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I’m walking up the back stairs of our new 2nd floor apartment, and there’s a painful pinching in the tendon of my right ankle. I start to lean on my left leg more to shift the weight from my right leg to my left. The groceries I’m carrying swing heavily towards my left. I feel like a broken marionette. My strings cut in half on my right side, while they are pulled tight on my left. I’ve had this pain in my right ankle since August. The last few weeks of that month we were still gigging with 2 shows in a week in mid-August. We were rehearsing, too, and I was playing for several hours at a stretch in rehearsal and at gigs. I told no one — not even you, dear reader–about my bum ankle. I just kept playing. The right ankle for those of you unfamiliar is attached to the right foot which plays the bass drum. And in bass player-free duo, the bass drum is all the bass you hear. So, that right foot gets a hell of a workout.
For a drummer, a bass player can mean all the difference in the world. It means I can play fewer beats which means less repetitive moment in my right ankle. The bass player plays all those notes in the bottom range which can help to anchor the chord changes and the melody. You need a bass player. Okay, you don’t need a bass player — obviously, because we’re a guitar-drums duo — but it can really help if you have one. Without one, I play more beats on the bass drum to compensate.
Here’s the difference. With a bass player, I play like this. Boom-chick-boom-chick. Bass drum on ONE and THREE.
Without a bass player, I play like this: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Bass drum on ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR.
Or, like this:
I start playing the bass drum on the eighth notes and the quarter notes. That’s a lot of notes. And that’s a lot of notes on a bum ankle.
So, after a summer of recording, out-of-town shows, and gigs, the ankle, my leg, and my body were wrecked. Done for.
Happily, this coincided with the beginning of the fall term and I went back to teaching. Since then I had 2 gigs with just the snare, and one rehearsal with the bass drum. And here’s the thing: I haven’t really missed playing the drums. Surprise. I worked really hard — okay, kind of hard — to learn to play the drums in three years and I did a lot of shows and I really learned a lot about myself and other people. And here’s what I learned most: I don’t live to play the drums. I like to play the drums. But I don’t live to play them. This is no secret. I have been writing since the beginning that I would rather sit on my couch with a box of donuts than play a gig. But I didn’t realize until the injury that I didn’t need to play the drums.
This is different from Brian. He lives to play the guitar. If he didn’t play the guitar, he would die. We have proof of this from a recent stay in a hospital (more on that some other day). I, on the other hand, like to play the drums, but I also like to do other things, too. So, drumming must compete for my attention. And there aren’t enough hours in the day for it all. What does this mean then for Chick Drummer? I don’t know.
Brian, at my request, started playing with other musicians and booking gigs with different rhythm sections behind him. This has been a relief to me. Not just because of the injury, but it freed up time for me to do other things beside rehearse. I’m not sure, in the end, how drumming will fit into my life. I’m glad I learned to do it. It taught me a lot.
I learned about clubs, bookings, fans (and what it’s like not have any), promotion, CD production, on-stage banter, and happiness. I learned a lot. I keep learning. I also learned that some days we have to choose and we can’t always choose to be all things to all people. That said – and here’s the twist – I play a gig at the end of January. And I’ve got to practice.
We welcomed two new additions to the Short Punks family (and no, not kids — you wish): a harmonica player and a Gretsch.
The harmonica player is named Bob Kessler, formerly of Bakelite 78 and a member of the Buddhist temple I attend in Chicago. Our first “gig” with Bob was at the temple’s Holiday Auction when Bob sat in on a song. It was an impromptu idea on our part, and we had 15 minutes with Bob before the show to give him the chords and run through the song at a short sound check. Even in those few minutes, Brian and I knew Bob was a winner. Bob studied clarinet at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and that training really shows. He can make complementary melodies to supplement Brian’s singing and falls into a groove like a duck sliding into a lake.
Our next gig was at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in January and in an amplified setting Bob sounded even better with us. What I noticed is that I didn’t have to work as hard to keep the music going, and for the first time, I could lay back a little and enjoy the music. In a duo, both people are working really hard the whole time to keep a momentum going, but with an addition of a third person both Brian and I can function as a kind of rhythm section for Bob’s harmonica which gives us moments of rest in what can be an exhausting forty minutes or so.
Our next show is on January 24 at the The Bottom Lounge in Chicago, and Brian and I are excited to continue to explore how our sound changes with a harmonica player.
