So you wanna be a rock and roll star? Well, honestly, that’s a bit out of your control. A tremendous amount of luck and timing play into “stardom” of any kind, so there’s not a whole lot you can do about actually becoming a “star.”
I had a friend once whose goal was to become a knight. Like a knight in shining armor knight.
I worked with Ken on the “pick line” in the warehouse of a major home-goods retailer during the summer before my senior year in college. All day, in the sweltering heat, Ken and I put boxes on a 3-tiered conveyor belt so they could be packed into semis and taken to the various retail locations across the country. He was 28, I was 21, and he seemed infinitely older than I felt at the time. By the time I met Ken, he had already been some sort of leader in the military, and was about to begin his college career on the GI Bill. He just needed to make some money first because he was recently married. It was during one of our lengthy philosophical discussions while putting boxes on the conveyor belt that he told me, “I’m working to become a knight.”
The way Ken had it figured, you can become anything you want to be if you just break that thing down into its essential parts, and work to integrate those parts into your personality and life. Ken was already exceptionally polite and chivalrous. He had a specific code by which he lived. As he son of a Chicago Police Officer growing up in the city, Ken had been a Golden Gloves boxer. In the service, he had become a master of hand-to-hand combat and weapons. He paid to have a fully-functional suit of armor made for himself—I saw it at his house. It was right next to the picture of him and his military unit in “the bush.” He was the one in the center wearing a red beret, while all of the others around him were wearing black ones.
Ken was years into taking horseback riding lessons to meet his goal. The only thing he reckoned he didn’t have yet was any kind of swordsmanship and, in the days before being able to find anything and everything on the Internet, Ken was well on his way to getting it. He had just located a fencing club in the area.
I’ve thought a lot about Ken’s concept over the years. After playing in rock bands for most of my life, as well as doing a good chunk of time in the music “biz,” I have determined that there are rules that separate bands destined for greatness. Some local bands that had barely toured could have this quality of “realness” about them, while other touring bands just didn’t seem to have “it.” What I determined was that there are really 10 essential experiences that are required to become a TRUE Rock & Roller:
1) Play Music
You can love music. You can be an aficionado of music. You can own thousands of albums that you are able to analyze, compare, and contrast, but none of those things can get you inside the music in the way that playing it can. Only once you learn to play a song on an instrument in the way that the artist actually plays that song can you begin to understand the myriad choices the artist made, and have an inkling about performance. Until then, you are only a listener. You may be an empathetic or learned listener, but you are just a listener.
2) Write Music
Until you write music—actually create something that did not previously exist in this world, even if it is derivative—you are not able to understand the perspective of even your most “hated” artist. Writing is a quantum leap. It’s the magical moment of music. As a music lover, you owe it to yourself to have that experience. It changes the way you see all creativity. It also helps you to become more sympathetic and, in turn, more open to, and respectful of, those artists you claim to “hate.”
It’s kind of like professional athletes. Everybody talks smack about pro athletes- “This one’s great, that one sucks.” But at some point, you have to stop and think, “That guy might not be a Hall of Fame football player, but he was probably the best player on every other team he ever played on since he was a kid.”
Once you write your own music, you understand how difficult writing music can actually be.
3) Play In a Band
If you are making and recording music by yourself in your underpants in your basement, and you never put a band together, you are doing the artistic equivalent of masturbating when you could be out getting laid.
There’s just no other way to begin to understand the trials and travails of, say, Mick and Keith, without trying to explain to another human being why their playing just “doesn’t have the darkness” the song “needs,” or some other such intangibility.
Bands are about the energy and dynamics of the people in the band. It can also help you comprehend why some bands are great, but then they lose one person and they are not quite the same. Even more so, it can give you a new appreciation for those bands that somehow miraculously survive losing a band member.
4) Play Out
Performance is a very different animal from the thoughtful, controlled, air-cooled, “Let’s try it again” environment of recording. Anything can happen. Anything can go wrong. You are just gonna have to make it work and live with the result.
This is where you learn to understand the importance of feel and performance so you can translate that into recordings. This is where you comprehend the phrase, “Close enough for rock and roll,” as well as the value of duct tape. This is also where you learn how much or how little people who don’t know you actually care about your music. Usually, it’s the latter. That’s how you learn to make better music.
One of the best things anyone ever said to me before one of my first live performances was, “See you on the other side.” Live performance is the biggest risk to the ego since the boxing match. To paraphrase what is said about boxing, “You go onto the stage one person, and you come off it another one.” If you can’t take that risk, you are no Rock & Roller.
