Thirty Years Without A Real Job
by Wayne Faust
© 2006 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
I get a feeling that’s different
Like I never had
And I know it must be good
Because it sure ain’t bad
Guess it must be love
---from Wayne’s first original song, written at age twelve
How does one go about making a living as a performer? I’m sure the paths are as varied as the performers out there. I can only tell you how it was for me.
I think I was born a ham. If you knew me as a kid, you might be surprised to hear that, because I was fairly shy growing up. I thought most of my friends were a lot cooler than me, and it seemed that when I said something, it was never as smart or as funny as if somebody else had said it. I was painfully aware of the fact that if anyone in our little group of friends was picked on, it would probably be me. The fact that I was naturally easy-going and unlikely to stand up for myself made things worse.
But deep down inside there was something that made me want to be the center of attention. I volunteered for a few school plays in grammar school and I was hooked. I played ‘Mr. Book’ in a third grade assembly, where I got to wear a cardboard box decorated to look like a book, and I came out on stage in front of about 500 students and parents and told them all how they should treat me with kindness, and how they shouldn’t drop me in a mud puddle. The rest of the class was reduced to bit parts, crouching behind a patch of cardboard flowers behind me, moving hand-colored birds up and down on sticks. But I got to be Mr. Book. I can still picture the fourth graders’ faces just below the footlights in the front row, laughing and smiling. Maybe they were laughing at me instead of enjoying my Oscar™-worthy performance, but I just know if felt really cool to be up there on the stage, with the whole auditorium looking at me.
I took piano lessons in sixth grade but quit after a short time because everyone was playing guitar by then. This was the mid 1960’s, and instead of doing songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was learning songs on the piano like “March Of the Bunnies,” and “Pedro’s New Hat.”
I wrote my first songs in those days. Actually, I just wrote lyrics. For some unknown reason, my friend Scott Herdt and I rewrote lyrics to popular songs. These weren’t parodies, written to be funny. We just thought our words were better. One of them was to the Four Seasons’ song, “Walk Like A Man.” Instead of the top-ten hit lyrics of the original, we wrote a chorus that went,
I’ll go-o out in the
And find myself a girl
A girl that will never le-eave me...
Not the greatest, but hey, we were sixth graders.
To compound our audacity, we began calling people at random on the telephone and singing our songs for them. We would dial a number, tell whoever answered that we had written a new song, and ask if they would listen to us. If they said yes, we would put the phone down in front of us on a table and sing for them. I played drums in those days - actually, an upside-down garbage can, and both of us sang. Some people hung up on us, but most people were polite. One lady told us we were the greatest she had ever heard. I guess she didn’t get out much. We asked her if she knew any record company people, but she didn’t, so we thanked her and called somebody else.
The next thing I knew I was in a rock band, the first of many. Our first ever paid gig was at Carolyn Erickson’s birthday party in Norwood Park, Chicago. (It’s amazing I can still remember Carolyn’s name. I haven’t seen her in forty years.)
I was the drummer. I bought a drumset at the dime store for $9.95. The bass drum had ‘Junior Jazz Band’ printed on it, but we covered that up with ‘The Call of the Wild’ in cardboard. At least I think that was our name. We changed band names more than our underwear, which probably isn’t saying much. At various times we were ‘The Serfs,’ ‘The Runaways,’ ‘The Mourning Knights,’ (bands were into clever spellings in those days), and lots more names I can’t remember. For our first gig, we got paid 25 cents. Not 25 cents each - just 25 cents.
I talked my parents into getting me my first guitar. They were skeptical, because I had quit piano lessons, but they finally agreed to rent me a Kent guitar. It cost $19.99 to buy, but they rented it for a dollar a month, just in case. The strings were so high off the frets that my fingers literally bled the first several times I played it. But I took some lessons and kept at it until they finally agreed to buy me a Harmony guitar from Sears. It wasn’t the greatest, but it seemed like a Cadillac compared to that Kent.
