Tough Lessons Learned From My Audition With Sammy Hagar
Tough Lessons Learned From My Audition For Sammy Hagar
1. Being in the middle of things in increases your chances for opportunities.
2. Everything great that happens in your career starts with someone you know.
3. When you hear of an opportunity you want, you have to go for it completely and immediately, over the top, not casual, and work your ass off to get it.
4. The tiniest detail can derail everything.
(The above is adapted from Derek Sivers’ Blog. Derek Sivers is a writer, teacher and the founder of CDBaby; used by permission)
I'd like to tell you a little story, going way back to 1976....a story pertaining to the subject of “opportunities.”
Once upon a time, when I was in my 20's, I was working at a Wherehouse Records store in Sacramento, California. Also working at the same store was a cousin of a relatively famous rock star.
The rock star was Sammy Hagar.
I barely knew the cousin. The cousin didn't even know that I played guitar. While I was talking with Sammy Hagar’s cousin, he mentioned that Sammy had just recently lost his lead guitarist and was auditioning guitar players!
Ah, ha---- an opportunity!
So this is the set up for the story--the story of an opportunity. How did the opportunity present itself? How did I deal with it? Could I successfully take advantage of it? How did I recognize it? Was I ready when the opportunity came along? Did I sabotage the opportunity when it was most fragile? What can be learned?
Getting back to the story...upon hearing this, I-- being fairly cocky and self confident-- said, “I'd like to audition. Do you have Sammy's phone number?”
The cousin replied, “Yes, I do but I am reluctant to give you the phone number. I've never even heard you play! I don't know if you're any good."
After a bit of persuasion, and because I exuded such confidence, the cousin gave me Sammy Hagar's phone number.
(Principle #1 –being in the middle of things: the record store, and #2 --opportunities come through people you know: the co-worker, and #3—go for it completely, over the top: bold action. All three principles apply).
I recognized the opportunity, exhibited confidence, and took action. I got the number.
Interestingly, however, I was primarily studying jazz at the time. I was also in a progressive rock band. I was already anticipating the displeasure and mild put downs of my peer group--jazz and progressive rock players-- who completely despised “hard rock” and the perceived pretentiousness of the rock players. I still recognized the opportunity presented and would move forward regardless. Still, I believe that this potential and anticipated peer pressure was in the back of my mind.
I went home that night and said to my girlfriend, “Hey, check this out! It's Sammy Hagar's home phone number! His cousin told me that he's auditioning guitar players."
Pulling out the scrap of paper from my pocket I said, “Well, if he’s looking for a new guitar player, I’m going to call him now!”
I got out the big red rotary phone which we jokingly called the “hot line” and dialed the Bay Area number.
It rang once. A woman answered.
“Hi, is Sammy there?”
“Sure, hold on.”
I must admit I was a bit surprised that she didn’t say, “May I ask who’s calling?” or “What is this in regards to?” or anything like that.
About five seconds later, a male voice came to the phone, “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Sammy?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, I am a guitarist and I work with your cousin Dwayne here in Sacramento. He tells me you need a new lead guitarist and are having auditions. I’d like to come and audition.”
“Ah, well, mmm, ah, yes, I am……but, I don’t know you. Has Dwayne heard you play?”
“Mmm, well, are you any good?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you really think you can do it? You know, I’m a nice guy and I hate having to tell people they’re no good. It makes me feel bad to do that.”
“No, I understand. I can do it.”
Well, what kind of equipment do you have?”
“A hundred-watt Marshall half stack and a gold top Les Paul.”
“Well, ok, good. Do you have any of my records, especially my latest record?”
“Ah, well, no, I don’t.”
(Ooops….This is where I likely made his first mistake…probably not so big that it couldn’t be overcome…but a mistake none the less—see #4: The tiniest detail can derail everything. I hadn’t prepared by researching Sammy Hagar’s music and albums before calling).
“We’ll OK, go out and get my record Nine on a Ten Scale and learn these four songs…"Keep on Rockin”, "Urban Guerilla", "Silver Lights", and "Young Girl Blues.”
