There are times when I feel that we as a nation have all but overcome most types of prejudice. However, one minority group is being left behind. This group of people has remained in the shadows for years, contributing to society in important (albeit covert) ways. The group I speak of is the bass players. Some deem the bass player as nothing but a lousy guitarist with a bigger instrument. I have come to prove these rumors untrue. I am a bass player and I will fight for my people. I converted to bass not more than 17 months ago. I knew what I was getting into. The stigmas attached to bass players are derogatory to say the least. They never get the chicks; they don’t get any recognition; they’re all around useless. Well, I disagree. I have heard my fair share of racist jokes and used to find them quite funny. I would laugh wholeheartedly if I knew there wasn’t a Native American around for miles, but I soon learned the ugly truth: these jokes really do hurt.
It was the first day of class in the spring semester. I had a history course in a rather stadium-like classroom. My history professor was a diminutive man, whose awkward movements suggested a previous Badminton accident. I had gone through my ritual of coming to class at the very last minute and seeing if any attractive girls had an open seat next to them. I spotted a brunette beauty, who surprisingly had a chair open next to her. As the professor started class, I sidestepped my way into the middle of the row, next to my newest obsession, giving all in my way a glimpse of my daire-aire, artfully stepping over book bags and abandoned North Face jackets. Once I had found my seat, the professor began to discuss the syllabus, but no one was paying attention. He instead opted to break the ice with a few “harmless” jokes. What I heard next made me feel about an inch tall.
“What do a vacuum cleaner and a bass guitar have in common?” he paused to let the still yawning students cognitively process the query. “…Both suck when you plug them in,” he exclaimed amidst uproarious laughter. The comment took me by surprise to say the least. My classmates were laughing uncontrollably. As I looked around, I noticed that I was the only person gripping the top of my desk with a white-hot fury. My blood was boiling. I had heard this type of hate-speech before…this man, like so many others I have encountered was not a racist, but an anti-bassist! I have had to deal with prejudices in my own way, usually swallowing my pride and hiding both of my sets of calloused fingertips in my pockets. However, in academia, I thought I could find refuge. This institution harbored progressive thinking faculty and a tolerant student body, or so I thought.
As any good comedian would do, my teacher saw that the joke got a good laugh and decided to stick with the premise. Another one-liner joke spewed from his vulgar mouth: “Why don’t bass players ever catch a cold?” again pausing for comedic effect. “Even a virus has some pride.” Again, the classroom erupted in a cacophonous cackling. That was the last straw. Even though I was outnumbered, I stood up. Performing my best Geddy Lee impression, I screamed at the top of my lungs in a falsetto caterwaul, “STOP LAUGHING!”
The sickening mob went silent and an awkward fog hung over the classroom as I stood there, garnering the attention of many onlookers. I could feel my face go flush as my adrenaline glands pumped a seemingly endless amount of endorphins into my blood stream. My heart was racing and my limbs were trembling with the rush of fight or flight response (my previous class was Intro to Psychology). My teacher, still astounded at the impudence that I had just exhibited, finally asked that I explain myself.
“You don’t understand. None of you do. You can never understand…what my people have been through.” I struggled to get the words out. I knew that explaining myself would be harder than I had anticipated.
“Are you a bass player?” my teacher now angrily asked. Yet his anger only triggered a stronger response in me. Perhaps I felt that the genuine challenge of taking on the head of the classroom. Anti-bassists had bullied me before, but I was finally taking a stand.
“Yes I am! And guess what? I’m damn proud of it.” I shouted. An infinite moment passed and I sat in rebellious limbo, not knowing what I was going to say from this point on. After I had indicated myself as one of the loathed instrumentalists, I heard a muffled giggle coming from the back row. Two students, dressed in Diesel brand clothing from head to toe, were trying to contain their amusement at my outing. I figured that the class had already been disrupted so I confronted these two young metro-thugs. I shuffled my way out of the row, knocking several of my classmate’s papers to the floor. I walked up the aisle; my eyes deadlocked on the pair.
Sticking my face unacceptably close to the nearest one, I asserted my dominance. “What’s so funny pretty boy?” I asked in a way that was so calm it was menacing. The first student ran his fingers through his hair, pulling back a sticky hand covered in hair-gel and wiping it on his overpriced jeans.
He looked at the other students for approval. “I…I just think it’s funny. Bass players suck. There’s no need for them.” As he spoke, ideas of retaliatory actions ran through my head. I had a nice metal pen in my pocket that I could jam into his soft skull, but that would only make him a martyr. His death would prove that bass players are, in fact, lowly scum. I had to elevate my level of thinking. I would instead draw him out through questioning and attack his ideas.
“May I ask why you feel that bass players serve no utilitarian purpose?” knowing that my large vocabulary would be enough to intellectually overwhelm him.