So I cut my teeth playing in rock bands, doing songs like “Louie Louie,” “House Of the Rising Sun,” and “Gloria,” playing rhythm guitar on my Gibson Kalamazoo electric, which my generous and long-suffering parents bought me in eighth grade. I even wrote a love song and had the nerve to do it in our show. (Part of the lyric is at the beginning of this chapter.) I was never the lead singer, but I sang that one. I also sang lead on “Secret Agent Man.” We always opened with that one because Scott Herdt, our lead singer, was usually too nervous to do the first song. I had no qualms about doing the opening number because even then I secretly wanted to be the front man.
Just before my sophomore year of high school, I went to a youth group event at our church. I had never liked those things, because they had always seemed so boring. But some new youth counselors had come in and were trying some new things. It was a summer barbeque, and one of the counselors had brought in a friend to play acoustic guitar for a folk sing-along after dinner. He cut his hand on the barbeque and had to go to the hospital for stitches. The counselor asked if anyone else knew how to play guitar and one of my friends pushed me up there. They had a book of chords and the songs were easy, so I ended up playing the whole night. It was extra cool, because I was the whole band all by myself. Everybody sang to what I played, and if I played louder, they sang louder, and if I played softer, they sang softer. It was a real rush.
When it was over, suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me - even girls. I had found my calling. I was going acoustic.
So that’s what I did for the rest of high school, performing mostly at coffeehouse type things, either alone or in a duo or trio. I loved it, because in those days, it was cool to sit and really listen to the words. You could write songs that you thought had something to say and people would give you a chance to say it. And you could write funny songs too, and since people were listening to the words, if the song was good, they’d laugh. Sometimes they’d laugh a lot. I wrote a funny song called “Fat Albert” with my friend Paul Wiora, and when we first did it at a coffeehouse, it nearly brought the house down. After that, everyone asked for the song over and over. I had had my first taste of songwriting success.
In college, I continued to do lots of shows. I was in a trio called ‘Wayne and Two Jeffs.’ They asked us to do the faculty Christmas banquet one year and we wrote funny songs about some of our professors. Fortunately, the songs went over well, and none of us flunked out because of our performance.
As graduation from college approached, and I had decided against going to law school, I was left wondering what to do next. I loved performing, but never even considered that I could do it as a career. If I had known how wrong I was, I might have taken some music classes in college.
HERE’S A STORY...
I was doing a show at Carthage College, where I was going to school. I had gotten something of a name in the Back Room, a coffeehouse where they brought in touring national folk acts, and occasionally got students like me to perform. There was a good crowd that night, and I was excited because I had a couple of new songs to do. I was fighting a bad sore throat, so naturally, when somebody told me to try Chloraseptic spray, I bought some and took it on stage with me.
I was scheduled to play for 20 minutes - about seven songs. After the first song, my throat was hurting, so in-between my patter I sprayed some Chloraseptic down my throat and took a sip of water. I got markedly more hoarse during the second song, so I sprayed some more. On the third song, I could barely hit any of the notes and I sounded like a dying seal. Naturally, I sprayed more Chloraseptic, and by the fourth song, my voice was completely gone and I had to leave the stage. It turns out that Chloraseptic works like Novocain, dulling the pain by numbing your throat. It also numbs your vocal chords so they can’t vibrate. Not the best thing for a singer.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
What follows here, and at the end of each chapter, is ‘A WORD FROM SVEN.’ Who is Sven? He’s a two-foot tall Viking made out of wood. He performs with me at my shows, singing harmony here and there, and playing the guitar part for “Dueling Banjos” as I play the banjo. How does he do that? It’s a mystery. In this book, he’s the one dispensing advice. Like many Swedes, he doesn’t say much, but when he does say something, it’s usually worth listening to. We developed this advice together on those long road trips across Nebraska, so we had plenty of time. And now he’s telling me to wrap it up so he can get a word in.
A WORD FROM SVEN
The best way to learn how to perform is to perform. You can’t learn it from a book (in spite of the excellent book you’re reading now.) The only way to get comfortable in front of people is to be in front of people as much as you can. When somebody at a party says something like, “I hear you write songs. Can you play us one?” Never say no. Maybe no one but that one person wants to hear you. Maybe nobody else is paying attention right now. That’s okay - do it anyhow. You’ll be amazed at how a few strummed chords, or a few juggled pool balls, or a couple flashes of a deck of cards can gather a crowd. Then you have an audience and you can be about the business of getting experience.
