Playing Around

When I was younger I dreamed of being a rock star, but I've lowered my expectations. Now I'm in a band just for the love of it.

A few months ago one of the Texas Monthly interns, a perky blonde not much older than my college-sophomore stepdaughter, made my day. “Do you,” she asked, pausing shyly, “play in a band?” An ancient musician’s instinct kicked in, and I smiled hopefully. “Uh,” I said, “yeah.” She laughed with relief. “I thought so,” she said. And then she froze the smile on my face: “My dad used to see you play fifteen years ago.” Oh, that band, the one you never saw because you were learning how to read.

That band was the Wild Seeds, and I’ve just released a compilation from those days, the late eighties. I’m 44 now. I’ve been a professional writer for 23 years, but I’ve also been a musician for almost that long, playing in bands, touring, making records (big, round plastic things, little intern) and then CDs—seeking the Pure Rock Moment. For the longest time, though I never would have admitted it, I dreamed of being a rock star, albeit some version of an Austin rock star—dressed in flannel shirts, probably; unshaven, definitely. Sometime in the past decade that changed. Though I’m still unshaven and badly dressed, I play music for different reasons now.

Asked to explain myself, I sometimes go back to my senior year at the University of Texas at Austin, where I began writing about music for the Daily Texan and playing the guitar. I was a fan, and I didn’t see any distinction between writing about rock and roll and playing it. My favorite music was simple but passionate stuff like garage rock, soul, and punk. As I figured out, anyone can do it; that’s part of the promise of American music. So I did. The first band I played in that I took seriously was the Wild Seeds, and that was because I was writing most of the songs. We wrote songs to live—and to get free beer and the attention of cute girls. The Seeds put out one record and then another and another. Nobody has ever confused me with John Lennon, but the critics liked us and we got to tour everywhere. We even had a local hit, a piece of power-chord silliness called “I’m Sorry, I Can’t Rock You All Night Long.” The sentiment was fitting, because I remember thinking, “I won’t be doing this when I’m thirty-five. That would be embarrassing.”

The Wild Seeds broke up in 1989, but through the nineties I kept writing songs, starting bands, and making albums for small labels. None of my albums made any money, but they were getting released in Europe, where I toured often. I even spent my vacation last November driving around in a van through Germany, Switzerland, and Austria with my band, the Woodpeckers. We weren’t rock stars, but we played almost every night. We rocked Vienna. We killed ‘em in Berlin.

I still get angry at all the petty humiliations, like club owners’ not returning phone calls. They remind me that, although in theory I play “popular” music, my career has been anything but. At least I don’t get bitter anymore, not since I lowered my expectations. Some might say that’s the slacker way—the typical Austin musician’s embrace of failure. I prefer to think I gave up one dream and realized another. I’ve finally learned to write and play for the reason that has been there all along: Because I love music. It’s everything and nothing at all. It’s only rock and roll.

The Woodpeckers played a show at an Austin bar six days after the World Trade Center was destroyed. We talked about it beforehand—should we play? Yes, we decided, we needed to go back to our normal lives, to doing what we do. There were a couple of moments onstage that night when I found myself caught in the Pure Rock Moment with my bandmates, who are all friends. We were playing, with that seriousness of purpose we had some three or four decades ago on the jungle gym. Afterward we were all glad we had done the show: This is what we do. Though I for one can’t see myself doing it when I turn fifty. That would be embarrassing.

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