All butthurt that nobody likes my music, boo hoo hoo
I never quite made it to the Sammies this year. Part of that is that, more and more, I feel alienated by the local music scene, but this has more to do with the contents of my own head, and my own longstanding frustrations, than it does with anything else. I’m glad that the Sacramento News & Review stages the Sammies each year. And I’m even happier that I don’t have to work them, like I used to have to do when I was employed there.
That said, I understand the reasoning behind the Sammies, which are what you do when you want to brand your publication as the place to go for information about local music, and you want to show your advertisers that you’ve got a young, hard-drinking readership that likes to go out and spend money. It’s business, good business. My problem with the Sammies stems from their participatory democracy aspect, which is beautiful in theory, but in reality it tends to manifest as everything I hated about high school, a horrifying popularity contest where the people who are rewarded again and again are the ones who do best at politicking all their friends and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and people who work at the local grocery store and people they randomly stop on the street or in coffeehouses or on their Facebook pages to vote for them as “best” whatever. I’m not saying that the whole thing is tainted that way, and more often than not, the right act wins, but there’s enough of that high school madness going on to make me look for other things to do on whatever day or night the Sammies are being held, because to stand and watch just bums me out too much.
Yeah, I know certain people might take this the wrong way, and I mean no malice. Besides, no one from the SN&R invited me to participate in any way this year, and the last time I wrote for the paper, or adapted something I’d already posted here, local photographer Jesse Vasquez and a guy I don’t know named Richard Stofle responded with this, which I didn’t even bother to read because Nick Miller told me upfront it was pretty scathing. Just not in the mood for that these days, I guess.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about a comment that Marty DeAnda, the Dig Music impresario and Jackie Greene’s manager, made in the comments section on local jazz magnet figure Ross Hammond’s Facebook page. Tonight I’m too lazy to look it up, but I think I can paraphrase it: Why do musicians think they need to leave town to find a measure of success, he mused, when they oughta stay here in Sacramento and make it big first with a local audience?
I think I can answer that. Sacramento is a weird place. Some talented people get a lot of love, and others can’t find anyone who gets their art. As a music journalist, I saw a lot of that, and it was hard to watch some brilliant but misunderstood person fade into the woodwork after getting repeated snubs from the powers that be — and I’m not talking about music scribes, who have very little pull, but the people who book the venues and can make a difference by putting people in front of audiences that might develop love for them. And as a somewhat reticent singer/songwriter, I experienced plenty of that phenomenon personally and up close.
What makes Sacramento a generally lousy environment for music, from my experience, is that, for some of us, there aren’t any places to play music. Instead, we get to watch certain acts get booked over and over and over, just because a particular booker or promoter has taken a special interest in them. (And I do know one person in particular who might read this and get offended because we’re friends, but I’m not talking about him because he doesn’t book old guys like me unless, y’know, they run his soundboard … well, I can’t exclude him totally, because he definitely plays his favorites, but I’m really referring more to the city in a larger context, and all the little cliques of musicians that I’m too goddamn clueless to be a part of.)
So, anyway, I’ve lost my affection for this place as a springboard for the arts. Not sure if it’s permanent, but for now I’m going to practice my songs and play them to four walls and maybe some select friends. I’m working on a project with some old pals from out of town who are interested in doing some of my stuff, and that’s pretty inspiring. But the local show thing? Probably not going to happen. Hell, when I do play, I’m such a chronically lousy self-promoter that I’m lucky if anybody shows up. And yeah, I could go to the Fox & Goose every Monday night, but sometimes you don’t get to play, and when you do, it’s three songs, and, well, I won’t say any more because I’ll get in trouble, what with people taking up slots to do half-baked cover versions (instead of half-baked originals, like me). And the Fox & Goose open mic is no way to get a booking in that place.
I did manage to get booked into the Naked Lounge a few months ago, which is booked by the same guy who books the Fox & Goose. He’d paired me with a local media superstar jack of all trades who happens to be a singer-songwriter. The other guy made a big deal of needing to go on first because he had some kind of big interview the next morning, so I acceded to his wishes, and then he didn’t show. Only a few other people had drifted in, and we waited for a half hour after the start time, and finally I began my set. Then Mr. Sacramento made the scene, slightly hammered. I cut my set short because I’d started late, and then he went on and played an epic, Grateful Dead-length set that went on for like two hours. It may have been the worst gig of my entire life, and I doubt I’ll be getting any more bookings from those guys. It was bad enough to kill what was left of my desire to play live music, and I think that may be the last time I played out.
I’d had one sparkling, incandescent gig right around then, maybe a week before, at the Sacramento Poetry Center of all places, as part of a music and poetry thing put on by Franklin W. Dixon Graham (kill me if I’m bollixing your name, Frank, but you probably won’t bother reading this and no one else will either so I guess it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things). If the Naked Lounge gig was the worst, this was the best, most fun gig I’ve ever played. And if I could plan another one like that, I would. That was one moment where I felt like people really were getting my music, or were appreciating what I’m trying to do as a songwriter.
See, you gotta have a champion. And the elephant in this room is that I had one once. This guy started showing up last winter when I was playing the Fox & Goose, and he’d be bummed if I’d already played, and if he was there to see me play, he was really encouraging. Yeah, he had opinions, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me when he thought I was off track or something wasn’t working or artistically I was full of shit. But generally his commentary was quite positive. Sometimes he’d ask me to play a song again in the side room so he could pick it apart. And he was really smart and he knew a lot about music, more than I do, and sometimes he and I and Sal Valentino would stand in the parking lot on R Street after the open mic and talk about music.
His name was Tommy Vanwormer, and he died suddenly last May. I miss the guy terribly, still, to this day, and playing music out in public just isn’t the same for me anymore. At least in Sacramento. So there’s my highly personalized answer for you, Marty. Some people are lucky to find champions, like Jackie Greene found in you. Others, well, we’re not so lucky, are we? Or we find them, and then they’re taken from us.
Every artist needs to find at least one champion who believes in his or her art. —Jackson Griffith