In and Out of the Audience

categories: Cocktail Hour


Rick, Billy, Tommy, 1967

Late to the game, I’m fascinated with the level of collaboration a service like Facebook promises, and more and more I’m pleased with the prospects of new kinds of audiences and new kinds of art the Internet promises in general, new experiences for me as both reader and writer, and new definitions of reading altogether.  And my vision is changing, and I don’t only mean these reading glasses: my artistic vision is changing. I did an interview a few years back—well, five or six or seven years back?—with Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network, an internet book-reviewing site that’s become much more than that over the years. In response to a question I blithely and with my usual erudition said, “Fuck the Internet.” What I meant was that I and everyone else were going to keep writing what we were writing, Internet regardless. My sense at the time being that you might in some far-off unimaginable future publish something well on the Internet, or make good use of a website, but that your essential day’s work and oeuvre would remain the same, words formed into sentences and then paragraphs and so on, in solitude.  Didn’t matter where this appeared or how it was delivered to the reader; where this appeared didn’t affect the art of the thing.  At the end of the process you’d publish to your invisible, mostly silent audience, same as always.

Even my first rather rudimentary website challenge this thinking a little (that site is getting revamped right now… it’s hopelessly out of date at this point).  Next, a subtle but eventually profound shift in my research methods:  I wasn’t in the library so much (and often when I was I was searching databases), and I wasn’t on the phone as much.  People I needed to question for an article I could find quickly online and send a preliminary email.  And their answers came back considered and articulate, ready to be pasted between quotation marks, or printed out on my sheet of notes for the live interview or even phone interview, preparation at a level I’d never had.  For fiction, if I set a short story on the Neva River outside St. Petersburg, Russia (“Harbinger Hall“), I could quickly access a detailed map and place names, quickly have a look (a “look”) at those places in various ways from the visual to the historical to the geological and so on—whatever was needed, and fast, also stuff I didn’t know was needed, faster, much faster than looking through books.  I used to love browsing the stacks at Butler Library for serendipitous proximal finds—now I was browsing the world of knowledge and making my own luck.  (Only recently has Internet browsing felt mediated.  But that’s a subject for later.)

I miss being a musician in terms of audience—you get up there and play and people dance, you know?  And they shout things out and they sing along and they cheer.  Or not.  Maybe they just stand there glum.  The thing is, you are with them and you can see them and you can react to them.  The night’s performance is a thing unique unto itself and includes the audience as a component good or bad.  So—if I may make a lateral leap—as a writer I’ve always loved doing readings.  I like the strong hush in a room just before your heroine’s big realization or death or haircut, whatever.  I like the laughter, if it’s there.  (I read at a junior high school once and before I went on the principal said no swearing.  So I was reading along and I saw the word piss coming several paragraphs ahead and tried to think how to change it but when I got to it just said it—piss–and the kids fell out!  The principal would not talk to me after).  At MacDowell Colony I felt safe enough with an audience of other artists to try a new form for me—a monologue.  This was in the spring of 1997.  I stood up and told the story of traveling with a crazy bunch of musicians in Norway, early 80s.  It was 100% improvised and included sitting down at the piano for a couple of verses of a song or two.   This was material I’d often recited at bars among friends, who always said I should write it, but it was material that for whatever reason I couldn’t write, didn’t want to: it didn’t work on the page, maybe because too much of the comedy was physical?  I don’t know.  At MacDowell, relief, I was writing the show in front of the audience.  I don’t think I even had notes.  Mostly in preparation I had practiced the songs, as I hadn’t played the piano in many years.  The performance was called “I Used to Play in Bands.”  After I was done, all these wonderful, successful painters and photographers and poets and sculptors and dancers and filmmakers and composers offered opinions, real critiques from all these artistic angles.  But how often do you get an audience like that?

