Diary of a Mad Composer
In 1964, Dizzy Gillespie ran for president as a write-in candidate. The campaign wasn't serious, and I have no opinion on Gillespie's ability to administer the executive branch and America's laws—although I am intrigued by the idea of Miles Davis as the CIA director and Malcolm X as Attorney General—but the idea has been simmering in my head since I first found out about this, in my teenage years.
Since earlier this century, especially during the 2008 election campaign, I’ve been thinking about it more seriously. I remember feeling buffeted by frustration, on one side getting calls from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, asking for money, while Democratic Senators did nothing for those exploited by banks and harmed by the great recession underway; while on the other, the prestige political press was calcifying the theatrical criticism approach that had already had them tackling such salient policy topics as how many times Al Gore sighed or the nature of Teresa Heinz Kerry's accent (some kind of dress rehearsal for the chin-stroking over “but her emails”). Everything was so stupid, so infuriating, and the smuggest and shallowest thinking was presented as the heights of professional skill. It wasn't just the self-regard of journalists and politicians, it was the clear sense that they were so much more important than you and I, and how dare we question them.
I looked at the ease and laziness politicians and political writers had—one group “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” the other dutifully transcribing, each occasionally picking up a phone—and thought about how hard it was to be a musician and how much organization, patience, and administrative and logistical skills it took just to survive. I mean musicians in bands, rock or pop or jazz or hip-hop or reggae, small ones that are outside the grant-supported institutions of the various art musics, those too small to earn anything meaningful from streaming or record sales. These musicians are responsible for arranging transportation and booking venues for tours, making and promoting merchandise, dealing with rehearsal spaces and schedules—and the schedules of all the musicians they work with, who also have to manage their own schedules; when are they in studios and with whom, working on their own projects, on the road. It’s maddening and exhausting and takes an ability to organize not just complex tasks but complicated processes, human relationships, financial discipline (not even including tax time, which is a whole other complication), and by the way you need to find time to practice, too. And do you teach?
Managing your own infrastructure as a musician is hard; managing that for a band—and paying the band—is even harder. To even be in a position to have this be worth the effort means you're skilled enough at music that you're getting work. In other words, you’re good, and being good, your life becomes much harder.
The pandemic, the way it is right now, makes this difficulty more acute, and also more important. The coronavirus is still rampant, cases are spreading once again, and the governing infrastructure of society has clearly decided that it just can’t deal anymore. From Mayor Eric Adams serving his two main constituencies, club-goers and cops, to the CDC and the rest of the Biden administration, our governing institutions have determined there are more important things to deal with like, putting metal detectors in subways stations (what the fuck?) and finding those Republicans who truly believe in bipartisanship and democracy (what the actual ever-loving fuck?).
Meanwhile, it’s musicians who are left to be the canaries in the coal mine. Tours and festivals have started again, and just as quickly are getting curtailed. Everyone from John Mayer to Haley Fohr have had to come off of touring because of COVID, musicians are all over social media begging fans and concertgoers to please, please wear masks so that the band themselves can make it safely and successfully through their tours. And they need to tour, not just because they want to play but it’s the one way that musicians can still make money. A stream may pay a fraction of a cent, but a ticket is still a ticket.
In 2022, both capitalism and government, in general, are fundamentally hostile to the human condition, and the prevailing attitude is that anyone below the professional and social circle of the White House, the state house, and the C-suite is just a nuisance and should be ignored. And that’s what’s happening, we’re being ignored. But if you’re going out to see a musician play, you’re there to pay attention to them, so listen when they ask you, please, to think of the strangers around you. Because if anyone can manage their way out of a pandemic, it’s a musician. Think of them next time you’re in the voting booth.