5) Get Paid to Play
You can play open mics all you want, but until someone you don’t know is willing to pay you SOMETHING, no matter how little, to play your music, you’re not even semi-pro. It also (hopefully) makes you start to consider your music and performances differently. If people are paying to see you, shouldn’t whatever you present be worthy of payment?
6) Get Offered Free Drugs or Alcohol From A Stranger
So now you’re playing out. Let the games begin! The whole point of the game of being a Rock & Roller is to get your chosen sexual attraction to want to screw you, and to get the opposite of your chosen sexual attraction to want to be you. Step #1 in proof of succeeding at this is free stuff. You don’t have to take anyone up on the offer, but it is validation that you are doing something very right.
7) Get Offered Sexual Favors from a Stranger
Step 2 in the aforementioned validation process in the game of being a Rock & Roller is someone actually offering you sexual favors for what you do. It makes no difference what sexual favor you may be offered, or whether you accept the offer. Like any present, it is the thought that counts. Even in this super-cautious, sexual-equality day and age, there are certain truths to the human condition. Performing live music is one of the few verifiable aphrodisiacs. Regardless of whether you choose to accept the offer, it is the highest of compliments, and you should see it as such.
8) Blow a Gig from Overconfidence and/or Intoxication
This is, obviously, not a good moment for any performer. And this is not the same as blowing a gig from intoxication due to addiction. However, I argue that it is a logical, predictable, and necessary stage of artistic development in the life of a Rock & Roller. If things are going well, and you are playing out regularly, at some point you are bound to get cocky. It’s human nature. You are feeling pretty cool, the pre-show fear has turned into pre-show excitement, that is tempered by trust in yourself and in your band. This is exactly when it happens.
What it means, on one hand, is that you are feeling good about things. What it means on the other hand, is that you are starting to take things for granted. You need this reminder to get back on track. See it for what it is as a natural part of the process, and redouble your efforts. What you do in performance and recording are nothing short of magic, and unless you develop a healthy respect for the magic, you are going to have nights like this one.
9) Get a Bad Review
This is actually a good thing. When local bands start out, the local press see you as a fledgeling entity, and they want to encourage anyone who they think may have some ability. It can be either a live review, or an album review, and it usually comes in the form of local music “round-up” type articles or local music radio shows. Every band they mention is described in a positive light, otherwise they would not include you at all. You also have the element of surprise on your side with your first release, or your first batch of shows. Maybe you are an artist with something that hasn’t really been seen coming out of your area before. All of that is fantastic and supportive and…a little…vanilla.
After the blush has faded, and the local music critics are aware of you, then you actually start to play with the “big guys” on some level. As such, you are open to real critique. You created some expectations and maybe you didn’t quite meet them. Maybe you are good enough and popular enough that someone is trying to “take you down a peg.” No matter what it is, you can rest assured that someone is now looking at your music with a critical eye. It’s your choice whether you allow this to influence you moving forward, or whether to read reviews ever again. But this is the stuff Real Rock & Rollers just have to deal with. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. You can’t even please most of the people most of the time. A bad review is also an effective test of band unity. Will the members support each other and fight through it as a unit or will someone be the “I told you that song sucked” guy.
10) Play Through Illness or Tragedy
Last, but likely the most important. You schedule shows a month or two in advance. The night of a show, without any warning, you (and by “you” I mean you or someone in your group) become injured, or sick, or Heaven forbid there is some kind of a tragedy. Making matters worse, you could be in a different state or country from your home when this happens. It’s decision time. Must the show go on? That’s entirely up to you. But I can tell you this: If you are somehow able to suck it up and play through, “embrace the suck” as the U.S. Special Forces say, you will have not only crossed one of the most daunting milestones of being a Real Rock & Roller, but you will also likely find that it brings you and your audience, and you and your band, closer together. This is how bands become brothers and sisters. And this is how brothers and sisters become units. You can’t have crazy stories to tell as a Rock & Roller if you never survive anything crazy. This is the stuff that blows bands apart. There’s no harm to anyone else if it kills the band, but there can be great reward if the band survives.
Last I heard, Ken became a champion fencer in the region. I guess I should refer to him as “Sir Kenneth.”
Jamie Bachmann is a longtime Chicago indie rock writer and musician, and shorter time former music business marketing manager. He currently spends the majority of his time teaching, singing in his band The Blind Leaders, and living with his wife and 6 (yes 6) rescued cats in suburban Chicago.