23 October 2021 -- Stage Fright

I never wanted to be the front man in a band. I never wanted to be the lead guitar player either. What I wanted was to be the rhythm guitar player and sing harmony vocals while standing over in the shadows, away from the spotlight. And yet, oddly enough, in the last two bands I was in I was both the front man *and* the lead guitar player. And now it’s just me all alone out there, the constant center of attention with no down time whatsoever and only an empty wooden box to shield me from the audience, which is pretty amazing when I consider how bad my stage fright used to be. 

I was never a theater kid, although I did have a lead role in an elementary school play about Martians, as I remember. I was very proud of the Martian costume I fashioned out of a football helmet, aluminum foil, and wire coat hangers for the antennae. And in 8th grade I did earn a part in a production of The Me Nobody Knows at my school, which involved both singing and dancing in front of auditoria full of my schoolmates — and catching significant shit from older kids who went out of their way to make me pay for my audacity to try to be artistic — which is sadly how teenagers can be and probably why I never did become a theater kid. 

Even so, I had l plenty of experience of being in the spotlight, so to speak — of having to perform well under pressure in very public ways — through sports. I played baseball and basketball competitively, and even pony league football, where I somehow got chosen to play quarterback one season, a hyper-visible position involved in the success or failure of every single play. And when I moved over to cross-country and track full-time as a freshman, running three seasons a year, I was quickly recruited to run on relay teams with the juniors and seniors, where I stood out at track meets as a scrawny but crazy-fast kid among young men, a bit of a freak, really, which I wore as badge of honor. 

And as I discuss in an earlier post on this blog, I was both a class speaker and played lead guitar in a band at my high school graduation, and both high-pressure performances came off quite well. 

So where did my stage fright come from?  

I think almost all of it can be traced to single unfortunate event, my ill-fated attempt to play at the Ratskellar in the Student Union at the State University of New York at Stony Brook when I was an undergrad there. The Rat was a dark and rundown space in the basement of the union — sticky tables, ripped vinyl on the chairs, literally painted black — where you could buy wine and beer, bagels, and the like. It had a tiny little stage and no sound system, but the managers would let folks play for free if they felt like it. So one day I tried it, along with George Biderman, my friend and colleague from the student newspaper. The problem was that I did *everything* at that time drunk and/or stoned, and I did it all -- classes, exams, papers, working at the newspaper, working as steakhouse cook — fairly well, actually. At least my teachers and bosses kept giving me good grades. So I mistakenly thought I could play live music drunk/stoned, too, which is how I tried to do it. 

At first things went well. George and I played some songs together. George played some solo stuff. I played some solo things. The small audience there was engaged and appreciative and I was having a good time, too. But then I tried to sing “American Pie” by Don McLean, an 8.5 minute song with six LONG verses (which I can see now was *obviously* a bad idea, under any circumstances). And somewhere in the middle of the song, I completely blanked on the lyrics, just utterly forgot them. Gone. But the audience, who had been singing along quite happily, did NOT forget the lyrics, and were pretty unhappy that I had, and let me know about it. There were boos. A quintessential “deer in the headlights” moment with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. There was no way to limp my way out of the song, let alone the rest of the set, so I simply stopped playing, stepped off the tiny stage, packed up, and left without looking up, truly mortified. Knowing that George both felt sorry for me and was embarrassed to be associated with me was by far the worst part, though. 

I have had a recurring dream my entire adult life in which I am in the wings, just about to join the action on stage to perform in a play, and I can’t remember any of my lines. Time heals *some* wounds, perhaps, but not all of them. 

After the debacle at the Rat, the mere thought of playing and singing live in public was enough to give me shaky hands, sweaty palms, and butterflies in my stomach — classic symptoms, right?  Those feelings were a real deterrent. There could be no pleasure, no joy in playing when I felt like that. So I didn’t. Playing by myself or with friends without an audience, just jamming, remained a good time, though, and I wasn’t ambitious enough musically to really want gigs anyway, so it all worked out for quite some time. That is, until I started wanting to play live again about 12 years ago when I was in a band called the Dustjackets with some friends from Virginia Tech. We were good, and my bandmates were kind and supportive people, but the mere thought of playing at a house party or one of the tiny venues in Blacksburg stressed me out something awful. It was pretty debilitating. 

At that time, though, I was still running in the occasional 10 K and 10 miler, and I realized something remarkable: as I would stand in a crowd of runners right before a race would begin, waiting for the starting gun to fire, I would have shaky hands, sweaty palms, and butterflies in my stomach. The physiology was exactly the same as my stage fright!  The same adrenaline was being pumped, and it was producing the same physical effects on me. But I wasn’t scared, wasn’t afraid of failing or even doing poorly. I wasn’t worried about being embarrassed. I just wanted to *go*!  I was stoked, psyched to get started, raring to just get on with it, to do this thing I love to do. 

And that’s when things shifted for me. I held on to that understanding that shaky hands, sweaty palms, and butterflies in my stomach were not a problem, but rather a welcome thing, a physical indication of my eagerness and excitement at the moment, an embodied sense of my willingness to just get out there and get started, a visceral knowledge that pleasure, even joy, were close at hand. The sensation was the same, remains the same. I have just learned to interpret it differently. Indeed, I now look for it, welcome it like an old friend. 

Let’s get this party started!