My Public Speaking Origin Story: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Being a New Wave Lead Singer

In the '80s, I was in a new wave band in Nashville called “Modern Emotions.” We had only been together for six weeks when we got our first gig.  Well, OK, it was a Halloween party in someone’s basement, but there were going to be a TON of people there, and that constituted a gig for us.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of any audience EVER.

My friend Barry Nelson, gave me advice when I revealed that I was a little concerned I would forget my newly learned lyrics:

“If you forget your lyrics, just sing numbers and letters--no one will know the difference.”

Barry’s advice was good (listen to REM’s Murmur and tell me if you understand ANY lyric on that), but I had another plan.  I had a notebook with my lyrics written in large print in it, and I’d position it so I could glance at it if my memory failed.  We did the sound check and it worked.  Whew!  Now I could relax and focus on my eyeliner.

The crowd started to gather--and they’d crowded a lot of people in that basement. I ran down my new wave checklist: pink tuxedo shirt, check. Black thrift store jacket, check. Hair & Makeup, check & check. Killer ascot, check and mate.

As we walked out to the band riser, I saw that someone had taken the extra step of putting dry ice in buckets all around the stage, and my carefully placed notebook had vanished in the moody fog.

The band starts up--Chuck Orr on his drums, Skot Nelson begins to tickle the synth ivories, Jennifer Thompson gets going on the guitar, and…I struggle to remember what the hell I’m supposed to sing.

“Three.  F. Eighty Eight. Two. Ninety Nine. Ninety Nine.”

I remembered some of the choruses, but most of what I sang was numbers and letters.  Thankfully, we only knew six songs, so it DID have an end point.  Once we finished the last note, I slinked off the stage in shame, feeling like I’d made a huge fool out myself. I was devastated that I had sabotaged our DEBUT performance! I burst into tears once in the cocoon of my enclosed car – a 1974 AMC Hornet.

A few minutes later, Mary (of Mary K. and the Cosmetics) knocked on the window and came in to console me (with her pet boa constrictor no less): “Honey, don’t you worry about it at all – nobody noticed anything, y’all were great!” I was convinced she was just being nice.

Oh well, at least it was over.

Five minutes later, Jennifer knocked on the car window and said, “You ready for our second set?”

“What? Second set! No one told me we were going to do a second set!”

Semi-shell shocked, with Mary K.’s support, I got up out of that car, went in thinking, “well, it certainly can’t be any worse that the first set!” This time, I held my notebook in my arms and…it actually went well! I had been through the worst the first set, so after that, I threw caution to the wind, and we ended up rocking the party and having a small local following afterwards!

A mantra that I have referred to often after experiencing a similar situation as an actor forgetting my lines:  

Well, I didn’t die.  

Kind of puts things in perspective.

When prepping for a presentation, Rehearse. A lot. Out loud. In front of other people. Know what you are going to say. Expect the fog to obliterate your notes and be prepared. The more you rehearse, the better you’ll be.

*Note - the picture above is from Young Grey Ruins, a subsequent Nashville band I was in. You can listen us here.

William Smartt

99 Madison Ave, Suite 623, New York, NY 10016