I am walking down the hill, out of the bubble of Horace Mann Ivy League Preparatory School and into the rest of the world. I have just enough time between classes to walk to David’s house, smoke a spliff, and listen to whatever new music he’ll make me listen to. His grimy Bronx apartment is a welcome reverie after my high school’s pit of anxiety. I open the unlocked door of his apartment and creep into his room. He’s sitting where he always is, legs crossed at his desk, hammering at his Korg keyboard. The sound coming out of his headphones is audible from five feet away. At four hundred dollars, the keyboard is by far the most expensive thing he owns, and more precious to him than anything. He’s hunched over, barefoot, his hair and hoodie unwashed. As always, it takes him a few moments to notice me. I wait, not wanting to break his musical trance, and sit on the edge of his bed.
Suddenly, he turns around. “Kat! Listen to this shit.” Still half-entranced, he rips out his headphones and lets the beat bump through the speakers. It’s mediocre.
“Dude! Fucking sick,” I say, “who are you writing this for?”
“Akilah wrote something last night, needs a beat. I’m trying to get it on SoundCloud before the show this weekend.”
I almost flinch—I’d entirely forgotten that we were going to perform.
I feign excitement: “Oh sick, yeah, I’ve been working on some poems, I’ll send them to you.” David doesn’t need any more negativity surrounding the performance.
At the biggest show we ever played, only twelve people were in the audience. We had been practicing for weeks. My piece was by far the easiest—I read a couple of old poems and helped the musicians move their equipment. David’s jobs were far harder. He was the one responsible for organizing group practice. It took place in the Sweatshop, a twenty-dollar-per-hour studio in Bushwick, away from the ears of complaining neighbors. He was the one who had to fight with venue managers over the money we had to scrounge up to use the space. Most importantly, he had to keep us from turning our anxiety and anger against each other. FreeThe was a hotheaded DIY group, a collection of artists desperate for success. Bickering was inevitable, just another part of the operation.
It took me a while to comprehend why he put so much effort and suffering into what would end up being a mediocre, unpopulated show. As a side performer—primarily just a friend who was invited to participate—I always felt distant from the group’s drama. From my perspective, it was almost depressing to watch. It was pretty clear that no one in FreeThe was about to make it big.
Recently, I asked Jake, a fellow former FreeThe musician and longtime friend, why he thought David worked so hard for the group. “No idea,” he replied. Jake, like me, left the intensity of New York for the quiet emptiness of Colorado. I think he still harbors some resentment for the city and its people.
“It’s like, when we performed,” he continued, “it would just be going terribly and we knew it was going terribly but we just had to pretend it was all okay. We just had sit there and cringe.” I was surprised to hear him speak so negatively of FreeThe. “Why didn’t you quit earlier?” I asked. “They’re good people and I need good people to practice with,” Jake said, before changing the subject.
After David and I finished our spliff, the initial edge of pre-show anxiety disappeared, and my excitement was a bit less forced. He continued to work on the beat as I leaned back and listened, willing it to be better, desperately hoping for him to succeed. Perhaps it was just my affection for him and my own wishful thinking, but after fifteen more minutes of work, the beat sounded halfway decent. I lay back on the bed, soaking up a bit more of David’s ardor before trudging back to class.
Jake’s answer to my question was unsatisfying, so I’ve been searching for a better one. Why did David work so hard for what he must have known wouldn’t succeed?
Only recently, now that I’m more than halfway across the country and dearly missing FreeThe, have I begun to realize that the question of “why” never even entered anyone’s head. We only wondered “how.” The group’s need to make art was not up for question. Our only focus was finding a way to do what we needed to do.
That’s why we put on shows: It gave us a deadline, a tangible reason to get together and practice. Though most FreeThe members would deny this (they’re as haughty as most artists are), the show didn’t matter nearly as much as the practice. We did it for the process, for the actual production of art. The show itself was only a byproduct.
In David’s case, there is another factor that can’t be overlooked. Before FreeThe, back when I only knew him as an older guy with a slightly predatory reputation, he was a weed, cocaine, and acid dealer. He’s only told me the story of his downfall in various hesitant, drunk fragments—it’s a touchy subject for him. Essentially, he was robbed of a few thousand dollars’ worth of drugs and needed to get the money back fast. After making some bad decisions to get money quickly, he wound up at Rikers Island prison for a brief period of time. Since getting out, he’s remained relatively clean and has only worked legal jobs.
FreeThe was partially a distraction, something to fill David’s time so that he didn’t feel as compelled to return to the drug scene. I also believe, though, that being responsible for something made him feel better about himself. Like a parent raising a child, David could focus on the successes and failures of FreeThe to distract from his own.
The next Saturday, I was back at David’s house, clumsily taking apart a drum kit and preparing it for the nearly two-hour long subway journey to the Lower East Side. Most of FreeThe was also at David’s house, leaving little room to move around the tiny apartment. An air of excitement filled the small space as everyone hyped each other up.
