I led the music at tonight’s Mass with my guitar, so our organist could attend an organ recital in Manhattan. Sunday night Mass is what we call the “jazz Mass.” As far as I can tell, the only thing that connotes jazz is that one of the parishioners plays snare drum behind every song. But in general, there’s a little more leeway to what we can do musicwise. I did a bunch of Irish and Welsh hymn tunes and sang Jean Ritchie’s lovely “Now is the Cool of the Day” for the Communion anthem, which is about as political as I can get in church. The other thing that distinguishes the jazz Mass is audience participation. At the offertory, the congregation brings their gifts forward to a basket in front of the altar, instead of people going to them to collect. And for the prayers of the people, after the prescribed text for the week, the officiant takes a mike out into the congregation and people stand up and state their prayers to which we all respond, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Tonight the snare drummer’s wife stood up and prayed for refugees and immigrants affected by the ban, that they might receive comfort and safety and care. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we all said. Note that our parish is very liberal, more liberal than any Catholic church with which I’ve ever been involved (and being a church musician, that’s been quite a few). At the very first Mass we attended there, the rector explicitly welcomed gay couples and got about as close to stating a pro-choice position that a priest can do. But across the aisle of the church, a tall man crossed his arms across his chest and frowned. When the mic came toward him, he raised his hand. “I pray that we don’t let everyone in, that we don’t let terrorists in.” There was a pause and then some mumbled obediently, “Lord hear our prayer.”
It was a little shocking but it probably shouldn’t have been. We are a church, not the Democratic National Committee. We are open to all. And we are in this place in this country for a reason. But in the moment it felt raw. We felt raw. And the prayers petered out because no one knew what to say. When the priest and his mic passed by me, I said nothing. On the way home, I realized what it was I wanted to say. I pray that we never feel so afraid that we can’t act with compassion, generosity, and love. I pray that we realize that when our actions come from a place of fear that it is we who are the terrorists. And also the victims. And just to be clear, that includes both my wishes for this man and his fear-driven prayer but also to me and my fear of the man and of his prayers.
I was thinking about this when I sang the last verse of Jean Ritchie’s beautiful song.
My Lord, he said unto me,
“Do you like my garden so free?
You may live in my garden
If you keep the people free.”
And he walks in his garden,
In the cool of the day.
And we walk in his garden,
In the cool of the day.
In case you don’t know this song, here is Kathy Mattea’s rendition:
And I’m going to be writing more about this song over at song, so check back there in a day or so.
Hello to anyone still reading here. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about music and done a number of memes about songs (including a couple linked at the top of this page). I’ve really enjoyed writing about songs and my attempts to play them. Over the past two years as I’ve fallen more deeply in love with guitar playing, songs have become an increasing obsession. As I’m learning more about improvising and gigging with a couple of bands, I find myself wanting to learn how to write a song, one that I don’t hate.
As you may have noticed, with my posts here getting fewer and farther between, this process has taken me away from writing somewhat, as practice and rehearsal cuts into my writing time. So I’ve started a separate blog where I can chronicle the process I’m going through. I plan to keep at it until I write the song I want to write, hopefully by the end of the year. As with much of my writing about song here, it’s likely to be (and already is) a mix of memoir and musicology. I’m aiming to write twice a week, but the political distractions being what they are at the moment, I’m not quite reaching that goal as yet, and I’m plundering some of my older posts from this space to fill in the gaps.
I’m not planning on abandoning this space — the other blog is project focused. I have things I want to achieve and a long list of planned posts to cover the ground I want to cover. This will remain a space for other things (and there are increasingly things demanding to be written about…). But I hope you’ll also join me at the new blog, song.
Has it really been six months since I’ve written here? Things have gotten out of hand. Let’s see, where was I?
* Big project at the Toy Factory that was supposed to launch in November, no January no February is now…scheduleless. I’m placing my bets on May. Which is sad, because my life is very stressful until it’s over. On the plus side, I got promoted.
