Kill Myself or Die Tryin’ Pt. 1
Kill Myself or Die Tryin’
I Was a Turntable Tech for 50 Cent, Pt 1
By Mark Driver
If you were to ask me to describe three jobs that approximate what I imagine the waiting room of hell to be like, I would offer you these three thoughts (in ascending order of discomfort):
3. Taco Bell Employee, college campus, fifteen minutes after the bars close, only person to show up for shift. Possibly stoned.
2. Monkey Cage Cleaner, Center for Infectious and Communicable Diseases, no health insurance. Also possibly stoned.
1. Driving a HUGE vehicle through heavy rush hour traffic, a vehicle like a double-long Metro bus filled with babies wired with crash-sensitive explosives; or a Mansion 3000x Recreational Vehicle with optional helicopter landing pad; or an enormous cargo van without side mirrors filled with thousands of dollars of delicate equipment that doesn’t belong to me.
Well…as I tooled out of town, bumper to bumper with Seattle’s dumbass motorists on the way to KUBE 93 FM’s Summer Jam in a huge cargo van filled with eight top-of-the-line DJ turntables, PA speakers, battle mixers, rack-mount effects, table stands, and boxes that looked suspiciously like coffins for the dead—I got to participate in my own worst nightmare. I misjudged the weight of the van on the highway cloverleaf and scraped the guardrail.
It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was worse.
Fear, of course, is never a reason not to do something. Indeed, as someone who sees even leaving the apartment as an act of supreme bravery worthy of presidential commendation (I’ll wait for the next administration, thanks), I will never claim to live as a man without fear. Fear is my constant companion. Anxiety, hate, regret, dread, and embarrassment are also in the posse. But together, we pull up our black bandana masks and fake it. All challenges must be met and all calls must be answered.
The telephone shook me out of bed at two in the afternoon and a dull voice on the other end posited, “Hey man, last minute gig. You wanna be a turntable technician for 50 Cent out at the Gorge?”
After listening to an amount of money to be exchanged, I heard myself agreeing and I went back to bed. But the sleep was shallow. Slowly, the gravity of the situation was upon me. This was a pretty big gig. A task that could not be performed in pajamas.
After a unsensible breakfast of three leftover chicken wings and a black banana, I was in shorts and flip flops, loading my backpack with vodka while being visited by premonitions of crates dropped on my toes, long lines, metal detectors, methed-out gangsta wannabes from Spokane, sunstroke, popped tires, dehydration, skin cancer, van accidents, speeding tickets, ritual disembowelment, food poisoning, lack of beer—and I got back into bed. The grim reaper informed me that death would come after I miswired the wheels of steel: I would be shot to death by the bodyguards of DJ Jackass.
But as I lay dying, visions of $250 and catered hot dogs took over. I was in no position to refuse work or free food. Ugh. Being broke sucks. I slid on a filthy Seahawks jersey, grabbed my musty tent, and was out the door.
Now, as I am a somewhat functional member of Blind Wino Studios (my man Mark T’s offshoot business that provides music and sound effects for video games, radio commercials, and random Web projects), I know my way around music equipment. You get me at a party, put about thirteen beers in me, and I know everything there is to know about sound production and—if you ever make the mistake of pretending to be interested—I will tell you all about it at great length in excruciating detail.
So when, at said party with said amount of beer in me, I found out a friend of a friend worked for a company that did live sound reinforcement for shows, I insisted on an immediate full-time position with benefits and an immediate two-week vacation. That failing, I offered my services for any gig he might have for me, no matter how small or marginally profitable. It turns out that shamelessly asking every single person you meet for employment occasionally pays off. He had a job for me.
The first of these gigs occurred at an in-store performance at a local record shop here in Seattle. The band was a permanently touring juggernaut once purported by a multitude of critics of varying intelligence to be the next Nirvana, but was now languishing in that medium level of success where you can fill a club, but the crowd just wants you to play your one MTV hit twelve times in a row. You probably wouldn’t recognize the name.
I had really talked myself up to the guy who hired me. Of course I could mic a sixty-piece orchestra in Madison Square Garden, simultaneously riding the faders on all fourteen-hundred members of UB40 while thirty-thousand goons from Long Island threw 9-volt batteries at my head. No prob.
