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Music Stories
 

Ego

At seventeen years old I flew to Halifax to join a rock band called "Threshold".  It was my friend Henry Poswistak who passed me the gig, and who had graduated in recording arts from Fanshawe College in London, where he met friends - all graduates of the recording arts course.  They formed a progressive hard rock band and moved to Halifax to base themselves. They had an agency representing them, called Radius 3000 and a credit account at a local music store in Dartmouth.  Perhaps it was called Music Stop.  It was down the street from a blues venue called the Wise Owl where the house band was Dutch Mason.  

My friend Henry was Threshold's bass player, and for an unknown reason suddenly wanted to come home to Toronto, so he called and offered me the gig.  It was my first "professional" offer so I basically dropped everything and jumped on a plane.  I was greeted at the airport by a long haired guy named "Dovey" who had schizophrenic eyes with dark circles under them, a devilish smile and a tiny Triumph Spitfire sports car.  He was also an affable personality, respectful in his way, somewhat of a leader personality and always mysterious.  We piled my luggage and my bass into the small area behing the two seets and sped off along winding roads to the house.

The band lived in a one bedroom apartment upstairs from a very cute, homey decent young couple who owned the house. In this one bedroom apartment lived the four of us someyimes a fan/friend or two, and all our equipment which was usually set up since we were constantly rehearsing.  As players these guys seemed fairly developed and there were many textbooks about recording which I devoured and asked many questions about

After a couple of weeks of rehearsal we drove to a small town in northern New Brunswick to play a gig in the dead of winter.  The van had no heat and what was described by the agent to be a five hour drive took us nine hours, so that, by the time we arrived, with feet like ice blocks, the audience had gathered cross-legged on the floor of a community center, waiting for the show to start.  Since we couldn't bend our fingers well enough to unload the equipment, never mind play our instruments, we found a hot shower and thawed out while allocated helpers unloaded and roughly set us up.  With stage lights dimmed and wearing our glamorous psychedelic outfits we shuffled about the stage surrounded by high energy anticipation, preparing for the opening moment.  Even a "check" on a mic caused emphatic response from the largely French,  largely female audience who had waited for this moment to unfold.

Finally we started the first song , which was our very heavy rock version of a then-popular pop number called "No Matter What" by a Beatles' Produced group called "Badfinger".  Culturally speaking, to me, this song represented nothing special - a cute, radio hit with shallow, positive lyrics, espousing some kind of romantic loyalty to a lover - "No matter what you do...I will always be around"  etc.  Musically it was catchy, lyrical and repetitive.  On the other hand, our version was very heavy rock guitars, driving and passionate.  Our lead singer, Chuck Marshall, who had been quiet during most of our rehearsals, was now on stage, glowing in the full bloom of  his charismatic persona, something I had not seen before, this being my first gig with them.  He looked like he was in heaven, euphoric, beaming and generous to the audience in his happiness.

Now before the song had started, as I mentioned,  all was very electric.  The audience was pumped, it was my first gig, we had arrived in such a compromised state, then thawed out and, although hungry, were now feeling cleaned up, well dressed, and dying to try our newly rehearsed arrangements on our first audience as a new lineup in the group (as in, with me playing bass for them).  My relationship with the guitarist/leader of the group ("Dovey")  was challenging.  He was older than me, perhaps twenty three, and seemed so worldly, sardonic, cryptic and often condescending. 

Late nights we had sat up talking while he gave me the "this is how it is kid" instructions - a bit tough, and keeping an eye on whether I'd work out as a band member.  Overall, I had the feeling he liked me and was approving of how things were going so far.  For some reason I was quite sensitive to whether he felt I was doing well or not - like it really mattered to me.  This was my first "professional" job in a band, and I had flown three thousand miles to take it - had no idea what was in store and had developed most of my rock music skills in one long term rehearsal band back in Toronto.  So here I was out in the world, wondering what a band of Pros would make of me, and how I would be perceived by an audience as a member of such an outfit.  It also seemed that my entire future career would somehow be affected by how I did here.

What I don't understand now is - according to what authority?  Who did I think was judging my performance, and what power over the rest of my life could this party wield?  I have since read the view that performers are hooked on audience applause because it makes them feel loved, and that many performers lacked love in their real lives, and so sought it out in the performance realm.  This seems reasonable to me, and  I have a bit of a sense of how that might apply in my case.  At the same time, I also have a sense that there was a genuine motivation for meaningful output on my part and a burning desire to give something to all those people out there , as well as to my co-performers.  In terms of developing musical prowess on the instrument, again it was two tiered,.  I wanted  to be good at it, so I could feel  "I'm good at this"  but this wasn't so totally absorbing that I was too preoccupied to put it to work, get something done, and be focussed on the audience and the other players while doing the work.

Anyway - there we were setting up the stage, and I walked up to one of the mics and said something a bit more colourful than "testing" (i don't remember exactly what) and got a huge reaction from the audience.  I looked over and the band leader Dovey was messing with his guitar pedals, just beside and below me.  HIs long hair was all in his face and he turned to look up at me with a huge smile on his face and said " I guess that tells us something about your stage presence".   This gave me a huge boost . 

