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We live near a large body of water in Chicago and because it is a large mass of water, the city, inevitably, has seagulls. At least, I think they are seagulls. They sure look like them.
When Brian and I ride to the lake and lounge on the concrete steps and watch the water seagulls are a part of the moving landscape. In the city, they can pick at the garbage that floats on the water, and they hover above trash cans. In an urban center, seagulls can seem like the other flying pests which include pigeons. In this environment, it can be hard to appreciate a seagull. It may be hard to see the precision with which they target food. Or, to see how they seem to nod and wink at each other as they flock together in groups on the sands of North Avenue beach. It can also be difficult to see the grace with which they hover above you in one spot, riding the air currents like a sophisticated piece of machinery. It can be hard to see all that when seagulls are one of the many animals (rats, pigeons, roaches) that we in the city try to avoid or exterminate.
This changed for us recently when Brian purchased a new acoustic guitar, called — you guessed it — a Seagull. Actually, we liked the first one so much, we bought a second one the next week (and thank you Bush for that economic stimulus package, for like other loyal Americans, we spent it). seagull guitars are made in Canada of trees that have already fallen, rather then been felled to make guitars. Thus, they are environmentally and economically responsible. Brian likes this a lot. He’s eco-conscious and feels slightly guilty all the time for most of the injustices of the world. Knowing his guitar is not contributing to it helps him sleep better at night (and I’m totally serious).
I, however, like best the little drawing that sits on the headstock. It is a bird in flight. It’s a nice metaphor for a lot of things that have to do with singing, writing, and music. It suggests freedom, possibilities, determination, quickness, wit, smarts, and … balls. Ever see a seagull steal a fish away from a half-witted duck? It’s quite a sight and the duck comes off looking like a twit.
So, we like the new guitars (one six-string, one twelve) and we like the seagull on the headstock. And, of course, where there is new gear there are new songs. So, stayed tuned…Short Punks could be doing Simon and Garfunkel in the near future….
Singing is much much much much harder than drumming. I sang at the last show and while it did not go badly, I felt in my voice a hesitation and in my head I heard a voice that screamed: “OH MY GOD!! YOU’RE SINGING IN PUBLIC! STOP!” I kept singing and the two brief songs I sang were over before I knew it. So, to the voice I said, “Relax, it’ll be over in a second.”
I so admire singers. And not just famous singers, everyday singers. People who sing songs while they do the dishes or go for a walk. I admire people who sing whole choruses and verses of their favorite song. I have favorite songs and singers. I like the way Nat King Cole sings “Mona Lisa” and the way he lingers on the “m” so that it’s sounds like “yummm…”. I like Etta James when she sings “At Last” and the way she sings the “at last” so that you really can feel her exhale a sigh of relief…at last. I like even (or especially) Astrud Gilberto because of how she sings slightly off-pitch, no so badly that it’s unlistenable but just enough so that it’s charming, fetching, as if she were a child lisping. I love that she is singing and she’s not a perfect singer. And I have discovered (re-discovered, really, I’m old enough to have heard her songs on the radio in the 70s) Karen Carpenter and how she sings with a very short range but every note and breath counts. Every time it rains, her song about rainy days and Monday seems to fall with each drop. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down. Sing it, girl. You speak the truth.
So, I am in awe of singers: the great ones, the flawed ones, the affected ones. I admire them because more than any other instrument I have learned to play (piano, violin, drums), the voice is the one that asks you to be vulnerable. When I sing with my voice, I am making music with my own body (flawed, imperfect, limited) and I’m singing (ideally) with my emotions (sad, angry, happy) and there is no object in between me and the sound an audience hears. There is no instrument under my chin or a wall of drums to hide me from the audience. It is just me and my voice. And when I sat on stage singing I felt as naked as I could feel, despite the wall of drums that sat in front of me. God help me the day I walk out from behind the drums to sing in public.
Singing makes me grow. I have to learn how to find intervals with my voice, which is a matter of teaching the muscles in my throat, mouth, chest, diaphragm to recognize an “A” and know how it’s different from a “C.” Needless to say, I’m still teaching myself those things so by the time we played last week, I still couldn’t pitch myself very well, especially when I was drumming. There was one moment in the chorus of “Rosie” that I knew I wouldn’t hit a low note. We had discovered in rehearsal that fell below my range and that I should go an octave or a third up instead. But, because it’s all new to me and a third up might as well be a universe up, I didn’t quite have it down when we went to the show. And during the song, I tried not to anticipate it. I tried to just let the moment come and accept whatever happened when we got to the chorus.
