One of my duties, so to speak, with Random Acts of Music is The Henry and Joe, a talk show starring Henry J and myself, done for his internet radio station, Random Acts of Radio. In this show, we roll tape (well, actually, spin hard drive) and talk off the top of our heads for around thirty minutes. Sometimes we even stay on the music-related topic that I introduce.
The most recent show we taped, #13, was about the seeming inability of American acts to write fun, upbeat songs. And somehow or another, while discussing this subject, we got onto the subject of stage names and the personae that go with them. Henry said he liked my stage name, Mr. Faust, and wondered aloud what kind of stage persona I was going to have.
I thought, good question. I thought I was just going to be me.
Then I realized something that might be the key to this near-paralyzing stagefright I’ve been dealing with when I get up to play.
I’ve been thinking what an odd anomaly it is. After all, I’ve gotten up to speak in front of churches, civic clubs, classrooms, and skeptical clients and held forth on a number of topics. Sometimes I’ve had notes, other times not. Especially when I talk about writing. I just turn on my mouth and go. And though I have butterflies before hand, they leave when I get up and start speaking.
Ditto when I lead singing at church. Some butterflies, but nothing that doesn’t leave when the job starts.
And ditto ditto when I’m on stage in a community theater production. The worst jitters I get are opening night, and while I might be jumpy before going on for a big scene even on closing night, I always manage to go out and mostly get the job done.
So why the case of shakes that gets so bad that I can hardly strum?
I think Henry inadvertently hit on something when he asked me what my stage persona is.
I don’t have one.
See, in all of the other situations, I know who I am or what my mission is. I’m Joe Faust, an Elder in the Church, giving a lesson or leading the congregation in worship. I’m Joe Clifford Faust, author, spewing out information about writing. Or I’m somebody else – Norman Bulansky or Victor Velasco or Bob Ewell, and my job is to make the audience cry or laugh or hiss.
But when I’m out there with my guitar, well… in the words of the Firesign Theater, Who am us, anyway?.
I guess it’s just me. Joe. With a guitar.
I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before. At Church I have a goal in mind, and in every other situation I am technically somebody else. No wonder I’m scared. I don’t know how to be just me in a situation like that.
So I need to be somebody else. I need a stage persona.
That shouldn’t be so hard. Look at Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. Look at both David Bowie and Madonna, both of whom went through stage personae like they were tissues (facial or bathroom, take your pick). Ever seen David Byrne in Stop Making Sense and then seen an interview with him? In the former he commands the stage, in the latter he’s jittery and awkward, and doesn’t make eye contact with the interviewer.
The odd thing is, I might have been subconsciously reaching for something like this but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And it might have even started with everything I went through trying to pick out a stage name.
However, I’ve had other things trickle through my mind over the last several months. I went through a period where I thought about getting a hat to wear on stage. I have a ton of baseball caps – I thought about wearing a different one every time I play. But that idea didn’t click for me (although I do wear them a lot – maybe wearing one would be too much me on stage). But I couldn’t find anything else I liked that wasn’t stupid (Pith Helmets) or that weren’t being used by others with great success (Berets and Fedoras and Pork Pies).
I thought about clothing, but I’m not exactly a clothes horse or someone with an extensive wardrobe. About the only thing I could do would be wear all gray – I gravitate toward that color. But that would kill my wife, who (no doubt, correctly) thinks I look better in other colors.
Quite by accident, I realized that every time I have played Muggswigz, I have appeared with a different guitar. No. That could get ridiculously expensive, and I’d never get it past the aforementioned wife.
After the incident taping The Santa Song, I theorized that wearing sunglasses might obstruct my view of the audience and make me less fearful. But that’s kind of silly, too, I think (and again my wife would complain because I’d be covering up what she calls my expressive eyes).
(It occurs to me that if I got a divorce, I could become this grey-wearing, fedora-topped guy in sunglasses playing all the coffeehouses – but I’d no doubt be miserable as a result – the classic tortured artist, I suppose. On the other hand, maybe that’s the problem. I’m basically a happy guy. Maybe I’m not tortured enough. Perhaps my wife and I could start shooting heroin together like the Cobains.)
Probably the best thing I could do is just keep playing in front of people and learn how to be myself in the process. I’m not sure I like that idea. I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of being someone else in situations like that. And I had no idea how prevalent that has been in my life until now. I am thinking of the personality change I underwent when I ended up getting married to a gregarious girl from Ohio. I went from being outgoing to much more the quiet observer. I explain it this way: when our personalities started to click, I let my wife be outgoing for me because I realized that inside of me was an introvert who was just dying to stay in.
And now that introvert is supposed to get up on a stage with a guitar and be himself while playing songs for people. Especially since I’m not sure who the real me is.
Heh, yeah. That makes sense.
About as much sense as leading worship service. Or being in plays.
Well, they say that introverts have a switch they flip to be able to do things like this. I obviously have one for Church Leader, Actor, and Guest Speaker. I just need to find the one for Singer Songwriter and learn how to trip it.
It’s got to be there somewhere.
And if I can’t find it? Then I’m going to write a letter to David Bowie and see if he has any unused personae laying around.