2015-11-13

Sideman
—Fiction by Alan Swyer

"I used to be a drunken asshole," Cole acknowledged with no great glee. "But I finally fixed the first part –"

"And?" asked the singer-songwriter, a good ten years younger than Cole, who had requested a face-to-face.

"Now I'm working on the second."

"But you can still blow?"

"Now that I'm sober? Better than ever."

"Okay if I give it some thought?"

"Sure," said Cole, trying not to display his disappointment
.
"What if I say I've been a fan forever?"

"I'll tell you what I used to say –"

"Okay –"

"You're a man of impeccable taste and judgment. Call if you want to talk more."

When he was coming of age as a saxophone player, Cole never dreamed that as he neared forty, he would find himself once again scuffling for gigs. Growing up in a rough section of Houston, he had so thoroughly outdistanced his high school orchestra by midway through his sophomore year that he took to showing up at black clubs where talented older guys did cover versions of the music he adored – Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Bobby "Blue" Bland – rather than stuff by Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, or Guns N Roses that meant nothing to him.

Despite his youth – and even more his complexion – it took Cole little time to show both
the musicians and the audiences that he had absorbed plenty from years spent listening to horn players like Hank Crawford, King Curtis, and, going even farther back, Illinois Jacquet.
Using an old music business joke as justification – 

Q: What do you call a horn player with a college degree?

A: Night manager at a McDonald's.

– Cole turned down several scholarship offers, then took off for New Orleans immediately after his high school graduation.

There he immersed himself in a scene where instead of categories, everything was simply termed "Music," which meant that to get work, everyone played not just jazz, or blues, or R&B, or rock, but what was known as "The Book."

That could mean playing "Second Line" for a morning funeral, or backing up Clarence "Frogman" Henry at a festival in the afternoon, or even sitting in with the Dirty Dozen Brass at night.

Rapidly acquiring a reputation as both a soloist and a team player, Cole filled in on local dates by Ray Charles and Al Green, got studio work with Crescent City notables such as Irma Thomas, then started feeling an itch to try an even larger stage.

His initial impulse was to make his way to New York City, where the combination of jazz and the Latin scene held great appeal. But thanks to a wild three-day weekend with a visiting Santa Monica blonde, followed by a tour with a California-based Englishman whose named he would forever after refuse to utter, Cole inevitably found himself headed for Los Angeles.

There, time spent sitting in at local night spots led first to studio work, then to tour after tour with bands whose music ranged from rock to reggae to Blues, plus at one point even Gospel. For Cole it was a dizzying whirl of limos, airports, groupies, and non-stop partying, which also meant an over-abundance of alcohol and other substances.

But life on the road led to a rude awakening. Whereas Cole always felt that it was music first and foremost that counted, he was stunned when, one night after a gig, he approached another British headliner, with whom he was doing a series of dates in Asia.

"What if," Cole suggested as the two of them shared a quiet moment in a hotel bar, "we add a little Mussel Shoals horn section sound to that first number you did as an encore?"

"Mate, that first number," the singer replied, "is the biggest fucking hit you'll ever be lucky enough to play on."

"Still –"

"Still my fucking ass! When something goes platinum, you don't piss on it. Understood?" "I suppose."

"Then try chewing on this. You're a fucking sideman. Get it?"

"Whatever you say."

"Well, here's what I say. Whether it's you or some other twit-for-hire, nobody gives a shit about your opinion. Hear me? It's me they come to see! The rest of you guys? Basically, you're faceless. In fact, except to some chick you get lucky with 'cause she can't get me, you might as well be invisible."

Though with time he might have reached such a position anyway, that conversation became what Cole came to think of as a defining moment. No longer was it possible for playing music he didn't particularly care about to be fun. Given that he was largely backing up acts that were almost irrelevant to him – flashes-in-the-pan, as he put it, rather than the likes of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, or Joe Cocker – being on the road became, as weeks turned to months, then months to years, an ever more onerous grind. Remunerative? No question. But a grind nonetheless.

