Frontier Psychiatrist

Rock Club Anthropology – Nonfiction by Django Haskins

Posted on: February 3, 2011

Django Haskins with fan

There is not a rock club in the world that doesn’t feel like a cavern of one size or another. Many even advertise this fact, as does Chapel Hill’s oldest tavern, The Cave, or The Cavern in Liverpool, where the Monkees — or someone like that — made their name years back. The Old Ceremony, my five-piece rock band that includes vibraphone and violin, has spent the past seven years exploring the dark corners of rock and roll caverns around the US and Canada. We feel at home in these places, and each boasts a remarkably similar cast of cave-dwellers. I offer here to the curious a fond catalog of this illustrious cast, with apologies to the shining exceptions who prove the rules:

The Sound Man

The New Yorker once ran a wonderful cartoon that showed two identical scenes of men greeting each other on the street: one labelled “L.A.” and one “New York.” In the L.A. one, the first man says something like “Hey there buddy!” but he thinks, “What a jerk.” In the New York panel, he says “Hey, you jerk!” but thinks, “He seems like an okay guy.” I always thought this captured the warm, prickly heart of New Yorkers. And, on a good night, the same goes for sound men (for better or worse, the vast majority are male). In an elaborate but generally predictable dance, when we first arrive at a new club, the sound man is gruff and dismissive. As we roll our bulky gold vibraphone to the stage along with battered road cases, guitars, violin, keyboards, stands, and drums, he usually mutters to himself behind the sound board, lighting a disapproving cigarette. And who can blame him? He has to watch, and mix, band after band who may or may not bother to tune their guitars but who are often demanding and obnoxious despite only drawing a few friends to the show. Most clubs book several bands each night, six nights a week. And if anything goes wrong onstage, the band blames the sound man. Often publicly, on a live microphone. There are few jobs more guaranteed to cause misanthropy. Not to mention deafness. Anyone who manages to remain cheerful while running sound deserves every band’s love and respect.

Since we’ve never been able to afford to bring our own sound man on tour, we often arrive at a venue with no idea what to expect. And unless he’s mixed us before, the sound man arrives equally unsure. It’s like a blind date, but with no possibility of romance. We try to take it easy on these poor souls. Not only is it the right thing to do, if you piss off the person controlling your sound all night, you could be in for a lot of squealing feedback. By the end of sound check, the mood from behind the mixing board generally lightens, and sometimes even turns genial. We’re reasonably polite. We don’t play too loud, compared to some bands. But most importantly, by the end of a sound check, the sound man usually decides that, though we may not be his cup of tea, we aren’t complete hacks. Those three simple qualifications are usually enough to thaw a sound man’s attitude toward a band. The bar is low.

A Rock Club in Richmond

The Door Guy

Not to be confused with the New York doorman, the urbane-yet-streetwise gentleman who calls you a cab, takes your UPS deliveries, and studiously ignores your bedraggled overnight guests as they leave the next morning, the door guy at a rock club generally projects a bedside manner somewhere between professional wrestler and parole officer. Sometimes he will surprise you, though, as in our recent Asheville show when the looming tattooed door guy put on the smoothest-jazziest Leonard Cohen album I’d ever heard as we loaded out our road cases. Or at Green Room in Montreal, where the door guy turned out to be a lovely, witty girl I ended up dating. You never know. But the standard issue door man reminds me of the belligerent barfly in the Tatooine cantina scene in Star Wars who accosts Luke Skywalker. “My friend doesn’t like you,” he leers. “I don’t like you either!” On the other hand, this is the person collecting money for you, so it pays to respect his authority.

The Bartender

As dispensers of ubiquitous free drinks, bartenders should be viewed with cautious affection by traveling bands. Intense boredom plus free alcohol has been the ruin of many a poor musician. Unlike the sound person, who draws a fixed salary, the bartender relies on bands to bring in heavy drinkers. Apart from freeloading band members, that is. Because of this economic dependence, at the end of the night in a new town — say, Madison or Little Rock — when the bar staff outnumbers paying customers, I sometimes feel like a defeated congressional candidate who wanders among the sad streamers and red, white and blue balloons of his headquarters on election night, apologizing and thanking the young staff for their hard work, and promising to do better the next time around. Then again, when the place is packed, the bartender is usually too busy to redeem our drink coupons. So as the Chinese saying goes, “each has a thousand autumns,” which for some reason means that “each has its own advantages.”

The Regular

Gone are the days, if they ever existed, when people would just show up at a club and hope to hear a good band. Especially if the club charges a cover. The explosion of music on the internet has allowed fans to hone in on their preferred microniche, connect with fellow enthusiasts, and download their music for free. As a result, apart from each band’s hardcore fans -– if they have any  — most clubs don’t have a built-in audience. Instead, what you often find is the Regular, a guy whose apartment is so depressing, whose lack of social contact so complete that he makes the club his home. My favorite type of Regular is the belligerent drunk who heckles the band from his stool just to pass the time. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I really enjoy a back-and-forth with the audience, especially when I have a live microphone. Hearing bands may have provided an additional attraction initially, but by the time he becomes a Regular, he generally ignores live music as expertly as the door guy. And even if he hears a band he likes by accident, he’s forgotten by the time he wakes up the next afternoon in a puddle of stale beer and sadness.

The Superfan

Where would we be without the Superfan? Not to be confused with a music fan who frequents your shows, the Superfan takes dedication to the next level. Handmade gifts, voodoo dolls, long soul-baring letters painstakingly calligraphed on parchment scrolls, an enthusiasm that makes your mother look like a hard-bitten A&R guy: these are the signs of the burgeoning Superfan. It requires an adjustment to realize that your music can mean enough to someone else that they take the time to do these things for you, things you sometimes forget to do for your own girlfriend. But while the intensity may occasionally cause alarm bells, the enthusiasm is wonderful. It helps make up for the daily indifference that whittles away at a struggling musician’s spirit. The downside of Superfans is that they often don’t bring a lot of friends with them to shows. Maybe because their friends don’t share or understand their level of dedication. Or maybe they just want to be alone with you.

Django Haskins is an author and songwriter living in Durham, NC. His eighth album, Tender Age, recorded with his band, The Old Ceremony, came out in September 2010. An excerpt from The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, Karl Howell Behr, who survived the Titanic, appeared in Frontier Psychiatrist last year.  He is now working on a touring memoir that explores the history of five cities where he performs. He studied literature and Chinese at Yale.

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4 Responses to "Rock Club Anthropology – Nonfiction by Django Haskins"

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Django Ireland, django haskins. django haskins said: check out django's article about the anthropology of a rock club on Frontier Psychiatrist:… http://fb.me/H1NUA9rC […]

Nice work, Django! I guess I’d fall between the Superfan & Regular categories, as I love to hang out w/ musicians at the Cave but still have a happy home life.
— Marty (Blotter Magazine)

[…] the Old Ceremony, Haskins is working on two non-fiction books: Painting the Town, a touring memoir that explores the history of four great American cities at pivotal moments, and […]

[…] the Old Ceremony, Haskins is working on two non-fiction books: Painting the Town, a touring memoir that explores the history of four great American cities at pivotal moments, and […]

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