* Still playing a lot of fiddle and guitar. Not so much with the band, alas, which has been on hiatus for months. But the two other guitarists of my group at work left (one laid off, the other retired) and I’m holding it together on my own now. It was terrifying, but I’m gaining confidence (possibly without any merit). I’m also making my own tabs and arrangements now, which is much more fun than I would have expected.
* I am no longer reading the news. For my sanity. I have, however, joined a local grassroots community action group. It surprises me but it also helps.
There. Now you’re all caught up.
That’s not what I wanted to write about though. What I wanted to write about is this:
Every day, on my way to work, I get off at the Herald Square stop and walk east on 35th St. Right outside the exit to the station is a building perpetually covered in scaffolding under which are the back doors to the clothing stores on 34th Street. Over the last few months, nearly a year maybe, a homeless encampment has set up there. They build shelters out of the discarded clothing boxes every night and almost every morning, someone tears them down or hoses them away. They build their shelters between the poles of the scaffolding. The shelves of the scaffolding hide, but don’t completely block, the large old fashioned projecting lintels over the shop doors and the people who live in the boxes stash their belongings there in shopping bags.
This morning when I came up from the train, it was cold, maybe 20 degrees, the coldest day we’ve had in NY this winter so far. As I walked by, the boxes were piled extra thickly with all access routes covered. And on the front of each box was a bright red Christmas stocking.
Where did the stockings come from? They are empty. I am tempted to fill them. What would you put in them? I thought maybe gift cards to a nearby restaurant, but I wonder how many would welcome the people who live in the boxes. What would you do?
I am on the road, a brief visit to Chicago for a family event. I love traveling alone. I am not so great at traveling with others, but traveling alone lets me unhook for a while. I get on the plane and lose myself in music and books for a while and, a couple of hours later,get off somewhere totally different.
Sometime during my year of traveling prodigiously, when I was moving back and forth to Chicago so often that I no longer had to think about what to put in my suitcase, my plane reading of choice has been memoir. Mostly musician memoirs. I think it started when, on one of my first trips back to Chicago from New York, I ended up sitting next to the editor of Pitchf0rk. He was reading the new collection of Ellen Willis’s Voice columns, Out of the Vinyl Deeps which, coincidentally, I had just picked up for the trip but had accidentally left it on my desk on my way out. I was brand new at editing at the time and somehow that conversation with another music editor made me feel a little bit more like I knew what I was doing. Musician memoirs are a bit of protection, if only because they remind me, while in the middle of change and strangeness, of who I am trying to be while allowing me to disconnect from my innate awkwardness and pretend I’m somebody else for a while. Somebody cooler.
For this trip, I chose to pick up a memoir of someone I used to know. Not well, but enough. And a long time ago. We went to school together, and I knew him through a good friend of mine with whom I’m still in touch. I should have seen this coming when I saw my friend’s name on page 1, not to mention his photo in the back, but I know half the people in this book and it’s weird as hell.
The plane was packed. The guy behind me smelled so badly of whiskey (on a 9 am flight)that I felt like I was getting drunk along with him just by breathing. He pounded bloody Marys all the way to Chicago. In front of me, a small unhappy baby was wailing and wailing, sending up an occasional chorus from all the other babies on the plane, shrieking in solidarity at the injustice of air travel (I feel your pain, babies. All of it.) But somehow I lost myself in this book and while I felt a bit dirty and cheap for reading it, partly because it’s not a great book and suffers from the usual name dropping of this kind of memoir (although not as much as some and in a way that strongly suggests an editor’s hand) but mostly because it feels a little like picking up someone else’s diary without permission — I couldn’t stop reading.
The memoirist writes about people I know, about concerts I went to, about events I was a part of, but his perspective is totally different from mine. He has photos similar to those I have in a box somewhere under my bed. I can’t argue with the accuracy — it’s all incredibly familiar but also different and odd. And I can’t put it down.
A long time ago, I read an interview with the memoirist in some zine or another. The interviewer asked him about his musical inspiration, about how he came to do what he did and he told the story of a favorite teacher who had given him a Bowie record so he could tape it when he was too poor to buy his own copy. His favorite teacher was mine too. He didn’t give me Bowie. He gave me Philip Glass and introduced me to John Cage and French New Wave film. The teacher doesn’t make the book but while I’m reading I’m thinking about how he may have saved the intellectual well-being of dozens of disaffected suburban teens. He changed my life in ways I wouldn’t understand for years.
