Documentary about local musician Rocket Kirchner plays Thursday

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:53 a.m. CST, Friday, March 1, 2013
Eric "Rocket" Kirchner is a career musician in Columbia. He is featured in a documentary, “Trouble Begins at Eight: Music of Rocket Kirchner," which will be screened at the Columbia Public Library on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — Eric “Rocket” Kirchner is strumming his guitar in the wood-paneled tasting room at Cooper Oak Winery in Higbee.

On a Saturday afternoon, there are more deer heads on the walls than people in the audience.

The winery owner, Matt Kirby, calls out a request: “Play 'Horsepower,' " he yells, though a loud whisper would have sufficed.

Kirchner picks up the cue and starts to sing:

"Well they'll pop you for drinkin' on a tricycle,

They'll put you in jail for boozing on a motor vehicle ...."

The song builds toward the refrain.

"Well you need to know as a matter of course,

You can't get a DWI on a horse."

A couple at the bar nod their heads and smile. Only five people are listening to Kirchner's set.

He doesn't care.

“Doesn’t make a difference whether you play in front of a couple of people at a bar or thirty-five-hundred people,” he would later say. "I just show up and play.” 

Kirchner, 58, has devoted himself to a full-time career as a musician. To give himself complete artistic freedom, he has assumed all the tasks of recording and distributing his songs. He writes, promotes, schedules and performs.

But the decision has brought personal sacrifice. He lives modestly, for one thing. The most important possessions in his basement apartment are books, mostly classics and other hardbacks.

"There's nothing like total freedom," he said. "It's giving up basic needs, but I truly get to see my full potential and means of expression."

Columbia filmmaker Pam Forbes was so taken with his lifestyle that she has profiled him in a documentary  called “Trouble Begins at Eight: Music of Rocket Kirchner."

Although not an official entry in the True/False Film Fest, it will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Friends Room Columbia Public Library. Admission is free.

"He is not just a musician," Forbes said. "The intelligence and philosophy in his music are impressive. It's entertainment, but it gets across serious issues."

Kirchner has been performing for 30 years, mostly blues and folk music at local venues. He writes his own songs, and his first album, "Dialogue," caught the attention of Billboard in 1983.

Since then, he has produced 12 solo albums and opened up for bands as big as Three Dog Night.  

Kirchner cites a vast array of influences on his music from Chuck Berry to Johann Sebastian Bach. An avid reader, he often uses literary excerpts from Plato and Dante in his songs.

When he was 19 he rediscovered his faith and now also laces many of his lyrics with spiritual references.

"I am a Christian, but I am not a Christian artist," he said. "There are undertones. I don't write about the light. I write about how I see the light."

These days, he is most often booked at the Higbee winery and Cooper's Landing. Kirchner claims the reason for his long musical career is not competing with other musicians. He holds onto his gigs, he said, and he monopolizes places that hire him.

"The key to making a career as a musician, besides working hard and being good at what you do, is finding places that are hip, then ignoring them 'cause they're not going to pay you."

Forbes first saw Kirchner play at Cooper's Landing. Then she started to see him on street corners. Before she knew it, she was seeing him everywhere and realized he would be a compelling subject.

She also thought it would be a good way to document the local music scene.

"It is about the Columbia community and the music community, and how Rocket both fits in and opposes both," she said about her film.

Making music has always been Kirchner’s first love.

“I was crawling with a record player,” he said.

When he was 11 or 12 in a suburb of St. Louis, he saw The Rolling Stones on their second American tour, and there was no going back.

“I was like OK, bingo," he said. "That was it. That was what I wanted to do.”

He describes himself as a percussive, hyperactive kid. He started out playing the drums. Then, he realized girls like a front man.

“So I ended up, by the time I was 16, fronting my own band, singing and playing lead guitar,” he said, “I fell in love with guitar.”

Aside from music theory classes in high school and college, Kirchner taught himself guitar.

“In the months leading up to college I spent 12 hours a day on my guitar,” he said. “That was a breakthrough.”

Kirchner attended Maryville College to pursue a degree in music therapy but left school early to launch a career on the road, which then became material for his songs.

“The rhythm of the road gave me inspiration,” he said, “I was sleeping wherever I could and playing where ever I could. I thought, if I didn’t have a life what would I have to write about.”

During his early career, Kirchner's family strongly objected when he chose the itinerant life of a musician. But he persevered.

Knowing they meant well, he kept working hard on his music. At one time, he said he performed six out of seven nights for more than a year.

Then, when he was 35, he and a longtime artist friend had a son.

"When he was born, I had to commit to being a parent," Kirchner said.

"I had to restrict myself from traveling. At nights I did gigs, which gave me time in the day with my son."

His family expected him to get a day job once he became a father, but that just motivated him to write more songs and fight for more gigs.

"I just lived out of suitcases and crashed at people's places, always on the road," he said. “You do what it takes. A lot of times, I have eaten at places I volunteer at. You don’t back down.”

Kirchner’s "do-what-it-takes attitude" has given him a strict, uncompromising work ethic.

“I don’t care if the water is freezing or boiling, a gig's a gig. You got to pay your bills somehow.”

By depending solely on himself, he also claims he's recession-proof.

"Right now, in straight jobs there isn't any security. I just keep gigging. I hit the streets if I have to."

Only recently, now that his son Quenton, 22, is grown, has Kirchner found a measure of success in the acceptance of his family.

"It is just now that everybody has started saying that this guy has done it," he said. "He has not only made a living on it, but he has raised a son on it." 

Not much is certain in Kirchner's future, but he does know that an entirely instrumental CD will be his next challenge.

"I've thought about doing a compilation," he said. "The problem with that is it would make me look back. I want to keep looking forward."

He hopes his documentary will motivate other struggling musicians who may want to quit, or are allowing their music to be dictated by others.

"This movie will encourage other people that are getting naysayed by bullies to follow their creative talents," he said, "Hopefully whether they're young or old this movie will jab them and say, yes, you can do this too." 

He is also pleased that it confirms his belief that freedom would provide the life he wanted.

"If you give up liberty for security," he paraphrases Benjamin Franklin, "you'll have neither."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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