I was on the road with The Assassins, one great rock and roll/rhythm and blues band. This group was for me the culmination of a decade's road experience, and two decades of learning to play. Our accumulated professional experience exceeded 120 years; our attitude of musical excellence was real, not self-important pretension. David Letterman Band bass player Will Lee (a cream of the crop session player) saw us at a party in New York City and was heard exclaiming "Man, these guys can really play..." The group had excellent arrangements, catchy originals and the kind of tight stage show acquired when grizzled veterans play non-stop for four years.
So I had every right to be happy, even deliriously so as when I landed the gig in 1986. In reality, the past twelve months had seen me growing increasingly unhappy, though I didn't know it. I never stopped to think about how I was feeling, or consider the fact that leaving for each weekly road trip felt increasingly torturous.
Then, I got fired.
Euphemisms don't applyI got fired, plain and simple. They saw the writing on the wall and decided I needed a change.
They were right of course; it was obvious. I was bored and irritable, I had no enthusiasm for touring. I was increasingly worried about the dangers of inhaling large volumes of second hand cigarette smoke night after night, and my fears about being involved in another serious highway accident were surfacing in various ways, such as bolting upright out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night, fearful that the van's driver surely was falling asleep.
Worst of all, my playing was lethargic and uninspired. NOT good for a drummer in a high energy rock'n'roll band, the linchpin of so much of the group's energy and foundation.
I had even taken to engaging in trivialities onstage to ease the boredom. Like the time I counted all the backbeats (beats '2' and '4' in a standard 4-count measure of music) in one of the long Jimmy Thackery guitar solo extravaganzas, several of which we played nightly. There were nearly a thousand. For some reason, I found this depressing.
I suppose when I get bored I start counting. I was once on the road with a highly respected blues guitarist, a man who's good nature, integrity and musical excellence I to this day admire. But I had grown bored with the gigmy own musical immaturity to blameand one manifestation was an increasing irritation with his seemingly endless stream of small jokes and one-liners, many of which were repeated day after day, week after week. They were harmless enough, but the endless repetition was driving me crazy! So I one day counted the jokes, from the moment we met to go to breakfast, to the moment we bade each other good night after the gig. Total: 154.
Anyway, back to 1990. The news came on the phone; a thunderbolt. I was devastated and depressed. Well, that night. Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning elated. I felt way beyond relief or stoicism: I was HOO-RAY elated. I kept waiting for the ecstasy to diminish, perhaps it was just an opposite swing of an emotional pendulum.
But it didn't, I just kept on being happy. I felt set free, not struck down.
I had to determine why. Had I really suffered major career burnout? After some soul searching, the answer came back, without doubt, yes. I had to admit that even playing in a skilled and respected groupsomething I'd worked years to achieveno longer pushed all the buttons. I wasn't immune to wanting new things, including new challenges and personal growth.
I felt no shame, and certainly didn't consider the last dozen years ill-spent. Quite the contrary, I felt lucky and appreciative: for the great players I'd been fortunate to play with, the travel, the camaraderie, and above all, the opportunity to learn how to play. Alsoperhaps most importantlyno matter what happened I'd never have to wonder about whether or not I might have been a pro-caliber musician if only I had tried.
A bigger picture seemed to snap into focus, and I was... happy.
But, now that I realized how burned-out I was, how right it was for them to let me go and for me to let go, what was I going to do?