My First Paying Gig
A few weeks back, I posted about my first audition for the first band I was in, Silent Fury. I got lots of positive feedback about that post and requests for more like it. So here's the next installment.
Silent Fury had been faithfully rehearsing every week for about a year. We had a lot of songs on deck, mostly Kiss and Def Leppard covers, but we had no gigs. Where does a group of 13-14 year old kids perform? Not in the clubs. We were too young. And how would we get there anyway? We didn't have cars. Heck, we didn't even drive yet. Our moms would have to drive us. I can just imagine a caravan of station wagons pulling up in front of the club and a group of acne-embattled teens jumping out, unloading gear, and then giving their moms a kiss goodbye before heading in to play a set of hard rock music for a bar crowd. Nope. Not gonna happen. So we had to go with plan B.
What was plan B? Lee Kazista. Lee was a really nice kid I had been friends with in elementary school. I would go over to his house and play Star Wars figures. He had that most coveted of all Star Wars toys-- the Millenium Falcon. Flash forward to middle school. Lee was having an eighth grade graduation party, and he wanted a rock band to provide entertainment for the festivities. So Lee asked if Silent Fury would be interested in performing at his party. That was it. Our first gig!
I guess Nick, our lead singer, told us about the gig at a rehearsal. Along with the excitement of having an actual gig, I felt very nervous. It was one thing to practice in the privacy of Nick's garage. But it was quite another thing to play a non-stop set of music... in front of an audience. There were going to be people there! But we accepted the gig, and the only thing to do now was to prepare.
It was the last day of school, that incredible feeling of freedom. The euphoria was compounded by that first gig, which was happening right after school. I remember getting out of school and walking up to Lee's house, a familiar sight, but also seeing something unfamiliar— a gaggle of kids walking in with us. Most of them were older than me, Lee's friends. I think they also knew Nick and our drummer, Rob Connolly, who were both in 8th grade. But I was in 7th grade. Lee’s friends had started to grow their hair out, and they wore dark t-shirts with cut-off sleeves and frightful rock band logos plastered across the front. This gave them a rough look, which added to my anxiety.
Somehow, we managed to get all our gear from Nick’s garage to Lee's house. Maybe a rock band mom or two had helped? They must have. But we essentially just relocated it from one garage to another, setting up our gear in Lee's garage, which sat at the end of the driveway behind the house. As we tried to figure out where everything would go, I was kind of in a haze. I had never had to think about all this stuff before. If I remember correctly, Nick and the Connolly Brothers (bassist and drummer) seemed more at ease. They might have done this a time or two before, but this was my first time, and I fumbled my way through the set-up. It didn't help that the tough-looking kids milled about skeptically. That made me even more anxious than I already was. My stomach churned in knots.
Finally, we were ready to go— the four of us poised, with instruments in hand, on the threshold of Lee's garage, which felt like standing on the threshold of a cliff about to jump off without a bungee cord. The tough kids were seated in folding chairs in a semi-circle before us, donning their sinister shirts. They literally sat there with their arms folded, as if to say, "C'mon, impress me. I dare you." Oh, great. My first gig ever, and this motley gang of teenage music critics is waiting to judge me. They were surely going to hear every little mistake we made and roar with laughter over our spectacular mediocrity. But maybe I'm being a little dramatic. How bad could it be? I'm sure it'll be fine. I mean, what's the worst that could happen. Right?
I think our first song was "Lick It Up," by Kiss. This was the one song where Nick played the lead guitar solo. Everything seemed to be chugging along fine, when all of a sudden, in the middle of Nick's solo, the unthinkable happened. I heard it with my own ears, that most distinctive and dreaded of all guitar sounds: a string popping. I could not believe it. It was the stuff of musical nightmares. This was not really happening. Nick did not just pop a string. Nope. Yup, he did. This is worse than I could have ever imagined. Well, I guess this is it. My music career is about to end before it ever begins. My worst fears realized. The end of the world as we know it (and I did NOT feel fine). Everything came to a grinding halt. The four of us just stopped what we were doing, you know, that awful sound of a band just falling apart? Yup, that was us. So then we just sort of looked at each other incredulously, trying to process what had just happened. I guess after what seemed like an eternity, Nick said, "I think I have an extra string in my case," and he rushed off to get it. While Nick performed emergency surgery on his guitar, the other three of us just kind of sat there, waiting. And so did the music critics, glaring at us in deafening silence. You could hear crickets in the next solar system. I was sure their suspicions were now confirmed: we sucked.
