Observations of an Overthinker

Remember the Titanic? Most musicians will play to the very end. It’s who we are.

If anyone told me that in the prime of my life I’d be isolated at home, stripped of all the work I’d spent 16 years creating and 30 years imagining, I’d have said they were crazy. But if you create art for a living you already know it’s true: We’re all back to square one.

My brother gave me my first guitar at the age of 15 as a means of dealing with my father’s untimely death. I remember it feeling like the only thing in the world that mattered. At that time it was. That Las Vegas house reverberated Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Ozzy/Randy Rhoads, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. These artists imprinted a promise of hope that never existed before. An imaginary universe of surrealism, one I so desperately wanted to be a part of. The guitar not only changed my life—but it also saved it. By the time I reached high school, I was taking my guitar to school every day, playing between classes as a means of satisfying my overwhelming interest in music. I was so focused on getting better it interrupted my interest in girls. 

Little did I know then how much that budding musical connection would help in the days to come.

By the time I was 19 I had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a rock star. I couldn’t believe the job actually existed. And it paid great! In just four short years of practice time, I truly thought I could show up, find Axl Rose, and get started. I even had an outfit (or three) picked out. I had actualized the whole thing and I was ready to go! I ended up getting an audition with a band that was charting at the time. They loved my playing but said, “you don’t have the right look.” Considering I had hair down my back, I was in skin-tight clothes and could play the music, I quickly realized the only thing left was my weight. That one stung. I immediately went on a diet. That was the first time I understood the entertainment industry isn’t that easy. Or kind. I didn’t care. Tell me I can’t and I’ll figure out a way I can. Back to Mom’s Las Vegas house to regroup.

While hanging at a local bar jam night I was asked by a touring band to get up and play. They asked me on the spot to join their tour. I had to learn 45 songs in three days and off I went. Months on the road with guys I had just met. It was my first introduction to band personalities, touring, deadlines, professional expectations, stage performance, spotlights, all of it. It was so addictive. It also was my first experience with record deals. Even at age 22, I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right—that this band wasn’t me—and I quit.

Back to Vegas again.

I spent the next eight years writing and producing my own music. In a lot of ways, it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. A clean slate. An empty dry erase board. Limitless possibilities. What do I want to do? Who do I love? What are my influences? I assembled the best guys I could find and we hopped on the Bang Tango meets Led Zeppelin meets Alice in Chains thing. (Yes, I thought funky, heavy grooves and odd time signatures in drop-D tuning would be a smash hit. I still think we were pretty good.) Not long after, a name-producer came to scout us. At the time, I was an assistant restaurant manager. I drove straight from work to pick him up at the airport. Picture one of the DeLeo brothers with a biker braid halfway down his back—that was me that day. We get in the rehearsal room, a few pleasantries exchanged and we were on 10. “Play another,” he said. “Let me hear another one.” And finally, “One more.” I’ll never forget what he said: “You want the truth or do you wanna take me back to the airport as friends?” I wanted the truth. We all did. Remaining friends thereafter was secondary. He thought we played and wrote well. He also thought we had four completely different images—which we did, STP, Whitesnake, Bang Tango, and Metallica—and he thought we didn’t know how to write for an audience we didn’t even have. (I’ve always remembered that.) He said, “You guys are good but your music is way too technical. You’re alienating any audience you may have before they even like you. You have to start with ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ before you get to ‘Kashmir’.” Talk about pulling at the string on the sweater.

That lineup didn’t agree on much after that. We decided to give it one more go. It was time to take the image thing to the next level. We hopped on the NIN meets Tool meets Linkin Park bandwagon. Musically, we were down, but the new image “requirements” destroyed us. No one really wanted to look like Rocky Horror Picture Show at 7–11, but it did hide my recreational drug use at the time well enough. Another artistic evaporation. The drugs too.

From there, I became a hired gun for record deal acts. The shows were bigger, the audiences knew the lyrics and it felt like things were progressing. I ended up landing a pro gig with a newly signed band on a major, and we were getting ready to head out on tour. I quit my job only to find out the major labels were merging and starting to shelf acts with no track record of sales. We never got a fair chance to even get started. Money dried up and I was out of a gig.

Back to the drawing board again.

I was at home working in the studio when I got the call to sub in with a hair metal cover band. In costume, no less. That part always stopped me dead in my tracks. Their guitarist was leaving for another, more successful cover band and I was recommended to take the gig. I internalized a kneejerk “No.” I had zero interest in doing covers. My girlfriend at the time suggested we go check it out. I reluctantly did. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like they were Bon Jovi. And it paid well!

From that moment forward I began seeing the bigger picture: If I can’t be an Aerosmith, maybe I can play one locally. It was so silly. The dumber we were, the louder they screamed. Drinking on stage. Telling ridiculous jokes for minutes on end. It didn’t matter what we did. They loved it and so did I. I wanted more work. I wanted out of bartending. I wanted to play music for a living.

