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In my many conversations with artists, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of their anecdotes—and most of their best ones—involve public humiliation. “Sad Stories Told for Laughs” is an interview series in which I ask artists to share their best stories of mortification and humiliation for the edification of Rabbit Room readers. My first guest is Andrew Osenga. Andrew has been making music for a long time, with the Normals (named for his hometown of Normal, Illinois—go Ironmen and Lady Ironmen!), Caedmon’s Call, and as a solo artist. He now has a nine-to-five job as a record executive in Nashville.
Welcome, Andy Osenga, to “Sad Stories Told for Laughs.”
Glad to be here.
Well, let’s get right to it. Have you ever experienced public humiliation?
So many times. As in, are we counting junior high or just professional career?
Let’s leave junior high out of it for now.
Wise. Well, I signed a record deal a year after high school. Less than a year later I was on tour. My band, The Normals, was the first act on a three-band tour. We were just getting our feet wet. My parents, along with other Normal, Illinois, people, booked one of the shows in my hometown.
Oh, the best kind. They overshot the size of the audience a bit and rented out Illinois State University’s auditorium—probably seated 3000 people or so. This is the room where I graduated high school a month after Springsteen played here on his Ghost of Tom Joad tour.
Remember, this college was across the street from my high school. Fifty people from my class went to college out of town, everybody else went here. So they’re all in the room. This other band goes out there and plays their set and, because the room is so huge, there’s like a twenty-foot area at the front of the stage, the orchestra pit, where there’s nothing. Two-thousand people in attendance, twenty feet of dead stage, then the band. Their lead singer is getting into it and he runs out to the crowd with a water bottle. He’s going to spray it on them but his mic chord only goes so far so he just sort of pours water on this empty stage
A few minutes later we get on. We are nineteen years old. I do not, at this point, actually know how to play guitar. But I have one.
We’re getting into our surely life-changing set of music and I decide to go out in front of the mic and “rock out” cause I’m cool. So I run out there, immediately slip on this dude’s sixteen ounces of standing water and fall flat on my butt. I sort of pile-drived my spine.
The band is playing and I’m just sort of lying there, wet, with the breath knocked out of me in front of all the kids who used to make fun of me in 8th grade for being weird and obnoxious. So I proved them right.
I think people have this idea that if they get a record deal or a book deal, they’ll feel that they’ve arrived, that everybody who thought they were a loser will be proven wrong. The truth is, you’re just now getting to a place where you can be humiliated in earnest.
Especially if you’re back in your hometown.
Right. With spotlights.
In that same show our guitar player, who was a pyro, had set up all of his homemade pyrotechnics all over the stage. Homemade as in, he bought giant fireworks, pulled the fuses out, stuck in bottle rocket launcher fuses wired to a pedal board, and he could step on pedals and, when it worked right, launch fireworks around the stage.
He did not tell us he had put them all around. Nor did he tell the venue, which had a strict “Don’t set the place on fire” rule.
Venues can be such sticklers.
After I get up, wet, from my super cool fall I got back with the band. We started another song and as I went to the microphone he kicked his fireworks on. One was directly at the base of my microphone stand, I was using a straight stand at the time, so the flame was 6 inches from my face.
I just screamed into the microphone, but like not in a cool rock band way, in a cheerleader at a haunted house way. So there was that one.
I have not thought about this in years. I am dying over here.
Don’t die yet. I want to get a few more stories out of you. Most performing artists seem to have “shady promoter” stories. Do you have any “shady promoter” stories?
My shady promoter story is unreal.
Why don’t you tell it?
Caedmon’s did this festival years ago that was some sort of money-laundering scam. There were three or four national bands there. Killer big stage. Tons of great gear, lights, food trucks and vendors, etc… Beautiful day. Probably 60 or so local church group volunteers in matching t-shirts.
The gates opened and no one was there.
What do you mean by “no one”?
No one. Not one single person bought a ticket. We’re not sure if tickets were ever even sold.
But the contracts stated that we had to play at least 45 minutes, so we all did. One after the other. We just stood in this huge empty lawn and watched each other suffer.
Then our road manager, who was Kevin Mann at the time, went to go settle up with the promoter. Each band had its own trailer provided, which was nice, and the promoter had one as well. Kevin goes in there and the guy has like $5000 in cash just sitting there on the table. This is a lot but it’s less than what we were owed and not enough to cover the expenses of a band and crew.
This dude has 5 grand, in cash, in a pile on the table in front of him, and next to it was a pistol. The guy said, “Sorry, we can’t pay you the rest.”