At 30,000 feet, when I’m seeking to lose myself in the beautiful anonymity of a plane, I am reading a page that is forcing me to look back at my childhood, at the things I didn’t notice and the things I didn’t fully understand. I find I’m reconsidering my own perspective on the things that happened. When he quotes my friend on a topic I have actually discussed with him, I am there in that minute, even though I wasn’t actually. And suddenly I’m not sure sure if I’m losing or finding myself.
Somewhere under the bed, with the photos, are copies of the school paper I used to work on. The memoirist and I both wrote poems for it. His were cliched angst, full of things that I thought I wanted to experience. Mine were empty pretty words. Nothing special. But there they are, sharing a space, a couple of pages after a review of a concert he played in that I attended. I remember the agonizing embarrassment of that page. It looks different to me now and I wonder what it means.
As I sit on the plane reading, one of the memoirist’s songs comes through my headphones. The babies are gone. The whiskey man is gone. I am drawing a map in my head between where I am now and where I used to be, the dots spinning out from a place I lived long ago but am wondering if I ever knew.
A long time ago, I was on my way to a required school assembly with the other law-abiding citizens when suddenly I stepped out of line. The idea of a pep rally in the school gym horrified me. My feet gave out in the music department and I ducked into a practice room where I found myself face to face with the memoirist. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. “Hi,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Neither am I.”
“I hate pep rallies.”
“I have to go.”
“Do you want to go?”
While that idea may have occurred to the feet that walked me out of line, it hadn’t occurred to the rest of me. I was too embarrassed to stay. I backed out of the room. But I didn’t go to the rally. I found another practice room and started banging out riffs on the piano,repetitive arpeggios, feeling a little exhilarated for breaking a rule that probably no one cared if I observed.
I’m not sure I ever spoke to the memoirist again. I moved away a few months later. But the moment stuck with me, maybe inspired me to pick up a book years later to see where he ended up. I’m not sure the book is going to really tell me that, but it may have told me a little something about the person I used to be.
Back on the plane, I turn the page. We’re landing in ten minutes and I want to finish the chapter. I wonder what happens next.
My orthopedist has a new office. The old one was inside a large urban hospital, dusty and cramped and full of cardboard boxes and dead plants. The new one is in a swanky office building near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Radio City Music Hall, much closer to my office. It is gleaming white, like a scene from a space movie – white concrete floors, a white marble desk, bright white lights and rows and rows of identical blue chairs. I am sitting in one of those chairs, waiting for an appointment with my hand surgeon, who is checking the progress of my formerly broken fingers. I am dressed for work, where I will be walking afterwards, because it is a nice day and only 13 blocks. Two rows over is the only other person in the waiting room. She is also dressed for work. If you look carefully, you can see signs of wear, particularly in her polished shoes, but she is carefully presented, professional. She is African American. I am not. Is that part of this story? I think it is part of this story.
We have been sitting here for a while. She is waiting for her orthopedist. The desk clerk comes out from behind the counter and tells her quietly that they no longer take her insurance. The woman is not quiet. She is angry. The office had called her to check her insurance and then gone ahead and made the appointment. She names her insurance, which I know to be a budget plan designed for healthcare workers. She has taken off work because she lives far away from this place. She works in the hospital where the office used to be. “We never took that insurance, really. We only accepted it as a courtesy for the people who worked in the hospital. But we aren’t there anymore,” the desk clerk explains. The clerk’s demeanor is entirely neutral, as if she’s repeating a message she’s communicated many times. The woman is seething but polite in pointing out the office’s lack of respect for her and her time. She asks to speak with the office manager and a beefy man in a custom suit comes out and says he’ll see what he can do and disappears down a white hallway and out of sight. The woman sits down. A few minutes later, I hear a soft sound. She is crying. Her façade is falling apart and you can see that this is someone who has to fight for everything. She carefully arranges the layers around her, but when life is hard, it tends to get harder and there is no extra fabric to cover the holes. I have never been more moved to give a stranger a hug, but she was clearly embarrassed and I didn’t want to interfere.
