I was working, playing bass at a gig, last week and had a horrible experience at the end of the night. (I won’t mention names so as not to cast aspersions on the venue, since they were not at fault.) At the end of the night, I had packed my 170-year-old contrabass into its padded case and stood it facing a corner, making sure that it was solidly anchored and physically stable. I then chatted with some people who were still there and went back to the stage to finish packing my gear. The last thing packed was my bow, which is kept in a hard-shell case that fits in a long pocket on the front of the bass’s case. I then put the bow case into the pocket and returned the bass to the corner it had been in for the last 15 minutes. Then I walked back to the stage to get a box that I pack the gear I use to interface with amplifiers and the like. Because the bow case changes the shape of the case, the bass’s center of gravity in relation to the corner it was leaning in had also changed. I hadn’t walked more than ten feet towards the stage when my bass slipped away from the wall and fell to the floor with a very audible “pop,” a sound that usually happens when something has come unglued or wood has cracked. (Did you think “pop music” meant I was going to write about Lady Gaga?) I immediately went into the sympathetic shock that musicians feel when their anthropomorphized instruments get hurt; my vision began to blur, my skin went slightly numb, and my ears started to ring. For reasons that I’ll explain later, I didn’t want to open the case right then, but someone strongly (and wisely) suggested that I do so. When I unzipped the case, the bass looked surprisingly undamaged; I had expected to see an opened seam or a large crack. But as soon as I looked at the upper part of the instrument I understood what had made the ominous popping sound: the fingerboard had become detached from the neck. It was a good thing that I followed the sage advice; left unattended, it would have been no time at all before the tension of the instrument’s strings had snapped the neck in two!
After loosening the strings and assuring everyone present that I was O.K., I went home (after first stopping to drown my sorrow in fried eggs, hash brown potatoes, and a chocolate milkshake) and considered myself fortunate because this particular fingerboard has a set of Kent McLagan pickups (which were discussed in my review of Guts) that need to be overhauled. Luckily, I have another bass or two that I can use while this one (which is my main instrument, even though I can’t fly with it anymore) lies infirm though I am not so fortunate that this is the first time I’ve seen my bass injured at work. The last time it happened was at a very up-scale venue that I believe was at fault; however, in a deal that I reluctantly agreed to have negotiated on my behalf, part of the several thousand dollar repair bill was paid for by them. In that incident, I had left the instrument in a room overnight and when I returned for the sound check found the instrument with its back halfway off and a crack running almost the entire length. Needless to say, that kind of damage changes the way an instrument sounds and plays forever, so I’ve spent considerable time and energy tweaking the repairs and becoming familiar with the instrument again. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time.
While these instances sound horrific, it’s not at all uncommon that the instruments musicians travel to work with become damaged or even lost. The mostly unwritten anthology of musician road stories is loaded with instances where instruments are sat upon, driven over, and misused. One well-known story relates how a contrabassist was going on a tour of Europe and had to catch an early morning flight. He had called a car service and brought his bass packed in a hard-shell flight case and his luggage to the vestibule of his Manhattan apartment building. He decided to wait to be picked up on the sidewalk and took the bass outside and stood it in front of the building’s front door while he went back inside to get his bags. (Remember that these cases are rather large and awkward, so they aren’t so easily stolen.) When he returned he saw that a sanitation department truck designed for heavy trash (refrigerators, sofa beds, etc.) had stopped and its crew had put the flight case and the bass into it. The truck has a special blade that can be used to chop up over-sized trash. His bass had been chopped in half! Fortunately, his brother is an attorney and he was appropriately compensated. But the worst part is that this happened on his way to work—imagine scrambling at the last minute to get a loaner bass and flight case before the plane left!
I experienced a last-minute freak out before a New York State Council of the Arts tour with Jane Ira Bloom. I was to take a train to Buffalo in the morning and had made arrangements to leave my bass in a room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (where I had been working with pianist-vocalist Laura Taylor). This was at a time when Checker cabs, which held a string bass with room to spare, had become pretty much unavailable in New York, and I didn’t own a car. I was forced to take a sedan-sized cab and stick the neck of my bass out of the window. I decided to travel late at night, when traffic is fairly light, but the cabbie still managed to run the neck of my bass into a city bus. The whole neck popped out of the bass’s body. Fortunately, my repairman (Mr. Bill Merchant of Merchant Bass) was a good Samaritan and opened his shop at midnight to glue the neck back on so I could catch my 8 a.m. train with a relatively stable instrument. (At that time I didn’t own another bass, either.) Ironically, when the tour was over, it was pouring rain in Buffalo and during the cab ride to the train station there, the neck of my instrument got so wet that the neck fell off again!
I could go on about accidents involving double basses. There’s an instance where a very well-known bassist was standing on a train platform in France and the wake of a passing high-speed train sucked his bass out of his arms and onto the tracks. Or how about the bassist who was playing a concert in a high-security prison and stood his bass in a corner while he showed the guards his ID: How was he to know that the corner was part of a rather large mechanically operated door that would very quietly open and render his 150-year-old instrument into splinters while he was talking to the guards at their bullet-proof window?
Of course, we’re expected to insure our instruments, and many of us do. But it becomes a toss-up between paying the monthly premiums and deductibles and just paying for the repair. Years go by between these kinds of events, so it might make more sense to tithe for repairs in a cookie jar rather than support your local insurance agent. Either way, the fees become part of the April Fool’s deductions. But, while the bass is one of those instruments that tend to get bumped a bit more than others (I’ll never forget setting my bass down on its side in a restaurant while I went to get my amplifier off the stage to find a bus boy using it as a chair while he made a phone call!), no instrument is exempt from on-the-job braining. I’d like to read some comments with your stories. It might be therapeutic for us both.