Musicians Day Jobs
One night in September, after a jumping set with his band at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti, sweat-soaked singer-guitarist Hank Milne stood on the sidewalk out front, pressing flesh and fielding compliments. Everyone, it seemed, had something nice to say about the Volunteers' debut concert. Except one attendee, who passed by and, with a grin, remarked to Milne: "Don't give up your day job." Normally the lowest of all the low blows that bruise players' egos, the comment was served in jest, and Milne responded with a laugh, adding, "Oh, I won't. I can't. I make too much money."
Funnin' aside, Milne is not locked into anything. If it came right down to a choice between his day job and his music, he says he would strike a compromise. He's an attorney.
If a major record company offered enough money for the Volunteers, Milne says, "I would negotiate the best position with the competing offers, I would try to negotiate a sabbatical with the firm." It would have to be a hell of an offer, not because Milne makes lots of money, which he does, but because of other, more personal reasons. Because of something his international clients - most of whom are battling the government over seizures in forfeiture cases - and the fans stomping along to the sounds of the Volunteers at Churchill's know nothing about.
That's the way it is for rock musicians, and, of course, for other people as well. Milne has had no trouble reconciling his life as a high-power partner in the giant, hundred-year-old law firm Squire Sanders Dempsey - he works in a coveted corner office overlooking Biscayne Bay from the Miami Center - and his night life as a dressed-down rock and roller ripping up some of the area's darkest dives. "Both are performance arts," Milne explains. "You use different costumes, and you're emoting to generate an effect on an audience, whether it's a jury or judge or on the stage. I don't believe in a `rock and roll lifestyle,' or in the 24-hour-a-day pinstriped lifestyle either."
Self-assurance shields the impact of perceptions, but it doesn't negate them. All lawyers are greedy exploiters. All rockers are drugged-out freaks. "People come to both those pursuits with mental barriers," Milne says. "If you tell someone you're a rock musician and they're talking about some $100 million problem, you don't engender their trust. And with a rock band, you tell someone you're a serious attorney with a serious outfit, they might discount the value of your music, think you only treat it as a hobby, so it's something less than something done to make money. I try not to tell people about the other thing I do until I know them, although I don't keep it quiet around the firm. Most law firms consist of pretty adult people. They take a look at you, and if you're a strength to the company, they're sort of proud of the other thing. Besides, I had a hand in hiring most of them."
Milne began playing guitar as a teen-ager in London, where he'd visit North End clubs to see upstart groups called Yes and Jethro Tull. Soon he turned to electric guitar and began writing his own songs. At the same time, he was studying, working toward becoming a barrister. Arriving in South Florida in 1978, when he was in his mid-twenties, Milne jammed in a series of rock bands, including Isolator and Perfect Strangers. He acquired his juris doctor degree from the University of Miami in 1980, and is now qualified to practice law virtually anywhere from Wales to Waxahachie. (He often travels to places as far as Hawaii, which he recently visited 28 times for hearings.)
By critical standards, at least, he's achieved similar success with the Volunteers, designed as an open-door band with a changing cast of players brandishing everything from mandolin to tin whistle. With a strong rock base and a tendency to delve into Celtic rhythms, the Vols surrender entertaining live sets around town on a fairly regular basis. Like any band, Milne and his cohorts want their music to be heard by as many people as possible. Toward that end, however, Milne isn't about to hop in a van and cruise the nation seeking exposure. It's not that he couldn't give up his pleasant view of Biscayne Bay. "I have two small children," the attorney explains, "one of them with Down's Syndrome, and they're my prime responsibility. I'm not free to do that."
Hank Milne is not the only lawyer juggling a duality. Jack Shawde, the energetic guitarist who has helped Little Nicky and the Slicks evolve from a blues outfit to a more rockin' affair, specializes in bankruptcy and civil litigation for Mershon Sawyer Johnston. And long-haired Joe Imperato, of the Source, which practices an acoustic-pop sound, is a Dade County public defender.
And then there's Charlie Pickett, who for a decade was perhaps the brightest light on the local-scene horizon. During the Eighties, Pickett, along with various sidemen, performed hundreds of shows in area clubs, earning from critic Jon Marlowe the accolade of "best bar band in America." Pickett and his groups recorded a number of albums, including Route 33 for the Minneapolis-based label Twin/Tone. About a year ago Pickett gave up his day job - operating a crane and other heavy equipment at a quarry - and his exalted place in the local musical milieu. He moved to Lansing, Michigan, and enrolled in Thomas Cooley law school, where he is currently at the top of his class.
