Lesson 4- Surround Yourself With People Who Are Better Than You Are (Lessons From A One-man Band…)
I used to go to a theatre school in downtown Hamilton. I went for many, many years and even after I stopped being a student there, I carried on teaching there. That's the only, 'Joe job' I've ever truly loved. It was run by the Zamprogna family who ended up kind of adopting me almost when I was a teenager. I was there more than at my own family home and was a like their whacky neighbour if their life was a sitcom. I was just always there. One quarter Fonzie, three quarters Erkel (who am I kidding....99% Erkel)
Back in those days when I was a student at Theatre Aquarius, I felt like I was surrounded by some amazing talents. Mu friends and I thought we were great and in recent years that's kind of been proven true. In my immediate circle of close friends, a lot of them have become highly successful actors. There is my best buddy, Dom Zamprogna who was nominated for an Emmy and you know from General Hospital, Tin Star, Battlestar Gallactica and a million other things, Evan Buliung, who is one of Canada's finest classical actors (and the Dad on Holly Hobbie) and Nick Cordero, who was nominated for a Tony for one of his many roles in Broadway. When Nick last visited London I asked him to tell me what his most recent director, Robert Deniro was like. I had to know. He graciously told me a few anecdotes but I had to ask Nick to stop referring to DeNiro as, "Bob". “What? That’s his name!” He said. I just thought that was way too cool. We lost Nick early in the COVID pandemic. But that’s a story for another time.
One of the more surprising friendships I developed at Aquarius was with a guy named, Chris Adeney. He was quiet, weird and charming. I liked him right away. He came from this super-gifted family that I still am learning about. His mother was the first person I ever knew who actually made a living from her art. It was impressive.
In 1995 we performed, “Caberet”. After completing the show, on a weekend before the end of the summer a bunch of us went camping, Chris being in the bunch. He brought his guitar which was weird because I didn't even know he played. It was safe to say he knew I did as I was already kind of a local celebrity, for whatever that was worth. At one point, after we all had too much ‘fun’, Chris brought out his guitar and started playing this wild, discordant and beautiful tune. It went, "where are all the children? I've taken all the children. Mmm."
The song was so awesome and the subject matter made us so uncomfortable that we all started laughing. I think it was because we didn't know what else to do. From that moment, I was not just his friend. I was his fan.
It didn’t take long before I had him opening for me as often as I could. He first went by Secret Arcade, then Wax Mannequin Display, Chris A. and eventually settled on Wax Mannequin. I delighted in watching people's reactions to his poignant, strange and stunning songs.
I believe that it is always best for an artist to storm up some sort of extreme feelings, even if it’s negative. I personally would always rather see someone I really don’t like than someone who is just alright. Wax definitely stormed up some feelings in people, though more often positive.
I recall one of my first big supporters, Bernard, who owned the Jane Bond Cafe in Waterloo, Ontario offering another gig after a show we’d finished but stipulating that I could have anyone except Wax Mannequin open. "He's just too weird, man.” (I'm sure Bernard won't mind me saying that. In later years I ended up opening for Wax at the Jane Bond so he must have come around)
Wax and I played an afternoon show in London, Ontario with our friends, Joey Balducchi and Edwin Burnett (then called, 'Skinny'). The plan was to do a bunch of shows with the four of us switching up who would be headlining each show. On this occasion, Wax went up first, played really well and Edwin told me, "I’m can’t go up after that….. He's just too good….I'm going to stop playing live." And he did for a long time. Talk about a reaction!
What Edwin said made me feel kind of bad about myself as I played that show too and he had no problem following me! This got me thinking: Is it a bad idea to have someone who is potentially better than me open the show? Would it be best to stop playing with Wax so much? I decided the answer was no.
I played more and more with Wax after that and even took him on his first tour. He was not only a great influence but also a great challenger in the best possible way. If he played a really awesome show, I would have to go up and play at least as good as him and try and be better and vice versa. Throughout the years I've always said that Mayor McCa and Wax Mannequin are best friends. The more we challenged each other the better we both got. It was mutually beneficial. I hope he feels the same way.
Another guy I ended up playing with quite a bit was a guy named Christian Johnston. I knew him and his brothers from around town but was never super tight with him until he invited me up to Peterborough, Ontario, where he was going to school. He said he liked Mayor McCa and asked me to come up and headline his first CD release show. I did.
The first time I saw him he was just a shy guy, sitting on a stool singing his sensitive songs but then in coming months his show changed. By the next time I saw him he entered the stage to the, 'Rocky' theme and had a show complete with Casios and stories living in his Mum's basement. I remember telling my brother, " you know my shtick is being a one-man band? B.A. Johnston's shtick is that he is from Hamilton".
I had B.A. open for me every chance I could and when I started booking a tour around 2002, he asked to come along. I would have, happily had him along but the truth was, I couldn't afford to take him at that point. My guarantees just weren't big enough and I couldn't ask him to do it for free. He then, proceeded to phone every venue I was booked into and negotiated his own deal as an opener. So, he came with me on his first cross-Canada tour.
Watching his show develop over the course of that month was amazing. It kept getting wilder and funnier. I remember a gig that we had in Naniamo, BC in a hostel/ bar. It had old wooden floors, a Neveda machine (lottery scratch tickets ), an overflowing bucket of used tickets under and a line up behind it in a room full of what B.A. called career-alcoholics. When we finished our soundcheck and saw our accommodation, B.A. took me aside to say, "Look, man. I really don't want to play here."
"I know but we have to. If we don't get our guarantee tonight, we can't afford to get on the ferry back to Vancouver. It'll be alright." That's literally how day to day those times were: if we didn't play, we'd be stuck there.
That night we had settled in a little more and by the time BA got onstage he was on fire. "I am BA Johnston from my Mom's basement Hamilton via the Trent River! Have I died and gone to heaven, ladies and gentleman!? Are you all angels!?"
The audience looked stunned and weee silent. "Oh, I got that wrong! I'm in Naniamo!" he exclaimed.
"Who has lost the will to live, people?"
A few people raised their hands. I shuttered in the corner, not knowing whether to laugh, cry or run away. His show went off without any dramas and so did my two sets. We may have even sold a shirt or two that night.
B.A.'s show has got better and better and I truly feel he would challenge any act going on after him. If one has the choice, they should always choose an opener that is at least as good as you or preferably better than you. It'll keep you on your toes, playing your best.
Also, if one is opening a show, one should make it as difficult as possible for the headliner to go up next. Keep them on their toes. I'm reminded of the time Nick Oliveri (Kyuss, QOTSA) watched my show (one of the better shows of my career where everything went right). He went on stage after me, played five songs, then smashed his guitar because I played so well that he didn't want to follow me. Well, that's what he told me, anyway.
One might think that it's a weird thing to try and achieve but in Nick's case: by the time he had me opening for him on tour, he worked out his show and ensured that he'd have no problem following me and never had that struggle again.
By choosing openers that challenge you to be your best and by being an opener that forces the headliners to be their best, you're setting up a system that will keep all parties at their best. It's the best.