Let’s chart the life of a rock star.
It starts off practicing an instrument or two, learning to sing, and mostly copying songs by artists they love. Eventually they get good enough to join a band. Unsatisfied with simply playing covers they learn to write some songs and they have some local hits. Internal frictions and life events lead to the musician striking out on his own with some friends. After dozens of ever-more-successful local gigs, a record deal is reached.
The rock star, let’s name him Glen, hits the low end of the Billboard charts with the first single off the second album, but no more hits come and the third album fails to make a dent on the national music scene. By this time, it’s looking unlikely that he’ll get a contract for a fourth album… but a popular band has just lost its lead guitarist and songwriter. They need a seasoned pro to step in for a tour and a contracted album, and the youthful professional needs some national exposure.
This is the scenario in 1990, when Glen Burtnik replaced Tommy Shaw in the band Styx. Co-writing “Love is the Ritual”, “Edge of the Century” and “Love at First Sight”, Burtnik was on the rise with Styx until the band, fractured by Shaw’s departure, split up. When Styx rejoined it was with Shaw, and Burtnik was left out of the mix (although he was still on good terms with the band members, particularly Dennis DeYoung.)
In 1988 he’d had his own wing in the Bruce Springsteen museum in Asbury Park, NJ. By 2008 that museum was gone, replaced by a pinball museum.
The hits are still there, but he’s lost the fame. For hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, he’s the “other guy from Styx”. When he plays today, much like many other musicans of the past, it’s usually at small venues and for people who’ve heard those songs dozens of times before.
What does a person like that do during lockdown?
Burtnik has, over the course of a decades-long career (which included stints as Paul McCartney in Broadway’s “Beatlemania”, writing hit songs for other artists and being a “victim” of a staged robbery on the Discovery Channel show It Takes a Thief) learned to play multiple instruments as well as sing, and he’s taken to uploading songs regularly to Youtube under the unsubtle pseudonym of Ben Glurtnik. There are versions of his singles from the 1980s, Beatles covers, songs he performed with Styx, new songs, the songs he wrote for other artists and cover tunes he particularly likes.
He put a new song up every two or three days, counting up from “isolation song du jour” #1 to number 100. He insists he can keep going, and if New Jersey cases spike and the state goes back into lockdown, he may do so. The views range… sometimes less than a hundred swinging up to more than four hundred, but never enough to indicate that any word has bled onto any of the usual pop culture sites. It’s just a guy who has been the “new hot thing” and has stood on stage in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, comfortable enough with his skills and his life to play some music for a few dozen listeners and remind them that we’re all going through this together.
And that, I believe, is the true definition of a star.
Question of the night: Have you ever been the victim of a real (not staged) robbery or burglary?
Alternate question of the night: Burtnik’s far from unique when it comes to performers trying to entertain during the lockdowns. Other musicians have put on concerts, authors have started podcasts, artists have posted drawing lessons to facebook and Alton Brown started a weekly cooking show with his wife, Quarantine Quitchen. Are there any of these new performances you’d like to share with others?