When your only stage is the pulpit, and your only performance a short talk about Jesus, or a simple song, you miss out on one of the best parts of any show: backstage.
I came on music gradually. Untrained and certainly unskilled in the art of performance. When it was my turn to play I hurried on through the dark chambers behind the stage, got to the light and rather nervously did my part, then scurried off. It has only been in recent years that I have learned to cherish the moments in the wings.
Backstage differs from the green room…the place where performers nibble on goodies and settle into soft couches, look into mirrors and warm their vocal cords. Where you joke with friends or converse casually with other performers awaiting their turn on stage. You can talk, and even guffaw in the green room. Backstage, you have to whisper. I don’t spend a lot of time in green rooms. I’m not on that level, nor am I in those kind of shows where there is a large chunk of time to wait.
But I do know a bit about backstage. The dark, dusty place where the stage crew glares at you cuz you’re in their way and they are trying to get their work done. Where you have to be careful not to step on a cord, or lean against a wall and release a scrim, or flip a switch. Backstage, where the props from some other show hunker in a pile atop a long table, where little recital dancers trace patterns with their toes, their faces planted on the ground, their brains reciting the dance in their heads as their hands and feet whisper a fast-forward version in tiny swoops and swirls. Back there where the stage manager, dressed in black, bosses other people dressed in black, her clipboard pressed into her abs like Romeo’s knife.
Backstage for a musician is likely very different from that of an actor. Most often my backstage is pretty quiet. Our shows are not that complex. We come on, and we don’t come off till the show is over. We don’t usually need a stage manager. My favorite shows are the ones I produce myself, because I have so much more control over who I get to play with and where I get to play and even what the stage looks like. And my favorite backstage moments are my Christmas shows, there on that little Farmington Arts Center stage. There’s a little room in the wings, just large enough for the group of musicians, our instrument cases, enough folding chairs for all of us and Eric, our engineer, and whatever guests swoop in and out. There’s enough room, as well, for a long narrow table, upon which I set bottles of water and a bowl of Clementine oranges, a tin of European shortbread cookies, some chips and Ashley’s famous artichoke dip, all warm and creamy ready to be scooped into the mouth facilitated by a thin tortilla chip. I avoid the dip before the show, knowing what all that cream cheese and butter will do to my throat. My bandmates don’t care. They made a sign once and set it on the table:
The artichoke dip is usually cold or gone by the time I will allow myself to have some. But that’s ok, because for one of the few nights of my life I am satisfied so much by the aesthetic of the evening that I don’t care for the pleasure of food. I should sing every night.
But in actuality, it isn’t just the singing. It’s the goodness of the audience. I can feel the good energy they send to me. The lights on me keep them in the dark, from my perspective, but I can sense their kindness, and can feel their hearts beating with mine as I spill my life right there in front of them then wipe it up on my figurative knees.
Backstage, at least for every show I produce, after everyone is together and we have laughed and reviewed and warmed up and shaken off our nerves, we cluster in a circle and bow our heads, thanking the Lord for this chance we have to speak, asking his angels to be with us, asking them to be with our audience. The people I choose to play with are believers, on some level at least.
I have never felt wholly compelled to write religious music, unless I am commissioned to write something for some particular purpose. I want my songs to work as well in a festival as they will in a church. So it’s a fine line I walk when I write. But just because it’s not religious doesn’t mean it is not spiritual, at least in the sense that we are all spiritual beings who are having a human experience. And so, especially at Christmas, I think I stand as a witness of some sort. At least I hope I do. Not a preacher, just a witness. And I feel Him with me when I witness. And I like it best when the people who hear don’t know I am witnessing. They just feel…something…and it’s strangely reminiscent, like the scent of their grandmother’s perfume. They feel something when they smell it on that lady in front of them in the grocery line, but they just don’t know what it is that’s making them feel that way. They don’t remember in their brains, but their hearts do.
And that is the truest desire of my heart, musically: that my audience will sit back and close their eyes and see images that conjure up feelings that are strangely reminiscent; like they must have experienced this, they just don’t remember when. And when they remember their hearts are soft and pliable and the hard shell that living in this hard boiled world gives them is cracked somewhere. And through that crack comes a feeling…warm and comfortable and safe. And they are reminded in the deepest place of remembering.
Merlyn and I sang in Boise once, in a bar. We used to do that fairly often with my amazing brother John Hansen, who is a musical icon up there. We sang songs people don’t usually hear in bars. And yet they were happy and pleasant and we went back often.
One night, after singing, as we were packing up our gear, a long haired fellow, looking rather like he belonged in the band ZZ Tops, came up to me.
“Thank you”, he said, his breath stinging of alcohol, his body leaning to the side as he stood.
“You’re welcome!” I responded, “Did you like it?”
“Thank you”, he repeated again.
“You reminded me that I had grandparents….”
He paused for a long exhaling breath. Then, drawing in new air, he continued;
“You reminded me that I had grandparents who loved me. I had forgotten that. Thank you.” He started weeping, perhaps from the excess of drink.
A year later, when Merlyn and I went back to Boise for an album release concert, the same fellow waited in the back alley for us to come out to our car. We knew him by now, and greeted him by name. He told us how much he enjoyed the concert, and we chit chatted about this or that, I don’t really remember. But then, as I lifted my guitar into the car, he addressed Merlyn and me:
“I just wanted you to know that I have been sober for six months now. And your music had something to do with that.”
I know, firsthand, about alcohol and addiction and what it does to people and the people who love them. I know it takes a million things to make recovery work. But if I had even a teeny tiny part in his desire for healing I thank the Lord for planting me there with him. And for planting those songs in my head. And for placing the feelings in my heart, and that guitar in my hands. For placing that beautiful friend and artist, Merlyn, at my side, and my brother on the other side.
There is no back stage in bars. No artichoke dip and no huddled prayers. Just silent ones in our hearts as we step up on that little riser.
So when I get the chance to do a show and spend a few minutes backstage, with other performers, and with the stage crew, and often with my roadie, Dave, I cherish the moment, there in the dark, anticipating the gift of an audience and the warmth of strong bright lights.