By Rev. Steve Chambers
For 35 years or so, off and on, l sang and played the guitar for money. Semi professionally, l called it. I played solo gigs (gig is what musicians call them when they want to sound cool), and l played in duos, trios and bands. It was generally a fun time, performing in clubs, concerts and festivals. The money was not particularly good, if you added in the practice time, the broken strings and the instrument repairs. But l found great satisfaction in performing my original songs to an enthusiastic crowd. This is what is considered a good gig.
But there were bad gigs too, the ones in which the club owner disappears when it's time to pay you, or when the bachelor party in the audience has decided to play spitball with their napkins or the ones in which the acoustics in the room are so terrible that you can not hear yourself sing. Ever try singing along with someone when neither of you can hear anything but feedback and crowd noise? And there were fistfights, cigarette smoke, arguments .... The list goes on and on.
Recently l read about the sort of musical engagement that professionals like to call "the gig from hell". It was concerning the musicians who were hired to perform on the Titanic. Okay, so we all know how that ended, and it is true that none of the musicians could get seats in a lifeboat, and they all perished. If that wasn't degrading enough, they didn't get paid at the end of the night, a night for which they gave their life, and included moments of extreme pandemonium, wet feet, and having to play "Nearer my God to thee" to a rather oblivious audience. Drunks throwing spitballs were the least of their worries.
The musicians had been quartered in second class, no surprise there, in cramped rooms next to the potato washer. There were actually two separate bands, who most likely didn't even know each others songs, but they chose to combine forces and "jam" in their last hours. I am not making this up. Realizing that as they were 2nd class passengers, they would never get a seat in a lifeboat and that the end was near, they took it upon themselves to comfort the remaining passengers with song. They played for several hours through the worst of conditions, on an uneven stage to a very distracted audience. Some survivors, seated in their lifeboats, recall hearing "light, cheerful music, ragtime, waltzes and comic songs" drifting across the water. These were heroes in every sense of the word. Minutes before the ship broke apart, the men bid each other farewell, and with great dignity, wandered off to meet their demise in their own personal way. Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster, slipped his violin into his valise, strapped it to his body, and together they faced the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
A few weeks after the tragedy, the band was hailed the world over. These brave men, without a thought to their own safety, had brought hope and comfort to many others. Editorials, speeches, sermons and reams of worshipful poetry celebrated their deed, and letters of condolence poured into the homes of their families.
So, the gig killed them. But they were immortalized, which is arguably better than crappy pay at the end of the night. To add insult to injury, two weeks after the tragedy, the families received letters from the agent who booked the band, asking to be reimbursed for the band uniforms. And while the band was idolized around the world, the owners of the Titanic, successfully fought the families' attempt to gain back pay. Some gigs nothing goes right.
The body of Wallace Hartley, along with his violin, was retrieved from the icy waters off Newfoundland and brought home to Colne, his birthplace in the hills of Lancashire. Seven bands followed his casket in the funeral procession, as well as local dignitaries, and musicians from all over England. Thousands lined the route and all businesses closed for the day.
This sort of ending doesn't happen when you play rock and roll in clubs, even on a bad night. You might end up with a sore throat from singing all night. And the drunks might stumble up, buy you a drink and tell you they know somebody in the "industry", someone who can help you out.
But unless you spill your drink, your feet don't get wet...and you won't have to sleep next to the potato washer.