Saturday, August 25, 2012

Music Matters.... I Found Out

Perhaps it is because my Istanbul story from yesterday ( got me thinking about my experiences on my USO tour, or perhaps it is because I get to see my good friend Brandon Lloyd (Medal of Valor recipient, Purple Heart Recipient, Wounded War Veteran) tonight. But either way, I want to write about another very memorable moment that occurred during my trip through the Middle East in 2008. These stories may be a few years old but I've actually rarely (if ever) told them so I wanted to tell them now.

I may even make it a trifecta and tell another tomorrow. We shall see.

Here's the one for today:

Me and the rest of my band, The Ugli Stick, were extremely excited to be playing for the military, we were extremely excited to be seeing parts of the world we may never get the chance to see again, and we were excited to be interacting with so many different cultures in such a short time. (as I said yesterday, we love to ramble. And for a rambler, the trip we were embarking on was like 10 trips to Disneyland, 2 Super Bowls, and a State Fair all rolled into one).

So we were electrified with excitement and anticipation.

After traveling a day and a half straight, we land in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Let it be noted that when we left Atlanta it was 70 degrees and when we landed in Bishkek it was -17 degrees.

The unbelievable temperature difference and the sleep deprivation only escalated the dream like state we in.

I am from Alabama. I have never been in anything remotely close to -17. My body was in shock. The buildings were all old Russian buildings. Every sensation  that was entering my very tired brain (and there was a flood of them) was letting me know I was in an unusual and unfamiliar place.

We got scammed at the gate (they insisted we pay for visas that the US government had already procured on our behalf), we weren't allowed to pass through to baggage claim (where we were hoping our entire PA , all our instruments, and luggage was. This was in question due to some mix ups in Turkey), Once we paid our way through and found our luggage, we were basically attacked by children who wanted to help load so they could earn tips, our military liaison met us, brought us to the gate where the Kyrgyz soldiers tried to scam our liaison (to make a little under the table money). It felt like a lifetime happened during those 40-50 minutes.

These are all stories that each need to be told in their entirety, just not today. But rest assured I will recount these complete stories at some point.

I want to tell a specific story today. This story occurred after we made our way through the airport of corruption and got to Manas Air Force Base.

We loaded our gear into "Pete's Place". Pete's Place is a cool "bar" on ManasAFB. It's a huge tent structure that has pool tables, a bar, a stage. Pete's Place feels somewhat like home. I guess it feels as much like home as you can get while in Kyrgyzstan.

Seeing Pete's made me more excited than ever. However, we were obliterated from all the travel so we slept.

Even though I slept HARD the rest only partially dealt with the sleep deprivation, and the exotic places and temperatures hadn't done anything but get more intense and add to the excitement.
While walking from the barracks to Pete's Place we saw the Himalayas. I had seen the Smokies, the Rockies, the Alps, but I had never seen mountains as impressive. Obviously I understood that the Himalayas were enormous but seeing them with my own eyes gave me a new perspective.

In addition to being in a geographically different place than I was used to, I was also on a military base far from home. The drab browns and faded greens that covered every structure helped to heighten my awareness of the fact I was in a drastically different situation than I am used to.

After all this strangeness, it was time to do something we were comfortable with and accustomed to, namely , performing music. We went to Pete's and prepared for our first USO show. As I've been describing, the surroundings were about as foreign as they could be, but the act of performing music never changes. XLR cables still plug into the Microphones the same way. The amps still plug into the speakers the same way. So even in Kyrgyzstan, the act of setting up was almost a subconscious motion.
And once we were set up, the show began almost equally as subconsciously.

That's not completely true. As I said before we were all honored to be performing for these men and women of our military. These were our country's heroes and we planned on giving them a good time. And that's what we did.
We hit them with everything we had. And they were probably the most responsive crowd I ever remember playing for. They sang and danced and yelled and clapped. This just fueled us on.
The band was in rare form that night. We were bringing the house down and it felt great.
The excitement I had built up on the way to ManasAFB was amplified by the reaction of these service men and women to our music and performance.

