Tl:dr awkward & embarrassing story.
Last week on a long-haul flight from Asia to Europe I was listening to a newly released album from an old-favorite The Samples. As I was listening, I was flooded with memories of a long lost time, inspiring me to document the story below.
In the halcyon days of the mid 1990s, I was a unkempt grad student with an unconventional background who lucked into a high pedigree business school, and was hoping to use my summer internship to somehow finesse my way onto the grid of a more respectable business world.
Having worked most recently as a GM of a start up professional roller hockey team (not, roller derby, people), I was introduced to, and subsequently enlisted by, a company in Seattle named Starwave who was the company at the time for building websites for sports entities including the likes of the NFL, ESPN, NASCAR, the NBA and more. It was 1996, yo.
By day I worked on building generation 0.1 online marketing materials for a first ever online fantasy football product for ESPNet.SportsZone.com (we got t-shirts saying “ESPNet Rookie of the Year” for most ‘hits’, I kid you not), and by night I house-sat and took care of my friends-of-friends home and dogs and tried not to spend money that I did not have.
I had never lived in Seattle before, and having left my chocolate Labrador with my recently minted fiancé (“Yes?! Fantastic… ok, then, see you in the Fall”), my local social set-up was lacking, and not helped by my daily dog-sitting responsibilities. Hey, the house was free, and I was broke. (Thanks for the hookup Kelly and Ed!)
As a big fan of live music, I had long fantasized about learning an instrument, having failed miserably as a kid with piano, clarinet, recorder. The ususal left-brain dominant sort of thing. Having recently been to Jazzfest in NoLa, I thought that the washboard looked approachable, but somehow I couldn’t see pulling that off anywhere but the Bayou.
Didgeridoo, however, seemed plausible.
So, before heading to Seattle, I hit Palo Alto Hardware and bought myself about a yard and a half of PVC pipe. After blowing into a few different sizes and lengths in the aisle next to the loose lumber, making sure I was happy with the timbre, I made my choice at $0.85 per foot.
In Seattle, that summer at night, when I would bore of watching sports on TV, I listened to music, and sometimes entertained myself trying to teach myself to play my didgeridoo. After all, there was no home Internet, no smartphones, no Skype to call friends, shitty content on TV, no Netflix. Remember that?.
With limited access, I was still able to follow the tour-dates of the bands that I liked, and one of the bands that I particularly liked was a Colorado band named The Samples. By then, I’d been to at least six or more of their concerts, and had even “coincidentally” orchestrated a Bay Area visit to see my fiancé earlier that summer the same weekend that The Samples played Frost Amphitheater at Stanford — a favorite of the Grateful Dead before Stanford security decided that wasn’t a great idea.
Naturally I knew that The Samples would be playing in Seattle on Sunday, August 11th at the Showbox Theater.
Ticket in hand, I was listening late that same Sunday afternoon to the only decent commercial radio station in town called “The Mountain” who happened to have Sean Kelly, lead singer and band leader of The Samples, as a guest in the studio to promote the show.
As per the usual, the cheesy weekend radio station DJ interviewed Sean while sandwiching a couple of live songs played. Halfway through the interview, the DJ prompted listeners to call in for free tickets if they knew the origin of the name of the band. Seriously, if you knew that, you’d have tickets already, right? I dialed. It may have been a rotary phone.
After revealing to the listeners the fact that the band used to feed themselves by going to the grocery store and eating the free food samples for sustenance, I of course, not only won ticket(s), but also presumably delighted and relieved Sean by demonstrating, to whomever was tuned in, such a strong and loyal local fan-base familiar with such arcane band trivia.
As spirits were high, while on live radio, the DJ asked, appropos of nothing, what I was up to this fine Sunday evening. I spontaneously mentioned that I was practicing playing my “didgeridoo”, while waiting for tonight’s show. This piqued some curiousity and interest, and before I knew it, I was blowing into my PVC pipe live on the radio through the phone receiver on the floor.
Sean acted very amused, and firmly suggested that I bring it with me tonight so I could sit in with the band.
A couple hours later, I made my way to the Showbox. This being way before 911, I got only weird looks but no hassle when I entered the venue with my PVC pipe which was unceremoniously decorated with a couple un-ironic stickers and unauthorized doodles written with a Sharpie pen by some friends.
