Labor Day gets me thinking about jobs I’ve had. Usually, my story is about people, events, adventures, etc., but all along the way, I’ve worked. Only recently have I realized that the day jobs, and the circumstances around them, tell a story of their own.
The following list of my paid gigs is not chronological, and probably not comprehensive, but here goes: babysitter, day laborer on construction site, set builder, dishwasher, drug store clerk, Christmas tree salesman, data entry guy, photocopier, fire escape painter, apartment cleaner, demolition man, bus boy, bar back, bartender, waiter (one day, was fired), doorman, Replay Jeans model, bass player, DJ, toy demonstrator at FAO Schwarz, arbitration of disputes/conflict resolution for toddlers, caterer, proofreader, guitar player, actor, singer, landlord/super, guitar/bass/ukulele instructor, teachers’ assistant for preschoolers, music teacher, child wrangler, editor, ghost writer, writer, program director. Some stick out in my mind more than others.
I recall babysitting for a call girl when I was twelve, the first time I ever got paid. Then there’s the summer of my sixteenth year, when I made enough working construction to qualify as the family breadwinner. (I bought a guitar and amp instead.) Most hallowed in memory, however, are the jobs that first allowed me to be completely on my own – working at The Grill and at Kinko’s in Athens, Georgia. I was nineteen. I made enough to feed myself and sublet a tin-ceilinged room in an antebellum house on Cobb Street for $100 a month. I owned a bass, an amp, some books, a crate of LPs, a few cassettes, penny loafers, a pair of Chuck Taylors, and wads of funky clothes. I had no bank account.
I’d moved from Atlanta to Athens ostensibly to attend UGA, but I was also playing in arty dance band Go Van Go, helmed by Athens legend, Vic Varney, a kind of father figure to me (one of several). I’d been living in a cottage outside town, rent and expenses paid by my mom, who’d recently sold the house in which my brother and I had grown up. Vic offered me a room in the house he rented. Although we made little more than gas money, the charismatic, willful Vic was confident Go Van Go would soon make enough cash to sustain all four band members. To hear him talk, this seemed a foregone conclusion. I dropped out of college and went looking for my first self-sustaining day job, an income source until Go Van Go was touring steadily. I would need this job, because dropping out of UGA meant no more money from home.
So be it. Regardless of how things would pan out with Go Van Go (I quit within a year), I was eager to sever ties with home, to be free. As my mom had been paying my tuition and other bills, I’d chafed. I knew I’d be poor once she cut me off (I was already on a tight budget), but I was also acutely aware of being nineteen. Perhaps because my father had died unexpectedly when I was seven, I perceived mortality more sharply than most of my peers; I retained – and retain – an often-overwhelming sense of life being finite. (I’m great fun at parties. Really.) I certainly thought about death every day. (“That’s not weird, is it?” I asked a psychiatrist. “Yes,” he said. “It kind of is.”)
Also, for the first time since age fourteen, I was single. Seeking a semblance of stability, I’d spent my sexually active, largely unsupervised teens in two serious relationships, the most recent being a kind of proto-marriage – my seventeen-year-old girlfriend and I essentially living together in her mom’s house. Not paying our own bills. That had ended dramatically – blood, drugs, psychiatric hospital, recriminations, intense guilt. The horror cured me of a desire to “get serious” with a girl for a while; it was in my rearview as I headed to Athens.
As all that was going down, a close friend my age was struggling with Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would soon kill him. He’d been buff, but the chemo made him look like a fragile old man. We’d spent long hours at the Waffle House, making plans that we both knew he would not be taking part in. Unlike me, he would get no chance to be free, finding his way on his own steam. I could barely process this consciously, but in hindsight, I see it working on me stealthily, adding more combustion to my engine.
I wanted to be as free as possible while the opportunity existed. Somehow I knew commitments would come soon enough. Part of me ached for them, longed for gravity, stability, and responsibility. But my executive control wanted freedom. Who was I in the absence of family and friends? And could I tweak myself if I needed to? Could I hack it without support? And if not, would loved ones remain in case I needed to come back to their embrace? One only gets so many chances to pose and answer these questions. But to make it all happen, to find the answers, I needed to earn my own money. So, while most of my friends began their college careers, into the workforce I jumped.
This chapter began somewhat ignominiously at The Grill, an Athens diner that still exists. I was a bus boy, clearing ketchup-smeared plates from frat boy tables, returning home stinking of grease and dishwater. The line cook was a mountain of man who called me Jimmy Dean because of my resemblance to the country singer/sausage magnate/nutjob.