Not long after that show, Brian and I were commuting home after a day at school and in break between snow storms. We had a long day, and both of us felt mopey and tired. In moments like these, I like to make suggestions to Brian which will cheer him up. And one thing that always make Brian happy is a new guitar. I suggested we stop at Midwest Buy and Sell, Brian’s favorite guitar store and “check out what they have.” We went in thinking that Brian would pick up a Gibson SG (“the guitar with the horns” I usually say), but there’s the idea of the guitar and then there’s the actually playing of one. The SG is a great guitar, but every time Brian picked one up and I listened to it neither us felt that spark, that click in our heads when we think “Oh yeah, that’ll sound great on stage.” After forty minutes I was ready to go. I was cold, hungry and I had to pee. While I waited for Brian to try guitars Iwandered around the store. On the top of row near the ceiling, I caught a flash of orange. I noticed the color more than the guitar. I noticed how it felt warm and cheerful. How it reminded me of candy corn and pumpkins, and how it made me think of Halloween and Fall and warmer seasons. I saw it and thought all this in a second, then I went back to feeling bored and tired and wandered on. Just as I was about to tell Brian I would meet him at the deli across the street, he walked up to me with an orange Gretsch in his hand — the one I had noticed a ten minutes before.
“What do you think of this?” He asked.
“I didn’t think you liked hollow-bodies.”
“I like the color.”
“Well, try it.”
Brian plugged it into an amp, and played one chord. In our heads, a switch seemed to flick on. Click. Oh yeah.
It was love at first strum.
So the Gretsch came home with us and now we’re listening to CD after CD of rockabilly, Elvis, and Eddie Cochrane. Who knows what will happen next?
One of my all time favorite gigs was the Temple gig when we followed a puppet show. And I’m thrilled that we will be playing there again on Saturday, December 13. SPIL is in the short Peace Concert included in the Temple’s Annual HolidayAuction evening.
The doors open at 4:30 PM and I think we’ll be playing around 5 PM. Tickets are $10.00, which includes the auction, vegetarian food, and the concert.
If you’re in town, the auction will be a great place for bargains on art, services, and event tickets.
For more on the evening, go to the temple website: http://zenbuddhisttemplechicago.org/auction/index.html
I live in Chicago, for those of you who did not know, and Tuesday night the city exploded. Cheers rose up as thousands upon thousands celebrated the state’s favorite son and his victory.
“Were you in Grant Park?” an enthusiastic friend e-mailed me this morning.
I would love to say I was in thick of the crowd, but I was not. I was working — proctoring an exam in my evening class. School was in session. Students were in class at 8:30 PM and I passed classrooms with students in various states of attention. Some slumped down so far that their hats nearly touched their desks. Others sitting in front, upright, attentive. And the professors talked on. Except for one professor who was projecting election results on a screen at the front of the classroom, I would not have know history was being made.
I remember a story someone once told me about what they were doing the day man first landed on the moon. “I was watching it on TV,” he said. “While I finished typing my dissertation.” And, I have to admit, it was like that for me. A black man became president and I was proctoring an exam. But, he was not becoming president in that single moment on Tuesday night. He was becoming president in all the moments before when we did not know him, when he lived in Hyde Park just blocks from where I used to live ten years ago. He was becoming president when he ate breakfast at the Valois on 53rd street that has the great sign advertising its cafeteria-style dining: SEE YOUR FOOD. He was becoming President when he was still teaching law at the University of Chicago, proctoring exams like the one I proctored on Tuesday night. He was becoming President when he wasn’t famous, when he walked the streets in Chicago’s bitter winters and brutal summers.
Chicago is an amazing place. For me, it is no coincidence that he came here after college. Chicago is large enough for someone to grow into himself. Brian and I know this when it comes to being musicians. We have been playing here for three years already and in this vast city with its numerous art scenes and music communities, we can grow in relative obscurity and yet hone skills. And the audiences here are still generous — people still open to listening even in the worst venues. In the dirtiest, the roughest places we have found the odd supporter who raises his head from a glass of beer and nods, “Hey man, that was pretty good.” Then turns back to the TV screen to watch the game. Chicago is an incubator. If you’re willing to grow here, this a place to put down roots and grow leaves.
And then Chicago has that cranky side. That side that says: “Oh yeah? Whachugot?”
I was reminded of this in Reckless Records on Broadway when I walked in and passed a stack of newspapers. The Reader, the free weekly alternative paper, had a color drawing of Obama on the cover with a headline that read:
Don’t Screw This Up.
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….
I have been riding my bike through the streets of Chicago since the early 1990s. So, I guess it was bound to happen. Eventually, some day, somewhere, I was going to get hit by a car. Friday, the car that I knew had my name on its grill, finally found me less than 2 blocks from my house.