Nick finally got his string changed. I don't remember if we re-started our first song or moved on to another or what, but somehow, we pulled ourselves together and carried on. Our total set was 4-5 songs. I think it included "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages" by Def Leppard in addition to the Kiss songs and one John Fogerty song (an anomaly in our hard rock repertoire). The critics maintained their steely-eyed gaze and non-verbal condemnation for the whole set. It was impressive, actually. Then, suddenly, as quickly as it began, it was over. Our set came to an end. There was an awkward pause as we stood there, waiting for the gates of hell to open and rain down terror on us. But that is not what happened.
What happened next caught me completely by surprise. The critics leapt from their seats and rushed the garage, all smiles and handshakes. They showered us with compliments and began to ask us about our gear. I was in disbelief. (They liked us. They really liked us.) Suddenly, the tension just seemed to melt away, and there was happiness in the air. Lee seemed to like the band, too, and I think he felt it added to his party. I guess we ate cake or something and hung out for a while afterward. I felt light as air as the stress of the gig was gone. Not only did the gig not mark the start of an apocalypse, but it was actually kind of fun, and the crowd enjoyed our music. Wow. This is pretty cool, I thought.
After it was all over, we packed up our gear and prepared to head out. As we were about to leave, Lee's mom came running out the back door and headed toward us, beckoning for us to wait. Uh-oh. We must have been too loud or offensive in some way, playing that devil music. I knew our success was too good to be true. It was time to atone for our sins. Alright Mrs. Kazista, let us have it. But no, surprise again. Instead, Mrs. Kazista thanked us warmly, and then she did something very unexpected. She handed us a small white envelope and said, "This is for you." We opened the envelope and found something in it we never imagined: money. Twenty dollars. We had not stipulated a fee, because as a young band, we felt we could not charge for our services. We were just happy to play for the experience. So this thank-you gift from Mrs. Kazista was totally unexpected. We were shocked and thrilled. Twenty bucks might not seem like a lot of money today, but to a 13-year old kid in the mid 1980’s, it seemed like a fortune. We divided the money equally, five bucks per band member. It was the first time I got paid for making music.
I was trying to wrap my brain around it: I had just played a set of music I loved in front of an appreciative audience, *and* I got paid for it. Did this really happen? I could get used to this. And then the wheels in my teenage brain started turning. There were possibilities here. Though it was only the beginning, and I still had much to learn, the lessons of that first gig were many.
Years later, I was watching a movie at home one night. As the closing credits rolled, I spotted a familiar name: Lee Kazista. Could it be the same person I knew from my childhood? How many Lee Kazistas could there be in the world? So I hopped on IMDB and looked up the name and saw that a Lee Kazista was listed as an assistant cameraman on many A-list movies. This was in the days before facebook, so I poked around on IMDB for a while until I found an email address and sent the mystery Lee Kazista an email. In the email, I recounted the story of that first paying gig and how much it had meant to me, and how it contributed to my becoming a professional musician. Sure enough,
It was indeed that same Lee Kazista. Lee had gone to school for film and had been working as a cameraman for several years. He was married with two children and doing well. Lee thanked me for the story and asked if it he could share it with his mom, who he was sure would appreciate it. I agreed. A few days later I received an email. It was from Mrs. Kazista. She, too, thanked me for my story and said it had made her cry, and that as a mother, all she had wanted to do was make a child’s life happy, and that my story made her feel that she had done that in some small way. Indeed, she had. Thank you, Mrs. Kazista for your act of kindness and for planting a seed that would bear great fruit one day: two professional musicians— Nick and me— came out of that tiny little garage band in the 1980s. And so did much joy.