Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Climb

Saint Bowie - The Royalty (mp3)

Outside looking in The LongBranch Saloon
in Knoxville, Tennessee
How many nights did the Beatles play to an audience so thin or inattentive that their notes bounced off the walls, numbers so sparse that their own shadows were added to the attendance totals?

David Bowie's first years as an aspiring musician were a mix between depressing and comical, the kind of performance art that begs mockery.

Jon Bon Jovi’s first-ever recorded singing gig? “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

The first chapters of music success are littered with stories of barely making it. A band grinds out one performance after another for a handful of listeners. They get back in their van, travel hours to the next locale, and do it again. Applause comes in smatterings, not waves. The questions gets mumbled or pondered internally: What the f*#k are we doing? Is this going to work out for us?

Most times, the answers to those haunting questions don’t include Disney endings. Many more music failures than successes begin with this chapter and usually end there as well.

Jesus Apodaca sat on a balcony overlooking Knoxville’s Cumberland Avenue. In four months, even with UT’s shitty football team, the road will be flooded with human bodies and cars. Tailgating season will be in full tilt, and orange will be everywhere. At the moment, however, the UTK campus is between spring semester and summer sessions. A dead zone. The streets are bare, dappled with puddles from an earlier rain, and too quiet.

Jesus is lead guitarist for The Royalty, a band whose album Lovers I gave high praise recently. They also got high praise (and a honkin’ big color picture) in The New York Times, the cherry on top of a growing pile of critical accolades for these up-and-comers. “One of the year's most unexpected and enjoyable rock records.”

They arrived in Knoxville around 7:30 p.m. via an 11-hour van ride from Philly. Two days ago they were in NYC. Norfolk was their next stop. And then back home to El Paso before driving out west for another stage of the tour.

Keyboardist Daniel Marin, lead singer
Nicole Boudreau, and guitarist Jesus Apodaca
For those with a GoogleMaps fetish, that five-day east coast jaunt adds up to over 3,200 miles. Some 50+ hours of driving. In five stops, they will be lucky to have notched one fan for every 20 miles they’ve journeyed.

We teacher-types get lots of sympathy, most of it deserved. Our profession is a “calling,” they say. The world is lucky to have us, because we’re willing to sacrifice personal glory and riches to educate and mentor the next generations, they say. But you know what? We’re salaried. So long as a teacher doesn’t do something expressly illegal or grossly immoral, we know there’s a regular paycheck coming in. It might not be a lot, but it’s a paycheck, and we can schedule our lives around it.

Most starting (starving) artists have no such luxury. They hit the road and hope for the best. Some nights might offer a guaranteed measly fee, others a rake of the gate and whatever schwag/merch they can shill. Top Ramen risks becoming a luxury.

Conservative types tend to claim that profit is the biggest motive, that without a financial incentive for greatness, greatness cannot be attained. This, dear reader, is bullshit. It’s dangerous, venomous bullshit that poisons the soul.

The greatness in us comes out because it wants to, because it needs to, because we can’t keep it in, like that alien in the doc’s chest. The Royalty might one day be millionaires, but that’s not what has them performing for a smattering of fans in the deadness of downtown Knoxville.

You don’t pick up a guitar to be a millionaire or a platinum-seller. You pick up a guitar because there’s something inside you, and you can’t help but think maybe this strange long-necked instrument might extract it.

Jesus Apodaca spoke of his love of Weezer. He spoke of his fear that “South By” (a.k.a. SXSW a.k.a. South By Southwest) has become something beyond its original intent and something more disillusioning and Disneyfied. He spoke of the band recording their first album at a studio in Juarez. And he spoke of what he most looks forward to.

“I’m just waiting for that first negative review from a legit source,” he said, although I’m probably paraphrasing just a bit. “When you’re out there enough that someone is willing to knock you down... that’s when we’ll know we’ve hit another level.”

Dance like no one's watching,
Sing like no one's listening,
Perform like it's not an option but a compulsion
One day the nation's second-largest paper is gushing for them; the next they're playing to crickets. Welcome to The Climb.

The Royalty puts on one helluva show even if just for a handful who know every song. The odds are against them filling arenas anytime soon, but that’s what they said about the Millennium Falcon successfully navigating an asteroid field, and we all know how that turned out.

If they can weather the tough, heartbreaking, confidence-shattering parts of this mostly thankless passion they must pursue, chasing their dreams in an old white van across the entire stretch of the U.S., they just might one day get that negative review.

No matter what happens, I know this: The Royalty would make Bowie proud.

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