I bill the current incarnation of “I Used to Play in Bands” as a video memoir, but there’s more to it than that—it’s a video monologue, too.  It’s improvised, but I do get to re-shoot and edit, stuff you can’t do live.  It’s more like writing than the monologue, but less like writing than this blog, for example, which is less like writing than sitting this afternoon working on the opening of a new, rather inchoate novel.  And the audience is stretched over time in a way it’s not in a live room.  So it’s more like the audience for a book, which is also stretched over time, also space.  Though, unlike a book and like the audience, the telling of this tale is stretched over time.  Some readers (or viewers or whatever I should call them) will come to the project now, when there are only three chapters up.  Some will come in a few months, when there should be dozens of chapters up.  And then at some future date unknown, “I Used to Play in Bands” will be finished (in this form, anyway) and can be watched (this might take some Red Bull and vodka on the part of the viewer) whole.

But more than that, the audience can react.  It’s not quite like a crowd in a bar, not at all.  But it’s not like the faceless crowd out there reading your magazine pieces or your book.  And in this case, since it’s a memoir, it contains people who are cast as characters in the story.  And these characters can react in time to influence the project, because they’re not encountering for the first time in the pages of a traditional book.  How do they find the project?  Facebook, in some cases.  My emails, in others.  Tom Taylor, for example, who was the drummer in our junior high school band.  He very kindly offered corrections, additions, and more important, his own story behind my story, which I can then use to improve and deepen the piece.  (With his permission I’ll paste one of his many facebook notes below*.)  Chris Bremser was in a later band, and has given me several fond memories to work with, and corrections, and more about the timeline, which confuses me endlessly.  My older brother, too—Randy—who via email corrected my memory on a guitar we’d shared.  “That was a Guild.”  I argued back and even pointed to the photo at the end of Chapter Two, which, I thought, clearly showed a Gibson.  And more: a lot of old high-school friends are on my facebook network, and they saw notes from Tommy and from me, and a couple entered the discussion.  Dear friends like Kristen Keckler who only met me in later years text-messaged me with critiques.  Emails came in, come in: more memories, suggestions for technique and technology.  Ellie Skeele commented on something Tommy had said and I was able to quote her (also mentioned that she’s lived in Kathmandu for like 14 years).  How hot it was at the YMCA dances!  That was Faith Kerchoff.  Don’t forget the mirrored ball at the St. Mark’s dances!  And Faith had an email for Rick Osburn, whom I’d mentioned repeatedly in the piece, even worrying that he was deceased.  She convinced Rick when we found him to open a facebook account, and before long he’d seen my videos and responded.

With documents.  He’s got photos, songlists, lists of gigs with general dates and money.  The photos are precious—you realize we’re children—and also the guitar is there, clearly a Guild.  So I write my brother to give him credit for being right, and he writes back with his own memories of his own bands, you know?  And all of this becomes part of the work, an entirely new form.

People have asked, so: I’m making the memoir with a little Canon digital camera.  It’s meant as a still camera, but it takes three-minute movies with sound.  I didn’t even know this till a photographer friend pointed it out.  I’d been asking what sort of movie camera I’d need for my project.  “Just use that,” he said.  For editing, I use I-Movie, which I’d always ignored on my Mac toolbar.  Already, I’m feeling the limitations of both camera and editing software.  I want to think of an idea and not have mere technology in the way, or someone else’s idea of what I might need for tools, even as good as these programs are.  But I don’t feel like I’m movie-making.  That’s not it at all, even though that’s it.  And I don’t feel like I’m performing, though again, that’s what I’m doing.  What I feel I’m doing while I’m doing it is writing.  The camera, always in my hand or perched on a shelf or tree limb or dashboard, is my first person singular.  My I, and not just my eye.  At least for now.