In reality, I was at the library at 8 am, illegally photocopying relevant pages from a book on live sound reinforcement, pouring over schematics and memorizing big words to throw around. If anything went wrong, it would be negative impedance, mismatched ohms, and the dreaded 60 kHz hum. I mean, I sorta knew what I was doing. I’ve been playing in shitty bands long enough to know how to plug in microphones and make them louder than the guitars. Plus, the setup this band needed was an easy configuration: three acoustic guitars, three mics, two speakers, standard mixer. I could do this. No sweat.
I showed up at the record store fifteen minutes early, and after a brief conversation with the girl at the register in which I ascertained load-in logistics, I walked past shelves of CDs in longboxes and walls of glossy promo posters towards the back wall of the record store. Pushing aside a dark blue curtain, I found myself in a combined storeroom, office, breakroom, and bathroom. Because there were all kinds of yummy stealables in this sacrosanct, employees-only area—and given my appearance at any given point of any given day garners about as much trust as you’d give a starving goat with a boner—an employee was assigned to “assist” me with the gear, which meant the scrawny little waif stood around and watched while I ruined my back.
There was a lovely food spread waiting for me. Or maybe for the band. It mattered not. It was a Costco-catering standard of cloudy veggies and dip, broken chips and salsa, and a pot of gummy gray hummus that broke tortilla chips in half and didn’t stick to any vegetables, thus remaining uneaten, save a few aborted stabs to its surface. I ate a handful of veggies. Stuck my thumb in the hummus. Assigned employee nervously mentioned the presence of beer in the fridge. I cracked one, took a deep pull, set the bottle against a wall, and pushed up my sleeves.
Then there was a pounding on the back door. It was the equipment being delivered. The company’s delivery guy had obviously just been shot out of a cannon. He was tall and skinny, like a mantis in leather gloves, and appeared to have injected a thirty-pound sack of methamphetamines into his spinal column prior to busting through the door. In the first five minutes of hauling PA speakers with him, I found out about the motorcycle accident that resulted in the painful reconstruction of his face, the difficulty of obtaining an electrical engineering degree, his gay brother in Ft. Lauderdale, the best place on North Aurora to gamble, where not to go camping, what bullshit that Survivor TV show is, how San Diego chicks put out, and to be happy that I didn’t have to run sound for a goddamn Latin ensemble, because those things are a real pain in the ass to set up. “All right, have fun,” he said, taking two long steps out the back door.
He leaves and I’m standing there, surrounded by a huge pile of speakers in cases, guitars stacked against a wall, an unmarked crate on casters, and three boxes of tangled cables.
“Looks like you got some work to do,” said assigned employee.
I chugged the beer.
The set-up was simple. I tuned the guitars, rang out the monitors, checked all levels, tweaked the EQ, put a line of tape across the mixer and labeled each fader. All done. With twenty minutes to spare. I rubbed my hands and waited. And waited. And waited.
The band finally shows up, and it’s the standard thing. Straight outta central casting. They’re tired and look like they’ve been living out of the trunk of a taxicab for a year. Young from a distance, old up close. Floppy rat hair, professionally dyed, perfectly tattered jeans, forearm tattoos, designer thrift-store styles. The singer’s cranky and all business, the drummer immediately lights a smoke in the store, the token dopey bass player goes for a handful of tortilla chips, says “stale” to nobody, and locks himself in the bathroom to consume loads of drugs. I introduce myself and let them know that the stage is all set up and ready to go. One of the few attempts in my life to be professional is greeted with as much enthusiasm as “Hi, my name’s Mark and I’ll be your server tonight,” gets at Denny’s. The singer looks past the curtain into the store. There are about eleven people waiting to hear them rock out.
“There’s no one here,” he says.
“Great,” says the drummer.
I meet the label rep, an overenthusiastic dweeb wearing hipster glasses he’s not quite pulling off. He’s the only one interested in any conversation, which dries up after it is established that: 1) I don’t own the record store, 2) I don’t own the production company, 3) I’m just some schmuck getting paid $75 to run a board for an hour.
Then, this little and loud guy barges through the back door and immediately starts barking like a feral seal. I assume he’s the band manager because he’s British.
“They coll this a meal? A few rohtten garrets and a gan of sulsa? I thought we agreed on meals! Where are the rehcord advahnces? We hovernighted them spehcial from Lohs Angelees! You know ow much that sheet cohsts?”