Of course, I was in a hurry. I was supposed to be someplace ten minutes ago and I had been dawdling at home: playing with the rabbit, talking to the cats, wiping a counter. When it was time to go, I didn’t even notice that it was time to go, and when it was well past the time to go, I grabbed my bike helmet (thank the universe I wear one) and hopped on my bike, very aware now that I was late.
So, the preoccupation with not being where I was supposed to be no doubt kept me from making smart choices when I hit the intersection. I usually go straight through to the other side of the street and then enter the crosswalk and take a left — you know, like I wasn’t a bicyclist but a pedestrian (it’s cheating, I know, and now I won’t do it anymore, I promise). But, that day, the street was empty of cars on my side and I thought, “heck, let’s be a car and just take a left in the middle of the intersection.” So, I stuck my left arm out to signal and gestured to the car facing me that I was turning left. She was turning left too and waved me forward.
Now, here’s where the problem comes on. Because I had initially planned to go straight through the intersection and not turn left, I was on the far right edge of the lane. I was not on the left side of the lane, but the right. If you’re driving a car that’s three feet wide (okay, I don’t know how wide a car really is, but let’s just say ‘wide enough’), it’s not a big deal because every one can still see you. On a bike, however, you’re pretty invisible even when you’re visible, so as I took that left I was actually crossing across the width of her car and making a left at the same time. Is it any surprise then, the on-coming car which was coming around the other car that was turning left, didn’t see me? For him, it must have seemed like I came out of nowhere.
For me, it went like this:
Grunt. Pedal harder. Turn left and then speed up. Oh shiiiiittttttttttttt. It’s a car. “UGH!!” [said outloud]. Speed up speed up speed up get out the way get out of the way. Shiiiiiittttttttt!
My body braced for the impact on my right side. My right leg and arm expected to be slammed by a couple tons of car. But, in the eons of years that it took for me to speed up the car also managed to brake and when impact occurred, the car hit my back tire and pushed my bike out from under me sideways. I managed to stay on my feet anyway and was still moving.
Traffic came to a stop. But my brain said: keep going don’t stop keep going keep going.
So I did. I was still on my bike. I just pulled it underneath me more and kept pedaling. The car pulled over and I heard a man get out and shout, “Hey! Are you all right?”
What? Who? My brain said.
“Hey! You forgot your bag!” The man shouted.
That’s when I turned around. Oh yeah, my stuff. In the impact, the car had pulled off my pannier bag which hangs on the back tire.
The part of my brain that said, “keep going,” slowed down and I and My Brain recognized that I needed to get that pannier bag because it had my bag and wallet in it. That’s when I got off my bike and slowly, as if nothing had happened, I walked back to the corner.
When I got to bag which was in the middle of the intersection, the man, who looked pretty worried, said, “Are you okay? I didn’t know you were taking that left.”
“That’s okay. I’m fine. Next time just look for bikes.”
“Sorry — about that.”
“‘Z’okay.” I muttered and got back on my bike.
It was only about 5 hours later when I realized that I had wanted to say that it wasn’t all his fault. That I screwed up too and that I hoped it didn’t wreck his day to think that he could have hurt someone. He looked upset about it, but I kept going. That part of my brain that said “keep going” was in command and I didn’t find the space in that moment to say, “Hey! Don’t worry about it! Nobody died! Have a great day!”
I think of this now because there was a Dharma Talk today at the Temple about the Infinite that happens in a moment. “Imagine,” he said, “your breath. There’s a moment at the end of your exhale, right before your inhale, when you’re not exhaling and you’re not inhaling and you’re not rushing to inhale. That moment is infinite.”
I don’t understand all the Dharma Talks, but I got that one. In that second when I saw that car grille and felt my right side tense to expect impact, it felt like a year or two. That second was long enough for me to see what’s happening, consider my options, and act. But despite how quickly my (and the driver’s) brain and body worked to avert a disaster, I still wish I had done more with the time after, those 2-5 minutes afterwards when I could have said, “Hey, it’s okay. We’re all okay.”
But, I missed that moment. I hope in another future moment, I will see that infinite space and utilize it to say to someone else, “Hey, it’s okay.” Well, I’ve said it here, and maybe, if the guy driving the green SUV ever happens to find this post, then, hopefully, he’ll know it.
Life has been intruding in my budding career as a rock star. Immediately after the show I thought I would upload the pics, write pithy comments, and then post it for our adoring fans. A week later I still haven’t charged the batteries in the digital camera and I’ve forgotten all my witty comments. Another lifetime has passed since that show and I’m trying to remember what happened last week.
