Benefit Fatigue

I write this essay on the occasion of 2 “benefit” concerts scheduled here in Austin TX this week. On the face of if they are both extremely worthy causes that I for one would like to see benefit in some way. I am not entirely convinced however that a concert put on to raise funds in the Live Music capital of the World, where people are regularly accustomed to seeing music for free, is the way to best serve these interests. In many respects I think they both illustrate a greater discussion on the effectiveness of such endeavors and ultimately speaks to the motivations of the people behind them.

The first is on November 1st to raise money for local musician Darcie Deaville who is recuperating from the lingering effects of a head concussion, and the second in November 4th ostensibly to benefit the “Don Walser Memorial Fund,” the best explanation of which I’ve been given is to cover expenses associated with his recent passing. For the record, I have been asked to participate in both and I have declined both, however emphasizing my hearty endorsement of both causes. Simply put, I just don’t see how my getting up on a stage at a venue can “benefit” anyone besides my own ego and personal aggrandizement.

True enough, I did indeed fly to Brooklyn NY just last month to play a very similar event for the late German Goldenshteyn. In that case, he had passed away on the eve of the release of his debut recording, robbing his family from the chance of finally reaping some little financial reward from his life as a musician. By putting together a “tribute” band, led by one of his most devoted students, we were able to raise in one concert enough funds to provide him with a proper headstone, and give a little money to his widow. Plans are in the works for this very same group to perform elsewhere, donating the entirety of its performance fees and all sales and royalties of his CD to his widow. My and my compatriots motivations are crystal clear. “Bury the Dead, Protect the widow, educate the Orphan,” literally the creed of the Odd Fellows of which I am presently Noble Grand of my local Lodge.

The motivations behind these two local events, however charitable they may seem at first blush, are not as clear to me however.

A few months ago my old friend and Violin shop fellow employee Darcie Deaville took a bad fall off a ladder in her home. At first she was worried that she had broken her playing hand, which she had in fact, but took little notice that she had beaten her head fully against a thick glass end-table, shattering it. Losing the ability to play for even a few days spells disaster for the self employed musician. Only a few months earlier, Darcie had taken herself off the Violin shop’s health insurance plan, so her she is with her hand broken and now way to make her coin and a stack of medical bills piling up. Eventually, she got good news from her doctors telling her hand would heal nicely and should be back to her usual brilliant fiddling self. However, it was also about that time that she ascertained that she wasn’t thinking “right.” Doctors now tell her she has a concussion or maybe worse.

I actually named this release.
Darcie is a dear friend and a wonderfully gifted musician of great depth and creativity. But I’m certain she wouldn’t mind me saying that I think she’s also kinda nuts, and sometimes a little crazier than that. I’m pretty damn nutty myself sometimes I don’t mind sharing with you, and some of you reading this have seen me go through some mighty disturbing passages of mental illness. From what I can tell, it’s part of the package you get with an artistic nature and a creative bent.

What I mean to say with Darcie’s injury is that I’m not terribly certain whats the head being knocked around and what’s a few glasses of wine on a empty stomach coupled to a lifetime of demons barely held off at bay. A few years back Darcie blew more than a few minds with her one-woman show (Tornado In Slo-Mo) where she speaks frankly and openly about her years of suffering the business end of legion abuses, sexual and psychological. The fact she’s still with us and not in the dirt of a nuthouse after what she’s had to endure is a testament to her force of positive will and the constant cultivation of good energy. I place her among my gallery of person heroes in fact. She mentioned to me for instance that a pal of hers said the fall may have actually some knocked sense in, rather than the other way.

When I was approached to play her benefit concert, I asked the nice lady who called me why she thought anyone would come and see me or one of my bands play. I'm not being coy when I say that literally cannot draw anything close to a crowd in this town and I play regularly in local bars for no cover charge. Did she think that adding my name to a concert bill would amount to any more money coming in? I asked what the goal amount to be raised was and what those funds would be going to? These all seemed like pretty reasonable questions to me, but they really put this gal off her game. She had no good answer, and couldn’t follow my logic about my ability to be helpful. I repeated to her that Darcie is my pal and I’d take a bullet for her, no foolin’, but what exactly did she want from me? The nice lady said she’d get back to me, and to date I ain’t heard from her. In the meantime they have secured appearances from several fine local groups who might actually draw an audience, most notably her former employers the Austin Lounge Lizards.

Granted, they would probably be a better draw if they weren’t doing a two-night stand at the Cactus Café the weekend before, but I guess that goes to motivation. Just why are these people going through this exercise, when the end result is dubious at best? (In the case of the Lizards I’d posit guilt as a likely motivator, but that’s a story for Darcie to tell on her own.)