At least some of my (so far small) audience is visible to me, via facebook, etc.  I can hear the shouts at times.  I hope at least one someone is dancing.  (Once, a dancer friend asked me to help her write a story.  We met for drinks and she tried to tell me her plot.  She drew it, is what she did, drew it on the tabletop with her hands.  She said things like, “The main character is a girl like me.  She moves from here to here.”  Kitty-corner across the table.  “And then she moves here.”  To the center.  “Then, a boy comes in, from here.”  Left side of table.  Anyway, in the end I said she was choreographing a dance in front of my eyes.  “No,” she said.  “It’s nothing like a dance.  It’s a story!”  So I gave her her first line:  “A girl moves from here to here.”  And she loved this first line.  The dark entrance of the boy provided all the plot we needed.  In the end it really was a dance, on a real stage, that I stood up and narrated into a microphone, describing the movements just before they happened.)  Collaboration, accidental and otherwise.  (Last night I was at Aarhus Gallery in Belfast, Maine for an evening of short stories read by actors, “As If.”  Derek DeJoy read my story “Taughannock Falls.  It’s a first-person story, and Derek inhabited the narrator.  It was my story, but it was not my story. And I was both author and audience. The large, attentive remainder of the audience was reacting to Derek, and not only to the story.  And they were adding the effects to the effects of the other stories and actors of the evening, and adding those effects to all the art on the walls of the gallery, and the effects of the space in itself, which is a very beautiful space, and those effects to their memories of jazz concerts in the space.  And so something new was fashioned, and a hundred times over, once for each member of the audience, one of them myself.)(WERU, the alternative radio station out of Blue Hill was there—when the evening of stories is broadcast, something new again will occur, with a radio audience hearing a gallery audience react to an actor reading what three writers have made while the writers sit there among the art their hosts have made.)

New forms, collaboration, audience: this is news, and it’s the reason I will stop worrying about the effect of the Internet on publishing, writing, professional relationships, editorial input, etc.  Please if you get a minute tell us about your new forms and collaborations and your sense of our shifting audiences.


[*From Tom Taylor:  “Here are some random thoughts as I was watching and listening:> Rick’s first guitar was a red Danelectro that wouldn’t stay in tune! He got the Gibson for his birthday, and when he brought it to practice, he convinced us that his parents could only afford the case, but the guitar would follow at Christmas. He had us fooled, because when he opened it up, there was the gorgeous hollow body Gibson. Both guitars are worth big bucks today. > Funny, I don’t remember the guinea pigs at Rick’s house… > Rick’s mom made the grilled cheese sandwiches, but his dad made those incredible sourdough pancakes. Remember, the sourdough starter sat out the night before. We’d have sleepovers at each of our houses, and our parents were really cool.  > Dude! Research! Wipeout was not by the Ventures. It was by the Surfaris!  > Sorry you don’t still have your 35k guitar anymore. Hey, I still have my Rogers drums! They’re worth about $1,500. Should have taken up guitar collecting I guess. > One of the teachers told us that we won the battle of the bands because we threw in a mellow number, besides the rock ‘n ‘roll. I remember that I used my woodblock and was scared to death that the kids would think it was cheesy. Can’t remember the name of that damn song, but the melody is stuck in my head. “Sunshine” or “Daytime” or “Rainbow” or whatever. Undoubtedly another Ventures song. > Do you remember that our very first performance was in Miss Scarborough’s social studies class? We got permission from her to set up and play–it was all Rick’s doing, and it was brilliant. Our mom’s ferried our instruments to school–we had to load them in the car the night before–and we brought them in through the back door. So there we were in social studies–the last period of the day…and we rocked Saxe Jr. High to the timbers. that “gig” was validation that we had something special going. the Prophets. Yeah. We were the baddest band at school.  >Actually, we were the baddest “rich kid” band. There was that other hard core group from the other side of the tracks with Tony Bochetta that scared the shit out of us. And they were good.
You were a damn good singer, as I remember, and the girls swooned at the rhythm guitar player. They also liked Rick singing “Louie Louie” and “Western Union.” You did “Midnight Hour” and I got to sing “Hanky Panky.”  Geez. I don’t think those were the “good old days,” but they were pretty close.  Best, Tom”]

  1. Tommy Taylor writes:

    Bill (and friends), what a pleasure it is to be barely awake at 11:00 PM on Thursday night, glass of Oregon Pinot in hand, watching your YouTube chapter and reading your blog–fighting the urge to go to bed. Facebook directed me here, as I found the link to Chapter 4 of “I Used to Play In Bands.” Very, very, very enjoyable. Existential? Hmmmn.

    But I can see some spirituality in it. Anyone who has played music with friends has had a moment or two “in the zone,” which is most certainly a spiritual experience. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. The connection between the players is a bond that goes beyond the ordinary senses of eyes and ears. Time stops. You control the moment. Your mind is out of body, and everything that will happen next in the encapsulated musical number is preordained. It has already happened. The song is finished, the audience goes insane, and yet, you’re only partway through, because you’re really still back there somewhere in the middle, about to play the next note. You’re in the zone. Yeah!