Memory is a frail thing. What did I wear? Jeans and some sweater, I think. What did we play? The usual set. Brian has written two new songs, folk-like tunes that I’m still learning so I probably played hand-snare. Oh right, hand-snare. I asked the Sound Guy if he was miking the snare because I would be playing hand snare. He said, “I never heard that before. Did you come up with that?”
I said in a voice that I hope wasn’t condescending (but probably sounded like it), “Uh no, John Bonham did … and Max Roach.”
That’s when I realized there was an age gap. This kid didn’t know who I was talking about. I tried not to think about it.
We played second, because one of the bands had people coming later. We were happy to go on second. I should explain now some booking etiquette. Short Punks booked the show and we were the most “well-known” band (ha!) so we were technically the “headliners” (chortle), therefore we should perform last. You know, save the best for last. But here’s the problem with going on late for people like me: if I go on too late, I get tired. And there’s that age thing rearing its head again. Brian and I like playing first or second because we’re brighter, cheerier, and, in general, a lot happier. Then we can enjoy the other performers without worrying about our set.
And the other performers were:
and us … oh yeah, and I forgot, I wore a red sweater.
We were pretty happy at this show (and with a few exceptions, we’re happy at most of the shows), but we were especially pleased at the maturity of these bands. Let me put it this way, Brian was the youngest one in the bunch instead of the oldest. And I was — hurray! — one of the other youngest ones. We appreciated that everyone was on-time and eager to play. There were no complaints about the “draw” (band lingo for “audience”), the lack of drink tickets, or the absence of a cover taker (i.e. guy who takes your cash at the door). Everyone was just happy to be out on Sunday night playing for someone. And the turn out was good — thanks to Jungle of Cities and their supporters.
So, that was the show. I may not sound as eager about the shows, but, in many ways, because we have done so many, my feeling about shows has changed. They used to terrify me — feel me with alternating waves of dread and anticipation. But, after two years, they have begun to feel like teaching. I walk on stage now with the casualness that I walk into a classroom several times a week. This ease, this lack of effort or anxiety, could seem like apathy, but, I think, it’s more comfort and confidence. And that, after two years, makes me extremely happy.
Before I go, here’s one more pic. Later that week, Ben fell asleep on Brian (as he does every night and at every nap) and it was too good not to post.
In the recent issue of Roctober, Brian found this short notice about our first CD.
Short Punks in Love. Moody indie with a nice balance of resonant guitar and spare percussion. Far less cutesy than the band name, but just as romantic (actually, more so).
“Spare percussion”!! Ha. I love that. It was our first CD, my first recording, and “spare” was all I could play. I only knew the basic rock beat so that’s what I played. We get compliments every now and then on the “percussive style” and I’m often embarrassed to admit to the complimenter (although, I do) that my “style” came from not really knowing how to play. Brian was so supportive, and actually prefers minimal drumming, that it actually worked with the songs he wrote. Now, we’re having another discussion. Since I have learned more I want to complicate the drumming patterns and he wants to keep them minimal. We’re working on that now.
Meanwhile, that debut CD, now 2 years-old, is still our favorite. And, if you haven’t heard it and want a copy, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you a copy for FREE!
Gigs look a lot more glamorous than they really are, and, more importantly, they last for about as third as long as an average rehearsal. For Friday’s show we rehearsed four and a half hours. The actual set lasted thirty minutes, but the whole time we were out amounted to seven hours from the moment we stepped out of our house to the moment we loaded the gear back in. Time is everything and yet, nothing. One of the greatest obstacles I hear from people who are older (I’ll say, over 30) who want to learn to play an instrument is that they have ‘no time.’ I often agree. It takes time. And yet, once a gig is over, I don’t often regret the time I spent preparing for the show or the show itself. It’s worth the time I spend on it. In general, learning the drums has taught me to spend the time doing things I love or want to learn. I used to spend a lot of time doing things I ‘had’ to do, but as I grew older, I learned to say ‘no’ to those things (you now, parties for co-workers or clients, obligatory visits to people I did not know well, shopping trips that I did not want to take, etc). Gigs have even offered”reasons” for not attending these social gatherings. “I have a gig” has saved me from more endlessly dull evenings than I can remember. But more importantly, the time I have spent on learning to play the drums, the hours in with the practice pad, repays me well in thirty minutes, a fraction of the time I spent getting to that stage.
