stage fright noun : nervousness felt at appearing before an audience (Merriam-Webster)
stage fright noun : that good old green room pants shitting feeling (Hermiam-Jolbster)
Shakespeare said "All the world's a stage," and FDR said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Based on that, I always assumed that there would never be a comfortable spot on a stage or anywhere else for me. While performing, I get cotton mouth and shaky hands. I forget lyrics. I ruin songs that I practice perfectly. I go down that awful rabbit hole to the dripping caves of doubt, and my self esteem gets so low that it wears a hat made of whale dung. I have learned to put on a good face and not show what's often happening inside the old noggin. I am going to run through some early examples of this problem and examine the source of my solution.
You know those little angels and devils that sit on shoulders? Well instead of those, I have a grumpy old farmer in the back of my cranium who just yells discouraging things at me. This personification of my stage fright has stubble, smells like wet barn wood, and breathes loudly and cynically through his nose. His name is Klaus. Right when I would think things were going well, Klaus would wander into my field of confidence with his hands in his pockets, look around disapprovingly and spit. "Zis is crap." "Vy don't you stop singing and sew me a dress." "You sound like a depressed hyena." Whoever does my autopsy is going to have a bad and confusing day when they find him. "Vy are you cutting him like zat? You cut like a tiny child vielding a butterknife"
The first time I sang in public was in front of my sixth grade class in Alaska, my first and final role in a musical. I was the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz, and I can still remember uttering the first words "When a man's an empty kettle…" All I remember after that was my heart pounding loudly and not in time with the music, not like in Huey Lewis's "Heart of Rock and Roll". I got through it, but it was my first meeting with Klaus, silhouetted in the distance, shaking his head. He was probably not allowed within 1000 yards of a school, but he made his presence clear.
As a senior in high school we were all giving speeches in senior english, and mine had some attempts at being funny in it. I was so pleased at how it was going. Everyone was laughing, and it was a real rush. I didn't know it could be so easy. Afterwords, a girl who I had a crush on leaned toward me and pointed at my crotch. I was thinking how awesome all that was when I glanced down after her repeated pointing and saw my open fly. This was the only day in high school that I didn't wear button fly 501's, and had worn some dress pants for my speech. As I looked at the patch of tighty-whities that shone through, a film of tears formed over my eyes and distorted my vision, and what appeared over the exposed undies was the laughing face of Klaus. "Zis is vhat you get!" he kept repeating, and it echoed in my mind for the rest of the year.
I didn't try singing again until I got the courage to try an open mic when I was 22. There was one every Monday at The Haufbrau in Bozeman which was part of the Barmuda Triangle, which I think every college town has. I wrote four songs just for the occasion and rehearsed them several times per day for weeks. I was sitting at the table in the Hauf, feeling so courageous, smoking and and running my pick through the grooves of the carved names that filled the wooden tables. Then the guy before me got up to the stage. He was about 6'5'' and wore a giant cowboy hat. He ended his set with "Friends In Low Places" by Garth Brooks, and he did it with such spirit and so heroically that the whole place just exploded. It was a moment in time that is like a shiny jewel in the crown of memory for everyone who was there. For me, it is a shameful dog pile in the closet of my mind, left there by a frightened animal who didn't know how to ask to be let out into the yard. I was so scared to play after that guy. I did my songs but it was not fun at all. Direction: As the barkeep cleans up and yanks the little pull-chains to turn off the neon lights, the camera slowly tilts down to the table top to reveal a carving in the table: "KLAUS VAS HERE"
I kept doing open mics, twice a week, for months. I would play through a Peavey Bandit that I nestled in a tire and I'd kick at it to make that crazy reverb thundering sound when I was really jamming out. It led to my first band, American Furnace. Our first gig ever was opening for Flop at an old log community center on the edge of town. I was so nervous that I barfed right before we played, but the show went well, even with my stomach acid voice screaming away. I have a board mix cassette of this show hidden away with other embarrassing cassettes in an eschew-box somewhere. Rusty from Flop was the coolest, and we played some chess the next morning at the coffee shop. I ended up re-meeting him in 2009 in Seattle and he is still the coolest. I was finally getting over the fear. I didn't see my old farmy nemesis that night- I think I left him in a puddle behind a spruce tree.
Then, in 2000, we had a reunion. Sunset Valley had opened for Tenacious D a couple of times and I got booked to open for them at The Showbox in Seattle. Bands are cool because even in the face of danger, you can look at your buddies and all scream, "To our deaths!!!!" and charge the orcs with no fear. This was booked as a solo gig though, and I was indeed terrified to do this. If you have no exposure to Tenacious D, look them up. Then picture me peering out the stage door at the eleven hundred frothing frat guys all stomping their feet and chanting, "We want the D! We want the D!" This is how they were greeting me, the opener. Now I was a huge D fan. A bunch of us had gone to see Beck the year before in Las Vegas, and they were the openers. They are amazing, musically and lyrically. Their humor may be attractive to a certain beer soaked college crowd, but I feel that it is genius on many deeper levels and I'll defend them artistically any day. I'm not going to go into specifics, but after that mind blowing concert, one may have found me swimming in the Tropicana's fountain in my underwear, tighty-whities again. What a great trip.
I gulped so loud I could hear it over the chanting, closed the green room door, and slunk back to the couch to tune my guitar. Jack Black, Tenaceous D's singer, was sitting on the other couch across from me. Megan was sitting next to him making suspenders out of duct tape because he had forgotten his belt. He was holding his guitar and casually strumming and humming a Radiohead song. He could see I was going into a mental tail spin. This was before his movie star career, but he was still a wise wizard. He told me not to worry about them, to think of them as idiots and it would be okay. I thought that if I was about to get stoned (biblically), I wouldn't much care if the stoners (biblical) were idiots or not. I was too pale and shaky to talk. Klaus was strapped to my back for the kind of tandem skydive where you pull the rip cord and instead of a parachute, a bunch of middle fingers fly out. A guy in a Showbox t-shirt poked his head in and pointed at me: "You're on!" I stood up, and as I was walking through the stage door to my stoney death, Jack pushed me aside and said, "Hang on dude." He walked out onto the stage and the crowd became silent. "Everybody listen up! This next guy has shared the stage with us before. He is the Korn to our Limp Bizkit. Put your hands together for… " Whaaaa? He introduced me? He didn't have to do that. That never, ever happens. I cannot think of that happening at any concert I've seen or played- the headliner coming out to introduce the opener. I did my set, calmly, and looked over a few times and saw Megan and Jack watching from the side of the stage, and was still blown away. I still am so grateful for that. Jack Black is the baddest ass on the planet, one of the great human beings. A certain negative person who lived in my head died that night.
When ever I am nervous now, I think of that night and the rise of Jack and the fall of Klaus. Sometimes I hear a stirring in his grave, but all I have to do is think of that strong, no-bullshit voice introducing me, and it's like a magic trick that makes my nerves become cool and steady. Jack recognized the dragon and slayed it for me. I know that some level of stage fright will always be there… Some people say that it's good to be nervous, and if you aren't at least a little on edge, your act will suffer. That's true, I guess, but being so scared that it's messing with your organs and pulling the rug out from under all the fun is not good either, and I am glad I have found some ways around it. It's not foolproof, and I recently found myself in the middle of a song at a show having one of those mini-breakdowns, so perhaps bringing this up here is a good reminder for me of how scary a show can be and that at least nobody is chanting.