I am reminded of a long conversation Darcie and I had one late winter night as we were closing up the violin shop. We were relating our financial miseries to one another and bemoaning the need of this day-job, which created some security, it ultimately choked our creative drive. “You know Mark,” she related. “I don’t need any help. I don’t need a handout. I just need to be employed. It’s just as simple as that. I can get by just fine if I would be allowed to do what I do.”

Indeed, maybe these people who so willingly gather publicly to “help” a sister musician, possibly wouldn’t have to be doing so now if they would have only hired her to do her thing in the first place. The fact is Darcie is one of this towns most gifted songwriting instrumentalists, with a unique sound and approach on both guitar and fiddle, two instruments I can tell you it’s nearly impossible to create your own signature sound with. At this very hour she is working on a new recording that is as good a record as I have ever heard, especially in the acoustic music milieu. It is as masterfully played, musically engaging and as down right interesting a project as any Bad Liver album was, if not better. Rather than make a public showing of your “support” at a single nights concert may I humbly suggest that you hire her to play a gig for you, or in your band, or your recording project or heaven forbid, buy one of her many CD’s. That I think would be a real “benefit.” To you mostly, but also to her.

Now the Don Walser show on the other hand is a different can of worms altogether.

On March 10th, 1998, on the occasion of recording a solo record at Don’s home, he told me that he wished for me and his son Al to administer the estate his recordings. I’m not certain he ever followed up with paperwork, but I come from a place where a man’s word is his bond. At the time I was in the process of re-issuing the Texas Plainsmen CD and had planned on releasing quite a few more, but silly me, I gave all the profits to the Walsers and never held any back to make another run. I could have simply sold the thing and kept all the money and no one would have ever been the wiser. ‘Ceptin’ me of course. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I am directly and personally obligated to keep Don’s admonitions at the forefront of my actions concerning the exploitation of his musical legacy.

I have been approached to re-release those CD’s with Varese Sarabande, but I found the negotiations with that company to be the most distasteful I have yet encountered in my professional life (and people I have a soundtrack out on Sony and major motion picture with 20th Century Fox. In other words, know from being screwed over.) Suffice it to say I would be very surprised if the Walser family saw a significant paycheck from these people, ever. (I pray to God Almighty that I am all wrong about this, but all indications are to the contrary.)

Thus, I could go on for pages about the Don Walser compilation CD that Varese Sarabande released this week. And of the long list of crass and self serving agendas that I have witnessed lining up behind that release and the timing of this “benefit” concert. To be polite as I possibly can be in the public arena I will simply state that I think that once again, the best interests of the Walser family are not being attended to in a respectful manner. Thus, I care not to participate.

I’ve asked Al Walser how much of a debt he’s been left with as personally I think the securing of a anonymous benefactor behind the scenes is a far more effective way to solve the Family’s burden than to trot it out in the public street. (I would start hustling gelt from some of the financially comfortable people Don’s music helped enriched. There’s quite a list and the guilt they must live with should cover all the bills and then some.)

And not to put too fine a point on it, from the line up of musicians appearing at the Broken Spoke on November 4th, I myself see mostly a list of people who probably should have paid their tributes to the man while he was still here to hear it. God knows he would have appreciated a visitor. Even a damn phone call. Howard Kalish ; the Pure Texas Band, Gurf Morlix and Slaid Cleves all get a pass however. They were each regular visitors to Don’s death-bed, genuine friends to him even in his last difficult days. These other people appear to me like they’re jumping on a public grief bandwagon, and I wouldn’t be able to hold a professional composure in the presence of such horse crap. Especially if they start shilling a CD that the Walser family won’t see a decent profit from.

Enough said. This kinda stuff makes me profoundly sad.

Actually, what I'm really most sad about is that we have to do this damn benefits in the first damn place. What kind of culture allows this sort of behavior? What kind of people are we that only our fellow artists will come to our aid when we finally hit the last rung of the latter? And in a nation where the richest among us continue to grow richer? I resent profoundly the notion that those who do nothing but bring goodness and light into the world must be made to beg for scraps off the table. Doug Sahm had no health insurance and succumbed slowly to a easily treated illness. Kookie Martinez died a pauper leaving a widow with debt. German had no headstone. If I died tomorrow my wife would find herself homeless in a matter of months. It's shameful and sickening.

Shameful, shameful, shameful.

I'll try and end with a humorous aside:

My old partner Danny Barnes once said, only half joking, to a gal asking Bad Livers to play some worthy benefit gig somewhere, “Honey, I’m in the Barnes benefit business, and we play benefits for that cause every night…” We didn’t get asked to play too many of them after that.