Rehearsal at Superior Street
Friday’s show was not a bad show — it was a great one. The opening acts, Bill Liggett and Sam Saunders, did great sets that primed the audience for us. They were so good, that at one moment, when Bill was seeing a song he wrote for his son called “Number One,” I forgot I was playing later. Now, that’s a real gift in a night — to be able to enjoy the other musicians enough that I forget my own concerns about playing.
The other feature of the show was that we drew an audience. People who have heard the CD and know us came out to hear us play live. If you’re not a musician grasping the import of this may be difficult. This is what it means for us: for the first time in a lot of months, we played to people who liked us. We were not playing to people who had never heard of us before and didn’t care we weren’t playing. The ‘reality’ of gigging for your average musician is that most gigs are in small bars and clubs with little or no audiences. We’ve played just for a bartender more than once, so the gratification that comes with an audience is not missed by us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t think the empty room still isn’t in our future. It probably is, but at least, for one night, the first night in a long time, there was enthusiasm in the audience. We are grateful to everyone who came out. It gives us a hope. So, thanks.
It was pretty the first time. It was a pretty the first time when eight inches of snow fell in December the week before Christmas. The temperature was mild; the snow, white and fluffy. It was pretty that first time, but now, two months later after weeks of alternating sub-zero and rain, it’s not pretty any more. One weatherman and newscaster described it like this:
Weatherman: It sure has been a long winter.
Anchorman: Yeah, and I’m starting to get whiney.
I bid farewell to whiney last week. I departed from whiney, made a left at irritated and annoyed, and took the next exit straight to SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER: Population: 10 million. This is the part of winter when we start to remember summer as if it’s a deceased relative: someone long gone, you think fondly of. Remember when Summer days would end at 8:30 at night? Remember how Summer would be really warm and you could plan to spend your whole day outside? Remember how we would eat at outside at that cute little restaurant and have bruschetta and wine? Summer is a memory — a vague, distant, longed-for memory.
I tried to walk to a cafe this afternoon just to get out of the house. Big mistake. It’s rained for two days, and the snow lay atop deep trenches of icy water. I would put my foot on what I thought was solid snow only to have it drop another eight inches into cold water. It was a drag. My backpack felt heavy and cold. I was unhappy and annoyed, but I walked on until I found a cafe. A local favorite, I assumed it would be empty because of the weather. But alas, wireless is free there, and there was not an empty chair in sight. I walked more blocks to the next one and on my walk in slush and snow and ice I counted my breaths. Seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. And we had learned it yesterday.
Walking meditation is like sitting meditation except, well, you’re walking. Each exhale is a step and each step is counted. So: exhale, place a foot, ONE. Inhale, lift foot, place foot, exhale, TWO. Needless to say, no one’s power walking like this. And the hands are held at the solar plexus, the right hand cradled by the left. I walked eight blocks like this. Sometimes counting, sometimes not. And I walked in complete isolation and anonymity. What would have been noticeable walking behavior in the summer is not noticed in the winter as other pedestrians pass by, heads down against the wind. It was like I was alone out there, just walking.
It took twice as long to get to the cafe, and when I arrived, it was empty. Unlike the other cafe, the wireless is free but sometimes difficult to log into, and I couldn’t connect. I stayed anyway. The lack of internet access probably did me more good. No time-sucking e-bay browsing for me. But I didn’t work as much as planned. Instead, I watched the determined snow fall and fall. I watched it blow horizontally against buses and cars. I listened to the frequent hi-pitched whirr of car engines trying to extricate themselves from the snow. I waited. And watched. Somewhere under all this, I thought, summer is still alive. Not deceased. I think one of the features of Midwestern personalities is a quite determination (which isn’t to say other regions aren’t determined, but I didn’t feel this quality in say, Louisiana). We have to wait things out here. Winter ends when it ends. Summer comes when it comes. Learning to adjust to the Midwest winter in all its extremes has been a challenge for me. Life improved when I began to accept winter, but here I am in the middle of this long season, feeling not so grateful, and a little, dare I say, hopeless. When summer does arrive, because of the long winter it will feel like all of Chicago had taken some sort of magic happy pill. The first fifty-degree day, no, even a mid-forty degree day, we will all jump onto our bikes or walk outside as if summer was some magic gift. Can you believe it? We will all say. Fifty degrees! I’ll see joggers in shorts. Women with babies power walking in capris. Outdoor cafes could open. It will be glorious and strange. And this day, today, waiting for the snow to end will be a dim memory. A memory as dim as the one I am having right now about summer.