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Working-Class Heroes 

Who would endure anonymity, uncertainty, and unhappy lovers to make a scant living? Freelance musicians, that's who.

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001
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They practice for years to get their chops "like hamburger." They build up a string of weeklies to support themselves, becoming gig whores for anyone who pays for their services. On weekends they do double- or triple-hits and rush out of town for afternoon casuals at private parties and small cafes. They have to be ready to perform "anything, anywhere, any fuckin' time," according to multi-instrumentalist Ed Ivey. They live solely on their music, earning barely enough to survive; they're not famous and probably never will be. They're the Bay Area's freelance musicians, the guys (and some gals) who back up your favorite singer/songwriter, fill out the local R&B quartet, and complement the latest salsa combo.

None of these players started out planning to take this unusual route to a career in music. Some of them clung to the typical teenage rock star fantasy, while others toiled obscurely in odd jobs. All of them discovered, at some point, that they possessed the ability and desire to play many different kinds of music -- often with strangers and usually at a moment's notice. And that San Francisco, with its legions of singer/songwriters, genre-specific bands, and clubs, offered constant demand for their skills.

"[In the '80s] I was in a punk rock band when I was 23, 24, playing with all the great San Francisco bands like the Dead Kennedys and Verbal Abuse," says Ivey, who currently plays bass, tuba, and guitar for the Faraway Brothers and Eric McFadden, among others. "We were part of that scene, and that scene rejected the common perception of success in the music business. We were punk rockers and we didn't have to know how to play our instruments." At the time, freelancing was the furthest thing from Ivey's mind.

After the punk scene withered away, Ivey moved back to El Paso, Texas, where he worked as a newspaper reporter. Then, in 1992, he got a call for a gig as a bass player and moved back to San Francisco. "At first I did some really weird jobs. I sold cars, I was a private investigator's assistant, I worked in a parking garage. But slowly, surely, I started meeting people [who played music]."

On the other hand, Joe Kyle had been working as a chef at various San Francisco restaurants for 15 years when he found his calling as a stand-up bass player. (He now plays regularly with the Hot Club of San Francisco, Paparoux, and the Waybacks.) "The summer of '94 was the last time I had a steady job," he says. "I quit my job at the Slow Club to go on vacation, and that was the turning point. I had a steady gig with the Blue Room Boys at Radio Valencia and I was starting to work with the Trailer Park Rangers. I had some jazz gigs here and there and I just took a broad leap of faith and decided I was tired of cooking.

"It took a while," he adds. "I was pretty broke and desperate for the first six or eight months of not having a day job. But after a year, I was gigging about 30 to 35 gigs a month. I was a bit of a gig whore, taking anything that would come my way just because of the novelty factor. It was exciting to me to think that people would actually call me and want me to come play bass for them and pay me money."

However, if a freelancer plays 20 times a month at between $30 and $100 per show (with the occasional brief tour or exceptionally lucrative gig), he can make barely $20,000 a year, which isn't much in modern-day San Francisco. "If you averaged it out through the year," says Ivey, "I'm making less than a schoolteacher at S.F. Unified, for sure."

Because of financial worries, many starting freelancers overbook themselves, which can lead to the cardinal sin of missing gigs.

"It's Thursday night, about 8:30," says Ivey, describing an all-too-typical situation. "You're sipping a Bud, watching TV, the phone rings. "Hey, hello, Ed, where the fuck are you, man? This is Joe Blow, I'm in Mendocino at the wedding,'" says Ivey. "You forgot about your gig. You're fucked. You're a clown, and that guy probably won't want to call you back."

"One of my weak points is bookkeeping," continues Ivey, pointing out the supreme importance of good business sense for the freelancer. "I have a hard time keeping track of what's on my calendar. It probably hasn't happened to me in two years, but at least once a year in those days you'd get that call. And it would always be somewhere where you couldn't just jump in your truck and make it there."

But bad bookkeeping and shoddy scheduling aren't the only reasons for missing gigs. As everyone knows, music and drugs go together like California and sunshine.

Michael Rinta, a trombone player for numerous bands, nearly lost his career to the seedier side of the music scene. During the mid-'90s he formed the salsa band Avancé with Santana's timbales player, Karl Perazzo. "It was very successful, and I was doing a lot of coke," he says. "I was also acting very irresponsibly. I was double-booking gigs. I wasn't showing up and I was lying and telling them I was in jail -- that was my big lie that I used to tell people, and actually I'd be in Reno playing with somebody else. And [Perazzo] just said, "Hey, you can't be doing this, you need to take a break for a while.' And that was very painful for me, because I was a founding member of the band."

Now that he's clean, Rinta is back with Avancé, arranging the music for its third album, and freelancing with Brass Monkey, Pamela Rose, and the Franco Brothers. "[Perazzo] saved my life," says Rinta of the intervention. As to how prevalent drugs are in the scene, he says they're available to those who want them. "In clubs, that's just the lifestyle. People go to party and drink."

There are also more mundane -- but no less treacherous -- challenges that await the freelancer. Finding time for a relationship, for instance.

"It can be tough on my girlfriend," says Kyle of the freelance life, "because we really have to work hard to pick our spots during the week where we can enjoy private time, when she's not working and I'm not out on a gig. And during the months I'm really busy, it essentially negates my social life."

Then there are the last-second pleas from bands you've never met and certainly never heard before -- for gigs that can be unexpectedly transcendent or utterly horrific.

"It happens all the time," Kyle says. "You find yourself thrust into a situation where you have no idea what the music's going to be like. But some of the fun is showing up completely unaware of what's about to happen. Just show up and introduce yourself, and find yourself looking at four or five humans you've never seen before. And you're expected to plug in and turn on your amp and begin playing music, and it's supposed to be good. That's when the freelance thing can be really magical. Sometimes you'll enter into a situation like that and create fantastic music just based on a common understanding of a musical form or a common nomenclature. It doesn't always work out that way; sometimes you'll enter a nightmarish mistake of an evening you wish had never happened. You just shut your eyes and grin and make sure you gracefully decline offers with such individuals in the future."

Kyle, who is about to embark on his first tour in years with the Waybacks, is more than willing to put up with all the freelancer hazards. "I had no idea this was where I'd end up," he says. "In 1988 my experience was pretty much limited to sitting around a stinking room with a beer-soaked carpet with a bunch of friends, just hacking out crappy blues tunes. I never envisioned I'd be making a living at this 10 years later."

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David Cook

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