Ask an indie rock veteran: How do you play with a migraine?

Ask an indie rock veteran: How do you play with a migraine?
Illustration: Karl Gustafson

When I was a kid, I couldn’t stand rock ’n’ roll that featured saxophones. I’ll be 36 in August, and I’ll be damned if I don’t find them delightful now. Do you think hearing saxophones in rock songs is the aural equivalent of having to choke down squash as a child? What’s your favorite rock song featuring the sax?

It’s odd, isn’t it? People don’t seem to complain as much about other instruments. Personally, I’ve never come around to the saxophone, but I suppose the very boring answer to your last question is Clarence Clemons. At the end of something dripping with sentiment like “Bobby Jean,” I feel something. Clarence comes in—as he always does—playing the exact melody of the song, and blowing so hard that he shits his pants. And it works for me. I want to lean over and whisper tenderly to my wife, “I want a slice of pizza.” But I keep it to myself. Anyway, I think that’s about it for me and the saxophone.

The other thing—and I hope this isn’t a blow to your ego—is that, at 36, you are getting cheesier. It happened to me: I remember the first time I laughed at Billy Crystal. He was saying how his mother’s last words were, “Don’t wash wool.” Which is a great joke, but still.

I have a 1-year-old who’s currently in daycare. We live in a junky part of Brooklyn, where the public schools are on the bad side of the curve. Do my wife and I need to move in the next three years in order to save our kid, or does school quality not really matter? And if we do need to move, what is your experience with finding a new city, having lived in every major urban center in the eastern U.S.?
—Chad from Brooklyn

I don’t want to stress you out, but I think you do need to act on this. At some point, my wife and I realized that almost every decision we were making boiled down to where our kids would go to school. It’s why we ended up living in a city that The Economist kindly reminds us, via regularly tweeted charts, is one of the most dangerous in the world. But we adore our kids’ school and can’t imagine them going anywhere else.

From folks I know, I gather there are a lot of great public school options in Brooklyn. Like all things in New York, you have to fight for them, but you’re probably used to that by now. So yes, there are school applications in your future. If changing neighborhoods is the only solution, then you should think about that. But you’ll be in great shape if you can get through the maze. Universal pre-K, which you will have in Brooklyn, is like getting a $20,000 check per kid. Here’s a list to start you off, from a friend who is a pretty together dude and has been through it. He applied to about 12 schools for his kindergartener, so brace yourself: Compass Charter School, Community Roots Charter School, P.S. 29, P.S. 11. Brooklyn Prospect Charter, P.S. 20.

When this gets overwhelming—and like Clarence Clemons, you want to shit your pants—keep in mind that everyone goes through it. One surprising thing we learned in our own search is that financial aid isn’t this pie-in-the-sky, unattainable thing. In expensive cities like D.C. and New York, it can help (though it’s still completely unaffordable). Also, there are many wonderful, beloved schools in cities like Charleston and Milwaukee, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, and sometimes those cities can’t fill their private schools like they used to. Often these places are adored by their alumni and have endowments that allow them to float less-affluent parents. Private high school teachers are recruited through national searches these days, so they’re extraordinary as a rule. If your work or whatever prohibits you from leaving New York, then none of this is an option, of course. But it is out there.

My wife and I came to realize there was no perfect school in a perfect city that fit everything we hoped for, even if money were no object—which for us was actually a surprising realization. You’ll find a good option with perseverance, but don’t beat yourself up over not finding the ultimate. It might not even exist. But you do owe it to your kid—and yourself—to avoid getting them into a bad one.

I’m always amazed when, in the middle of some loud-ass rock song, a bass player will say something to the guitarist—or the singer to the drummer, or whoever—and then they both laugh. When you’re on stage, in the middle of a song, and it’s really loud, can you actually have a conversation with your bandmates? And what would you possibly have to say?
—Jeff in Oakland

I know, right?! I’ve seen that, too: Sammy Hagar sharing a joke mid-song with that Van Halen bassist who looks like Dog the bounty hunter. (Well, they both look like Dog the bounty hunter.) Or Keith Richards is having an exaggerated laugh with Ron Wood. Personally, I can’t hear a damn thing up there, but who knows? Ron Wood seems like a lot of fun, and you probably don’t need to know exactly what he’s saying to get the basic idea.

At big shows, it can be oddly quiet in certain places onstage. You can be far from the monitors and behind the PA, so it is possible that they could hear each other—though I have my doubts. Also, don’t rule out self-consciousness. It’s hard to be up there doing nothing sometimes. “Self-conscious” isn’t the first term I’d use to describe Keith Richards or Sammy Hagar, but younger bands definitely are, and they may be just trying to look “natural.”

I am an occasional migraine sufferer. If I were a professional musician, I’d think it would likely put me on the musical equivalent of a PUP (“physically unable to perform”) list in the NFL. Have you or your bandmates ever been physically unable to play a show? If so, how did you deal with it?

Oh boy, this is a big one for me. I have struggled with migraines since I was 25. I got my first one after having an abscessed tooth crowned, and I swear there was a connection. It put me in the hospital for seven days, because I had no clue what was happening. When I get a migraine, I lose my vision for about 20 minutes; when it comes back, this extraordinary headache begins. And if I don’t take a fistful of painkillers and lie down as soon as my vision starts to vanish, all sorts of terrible things happen. A few months ago, I barfed all over the first-floor men’s bathroom at the Museum Of American History in D.C. It really affected how much I enjoyed touring Julia Child’s kitchen.

My bandmates were very patient with me, but on migraine nights, while their side of the stage could obviously be mistaken for a scene from Hammer Of The Gods, my side had a Weekend At Bernie’s feel. Occasionally, over the years, we did have to play without someone. Hamilton missed seven-eighths of a show in St. Augustine, Florida once, where we were opening for Kings Of Leon—but that was because the band wouldn’t pay for a cab from the airport, and he was making stops all over Jacksonville in a Super Shuttle. More recently, our dear friend Skyler Skjelset filled in on bass when we opened for Florence And The Machine at Red Rocks, right when Walter’s wife was due to give birth.

After the show, they gave us a DVD of our performance, and Skye was acting funny and said he didn’t want us to watch it. I don’t know where he studied psychology, but I think the rest of us actually ran the 5 feet to the TV. A couple songs in, he started acting funny, and then he got very still for a while, with his eyes darting around. Then he started to randomly spin right and left, slowly backpedaling, then jerking forward. After about 10 minutes of this nonsense, he just froze completely with his hands off his sides, and stopped playing. And if you looked carefully, you could see a bee had landed right on his lapel and there he was, in front of 10,000 people, unable to move or play. Skye honestly felt like he had let us down, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s a moment we all cherish.

Anyway, it’s worth noting that nobody—including the band—noticed while it was happening. So it’s not the end of the world if someone in the band is unavailable occasionally, even in the middle of a song.

What questions do you have? Send them to me at [email protected], and I’ll help where I can. In the meantime, come listen to my scoring work at

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