I always felt my shoulders tense up when I walked offstage.
I loved being the center of attention up there. Put a bass in my hand, push me into the spotlight and I could keep going for days on pure contagious energy. There’s something different about playing when I’m in front of a crowd of one or one thousand, it feels like a reason to play out loud, get my music to the world rather than just listening to the melodies inside my head. It’s a relief.
Offstage I hate the attention. I spend most of my days hiding in plain sight between giant, pastel-pink over-ear headphones: a fantastic tool for noise cancellation, and impossible-to-miss excuse for ignoring the world, though I’m rarely listening to anything other than the music in my mind. It started in high school, and has remained with me ever since, coming and going in sporadic bursts, worsening when I’m feeling anxious. At first it was soothing and having a well of endless inspiration seemed like my greatest blessing. When I told my friends about it, they first thought they experienced it too, especially fellow performance majors. But this isn’t a couple notes coming into your head while you’re sitting in front of a piano or being able to find a tune’s resolution almost instinctively. Once they saw me in composition class though, they understood. Then they became jealous of it.
I was lucky. At least when it was under control. These full-volume tunes that began in my head would cause a sensory overload, my fingers tapping or tingling, and my eyes closed for a relief from the light, eventually bass lines constantly vibrated my core. I can hear parts of Liszt, Satie, Piazzola, Scruggs, Reed, Wilson, Parker, Baker, James-Bar, Bowie, Byrne, and the rest of my idols inside the melodies – the fuel that lit the fire inside my head. My private tunes are often accompanied by lyrics of fear, doubt, and self-consciousness. Their consistency increased along with my anxiety, a self-loathing ouroboros with a killer soundtrack.
When I tried to drown it out, it only got worse – unless I was writing it down. That certainly made the first couple albums simpler but extracting the best from this mass of music was impossible for me. I left that to producers. The rest of my life fell aside as I focused on getting the music out of my head, barely keeping up with my mind and eventually losing all other outlets for stress.
Time went on and collaboration grew more difficult. With three albums providing enough of a catalog of work, performance became the norm, with improvisation as my greatest ally. But few people were interested in listening to a solo bassist and the instrumentation in my head had grown, so I had to let others into my sandbox. A stream of band-mates grew tired of my impatience or my expectations grew impatient with them, and soon my manager Kim was on her last nerve. Knowing I would be a useless member of society away from music, I understood the jam session she invited me to was non-negotiable, so I went and left my headphones at home.
Before getting in my car, I took half a Xanax. I would need to be able to socialize and at least try to listen to other performers. As I drove over to Kim’s place, I could hear a funk beat and slap-bass duet in my head, so I took the other half Xanax upon arrival and waited in my car until the sound died down.
The small table in Kim’s foyer was a plastic child’s piano – that had clearly gotten a lot of use – housed in a plexiglass container. Less interesting and infinitely tackier was the coatrack shaped like a G clef. I knew she had taste in music but before looking further I worried her taste in design was the adult equivalent of the Bob Marley poster on a dorm room wall. I never could have expected the monument to a lifelong adoration that was Kim’s expansive, open living room. There was a hallway at each corner of this gigantic room, creating an impressively open vibe. The ceiling and walls of the foyer curved right in, and two skylights on either side of the slanted roof let the summer evening light shine in on everything. Instruments lined the wall, each next to a picture of Kim and a friend, most of whom looked familiar, but not recognizable, with a couple more famous faces mixed in. I recognized the bass from my first album on a stand to my right and was reminded of when I gave it to her at the end of our first tour together, having forgotten she made me take a picture with her and the bass, which was also there as a small piece of her musical history. Just like Kim, these walls had no discernable hierarchy around fame, so next to my bass was a guitar signed by Monte James-Bar. I laughed quietly as I started humming “Nitro Bard” to myself and surveying the rest of the room.
Above the instruments was a line of wallpaper that looked like a random mix of colored papier-mache from afar. As I went up to examine more of the instruments, I realized these were all gig posters, tickets, and pictures, following a timeline from the left to the right. While the posters and tickets were incredible keepsakes, the pictures were most mesmerizing, enveloping me in the story of Kim’s life in music, starting from a young girl playing piano on stage, a teenager on keyboard, a high school orchestra and college recital, morphing to her being on the side of the stage at large and small venues across the country – many of which I recognized from when she booked me there.
Mesmerized by the history brought to life by these images and instruments, I was growing angry at myself for not getting to know Kim better after all the time we had spent together. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder that reminded me I was surrounded by other people and should probably start greeting them. It was Kim.
I could immediately sense her relief and slight surprise that I even showed up when she said “Thanks for coming. It’s nice to see you outside a smoky club.”
“You too. Of course. I appreciate the invite.” We both knew I appreciated her help and patience, but not this mandatory ‘invite.’
The size of the gathering dawned on me as I noticed about fifty people behind Kim, feeling at least a small sense of pride about my choice of a black sport coat over a blue t-shirt and jeans. Just dressed up enough to go un-noticed. I had successfully avoided the first potential anxiety crisis.
There was a small stage between the crowd in the middle of the room and the back wall. It was framed by a huge window looking out onto the Hudson river – one of the nicer venues I had seen in a while, all in a living room.
“There are a lot of great players here, and the stage is free for anyone to join. I’d love you to play, but even if you don’t, please keep your ears open.” Kim said sternly.
