I'm With the Band

by Ben Rubenstein

26 May 2008

When I started writing about music, I didn't realize that it would mean I'd become "the enemy". So though writing brought me closer to music and the people who make it, it also took me further away.
From Almost Famous (2000) 

I could be very dangerous to all of you…I am THE ENEMY!”
—William Miller (Patrick Fugit), Almost Famous

Most concerts I’ve gone to could be summed up pretty simply: I came, I saw, I left. Despite a long list of shows in my rearview mirror, I have remarkably few crazy stories to tell. No band has ever come back to my apartment to party. I’ve never been invited to hotbox the tour bus. I’ve never even been backstage, unless you count some conveniently situated press tents. The last concert I went to was much the same, at first. I stood still near the back and cheered politely at the proper moments, as when the lead guitarist sweated his way through some fierce riffs on the last song. But when the final notes faded, I didn’t leave—and not just because there was another band still to play. A few minutes later, that same sweaty lead guitarist emerged from the backstage area and headed straight to where I was standing.

See, this guitarist, Joey, is one of my roommates. He moved in last summer with his eyes set on a sales job, and, a few months later, he’d hooked up with a local band (the Saps) that’d been getting some pretty decent national attention—a Spin.com “Band of the Day” selection, some play in the background of MTV shows. All of a sudden, I was living with a working musician. Not a rock star, and not someone most fans will have heard of, but someone in a band with a legitimate chance of making a living.

So what, right? There are tons of bands like the one I’ve described living all over the country, and, by extension, tons of roommates living with them. It’s not really a notable situation, except for one important point: I’ve been writing about music for the last few years, often about bands just like this one.

I’ve interviewed all types of artists, often ones around my age that, given different circumstances, I might’ve become friends with. Indeed, my non-musician friends often ask me, after hearing about a recent interview, or seeing a number of an artist in my cell phone, whether I’m going to become pals with the subject of one of my recent stories. My immediate answer is, “I don’t think so.” After all, I’m “the enemy”. The critic. As Russell Hammond (the lead guitarist of Stillwater, in case you forgot) put it, “The one guy you don’t tell secrets to.” Doesn’t sound much like a friend, does it?

When I started writing about music, I didn’t realize that it would mean I’d become “the enemy”. I doubt that any aspiring music writer does. I started writing because I felt strongly about music, and wanted to explore that—not because I wanted to bring artists down a peg. But critique is an inevitable part of the job, because a writer who praises everything isn’t really praising anything. So though writing brought me closer to music and the people who make it, it also took me further away. No longer could I look at myself as the fan that the artist wrote his songs for, not while I was critiquing those very same songs. It made it so that whenever I realized my dreams by having a conversation with an artist I’d admired—say, Common, or Slug of Atmosphere—I was doing so not as a fan, or as a potential friend, but as a writer, and that made the conversation more of an obligation than anything else.

But even if friendship were a possibility, it’d be a dangerous relationship to enter into for me, too. I realized this fairly early on in my writing career, when I reached out to a guy I knew from college, offering to write a review of his band’s new CD for a local magazine. I thought I could take advantage of my position to help out someone I knew was looking for more attention. He enthusiastically agreed, and I received a copy of the CD a few days later.

Problem was, I didn’t like it very much. OK, aside from a couple songs, I didn’t like it at all. I realized I was in a difficult situation: If I were totally forthright in my review, it probably wouldn’t make my college buddy too happy. If I went against my true feelings and wrote a rave review, it’d undercut my credibility as an impartial critic. In the end, I wrote a fairly neutral piece, not exactly recommending the album, but certainly not panning it either. So I was surprised when, a few weeks later, my editor received an email in which my friend strongly questioned my ability as a music writer. Apparently, he’d expected nothing less than a glowing review. My editor laughed it off—and let the guy know that he wouldn’t get anywhere if he couldn’t take a little criticism—but it wasn’t so easy for me. Even if my opinion was legitimate, I still felt like a traitor, like “the enemy”. Against my better judgment, I responded to the email, defending my review and explaining my position. I never heard back.

That incident helped me in one very important way: I began to view the subjects of my writing more as people than simply creators of music. A band I was writing about wasn’t just a shapeless group; it was, more than likely, made up of a few people around my age who would actually have a reaction to my words if they read them.

Living with a working musician has really reinforced that idea. On a daily basis, I’ve been able to see that there’s not a whole lot of difference between Joey and I, except that he eats a ton more frozen pizza—and he can actually play an instrument. I’ve also gotten a good sense of what it’s like to be in a semi-successful band. There’s practice a couple days a week, then weekend trips to small towns. There are the house parties you go to after shows even if you’re dead tired, and there’s the resultant strep throat. There are the nice surprises, like the girl who works at a photo studio and thinks you’re cute, so you get some free press shots. There are the disappointments, like the opening bands that turn off some key spectators before you get to take the stage. It’s all part of the constant struggle to get noticed; you’ve got to promote your shows, build your image, make more friends—MySpace friends, that is.

After living with Joey for nearly a year, I do consider us to be actual friends. And since accidentally burning my first bridge, I’ve been very careful about mixing my writing with my social life. So when the Saps’ recent concert was approaching, I was unsure of whether to help promote the show through my writing. I had to wonder if I would be too closely treading the line between friend and “enemy”.

Ultimately, though, I decided to write a few words. Since I actually like the music, I didn’t feel that I was just doing a favor for my roommate, but also doing my job by recommending a show that I was sure would be enjoyable. And though I have no idea whether my words actually inspired anyone to check out the show, I do know the band read them—one of the first things Joey mentioned after the set was how grateful they all were for the mention, and how they wanted to thank me in person. As I stood there with him and his family, I didn’t feel like I was being thanked just as a writer who could help further promote the band (as I guess I’m doing right now); I also felt like a friend. Which means next show, I’ll expect a backstage pass.

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