There are literally hundreds of talented local musicians humming and strumming after the gold ring of national stardom, and very few of them have law practices to support that effort. They acquire instruments, learn to play, write some songs, rehearse, appear at area clubs, rehearse some more, record demo tapes, rehearse, and sometimes cut actual albums for release to the public. For many of these fledgling songsters, all this takes place on top of a full-time job often unrelated to their musical pursuits. So far the American agenda has not called for subsidization of sonic artists - no group health plan, no pension, no endowments or grants. Musicmakers have bills, rent to pay, groceries to stock, all the draining obligations everyone else must attempt to fulfill.
For some the day job supersedes the artistic endeavors. For others, a vocation is a way to finance the band. A lucky few escape the rigors of labor altogether. The bottom line is that most of these artists are not remunerated in kind for the pleasure they give to the public.
This five-piece outfit recently won Best New Band honors at the South Florida Rock Awards and released their first album, In Many Colors, a dark, moody, affecting collection of seven originals and a cover of Vesper Sparrow's "Don't Give Your Love Away." The selection of this song is fitting. Black Janet's singer-guitarist, Jim Wurster, knows this essential fact of life: money makes the world go 'round. That axiom is essential to the American History lessons Wurster teaches to advanced students at Piper High School in Sunrise. (He was nominated for Broward Teacher of the Year.) But listening to Black Janet's "relationship" songs, you wonder if it isn't love that spins this planet. Or maybe music.
Now in his eighth year of educating, Wurster says he was drawn to that career during high school, when he came to admire a couple of his own teachers. After graduating from Hollywood Hills, he went on to Florida Atlantic University, where he began playing guitar. "Black Janet is my first band," he says, "and it was more of a hobby at first. Now the band has become like a second profession. With solicitations from record companies, we'll have to make a decision. But I do not want to guess at this point. If the offer was good, it would be hard not to give it a shot. I can always come back to teaching. Plus the rest of the band would probably shoot me if I didn't say that."
A native Miamian, Kornicks began banging the drums in high school, but didn't allow his rhythmic efforts to interfere with more traditional study, which led him to get involved with drugs. "I'm from a family where you have to have a real job," Kornicks explains. "And music wasn't a real job." He finished high school in 1975 and then went to Miami-Dade Community College, where he "met a guy and had a chance to play the tourist hotels in Mexico." Simultaneously, Kornicks was accepted to the University of Florida's pharmacy school. "I had a steady girlfriend," he recalls, "and I was going to school and keeping up with my playing."
While working 60 hours per week, including weekends, Kornicks met tragedy. "My oldest daughter passed away," he recounts. "After that I cut back my hours to a normal schedule. Working weekends hurt my music, but then I got weekends off." He began sitting in at jam sessions, as he had in Gainesville. The first was at Cactus Cantina, where [Little Nicky and the Slicks drummer] John Yarling was the host. "When John saw me bring in my congas," Kornicks says, "he told me, `We don't do Latin here.' I told him, `Good, because neither do I.'" Versatile but especially attracted to rock and R&B, Kornicks has lent his licks to Fleet Starbuck's band, Lynne Noble, Willy Vega, John Soler, Foreign Affairs, Alive By Night, the Children's Hour, and Joe Imperato's the Source.
Meanwhile, he slings 'scripts at a Wal-Mart. "I have no problem with the `drugs' thing," Kornicks reports. "I don't play any games. Hanging out with the R&B crowd, what I've seen is very few people with drug problems. There might be one or two guys with problems, but most people know to stay away from them."
A more pressing problem for Kornicks is the lack of opportunity for a Miami-based, rock-oriented percussionist. "I never planned on making a living with music," Kornicks says. "At 34 I have no illusions." But he is a bit disillusioned. "Anglos down here don't hear percussion in their music," he complains. "And the pros have an attitude of, `He has a day job so he doesn't need money, we can get him for nothing,' which is cool if it's a happening band. Others won't ask you to play for free because you'll be insulted. And then there are club regulars who get into what I'm doing, tell me I should be playing out all the time. But the club owners won't pay. I never wanted to do the tuxedo thing. I like playing and sweating. I guess I have one big illusion: getting discovered by someone who could take me away from my day job."
Musicmakers have all the obligations everyone else must attempt to fulfill.
The occupation most would perceive as weirdest is held by Rian Gittman of hard rockers One. His band possesses all the musical strengths to score stardom - a solid album in Black Is Black, a positive reputation as a provocative live act, a bulging fan following, and absolute dedication to their art. They don't sing love songs or espouse social commentary, nor, thank God, do they blend those two approaches. The group chooses to denounce and pronounce on another level, part raw anger and part inducement for members of the public to wake up and smell the bullshit around them.
