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Bass Nemesis

Sure, bassists can take a lot of crap, but I never expected this.

June 4, 2015

Photo: Shunichi Kouroki / Photo-illustration: Carly Piersol
Photo: Shunichi Kouroki / Photo-illustration: Carly Piersol

Like most bass players, I took up the instrument because someone else needed me to take it up. Ask any bassist why they started playing and you’ll probably get an anecdote about how their friend or brother or cousin needed a bassist for their band. It’s an instrument that’s rarely chosen by its holder — usually, bestowed on them by someone else. You’re drafted into playing it, and somehow you end up serving your term long after the first battle is over.

With that in consideration, bass players also tend to assume certain personality traits. The male bassist is usually laconic, reserved, push-overy, and somehow, either taller than 6’ or shorter 5’7”. He has a reputation for soft-spokenness and being in the lower tier of band decision-making. Attractive Audience Members are less likely to notice him at a performance. The bassist copes with these shortcomings either via an innately easygoing attitude, deeply bottled resentment, or a catastrophically alternating combination of the two. In case you’re wondering, I’m the last one.

The bassist’s relationship to his fellow bass ilk is also worth noting. There is almost always a mutual respect, and you can be guaranteed that if no one else tells you ‘great set,’ after a performance, the bass player from the next band will take notice. At every show there is always someone sitting in the corner of the room and watching every note you play, analyzing your sync with the kick drum pulse. Like the way a professional landscaper will stop to compliment on your manicured lawn, a fellow bassist will notice the sixteenth note fill you painstakingly practiced only to be buried under guitars and a belting lead singer. In the world of small band gigs, bassists are the janitorial staff BSing in the school break room.

Even before I started playing the guitar’s less popular, deeper-voiced sibling, I appreciated bassists for their underdog status. My own lifelong attraction to thankless work — including stints in groundskeeping, customer service, and being a “sound guy” — may have been what pushed me towards the instrument initially. My appreciation operated on this philosophy: If someone was content with remaining unnoticed while doing an essential, skilled job, they must be a pretty OK person.

This philosophy vaporized instantly for me when I learned that my current girlfriend of almost one year dated a bassist before me.

The practice of comparing yourself to your lover’s exes is pretty normal, and it tends to manifest aggressively within the domain of artistic and professional accomplishment. In men, it seems to bring out the most egregious of dick-measuring tendencies, and the social internet turns the standard wooden ruler of dick-measuring into a laser-accurate dick-measuring mass spectrometer. Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin — the sheer breadth of resources gives you the ability to gather just enough specific data to conjure a crude caricature of the person, but not enough to solidify their personhood. You have the tools to craft only a dripping, half-personified golem of the absentee suitor’s soul, born from the digital mud of profile pictures, tweets and job qualifications. It then stalks your mind, auditing every ounce of your self esteem.

As much as I try to avoid the pitfalls of self-comparison, I fell deep into the titular pit in the way only an attempting-easygoingness-while-suppressing-rage bass player can. But I avoided it successfully at first. Really, my ex-ears didn’t pique until a few weeks into the courtship, when I mentioned the possibility of seeing a friend’s show at a popular local venue as a date option. My girlfriend, then a mere “significant other,” said she had been too many times before, and I took note of her tone. Weariness with such a place can only signify one thing: either her friends play in a band, or her ex played in a band. Given that I had already met most of her friends by that point, I figured it was the latter, and the research hole pulled me in.

I found his name almost as soon as I began Googling it. Sure enough, the majority of his online presence was related to his bands, the most notable having disbanded a few years ago. In the archives of shows and events past, I found that we had a lot more in common than just playing the same instrument —we had even played the same venues. And in a blog section on one site, I noticed we shared some of the same tribulations of being in a band in our city. The strained rehearsal schedules, the album promotional woes, the general musical industry bullshit. It was all there, in fossilized internet time capsule form. Seeing these similarities sent me into both a paranoid tailspin of existential questioning and a maddeningly contradictory empathy.

My anxiety was such that for the first month of our relationship, I refrained from actually telling my partner what I devoted a great deal of my spare time to doing. I did mention that I played music, but when she asked what instrument, I said guitar — which was not technically a lie. But eventually, it had to come out, and I remember the night we discussed it vividly:

Me: “Does it bother you that I’m a musician, since your ex was also?”

Her: “No, it’s OK. I think I can learn to see it [musicianship] in a different light”

If I were a normal, well-adjusted person, the case should have closed there, after that genuine moment of reassurance. Instead, the similarity caused me to question other aspects of my identity that we might have shared. Did he also like cleaning the kitchen in order to relieve stress? Was he prone to using the same belt for years until it fell apart from overuse? When taking a tea bag out of the packaging, did he unconsciously shove the wrapper into his front pocket, a childhood habit that I have tried futilely to rid myself of for years? The bass itself was chosen for me by forces beyond my control. Could this similarity signify my own general lack of free will?

As my paranoia increased, I listened obsessively to his music,  paying close attention to the bass parts. The practice of observant bassist solidarity turned into a hypercritical self-comparison game, a musical version of the classic Keeping Up with the Jones’s lawn maintenance battle. My imagination wandered into dark territories. At the time of the incident, I was working in music licensing, and I noticed that on one of his band’s pages, he was listed as the contact for any licensing-related queries. I fantasized about calling him, telling him I wanted to place his music in a Burger King commercial for $40,000, and then yelling “PSYCHE” so loud that the imaginary speakerphone in my office exploded.

One particularly pathetic night, while crawling past Page 3 of Google search results, I found a blurry, low-quality video of one of his past performances in a shitty little basement somewhere in the tri-state area. It was a familiar scene because I too had played so many small, shitty basements. The audio was bad and the lighting was worse, and as a result he appeared only as a pixelated silhouette screaming into a mic. There he was. My bass nemesis.

After a nihilistic opening number, I heard his speaking voice for the first time. He was attempting to make audience banter, to limited success. It reminded me of times I too had attempted to banter with the crowd and failed. I began to see myself in him, but no longer in a way that bothered me. Somehow, in that moment, I shifted from seeing him as an abstract evil force to something more harmless and normal, a regular human with hopes and fears with whom I just happened to share one major interest.

I now realize that in the pantheon of past lovers, similarities — including your own similarities to partners from someone else’s past — don’t need to be cause for an upset. After all, in the same way that I have my “type,” it is inevitable that I also embody somebody else’s. So is being a bass player any different from being brunette or being a financial consultant, having facial hair or not having facial hair, enjoying longboarding and being a straight privileged male or a neurotic basket case who goes full NSA on their significant other’s past? Don’t act like you’ve never been there, too.

I eventually came to terms with the situation in the way most people come to terms with any haunting obsession: I decided to stop obsessing.  After all, there’s only so much mental energy one can expend on feeling threatened by another musician, and at the end of the day, I have to save most of that for guitarists. If you’re new to the minds of bassists and you think I sound jaded, it’s because I am. But can you blame me? After all, someone else chose this path for me.

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