All of us are nervous. I still get nervous and I’m made out of wood. Even after over 5000 shows, if there’s a tall, blonde, Scandinavian woman in the front row, my stomach can turn into jelly. But the more you perform, the more you learn to turn nervousness into adrenaline, which turns into energy, which you can then channel into your performance to make it better. You can’t practice this skill at home by yourself and you can’t sit around and think about it. The only way to learn timing, and pacing, and all the other subtle, important things, is to be in front of an audience.
And oh, by the way, Wayne told me to say that if somebody offers you Chloraseptic before a show, just say no.
From the dew drop grass to the highest bow
Can’t you hear it? Listen now
Listen, the night’s a song
---from “The Nights A Song” © 1979 by Wayne Faust
It’s a scary thing to be finished with college, to have plans to be married, and to have no clue as to what you want to do with your life. It was summer and I was working for my Dad. He had a metal finishing business in Chicago, so when I changed my mind about wanting to be a lawyer, I went to work for him. I suppose there was always the possibility that I would eventually go into the business as a partner.
We would get up every day at 6 AM and head into the city at rush hour. We would work hard all day polishing and deburring barrels full of metal pieces in big machines. Then we would crawl home through another rush hour on the Kennedy Expressway. My Dad made a decent living this way for many years. He put my brothers and me through college. I don’t think I ever appreciated what he did until I spent some time doing the same thing. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.
I will be eternally grateful to my Dad for what he did then. One day in June, he called me into his office. I can still picture him sitting there in his dark green work shirt, his hands full of the grease and grime that came with the job.
“You aren’t happy here, are you?” he said. His eyes searched mine. There was no condemnation, only a question.
“I guess not,” I answered, my head down.
He reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “The shop has been good to me all these years. But you don’t have to work here if you don’t want to. You need to find your own way.”
I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I had begun to visit some of the folk clubs in Chicago that summer. There was an inkling that I might want to actually give music a shot. It wasn’t a tried and true way to make a living, but, just maybe...
I left my Dad’s office that day knowing that I would give music a try. There was something deep inside of me that wanted to go for it. I had been on stage lots of times over the years and I thought that maybe I had some talent. And most importantly, my parents were encouraging me to try.
I gave up my job with my Dad and began perusing the entertainment listings in the newspaper. There were a lot of folk clubs in those days, especially down on Lincoln Avenue. The two biggest were Somebody Else’s Troubles, owned by Steve Goodman, and the Earl Of Old Town, where guys like John Prine had gotten their start. They each had an open mic night, where you would show up and put your name on a list. You had two choices: either you got there two hours early and got on the bill near the beginning, or you arrived around show time and got on near the end. Either way, you had to sit around for at least two hours before you got to do your four songs. That waiting was the hardest part for me, because naturally it left me a lot of time to get nervous. My hands get cold when I’m nervous, so by the time I hit the stage, my fingers usually felt like icicles. Once I got up there, though, I would warm up pretty quickly. By the fourth song, I was usually feeling pretty good and wishing I could go longer. I once even got an encore, which hardly ever happened at open mics.
I found some other folk clubs and bars that would let you come in and actually do an audition. If they liked your set, you got a gig. My fiancé Sally and I went to a place on Lincoln Avenue called Kingston Mines. I believe it’s still there and is now called the Chicago Blues Center. In those days, they hired lots of folkies. They ran an audition night like an open mic, but the owner was sure to be there. I waited the usual two hours and then did my thing.
As I stepped off stage, I was sure I’d bombed. The audience in the dark and gloomy place had mostly talked through my set. There was definitely no encore. I packed up my guitar, settled onto the barstool next to Sally, and ordered a beer.
“We can go after I finish this,” I muttered.
“What?” asked Sally. “Why don’t you go talk to the guy? You came here to audition.”
“I didn’t do that good,” I answered. “He’s not going to be interested.”
“Go talk to him,” she said. “It can’t hurt.”
I just wanted to leave. I had never been good at facing rejection and this was the first real test. But I reluctantly got up and went over to the owner’s table. His name was Doc Pellegrini, a rather famous figure in the underground culture of Chicago, because he’d patched up broken heads of protestors during the Democratic Convention back 1968. He had long, greasy black hair and thick glasses. I pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Nice set,” he said.
