It’s been said so many times that it’s long since entered the annals of cliché: Rock critics are merely frustrated musicians. They only give bad reviews because they are jealous of those who can actually sing, write songs and produce records. So on, so forth, haters gon’ hate, etc.
I’m here to tell you there’s some truth to that. I tried for years to be a musician. And failed.
A little background: I’ve always played guitar from age 13 onward. I jammed a bit with my friend Jules in college, but that never progressed past a few rec-room practices. It was not until 1997, when I was 30 years old, that I found myself in an actual performing band. My roommate and I had been talking about forming a band, and a friend of ours called our bluff. We called ourselves The Poconos, played a dozen times and eventually released a 7” single. Later, I inherited my brother’s four-track cassette recorder and, between 1998 and 2004, recorded about 20 tracks under the project name Automat.
I’m glad I had those experiences. But at a certain point, I had to just give up. Here’s why.
1) I cannot write lyrics that don’t make me cringe.
Poetry was never my thing in high school. Neither was fiction. Everything I wrote for English classes and lit mags came across forced and tortured. On the other hand, I had an idiot savant-like knack for nonfiction: book reports, essays, etc. If anything I had (and still have) a habit of overwriting. When I started to write lyrics for the Poconos, I came up with a couple of good images but nothing that I could sing in public with a straight face. Overwriting is not such a good habit unless you’re Dylan or Franklin Bruno. I simply couldn’t access a part of my brain that lent itself to song lyrics. I cringe when I listen to any song I wrote.
2) I cannot write melodies.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I came up with a couple of decent instrumentals for Automat; those remain some of my favorite tracks. But my vocal lines were nothing special, which was compounded by the fact that…
3) I cannot sing. What’s more, I cannot channel my non-singing voice in an interesting way.
I have a whiny voice that refuses to stay in tune. That I don’t have a mellifluous vocal tone actually doesn’t bother me. Most of my favorite indie-rock vocalists can’t “sing,” but Jad Fair, Calvin Johnson and Mark E. Smith actually make it work for themselves. They make up with character what they lack in octaves. I never figured out how to do that, and I wasn’t particularly motivated.
4) I have bad stage fright.
When I was a kid, I used to appear in school plays. I’d start freaking out about half an hour before showtime. Then, once onstage, I’d forget lines and fall out of character into nervous giggles. It was awful, but I liked acting enough to battle it. Years later, I stepped onstage at the first Poconos show, which was in a living room. All around me were people I know, looking at us, waiting for us to play and sing. It was horrible. And it never got any easier; I was wracked with nerves at every single Poconos show, worried about falling out of tune, forgetting lyrics, forgetting how to play live. The few Automat shows I played were similarly harrowing experiences. It turns out that stage fright is a lifelong problem of mine. On the other hand, I’d DJ at shows and on college radio, usually to more people than ever attended a concert of mine, and I had no such trouble. It was pretty clear my strenghs lay elsewhere.
5) Playing shows is a hassle.
It wasn’t just the psychological preparation – it was the actual mechanics of the shows. We’d drive to the venue, arrive hours early, carry in our equipment, do a soundcheck if we were lucky, wait around for awhile, play, and then wait for hours longer until we could load out. If we were really lucky, we’d get gas money. Then we’d break it all down, load it in the car and drive home. It was a lot of work for very little satisfaction.
6) The recording process bores me.
About six months into the Poconos’ career, we decided to record a single. It took several weekends stretching out over a six-month period. Recording always made me self-conscious, but mixing was sheer torture – listening to the same track, over and over, tweaking levels here and there. It was just interminable. Recording by myself didn’t remedy the problem, either – it just meant I was at the mercy of my own technical skills, which were negligable. If you’re already self-conscious and awkward about your ability to sing and play, nothing will make you feel worse about yourself than the recording process.
7) I had more fun designing the flyers than actually creating the tracks.
For the first Automat show – and, to this day, the only show I’ve ever promoted – I made flyers, put them up all over Seattle, and even made a little minizine to give out to attendees. It was much more fulfilling than the show itself. Similarly, I enjoyed assembling the two Automat CDs, coming up with ideas like ink stamps or fancy paper. Having published zines since age 19, it was familiar and comforting to me. It quickly occurred to me that I liked everything about having a band except…having a band.
8) I was very easily able to drop the whole thing when life intervened.
In mid-2004, I recorded the last Automat track and released the second of two CD-Rs. Then I started law school, and had two children in quick succession. I didn’t stop writing, reviewing or blogging, but I never wrote or recorded another song. I’m a firm believer that to be good at something, it has to be in you. You have to be willing and able to do it even if you’ve got other things going on. The fact that I’ve never missed recording really tells me something.
9) I learned many lessons. Chief among them: don’t add to the pool of mediocre to poor music in the world.
Here in St. Louis, I’ve spent the past year exploring the local music scene in greater detail. One night I told a bassist acquaintance of mine that I was happier writing for the RFT than “adding to the bad music in the world.” A flippant comment, perhaps, but one that I wholeheartedly believe. There’s so much mediocre music out there – music that’s the product of vanity, or some other ulterior motive, rather than the joy of good tunes. I wasn’t doing it for vanity, but after seven years, it was just clear that I wasn’t getting any better. So now I’m back to doing what I always did, which leads me to…
10) Having done it makes me a better reviewer and journalist.
By having had the experience of being both a performing indie-rocker and a four-tracker, I was able to get a first-hand look at what’s involved. I’m not only more in awe of those who can do music well; I’m less tolerant of those who do it poorly. Either way, I feel like I approach the subject with more empathy and experience.
NOTE: my wife suspects me of writing this piece so people will say, “That’s not true, Mike. You were a GREAT songwriter!” Would it surprise you that a blogger and former zine editor had such a pathological need for attention? Well, maybe. But the fact is, I’m happier reminiscing about the whole experience than reliving it. Which is why I am unable to resist telling you that you can download the Automat CDs for free, hear the Poconos’ 7″ single on Bandcamp, or read our 1997 tour diary here.