First Gigs

My first real gig was in Des Moines, playing for a fancy art show at the Convention Center. My music was weird but pleasant; it was all instrumental; and I was good at improvising and playing for hours on end. So it was the perfect thing for background music at art fairs, dinner parties, etc. Or so I hoped.

My promo package was a homemade cassette tape, and a black-and-white flyer. (Color cost a lot more back then.) The flyer had a picture of me and my instruments and some BS that made it look like I had maybe played somewhere before.

Food Stamps had sent me to a career counselor in hope of getting us off the program. She was the one who gave me the idea that my weird-ass music might work at art shows. She had heard about a big holiday show at the Convention Center in Des Moines. So my first phone call was to the Convention Center. I asked about the Christmas art show, and was given the phone number of the director, Lisa Hubbell. I had no idea that she was Lisa Hubbell of The Hubbell Family, as in Hubbell Realty, The Hubbell Foundation, The Hubbell Mansion, The Hubbell Space Telescope, The Hubbell Fortune..... No matter. I just called her up, because that's what you did in those days. She answered and was very nice; and I explained to her that I played original music on the African Kalimba, and was wondering if maybe she might be interested for her art show. She was curious, so I sent her a tape and a flyer.

I called back the next week, and...she liked it! Although my tape was solo, I talked her into booking the duet with my bass player. I knew it would be livelier with Jackson, and easier than playing solo for five hours a day. We got paid $800 to play three sets a day, Saturday and Sunday. Each set was 1-1/2 to 2 hours long. That was pretty good money for a couple of guys on food stamps, probably twice what we would make in a week at some shitty job.

We had four months to practice, which we did mainly by getting stoned and playing the weirdest shit we could think of. We also ran off about 80 cassettes on my double-cassette deck. I'd had the labels and J-cards professionally printed, so they looked really nice.

The Big Gig was the first weekend of December. Our contract also included a downtown hotel room, with two double beds even, for Friday and Saturday nights, an incredible perk for a couple of broke hippies with apartments full of kids. Jackson had expected to sleep on some floor, which was more or less what he was used to.

So we show up Friday afternoon, check into the hotel, and drive over to the Des Moines Convention Center in my beat-up '78 Ford Fake Woody Wagon. We unload our beat-up amps and Jackson's old six-foot upright bass, which looked like a reject from a grammer school orchestra. Which it probably was. Everything we had, our amps and our instruments, was held together with duct tape. Jackson used to say that you couldn't play in Scotty's band unless you had duct tape on your equipment and at least one part of your body.

We cart our beat-up gear into this fancy ballroom, decorated to the hilt, and someone shows us to the stage area, which is elegantly decorated in tinsel and gold. We get set up and then go out to dinner at The Spaghetti Factory, where everything is great except the spaghetti. Then back to the hotel room, where we each stretch out on our own double bed and watch TV. Living like kings!

The art show was open 9 to 5, and our first set was at 10:30 Saturday morning. I was raring to go, but for Jack it was the middle of the night. But after plenty of pot and cigarettes and coffee, he was awake enough. All he had to do was stay in key and keep it lively, which he could do in his sleep. Better sometimes.

So I enter the ballroom with my suitcase full of kalimbas and Jackson in tow. Classical music drips down from overhead speakers. A wind quintet is playing, and no one is paying any attention to them. Jackson immediately dubbed them "The Lame Quintet". I actually liked their music, because I cut my teeth on classical music, and used to play the French Horn. But these guys played mechanically and looked bored, and followed each song with excruciatingly long periods of silence while they argued about what to play next. When everyone finally had the same music in front of them, they would slog through another piece.

When they were done, I applauded, but it's weird to be in a huge ballroom full of people and you're the only one clapping. I told them I liked their set, and they barely responded. "Okay," I said to myself, "background music. All I gotta do is stay chill and not get too loud or weird."

So we get set up and I check tunings on all six of my kalimbas, each with between 16 and 28 notes. Then I sit and wait for Jackson to finish tuning the four strings on his bass. When he finally finishes tuning, he leans against his bass, rolls up a cigarette, lights it, takes a big drag, sticks it under the top tuning peg, looks up at me and says, "Now what?"

"Let's do that calypso thing in G."

So Jack starts up the calypso train, driving his bass like an old steam engine, complete with the cigarette smokestack on top. And I do my thing, making up melodies and such, keeping it light, not too weird. I don't know how long the song was, but we played with it until we got tired of it, and then wrapped it up. I looked up, and people were standing around, listening! And they started clapping! Scattered applause broke out all around the ballroom. And then people started lining up to buy my tapes! I sold four tapes (32 bucks!) while Jackson finished his cigarette and rolled up another.