We were pushing Pete's Place to the limit of its ability and it eventually let us know. We were pulling so much power that we tripped the breaker.
The party was going full tilt but we had been killing it for about 90 minutes anyway so we thought this would be a great time for a break. I yelled, sans mic, to the crowd, "HEY! WE ARE GOING TO FIX THE P.A. AND TAKE A QUICK BREAK. THEN WE ARE GONNA COME RIGHT BACK AND GIVE YA SOME MORE!" The crowd erupted with obvious excitement for the next set.

I jumped down off the stage with the biggest smile on my face. I don't remember when I have felt so proud, happy and a part of a group of people. I began talking to everyone and making new friends. It was a party. I was having fun. But before I made it more than about 10ft my military liaison tapped me and said, "Eric, Come Here. The Captain wants to speak to you"

I could tell by the looks on my new friends faces and I could tell by the fact that no one attempted to continue the conversation that the summoning I was just a part of was serious business.

I approached with the rest of the band. I was still beaming from ear to ear.

The Captain said, "My name is Captain Knudsen. We are very thankful that you would take the time and come play for these men and women. ...."
I now had an even bigger smile and my chest filled with American pride as she continued, "...but I want to thank you personally. You see, Manas is like a staging platform. These platoons all come here for a few days before they head down range. They will be in the fight for 6 months, 8 months, sometimes longer. And when their tour is up the same platoons will pass back through here for a few days before being sent home. Well I am stationed here. I have been here for years. So I see these groups of brave men and women pass through....(she takes a moment to point at the group of soldiers and airmen waiting for our next set)...and I see them pass back through.
But they all won't be here on the trip back. ......"
My happiness and pride were deflated instantaneously. I felt all the blood rush from my face as I stared at the Captain.
She continued, "......You see these men and women? Well this is the last show some of them will ever see in their lives. So the point of me bringing you over here was to say, Thank you. I have thanked you for showing up and doing an honorable thing by playing for the troops. But I want to give you a special thanks. I want to thank you not simply for playing but for doing an exemplary job. You have gone above and beyond to provide a remarkable show. You've given these troops something very special and I personally thank you for it."
At this point, I absolutely have no idea what to say and I'm not sure I could've said it if I had the words. I just stood there in stunned silence.
She reached in her pocket and pulled out ManasAFB 376th Expeditionary Squadron coins.
She said, "Giving you these coins is the highest honor I can bestow upon you. We have never given these to civilians before, but your outstanding performance definitely merits it."
Handed each of us a coin.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I said, "Thank you".

I looked to my left and right. The rest of the band was equally moved.

We were trying to let the power of that moment fully soak in when the technicians run up..., "Hey. The power's back on. You guys ready to play another set?"

The Captain looked at me with a smile of encouragement.

I can't lie I had a moment where I was thinking, "How in the Hell can I go back up there and dance and be happy now? All I can think about is the fact that some of these heroes, some of my new friends weren't gonna make it through the next few months"

But I looked down at the coin in my hand and it shook me back to reality.

I wasn't just going to go up there and play. I was about to go up there and play like this was MY last show.

I have made music my entire life. I no it can have profound effects on people. But never has music been more powerful to me than at that moment. If I had ever doubted my choice to be a professional musician, if I had ever thought that maybe I should have chosen another career .....that moment.....that single moment erased all that.

In that moment every hour of practice was made worthwhile, every decision to continue to struggle was validated. In that moment, I knew I had made the right choice with my life. In that moment I knew music matters and MY music matters.

Me and the guys took the stage and we gave it Hell like we never have before or since. The troops were out of control and into every single song.

That set of music was a rush and an experience that I'll never forget.

Played for hours, then we got off stage and hung out with all the troops. It was a great great time.

Then I began pondering the events of the evening. I've pondered them many times since.

The Men and Women of the military have sacrificed so much for me to have the freedoms I enjoy and the lifestyle I love.

That night Capt. Knudsen let me know that I gave back. That night my music mattered.

I have always loved music and always valued music's importance, but that night Capt. Knudsen showed me a level of value to music that I had overlooked.

I'll never overlook it again.

1 comment:

  1. a moving, well written account Eric.......job well done.