Music as an Escape and Living the Double Life

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(This was written in August of 2011, likely for BreakThru Radio but I can’t be certain. It’s a long one, but interesting.)

Music is undoubtedly an outlet. For both the maker and the listener, music provides an avenue out of the regular world into a world of perfection. In a studio or at a concert, people experiencing music are unlikely to worry themselves with outside drama as the weight of each day seems to fall away when the music hits.

This kind of release is not just for young people, as dominating as they are on the music scene. Feeling like the oldest person at any given music event is not an uncommon sensation, nor is the sense that all these talented musicians have barely graduated high school. Nevertheless, the escape is available to anyone who choses to take advantage of it.

But then this begs the question; do adults use music an escape? Certainly the youth have historically used music to escape schoolwork, their parents, the government, etc., as is showcased by countless youth-in-revolt style bands and most songs that have ever been in the Top 40. When career life starts, is the lawyer expected to abandon her favorite band? Is the doctor not allowed to listen to the radio? Can the teacher not start a band of his own?

Guitarist Michael Dion would certainly know. Not only does he rip a mean guitar and sing a sweet tune on the weekends with his fairly successful band Hot Day at the Zoo, but he teaches high school English during the week.

“It’s a pretty interesting balance with these kids,” he says. “My weekends are so tiring, it’s hard to drag my ass back into town and get up at 7 am the next day. You have to be pretty ambidextrous to pull that off. It’s wonderful actually, I like wearing different hats.”

Leading separate lives certainly takes it’s toll, however. Even though he wouldn’t consider Hot Day a full-time gig, the work it requires is as time consuming as any job.

“Yeah, musicians are big kids but on the other hand, I would compare it to regular job. When you ask the average person about what life in a band is like, they will only comment on the show and the public aspect. It’s the iceberg metaphor– if you look at the performance it’s just the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more beneath the water. For example, Hot Day is about as far as you’re gonna get without going full time and the work we have on our plate is outrageous, it’s got to be triple or quadruple for a full time band. We’re just in the neighborhood of 150 shows a year and that alone is a huge amount of work. Over 8 years, we’ve been exposed to exactly what it takes to be a full time outfit. Sure, there are a few bands that get big over night, but we’ve cultivated everything from the ground up. We’ve personally driven every nail into the machine. It’s not for the faint of heart or the weary; you need to be prepared for a long road ahead of bullshit and hard work. You don’t see a lot of rewards for all this effort. I mean, we’re surviving but its not all sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, like it seems… although there is that too.”

Unlike Michael, I am 23 years old and work 4 days a week. Hardly an adult, and hardly working a full-time job, I’ll admit, and even I use music as an escape. I follow the jam band Phish around the country when they tour and would jet off to every music festival on the east coast if I could. Phish’s shows transport me to a magical place where no one is depending on me, there’s nothing I need to rush for, no one I need to answer to, no work to be done. Not only does following the band provide an escape from reality, but also the infectious feeling of joy I get when seeing Phish, and most other live music acts as well, carries me through my next few days and supports me as I reenter normal life.

I see many adults at Phish concerts who are experiencing a similar escape as I, but who have been doing this for many more years. Generally speaking, many adult Phish phans were once followers of the Grateful Dead, going from show to show letting the band steal their faces and melt their sorrow away. More so than Phish, the Dead’s songs were very serious in nature, often dealing with sad subjects and the trying forces in life. In learning that the band understands those same pains, listeners were transformed by the power of words and getting lost in the music.

Like the Dead, however, Phish uses extended jams and complex compositions to move the listener. Improvised jams take the musician away and have the tendency to do the same with an audience member who is paying attention. Trying to follow each instrument or pick up on the different strokes of sound requires a lot of attention, and does not allow headspace for other thoughts or worries. The familiar compositions can have the same effect, even though the listener knows what’s coming. Carefully hearing every note where it’s supposed to be and taking in each step of movement creates an avenue for escape just as good as an improvised jam.

But when the music ends and the audience disperse back to their jobs and chores, they’re stuck with the double-life complex. Like Michael, it’s hard to draw the line between work and play, but sometimes those two simply cannot interact.

“I don’t advertise that I’m in a band with my students. Eventually, it comes out through out the course of the year and a lot of kids know what’s up and rumors will circulate but I don’t offer that information,” says Dion. “On another note, our music is just not for your typical high school kids. They all like rap and radio friendly music, which is just not us at all. When they ask me to play music for them, they just don’t get it. They like the idea of it, especially students who are a little more mature, maybe heading into the party scene, they’ll poke some fun at me, make comments and such. I just have to turn away and maintain professionalism, try not to recognize a lot of the shit they come out with. I try to keep those worlds totally separate.”

Each of the members of Hot Day hold down a steady job, but no time is wasted when they’re doing double duty.

“Friday we have to leave early for a show and Jon [banjo, computer engineer], even though he’ll have to clock out, will be doing work remotely on the way. I’m in grad school as well so I do a ton of work in the van, writing papers and grading homework. But it works out. If I’m going to be sitting in the van for hours, I might as well be using that time creatively. We’ll write songs in the van too, it’s a lot of fun.”

On top of the work they have to do for each of their jobs, the balancing act is a perfected routine. While I can come into work a little tired from the weekend and start my Monday slowly, a teacher has to be ready and energized first thing in the morning, every day of school. And even though he may be burning the candle at both ends, Michael says that he has perfected the double duty, even with his side project Alligator Wine.

“With Alligator, we practice every night and have bar gigs on school nights, so we don’t lead a stereotypical lifestyle. I have balanced it out in my past, but I can’t really keep doing this. We can’t get all twisted drunk any more on the weekends, because we’ve got stuff to do. You have to look at it as a job,” he advises.

“We’ve had some rough nights where we may have pushed it too far. So you have to ask, are we a joke bar band or are we seriously trying to do this? Is this gonna be a job for me or not? That’s the stuff that’s got to happen or you’ll crash and burn earlier than you hope for. We’ve all seen what it’s like but I have no interest in that. I’d love to make this a profession and enjoy my life. That’s another aspect of this, settling down with a family is part of adulthood and I can’t do that right now so in terms of avoiding adulthood I think I am, yes. A family is one thing that can destroy a band. If you don’t have the financial and industry backing for your band, the workload is not possible to deal with when you have a family. We wouldn’t be able to do it if we all had wives and children, I firmly believe we would not be where we are or make that transition in the future. It’s not feasible.”

A double life could never be easy, as it requires twice the dedication and twice the effort. But if music makes you happy, let it be your escape from whatever. Adults should feel as free to get away from the rules, the bosses, and the government as kids do. Whether you’re making it or simply enjoying it, music can be the key to staying happy during a mundane work week, and why shouldn’t it be?

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