I kept to the side, alone with the cumbersome drum kit—I didn’t want to bring down their energy with my anxiety. Performing has always been tough for me, though not for the reasons that Jake expressed. Once I begin to read my poetry, my fear dissipates. Every moment until then, though, is painful.
Swallowing my stress, I began hauling the drums past the broken elevator and down the stairs, allowing myself a moment alone before the inevitable ordeal of performing.
As bad as my anxiety in that moment was, it was far from the worst it’s been. In seventh grade, I shared a piece of writing with a large group of people for the first time, and became so overwhelmed with fear that I cried. I ended up having to leave the dingy public library auditorium. Years later, after winning a competition for a piece I wrote, I was so anxious about reading it publicly that at the last minute I backed out of my opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall. Instead of going to the ceremony, I watched a live stream of it with my parents. I remember staring at the screen, still dressed up in preparation to perform, filled with regret. I decided to never let it happen again.
Like me, David and the rest of FreeThe were kids on the cusp of being “real artists,” willing to put in whatever amount of pain and effort required to make something beautiful. Also like me, they often failed to actually do so. Either way, they were there to force me to continue to try, and I was there to force them. They gave me the tough love I needed. Once or twice, Jake angrily yelled at me to “stop being a little bitch, Kat” when I tried to get out of performing. At the time, I hated him for it. His aggression felt cruel, and amidst the group’s usual bickering, I took his insults personally. But I realize now how much that anger helped me. Nothing but the bitter desire to prove him wrong could have made me get up and perform.
The subway ride from David’s house in the Bronx to the lower Manhattan venue must have taken an hour and a half, and with a drum kit, keyboard, guitar, and pedalboard in hand, it was a hellish excursion. Some of the other passengers smiled at us, though I’m not sure if they smiled because of the absurdity of the scene or out of warmth and respect for visibly struggling musicians. Either way, their joy was a welcome sight. Most people were far ruder, disregarding the preciousness of our equipment and callously kicking or bumping into it. I’m sure that for people like David, whose keyboard was his pride and joy, their behavior was heinous.
Finally making it to the venue was barely a relief. Moments after we got there, David was already arguing with the manager.
By 8 p.m., the drama had peaked. The issue of the venue fee had led David and the bar manager into a near-physical screaming match. Money was often the root of our fights with venues. Usually, a band will pay a certain amount of money to play at a venue, and the money is returned after ticket sales. At this particular show, the venue refused to return the hundred dollars that we had barely managed to scrape together from painful extra working hours. We couldn’t afford to lose that money.
Not all of New York’s teenage performance groups go through this struggle. Certain groups whose families have the money to support their music can easily afford to spare a hundred dollars. Often, they can spare even more, which gives them the option to play at bigger venues with better advertisement and regular crowds. Money isn’t the only key to success in DIY, but it certainly helps, and our lack of money certainly put us at a disadvantage in the harsh competition of the New York music scene.
New York is overcrowded with talented people trying to make it, to stand out against the masses of equally talented performers. The city is simply too physically dense to accommodate us all. Because of this, performers are forced to appeal to the economic interests of venues, which, as much as they want to help the art scene, also need to sustain themselves financially.
For the most part, we made an effort to resist the atmosphere of tension and remain supportive towards each other. But sometimes we would slip up and let the stress get the best of us. Someone would give five dollars less than another person would, and bickering would ensue.
David left the bar in a huff. Half the group left with him to offer comfort and solutions, while the other half, including myself, stayed inside with the equipment. None of the people who left were allowed back inside. The bouncer became a barrier between the two halves of FreeThe.
When an hour passed, no solution had been reached and we were halfway into our time slot. Out of boredom and the unavoidable urge to continue making art, we began our show unplugged, with only half of the group, and without an audience. We played for each other and for ourselves, channeling the frustration right back into the work. We improvised. A guy with minimal drum experience played a box drum. I recalled my childhood ballet classes and danced. I read poems over a girl’s singing. People picked up instruments they’d never used before. Ultimately, we just messed around, giving in to the chaos of our failed show, relishing the freedom it granted us.
Half out of tradition, half out of an attempt to console ourselves for the objective failure of our show, we decided to leave the venue and get drunk. With money we didn’t make from the gig, we bought pizza and beer and migrated to our usual corner of Tompkins Square Park. It was a bit too cold and late to be hanging outside, so the park was deserted apart from our group and our equipment. Our little caravan, dwarfed by all the gear, huddled in the slight shelter that the drum kit and guitar cases provided.
No one was talking. After our moment of failure, each of us was deeply involved in our own internal debate. Why do I do this? Why am I wasting so much money? So much effort?
“I still think I should have socked that guy,” said David.
“Yeah, no shit,” said Jake. There was a pause before we all started to laugh. For the first time, I realized the comedy in the scene. I saw my underdressed and shivering friends hugging their instruments, sitting in a circle on the pavement for no real reason, pouting like children.
David mentioned something about an open venue in a couple weeks but was quickly cut off by a communal groan.
“Ok, fine. I’ll shut up.”