Cover Bands: How I Joined One, And Survived To Tell About It

I can't believe I joined a rock cover band

A few months ago I joined a rock cover band. Didn't really mean to, but sometimes I'm clueless. I got a call - did I want to play guitar in a rock and roll band? Sure, why not? It's been awhile since my last really get down and kick it rock gig - hardly anything more fun than having a couple beers, plug some pedals into a loud amp, turn it all up, and groove. Trouble is, I had no idea just how much fun it would turn out to be.

"You can't sing worth a shit!"

At the first couple of rehearsals, Barbara, the keyboard player played and sang well, and got down to business. By the third rehearsal, her behavior became erratic, playing only in a kind of loungey piano style, and sang random harmonies with ever shifting intervals. I should mention here that pot has only recently been legalized here in Oregon, and copious amounts of cannabis were being consumed by some members of the band, Barbara included; I'll get back to that later.

At the fourth weekly practice session, Barbara started going into a no-dead-air mode; between songs, she would keep playing whatever song we had been working on, singing loudly in a Bill Murray kind of voice. After we had run through a song with a lot of harmonies, she started yelling, at high volume over the PA system, "Jim! (that's me, by the way) You can't sing worth a shit! Jack! You're singing way too fucking loud! Don't you know the concept of background vocals?!? Jeez, I can't hear myself think!!"

We took a break, went outside, and a lot more smokey weed was smoked. Barbara also quickly downed a couple bottles of beer out of the studio fridge, and when we went back inside to practice, she stared off into space for awhile, then quietly announced she had an important appointment, and packed up and left. We never saw Barbara again.

The Robot Backup Singer and the Karaoke Cowboy

The band's primary singer, Jack, hasn't had much live music experience; he practices singing along to downloaded karaoke tracks, and I guess that's his comfort zone. Our first couple of rehearsals involved all of us playing along to prerecorded mp3s. Maybe that's how it's done in the 21st century. Jack is currently a member of four different bands; what those groups all have in common are Jack, the karaoke tracks, and his song book. After flipping through that book, I ask - are we doing any original tunes? "Nah, Mark (Jack's best friend, and the bass player in the band) doesn't want to do originals - it's too much like doing real work."

At rehearsal, everyone but me is sitting down. Jack, having memorized no lyrics, intently studies his song book as he sings. Mark is on a low chair close to the floor, his pipe and lighter on a stool close at hand. Ronnie the drummer is of course on his throne. And Barbara is on another stool, a lot higher than Mark. Well, maybe they're equally high. Uh, I ask - when we play out, am I going to be the only one standing? Jack says, "Is that a problem?" Mark and Jack look at each other; "If it makes you feel any better, you can sit down, too." This doesn't quite seem like rock and roll anymore; is this how it feels to get old?

Jack's pedal board includes a digital vocal effects processor; it's got pitch correction, voice altering capabilities, effects, and a harmony generator. Jack affectionately named his digital box "Buffy", and Buffy makes occasional personal appearances during the set, as a robot female backup singer. Very eerie, very strange, especially after feeling second hand effects from the thick clouds of MaryJoWanna smoke drifting through the studio. Suddenly, a disembodied other-worldly alien female voice comes shrieking through the fog! My first instinctive impulse is to run away.

Whoa, that's some powerful weed, man...

I've already mentioned the copious cumulonimbus clouds of mind altering smoke wafting hallucinogenically through the rehearsal studio. Here's a curious thing: after the first initial effects of inhaling all that second-hand smoke - feeling light headed, a bit queasy - I started really getting into playing those boring '80s Top 40 cover songs. Great, feels like I'm floating over the music, and solos are especially intense. Never mind that I feel sluggish and stupid for days after every rehearsal. "Oh, you're back from band practice - how did it go?" "Huh? What? Where?"

On a break, in the "smoking section", a picnic bench outside with a couple ashtrays on it, Mark was having fun messing with me. "Come on, Jim, get in the spirit, have a toke, man!" Okay, okay... I'll accept the peace pipe. First drag, I start coughing, a lot - wasted the hit. I immediately inhale another deep one, and after passing the pipe on, I feel a cough coming on again. Doing a Zen meditation thing, I mentally will myself to stop coughing, and hold the smoke in for as long as I can, to get the max effect. Feeling slightly dizzy, I feel like I want to walk around a bit, enjoy the sunshine among the trees around Ronnie's countryside studio. I stand up, and immediately pass out.

When I come to, I'm flat on my back, looking at the sky, and everyone else is standing around, staring down at me. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, my ears are ringing and my head hurts, my glasses aren't on my head anymore. "Hey, you okay, dude?" Whoa, that's some powerful weed. What was that anyway? "It's called Blue Ruin, man."

The name of the band, by the way, is "The High Guys".

"Just play the gawd dam riff"

After getting over my initial hesitance about doing covers, I learned a couple songs, and brought them to rehearsal. "White Room" came off well - Ronnie, a really great drummer, jumped right in with the 5/4 Ginger Baker drum stuff in the intro, and it was fun for me to do the viola parts on distortion laden guitar, as well as the long wah-wah solo. Good practice for me, as well, to sing and play a fairly complex song, simultaneously, without messing up big time. I can't walk and chew gum at the same time, but luckily, it turned out okay.

"Cinnamon Girl" was another story. Mark actually stopped me in the middle of the song - "You're playing the wrong chords!" Oh, sorry - which chords are wrong? "You're supposed to do the C again before you go back to the D, in the bridge." Maybe I'm doing my own version. "Yeah, but that's not how the song goes, man - do it right!" Well, that's how I play it, and maybe I can give everyone a chord chart. "Either do the song right, or don't bother doing it!" Whoa.

Mark wasn't very happy when I did slide guitar lines in his cover of the Dire Straits tune "Sultans Of Swing" - "There's no slide guitar in that song!" I thought it would sound great with some. "It doesn't matter what you think, that's not how the song goes!" On another one of his songs, there's a tiny lick, a flatted seventh with a quarter tone bend, after a strange 3/16 rest. Mark insisted that he couldn't start his vocal unless that micro-lick was in exactly the right place. After running through that stretch of the song more than twenty times, I said - does it have to be so exact, does it really matter, this is just a cover band. "Just fucking play the gawd dam riff!"

Mark, it turns out, was a Strict Rock Fundamentalist, and his best friend Jack is probably a Middle Aged Musical Role-Player. Some people might say that Mark was also a bitter, curmudgeonly old coot, but hey - nobody's perfect, least of all me. I'm starting to realize I was only looking to have a bit of fun playing music, and sorry, but I just can't get serious about, or be very interested in old top 40 cover tunes.

Do what you like, and like what you do

I know some of the stuff I encountered with the High Guys cover band sounds bizarre or unbelievable, but as Dave Barry likes to say - I swear, I'm not making any of this up, honest. Maybe I should have worn my other, less beat up pair of glasses, or tilted my head sideways - things might have been clearer or made more sense. That seems to work for dogs. The head tilting part, not the glasses. Or maybe, since it's legal now, I should have just gotten high, and stayed high.

A long time ago a college freshman advisor told me that whatever we do, it should either pay a whole lot of money, or be a whole lot of fun. And if it did both, that was the next best thing to paradise. Since I wasn't having a ton of fun with The High Guys, or making any cash, you can guess how this story turned out. Sometimes, though, I kind of miss those guys - high or not, there was never a dull moment hanging around with a bunch of real characters. And their robot backup singers.

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Next time on the Origami Night Lamp blog, "Doing Covers The Right Way, And Having Fun Doing It".

Also, Part 1 of this series, "It's Only Rock And Roll, But Maybe Not".