“Me and my friend here,” he began to explain, using poor grammar, “have a band comprised of three acoustic guitarists and one person playing bongos.” He paused to re-adjust his Chanel sunglasses perched atop acutely sloping forehead. He continued, “I think we are better off without some bass player meddling in our business.”
“Three acoustic guitars??” I incredulously questioned. This was the worst of the bass player’s nemesis, the Un-Plugged fanatic, hell bent on ridding the world of amplifiers and bass lines. This guy’s need for a bass line was undoubtedly satisfied by complacently hitting the top string on his acoustic guitar. “What the hell do you do with three acoustic guitars!?!”
“We mostly do cover songs but we’ve got some original stuff too, dog.”
I gathered my thoughts, released my white-knuckle grip on my metal pen, and asked him, “Pray tell, what type of music do you ‘cover’?”
“Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, Jimmy Buffet…” he went on, but the bile rising in my stomach had to stop or else I would vomit in class, something I hadn’t done since 6th grade when my friend dared me to eat three Chicken Patty sandwiches. I surveyed the rest of the student body; they had become increasingly intrigued by the argument. I saw many of my fellow classmates nodding in approval of the list of bands, knowing that few of them could resist the temptation of screaming along to “Living on a Prayer” in a crowded bar or party. I began to feel even more alone, but as I scanned the audience, I noticed a few students looking downtrodden, needing a leader to speak out against the majority.
“O.K., that’s enough.” I said, putting the list to a stop. “Do people like to dance when your band plays?” I asked, not sure if I knew what direction I was going in.
“Hell yea…well sort of.” Sensing this weakness, I did my best part to play proctologist, probing deeper and deeper into the heart of this stinky matter.
“Explain ‘sort of’,” I demanded, my voice growing more confident with the knowledge that I had a few allies with me in the classroom. “Let me guess…they don’t dance do they? No, they sway back and forth.”
The dumbfounded acoustophile looked to his partner in crime for help but he was too busy filing his fingernails with a worn down emery board. I turned and faced the rest of the class.
“How many of you like the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” I asked. A few hands shot up. “Keep them up,” I insisted. “What about: Primus, Queen, Steve Miller Band, Fleetwood Mac, Green Day…” the sparse hand population grew rapidly, forming a type of indomitable spanking machine. I paused, preparing to drop the hammer: “Who here likes any type of rap song?”
At this point, the only two people not raising their hands were the two gigglers. As the class decided it was time to put their hands down, I turned to the gigglers, who were now applying make-up to hide their blotchy skin brought on by the stress of being confronted without seven of their “boys” there to back them up.
“I have no doubt that there is a place for acoustic guitars in the music world,” I explained to the class, “but without the bass, the music would fall to pieces. All of the songs that you love to dance to and mosh to would instead be lame acappella of the original version. Just as with any other group of the oppressed, we bass players have had our pioneers. African-Americans had Malcolm X; we have Jaco Pastorius. Mexican Americans had Reies López Tijerina, fighting for his land grant movement; we bass players have Larry Graham, Sly and the Family Stone’s bassist, who introduced the world to “Slap bass.” When Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers showed bass players around the world that it was acceptable to play funk music and be white, it was just as important to us as when the Texas Tech basketball team started five black players in the National Championship.” My voice was quivering with emotion; I had just articulated the deepest of my people’s sentiments to a captivated crowd. As my last sentence trailed off into the echoing room, I once again surveyed the environment: several people were still staring at me as if I were on fire; I felt like I was. Others seemed to be lost in a transcendental meditation, reflecting on their past indiscretions against bass players, perhaps asking whatever god they prayed to for forgiveness. I saw three or four people sobbing uncontrollably, their heads buried in hands with calloused fingertips. I had made public the things they had wanted to shout into the microphone on stage for what seemed like an eternity. Even the metro-thugs were uncomfortable in their own skin now. Although, their discomfort could have been caused by their brand new hemp necklaces.
“So next time you listen to your favorite CD…or I-Pod, or MP3 player, whatever, I want you all to say a silent ‘thank you’ to the bass player.” I exclaimed as I gave an air-bass solo, twiddling the fingers of my left hand upon my belt and moving the fingers on my right hand approximately to shoulder-height. As I returned to my seat, the room was still shocked. My history professor sat on his table, contemplating the situation and trying to decide if discipline should be administered. He remained silent for what seemed like an eternity.
I shuffled back into the row from whence I came, facing pelvis toward the seated students, after all we were now closer than ever, what’s the difference if I present my package in an intimate manner? I sat down next to the attractive girl, who was trying to hide her tears. “That was beautiful,” she said, taking my hand. Who says that the bass player never gets the girl?
Not three minutes later the bitch left me for a Harmonica player.