A few minutes later the man in the suit returns and mumbles a few words to the desk clerk before disappearing down another white hallway. The Desk clerk comes out and says to the woman, still crying softly, that the doctor has agreed to see her and will be out soon. And then my name is called. When I come back to the waiting room after my appointment, the woman is gone.
But I’ve been thinking about her all morning and thinking about how grateful I am for my health insurance that costs me relatively little because I have a job that helps me pay for it. I am grateful that it lets me visit my doctor for an affordable amount. Let’s me visit almost any doctor. That I have a job that lets me come in late when I have an appointment and I get paid anyway. Because when you’re sick or hurt, you need all of those things. You need doctors who will see you when they say they will. You need doctors near where you live and work. You need child care and you need your paycheck, whether or not you are able to be at your job. You do not need gleaming white marble rooms. You need warm and soft and gentle. You need someone to bear you up. You need someone to not only tell you it’s going to be okay, but to make it so. Otherwise for those the worst off, things can only get worse. There has to be a better way to do this.
My hand is healing. My heart is not.
Scene: A Brooklyn street at night. AJ and Harriet are walking home after AJ’s basketball practice.
AJ: I’d like to go to Sweden for vacation sometime.
Harriet: Why? I mean, I’d like to go there too, but why are you interested in it.
AJ: They have hockey and pretty girls.
Harriet: True. Now that’s a way to plan a vacation.
The Spy family is not (alas!) going to Sweden, but we are taking an impromptu vacation in the not too distant future. I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it sooner. But Mr. Spy had spent a few days in Florida while working on his book and he came back feeling like he hadn’t had enough We are not going to Florida either. I am okay with that one.) We had briefly toyed with the idea of going to an inn on a small Caribbean island, but it proved to be complex. Also, when Mr. Spy called them to find out if it would be a suitable place for AJ, they replied “Oh, yes, it’s not just honeymooners. We get all kinds of people. Calvin Trillin is spending the month with us.” It is very hard to get away from New York. It has a tendency to come with you. (We are not going to a small Caribbean island). We are, however, going to a small island, one with which we are intimately familar. We plan to do very little. I am very much looking forward to it.
When you’re a musical kid, people give you music tchotchkes at every possible opportunity, and it can make you feel like a cliché. I’ve had music mugs and pads of paper with “NOTES written on them (the 8th notes are usually written backwards). I had a bag covered in a Bach score that said “Music is My Bag” (at the time I didn’t even know what that sentence meant). I had violin bracelets and earrings that mostly stayed in their boxes, posters of small sad children toting giant violins. These things and others like them were markers of music nerds everywhere. They propped up my burgeoning identity as a musician, even as I wasn’t sure that I’d earned it or that I wanted to be limited by it. After a while you start to think they belong to you and that they are inevitable.
I don’t have any of these things anymore, save the chipped mug with an 8th note for a handle that I bought with my own money on a field trip to Boston when I was in middle school. The glaze is completely worn off, but it still holds my morning coffee. I knew by high school that as much as I loved music and relied on it as a way of understanding and commenting on the world around me, that it was not the only thing I wanted to do. But I kept doing it, sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of compulsion, sometimes out of a sense of retreat, a need to pull back from new things and remember who I was by going back to the last place that I knew for sure. Sometimes out of love.
My career has taken me many places, almost all of them musical in one way or another and this has never ceased to surprise me, even as everyone around me says it looks like I’m doing what I’m born to do. These other jobs, which I love, are about other things to me. They are about music; they are not music. Playing is something else altogether. Despite the physical evidence to the contrary, music-making has never really been about identity to me. It’s about communication. It’s about making meaning out of chaos. It’s about sitting down with people to do something together. And these things have only become more valuable to me as I get older. I couldn’t quite articulate them earlier in my life. It maybe took a nearly decade-long hiatus while I was living in exurban Chicago to figure it out.
