When my best friend Nigel and I were fourteen we started a band. Neither of us played a musical instrument. So my father took promo photos for us instead. He set us against white sheets tacked to a wall in the living room, with a wooden chair, an empty vase on a small table, and my cat as props. We modeled ourselves after the Edge and Bono, Nigel wearing his sister's blue leg warmer as a toque.
Around the same time, I was quite into the band EMF and their record Schubert Dip. I learned every word to every song and would entertain my family on Friday nights by lip-synching and air-guitaring with a broom; Nigel would sit-in as the air-drummer using salad spoons as drumsticks. Like most artists, we developed, matured, and eventually began singing along to an instrumental Mambo album I found at my grandmother's house. We thought we were "taking it to the next level," but, really, it was just Karaoke with original lyrics.
Our impending stardom took a giant leap forward when his mother found a battered acoustic guitar in a trash bin at an elementary school. There were two fishing lines where the A and D strings should have been. We took turns playing it and even composed real songs, though we could never remember them because there is no documented way to tune fishing line. At best, we sounded like chanting psychotics.
My parents, noticing a developing creative interest, got me an electric guitar and amplifier for Christmas when I was in grade ten. They also got me an instructional guitar book, but I was hardly interested in it, opting to immediately go downstairs and write four songs, recording them on the Sony tape deck. As I knew no chords or even remotely how to play, the songs were more globs of sound captured between the pressing of record and the pressing of stop.
"Coincidentally," Nigel's parents got him drums for Christmas and so began my first real band, Reamer. We would spend the next year and a half playing in his basement, showing an amazing lack of improvement. By all accounts, we recorded nine albums, though, for the most part, a song was considered complete once we had finished playing it for the first time. As long as we had a recording, we were satisfied. Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes they were not.
In the summer before grade twelve we recruited a lead guitarist and a bass player, both of whom actually knew what they were doing.
Reamer became a half-decent band, even having a bit of a following. But we inevitably broke up the summer after we graduated, Nigel swearing to never play the drums again. I would form Thundersauce, a band that would have considerable local success yet fall short of doing anything significant. That band broke up too, and, years later, I started my current band, Seven Year Old Poets.
It's been a career that has seen more downs than ups, punctuated by "so closes" and "almost had its."
When we were younger, the dreams were big. It seemed so easy. Of course, life isn't like that. There is a thing called Hard Work, another called Dedication, and the most important one of all, A Commitment to Poverty. When we formed Seven Year Old Poets we all knew nothing was going to happen. We had jobs, girlfriends, and student loan payments. Our dreams had tasted reality and lost. And in that there was great satisfaction, comfort. There was no pressure. It was a fresh start.
Along the way, as any musician will tell you, there are numerous moments that make you question why you do it. They are lessons in humility. For some they grow with it and learn from their mistakes. For others, such as us, they have reinforced those smart decisions to not take out giant loans for equipment, profit losing tours and albums.
I had a lesson in "humility" at a show not too long ago.
The gig was three hours away. When we arrived I noticed all the trucks in the parking lot had tarps covering their cargo. We'd been told we'd be playing for a thousand people but there were clearly only a couple of hundred spread-out over several acres.
We walked around, me limping in an air cast because I had ruptured my Achilles tendon a few months prior. The event was called Cancer Heroes and attendees were encouraged to dress in super hero costumes. We found Craig, the organizer. He was about twenty and dressed as Super Man. There was an empty beer garden, a few kiosks staffed by heavy-set couples selling tie-dyed bandanas, a surprisingly long line-up for face painting, and about thirty people watching a band called Demon Grave, who were about nineteen years old and "tight," which is the default compliment if you don't have anything nice to say.
The event was well behind schedule, so we drove to the beer store. Woodstock by Crosby Stills Nash and Young was playing on the radio. Aptly fitting we thought. When we got back, the bass player and I sat in the car drinking beer. The other two guys- the fathers- smoked a joint in a far-off gazebo. Then it began to rain. I made a remark about it being like the "gigs of old time," drinking beer in the car before a gig, the only difference was now the car had a "Baby on Board" decal hanging from the back window.
At five-thirty we went on. There were about twenty people left, mainly volunteers packing up temporary fence rentals and plastic chairs. Our bass player had four cans of ice-tea, which we emptied behind the car and refilled with beer. Superman Craig raffled off a series of prizes, strangely all won by a co-organizer, Crystal. In the first song I split open my index finger on my right hand.
At one point I looked out from the stage. This was the humanizing moment, my whole musical career flashing before my eyes, from the fishing line guitar to right then; I was suddenly and permanently grounded, realizing once again that William Farrant the musician will unlikely be on the cover of Rolling Stone anytime soon. Here I was, a grown man of thirty-two, with one good leg and blood all over his hand and guitar, playing rock music to an audience of one, a man dressed as Robin Hood twirling a hoola-hoop in the rain.
In the end, we drove six hours and played for twenty-five minutes, we didn't get our tax-deductible receipts, and we didn't get our food and free beer as promised. On the way home we stopped at a gas station for dinner. There was a big argument about doing benefit gigs. The worst part is the cause is always genuine; you're always willing to be a part of it. But time after time an over-enthusiastic college kid with a good heart that has no idea what they're doing runs the event. We often joke that the Seven Year Old Poets are the charitable organization.
The Dreadful Gig is a right of passage, often called paying your dues. I know many musicians and they all have similar stories. In the end, some of us make it but most of us don't. It's the way it goes. But I'm not bitter and have no regrets, because, really, every experience is just a story to tell.
I've had many great moments too, memorable shows, interviews in the community paper, been band of the month on the local radio station, received a royalty cheque for $11.84 when I was twenty. But the low moments keep you real, honest. They remind you why you play music in the first place: if not for yourself, then why at all?
I don't think I've changed much as a musician since I started writing lyrics as a teenager to a Mambo record. My attitude and approach have always been the same: I just want to write songs. I've never strayed from that. It doesn't matter that I've never signed a record deal, gone on big tours, appeared in magazines. I have nothing against those things happening, but it doesn't stress me or bother me they haven't. As Kurt Cobain said, "The worst crime is faking it." I don't think I ever have. The Cancer Heroes show wasn't a disaster or a waste of time. In fact, I don't think I would have had it any other way.