By Dan Horgan
Over the summer I took a job booking concerts at an upscale bar in downtown Boston called Limelight Stage and Studios. The work provided decent pay, depending on how much of a crowd each band drew, but the job’s real reward was meeting passionate musicians – each with a unique story.
I booked artists of all types – heavy metal and punk bands, acoustic duos, and even a comedic group every now and then. Even if I didn’t like the genre of music, I appreciated the enthusiasm each performer brought to the stage. Art, to me, doesn’t need coincide with talent to be beautiful; it only requires passion.
It was a Monday night in July, and I was scrambling to find a last-minute performer for a show that Wednesday. I already had two bands confirmed, each a solid draw, but as a music fan turned promoter, I felt an obligation to give fans their money’s worth every time they came to Limelight. Two acts just didn’t cut it.
I went on my Myspace account and started messaging bands and solo artists about possibly filling the slot. Being in a band myself, I had plenty of musicians on my friends list to choose from. But to my dismay, each had some excuse as to why they couldn’t play.
“We only play shows with guaranteed pay. Sorry.”
“Our drummer is working that night and can’t get off. But please keep us in mind for future shows!”
“My voice is too sore from yelling at my husband. I’ll play as soon as he cleans the fucking house.”
I knew I’d have to get creative if I wanted a third act.
I took one last peek at my Myspace friends list to see if I’d missed anyone, and I came across a rock trio my band had played with in March called Fitchburg Punx. I immediately checked their page to see if they’d be a good candidate for Wednesday, but with no shows scheduled and a lack of activity on their account, I thought an eleventh-hour performance would be out of the question. It looked like Wednesday night would be one of the weak two-act “concerts” I pledged I’d never promote.
But while scrolling through Fitchburg Punx’ site, I saw a link to another group called Marko and the Bruisers. Marko, I remembered, was the drummer for Fitchburg Punx, so I was curious to see if his second band was at least active and playing shows. Even if they couldn’t play Wednesday, I thought, they might be a good candidate for future booking.
I went on Marko and the Bruisers’ page and found that Marko was actually alone in the project, playing acoustic guitar and singing original songs. Solo acts are far easier to book than full bands, so I thought I may have landed on what I was looking for. I sent Marko a message asking if he’d like to play a show in 48 hours, and after a few detail-exchanging emails, he agreed. I’d found my third act.
It was Wednesday night. After spending 45 minutes on the road and another 15 walking from my car to Limelight, I looked at my watch and realized I had arrived to work over 40 minutes early. I was nervous about the night’s show. Maybe I thought showing up early would compensate for my lack of preparation.
About 20 minutes of me standing outside the venue passed before Limelight’s sound technician Jonathan arrived. We started our routine conversation about the evening’s show.
“So what’s tonight’s lineup look like?” he asked.
“We have three acts,” I answered confidently. “Two acoustic and one electric. All are pretty solid.”
Of course, I would never admit that Marko had only agreed to play the show 24 hours ago, or that he was apprehensive to accept because of a lack of songs. I needed to appear confident in my booking. Poise in business goes a long way.
After talking awkwardly with Jonathan for 10 minutes, I got a text from Marko saying he was right down the street. I could see him so I waved him over.
Marko walked over with a bright but unsure smile on his face and his girlfriend by his side. The two certainly looked like punk rockers. Marko sported a fedora, a black shirt, and pajama bottoms to boot. His girlfriend was decked out in piercings and had fierce dyed hair.
I gave Marko and his girlfriend a friendly welcome. The two were cordial, chatting it up with me about the local punk scene. I began going over the procedure for the night’s event.
“You’re going on first, probably half hour after doors open,” I told Marko. “Jonathan will get you set up with acoustics and all that. He’s the small Asian guy over there. Don’t worry about playing too long or short a set. I’m flexible. It should be a fun night.”
Marko was cool with everything. He somehow thought I was doing him a favor by getting him the show, even though he was clearly a last-minute fill in.
