The Grind

The artist lounge at the Westcott Theater in Syracuse is anything but impressive. The former projector space overlooking the one-room theater resembles a disused storage space. An old fridge sits awkwardly in the center of the room, which can’t be more than 5′ x 20′. To either side of the door sit worn sofas that seem to have been nabbed from garage sales or sidewalks. When the music plays, the rust-cornered mirror on the wall facing the theater vibrates so loud it’s difficult to hear anything else.

Yet artists love it.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several musicians playing The Westcott, in addition to meeting with Sam Levey, owner of the theater, for a story I was working on. While talking with rising dubstep star Alex Botwin (better known as Paper Diamond) prior to his show there in September, we got on the subject of the theater. He told me he liked the character the theater possesses and the lack of pretense. Other musicians like Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass have made similar comments about the less-than-perfect condition

The Apollo Theater

Billy Mitchell onstage at the Apollo Theater

Yesterday I toured the Apollo Theater in Harlem, one of the most well-known performance spaces in America. The theater helped launch the careers of countless black performers, from Ella Fitzgerald to Chris Rock. Tour guide Billy Mitchell led our cohort to the dressing rooms immediately above the stage. Expecting spaces worthy of a world-renowned theater, I was shocked to see a room smaller and, quite frankly, less impressive than even that of the Westcott.

Chipping paint covered bruised walls and the tile floor was clean but scuffed and worn. The air conditioner filling a hole in the wall was clearly built before I was born. The dressing tables were meager and the chairs were plastic. There was no fridge, no electronics and no shower in the tiny half bath.

Despite its shortcomings, the dressing rooms, Mitchell said, hold huge appeal, especially for big name stars like Jay Z and Alicia Keys. “Everyone wants to experience the Apollo like the legends,” he said. “It’s part of the allure of the Apollo.” The Apollo has built newer, nicer dressing rooms beneath the stage, but Mitchell said they hardly get any use.

There’s a reason stars like these, accustomed to the finest accommodations in the world, choose to slum it. Not only is it humbling (a word lost on some of today’s major performing artists), it’s a reminder that every star (Bieber excluded) started off small – playing local joints with weathered facilities. And for most, the rise to fame was more thrilling than its achievement. The journey is often greater than the destination.

It’s the grind most musicians love – struggling to make ends meet by playing countless gigs at every hole in the wall, working retail during the day to pay for new amps and cables, or driving across the state in a decade-old minivan to play at some dive college bar. Hard work is tough, but it makes us who we are.