“Hey you,” he said, every damn day. “Damn if you don’t look like Jimmy Dean. Imma call you Jimmy Dean. Hey Jimmy Dean, I need you to cut some more home fries. OK, Jimmy Dean?”
Pete Buck came in one day and I played “Eight Miles High” on the jukebox, desperate to impress him. (In the year I was in Athens, I rarely saw local heroes R.E.M.; they were almost always on the road, promoting their sophomore album, Reckoning.)
I soon moved on to Kinko’s, making Xeroxes for frats and bands, and going home smelling of toner. I took in about $100 a week, which, considering I rarely drank, didn’t do drugs, and didn’t eat a lot, was more than enough to live on. Athens was notoriously cheap, and I wondered at times if I’d be able to leave. (Quite a few of the friends I made are still there.) I wandered the streets at night, usually alone, my ears ringing from band practice or a gig, listening to the humming of the mill, the wind in the ancient oaks, the music rising from open windows, turntables spinning. I was unfettered, exhilarated to the point where these ordinary occurrences seemed thick with magic.
Despite the agreement that I’d be cut off if I quit school, one summer day Mom sent me a surprise check. I was getting ready to ride my bike to my job, and there on the threshold to my cluttered room was an envelope addressed to me in my mother’s familiar script. Inside sat a check for $100, the word “incidentals” written in the “memo” section. I knew immediately I wouldn’t cash it. My belly was full (with Kraft mac n’ cheese, probably), my rent was paid, my amp worked, I was on the Kinko’s schedule ‘til the end of the month, and I had fresh strings on my bass. I may or may not have had clean laundry. In any case, I was set.
The ability to say no gave me a sense of pleasant vertigo. I’m grown-up now. I sent the check back with a sweet note in which I posited maybe Mom was feeling remorseful about being absent when my brother and I were younger. “Don’t feel bad,” I wrote. “You did fine. I’m having a great time playing in a rock band and paying my own bills. I love you.”
Nevertheless, she re-sent it to me. “I think I did OK with you guys,” she wrote in a note. “I just thought you could use some help.”
I could’ve used some help, yes. But I chose not to accept it. Would it have exhibited more grace to accept? Maybe, but grace was not my strong suit at nineteen. Yes, I could’ve used that money to put gas in my Plymouth Duster, or I could’ve bought several sets of bass strings (they’re expensive) or paid for my groceries for a month, or even donated it to a local charity. But I put the check in one of my many ill-arranged storage places – a bag, a trunk, a basket – and it vanished. In years to come, when I would be in severe straits in New York City, I would dream of that check. But at the time, in the summer of ’84, I relished a sense of wealth I would only know for a couple years.
It would come to pass that I would leave Athens and heed the siren call of New York City. I’d first visited with a touring band in 1983. Go Van Go made the journey in ’84, opening for The Cult at Danceteria, and headlining the Peppermint Lounge. We walked to Chinatown after a gig, which may as well have been Oz to me. My former acting teacher and his NYU-attending girlfriend – like me, a former student – were living in a one bedroom in Chelsea, and they offered me a corner of their living room, for which I would pay more than three times what I paid for the room on Cobb St. This situation would devolve into a drama – not because of money, because of lust – but it was an invitation to come live in Manhattan, a place I was in love with. After spending December ’84 selling Christmas trees, I headed north, and into the breach.
Paying my way in Athens had given me courage. I reckoned I could do the same in New York, and I did, fitfully so. Lucky for me, I arrived in February of 1985, an era when one could still be poor in New York and enjoy a pretty good quality of life. I registered with a temp agency and earned five bucks an hour at various mind-numbing activities while I couch-surfed. (I’d been kicked out of the Chelsea digs before the first day of spring.) I worked at a twenty-four-hour copy store where I made copies for Israel Horovitz, dad of the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, and Tama Janowitz. I soon found my way into bar jobs in the East Village. I scored an illegal sublet on Avenue B for $600 a month, and that effectively kept me in the city. I was fortunate in many ways.
Most of the time I was OK with being a working stiff. Especially in those early years. I opened a bank account and watched my balance grow on the ATM screen. Those numbers meant I was beholden to no one for the means by which I would continue to carve out a life. I used those funds to travel solo to Europe, to help a friend open a studio, to record my music, to buy extravagant gifts, to play what we called “cassette roulette,” recording untold amounts of songs and hoping for the holy grail of a deal. All the while, I did what I could to make the money.
