Back in 1983 or ’84 I was on a gig with Tony Bennett at Harrah’s in Reno, a double bill with Nancy Wilson and her wonderful band with MD Michael Wolff, John B Williams and Roy McCurdy. (I had played some brunches at Fat Tuesday’s with Michael, so I knew him prior to this gig.)
Also on that gig with Tony were the late (and much-abused, but that’s another story) Ralph Sharon, and Joe LaBarbera. There were a lot of stories (some famous – “take all the minor chords out of the book!”) that came out of those days, but this is a personal one, about my own path.
John B Williams took me aside during that 2-week run and said “you can play your instrument, and you got a great groove…all you need is confidence.” WTF? was my reaction… I had a pretty high opinion of myself, felt pretty good about the work and my playing, so I didn’t really understand what he was talking about… but, that’s how the really great lessons sneak under the radar in life (if you’re willing to consider them!).
Tony Bennett was kind of unstable on stage, as those who have worked with him can attest. At first I thought maybe it was the shaky psychological atmosphere that prompted John B’s observation – you never knew what was going to happen on Tony’s bandstand, how he would react. He was prone to conspiracy-type interpretations of routine behavior and events, and tended toward borderline in his reaction patterns. Maybe my own judgment about what I was witnessing was reflected in my demeanor (I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings).
Or, maybe it was the way I was carrying myself, my physical posture, and how it affected my demeanor and the character I projected. Maybe it originated in my lack of physical strength, and the “grampa bod” I had from my early teens. I wasn’t ever in really good shape. I had never gotten physically strong enough, never had sufficient core strength or muscle tone to meet my full potential as a bassist, or in life in general.
There’s a saying in AA – “don’t compare your insides to other peoples’ outsides.” I’ve done that since childhood, becoming convinced others were gifted in ways I was not, in some magical way, that I was shortchanged somehow. It’s not that I didn’t have any talent or other natural gifts, but I didn’t seem to have the grace and energy reserve I saw in my idols. John B’s advice became confirmation of this. At least he was able to identify my “condition,” although I had no clue at first what he meant by “confidence,” or what to do about it.
Getting a good sound on the bass is taxing, requiring energy applied to the instrument. Applying energy over a period of time can be painful, no matter how good shape you’re in. Bass players can compensate for this a number of ways; many get fat, using the extra weight to apply energy into the instrument. Some work out, others self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I did all three to varying degrees over the course of my career. I’m not proud of it. Maintaining a workout routine can be very difficult given all the variability inherent in a musician’s life… Formation of good habits can be challenging. When you’re hurting, it’s easier to reach for the thing close at hand than to go back in time and make better habits that might have prevented the pain.
Last winter found me with another outbreak of disabling back pain – although this time, thanks to Barack Obama and New York State of Health, I went to the doctor. This started me on a path that included an orthopedist, MRI, lumbar epidural and a physical therapist. Before long, I became a regular at Global Fitness, a gym nearby.
For the first time in my life, at age 65, I’m developing core strength. I’m doing HIIT cardio and resistance. My body is changing, with core support I never had in my life before. It feels different to be me. Playing the bass is easier. Walking the earth is different. People respond to me differently. I’m not experiencing the sense of immediate rejection, devaluation, judgment or disrespect that seemed to be the way the world responded to me for most of my life.
It feels ironically bittersweet. By the time I learned what the true nature of my problem was, the real meaning of John B’s advice, it’s too late to redo my career. Although it wasn’t a complete disaster – music took me around the world, put me on the Tonight Show eight times, had me play for the Queen, work with some of the world’s greatest musicians – I will always wonder what it would have been like, what other opportunities I might have had if I’d known the “secret” years ago.
Answer – Your strength IS your character.
Something feels wrong? Time to get strong.