A young fan blows bubbles at the Mainstage Meadow of the 2007 Orange County Fair. Photo by Michael Holden.
Music is undoubtedly an outlet. For both the maker and the listener, music provides an avenue out from the real world into a world of perfection. Whether through an iPod or at a concert, people who love music are unlikely to worry themselves with outside drama as the weight of each day seems to fall away when music hits them.
This kind of release is not just for young people, as dominating as they can be 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.
However, this does beg the question: what portion of adults use music an escape? Certainly the youth have historically used music to escape schoolwork, their parents, the government, etc. as is showcased by the countless youth-in-revolt style bands and songs that have ever dominated the Top 40. On a smaller scale, the question becomes: When career life starts is the professional expected to abandon their adolescent methods of finding satisfaction through entertainment? Is the doctor not allowed to listen to the radio? Can the teacher not start a band of his own?
If not, then guitarist Michael Dion certainly didn’t get the memo. 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 also 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,” says the guitarist. “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,” says Dion, “ 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.”
Unlike Michael, I am 23 years old and work four days a week. Hardly an adult and hardly working a full-time job, I’ll admit, but even I use music as an escape. I follow jam bands like Phish around the country when they tour and jet off to east coast music festivals as often as I can. 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, and–most importantly–there’s no work to be done. Not only does the infectious feeling of joy I get from seeing any live act provide me an escape from reality, but it also carries me through my next few work days, supporting me as I re-enter normal life.
I see many adults at Phish concerts who have a similar need for escape as I do, but who have been doing this for a lot longer. Generally speaking, these are many adult ‘phans’ who were once followers of the Grateful Dead in decades past, going from show to show throughout the ‘70s and letting the band melt their sorrows away for most of their lives. More so than Phish, the Dead’s songs were very serious in nature, often dealing with tragic subjects and the trying forces in life.
Like the Dead, however, Phish’s extended jams and complex compositions similarly move the listener as the Dead’s more conventional approach. Seeing how improvised music allows a musician to get carried away with themselves has a tendency to let an audience member do the same. Trying to follow the different individuals timbres of instruments in distinctly improvised music requires a lot of attention and does not allow headspace for other thoughts or worries. Familiar songs and compositions have the same effect, even though the listener knows what’s coming.
Yet after the music ends and both the musicians and audience return to their jobs and chores, they’re stuck with a double-life complex. For Michael, it’s hard to draw the line between work and play when so often those worlds don’t mix very easily.
“I don’t advertise that I’m in a band with my students. Eventually, it comes out through out the coarse 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.”
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 player and computer engineer] even though he’ll have to clock out, will be doing work remotely on the way,” says the guitarist. “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. Whereas 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. 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,” says the veteran performer.
“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.
Given all that he has accomplished both in his profession and his intensely pursued hobbies, other ambitions of Dion’s lie on the horizon that threaten to interrupt the current equilibrium between paying his bills and playing his music.
“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,” Dion explains. “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 will never be easy, as it requires twice the dedication and twice the effort as a normal existence. As Dion’s experience emphasizes: if music makes you happy, let that be your escape from whatever ails your daily grind. Adults should feel as free to get away from the same rules and authorities as kids do; especially when that authority only exists in themselves alone, as it does so often.