So the first song "No Matter What"  started with the chorus, a bit of an unusual structure in those days, and Chuck the lead singer was  in seventh heaven, beaming at  me like we were long time friends in ecstatic exchange (even though he had been very aloof until this moment),  all was feeling really okay, Dovey seemed approving, the groove was feeling good.  We had rehearsed a big "stop" at a certain point just at the end of the first chorus.  This seemed a bit melodramatic in rehearsal (in a good way), but i hadn't pictured  how it would come off in a performance.  These guys were quite tuned in to such things, and to these audiences in general, so it was designed for a big effect/  Well, when we got to that stop in the  first song , on my first night with the band, with the audience totally on fire, loving every juicy note we played, and with Chuck beaming away, loving me, loving Dovey, loving the girls in the audience squeezing at the stage in the front row - that stop was huge!  If you can imagine this really loud grove motoring along like a train ,synchronized, a wall of sound, dancing overtones of harmony, locked pocket of rhythm, never to end, and this timed stop for a bar : (pause -2-3-4...)  In that stop we all heard something.  A chorus of cute sounding young girls making a kind of "ooooooh!" fainting sound, as though it had been going on all along, but when the music stopped it was revealed.

What a rise, what a comical and happy and sharing moment it felt like for all of us.  This underlying feeling continued throughout the song ,throughout the night, and probably throughout my career in some way.  Never did this seem like any kind of shallow ego boost.  It was totally taken as "in context".  They were all French, "heavy" guitar music was cool, this song on the radio was likable but not quite "heavy" , our version really "improved" that, we sang in English which may have seemed a bit exotic, we were the  rock band from the big city, they were in a very small community (this is long before music video television).  We understood it wasn't really "us" but the whole moment.   Ironically, as far as I could tell,  at least half the band was gay anyway so there was no "scoring" significance attached to the "oohing" girls.  Similarly, each of us on the stage had felt enamored by our favourite performers, and in turn, I'm sure many of our favourite performers had been enamoured with others in their life.

It was clear this must occur in so many other circles.  One could just imagine golfers, athletes, spiritual seekers, politicians, yoga instructors, professors and other communities having this kind of interaction.  Now, at the same time this sort of thing was probably less expressed among construction workers on the job, or shipper-recievers working together in the warehouse, or monastics pursuing a stoic regimen together. In each of these scenes, expressions of ego are likely less encouraged, yet admirations of prowess or achievement or just happenstance moments that put one person in a glowing light while another looks on are unavoidable. 

The question of when one is becoming unacceptably "egoistic" is partly cultural in this respect.  Some communities promote certain roles as appropriately so.  Where is the absolute in this?  Ultimately, for their own happiness the individuals concerned need to find a balance, be they the admirer or the admired.  Is ego-centricity when one becomes arrogant enough to abuse or under serve another due to their perception that they needn't have compassion or help another, since they are accustomed to being catered to?

If this is so, then I feel that the experiences I have been brought to through music and musical performing have taught that, being aware of all I've described above, and embracing it with a sense of service have not led to egoism for myself or most of the truly accomplished artists I have encountered.  At the same time, how do you know?  I have been accused of arrogance may times, especially by people who have not been performers, celebrities, or who have not experienced so called "glamorous" types of employment.

Buddhists  feel that one should recognize "no self" or "no ego".  Many spiritual thinkers espouse the concept that the only valid sense of identity is that of "oneness" where all are interrelated and equal - again a sort of "no self".  Well , even a person heralded by many, revered and (perhaps mistakenly) idolized by others could, in theory, participate in the dance of such exchanges and at the same time understand who they are (or are not), thereby not getting caught up in a deluded perspective.   One could settle in the humble feeling that all things are unfolding in an unstoppable way and one is compelled to do their "given" part.

 So what seems great about the achievement of the individual, as observed in a moment by others, is actually great in the total energy of the moment it is being observed in.  The actual beginning of the occurrence is just a thing the universe was doing at that point in time. It has felt that way to me throughout my career.  But, again, how do you know if you haven't been deluded or unknowingly abusive, insensitive and hurtful of others while feeling so "centered"  about it all?

One of the few ways I have been able to explore this is by doing "prostrations", a practice I was taught by my Zen teacher Samu Sunim.  This is a physical and spiritual awareness exercise. The practitioner bows down in a repetitive, meditative fashion while  considering a specific issue such as -"who have I hurt?" or "who has harmed me" or "I will forgive myself for hurting others" or " I will forgive those who have harmed me" or "I am grateful for what I have in this moment", etc.;  If you try this a few thousand times over the course of a few months, in a daily, focussed fashion, it is interesting what you can find out.

Ultimately, I have come to believe there is no gain and much suffering for the individual who hangs on to an ego based motivation.  The universe is doing it's glorious thing and one is best served feeling lucky to be a part of the goings on.  If you find yourself in the "celebrity" "teacher" "leader" "manager"or "parent" position, humility will serve you well, for in this position you have responsibility to serve and support, whether you realize it or not.  It can be detrimental if you make moves in this position without realizing it - so this position carries responsibilities which may feel like a "burden" if one's thinking is not clear.  And to be the "servant" "custodian" "student" or  "assistant" is the carefree state, open ended to the creativity of  many devices you can employ to strengthen the situation, yet not obligated to show much proactive energy, vision or motivation.

So, what kind of "ego trip" can you realistically have in either role?  Just to be there and be grateful is the best way to serve one's self and others.

 

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