Dry Wit

Stepping back onstage without drunken antics

Illustration by Kait Evinger

I can't remember a time when playing music wasn't a part of my life, but it became more public when I joined a band at 15. That's also when I started drinking.

As soon as I learned that stage nerves were inevitable, I figured out that I could just bypass all of that with liquor.

I loved music, but I loved the performing the most. Over the 13-odd years I played in bands, I pretty much stopped playing (aka practicing) at home, and I'd resign myself to band practice. But on stage, I'd push myself to the limit almost every time.

The way those familiar songs exploded out of us on stage thrilled me to no end. I loved watching my bandmates come alive under the stage lights, and split my time between grinning at them and staring hard into the audience, daring them to return our challenge. I drank anything that was dropped in front of me.

Every show was a test. Could I play any faster or harder? What other silly antics could I pull off while swinging my bass around and keeping time?

If I ever played sober, I've deliberately forgotten it. In retrospect, I can't truly sort out which parts of those experiences were pure wonder and what was just drunken glee. And before I got sober, I quit rock ’n’ roll.

I actually said that I quit music, but that was a half-truth. For a while after quitting drinking, I'd still go out to shows, but my idea of an awesome Saturday night slowly shifted to just me and my guitar, learning sad country songs to play for my cats. I messed around on an old vintage organ, then I added a ukulele to the mix.

At times I missed my badass onstage persona, but I couldn't scrape up any part of me that wanted to get wild just for the sake of being wild, for the sake of a good time, an epic show, an impressive story the next day. Musically, I'd always tried to be brighter, harder, faster, stronger, and that reflected in the rest of my life. 

My quest to soften up, to get un-tough, wouldn't be complete if I didn't play it out in song as well. Slowly but steadily, I ventured out of my kitchen and played music for audiences that were not entirely cats.

In the fall, I teamed up with an old friend to play some songs at a house party. Before I played for a larger crowd, I had to play for her. Even though I was in the comfort of my own kitchen I was terrified. Outwardly, I kept my composure, but after three songs, my shirt was soaked through in my own sweat.

I'd gotten so used to playing alone that when she first added in her harmonies, I lost my place. To hear two voices weaving together like that was entirely new to me. 

I remembered the awe I'd felt looking around at my bandmates, noticing their skill, hearing and seeing our offerings of sound crashing together and creating something entirely new. It was the same feeling, just stripped down, dialled back a bit.

That first "show" was beautiful and wonderful and scary. We played in a backyard cabana lit with candles and Christmas lights on a warm September night, and the "audience" was small but attentive and kind.

After the first few songs, I found that the nerves just became a low-level hum, kind of like that jerk in the front row who's talking loudly to his buddy through the whole set. That I could handle. I was mildly emboldened.

My second venture was solo, just me and my ukulele at an open mic night at the Strong Badger Coffee House. Here I found not just nerves, but relentless waves of pure fear. I opened my mouth and didn't recognize my own voice. Everything felt thin and tinny, both sped up and impossibly slow all at once.

Every little detail threw me off. Ukulele a little out of tune? Just stop the song. How about making eye contact with people? Sure, throw another log onto the terror fire. Move a bit, really, anything other than sitting rigidly and staring into the middle distance? That was completely out of the question.

A shorter performance left no room for the nerves to subside to that quieter presence, to find a groove. I stepped on and off the stage-corner flooded with adrenaline, and not in the way I had hoped.

I've been reassured that this performance was nowhere near as terrible as I had ranked it internally. But it was definitely humbling. After I sat down, my self-imposed trial concluded for the night, I was able to listen and really appreciate all the other folks who were playing and to feel the warmth in that small, full room.

This wasn't about performance. It was about sharing a piece of something you love with others who might appreciate it. It was about stepping into vulnerability for 12-15 minutes and then offering up an attentive ear to others doing the same. It wasn't about putting on an awesome performance, no, this was all for the love of music.

These little expeditions revealed which skills I still had, and which I'd have to rediscover and rebuild in a sober mind space. Building up a higher level of comfort playing for others, along with the ability to brush off little missteps or malfunctions, all come with time. As a musician, it seems I'm young again.

Anastasia Chipelski is the Managing Editor of The Uniter and has no regrets about trading in badass for twee. Two out of two cats don’t mind the change either.

Published in Volume 71, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 19, 2017)

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