Worse, even as the post-show parties lost their appeal, Cole's consumption of booze and
drugs continued to grow.

Determined to make music meaningful again, he took to turning down jobs so as to put together a band of his own. Promising others a kind of artistic freedom that was increasingly rare, Cole united kindred spirits with a desire to play a forceful, yet lyrical, jazz-rock blend that eventually coalesced into a group he dubbed Free To Be.

Local club dates were encouraging, but more rewarding artistically than financially. Worse, though the record company execs and A&R men who showed up were outspoken in their praise, no deal was ever broached. Perplexed, Cole called a VP at Warner's named Dunbar
.
"How come no offers?" he asked. "Not even an inquiry."

"We all love what you're doing," he was told.

"But?"

"You know as well as I do that the business has changed."

"Which means?"

"With kids doing the buying, we've got no idea how to market guys your age."

"But what about –" Cole started to say.

"Don't even mention other groups," Dunbar interrupted. "Even if they're not as good as you, the ones with contracts already have names. That, as you know, translates to a kind of loyalty, even if it's only nostalgia-based."

Since it was Cole who was largely underwriting the cost of the band, due to his personal expenses – not just the ones owing to his questionable habits plus a taste for fast cars that over-tapped his resources, but also to two costly failed marriages – the band known as Free To Be ultimately acquired the moniker Used To Be.

For Cole, that meant it was time once again to earn a living. The problem, however, was that having turned down several opportunities, what was available to him was not merely less remunerative, but also far less satisfying.

Obliged to accept anything he could find, Cole did his best to be professional. But whether it owed to substance abuse, resentment, or some combination thereof, no longer did he manage to show up for each and every gig at the designated time. Worse, for someone who always prided himself on boundless creativity, his solos began to take on a sense of sameness, or at least deja vu, making them seem sometimes by rote and other times phoned-in, but rarely either newly discovered or felt.

Dropped from a tour by a band whose manager preferred younger and cheaper musicians, Cole found himself wallowing in misery. While drowning his sorrows at bars in different parts of LA, he bent the ear of anyone who would listen with musician jokes he had assimilated over the years. Foremost was:

Q: What's the difference between a horn player and a large pizza?

A: A pizza can feed a family of four.

Then there was one that seemed even more painful given the instrument he played:

Q: How do you make a chainsaw sound like a saxophone?

A: Add vibrato.

And worse still:

Q: How do you get two horn players to play in unison?

A: Shoot one.

Rock bottom finally came when Cole was hit on the head with a pipe while staggering back to his car after far too much booze, then rolled for his wallet and rings.

A night spent in the Emergency Room led, once he overcame what little was left of his false pride, to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. There, after being greeted by several
musicians whose path he had crossed over the years, Cole finally acknowledged not only to others, but more importantly to himself, who and what he had become.

More significantly, he vowed to make an abrupt change.

Though initially every day was a battle, over time the struggle became less and less difficult, especially when Cole discovered how much he was beginning to enjoy music once again.
Acknowledging that he would likely never reach the heights, commercially or artistically, that once seemed within reach was painful at first, but more and more manageable with both the passage of time and his new-found self-acceptance.

A different kind of satisfaction came into Cole's life after he started taking on students. Then came an unexpected source of gratification when the score he composed as a favor for a friend's documentary led to film work for pay.

Best of all, for someone whose life had rarely encompassed women other than those who came on to him at gigs, Cole actually started spending time with someone whose company he enjoyed not only in bed. Slowly, and somewhat awkwardly, he learned that communication could mean something beyond comparing King Curtis, Stan Getz, and Charlie Parker on the one hand, or telling musician jokes on the other.

Understanding that he was less and less likely to become the star he longed dreamed of becoming, Cole recognized that it was more important to be a better husband. And perhaps, if he kept working at it, a better person.

That, he had finally started to realize, was what life was about.


___
Alan Swyer was once a boxer. Plus, he recently made a documentary about boxing: www.elboxeothemovie.com

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