Up On The Stage

Saturday night in a bar aptly named Touché located down by the waterfront in Chalmette. It was late spring/early summer in the year of 1982. The place was packed as the time came for the band to begin playing their third set of the evening, which by now had been extended into the early morning hours. I cradled my guitar against my chest in the stifling, backstage heat; a vintage 1965 Fender Telecaster. It had been a long night, but it had been a successful one depending on how you measured it. Following the second set, we had been paid for the evening and after the various costs we accrued in travelling from Picayune had been accounted for, the members of the band still pocketed over two hundred dollars each – big money for college kids back then and for only a few hours of work if you wanted to call it that. As I stepped up to the microphone to belt out a song, probably “Rocky Mountain Way” or “Jenny, Jenny (8675309)”, the night began to take its toll on me and the luster of the spotlight as well as the crowd had faded; replaced by only an emptiness inside of me that neither my voice nor the vapid lyrics seemed to fill.

I had begun playing in various bands back in high school, from the garage variety all the way up to established bands replete with their own cult-followings at the time. My current stint with this group had lasted well over a year, and though a recording contract was never offered nor anticipated, it paid the bills for us as we each attended college. The early gigs in town, in clubs with names like “Chester’s” or “The Attic” had allowed us to branch out to larger venues in New Orleans and Hattiesburg as we honed our craft of playing rock-n-roll music. We played covers almost exclusively; the thought of writing our own songs seemingly never crossed our minds in those days. That’s probably a good thing too, I believe, as I look back through the rear-view mirror of many years having gone by since that time. Sophomoric lyrics written from the heart and recorded for posterity can come back to haunt you later in life, especially when you have children of your own that are apt to stumble upon them in some forgotten notebook hidden away in the attic, as an example.

It started out as a lot of fun and I enjoyed the attention of being up on the stage in front of the swaying crowds. I’ve also always loved music, which made it an easy road for me to follow. As a side note, I can honestly say that although we were playing in bars I never drank – I was nineteen years old and temptations with alcohol would knock on my door later. It was strictly about playing the music and meeting girls; making a little money in the process was merely lagniappe. At least it started out that way. By the time I was on stage in Chalmette as mentioned earlier, we were going to school and practicing two or three nights a week. On weekend afternoons, we would load up the equipment in a rented truck, travel to wherever we were to play that evening, unload the truck and set up, play three or four one-hour sets, reload the equipment in the truck, drive back to town, and unload the equipment in time to get the truck back to the rental agency by 8 AM. By that point it was all about the money; the love of the music as well as the fun had long since been discarded somewhere along the way.

I had also been thinking a lot that night of a heated conversation I’d shared with my father earlier the day before. He was the music director at the Baptist church I had literally grown up in, and to say he was against my foray into playing rock music in bars naturally would be an understatement. As a Christian, what I was doing was wrong, but apparently I had found a way to justify it in my heart. Sure, I had felt a lot of guilt when we first began playing the clubs, but over time (and spending the money I made) I guess you could say I had gotten used to the guilt and was living within a means I had found of getting around it. Denial can be a strong sedative, I’ve learned.

Daddy finally told me with not a little exasperation in his voice that I could not sing/play in bars on Saturday night and then get up and sing in his choir on Sunday mornings. Those words stung; puncturing me in a secret place deep enough and to a point where they stayed on my mind throughout that night while I was on stage. As a Christian, where can you draw the line, and then what happens when you cross it? I justified things in my heart by the aforementioned point of not drinking, and besides, we were only having fun and making good money – money I needed for my education. It was rock music, sure, but it wasn’t the hard stuff anyway, and the crowd really liked me even when they were sober!

During that last set, a question came to my mind, one I found I could no longer honestly answer. The question from my heart was who are you? My father’s ultimatum on reaping and sowing proved to be the answer I needed. I was not meant for this, and this is not what G_d wanted me to do with my life.

I’d like to say that I never went back on stage after that epiphany in Chalmette, but it took a few more weeks before I actually quit the band. I had to weather an extended bout with denial before I could get my heart resolved to do what I knew all along was right. Those things do not come easily to a nineteen-year-old who is caught up in the things of the world. I was enjoying the music, the crowds, the girls, and the money – face it, who doesn’t want to be a rock star?

James writes: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” No amount of rationalization or the associated guilt that comes from living a lie can ever change what you already know in your heart to be right.

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