As I searched for a response to Kim’s request that would spur confidence in both of us, I saw a small group of people coming over that might give me more time to formulate an answer. Then I recognized the leader of this mobile crowd as Monte James-Bar. Now I had a real reason to be flustered, certain that continued silence was my best course of action to avoide embarrassing myself or Kim. He’d say hi to her and I would stay out of any conversation. The powerful rhythm of “Nitro Bard” came back into my head, complete with a new bass line provided by yours truly.
Mr. james-Bar arrived as Kim & I stood in silence. He said “I wish I could stay, but I’m going to have to get going. We have a red-eye back to LA tonight.”
“Thank you so much for stopping by. Everyone appreciated you playing for a little bit.” As Kim said this, I grew furious with myself for arriving what I thought was fashionably late – and would mean spending less time here – and missing a performance. “You make me look good with my young clients.”
“You’re the one who makes all of us look good, and I couldn’t resist singing a tune in this gorgeous room. You’ve really got an incredible place here.” Monte said as Kim blushed, clearly hearing a frequent compliment in a different light coming from him. I had assumed she didn’t get starstruck anymore but she still looked like a fan in this moment.
“I couldn’t have designed this room without everyone lining these walls, including both of you.” Then Kim asked him the question I was excitedly dreading “Have you met Mike Langmer?”
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Monte turned to me “but Kim says you’re quite the bassist.”
“Yeah I play bass.” I tried to think of what I could say to recover after realizing I had pronounced bass like the fish. I didn’t even know how that was possible. All I could do was lightly smile hoping they would just think I had a terrible sense of humor.
They both looked at me questionably. Monte diffused the situation with a line that seemed rehearsed, probably due to how often he used it. “I hate these things too. I’m sure you speak better on stage. Hopefully we get to play together next time.”
“Next time.” Kim said as I tried to decide whether to smile with my mouth open or closed, smacking my lips together over my teeth in what I’m sure was a gesture of stupid fandom that surprised even Monte.
He gave her small kisses on each cheek and the only semi-completed gesture of a hug, with a minor glance of recognition to me before leaving me there, feeling like an idiot.
“Listen.” Kim said through gritted teeth before she disappeared back into the crowd.
The tone was clear, but her voice was muffled in my head as the chord progression of “Nitro Bard” had morphed into a late-punk anthem, shouting lyrics about social ineptitude at myself as if they were youthful frustrations. Kim clearly had faith in me if Monte knew who I was, and no one but myself could be blamed for me not getting to play with him. I felt like I let her down, and was ready to walk out, stepping down onto the last rung of disappointment.
I slowly moved towards the door, debating if there was anything I could do to prevent this panic from taking over. Then the pounding punk in my head stopped, when a slow reggae beat coming from the back of the room was all I could hear. I turned to see a handsome young drummer warming up. I recognized his face from Kim’s childhood pictures on the wall, as he was probably the most common one on there, other than her own. His seemingly natural stark black hair was slightly disheveled, appearing to become unruly again after an attempt at containment for this party, and his still youthful face had a five o’clock shadow he had probably been growing for 3 weeks. He played effortlessly, making even the simplest rhythm hypnotizing through fills and teases of syncopation that belied a skill above the current tune, but showing absolutely no boredom or pretension. It had been a long time since I recognized such an honest love of music in someone’s drumming.
I stayed against the back wall, but slowly moved away from the door, listening closely from across the room as a rotating group joined him for a couple songs, until I couldn’t contain my anticipation any longer.
Marching toward the stage I grabbed my old bass away from the wall and swung it on. Kim looked at me and I paused for a moment wondering if I had just pissed her off by messing with the room design, but she gave me a smile and nodded in the direction of the stage. Without waiting for the song to end, I found an amp and plugged right in, initially following the current bassist, then quickly locking in with this drummer and venturing out on a new path with him.
Our relationship was playful from the moment he heard me. At first I threw in an extra sixteenth note that he matched the next bar, then he played a fill one measure, and left it silent for me to take over in the next – which I instinctively did. For the first time in a long time, it felt like I was truly playing with someone. He was not trying to catch-up. He was surprising me, but I wasn’t lagging. I quoted “Cissy Strut” and he pushed the whole group into a slow funk rhythm while I changed the key. It was like the two of us were by ourselves, using everyone else as a shared instrument.
Pretty soon it was actually just the two of us up there as we went well past the middle of the night. There were a couple stragglers in the back of the party, mostly couples who met that night with one half still debating whether they would leave together or separately and the other half holding onto hope. I looked out to see Kim sitting on her huge circular couch completely ignoring the scattered remains of her gathering, focused on this new duo she had brought together. I had not seen that look on her face since the first time she saw me play, eyes wide, eyebrows up, mouth slightly open like she was a little surprised she didn’t think of pairing us up earlier, still smiling, and clearly signaling she recognized what was happening.
I realized the improv we settled into was the slap bass, funky drum duet I tried to suppress before entering the party, and he was perfectly matching what I had internally composed. We finished up in perfect synchronicity, both sopping wet with sweat in a room that was probably only sixty degrees. I turned over to the drum set and realized we had barely looked at each other the whole time. That was the first time Lou and I looked into each other’s eyes, even if we had already taken a glance at each other’s souls.