Unfortunately, there’s no one to really yell at. It’s a free show. At a record store. It’s been announced all week on two radio stations and nobody cares. There are radio-station DJ’s broadcasting from a van at the curb outside, attempting to ignore two muskrat panhandlers who keep banging on the doors. There are now fourteen people in the crowd. The lead singer disappears for a while. The employees of the record store make excuses to come in the back and gawk at the rock stars, and then feel sort of dumb for bothering.
The crowd’s rank swells to about seventeen, the band takes take the stage. As the drummer climbs up onto the small platform, he hands me a box. “Oh, could you plug this in too?”
A drum-machine sampler thing with a walkman-sized sound output. You guys stood around for an hour and then hand me this as you climb on stage? “I guess. I need to get some shit out, though.”
“The batteries are sorta dying. Get me a power adapter too.”
“All the gear is packed under the stage,” I tell him. “It’s gonna be a few minutes.”
“Whatever. I’ll go smoke.”
“Oi,” the manager breaks in. “We paid goohd mohnee to your compny. All this wus ‘greed to en the cuntract. We paid fore it.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m getting it.”
“Paul,” says the lead singer, sitting on stage with a guitar in his lap. “If this guy doesn’t know how to hook it up, forget it. Let’s get this over with.”
The manager starts talking about getting money knocked off their bill as the singer grabs the mic and tries to say something. The mic’s not on. I run to the board and unmute it. His hand has dropped and it’s directly in front of the monitor and the whole system gives an ugly rip of feedback. The singer shakes his head. “Very professional,” he says. “Nice job.”
But, this is Seattle. And though we encourage our mediocre hometown bands to dress up like rock stars, we don’t care much for bands who actually act like rock stars. Someone from the crowd yelled, “You don’t even need the mic, dude. There’s like ten people here.” The singer was obviously considering scrapping the entire event and leaving all seventeen fans in the lurch.
This is not a good match: indie record store, failed major-label band, and the only thing standing between them an underemployed drink enthusiast who couldn’t give one fuck about anything past his $75 fee.
The grizzled singer asks the audience for requests. He doesn’t know any of the songs that get shouted out. The trio play some generic three-chord songs which I assume are originals, because nobody seems to recognize them. They attempt a few spontaneous covers that they can’t completely get through. The crowd’s bored. People stream out the front door in quiet escape. The band plays for twenty-three minutes and clears out within five. The manager shakes my hand sheepishly, thanks me, and apologizes for being a dickhead. The label rep leaves and I chase him into the back alley and give him an invoice. Their label gets charged $550 for my excellent services. Shit…and all I get is $75?
The cruddy major-label band didn’t sell a single record. And apparently, no one told them about the beer either, because there was still a cold case in the tiny dorm fridge. I opened two and started packing up the gear.
Two weeks later, it was a disco-night cover band at an Indian casino. Easy gig with a twenty-minute setup. I got paid $150 while grinding ass on the light-up dance floor with some Grade D toothless hootchies to a sad and slaughtered version of “Disco Inferno.” Lost $20 at the craps table, $10 at blackjack, $5 at roulette, and a large portion of my colon at the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.
But there is a difference between wiring guitars for a few scrawny rockers in a record store or running casino amp duty for a 43-year-old bass player who works at Bank of America during the day—and being on stage in front of 14,000 screaming people having some guy with a diamond glued onto in his front tooth about to decapitate you with a bowie knife because he thinks you stole his lucky needle cartridge…
My two starting gigs were chump change.
But now, an iron boot had descended from the clouds and the training wheels had been kicked off. I was in charge of the turntables for a huge hip-hop festival. Little ol’ me! I blindly merged the battered cargo van onto I-90, hoping I won’t get charged for scraping the siderail. The sun rides high. Traffic thins out. I’m heading due east. Away from salt water. Up, across the mountains. Into the desert. Gray asphalt, blinding brightness, yellow hills, dead towns, bleached burger stands. Rattlesnakes rule the rocks. Any breakdown means certain death. The skeletons of fallen pack animals strewn about by coyotes and buzzards litter the highway. It’s a long journey between here and the next watering hole. I pull down my black bandana mask and dig through the cooler on the floor to my right.
“50 Cent,” I mumbled into the can of Pabst on my lips, “what a fucking stupid name.”
Hey freeloader, feed a writer by buying a book!