I love a lot about this time of year, especially the clash of seasons, where fall struggles with winter, for control of the skies, and the gradual motion of the sun to the south, the changing of the light, the fire-and wood smell in the air, and being the romantic I am, of course, the rain and the blast of cold air to the face, and a chance, pull out my class – IV weather gear, and use my giant oversized umbrella.
Like a lot of other artists I know, I have a little bit of trepidation though, about engaging in holiday celebrations with family and friends. Some of these celebrations, especially with family, can be a real wing clipping ceremony, and reality check, for musicians either used to adoration and limelight, or simply those who see themselves on some quasi religious, sacred sexual musical spiritual mission, like I think a lot of us secretly, or openly do.
Nothing puts you in your place, like being the potentially least important person in the room, while men and women, engage in the traditional yearly check-ins, controlled boasting, displays of wealth, or shows of austerity. There is no sound crew, lighting guy, nor stage to play on here, buddy, and here, you’re just another one of the folks waiting for some turkey and cranberry sauce, and secretly praying with all your might that nobody brings any horrific fruitcake.
For someone who took the other path, and chose a life as a performer, some of the gift-giving, ritual salutations, and sudden concern from people who have avoided you for at least a year, can be a little unsettling. So it was on occasion a few years back when I attended the Thanksgiving celebration of the loosely knit part of my loosely knit family.
When someone in your family looks you in the eyes asks you “how are you really doing?” For a lot of musicians I know, responding appropriately usually gives you one of three options, the first, to be a little tight, not giving way too much information, and tell them: “I’m doing fine”, in the hopes that they will not pry further, which they almost always do.
The second, would be to rattle off a list of your recent gigs or accomplishments, (I have seen this 10,000 times at parties, with all sort of artists, and using every variation, from cherry picking the two things you did that actually made money, to rattling off your entire tour schedule, to the point where everyone within earshot is basically just waiting for you to shut up so they can start eating again)
And the third, is to fall down sobbing, telling them how unfair this dirty-rotten no-good business really is, and how you feel unappreciated, and unloved, and how now suddenly everything you do becomes obsolete in 5 min, and these god damn kids and their newfangled streaming MP3 radio transmitter devices and love of “Twerking” music, and how it has made your life horrible and your career a living hell. I’ve seen that too.
There will inevitably be at such gatherings, an alpha male, or female, who played it safe their entire life, and now made an enormous amount of money in either real estate, tech, or stocks, who’ll usually politely look on, while you may squirm in your seat hoping they don’t ask you how the music business is going, (they probably already know), and they may engage in a little controlled boasting in the form of showing everybody there brand-new Mercedes-Benz E class, or talking about their new house, or swimming pool, or how their whole family was able to spend a year on vacation in Aruba or something like that.
These are the real rock stars of the holidays. The family members, who show up with what appears to be a stable marriage and finances, and a bottle of E&J brandy, in their new car.
And then there’s the cousins from the East Coast, or Southern California, showing up looking like American tourists in Tonga in the 1940s, who look at your entire family gathering of people as though you are a delegation of aliens sent to Earth to negotiate a peace treaty.
But then, after little while and maybe a couple drinks of brandy, you’re loosening up a little and sharing a couple stories about your musical life, some mega-famous person you met, or having made some kind of artistic statement about how you don’t care about money, and why your craft is important to you, and by the time the food shows up, we are all just a group of hungry wolves waiting to fall upon that bird and tear it apart.
But the initial stages can really be a test to your self-esteem. You want to show up with something good to eat, and that becomes really important that people appreciate it and see that you are really trying to contribute to the overall enjoyment, or you can bring CDs of your most recent project, which no matter how well it’s doing, most of your family members probably know nothing about and will accept in amused politeness.
Or if you have done well recently, showing up with something way over the top expensive for you to buy, and feeling a little better about your place on the hierarchy, guaranteeing that your rich cousin will shut up and quit bragging about his Mercedes-Benz, because while the Benz looks nice, people are eating the delicious expensive Gumbo you made, and you can’t eat a Benz. Take that, rich cousin!
On the other hand, you may have just gotten your ass kicked in a series of gigs, music deals, or just the general field of warfare we regard as the calling, and like a lot of artists in the winter, who are manic or depressive, show up a little beaten up, with only a cheap bottle of wine, and your company, actually really in need of a couple of hugs and a good turkey dinner.
Or you may be a rebel like me, who for decades proclaimed: “Santa Claus never came to my gig, why should I go to his?” Only to be reminded by family, that this is merely a get-together, that they will save you a seat at the table, that everyone would love to see you and they don’t care how successful you are this year, maybe even applying little familial or social pressure to get you, even telling you that your high school crush is showing up, and they are interested in seeing you again. (Yikes X10)
I imagine that for normal person, these things would be minor discomforts, while I can assure you as a sensitive artist, these things can little more like free climbing Mount Everest butt naked, with a lit stick of dynamite strapped to your behind. Yeah. Lots of fun.