    Bill, reading your blog suggests that we are experiencing a kind of “double nostalgia.” It’s amazing that after 43 years, the Prophet$ have reformed on “the fucking Internet.” 🙂

    Time to hit the sack. I’m awake and doubly wired because my band mates left rehearsal about an hour ago. Yes, still playing the drums and loving it!



    • Bill writes:

      Tom, it’s great to have a drummer on board at cocktail hour! That zone thing is something I really miss as a writer–I mean, I do get in the zone typing away from time to time, but when I look up nobody cheers! Usually it’s just my daughter standing there asking to play Barbies. Of course I say yes…

      • Tommy Taylor writes:

        Yes, every cocktail hour needs a drummer playing a cocktail drum kit! No, that is not a joke. I have two really cool vintage Rogers cocktail drum outfits from the late 1950s, though they aren’t worth much compared to your Gibsons, Fenders and Guilds.

        Cocktail drums get their name from the style of playing you do with brushes in a small trio in a cocktail lounge. There’s a culture with this cocktail thing, and I’m not talking martinis. Check out the Cocktail Drum Lounge at

        in re-reading my post from the other night, I see I was pretty sleepy. I didn’t mean for the “spiritual” thing to sound like I’m bringing religion into this. No “Om Mane Padme Hum” or chants to the almighty Zeus intended. (Or politics, for that matter.) The “zone” can also be termed as a psychic connection among players. Or psycho. I dunno.

        In any case, it is real. When it happens, it is indescribable, and such a rush that you try to duplicate it again and again. It’s why I believe, sincerely, that many musicians become junkies: they want to recreate the musical “high” in their otherwise inharmonious daily lives.

        When Michael Jordan won his final championship with that last second basket, he later described the zone in an interview. If you’ve been there, you recognize it.

        Bill Russell, another basketbal great, said it this way: “At that special level all sorts of odd things happened…. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘It’s coming there!’-except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.”

        When this slow motion thing happens among musicians, it can be described as knowing exactly what each player will do next, even though you’ve never played that certain riff before. It comes across in perfect sync, like you’ve just rehearsed it together for the thousandth time.

        Bill, it’s so good to know that you get into the zone when you’re writing…and playing with Barbie dolls, too.

  2. John Jack writes:

    I don’t desire to be in an audience any more than under the limelights’ glare. I go out of my way to find the least mobbed times and places, strategically deploying behind or erecting real or imagined barriers as needed to isolate myself from the indifferent mob.

    When circumstances require me to be in a crowd, I arrive early enough to stake out my territory, or late enough so I can slip quietly in and out of the back.

    I’ve been in a band, for all of an audition, three practices, and two live gigs before I was replaced by a harmonica player with more stage presence. I had to be drunk to be in that crowd.

    Concerts, festivals, fairs, theaters, bars, places where mobs gather for entertainments, I have to be self-medicated to tolerate it for longer than a token appearance. Demo-hedonophobia, social anxiety, mob agrophobia, fears of mobs of strangers engaged in indifferent-to-me, wrecklessly abandoned hedonism.

    One of the stronger appeals of writing to me is it’s a solitary pursuit. The writer-reader dialogue is at a distance of safe remove. When I do have to be in front of an audience, I like a lectern or desk or table or counter in front of me as an imagined impregnable bastion, a siege fortress behind which I’m safely ensconced. Costumes and uniforms do somewhat the same thing, a disquise that creates an nonconscious otherness that separates me from the mob.

    Internet networking technologies, social networking sites, and the like have given me access to social interactions that had become intolerable in person when I went on the water wagon. I prefer one-on-one interactions. The public nature of social networking sites gives me the heebie-jeebies. I become aware of the mob.

    I do participate in a few writing discussion sites, cloud consciousnesses, but only for the writing discussions. The social networking type discussions don’t float my balloon. However, I do meet and enagage for a time with a few like-minded outliers from time to time, before we move on to new horizons. Always moving on.