He then gave me the date and time for the audition and directions to S.I.R. studios in Sausolito.
I went directly to Tower Records, bought the record and took it home.
This is how I prepared over the next five or six days before the audition:
First, for the first two days, I repeatedly just listened to the songs. I did not even touch the guitar. I must have listened to each song 20 or 30 times without even trying to figure out how to play them on the guitar. On day three, I picked up the guitar and began to figure them out until I could play along with the tracks without mistakes. For the remaining last couple of days, I played the songs solo on the guitar without the record…over and over… until I knew them “backwards and forward.”
I was ready.
(Good preparation here at this point---see #3: you have to go for it completely and immediately, over the top, not casual, and work your ass off to get it.)
So, the appointed day came. I confidently loaded my Marshall and Les Paul into my blue 1960 Corvair. With just enough gas and some pocket change (I was broke) I set off from Sacramento to S.I.R. Studios in Sausolito (just outside San Francisico). I also had a small battery powered cassette player on which I had recorded the four songs I was to play at the audition. Even though I knew the songs “backwards and forwards” I felt it was still smart to have the songs on tape---just for “insurance.” I listened to them a few times on the trip.
Arriving early at S.I.R, I found the door unlocked and went in. I found the appointed stage area. I was alone there on the couch in the dimly lit room looking at the empty stage. I thought, “Well, I can review and go over the song arangements in my head while I am waiting.”
As I began to try to recall the songs which I had so meticulously memorized and practiced, I found I could not remember a thing! I drew a complete blank!
“Ah! But, no problem”, I thought, remembering my tape deck out in the car with the four songs recorded for review! I went to the parking lot, unlocked the door, sat in the drivers seat, took hold of the cassette player, pressed the “play” button and heard “booouuughhhh…” Oh, no! The batteries were dead! Apparently, I had left the play button down and it had stayed down for several hours during the trip, draining the batteries completely dead!
Now, a bit of panic started to set in…after all that preparation, I could not recall how any of the songs went! It seemed unreal, but true. It was a mental blank…a brain freeze!
I had just enough gas, and just enough money for the toll to go over the Bay Bridge to get home. After counting my money, I realized that I just may have enough change to get a drink at the bar I spotted down the street. I went over and had a beer sitting at a bar in San Francisco that I’d never been in before.
Twenty minutes later I returned to S.I.R. The other musicians and crew were now already there or were arriving. I remember being very impressed when a crew member offered to take my amp up on the stage and set it up for me!
Some of the musicians started coming in: Bill Church on the bass---he played with Montrose and also was famous for playing the bass part on Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Chuck Ruff, the drummer on records such as “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” with the Edgar Winter Band came through the door. Then, next, Sammy Hagar himself, wearing a long black coat and sporting short hair! The short hair was surprising---and kind of ahead of its time. Being 1974, long hair for musicians was still the norm.
I, however, had long hair.
(Rule #4---Even the tiniest thing can throw it off. In this case,”The Look”---long hair out, short hair in---could this be a possible deal breaker?)
I was still nervous as I continued to have a problem with remembering the songs in my mind. But now I had my Les Paul strapped on, Marshall humming. The keyboardist, Alan Fitzgerald (later to have success in the 80’s band “Night Ranger”), brought big bottles of Jack Daniels for each band member. It was Christmastime. Though, of course, he didn’t bring one of these gifts me, he still generously offered me nice big swigs! These swigs of Jack Daniels seemed to liven up and loosen me up (imagine that!) and I began to remember the songs perfectly---as practiced.
I was ready.
Sammy then announced the first song and counted it off…one, two, three, four!
I must admit, I was a bit shocked as Sammy, Bill Church and the rest of the band started jumping around all over the stage like “rock stars!” At that time I was more of a “stand there and look cool” performer and usually thought that “rock star” jumping around was kind of dumb.
(Could this be another example of rule #4? Subconsciously thinking that a behavior was kind of dumb…and not really fitting in? Remember, the tiniest thing…like not being TOTALLY congruent with what’s going on…can throw the whole thing off.)
