The last time I stood in front of a thousand people with a guitar in my hands and sang, I’d rehearsed.
I’ll be honest: I regretted the ambition of my scheduled 36-hour, New York to Des Moines trip the instant my clock radio sounded at 3:45 Saturday morning. A cold drizzle was falling on Tenth Avenue, and the forecast wasn’t much better where I was headed. My beautiful wife and our down comforter seemed a far more desirable option than a cold cab to Newark followed by two regional jets.
Like most adventures, though, the first few steps are the hardest. Once I was out of bed, out the door and in a cab, it was on. With just a change of undies and a fistful of demos from my forthcoming CD, I was off to celebrate the release of my pals, The Nadas, new CD, “The Ghosts Inside These Halls.”
Fours woozy hours later, the welcome committee was out en force at Des Moines International Airport; Beaverdale Main Street Initiative Executive Director Stephanie Walsmith (to whom Nada front man Jason Walsmith is lucky enough to be wed, and who is one hell of a singer herself — have a listen to track seven of “Heartland” or track four of “Ghosts”) and her staff, sons Mitchell and Roan, were waiting at the edge of the terminal.
Jason and the band were still en route from the previous night’s show in Sioux City, so the four of us roped Authentic Records photographesse Mandy Miller into lunch at Aguilla Real (Des Moines is, of course, well known for its authentic Mexican cuisine). After a plate of rice, beans and chipotles, I surrendered to a deep, dreamless sleep at Chateau Walsmith — until I was woken by the booming spectre of my Brother In Arms, Jason.
Quick refresher: I met Jason at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. MTV News had hired him to shoot photos and DV. But we didn’t bond over work; not that work anyway. No, I took to Jason after just a few minutes over chips, salsa, and Tecate at the Mexican joint behind our hotel. Sure, David Schwimmer and Keanu Reeves were hyping their indie films down the snowy street, but Jason and I had better things to discuss: Iowa, and rock ‘n roll. It was like a scene from “Pretty In Pink” or something, sans the whole Jake dynamic. “You too!?! Oh my gosh, me too!!!” We had a lot in common. Before I knew it, I’d made a record and hit the road with ’em.
Before long, then, he had me out the door, downtown, and loading in the band. (Rock stars are good like that; they’re aces at finding some star-struck lackey to lug their gear.) Upstairs at People’s, The Nadas are setting up while I tap away at my Blackberry: Ian’s unloading cymbals, Luke’s rolling road cases, Ross is stringing his electric, Jason and Mike shooting the shit. Jason walks over.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before,” he says, “But Mike just suggested you play a few songs before Raining Jane. You wanna’?”
Now, I won’t front. I always hope my pals will haul me on stage for a backing vocal, hand clap or tamborine. But open? For their big CD release? In front of a thousand people? Not only was my Martin 1000 miles east, not only did I not have so much as a .83 Dunlop pick, I hadn’t strummed my guitar in over a week.
Naturally, nary a second passes before I responded, “Sure.”
Then I began to sweat.
So I snagged Mike’s Gibson, repaired to the green room, and immediately began drilling a five-song set. To my ears, my voice sounded unsteady, and my playing sounded worse. To my hands, the guitar felt foreign, the pick brittle and coarse. For an hour I paced the room alone, then met the ladies of Raining Jane and began to prattle nervously. Jason and Stephanie came in, and assuaged my anxiety by approximately 1% when they began drilling a duet they were performing in just a few minutes as well.
“It’s rock and roll,” I reminded myself… then continued prattling nervously.
Fast forward an hour. I am standing alone in front of a thousand blank faces with nothing but a guitar between us. And I begin.
It’s impossible to argue
It’s impossible to scream
Hold your breath and you begin to breathe
Close your eyes and start to see
The crowd is apathetic — there is literally a pair of women just inches from the front of the stage with their backs turned me — but it doesn’t matter. This is it. This is what it feels like.
I dive into the chorus.
Yeah I’ve given up on the daydream
I’ve given up on the coast
I’ve given up on you, baby
I’ve given up, given up the ghost
Afterwards, in an adrenaline-fueled afterglow, Jason — cool as a cucumber as he takes his hometown stage to triumphantly release his sixth studio release — hip-hop hugs me.
“That was a pretty good set for someone who says he never plays.”
I smile, and settle into the compliment.
‘Giving up the ghost?’ I think to myself. ‘Yeah right.’