Next we played "that 6/8 thing in E", and everybody was like "Wow! It's not 4/4! Oh My God, I think I'm levitating!" and I sold five more tapes while Jackson smoked another cigarette.*

I don't remember what we played the rest of the set, but we kept it light and lively and not too weird. It was even cool to repeat stuff, because I never played anything the same way twice, and nobody knew what the hell we were doing anyway. Including us.

During our break, I made a new sign that said, "Cassettes $10". I had originally priced them at $8, because they cost about $4 to produce, and 50% seemed like a fair profit. But making change was a hassle, and commercial cassettes usually cost $10 or more anyway. I also made a little sign that said, "Please leave money or checks here." After that I did self-serve sales for many years, and I don't think I ever got ripped off. Of course, my venues were mostly art shows and kid shows. People who want to steal stuff don't usually go for cassettes of art music or kid's music.

When Saturday's show ended, we had sold most of our inventory. So instead of going back to the hotel, we drove home (100 miles) to get more tapes. I had already called ahead to tell Joanie the good news, and to start running off more cassettes.

When I walked in the door, the kids came running "Dad's home!" and then I started emptying my pockets "Dad's got money!" After the excitement died down, I got busy putting labels on tapes and folding J-cards. Our first show was at 9:00 Sunday morning, so at 6:30 I packed Jackson and about thirty more tapes into the old wagon and headed back to Des Moines.

Sales were not quite as brisk the second day, but we sold enough to make the trip back worthwhile. Lisa Hubbell told us that we were wonderful, and booked us for the next year. Then during our second break she introduced me to her mother-in-law, the Real Mrs. Hubbell, the matriarch, the one with The Real Money. Old Mrs. Hubbell said I was wonderful, of course, and then asked me if I would do her the honor of playing, solo, for her dinner party that very evening. "It's a casual affair," she said, "and your music would be just perfect." We did not discuss my fee (I was new at this), but she promised me "a nice check".

Since we played first that day, we were done at 3:30, which gave me enough time to load up, head back to the hotel, book it for another night ($110, lucky I had some cash), leave Jackson there, find this mansion in Des Moines**, unload and set up all my gear again, and be ready to play at 6:00. In fact, I was ready by 5:30, so I had time for a little break.

"Can I get you anything?" a tuxedoed waiter asked me. I really could have used a joint, but I asked for a beer. "A beer!" he exclaimed, as though to say, "How extraordinary!!" He started off briskly towards the bar, which was only about twenty feet away. I followed, because I wasn't doing anything. "This gentleman would like a beer!" he announced loudly to the bartender.

"A beer!" the bartender exclaimed. They had beer, I could see it, but apparently no one had ever asked for one before. "The musician wants a beer!" the bartender announced. "Please, someone get me a beer glass!" This set off a frenzy of activity among the waitstaff.

"You could just hand me the bottle," I said. He ignored me, as though I had just farted. Someone produced a beer glass. He poured the beer into the glass and handed it to me. Oh yeah! A beer glass! My dad used to have one of these!

So less than three hours after playing my first gig (about eleven hours of playing over two days), I found myself playing my second gig, a fancy dinner party for a roomful of rich people at a mansion. And unlike the first gig, nobody clapped, and nobody bought tapes. They barely paid any attention to me, other than occasionally walking by and smiling or whispering "nice music". The louder I played, the louder they talked. So after a while I settled in, and diddled around on my kalimbas, while I watched rich people eat and tried to estimate how much money this dinner cost. I had no idea! I had no idea even how much one waiter would cost. We never even bought pizza unless we had coupons.

But I got through it, and they liked it, and Old Mrs. Hubbell was really very nice to me. Very sweet. She complemented me and thanked me many times. And handed me an envelope.

I could barely wait to rip open that envelope. But first I had to pack and load up all my stuff. I thanked Mrs. Hubbell again and gave her one of my tapes. She thanked me again and was very kind and gracious.

Then, finally, I was in my old Ford wagon, surrounded by Mercedes and Cadillacs and limos, as I ripped open the envelope.

It was a nice check, alright. A real nice check from a real nice bank from the private bank account of perhaps the richest person in the state of Iowa.

The amount: $100

Welcome to the Upper Class.

*This was The Good Ol Days, when no matter where you were, the management made sure there was an ashtray on every flat surface.

**Also, kids, in The Good Ol Days there was no GPS.