In the early 1980s, before I worked as a product specialist for synthesizer companies, I did a high-tech solo act that performed at night clubs and college campuses around Chicago and the Midwestern U.S.
The college circuit was actually pretty lucrative and it was a good way to get exposure for my original music around the time that I released a 4-song EP called “Hard Disk Drive.” But I certainly have some hilarious memories from that time in my career.
There was a rusty van that I used to haul equipment to the gigs in those days. It had no passenger seat, so I put an old armchair inside for the front seat passenger (my wife). The “roadies,” usually some friends or my wife’s cousins, would sit in the back, avoiding a hole in the floor. I don’t think that vehicle was officially considered road-worthy.
For the piece de resistance, the decrepit van frequently had engine trouble. If the engine was hard to start, I learned that sticking a broom handle into the carburetor would do the trick. But imagine my embarrassment when the van was parked in front of the administration building at some college in downstate Illinois and I had to open the hood of the van and stick the broom handle into the carburetor while the president of the college was standing there, gaping in disbelief. I’m sure that made quite an impression on him. The wrong impression!
Seriously, though, there were (and probably still are) some real advantages to performing on college campuses.
As I told a writer named Joe Ziemba, in a 1984 story in Chicago Soundz magazine, “The college circuit is a step in the right direction …because you get an immediate response, whether it be positive or negative. In a club, the response might not always be there and you don’t know if it’s you, the club or the indifference of the audience, which may just be there to get drunk or pick up somebody.”
Other good points of playing at colleges included the fact that many of the shows were scheduled during lunch hours or in the early evening. It was nice to finish a show, pack up and be on my way by 10 or 11 p.m. instead of going onstage at midnight. The college venues were usually cleaner and more luxurious than most night clubs, too.
In some of the smaller college towns, the students were appreciative to have some “big city” talent coming their way. In addition, many students welcomed the chance to help with unloading and loading equipment, to learn more about the music business.
Of course, professional conduct was expected when performing on college campuses. That meant showing up on time, dressing neatly, not using profanity or drinking alcohol in front of the audience. I worked with several booking agencies which were members of the National Association for Campus Activities and they wouldn’t tolerate “bad musician behavior” that would reflect poorly upon them.
While it’s been many years since I traveled the college circuit, I still remember the good, bad and just plain ridiculous moments. My high-tech solo act and the shows that I played during that timeframe were an important part of my journey to doing what I now love doing: working as a full-time composer.