Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Trouble with Being a Rock Star

After a long work day checking for "West Wing" reruns, I stumbled across an Eagles Farewell Tour concert on channel 11 and a commercial-free high school baseball game on channel 12 — an irresistible combo for an inveterate flipper. The game was close and the Eagles were soaring from one hit to the next, and so I camped, going from home plate collision to Joe Walsh solo to perfect sacrifice bunt to big harmonies.

Takin' it easy. Noticing that Don Henley was starting to look an awful lot like Red Buttons.

And then, a sudden realization. It was because of the Eagles and baseball that I was saved from becoming a rock star.

Music turned out to be one of those forks in the road not taken after various stints as a student glee club director, occasional wedding singer, and performer in rock bands, folk and show tune groups, musical comedies, and all-state choirs. It was this largely wholesome background that landed me a gig as the entertainment for the Colorado State Fraternal Order of Eagles convention back in 1968. Whoever did the booking must've last seen me singing and hoofing through medleys from "Guys and Dolls" and "The Pajama Game."

He probably had no idea I had morphed into a protest singer and my current repertoire leaned left toward "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Blowin' in the Wind," and my own "America, You Should be More Careful With Your Things" sung for appreciative coffeehouse audiences. So it was a shock to us all, as I stood on the pitcher's mound at the baseball park singing to the stands full of Eagles, that what we had there was a failure to communicate.

It became clear then — there'd been an inkling earlier in a Meeker, Colorado bar where I couldn't play any of the country and western requests thrown my way — that I was engaged in an entertainment business, not a music or art or political consciousness business. And, unlike with art or consciousness-raising, success was going to be measured by the numbers — bar tabs run up, cover charges collected, gate receipts, record sales.

I flinched. I couldn't imagine, I said, playing the same songs night after night, trapped into doing covers, or if you were lucky, forever reprising your hits. Becoming an old rocker was horrifying, and it didn't help if you took the Keith Richard route and looked 70 before you hit 40. There were no grandpa rockers, and Pete Seeger was an icon, not a role model.

But deep down, I knew how hard it was to find an audience and connect with them — and the pain when you didn't. It was hard work bringing joy to strangers.

Even at age 35, the Eagles couldn't have imagined themselves coloring their hair, playing "Desperado" for the 6000th time to women who could be their daughters, feeling grateful. But there it is. Here we are. And the music turned out to be what mattered after all.


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