Kevin picked up the cash and said, “Ok,” and left.
The gates to the fairground were locked and none of the bands could leave. One of the bands owned their own bus so all these busses lined up in a row, those guys plowed through the fence and then we all raced out.
It was amazing.
Yall were like Smokey and the Bandit or something, busting through fences in your buses! Were you humiliated?
No, just scared, really. I was humiliated when Mark from the Normals, Sandra McCracken, and Derek Webb and I did a little acoustic tour in California. We were supposed to play at Point Loma Nazarene University, where the year before Sandra, the Normals, and Caedmon’s had played a huge sold-out show.
We got a call that morning that they had accidentally booked us the same night as the junior-senior formal, so no students would be at our show. But we were welcome to go and play at the formal It was at the San Diego Children’s Science Center.
They put us in a triangular room across from the buffet. No stage, no lights. Two speakers on stands, with four mics in a row, along the wall.
It’s hard to compete with shrimp cocktail.
We had been traveling in a van and, with the exception of Sandra who is somehow always lovely and radiant, were just smelly and gross in t-shirts and jeans. The students got there in tuxes and formal dresses and they had to wait in line for dinner right in front of us. Like a foot away. They were whispering requests to us in between lyrics.
I don’t like listening to music in a place where the performers can see me.
I get that.
Especially if I’m in line for my food.
Probably the MOST humiliating was a show right after I got married. Mark and I, again from the Normals, were doing a few acoustic shows right as the band was ending. We played at this church in South Carolina somewhere. We did a couple songs in their morning service. We did the morning service, then there was this huge BBQ picnic lunch. After that the people would stick around and we’d play them our angsty artsy songs from a flatbed trailer under the hot sun during naptime.
Obviously, everyone went home. Except for my brand-new in-laws, whose daughter I had just married two months before. There were probably five hundred empty chairs set up and my wife, her parents, and a sound guy out there.
So these in-laws have reason to doubt that their new son-in-law is going to be able to provide for their daughter.
They were literally the only people.
The essence of these artist humiliation stories, it seems to me, is that you are called upon to put everything out there, and the people for whom you’re putting everything out there are under no obligation whatsoever.
Your in-laws, the sound guy—they feel some obligation, but for reasons that give you no reassurance as a performer. And I’m not suggesting that the audience should feel any obligation, necessarily.
No. I wouldn’t. You just fed me free BBQ on a sunny Sunday afternoon during football season. Of course I’m going home to crash on my couch.
Now just imagine nobody comes to your show and you’re wearing a spacesuit. Cause that’s happened.
Yeah, I was just thinking about that Leonard show you did in Cincinnati, when only nine or ten people showed up. When you put on a spacesuit, you’re putting a whole lot of yourself out there.
Yup. That was ROUGH.
A lot of my crazy stories involve Nick Flora. Nick promoted a show for me in Arkansas, back when he lived there. I was sleeping on his couch, April 1, 2006, and woke up to a text message of a pregnancy test. This is how I learned we were having Sadie. That night, no one came to the show.
It’s the circle of life: a piece of you dies, a baby is born.
These are probably the only two shows I ever played for no one. And they were the first show my in-laws came to, and the day I learned I had to provide for a larger family.
I’d like to point out that while all of these shows happened I was, on paper, successful.
You mean these shows were sandwiched between sold out shows, and while you were selling records?
Sandwiched between shows that went well, yeah. I just mean, there was a system in place, in some sense, and there was some sort of following. These were part of a career.
This is what it looks like WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT.
When nobody shows up, I would think it’s hard not to conclude, “I must suck, or people would be here.” But obviously there’s more to it than that.
Yeah, with record labels and managers and booking agents and the like.
There’s so much that’s out of your control. That’s certainly how the book business runs. The part that’s in my control is a pretty small part of the big picture.
YES. So small.
Even though I know all that, the book signings that nobody shows up for, the laughable royalty statements, they all comprise a self-loathing factory. You wonder if the promoter, the booking agent, the PR person feels anything like the self-loathing that the performer feels.
Oh no. I’m one of those guys now. I just say “oh man, that sucks” and do something else with my day.
That’s right. You’re a label executive now. There are advantages to being The Man. It had never occurred to me that being insulated from the humiliations of performing would be one of them.
All right, I’ve taken up enough of your time—or have you taken up enough of mine? In any case, do you have any parting words for our readers?
Follow your dreams, kids! One day you’ll have your own stories of annoying strangers with your feelings for money!
Haw! Yes! Thanks for your time and your horrifying stories.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.