Sunday, 20 March 2011

Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid, who suffered so much for what he did...

Victim of a Song

Stage Fright, The Band, 1970

I remember going to the Plaza Theatre (in Kensington) in Calgary when I was 18 or 19 years old one warm summer night, which seems like a hundred years ago now. . We were there to see the movie “The Last Waltz1” by “The Band” and the show started at midnight or something stupid like that.

“The Band” was a very successful band in the ‘60’s and 70’s, still revered by many as one of the best.  You have for sure heard some of their songs like, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Weight”, “The Shape I’m in” and “Ophelia”. It  consisted of members of a band that supported the original Ronnie Hawkins Band, another band famous in the sixties. Long story, another day, but suffice it to say Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks as they were called, were very influential in the formation of early rock music in Canada. “The Band” was more or less that supporting band. That confusion aside, let’s move on...

“The Last Waltz” was sort of a documentary of the “The Band” and as the title suggests kind of a good- bye to their long touring days.

The one song that resonated with me that night, and there were many fine ones, was Rick Danko singing ‘Stage Fright’ like he was an old pro with no sign of stage fright whatsoever. Many artists eventually come to terms with performing in front of a crowd, but others never do. Seems like Rick did.  

There is a basic personal risk a performer takes when he/she walks on to a stage. They are putting their hearts into it and their reputation on the line, every time they perform. There is a long, long history of rock stars having drug and alcohol issues. But think about it for a minute:  One day you are playing around in a garage band or on some school stage and then a year later you are walking on to a stage with thousands of people who expect, ne demand a great performance.

Because of the raucous, all-out sometime boisterous nature of rock, intoxication mostly goes unnoticed or is even accepted or worse, applauded at times. Jim Morrison was a classic example. When the Doors first started out at the ‘Whiskey’ a nightclub in L.A. and even larger clubs, Jim would sing with his back to the audience. Everybody think s of Jim Morrison as the epitome of a rock star – but we also know how he crashed and burned, principally as a result of his addiction issues. His stage antics at first somewhat amusing and socially acceptable in the rock and roll 70’s, got more and more out of hand as he lost control and was eventually criminally charged with things he didn’t even remember doing. Very tragic and sad.

Many rock stars only in the last ten years or so have admitted to the pressure they feel to have a great performance. Mike Jagger had/has to prepare extensively both physically and mentally for a show. The expectations on him are enormous if you think about it.

If you have ever played an instrument you can relate to the nervousness that comes with performing. Even if you can play it perfectly in practice it is an immense task to be able to play in front of an audience.  This can happen even playing Rock Band!

I can, to some extent sympathise and empathize with some of these wildly successful musicians. The drugs and alcohol are in some ways inherent in the culture and almost the persona in some cases. It is not the norm anymore to perform badly in live shows – you are letting too many people down. At least we are learning as we go - although the bodies continue to pile up.  It is a problem as old as performing is – stage fright is real. I am not saying it is an excuse or a reason not to accept personal responsibility for ones actions, but I am saying it is understandable.

The documentary (and  debacle) of a music tour through Canada recently released on DVD called “Festival Express” followed a group of intoxicated musician on a bender of a tour. We see Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Delany and Bonnie and Friends, and Buddy Guy. They are so intoxicated at points it was a miracle they were able to play at all. Was Janis Joplin essentially another victim of stage fright?

Anyway, have some sympathy for professional and amateur musicians alike when you have the honour and privilege of seeing them perform. Treat them appropriately – appreciate them (or at least have the decency to shut up if you can’t stand them).

Have you ever had stage fright?
1.        The Last Waltz, The Band, recorded in San Francisco’ Winterland Ballroom in 1976.
Performances included the Band (with Robbie Robertson,  Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, all Canadians, and Levon Helm the sole American),  other acts included;  Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Charles and Neil Young.

2.         Festival Express was a tour across Canada – with concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. It features the original footage shot in 1970 by Peter Biziou (Mississippi Burning, Pink Floyd: The Wall, and the Truman Show)

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