Then another very interesting and strange thing occurred which I had never experienced before. I had been in numerous bands that mostly played “cover songs” of the various hit records of the day. Sometimes the band could get very close to sounding like the original record. At the audition, I discovered a very weird and interesting phenomena---one that can actually throw a player off for a second. That is: when you play live with the actual musicians who made the record, it sounds like the actual record is playing! It is a subtle, yet strangely unique, powerful, surprising, and eye opening thing to experience!
As the band roared through the songs I realized that the practice regimen had paid off…I performed the songs perfectly!
When the session was over, Sammy and I were both sitting on a couch that was there in the rehearsal studio. Sammy looked contemplative, and then he spoke. He said, “Well, I don’t want to promise anything for sure because I still want to audition a few other guitarists. But…why don’t you go ahead and get your passport, just in case. I want to break the new record (Red) over in Europe and you would need to have a passport if you don’t already have one.”
Needless to say, I took this as a very good sign! As I was driving home, back to Sacramento, I reached into my pocket for my last remaining change…just enough coins to pay the toll to get over the Bay Bridge. Feeling pretty darn self-confident and rather smug, I said to himself, “Wow, this rock stuff is easy!” Yeah, right!
I knew I’d nailed it. I played flawlessly. And although my hair was long and Sammy’s was short and even though I didn’t “jump around” like a rock star like the rest of the band—well, Sammy said, “Get your passport”, so that is a very, very good sign, isn’t it?
I started to think ahead. I started to think things like, How am I going to break the news to my band? Will they be upset with me? Will they be jealous? Will they think I’m dumb for not sticking to progressive rock or jazz? Will they judge me as selling out to this “rock star”, just for the opportunity?
Sort of “counting your chickens before they’re hatched” type of thinking.
Then the wait began.
A few days passed. No call. A week. Then two.
I had to know---was I accepted? Did I have the gig?
I Finally I got up the nerve to find out. Nervously, I asked the cousin, Dwayne, to call for me.
After talking with Sammy, Dwayne reported that Sammy said, “Tell him is really good guitar player. But the guitarist that I originally wanted all along has unexpectedly become available again, so I am going to have to go with him”. (No, it wasn't Eddie Van Halen...yet).
Of course, I felt somewhat disappointed. However, I didn’t feel too bad too long. After all, Sammy Hagar had just said that he thought that I was a really good guitar player and intimated that if the “guitarist that he really wanted all along” wasn’t again unexpectedly available, he might have chosen me. Yeah, maybe.
I always wondered if that story about the “guitarist that he really wanted all along was again unexpectedly available” was really true, or just a nice way of telling me that I didn’t get the gig.
It didn’t matter. I've always remembered that explanation as one of the nicest ways a person could get some disappointing news. That pleasant, kind way of dealing with me made an impact and was always remembered. It was true---Sammy really was a “nice guy” like he said during that original phone call. I always, now years—decades—later, always think extremely high of Sammy Hagar--not only has a successful rock musician---but also has a human being! What a class act! I vowed that if I was ever in a position to tell another musician that he or she “didn’t get the gig” I would try to do it with the same touch of class….which I have numerous times.
What are the lessons here? Let’s review what happened using Derek Sivers’ rules for taking advantage of opportunities:
1. Being in the middle of things in increases your chances for opportunities (like working in the field of music—even if it’s just a record store). OK
2. Everything great that happens in your career starts with someone you know (the co-worker). OK
3. When you hear of an opportunity you want, you have to go for it completely and immediatley, over the top, not casual, and work your ass off to get it (took bold action, came fully prepared). OK
4. The tiniest detail can derail everything (Not researching the “look” of the band or having his albums beforehand. This is the one—those tiny details---that probably killed it. I didn’t have the albums of Sammy Hagar and wasn’t familiar with his music. My hair was a different style than Sammy’s. I didn’t “jump around like a rock star” while playing with the band.)
Those are tiny details…sort of…but maybe enough to kill it.
The tiniest detail can derail everything.