Most of my music career has had nothing to do with recording. It's been about playing live, mostly in a cover band. I've been doing that since 1989, more than twenty years. And I think that has now come to an end. Let me explain.
The first live performance I remember giving was on nylon-string guitar, to a group of senior citizens, I think at a music recital at a local church. It was organized through my elementary school, about 30 years ago. I was playing "Romanza," a well-known classical piece. And I forgot to tune my guitar beforehand. They applauded anyway, and I learned my lesson.
A few months later I played the same piece for a school talent contest. I remembered to tune this time, and I won the contest. But it was nerve-wracking. While I loved being in plays and skits, I found precision of live music performance a bit terrifying.
After I took my Grade 4 Royal Conservatory guitar exam in 1982, and then changed high schools, I quit guitar lessons, and stopped playing, and forgot everything, including how to read music. Every once in awhile I'd be startled by a string breaking inside the guitar case in my closet, but I never even bothered opening it.
I was inspired to take up music again at the end of 1987, when I discovered I could play drums half-decently without ever having tried it before. In 1988, my roommate Sebastien and I decided to form a band with our other roommates Alistair and Andrew, and my friend Ken. We'd all play instruments, and we'd all sing.
One day Sebastien and I went out with the agreement that I would buy a drum kit and he would buy an electric guitar. We got the cheapest, crappiest instruments we could find at pawn shops, and we were on our way.
The next lesson came when the bunch of us got paid for a show. But we didn't use our instruments, because it was a lip-sync contest at UBC. We were very silly and overblown, with costumes, makeup, props, a giant wall constructed of cardboard boxes (for a Pink Floyd song) and even some unauthorized flames (for our Alice Cooper impression). We won, and received $600. That was more than we'd get paid for a gig for quite a long time.
The lesson was that showmanship was important. Sometimes more important than musical skill or talent, especially when you're starting out and don't even know how to sing proper harmonies. You need to put on a damn show.
Our first real gig, in the spring of 1989, was at a year-end university party where we sounded great because the audience was really drunk. We played up the schtick, calling ourselves the Juan Valdez Memorial R&B Ensemble (though we played little R&B) and featuring Batman logos on our instruments and T-shirts, for no particular reason other than that we played the theme from the "Batman" TV show.
In some form or another, Sebastien and I have played in bands together on and off ever since, me on drums and him on guitar. We even tried it full-time for awhile in the mid-1990s, with a short-lived original act called The Flu we took as far as Australia, and cover bands with names like The Love Bugs, HourGlass, and The Neurotics to pay the bills. Sometimes we busked in downtown Vancouver for spare change. The direct rewards were a great way to learn what people liked, or at least what they'd pay for.
I left the band for a few years after I got married and had kids, but still guested when they needed a drummer in a pinch from time to time. I returned in the early 2000s when the gigs were more stable and better paying. We even got flown to New York City once for a single night's show in the fancy Sherry-Netherland Hotel.
The Neurotics, our long-running cover act, has had a rotating cast of musicians for years, but it's always been both about the songs—the classic hits people always respond to—and the show, including glittery jackets, wigs, fake British accents, improvised jokes, crazy stage-leaping, and intentionally mangled lyrics. This past decade, I can't think of a gig where I haven't laughed uncontrollably at least once at the antics of my bandmates, either onstage or in the dressing room between sets.
It's been so much fun that even after I found out I had colon cancer at the beginning of 2007, I tried to keep playing as much as I could. On Canada Day that summer, less than a week before my major surgery, and hopped up on morphine against the pain, I played drums and sang in the sun on the shores of Vancouver's Coal Harbour. Luckily our substitude drummer, Christian, was there on percussion, and could take over on the kit when I needed a break.
I didn't play again until the following February, having lost more than 60 pounds and then regained much of it. Once more, Christian and I spelled one another off, and I made it through. I kept playing through that year and the next, weaving around chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments, more surgery, side effects, and fatigue.
But it was getting harder. In 2009, I had to turn down more and more shows. Paul Garay invited me to fill in on drums with his new band Heist that July, for a long daytime outdoor pub booking. It was great, but setup, playing, and teardown exhausted me for days afterward. I had to refuse an offer for a two-night gig a few weeks later.
The Neurotics had two shows, at the end of September and beginning of October 2009, a week apart. Sebastien suggested that, for the first time in years, I try playing rhythm guitar with the band, in addition to drums and percussion alternating with Christian.
I spent a couple of weeks woodshedding to figure out chords to songs I'd played for decades, but always on drums, and we had one rehearsal, because there were other new people in the lineup. Always confident behind the kit or the mic, I was nervous with the guitar around my neck, but I got through.
The last show was on October 3, at a golf club in Tsawwassen, one of Vancouver's southernmost suburbs. I did okay. My drumming and singing were fine, and I didn't miss too many chords on guitar. But the two gigs, even days apart, wiped me out. I slept a lot over the next few days.
Since then, I've returned to a more aggressive chemotherapy schedule to try to combat the cancer that long ago spread to my lungs and chest. I'm often nauseated, immensely sleepy, and unreliable. I can't in good conscience say yes when Sebastien calls me about an upcoming gig, because I can't promise I'll even be able to show up.
So, unless my cancer improves and I can take less nasty treatments—which isn't all that likely—I've had to admit to myself that my time as a regularly gigging musician is probably over. Sure, I might appear as a guest from time to time with some of my old bandmates at the occasional show, for a song or two, maybe.
But I've had to look at my studio at home now and think of how to rearrange it. For at least ten years it's included drums and PA equipment, cymbals and mics and stands and cases, packed on shelves and in bags, ready to load into the car. I think I can take them down, and maybe set them up to play at home instead.
It's no longer a storage room and preparation space for my job as a player, but a space for me to practice music as a hobby, when I feel up to it. I think now I may as well make it work that way.
Like many things I've had to jettison as my health has declined, I regret the change. But it had to come eventually. Even if I could live to 95, I don't think I would ever be like Les Paul, gigging until weeks before his death of natural causes. But I also didn't burn out and die drunk in a hotel room on the road somewhere, like others have.
The choice to stop playing live has been forced on me, but at least I get to make it. And I still have music all around me.
Besides, if my kids ever want to start a band after all their years of piano and singing lessons, then the rehearsal space is right here. And they don't need to buy a thing. Plus, I can teach them about how to put on a damn show.