“Thanks,” I answered in surprise.
He offered to put me on the bill for a few nights the following month. It would pay $35 a night. Not a lot, of course, but it would be a paid gig in Chicago! I would be listed in the entertainment section I had been so busy perusing.
“Did you ever think of standing up when you play?” he asked.
Up until then I always sat on a stool on stage. That’s what Harry Chapin did and he was one of my heroes. It seemed to fit the whole folkie thing.
“No,” I answered.
“Well, you should,” he told me. “When you sit down, you lose half your body.”
As I digested that bit of advice, he told me more.
“You should think about your image,” he said. “You’ve got a good voice for traditional folk. Why don’t you go to the library and check out some records. They have all the old folk stuff there - medieval ballads, things like that. Learn some of those songs. Then go to a costume store and get yourself something to wear that reflects that music. Think Robin Hood.”
I thought of myself in green tights and a felt hat with a feather sticking out. It sure didn’t sound like me. I knew that laughing would probably be the wrong response right then so I didn’t say anything.
“You don’t have to do that, of course,” he said. “It’s up to you to decide what image fits you best. But consider it. You’re still hired for next month.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and shook his hand.
Back at the bar, Sally was waiting. “Well?” she asked.
“I got the gig,” I answered with a smile.
“What else did he say?” she asked.
“You won’t believe it. I’ll tell you in the car.”
Needless to say, I never took Doc Pellegrini’s advice about the Robin Hood thing. I did go to the library and check out some traditional folk records, and I learned some of the songs, but they never became a big part of my repertoire. But I did take his advice about standing up when I played. I practiced in front of a mirror at home until I got used to it. And he turned out to be right - you can do a whole lot more on stage if you’re not sitting down.
That November, I married Sally Baker, the love of my life. It took some explaining to her Dad, because he was wondering how I was going to support his daughter. One night at the kitchen table on their dairy farm in Wisconsin, I laid out for him how much we both had in savings, what it would cost us to live in the Chicago area, and what I planned to do to make money in case the music thing didn’t work out. He seemed surprised that I had given it that much thought. He smiled in his quiet way, shook my hand, and gave us his blessing.
HERE’S A STORY...
As I have already mentioned, I did a lot of open mics in those days. The one at the Earl Of Old Town went until 4 AM, and you ended up waiting to go on for hours and hours, sometimes not getting on until just before closing. That left lots of time to talk to some of the locals.
One night I was talking to a guy named Crazy Bob, an apt name. I noticed he was reading ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ by Ayn Rand, a book I had read in college, so I asked him about it. He regaled me with story after story about how the world was breaking down into chaos, because the people that did all the work in society were being taxed and regulated to death by all the ‘looters,’ who simply sat around all day and lived off the dole. He sounded so passionate about what he was saying that he could have been Ayn Rand herself.
“So what do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I’m on welfare,” he answered.
Nearly too stunned to speak, I managed to blurt out, “So how can you justify that, after what you just told me for the last hour?”
“I won’t put one brick in a society that’s about to crumble into dust,” he said with conviction, as if that statement actually made sense.
I turned my attention back to the stage and filed Crazy Bob deep down my brain, where I was already getting quite a collection of colorful characters that I could write about someday.
A WORD FROM SVEN
Get used to rejection. Elvis tried out for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour early in his career and was turned down. Whoever you are and whatever you do, there are going to be people that don’t like your act. And it doesn’t stop as you become more successful. You could perform for a full house at Carnegie Hall and there will be somebody in the front row who thinks you’re playing too loud. They’ll look disgusted the whole time you’re up there. You’ll get standing ovations and multiple encores, but they’ll still think you stink, and they’ll be first in line to tell you after the show when you’re meeting the public. When you go home that night, you won’t be thinking about what a great audience it was - you’ll be thinking about that one unhappy person that didn’t like you.
If you’re a good entertainer, you naturally want to make everybody happy. If you weren’t that type of person, you probably wouldn’t want to do this in the first place. But some people just won’t like what you do. You have to learn to shake that off and keep on going.
Oh, and if you do an audition for somebody, don’t be too scared to hang around and see if you got the gig.
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