Then, if you’re mixed like me, you actually get three thanksgivings, a White Thanksgiving, a Black Thanksgiving, and the Hispanic Thanksgiving, all with some very different dynamics, with one exception, now that a new bond exists with a lot of people giving each other a sly wink, and then “going to the store” which really means they’re about to step out on the back porch or roll around the block and smoke an enormous Blunt laced with dabs, or maybe do a line.
I have been all of these people, and participated in Thanksgiving when I wasn’t gigging at all, as a cook, visited the Thanksgiving celebrations of my family and friends having just recently come off the road from going 127 shows, or some weird freaky art gallery music project, and found myself needing to trumpet my success a little, or hide my losses. It’s natural.
The following is my list of survival tips for musicians at whatever level to survive the emotional orgy of the holidays.
1: Remember, this is not your gig. You don’t have to prove how good you are artistically, but it does help if you know how to slice of turkey well, or know how to cut up a salad really quick.
2: Watch out for the one drunk mean-spirited relative. In fact, just prepare for this ahead of time. They will probably say something derogatory about your career path.
(“Oh, how is your little music project doing?”)
3: Don’t be offended by the fact, that the kids, know nothing about your music, even if it’s on the radio and television, and act surprised that your even involved in music at all.
4: Anything you bring is good enough. Don’t feel shy or embarrassed about your contribution to the meal, it is simply symbolic. If it was about feeding everyone something impressive, coming from your hand, Thanksgiving would be at your place, and not your aunt’s.
5: Beware the one drunk cousin who will probably flirt with you, and the other one, trying to get you involved in some kind of pyramid marketing scheme, or Amway club
6: If you do sing, or play, and people find out about it, you will inevitably be asked to sing or play a tune. Be ready with either a good tune, or a great excuse. (“My vocal coach said I can’t sing for three weeks”, usually works for me)
7: If you are not a regular smoker of marijuana, and decide, to step out, and “go to the store” with some of your fellows, be careful. Weed and dabs are now as powerful as psychedelics, and can hurtle you, into a strange and bizarre world, of jovial laughing creatures inserting their beaks into food plates, while speaking some bizarre language you cannot understand, and cackling, like those weird creatures in “The dark Crystal” . weed is strong as hell these days. Do not say you were not warned.
8: It is totally okay to be unexceptional here. In a meeting with your A&R rep, your road manager, your intellectual property lawyer, or the local or national press, your sales figures, tour schedule, recording apparatus, and fellow band members may be of importance.
Here you’re just another schlub sitting on the couch waiting for cake. Enjoy it. It can be a pressure free environment if you let go of your rockstar status.
9: Remember not to make artistic or musical promises you will not keep. Holidays are also always the time, when you will be presented with a niece, nephew, or child of a close friend, who made or may not be insanely talented, whose career they want you to “mentor”, or “guide”, and because of the surroundings you may be prompted to say yes, when in reality you may want to grab the kid by the shoulders and shake them, and tell them to run for their lives, and avoid the music business at all costs. Either way, be moderate with your promises. The holidays will blow over, and unless you want your aunt showing up at 8 AM, with some kid, reminding you that you promise to record them in your studio, be careful what you say.
10: Stay out of political arguments at all costs. You might have some ultraconservative family members, and I can guarantee, you will not change their outlook, and this is not a political rally. There could be a Titanic-level of offense given and taken. Sidestep the entire thing, or just leave if it gets that bad. (It has for me twice) Consider it social work for the emotionally underprivileged.
In closing, seriously though, you do have a secret power here as an artist, since your ability to express emotion in a crowd setting or one-on-one has a little more muscle. Complementing people on what they’re wearing, how they look, telling them that you’re glad to see them, (if you are), or talking about how delicious the food is. I will tell you a secret. Nothing is more flattering to non-artists, then to have an artist complement them. Myself, I can find endless things to complement a nonartist on. They do 1000 things I cannot even begin to comprehend. Regular job, check. Raised kids, check. Stayed married 10 years, check. This is all very impressive to me, and one of the things that makes, the holidays were going through, is simply seeing the progress of human nature, and my solar family through the years, and realizing that I live a very blessed life. Chances are if you’re reading this, so do you. The secret power, is to merely show up, be kind, and enjoy the company of your fellows. It can do a lot for your soul if you let it.
Or, just don’t go at all. Lol. I will not hold it against you. When did Santa Claus ever come to your gig?
Piero Amadeo Infante, 2015 for the Tao of Gigging™