If I remember right it was the summer of 1984. I stilled lived in my home town of Tawa, New Zealand. I was finishing high school, and I was a struggling singer playing nowhere stages to not so many people. Like any young musician I dreamed of being a rock star but the reality of actually one day traveling the world singing my own songs seemed a million miles a way.
As beautiful as New Zealand is, it’s always been the kind of place for which the saying, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is pretty fitting. Let’s just say that there weren’t Christian musicians walking around with pink t-shirts and guitars on our backs, especially back in 84, and finding band mates was not an easy task.
Musicians in short supply, I found myself in the center of a struggling Christian music scene made up of guys that were for the most part, much older than I was. This meant that I was often volunteered up as a crew, or played wherever I got a chance, with other musicians who were much further along than I was. Truthfully I just wanted to hang out and learn what I could. I wanted to be at the gigs, to hang out with guys that were more or less rock stars in my eyes, and just soak up the real world of music. I looked up to these guys and I felt indescribably cool just to be hanging out with them.
Well, one night I was hanging out at a gig side-of-stage wishing I was waiting for my turn to go on stage. I wasn’t playing or anything, I was just there because seeing world-class musicians play all the way at the bottom of the world was unusual. I was just stoked to be there.
Some of you may be to young to remember him, others not so much, but Christian rock legend Randy Stonehill happened to be the headlining act that night and he had just finished up his set. Because of my ‘music connections’ I was hanging near the side of stage when he happened to walk by. As he walked past he saw me sitting there and said “Hi!” before heading to the dusty haze backstage.
Now truth be told, I can’t really claim that at that time I was the world’s biggest Randy Stonehill fan or anything. But as isolated as I was as a teenager in New Zealand, that was the first real rock star (or Christian music star as it were), I had ever seen. And he had just said “hi” to me. I kept my excitement to myself (already well versed in the to-cool-for-school facade), and just took the whole thing in.
I can remember sitting there near the back stage “musicians only” area in my whitewashed jeans and my fluorescent t-shirt and the stale backstage grit in my mouth. I had seen behind the curtain of rock and roll. I was not just a guy who sang and played a guitar but I was a guy who now knew what it was to load gear, hang out back stage, and breath in the dust kicked up by Randy Stonehill’s gear. Now I realize that this might sound so absolutely small time in the grand scheme of things, but I was floored. I absolutely loved it.
Fast forward four decades, playing the USA, China, Russia, Bulgaria and Romania, recording in Australia, and a million other musical experiences along the way, and it’s still that feeling that I remember when I think about my life and career as a musician.
I don’t mean to sell the creative process short. Needless to say, it’s essential. For the listener it’s everything. But to some extent almost anyone can make music.
But when it comes to BEING a musician, it’s that muscle memory. It’s knowing where to find the new string when you’ve broken one and there’s 30 seconds to be back on stage. It’s the familiar smell of stale sweat, cleaning products and dust that hits you when you enter a venue in the afternoon before the air conditioners have fired up. It’s jet lag from flying 36 hours as you drive red-eyed and desert-mouthed to that remote Eastern European city to play and give people hope. It’s the familiar weight of your guitar case in your hand. It’s the comradery you feel with the musicians you play with, and the melancholy of knowing that despite promises to the contrary, you’re going to drift apart and struggle to keep in touch. And it’s a million other little subtle experiences that define what it means to be a musician. At least that’s the way it’s been for me. It’s not the guitar chords, or the number of albums sold, but rather it’s knowing those things first hand that makes me a musician, a veteran. And it’s knowing that you are one of a small percentage of the population to not only have seen, but to have lived behind the curtain that makes this whole crazy thing worth while.
But even more important than all of that, it’s YOU, the listener, that makes all of it matter.
I look forward to many more, sometimes hard, sometimes ugly, always worthwhile experiences, along this musical journey. Here’s to hoping that you are part of that journey.
Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter.