#50- Gallows Humor. The Antechamber of Hope. Bugs.

FrauBlücher in Young Frankenstein. Rare Color Photo.
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Cracker’s drummer Frank Funaro has a funny ritual every time someone mentions the presales for a show. Say a tour manager will say “hey they have 312 advance tickets for tonights show. Frank will say something like this:

“Well it’s nice weather so at least 200 of those people will show up”

If you don’t understand why that’s funny, you might need to know a little bit about ticket sales at a club show. Usually you get 50%-100% more sales in “walk-up” . That is people who just come to the door and buy a ticket. This is only true for club shows. Walkup is much much lower for large venues

So franks comment is particularly absurd. You would never get less than your pre-sales. (Unless there were a hurricane or blizzard or some natural disaster.)

This is a form of gallows humour. Gallows humour is loosely defined as humour that “arises from stressful, traumatic or life-threatening situations.” While the presales of a show could hardly be described as life threatening, in some cases it can be quite stressful or even traumatic. If you’ve ever been on a tour for which tickets will just not sell in the quantities necessary for the promoter to not lose their asses this can be stressful. Example the Ill-fated and Ill-conceived Cracker-Cranberries tour of 1996. The last half of this tour was canceled because there weren’t enough advance tickets sold.

For Cracker this was stressful because we had the fate of our record The Golden Age hanging entirely on this tour. We started this tour as the record company was executing the main part of it’s promotional push for the Golden Age. The fact that half the shows went away and many of the others were poorly attended did not help our record company push singles for Cracker. In fact the tour got a distinct dead animal smell which clung to our freshly minted album.

Actually most of the shows did oak, but just not well enough to cover the massive guarantee that the Cranberries demanded. And then you have one stinker show and that’s all that anyone in the business hears about. To paraphrase part of an old very profane joke. They didn’t call the Cracker/Cranberries tour theMacGregor the Bridge Builder Tour. Click that link you’ll understand.

However we began to take a certain delight in the failing of this tour. Betting on how few would show up. How big the area they would have curtained off at The Mark of the Quad Cities Amphitheater (as opposed to the mark of the beast amphitheater). But this betting had less to do with real gallows humor than our indulging in someSchadenfreude. The Cranberries and their agent had been spectacularly unfriendly towards us. First a few weeks before we started the tour, our fee per night was cut 28%. Although not committed to paper anywhere this was clearly agreed upon. And this reduction was a stunning breech of protocol if not the law. I believe there was a careful calculation on someones part that 1) it was too late for us to pull out and book another tour to support our record, 2) it was still enough money that we would still do the tour. They were right on both counts. Fucking pricks.

Oh also the first day of the tour, we were given a little talk about how we weren’t supposed to talk to any members of the Cranberries. There were also some other pretty ridiculous rules about dining, where to park our bus, the lights we were allowed to use (some nights we had to play with the work lights up as there weren’t any stage lights left for us). Pretty fucking disrespectful and lame. I really take no delight in the failing of anyones career except for this band. And we did enjoy it. Despite the fact they were taking us down with them.

So we really started to get a kick out of the fact that the places we were playing were a quarter full. When a tropical storm roared ashore in Massachusetts we hoped it would cause the show to be cancelled the next night. We secretly hoped that

“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”

Well not actually but any chance to quote Travis Bickle I take.

But none of this is Gallows humor. In mondays post, Bugs and I saw some vultures in Las Cruces.

If I had of pointed to the vultures circling in the distance and said “look it’s my career” that would have been gallows humour. And if i had have been with the Cracker ( or camper) guys at that moment they probably would have demanded we drive to the focal point of that vultures circle. We would have stopped the car and laid in the road like carrion. And of course asked someone to take a picture. That’s gallows humor. All real musician love gallows humor.

Ahmet you were one suave MF

And here is my theory why. As artists, songwriters and musicians we spend a lot of time with failure. We spend only brief moments with success. Most of our songs are not hits. The majority of your albums are commercial failures. You are extremely successful if half of your shows sell out. The modern music business was built upon the idea that you only needed 1 hit out of every 10 albums to succeed. This was purportedly the work of Ahmet Ertegun founder of atlantic reocrds. He was widely reported to have described his successful methodology as “throw ten records against the wall and see which one sticks”. However I can find no such attribution. Regardless the royalty structure created by Atlantic and other record labels at that time suggest that this is indeed approximately the success ratio they needed.

Now consider every record contract wants you to deliver 10 songs per album, the success to failure ratio is more like 1 in a 100!

This is a lot of failure. And it creates a strange morbid psychology. The Gallows humor is a coping mechanism.

In some way this rationalization of the music business meant it was more egalitarian. More artists were let in the game. More artists were allowed to record albums. But suddenly most artists were failures. There were much lower odds that you as an artist ever got a hit, or even received any attention from the record label at all. Why? That slim 1% of the songs that were hits made so much money they paid all the bills. It made more sense to “throw them all against the wall” first to see what stuck and then throw all your resources at that artist or that song that stuck. you didn’t even waste a long distance phone call on an artist that didn’t “stick”. The new music business became less about crafting successful artists and more about casting a wide net. And now the web with its powerful drive towards disintermediation has accelerated this process. Failure Failure everywhere. The market as usual has found the most cost effective way to give the people what they want. And it will continue to refine and improve upon this.

So every artist sits and waits for that big payoff. They wait a long time. Sometimes it never comes. But we have a lot of company. We are like a little subculture of failure. Nassim Taleb the author of The Black Swan describes this as The Antechamber of Hope. We artists sit around in the antechamber of hope and make fatalistic jokes. Why? As Nassim Taleb says:

“The person involved in such gambles is paid in a currency other than material success: hope.”

Hope of getting that one hit. BUT he continues

“The problem of lumpy payoffs is not so much in the lack of income they entail, but the pecking order, the loss of dignity, the subtle humiliations near the water cooler.”

Nassim Taleb

So we retreat into fatalism and gallows humour in good company. We bide our time. It’s all good camaraderie until it isn’t. When the van breaks down for the last time. The last record deal is lost. The last manager abandons you. The band drifts back to the straight world. If you stay are you noble, a visionary a true believer? or are you like the guy shoveling elephant shit in the circus? ”Quit? What? and get out of show business!?”

Then if we are weak then comes the drugs, the alcohol the self destruction and the suicides. I certainly am not anyone to point fingers. I’ve had serveral self-destructive alcoholic periods in my life. But I’ve had three suicides among my peers this last year. And everyone was starting to seem just a little too mortal. One of my closest and oldest friends I thought would be the 4th. Either intentionally or through other self destruction behavior. I mean of course Bugs.

Me and Bugs Backstage at Great American Music Hall

This weighed on me heavily all this year. I have known bugs since i was 10? Something like that. He and I discovered the Beatles and Rolling Stones Together. He worked for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven off and on through the years. And he is in my eyes a musical artist worthy of the same respect that I have been afforded. Maybe not as prolific but very intense.

Last week when I was in Las Cruces I met up with a very healthy, sober and very sharp bugs. I was greatly relieved. We wandered round Mesilla one of the many old spanish villages that make up Las Cruces. We walked through the pecan groves, and along the ancient irrigation ditches which channel the rio grande waters into the groves and farms. A lot of farming for an urban area! It then struck me that this was very much like the Inland Empire of our youth. The ditches in Las Cruces also are by legend haunted by La LLarona, in Redlands CA the folks of that borderland would tell their children the Orange Groves were haunted by La LLarona. And then the impossible coincidence that episodes of Canon were shot in Las Cruces as well as Redlands. I laughed when i read that. funny but true. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d returned to my childhood to a more innocent time with my childhood friend. Anyway bugs then tells me this little story.

I was riding my bike in mesilla when I hear behind me. “How’s it going Bugs”. I look behind me and it’s a sheriff’s deputy. ”It’s going pretty good” I say. ”Not anymore, I got a warrant for your arrest” says the cop.

Bugs tells this story with a little giggle and a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders. Ah the gallows humor. I was glad .It meant he was back.

(BTW before you think bugs is a hardened criminal. He missed a court appearance while hospitalized. The warrant was a Failure to Appear).


Here are two of bugs’ songs. The meanings I attribute to these songs probably have nothing to do what he really intended.

03 everyone needs some love

This is us as we all sit in the antechamber of hope. We all need some love. This is the first song on his first record and it reflects his innocence and hope.

05 i’m still dreaming of you-Bugs

This is darker. This is much later. I recorded this with him in Richmond virginia. He had moved back to New Mexico at this point and was beginning to struggle. His idealism is gone.

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