keep on rockin' in the free world
don't just do whatchalike, do what you love
by jeffrey d. walker
"Next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I'm going to tell them 'I rock!'"
- Bill Bennett
- The Off Wall Street Jams
Not everyone who wants to make a living as a musician can actually do it. Some don't have the guts to throw caution to the winds and gamble on "making it" in the industry. Some are never lucky enough to find the right group of people to work with. And some who find the right bunch of people still can't open the right doors.
(Of course, there's no correlation between talent and success. Some so-called "musicians" just plain suck. Unfortunately, this does not keep them from succeeding where more talented musicians fail.)
Many people who dream of making music for a living find themselves, instead, resorting to a day job to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. However, this inferior option doesn't generally provide the pleasure one would hope for vis-à-vis one's occupation.
Bill Bennett was one of these people. His professional rock life began around age 17 and initially spanned more than 12 years, playing in groups with styles ranging from punk to "psychedelic rockabilly." While never getting the ever elusive "big break," Bill's success was more than merely moderate; he even opened for The Ramones.
Still, frustration inevitably set in. Acts he performed in would get so close to stardom -- close enough to taste it -- only to be thwarted, one way or another. Bill's last band disintegrated after the guitarist decided he had a better chance of success in Los Angeles than NYC, and was gone within the week. Discouraged, Bill placed his instruments in a closet, where they remained untouched for three years. He resigned himself to his day job, but he always felt restricted.
Then Bill was told about a place called The Off Wall Street Jams. (see www.owsj.com). Called a "musician's health club" by some, and a "big musical whorehouse" by others, The Off Wall Street Jams (henceforth referred to as OWSJ) is a full service facility for musicians of all levels to delve into the world of music as far as their wishes (and their talent or allegations thereof) will take them.
Created in 1990, OWSJ had two fully-equipped music studios where musicians could play. Fully-equipped, in this case, meant a drum set, guitar amp, bass amp, keyboards, a P.A. system, various percussion extras, and a host of guitars, bass guitars, and cymbals. The two studios eventually grew to four, two of which have full-sized pianos. Extra guitar amps line the lower hallways and utility closets to accommodate bands with more than one guitarist. An upright bass and a host of guitar effects have also been added to the selection.
There are tambourines available also.
Each day of the week jam sessions are held, each with its own genre. Sundays are the jazz jam, rock jams are Saturdays, and blues is on Friday. There is a guitar circle for those honing their fretwork, and a beginners' jam for the fairly competent but inexperienced rocker.
Some of the musicians find this to be enough. But some crave something a little more focused, like a band or project. These individuals can either make connections at the weekly jam or post an ad to seek out fellow musicians. The four studios can then be rented by the hour where a particular ensemble can iron out their set. Again, each studio is fully equipped, so there is no need to lug your stuff in and out, burning up precious and expensive time just preparing to get ready to practice.
Groups that show promise are often invited to participate in one of the weekly "showcases" that take place in various bars around Manhattan. OWSJ gets you the show; OWSJ provides the equipment for you to use. No muss, no fuss; just invite your friends, show up, and play. What could be simpler?
A modest membership fee is required to be eligible to play in the showcases, but anyone can use the studios for a slightly increased rate. But who can put a price on an organization that can pair you up with other musicians and get you gigs with a modest amount of effort and the right amount of promise?
That's exactly what Bill Bennett said. Joining in 1993, Bill was back onstage within the first month of joining OWSJ, after a long break from the music industry. He was impressed by how quickly it all came together, and the fact that both the show and equipment to play it were provided and ready to go when he arrived at the club. Rather than scoffing at the membership fee, he asked, "Are you sure that's all you want?" Essentially, you get rehearsal space, sound technicians, and roadies all included in the deal.
Years later, Bill is the owner of OWSJ. The hours he works are long. His office buzzes with musicians chatting about anything from their upcoming gig, to the hassles of their day job, to problems with their spouses/significant others/lack thereof. All of this occurring over the sounds of people in the studios shaping their art. It's not uncommon for people to just show up and hang around whether they are, in fact, even playing that evening. OWSJ is something like a clique or group of friends, in addition to a place to play. Often, other musicians will show up at the showcases to support their fellow jammers.
They even have a softball team. (Which got clobbered in their first game, but were said to enjoy it nonetheless.) All in all, it's friendly and congenial, especially considering that musicians are notorious for their inflated egos.
This writer was introduced to OWSJ by a co-worker, much in the same way Bill Bennett found out about the place. Also, much like Bill, I was on stage with three other guys doing 80's and 90's party favorites for a decent-sized audience within a month of my first jam. It was my first show ever in New York City, and it was exciting, to say the least. I've been on stage many times before, so my success may not be a typical experience. But the chance is there.
Moreover, I've gotten a serious dose of reality of what goes on out there in the trenches with struggling musicians. In my past experience, I've only associated with "rockers." And, in that genre, I can hold my own without much fear. However, when I sat in on the Sunday jazz jam, I felt like an absolute novice as I awkwardly struggled to play the notes they wanted from me in a tempo that I'd never even thought to try. I've seen older guys who don't fit the "rock" image, who can play and sing hundreds of songs from memory. I've seen blues guitarists whose riffs were so tasty that I wondered, even if just for a moment, if they'd made a trip down to the proverbial crossroads and made a deal with the devil to play that way.
It was on stage as he prepared to play a long set in a Rolling Stones tribute band, aptly named, "The Rolling Bones," that Bill made the comment that prefaces this article. No one actually asked him what he did. No one had said anything that I remember. He just looked around and told us, essentially, that he rocked for a living.
I have to agree.
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
ABOUT JEFFREY D. WALKER
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7.20.01 @ 10:43a
I totally know where he's coming from. Some of my best memories are playing out in bands when I lived in Boston. We once did "Brown Eyed Girl" without ever having practiced it together just to get a guy in the back of the bar to stop yelling it at the end of every song.
7.20.01 @ 12:38p
Lloyd Street Studios in Chapel Hill used to have this setup in one studio. Drums, amps and PA already there (no guitars and basses). But it was a godsend and it cost about $30 for three hours of time. I wish there were more of these. Q: Can't you do this at Mars, too?
7.20.01 @ 2:25p
You mean, Marrs music? I always thought that was for special performances only, but I'm not sure. Either way, I never really heard of a place that would actually help arrange shows if you rented the space from them.
7.21.01 @ 4:03a
You did a very good job Jeff.
7.31.01 @ 1:47p
Former Drug Tsar AND opened for The Ramones. Who'd fight that resume'?
Seriously, though, the Triangle "scene" has IMHO begun to really open up recently. It's still very competitive and there's still a bunch of assholes around who think talkin' smack about other bands is a superior marketing strategy, but there's also a greater sense of cooperation around here. Maybe it's because I'm not playing rock anymore and maybe it's because everyone's forgotten Chapel Hill was forecast to become The Next Seattle. It would be really cool to put a musical cooperative like OWSJ together. There're several local songwriter associations who do this type of thing on a limited scale in reference to genre and location. I they evolve.
7.31.01 @ 1:48p
Uh, I HOPE they evolve. At least this ain't Charlotte!