Englishmen and Wedding Cake.
If I recall it was sometime in 1996 at a place called Churchill’s Hideaway, which was your archetypal dive bar located in the Little Haiti section of Miami. It wasn’t that big a deal to get a gig there as so many local bands had played their first show on the same stage. It was a strange joint run by a proper Brit and often frequented by English ex-pats looking for a taste of home. It smelled of Bass Ale and featured some bizarre menu items (Bangers & Mash?) and invariably had some English league soccer game on the tele.
But on this night it was my first show. Not my first show ever but my first show playing only original music – songs which had never been played in public before. I had heavily promoted the show and people were filling up the space in front of the stage. We had finished our sound check and everyone in the band was ready. I was standing there, about six feet behind my microphone, looking out a packed house when it hit me – I’m about to play 10 songs that no one has ever heard before. “Am I crazy? What the hell makes me think anyone is going to like any of this? Why am I even doing this….?”
Rewind now to a point about 6 years earlier. I had just finished school, gotten a job and an apartment, and was doing the usual drinking, partying, going out to the clubs and checking out bands thing. There were a lot of really cool national blues acts that played at a club called Tobacco Road and the regular house band, Iko-Iko, was also quite good. I used to dance a lot – mainly to get close-up to the stage and check out what the guitar player was doing (my apologies to the ladies…). I had managed to strike up an acquaintance with the Iko-Iko guitar player – a guy named Nick Kane (who went on to play guitar for the country band “The Mavericks”) and even though he said he didn’t give lessons he did offer to let me stop by his place for a pointer session. I don’t remember much about that night but I can still remember him saying as I left, “You can do this Eric – there’s nothing stopping you.”
Now back to the apartment complex – there was a great singer named Chris who lived there who would pull out his guitar and sing for the group around the pool. One night, as he was singing a song I knew, I broke into the harmony and with him nodding his head approvingly, I continued until the end. Our collaboration grew into a “thing” at the apartment and we performed any song we could sink our voices into and figure out how to play. I remember performing at a Halloween Party (I dressed as a nerd) where I think we played side 2 of Abbey Road. Anyway, it was at that party that a girl I knew brought me a want ad posted at the UM music school from a band looking for a harmony singer in case I was interested. Wow – maybe I could be in a “real” band. Turns out it was a wedding band – as opposed to a real band – but I managed to get the gig and started my new musical life wearing….(wait for it)…. a Tuxedo.
Now I know being in a wedding band doesn’t exactly conjure up images of rock stardom and isn’t all that cool but it was what I needed at the time. Besides going home with leftover wedding cakes and cases of beer, I was learning about being in a band and all of the interpersonal and technical aspects. But more importantly I was watching what people responded to and getting a real close-up view at how a wide range of music went over with a broad swath of humanity. When you play the same songs over and over again for different people you cannot help but notice what it is that moves them. Music is very powerful and I began to wonder if I could ever write songs that would have that kind of effect on people. I began to really pay attention to the songs I was singing and started picking apart the lyrics to songs I liked in ways I had never done before.
It wasn’t until I joined another band that some songs started coming and I was amazingly gratified one night when someone at a show asked me about my particular song. I know it might sound like nothing to you, but at the time, the fact that someone I didn’t know – a total stranger – liked a song I wrote was huge for me. I was ecstatic and it drove me to continue writing. In a period of about a year, I wrote a few more songs and presented them to the band feeling giddy about the prospect of performing them in public.
But there was a problem.
These weren’t blues songs – and in an authentic blues band where we played vintage instruments and wore Fedoras and wing-tip shoes, they just didn’t quite fit. I mean – what would the harmonica player do? It was about then that I decided to start my own band and perform my own songs and I plunged ahead in the pursuit of original music. I wrote, and re-wrote several songs and played them for a few friends and finally managed to assemble a band to perform them.
Coming back again to Churchill’s Hideaway, standing behind that mic, all of this flashed across my memory and I suddenly knew why I was standing there. I stepped up to the mic. I wasn’t crazy and nothing was stopping me. It was a great show.
Fast forward now two decades, a few albums, a collection of songwriting awards, several songs placed on network television (ABC’s “All My Children” and PBS’ “Roadtrip Nation”) and countless memories and I still feel as excited and gratified as I did that first night at Churchill’s.
With really no expectations, I’ve managed to find a sense of belonging as a musician and songwriter. It wasn’t my chosen path but I feel like it is a path that chose me. This journey has led me in so many unexpected directions and taken me far beyond anything I could have imagined. I’ve struggled through crazy hours, stepping on a stage immediately after traveling for 14 hours, slept on stranger’s couches, done crazy rituals to make sure I could sing after drinking too much, but I have never lost that sense of pure joy I get from performing for people who actually appreciate my songs.
So, in a way, it all really comes down to you – the person listening – that has made this journey worthwhile. It is my hope that you will continue to join me on this journey.
Thank you for listening and for making it all matter.
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