Just not that Paul!” – pointing to a Les Paul behind glass with a price tag of $6000.  Damned Les Paul’s are too heavy anyway. The guy looked bored. I caught bits of conversation: “Yeah, it’s been real slow…same old same old.”

I plunked a couple of basses. The Fender Precision felt pretty good, but I wanted to hear it through an amp.  The guy was still talking. I went over to the display case, thinking to get his attention, and peered in at the old effects pedals – a Phase 90, yeah I use to have one of those, it was pretty sweet…gJeez, 150 bucks! Forget that.

The guy moved into the back room where I could hear him droning on. Top of the case was a signed picture of the owner, some years younger, with a certain ‘60s rockstar. This particular rockstar was good in his prime, but I remember my band opening for his after they were long over the hill, and we kind of showed them up, actually… the guy was still back there talking.

I’d had enough. I threaded my way out through the rows of amps. Like a bug the owner popped back out of his hole. The last thing I heard was “Business is terrible.”

Well I guess business is waiting for somebody to buy that $6000 Les Paul, or something.  I never did get a bass, and regret it, ‘cause now I’m not composing anymore  and probably won’t ever buy one.

Thing is, I’ve seen old guys all over like the one in this shop. Most of them are more polite, more willing to do business. But they all share a certain sadness: they’ve been waiting for a very long time, hoping for something wonderful, something that never happens. They’d been kids, caught the rock and roll fire, wanted to be part of the circus, and here they’d ended up working at some lousy music store, haggling prices with a bunch of nobodies. Old nobodies.

They might just settle down, accept their fate, do their job, except that somewhere in them the hope still lives. The hope that Eric Clapton, or that guy in the picture, is finally going to descend into their basement shop from a gleaming tour bus that’s humming outside the door, grab them by the shoulder, “Come on mate, your time has come,” then lead them out to the tour bus. They’ll ride out to the arena, to the giant stage with the great PA system, the crowd waiting. Strap on that old Tele, walk out there and the lights come up and the crowd is roaring, up there in rock and roll heaven.


From → 60's Music

  1. About 15 years ago, shortly after he’d been hired as Chicago’s touring guitarist, I met Keith Howland. It was funny as I’d seen his name pop up in the liner notes of one of my favorite CDs, Toto’s Kingdom of Desire. So I e-mailed Toto founding member and guitarist, Steve Lukather, and asked him about Keith. Mr. Lukather was kind enough to respond and indicated that before getting his gig in Chicago, Keith Howland had been Toto’s guitar tech for a handful of years.

    Apparently Keith is one of those guys whose dreams have come true.

    • Dang, you’ve blown my whole sad sack tale. Actually, what a wonderful thing for that guy (and I bet he smokes, too.)! My dream, believe it or not, is to play with the Rock Bottom Remainders, the garage band of writers, including Stephen King. I need to get a book published first, of course.

  2. I remember reading some of Dave Barry’s columns about performing with that band back in the 90s. His adulation of Al Kooper was not at all veiled. And as per Barry’s MO the articles were all rather humorous in nature.

    • And why not. Al Kooper’s a saint, after all. And judging from the last interview I read with him, a nice, down to earth guy (though you never know.)

  3. The only thing worse than dealing with SOME (not all, however I should really say, MOST) music store guys, is dealing with club owners!

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