Oddly, when we got there, a solution presented itself. We were singing in unison and as Brian’s voice dropped down to the unreachable note, I could feel that I wouldn’t hit it on key, and my hands and arms with a mind and brain of their own took over. Instead of singing that note, I played two loud hits on the snare. My voice didn’t sing it but my arms did. The result was that it sounded as if I was punctuating on the drums the idea of the word that Brian was singing. Problem solved. Life is awesome.
Last night we rehearsed again and in order to work on vocals we left all the big gear at home. No big amps, no drums: just Brian and his telecaster and small Fender Champ and me and a snare. A thirty-minute set-up with full drums became a five-minute set-up without them, and within minutes of arriving at the rehearsal space we were ready to practice.
We spent the next hour fighting. I wanted him to turn down. He didn’t want to. I wanted to sing it one way; he, another. He felt invalidated; I was angry. For an hour we stopped and started the same song. We fought about line breaks and fell into angry silences. After an hour, I stopped and did something I learned to do at the last buddhist retreat. I put my hands together, plam to palm, and inhaled and slowly, I counted my out-going breaths from five to zero. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
“Why don’t we just relax and do what we like?” I said.
Brian sat still, not moving, slumped over his yellow guitar like a puppet without a master. “Okay,” he said in a mutter.
We kept playing. Over the hour the angry stillness seemed to lift and as we got out one good rendition of “Twilight. We seemed to lighten up even more and tried another song. Eventually, we both apologized and began talking about other songs to work on.
There’s an idea, a stereotype really, of a temperamental diva-singer in a booth hurling insults at producers and creating tantrums. It’s a cliche, but I have discovered there’s a reason why it happens so often. Singing is hard. Even when you’re good at it. You are vulnerable in a glass booth with groups of people watching you sing. You are there, naked, in front of others while they drink coffee and stare at you with detached disinterest. You are out there — and here’s the kicker — no one else is.
If you’re on the mailing list for the band, then you have already received this notice about our show on Friday. If you’re not on the mailing list, then what are you waiting for? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add you.
So, we’re playing at Hotti Biscotti (see www.shortpunksinlove.com for more info) on Friday, April 11, which means that at end of a week full of teaching and grading exams, I get to be a rock star. The bonus side of having a “hobby” like ours. (I put “hobby” in quotes because Brian hates it when someone calls it our “hobby” as if it were to equate performing music with other hobbies like hummel collecting and bargain shopping. For Brian it’s not a hobby, but a reason to live. And he means it like that: a reason to live. But that’s another story, one I’m saving for a memoir.) Where was I? Oh yes, the up-side of playing out is that when you’re a teacher you spend your days in front of young people being looked at with the same amount of interest one gives a CTA conductor or a McDonald’s employee. You’re there, and yet not there. So, going somewhere to be on stage and have someone (anyone) give you slightly more attention can be a huge boost to one’s sense of existing in the world. Hey, I must exist: you can see me. For those of us who experience existential crises on even-numbered days, this can save quite a bit on therapy.
Meanwhile, the next show will be a challenge for me: for the first time, I’m going to sing. Really sing, not just sing the occasional line. It’s part of an agreement we made after the last show when Brian wouldn’t use his Les Paul Gibson (a great guitar) during the show.
“Why didn’t you use the Les Paul.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t get it. It’s a 1200 dollar guitar and you never want to play it on stage.”
“Look, it’s a lot of guitar, I’m not sure if I’m ready. Tris and Andy [former bandmates] used to say the same thing about my first Les Paul.”
“Okay, how about this? I’ll make a deal with you. If you play the Les Paul. I’ll sing.”
Brian’s eyes perked open. Sounded like a fair deal to him. We agreed. And I started singing at the next show and at rehearsal yesterday we worked on vocal parts for me. It’s a whole new world, playing drums and singing at the same time. The greatest challenge is not dropping beats while I sing. I have a whole new respect for Levon Helm, Karen Carpenter, and Phil Collins. It’s not as easy as it looks.
So, if you happen to be around and want to see me tackle this next challenge, then stop by Hotti Biscotti on Friday. We’ll save you a seat at the bar!