Demon Stagefright and the Rock-and-Roll Devil
“See the man with stagefright, just standing up there to give it all his might.” –Robbie Robertson
I wrote in my last post about being an introverted artist who must periodically emerge from under my rock to peddle my wares. Am I’m doing it. Not only querying literary agents , but going on TV! The Kennedy Files, a ten-hour documentary, premiered on the Reelz Network November 10th. In it I discuss my father’s battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy over the publication of The Death of a President, as detailed in Sam Kashner’s Vanity Fair article, for which I was also interviewed.
In truth, I have little interest in Kennedys. And as an introvert, less interest in tooting my horn about my TV appearance. Except this TV business has got me thinking, realizing that my introvert story is a bit more complicated.
Lurking beneath my quiet exterior are two warring entities – the Demon Stagefright and the Rock-and-Roll Devil. Now this is not an admission that I suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder, i.e. multiple personalities. I am perfectly aware when these fellows – lets call them sub-personalities – emerge to take my personal stage (as well as some literal stage.) But they still seem like strangers to me, and when they arrive I feel no less than possessed.
They are perhaps an inheritance. Before my father became a writer he aspired to acting. In High School he produced and starred in Hamlet. When I was around ten I watched him in a Wesleyan faculty production of The Importance of Being Ernest. I told him he was great, and it was no lie.
He pooh-poohed my praise with his usual false humility, then intoned, “When you’re an actor, you have to go on stage no matter what. Even if you’re throwing up.” As with so many of his portentous pronouncements, I have no idea what he intended for me to take away. Perhaps like his father – who’d squelched the young actor’s career with his own pronouncement – “Actors are Bums!” he meant to warn me away from a questionable pursuit. If so, he failed. I became a musician.
My stomach took his words with a terrible literalness. From that day the thought of public performance made me nauseous. A few years later at age thirteen I faced my first audience, and an easy one: a class of first graders. But the demon popped out, making my stomach do flips and my hands so slick that I could barely grip my pick. And dumbing me down so that I slapped the capo on the wrong fret. I started singing in a key that was much too high – a pitiful squeaking sound. The urge to get up and run away was strong.
But instead I stopped, set the capo properly, and began again. And a miraculous transformation occurred. I was suddenly in heaven. The song was “Down in the Valley” –a far cry from “Purple Haze.” But the Rock-and-Roll Devil had made his first appearance.
And so it went for years as I pursued a performing career. With every gig – even a roadhouse during a blizzard playing for two drunks – it was the same deal. Terror, transformation, bliss. Rough on the nervous system. Speaking of drunks, I might have been headed that way. A drink or two calmed the worst of the Demon’s depredations. But a drink or three was even more useful for chasing away the Devil at the end of the cycle.
Because here’s the thing: while I loathe Demon Stagefright, I’m scared of that Devil. He’s arrogant. A braggart and a megalomaniac. A sexist pig and plain out-of-control. As Lowell George put it in “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” before his own demons slayed him:
Some say Rock and Roll is bad for the body and bad for the soul
Bad for the heart, bad for the mind,
Bad for the deaf, and bad for the blind.
Makes some men crazy and then they act like fools
Makes some men crazy, and then they start to drool
The summer I was twenty-four I was playing five sets a night, seven days a week in a top forty funk band, Symphony Street, laying down chunka-chunk rhythm on my Telecaster and singing backups on “Backstabbers” and “Rock the boat.” A very white boy playing black music, a job I had no business doing. One sweltering August week we were booked into a joint off the boardwalk at Revere Beach. The salty air, polluted with the stench of fried dough, had me nauseous, and also somehow had all six strings of my guitar impossibly flat and sharp at the same time. A portent I should have heeded. If I’d hightailed it out of that club, quit that band, things might have turned out different.
Around the second set I stepped to the mic to sing and the demon pounced. Clamped my mouth shut, its foul, fiery breath in my ear, whispering, “Open that trap of yours and an ocean of vomit will spew forth and drown every last drunk in this room, and you and your band too, Sonny.”
The demon was being a bit overdramatic, as is his wont. But I believed he’d make good on the threat of puking. I was certain that vomiting in public would be a humiliation I would never live down. (I believed I wasn’t alone. When George H. W. Bush infamously puked at table with the Japanese before his second election I was convinced that he’d lose. He did.)
I quit performing and became a music producer. Eventually found a way to crawl under my rock and compose. But I had to wonder – after all the years of the Demon and Devil battling, why had the Demon suddenly won? Perhaps it was blessing in disguise. I was by now well aware of the havoc fame had wreaked on my father and family. On the rock-and-roll heroes of my youth. I had darker thoughts. Perhaps it was my father, who couldn’t stand the idea of any man getting over on him, not even his son. That in warning me of the rigors of life on the stage that he’d laid a curse on me which had come to fruition in the prime of my life.
When I left that puny stage in Revere I vowed never to dark another again. Yet three summers later Livingston Taylor somehow dragged me kicking and screaming back onto a vast stage, before twenty-five thousand people, opening for Linda Ronstadt, then Fleetwood Mac. I was back on the horse that had thrown me, though it was more like riding a stampede.
I stuck the tour out for two months. I hit all the notes. I never puked, but the demon also never let loose his iron grip on my guts. I lost weight. And I never enjoyed one second of our performance.
Around 1983 Livingston again twisted my arm into going on local Boston TV with him. It was a nightmare both in anticipation and execution. I looked just like I felt – a nervous wreck. You can get away with a lot on TV. You can be stupid and people will love you. But the one thing you can’t do is look nervous.
In the 00’s I started playing a few small gigs. Something had changed in me. I still got nervous before performing, but it didn’t incapacitate me. And occasionally I would break through to that joyful place. I was beginning to understand some things. I read how the great performers John Lennon and Joan Baez were also plagued by stage fright. The same demon that was after me must have plagued them too, but they pre-empted him: they forced themselves to vomit before every performance. Yuck.
And I heard the terrible idea that the degree of one’s stage fright is directly related to how much you have to give in performance. Mediocre musicians don’t get very nervous, because the stakes aren’t very high.
I think the stakes are high in all performances. I hate sitting bored or annoyed by a bad performance. Multiply that experience times hundreds or thousands in an audience and a musician carries a heavy responsibility. An obligation to entertain or enlighten.
I was doing OK with that occasional gig, but when I got the call to be in this Kennedy documentary, the old TV terror arose. All the way into the studio in San Francisco I did deep breathing, but old demon squeezed away at my gut. My first twenty minutes under the lights were sweaty at best.
But then…I broke through. I wasn’t just over my nervousness. I was having a good time. A great time. The life of the party. The devil was back. I was on a high driving out of the city. Thinking big time thoughts. And a little afraid. Was I suddenly going to be leering at waitresses and chugging tequila and dancing on tables? Unlikely. How much damage can an old man do? The worst the Devil done at that TV studio was to grin and run his motor mouth like he had the last word, and the first word and all the ones in between.
But as I drove through San Francisco, past all the Google busses with tinted windows hiding the rock stars of today, I had no doubt that if another opportunity came to be on TV, I was going to do it again.