Apart from the odd gig here and there I've never been a sideman but that's all changed now - I've just finished a ten date UK tour playing bass and guitar for my wife, Amy Rigby. Originally I offered to come over and drive her around as she's not confident about driving on the other side of the road and on the other side of the car and has limited experience of cars with manual gearboxes. I rather fancied myself in the role of Parker, Lady Penelope's chauffeur in Thunderbirds, I got myself all togged up in a grey suit, silk scarf, peaked cap and kid gloves. It was lost on Amy - she'd never heard of Thunderbirds until Lindsay Hutton spotted the resemblance up in Scotland and we subjected her to a classic episode involving The Shadows.
She said of course I'd have to play on a few songs. It made sense - we've always had fun touring together, and we'd just done a run of shows in the US as a three piece with Doug Wygal on drums and me on bass, so I knew the tunes.
It's been interesting - there's a whole world of paranoia and malcontentment hitherto unknown to me. I've gained a new perspective, an understanding of what makes the hired gun tick and why they can be such a drag to work with.
There's very little responsibility - I soon learned that if anyone asks you a question the answer is I don't know, which mutates into don't ask me, I'm only the bass player. A certain sulkiness sets in - you're not the star of the show and ideally no one's going to notice you or even remember you were there, lurking in the shadows, plucking out random bass notes. The star of the show turns and asks - can you play on this song now? and you say 'Mmm hmm, I can do that' with a tacit I can play anything you like as long as you're paying me.
You hang around before the show. The star is edgy, concentrating, preparing herself. All you have to do is walk out, pick up the bass and play it. You don't even have to get change - not much sweat involved out there in the shadows. So you leave in the same clothes you were wearing when you walked in.
There's not much to do so you stay out of the way of the star and chat with whoever happens to be around. The affable sideman. This must be the root of the oft-told story - the band were really nice, a great bunch of blokes, but she/he was a stuck-up cow/bastard.
It's obvious to me now that dressing rooms are furnished with cans of beers in an attempt to keep the band from cluttering up the bar before the show. I don't drink but I still found myself doing a fair amount of pre-show bar cluttering. It's not good for the mystique. The alternative is to sit and wait in the cramped backstage with the crampy star of the show. I understand now just how this tedium can lead to the drawing of a penis on the dressing room wall. Not that I ever succumbed to this activity. I understand though - this is the kind of existence that could turn a man into a moron.
To counteract the moron effect, sidemen have lame discussions about Proust, the Middle East, the latest Scorsese film... this often degenerates into an inquiry into the state of the drummers bowels or the lead guitar player's latest sexual conquest. And then it's back to drawing penises.
The set list arrives - she's taken out the one with the good bass line, my moment in the spotlight. A gentle enquiry: Er, you're not doing this one tonight...?
'No' comes the terse reply, 'not feeling it'
Self doubt creeps in:
Is it my fault?
Am I not playing well enough?
What am doing here?
Am I adding anything to this?
They're loving her and wondering why the hell I'm here. Last night, just last night a guy was telling her how great it is that she's doing a solo show. A SOLO show. Everybody loves her. No one ever mentions my bass playing.
There's a reason for that...
It's worse when there's a band and you don't know them very well:
The rest of the band think I'm crap. They think I'm only here because I'm married to the star...
The audience are obviously thinking exactly the same...
And the more it goes like this the worse the playing gets.
It wasn't at all bad in actual fact. Amy and I have toured and played together for years and we're well aware of each others insecurities and idiosyncrasies. We also know that whatever we're doing, whether we're playing together as Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, or she's backing me, or I'm backing her, we're on the same team. We make mistakes, amps get turned up too loud, then turned down too quiet, we play wrong chords, forget bits, but we never give each other a hard time about these things. We help each other through - that's what bands are supposed to do.
I was still surprised after one show on this tour when she told me that she'd felt convinced in the middle of the set that most of the audience were there because they'd heard I was playing. If that had been the case, and I'm sure it wasn't, she would have completely eclipsed me with her performance anyway.
She played some of the songs alone, and as there was no backstage at a lot of the venues I had to figure out somewhere to be. I didn't want to stand around cluttering the place up and diverting attention away from Amy, and neither did I want to step off the stage into the audience and risk having someone try and engage me in conversation, so I came up with the solution of sitting on a chair to the side of the stage and calmly listening.
It was a great place to be. Listening intently, enjoying every moment, and ready to spring up and get to work on the guitar or bass (with just that hint of sideman begrudgement of course...) It worked well, but towards the end of the tour I was complimented on my listening pose, and on the second to last night someone in the audience commented loudly when I took my scarf off as I sat there between songs:
'He's just taken his scarf off!'
I was getting too good at it.
And every night when she got to the line in Cynically Yours - and plus you claim to love my ass... I tried not to nod my head too enthusiastically. A sideman must remain a gentleman at all times.
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