How I Become A God
I'm not a rock star, but I play a rock star. Whenever my small potatoes local bar band takes the stage, for 75 minutes I play the front man of the biggest rock and roll band in the world.
How hard to I rock? This is how hard I rock:
I can't guarantee that I'll melt your face off with the power of rock and roll, but I melt my own face off almost every time. This possibly explains why my face is starting to look like a pancake holding on to a cantaloupe for dear life.
If you're playing a rock star, the illusion you need to create for your audience is that you have have existed for all time on stage. If Jimmy Page is the Zeus of your rock pantheon, then you have to play Athena, sprung from his head fully formed. If David Bowie is more your type of deity, then you have to play some kind of creature he summoned through a dark ritual involving crystal balls and cod pieces. If you worship at the alter of Tom Waits, then you have to play an absinthe-induced hallucination in the seediest bar in New Orleans (even if you're in Duluth).
My point is, your own biography is irrelevant. Playing a rock god (or rock demi-god) means reinventing yourself every night as a supremely confident other-worldly being. While you're on stage, the whole audience needs to forget that you're their dentist during the day and believe that you are, in fact, Dionysus come to Earth to spread the religion of "party on, dude."
There are a few people who walk this Earth that were born performers - people who can walk on stage without any preparation or training and blow you away. The rest of us, however, need to observe certain standard rites before we're ready for the front lines.
Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers is a great example of a naturally gifted musician. Legend has it that he never practiced and that his warm-up routine for a show consisted of simply soaking his hands in a bowl of warm water. In essence he spent as much time preparing to play the piano as he spent researching accurate Italian accents.
I am not a naturally gifted singer and my voice is not beautiful. I don't write this with any sense of modesty (false or otherwise). What I have that makes me a great (see, no modesty) front man is that I'm not usually afraid of singing in front of people despite my shortcomings. I have had decent training and don't sweat it when I go flat or completely forget the melody and sing something else instead.
The great thing about singing with a band is they generally don't care about what the singer is doing. They seem to think that we just make somewhat melodic grunting sounds while they are making the actual music. In my experience, this sentiment has merit.
I've been performing in one way or another for 30 years now and I still experience some degree of intense stage fright before every show. Since rock gods never experience anxiety, I have a specific pre-show routine that, when done properly, kills my fear.
There's a belief in several world theatre forms that the process of getting into costume or make-up allows "the god" to enter your body. In that spirit, I need to spend some preparation time looking in a mirror as I (or our band stylist) work on my hair and make-up. Transforming my outside goes a long way towards transforming my inside. There's nothing quite like witnessing your hair going from "flat and stringy" to "Flock of Seagulls" to boost your confidence.
I do a bunch of different vocal warm-ups. Most of them sound like Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach knee plays - which is to say I sing numbers up and down different scales. I try to make sure I have some sort of warm drink (tea with lemon being ideal but tap water works fine) to keep my voice warm and my throat clear. I'll usually do some light stretching too because rock gods gotta dance - or at least strike cryptic poses to the beat.
Once I feel like my voice and body are warmed up and feel like I look the part, I'm about half way to where I need to be. The hardest part occurs just before I go on stage. I have to get into the correct frame of mind.
This is a real tightrope walk for me. I need to be left alone while I wipe my brain's day to day operating system and install the front man software. Some of the things I do sound pretty silly, but they work for me. For example, I look in the mirror and say to myself "you're a rock star" over and over again while slapping my chest. I go through the tai chi patterns that I remember. I spend a couple of minutes breathing as deeply as I can and then trying to hold a droning note for as long as I can. I pace around touching everything in the room that isn't currently alive.
I also find that certain songs help trigger the rock star in my brain so I always have my iPod and headphones available before a show. This song in particular has been profoundly helpful. Something about the moment the bass kicks in. It only works for me when I'm wearing headphones.
Staying in character is a fragile elevated state. There are so many things that can completely knock you back down to earth. The worst is when the show is suddenly delayed. If I've gone through my process and I suddenly have to wait 30 minutes before performing, I feel the rock god falling away and have a hard time getting him back.
Or, worse, if a well meaning friend wants to have a conversation about something connected to real life in the fifteen minutes before I go on stage. Dude, yes, I did see the latest Bernie Sanders dank meme but, no, I don't want to talk about it now. The stresses and joys of real life are antithetical to my rock and roll fantasy. I try not to be rude, but I just can't let myself engage in conversation.
Finally, we're introduced and I walk on stage. If I've done everything right, at the critical moment when the lights hit my (exploding) face, I'm transformed into the greatest front man in the history of music. If not, I spend the first twenty minutes or so onstage pretending to be that guy and hoping that I'll become him before the show is over.
If the latter occurs, all of my insecurities and self-doubts start creeping in. I start overthinking everything I'm doing. I decide everyone hates me, both on and offstage. This is referred to as "being in your head." My conclusion is that we should always be in somebody else's head if we can help it.
The difference between being a rock star and playing a rock star is kind of academic. Even rock stars are basically playing at being rock stars. They have to eat and wash their socks and deal with unsightly ear and back hair just like the rest of us. What sets them apart from the rest of us is tremendous charisma or remarkable talent or just plain luck. In the absence of those three things, I merely play a rock star.
But at my best, I can make you believe I am the god of rock for upwards of 75 minutes.