I put together my first cover band, an 80s tribute in costume, and landed a gig. It felt so good. Not unlike the original scene, I got us signed! For good money! We showed up, acted like fools, got food and drinks, it paid well and we slept in our own beds. It really was the next best thing! Not long after I got a call from the producer of the first show I was still in asking if I was moonlighting? “I heard you got another gig? You know that’s in breach of contract?” he said. I remember immediately thinking if anyone should be mad its Simon Le Bon, not him. That was the first thing that popped outta my mouth, “If anyone should be mad its Simon Le Bon, not you.” He lost his shit. He was notorious for losing his shit. I didn’t even care. Its that feeling you get when there’s nothing anyone can say that will affect you. I found a new venue no one ever played in and there wasn’t anything he could say that could stop me. “If you don’t give me the band, the gig, and contract, you’re fired.” I said, in a really quiet dismissive tone, “fuck youuuu” and that was that. I was onto that new new.

For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be a small business owner. I had a little cast of three, schedules, setlists, intellectual property; I had to maintain quality control, performance, and pay. It was the first time I looked inside the window instead of out. It was a good feeling to be naive and careless, yet still responsible. The bigger picture was brighter than ever.

I remember the singer and I were at a bar one night and Jay-Z came on the overheads. It was Izzo (H.O.V.A.). I looked over at him and said we should do a hip-hop cover band. “No ones doing it!” Our eyes went wide-eyed. There was no need for words, we wore a “yes” in our gleam.

From that moment forward, a single 80’s cover band became a company. One hip hop cover band, then two. No one was doing it. It was an untapped market. Then I got a call for a classic rock band. Then two. Then an all-request band. Then a punk band. Then three hip hop bands. Then a top 40 band. Another, and another. The calls kept coming in. Then properties wanted to start franchising them for different venues. It went from three people to seven. Then ten. Then 15. Before it even sunk in, I had 20 people working. It got to a point where I had stopped playing for a while to sustain the demand. It was succeeding! A fine-tuned production company taking offers and building shows! Cast members knew five different shows. Some knew all of them. A few more years went by and poof: 300+ acts! 50 people a week on gigs! 150 gigs per month!

Then the closure happened.

So how did everything I’ve ever worked for disappear in five days? Everyone knows. No one needs to answer it. It’s the most understood subject in decades, perhaps in a century.

I never imagined it would ever end. I’ve joked many times about retiring before it runs out but never thought what it would actually look like to finish the job. I certainly never even dreamed of starting all over.

I got my first post-closure gig offer today. The first one in 78 days. 16 years ago I went from kicking and scratching for my 1st gig to 150 per month. Back to #1 again. It’s a deep cut. Not to my ego, because I really don’t acknowledge successes externally. I’ve never celebrated a six-figure deal because the truth is this: what goes up, must come down. I believe this linear approach to business is what’s always kept me focused on the craft and quality, not the money. Grounded, even. But it was a ton of work. It is a ton of work. Countless hours, headaches, arguments, backstabbing, and failures. But I stayed with it. I never gave up. I’m an artist through and through and I wanted to help other artists navigate this industry the best way I knew how. That’s the main thing driving me to do this all over again—the artists behind the performances. They are the reason I started this company in the first place. I wanted to create a safe haven for musicians to be able to do what they love in a post-Napster (now Spotify) world. I love the arts. I love hearing artists talk almost as much as I love their creations. I love musicians, comedians, painters, actors, directors; storytellers. I love people bearing their truths. I love the truth so much it sometimes hurts. The truth fills me up like a spiritual dinner and satiates like a fact choir. Experiencing an artist’s openness does it for me on such a deep level that I can’t even imagine a world without creativity. Certainty not one without creative truth. That, and of course I can’t wait to see the looks on people’s faces when they experience live music again. Humans need connection and I’m no different. Give me an audience of 5000 people for average pay over an audience of ten for annual pay and I’ll take the big stage every day of the year. We thrive on contact and there’s nothing more valuable to the well-being of our society than the ones who inspire. We’ve been there through every major tragedy and we’ll be there after this one. It’s our job and we wouldn’t miss it for anything. The truth for most is we probably wouldn’t have stopped playing if they didn’t turn off the lights. Remember the Titanic? Most of us will play to the very end. Until the water surrounds the neck of the guitar and drowns the voice. It’s who we are.

They always ask people, “What would you say if you could speak to yourself 20 years ago?” I’d say don’t worry too much about where you may end up because even that isn’t yours. It’s all temporary. The clothes, the money, the car, and the house—it’s trivial. Enjoy the adventure of creating the best version of yourself possible, because when you finally come up for air you can only hope you like the reflection. That, and do something that excites you. If you’re one of the lucky ones you may even make others happy in the process.

© Tanzer Words