It’s 2010 and I’m a bass playing band hopper. I hop bands night after night in constant flow between rehearsals and gigs. I play with anyone who needs a bass player regardless of what genre they do and I render low-end in upwards of five or six bands weekly. I want to know how far I can push the envelope before I burn out, and I’m in demand. I can play most anything, but I lack one crucial ingredient – one integral component that separates the wheat from the chaff, the boys from the men: conviction.
On Sunday between 1pm and 8pm I play in the resident band at a jazz jam session in a backyard venue called Lucky Store in Ida’s Valley, Stellenbosch. We have a crowd of middle-aged divorcees who attend every jam week after week. I affectionately dub them “The Owens” because two of them have the same name – Owen. They all are artisans of some sort – mechanics, technicians, panel beaters and tilers and they live in a face-brick, double-storey commune across the street.
Their trek to Lucky Store is a ritual of staunch religion – they arrive at 1pm and they eat, smoke and drink ’til they can hardly string words together. Some Sunday’s when their Dutch courage kicks in and when attendance numbers are low, they take to the mic and sing renditions of love songs from an era bygone. They sing the drunken lamentations of men who’ve passed through the machinations of life, having ventured youth with big hopes like their musical heroes and have come out on the other side worn and battered – leaving a treasure trail of sex, booze and engine oil in its wake. I guess they come to Lucky Store to restore their fortunes – this jazz is their weekly hit of nostalgia. But most times, they listen passively, hardly engaging the onslaught of bebop lines and burning solos played by my contemporaries. Every Sunday is the same, The Owens arrive, they listen, they leave.
But one Saturday everything changes. I’m at an Afrikaans rock music festival somewhere on the West Coast and playing in a pop rock band, sharing the bill with a range of blues and metal acts. When I play my set, I shred through my lines like a technical beast, kicking ass, taking names and exiting the stage with an earned pride. Although musically sound, my approach is calculated and restrained. I don’t really believe in myself. It’s all this hanging out with self-deprecating musicians who spend their days comparing themselves to so and so and bemoaning their lack of bookings in a cycle of depressive ‘whoa is me’. With long, oily black hair covering his face, a guy from one of the metal bands walks up to me – fully clad in black, with various scary looking trinkets hanging about his neck and arms. Our exchange is brief but monumental.
In Afrikaans he says to me, “Man, you’re one of the f*cking best bass players I’ve heard! You kill that bass. But let me give you some advice. All that technical stuff you play means nothing if you don’t show it. You need to pull your face and use your body, bro! Make us believe what you do. You must own your sh*t!”
I’m taken aback by the candidness of his observation. How can this neanderthal tell me how I should play? Had I any conviction I would knock him the hell out and give him a well-needed shave in the process. Had I any conviction…had I any conviction? He’s right! From now on, I’m going to own my sh*t and play with conviction. No more Mr Nice Josh, no more moderate calculation – after each gig only the fermenting corpses of every naysayer who ever doubted my fire will remain – a suitable sacrifice!
The next day at the jam session I put the Metal-head’s advice into practice, setting out to play everything with the utmost zeal. On every song I contort my face, girate wildly, jump around as if demon possessed and pretend I’m at a Jimi Hendrix concert. My bandleader stares dryly at me from behind an ever-lit cigarette and The Owens practically jump out of their chairs, their beers spilling generously atop their gleeful countenance. Their passivity being replaced by a joy I’ve only encountered a handful of times in an 9 year professional journey, “Josh, what happened this past week? Did you practice 8 hours a day? Yaw, you a monster my boy! Let us buy you a drink!”
We laugh jovially as we celebrate an age-old life lesson learnt, beer spillage blessing the earth as tribute – nobody wants to see you play small. Play the part, be the part, stand on your conviction. Turn their passivity into cause for celebration. Shift the atmosphere. Share your Fruit.