Climbing Carmel Why I Pray

May 23, 2012

The room was dark and small with a low ceiling and no stage. My band had played worse, much worse. Actually we were grateful to have it. This was our first show on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, UPJ, my alma mater. It was March 31st, 1994 and we had finally broken into the college circuit in western Pennsylvania, albeit through the backdoor or maybe it was more like the basement window. At any rate, it was a big night for us. We were a true garage band: none of us could read music, two of us had never played in a band before, and we all had decided from the beginning to play all our own songs, no covers. To club owners and promoters, this combination made our attempts at getting work the musical equivalent of a telemarketer calling during dinner. Tonight we would add a university campus to our resume and hopefully some credibility.

My grunge days, 21 years old

The room was full when we began. We played our standard short set and by the second chorus of the first song I knew we were in that sweet spot when the music feels so solid it was like it was playing itself, all of us were just as much audience as performers, watching the song go by, relaxed and in the moment. We walked through the set without a hitch. Toward the end of our last song, the unthinkable happened: the power dropped. Lights out, amps and microphones all dead, and worst of all, the eerie red emergency back up lights flooding the back doors like those tense, sweating scenes in the 70’s war films when the sub goes into a dive. In an instant, a fully-mixed sound became nothing but the crack of the drums, a dry acoustic guitar and my voice wailing in the dark. Each second went by like an eternity but we kept playing, more out of habit than anything. In a few seconds, the power returned. The lights came back on, the bass guitar bellowed back to life, putting flesh back on the drums, the guitar resumed its rolling strum and my voice filled the room again. We didn’t dare stop or look at each other. We hadn’t missed a beat, every note was right where we left it in the dark. A few moments later the power went out again, then on, then off again. Soon the song took on an almost strobe-like quality, going back and forth from coffee-house acoustic to alternative rock on the same thundering drum beat. Through it all we played without stopping, without faltering, finding our cues where we could, in the sounds we could hear at the time.

Drug and alcohol free all my life...really!

That night, I learned first-hand why my brother insisted on those 900 hours of practice before the first gig and the 20 hours of practice each week ever since. Five hours, four times a week, every week, no excuses. We played those songs when we were sick, tired, hungry, thirsty, happy, sad, fighting, and laughing, in 100-degree summers and forty-below winters. We practiced them until we could anticipate the changes in the song in the way my sister-in-law held her head before the break, or in the list of my brother’s shoulders as he strummed, even it seemed in the vibration of the air itself.

All of this in preparation for that terrible, wonderful night when everything we relied on was taken away and all was darkness. We found that even without our stage monitors and light enough to see each other or our instruments, we still knew our way through the song, and could get to the end with 200 people listening. I try to pray the same way: constantly, consistently, in every kind of weather, circumstance, and emotion. I learned my lesson: I know that when I will need prayer the most it will be dark and I will be without power and all my cues will be too quiet to use. I will need to find God’s presence from memory, in the way His bloody, crowned head hung when He expired, in the list of His shoulders on the cross. I will have to find Christ where I left Him in the dark, drawing on the hours I spent speaking with Him in preparation for that terrible, wonderful day when I will need Him the most and not be able to utter a single word.

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