Gittman has pulled his pants down on-stage, loudly denounced local awards shows as politically motivated hogwash, and stuck out his middle finger at virtually every other aspect of the establishment, musical and otherwise. All of these factors, combined with Gittman's New Yawk accent, provide One with an identity as urban - slick, worldly denizens of pavement environs.
"What I do," Gittman says, "is collect reptiles."
Nearly four years ago Gittman arrived here from New York, where he'd been driving to the country during summers to catch snakes and lizards. He did not choose South Florida for its abundance of reptilian wildlife, but instead traveled here for musical purposes. "I was supposed to come down with a band I was in," the vocal vocalist explains. "But they were junkies. One guy came to a show all coked up, or something, and that was it, I came down here alone, just blind."
Gittman was delighted to find more than compatible fellow musicians to work with. He found plenty of snakes and other reptiles. Two years ago he opened his business, the Reptile Service, now with offices in Davie and Deerfield Beach. It is not, he points out, a small-time operation. "I buy animals off the immediate importers and sell them to wholesalers. My minimum is ten or fifteen on up. I've sold baby iguanas in lots of 500. I'm a middleman and I'm also a breeder. I don't have enough time or animals to satisfy my customers, much less to go hunting as much as I'd like. I could make another $500 or $600 a week collecting."
Self-taught, and a veteran of fifteen years of reptile gathering, Gittman knows a number of ethical and productive ways to corral scaly critters. But the most fun way to gather snakes is called road cruising, which involves driving slowly along back roads at night, spotting the serpents, jumping out, and snagging them. However, One practices six days a week, five or six hours per night, and because the other members also have day jobs, those rehearsals must take place in the evening. "Having to practice every night eliminates road cruising," Gittman laments. The abundance of snakes here, however, has alleviated that disappointment. "Before I came here," Gittman says, "a Florida king snake made me go, `Wow!' Now I can catch a dozen a day. I find so many I can't keep them all."
There are other ways to pay the rent via the great outdoors, and local musicians have found a number of ways to spend their days in the sunshine (or rain). John Sorter, guitarist for Mr. Twister, works on a golf course. As a diver. Several days each week, Sorter dons mask and full scuba gear and dives into the water hazards at Doral, from which he retrieves misfired golf balls. He is employed by a concessionaire who has worked out a deal that allows Sorter and his colleagues to clean the lakes (to Doral's benefit), then sell the used balls to a retailer (for profit).
It's the latest in a long line of jobs Sorter has held. He was an armored reconnaissance specialist in the army's 24th Infantry Division from 1977 to 1980, then gave over three years as a reserve. He drove a truck for four years, laid tile for a while, and sprayed poison for the State of Florida (he quit when he realized that he was "killing everything" and not doing his own health much good). At one point, he says, he was hired as a bodyguard to Sheik Al-Fassi, when the Saudi Arabian lived in South Florida. Ironically, Mr. Twister is a band that can earn enough to get by without side work. "I'm not the type to sit behind a desk," Sorter says, "or sit around being lazy and hanging out."
While John Sorter is diving for pearls, so to speak, Steve Levy deals in diamonds and other jewelry. He's been involved in a number of enterprises, but buying gems from estates and pawn shops and reselling them is, he says, "what I know best." He also designs original pieces. About three years ago, Levy recalls, he was under the stress and strain of a crumbling marriage, and, being a fan of blues music, particularly harmonica players, he picked up the harp himself. "It was my escape," says Levy.
He quickly developed his blowing abilities, impressing a friend within a week of beginning to learn the instrument. After nine months, he was playing out live, and soon had the chance to work with Harps and Chords and Blue Hurricane. "Playing is the only thing with any continuity in my life the past few years," Levy says. "It took over, changed my life, my whole direction, my perception, my psyche. You escape the daily realities. It's an amazing thing." He also notes that blues music is about life experiences, not necessarily negative ones.
Just back from a buying trip to Las Vegas, Levy says his view of blues explains how even a wealthy person, a happy person, can bring emotional fire to the venerable genre. To him, playing the blues is about reaching audiences. "There's nothing more rewarding," the harpist says, "than the feeling you get when you look into the faces of the people listening, the chance to affect a thousand people at once." And therefore, Levy says, nothing would make him happier than the chance to give up his day job. "I don't need a fortune to live on," he says. "I'd drop everything to play music full time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.