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Business is Terrible

February 3, 2011
FEBRUARY 3, 2011 10:40AM

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Via Nina H., Flikr

A few years ago I decided to buy a bass. I’d never owned one, but I’d fiddled with a few. I figured bass couldn’t be too hard for a guitar player to learn. And then I could play live bass on my home recordings. I went down to a music shop in a basement, a vintage place hung with scrappy old Teles and fat Gretschs, and a wreck of a Fender Princeton amp that looked like Muddy Waters had not only played through it, but also rode it a ways up the Mississippi River on that proverbial trip up to Chicago from New Orleans.

The owner stood behind a little glass display case, talking on the phone. When I pointed at the basses on the wall he nodded his head – Sure, go ahead and try em, then shouted, “Just not that Paul!” – pointing to a Les Paul in a glass case with a price tag of $6000.  I wouldn’t have been tempted – Les Paul’s are too heavy.

I plunked on a couple of basses. Meanwhile the guy was still on the phone. looking bored. I caught bits of conversation: “Yeah, it’s been real slow…same old same old.”

The Fender Precision felt pretty good. 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. I peered in at the old effects pedals – a Phase 90. I’d owned one, it sounded sweet! But I didn’t remember it costing 150 bucks! Forget it.

I looked up to talk to the store owner. Instead he walked into the back room.  I heard him droning on, got sick of looking in the case and looked around to a low table. Arranged on top was some kind of shrine, made of a guitar strap, some picks, all centered around a faded picture of the owner, standing next to a certain 60s rockstar, both smiling. The star had signed the picture, “To my dear friend…”

From the looks of the owner in the picture it was about 20 years old.  But it had been 40 years since I’d been a starry-eyed fifteen and stood not ten feet away from that star when his band was in its prime. Five long years later my band had opened for his. By then he was the only remaining member of his legendary band. They’d sounded tired, and by some accounts we’d shown them up…All ancient history.  When was that guy going to come out and talk to me?  I heard him droning on, the phrase, “Yeah, business is terrible.”

It was about to get worse. I’d had it with waiting, and threaded my way through rows of amps towards the exit.  Like a bug in his hole who senses his prey getting away, the owner finally popped his head out of his hole, but he was too late. When I was fifteen I would have waited all day and all night to hear that bass through an amp. My lust for getting an electric guitar was only slightly less keen than my desire to get with a girl. Getting that first electric guitar was tough, but not as getting my first girl.  The guitar came first. It didn’t hurt in getting that first girl.

But that was all ancient history, which had become even more ancient waiting for that guy to get off the phone.  I wasn’t fifteen, but fifty-five. I had ready cash for a bass, but no passion, this was more like an idle lark. I swore I’d look for a bass online, but other stuff came up, and before I knew it I’d stopped composing. It’s with some sadness that I admit now that I’ll probably never own a bass.

Wasn’t my business good enough for that fellow?  Maybe he was waiting for someone to buy that $6000 Les Paul. But I suspect he’s waiting for something else. Because I’ve been in a lot of music stores over the years, and though they’re usually more polite, the owners all share a certain haunted look. They too were once fifteen.

From their worn faces stare the eyes of those long gone kids, kids who’d caught the rock and roll fire back in ‘65, vowed to run away and join the greatest circus ever known, with groupies, the best dope, the best music under that rock and roll bigtop….

Instead they ended up working at some lousy music store, haggling price with a bunch of nobodies. Old nobodies. Like me.

Every day is same old same old, except in their fifteen year-old hearts an ember of hope still burns. 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, we’re late for the gig!” then lead them out to the tour bus. They ride out to the arena. He straps on that old Tele and strides onto the big stage, PA towers looming to either side in the dark, pilot lights winking red and green on stacks of Marshalls.  He plugs in and the spotlights sweep onto him from the back of the arena.  He raises his arms and the crowd roars and the drums boom. He’s completed his ascent to rock and roll heaven.

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Titian, the Assumption of Mary

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Comments

E-F#-G#-A I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it!
I like the sound of that, for that guy, a heavenly retreat from this sordid world.

But, for me, I’d rather have this day than live in the past.

I know so many people that still hold the dream.
😦
rated with hugs
Good story. So true. Hmmm, I have the money for a bass these days too. Maybe I need a new toy.
It it weren’t for our dreams. . . Very engaging read, as always.
i loved this story, LM. Sad but so true. You told it so well. And you can PM me – I really want to know who was in that picture!
Wow, I could hear the music building all through that piece.

Get Cameron Crowe to direct.

I’ve noticed the same thing. Those stores are getting harder to go into and enjoy. Ten minutes in one last week and the guy finally looks up from noodling some boring old lead line and says “Hey, how ya doin’?” Too late. “You work here or just interested in my health?” Decided not to ask about the Gretsch with the Bigsby.
This post, pardon the pun, rocked. Oh, I have a few stories of walking into music stores and not being taking seriously. After all I’m … just a girl, right? Anyways, there’s a music store here owned by a world famous Polka King (you probably know him — there’s not too many). I went in to look at guitars but the boyz on staff were too busy one-up ing each other. I bought a capo (because I needed one) instead of a guitar and then told them their customer service sucked. I walked towards the door and made sure I said “Fuck This” loud enough as I exited. They probably had a laugh but I make sure I tell my story to every musican I know :0

Best electric guitar I ever played was a beautiful 1957 Gretsch. It was lent to me for a show we played. Didn’t want to give it back …

Engaging story Luminous. I’m sure I speak for the OS community in being really curious about the guy in the photo. But I admire honor-bound folks so won’t press you.

I think it’s a little like that with bookstores too. Would-be writers who never broke through. Utterly unlike OS where we’re all successful or never craved to be.

This is a haunting depiction of youthful hopes hitting the wall of economic reality. But I don’t think passion moves on so readily, it’s what keeps that guy in that store. Some are able to expand it into another direction. It reminds me of the life story of that guy who had the hit, ‘You Turn Me On (Turn On Song)’ in the 60s. It was a fluke Ian Whitcomb’s band had a Billboard top ten single. His flash of fame was pushed out by Barry Maguire and Dylan, but he went on to write books about popular music and ragtime and jazz. I read about him years ago and his passion for music played out beyond the boy in a band.

He writes some very funny and interesting stories of his years on the road in the early 60s. You have the same gift of writing about your experience in the world of music.

I’ve been there. (Actually I’m pretty sure I have really been there.)

It seems like some stores are staffed either by cast-offs from Radio Shack or old grumps that got a music-ed degree but lost a job as a band director. There are some good ones. I play at an open mic in a music store and you feel like they love music. What this post reminded me of is not music stores but how other businesses and handy-persons blow me off. Business is in the toilet, I’ve been told. But no one calls back. I’m not worthy, I guess. I’m at the point where I lie and say I have a project I need done. They must be able to tell I just want an estimate or information, God forbid. R

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