From the bars – specifically King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut – I met and then joined the Fleshtones. This was my first working, salaried money gig playing music; it delivered me from making cocktails to rocking stages around the world with the best live band I’ve ever been in. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all fun, not by a long shot, and I quit after two years. I ended up back at King Tut’s for a spell, and, to my amazement, I was happy to be there.
Soon enough I crossed paths with people who didn’t need to work. New York City teems with trustafarians and/or those who’ve married them. Sometimes this was hard for me: “I’m making a movie about the homeless!” says the kid who lives alone on the Upper East Side but somehow has no job. “I will pay you $200 to play bass on my [completely awful] demo tape!” says the rocker guy with the cocaine problem who also has no job. “You can’t cut me off, I am not druuunk. Here’s 50 bucks. Gimmie a fucking kamikaze!” says the jobless girl in the Trash & Vaudeville tights accessorized with a Prada bag.
Where did their money come from? It was, and is, verboten to discuss it (I guess) so no one ever said: “My dad invented this thing that’s in the motherboard of every computer, so I’m set for life,” or “I’m related to Jay Gould, 19th century railroad magnate and scalawag.” Just once, I would have liked to get the lowdown, even if it upset me, which it would’ve. But I would’ve gotten over it.
I dropped my bar rag again when my dear friend Luis and I scored a plum gig playing with ex-Jesus & Mary Chain John Moore, me on bass, Luis on second guitar. John had a record deal with Polygram, and a budget for a band. Sadly, Luis and John had a falling out, and Luis stormed out of rehearsal, saying, amid many fuck yous, he’d rather clean toilets. I begged him to stay, reminding him we were getting paid (not a princely sum, but still) to play music. And I loved hanging out with him; our friendship was blossoming. But he refused, stalked out with raging grace, and returned to construction. (He went on to become a filmmaker.) In a few months, I had my own falling out with John, and I took a job at SoHo bar/restaurant The Cupping Room. As ever, when not serving up alcohol, I pursued my own creative endeavors.
The Cupping Room was the most multicultural place I ever worked, owned by a man from Yemen and his American Jewish wife. I tended bar among Muslims, Israelis, Hindus, Christians, agnostics and atheists, black, white, Latino, gay, straight, bi, etc. We all watched Operation Desert Storm play out on the TV above the bar, including the bombing of Tel Aviv. To my amazement, no inter-faith friendships were affected. They considered themselves New Yorkers above all else and everyone, to a person, knew the war was bullshit.
I worked there for two years, during which time I auditioned for acting work and occasionally got some. I scored the lead in the UK production of Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, and quit bartending again, for three years this time. But in 1997, I returned. I presided over Truckstop Tuesdays at the just-opened Beauty Bar on East 14th Street, and this was actually a very fun gig. During this time I wrote songs, recorded my debut CD (which did well, and led to more remunerative songwriting work) and became a dad. When we moved to the Catskills in 2002, I left the bars for good. And no, I don’t miss them.
I ended up working in my son’s preschool. This was also a surprisingly cool gig, for which bartending was a great prerequisite, as tiny children behave very much like drunken adults. My children’s music persona Uncle Rock was born here. I actually do miss working with kids full time.
Going back to the non-creative workforce after Living the Dream was not, and is not, romantic. But it doesn’t always suck. It is, for worse and for better, a facet of my life that, by default, informs who I am. My peers who have traversed this road – i.e. artists with day jobs – will say the same. For some, the day job turns into the life gig, and it’s serendipitous. All of it contributes to who we are, and we are alive and well. Well, some of us are. The lucky ones.
As a kid, I dreamed the dream of creative work so valued, I would need only do that to pay my bills, to see the world, to raise a family. The beginning of the Led Zeppelin concert movie The Song Remains the Same – which I saw countless times as a daydreaming kid – features vignettes of the band members at home with their families (except Jimmy Page, who’s in the woods summoning Satan… or something) living bucolic English Countryside Lives until word comes that a tour is on, activity for which they will earn more than enough cash to continue their rock star lifestyles, to feed the kids, replace the cobbles in the driveway. None of them will be heading home from said tour to proofread, tend bar, or teach. Of course those vignettes are contrived, but still, they sort of ruined me. For a time.
But now I see how my jobs – whether day jobs or sweet gigs – are all part of the package, part of my story, an ongoing narrative of labor and dreams, of times when I reap substantial rewards from my passions, and times when I toil in activity designed to simply keep the lights on, or to finance someone else’s pursuits. To my surprise, both good and bad memories accompany each of those situations. Had someone told me, circa 1984, that it would play out thus, that it could play out thus, I would neither have listened nor believed. But no one did, and I am glad.