But after the initial small talk, Marko began opening up about how nervous he was for the show. He told me how he couldn’t sleep the night before, lying in bed and going over songs in his head. He reiterated the fact that he’d never played a solo concert before, and apologized for the lack of songs he was about to play. Little did he know, my nerves, which had calmed since I’d gotten a third act, were again tingling. What if he sucked and I looked bad?
While talking, I noticed Marko was holding what appeared to be a run-down ukulele.
“What’s that?” I asked ignorantly.
“It’s my guitar!” he said with a laugh. “The $30 special from Wal-Mart.”
I began thinking a two-act show wasn’t so bad after all.
Marko took the stage and started tuning his piece-of-shit instrument. He looked nervous. He sang a few notes and Jonathan gave him the thumbs up on acoustics.
“You’re playing live in 30 minutes,” I told him. “Just hop on stage, introduce yourself, and start playing when the time comes.”
The half hour went by slowly. Only 10 people filled in, five of whom were in bands scheduled to play later that night. Because of time constraints, I told Marko to start his show anyway. He took the stage.
“Hi everyone. I’m Marko and the Bruisers. This is the first time I’ve done this.”
I looked on skeptically as this stiff 25-year-old punk began ripping through power chords on what was probably the world’s cheapest guitar. After a 15-second instrumental, he began singing. My last-minute act was under way.
I was initially impressed with Marko’s musical talents. He had a good voice and obviously knew what he was doing with his instrument. After a song or two, my nerves stopped tingling. He was clearly a suitable act.
Marko carried on with what turned out to be a terrific set. He played each chord with passion and precision, sang his heart out, and performed as if he were in front of thousands of people. His songs were both serious and goofy, touching upon everything from inner redemption to “white kids who think they’re black.” He left nothing on stage, and the small crowd loved him.
The tingling sensation inside me returned. Only this time, I felt inspired rather than nervous. I had no I idea I was about to have one of the most inspirational conversations of my life.
Marko came down after his set to thank me for the opportunity and to offer his services if I ever needed him to play again.“I’m always down for shows,” he said.
I was particularly impressed with how adroit Marko was on guitar, so I asked him why he didn’t play the instrument in a punk band.
“I’m from Spencer, Mass,” he said. “No one out there wants to play punk. So I have to do everything myself.”
“Well what about your other band, Fitchburg Punx?” I inquired. “Why haven’t you guys been doing shows or recording?”
“It’s tough to practice. I have to take a bus out to Fitchburg from Spencer and it gets expensive. I work at a super market. It’s decent work but only enough to pay the bills. It’s tough saving money up, so I just stick with the solo stuff.”
That quote hit home with me. A sudden euphoria rapidly swam through my body. I felt like hugging Marko, skipping down the street in joy, and high fiving the nearest stranger.
Marko, I realized, had taught me the true meaning of why people make art.
Not everyone has circumstances that allow them to be creative. Great painters are sometimes poor and can’t afford top-notch materials. Dynamic singers don’t always find backing musicians of similar talent. Awesome film directors sometimes work with $500 budgets.
In Marko’s case, circumstances were heavily against his making music. A dead-end job didn’t allow him to record professionally (the songs he did for Marko and the Bruisers were recorded into a small, cheap device then uploaded to his computer). A lack of musicians in his hometown prevented him from forming a band. And a putrid guitar stopped him from sounding professional.
But Marko just didn’t care.
Didn’t care that his job had crappy pay. Didn’t care that he couldn’t even find another kid to jam with. Didn’t care that his guitar was the sucky Wal-Mart $30 special. He stuck his middle finger up to the world and said, “I’m going to make punk music no matter what because it’s what I love.”
And that, my friends, is art.
When the chips are down and the world seems likes it’s trying to squash you, fight back. Do what you love. Sometimes the only person stopping you from what you want to do is you yourself. You’d be amazed at what you can create when you try.
Marko could easily go on with his life and just accept the fact that he’ll probably never be touring the world with a kickass band. Yet he carries on, writing songs, playing any show that’s offered to him, and having fun. All the while, he’s inspired this writer to take a chance by leaving every publication I’ve written for to start my own blog.
Art does not need to coincide with talent to be beautiful; it only requires passion.