Naturally, I arrived early. I confess to harboring, by then, illusions of being whisked into tour busses with chummy camaraderie and back-slaps and fat blunts and general hilarity. But, there was no welcoming party, and the envelope left for me at will call did not come with laminated dog tags to get me back stage.
Eventually, a tired looking stage-tech took pity on me and somehow pieced together what had happened (I may have been the messenger, as I don’t think there was a memo). While the venue was still desolate, he put me on stage, set up a mic near the floor, and shoed me on my way, making little in the way of promises.
I lurked around, waiting and hoping for some sort of band sherpa to magically materialize and come fetch me. As show-time neared, I started feeling antsy and anxious, not to mention self-conscious about my “instrument.” And then (!) some sultry dark clothed guy said to follow him and showed me into a cramped and dingy room backstage.
I was psyched!
In the room I recognized three of the four guys in the band. Well, the 4th was missing as he had hit hard times, so the band was making due as best they could. The club bar produced a round of cheap clear tequila shots (I think the bar tender shorted us by one), the guys had a quick laugh about my “penny whistle”, and cheerily agreed to sign it with a Sharpie when asked.
It was show-time. I wasn’t told really much of anything other than to not disappear and we’d see what happened. I lurked around at the awkward corner to the side and nearish to the front of the stage, trying to enjoy the show but stay somewhat visible.
After about an hour of songs, I was beckoned to come around from the crowd to sidestage. What happens next, you can hear for yourself. The band members took a mini-break, and Sean introduces me to the crowd as his local Seattle friend who is an old friend from elementary school in Vermont named Benji. The proud Seattleites, thinking I was one of their own, seemed to like it.
All of a sudden, I am in WAY over my head.
I simply don’t know how to play my instrument. To do so requires circular breathing where you breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth so that there is constant sound being created by your lips reverberating. It’s fun, but hard. I can do it. Sort of. If I’m quasi-meditating, by myself, in the dark, and in the zone. Well, I did it a couple of times.
I instantly had the realization that I should have been practicing more. A lot more.
I have no idea what song Sean wants to play. It matters not at all. I can only play one note and that one for about 5 seconds at a time, at most, even when I have my breath. He stalls for his band who are presumably refueling back-stage, tunes to the single key that my thing plays, and eventually launches into a crowd favorite, called Nature.
By now, my vitals are soaring. Zen-like circular breathing techniques are completely off the table. My emotions swing almost instantly from full body exhilaration to complete humiliation as I begin to realize how badly this is about to go.
But then, a funny thing happens. This is pre YouTube, mind you. Thank, God. In real time, I have the realization that I’m completely helpless and exposed, and yet in my fear, I become fearless. Not in a “I’ve got this” kind of way. I wish. Not the case. It was more of a “take it all in” as I knew nobody in the crowd and so there was truly nothing to fear. I was where I was supposed to be. So, just be.
Thankfully, the surly sound-tech had the volume on the mic turned down nice and low.
When it was over, despite my best efforts to enjoy and stay in the moment, it was still realistically a sheepish moment. Then, again, I was Benji! I was the kid Sean “went to Elemetary School with in Vermont.” High 5s all around!
I ditched my PVC pipe in the corner and migrated back to the crowd for the rest of the show. One guy came up to me and offered me congratulations… and also offered lessons. Someone else came to say Hi. I had met her at a friend’s party a few weeks before, and she acted very impressed that I grew up with Sean. These were my peeps.
Feeling only slightly vindicated, and mostly intoxicated, I floated over to the sound-board to check in with my friend the sound guy. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t expecting an invitation to join the rest of the tour, but subconsciously I was hoping he might offer up a way to provide me some sort of recording. As I awkwardly lurked around like a jock-sniffer in a locker-room, I noticed the hand written setlist on his sound board, spotting the word “dork” scrawled next to the song Nature.
My memory of the night ends there.
About two years later, I went to a show by The Samples at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. A great spot for music. During set break, I ambushed the sound board guy, inquiring about whether recordings of old shows were kept. The sound tech looked malleable, and after a round of drinks and exchanging addresses, a cassette showed up via US Postal Service to my house some weeks later. (Thanks, Rusty!)
The cassette eventually got ripped to a CD and later then again as a wav, subsequently converted to an MP3 and now, thanks to the Internet, you can hear with your own ears (earbuds, please) the most exhilarating and humiliating 5 minutes and 12 seconds of my life.