Today’s physical evidence is different. It’s a pocket full of Gibson guitar picks (medium), a T-shirt from my kid’s last band concert, the remnants of frayed strings along the side of my bed where they seem to gather like autumn leaves against a stoop. It’s the grooves worn in my fingers and the mark on my neck. It’s the white stripes of rosin decorating the black shirt I wore last night, currently balled somewhere in the bottom of my closet because I got home too late from my gig to turn on the lights to find the hamper. It’s the small metal plate reading “Gibson” from my guitar’s old case that I will keep forever. These things aren’t props. They are evidence. The real thing.
In the last few months I’ve discovered that I’m in a band. It happened slowly and I’m still a sort of apprentice member, but I can’t tell you how much I love it. It’s entirely different from the symphonic playing I grew up with and even from the Irish seisiun playing I used to do in Chicago. There is no fear. I am not so focused on memorizing and creating perfect paths to accurate performances, on impressing anyone. Accuracy matters on some songs more than others – sometimes it’s about a good improv, which is all about communicating with the other band members on stage, the moment of performance. The people in the band are a huge part of what I love about it. We are all nerds with kids and interesting and creative jobs in other fields. Our music is quirky, a mix of unusual arrangements of well-known songs, covers of more obscure songs, and some gorgeous originals. We repeat our rep a lot, which makes it easy to hop in and out of gigs without a lot of work, but we change things up just enough to keep things interesting. I want to play more, so I’m working on arranging. But I’m also enjoying not being the one in charge. I do what I’m asked. I suggest things occasionally, and I do a lot of sitting and listening. Also laughing really hard. My ribs sometimes hurt when I come home from rehearsal.
Back when I had a stack of music stationery in my desk drawer, given to me by assorted aunts and uncles, when I spent a lot of time running between orchestra rehearsals and violin lessons, I used to imagine being in a rock band, standing in front of the mirror on my closet door, my violin held sideways under my arm. Now I actually get the chance to try it. Our rock credentials are sketchy – we play a lot of acoustic instruments. We’re kind of old for this business – we’re more likely to wear clog boots than stilettos. We play tiny rooms in the backs of bars. But our musicianship skills are solid, our repertoire knowledge is large, and those tiny rooms? We pack them and the audience hangs around after the show. Most of all, though, we have fun. There’s a reason they call what we do “playing.”
After a gig a few months ago, I was taking a very late subway back home after a gig that started at 10 p.m., my mandolin under one arm and my fiddle and tote bag of mics and cables slung over my shoulder. Two people walked by me to wait on the other end of the platform. “You were in the band that just played at Superfine, weren’t you? You guys were great.” I thanked them and we waited a few more minutes on the platform before getting in adjacent cars and disappearing into the night. For a few minutes I felt like a rock star. It was nice, but it pales by comparison to walking into a rehearsal and knowing you’re going to make some good music with great people.
The band’s on hiatus for a few months because we have lives and there are things happening – imminent babies, solo albums to record, apartments to move and theses to write. I’ll be using some of that time to work on some arrangements and maybe a song or two. I haven’t written a song – well, not a rock/folk/pop song anyway — since I was of the age to stand in front of the mirror with a violin-guitar. I’m not sure I know what to do, nor have I done many arrangements. But the kind of playing we do puts ideas in your head and I want to see if I can make them happen.
Part of the process of figuring out how to do this has involved listening – really listening – to lots of songs and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I’ve been thinking about melodies and lyrics and instrumentation, trying to consider what the band does best but also what sounds good to me. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good song in an effort to create some rules for myself to tame the terror of the long minutes at the beginning where you’re moving from noodling on your guitar to staring at a blank page of black lines. I’m hoping that writing about this will help me sort through some of what I’m doing. I think this is likely to be more memoir than how-to, but I’m hoping that maybe a little of the latter will shine through and may possibly be useful to someone. But part of the project is definitely going to be about the role this band has/is playing in my life and the things I’m learning from it. I’m aiming for writing at least once a week – more often doesn’t seem to be too realistic at the present moment, at least not on a regular basis. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.