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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.
There was once a famous writer (I forget whom, e-mail if you know), who said about writing: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I often feel that way about travelling, and as I faced our first gig on the road I had an habitual reluctance to leave the comforts of my home to sit in a van with two guys and drive to Madison to do a show. In the end, despite my hesitation to leave the tranquil routines of my house, I learned more doing our first road gig, then I did sitting on my couch with a box of donuts.
Six Things I Learned at My First Out-of-Town Show.
1. Bring snacks.
I ate a big breakfast, and I figured I would eat lunch before we left at 2 PM. What I did not anticipate is how much MORE stuff you have to bring when you’re doing a show out of town than when you’re doing the bar a mile a way. In the end the time I would have spent eating lunch I spent organizing gear. I was pretty happy that I had the foresight to bring some food to eat in the car. Trail mix rocks.
2. Bring a flashlight.
The show which was scheduled at Escape Java Joint ended up being an outdoor show, because the cafe itself was being remodeled. When we pulled up in front of the cafe we were greeted with a huge sign that said: “Closed for Remodeling.” Huh, we thought. Aren’t we supposed to play here? Turns out the promoter converted the outdoor patio into a stage and we played outside which was fun. The only problem was that the minuted they killed the stage lights, we had no light to see while we packed our gear.
3. Bring bug spray.
And just because you never know when you’re going to play outside, bring bug spray. “Wow,” I said to Bob, “I’ve never played so close to mulch before.”
4. Bring an extension cord.
That three-foot power strip seems long enough inside a club or bar, but it’s not nearly long enough outside.
5. Have a load-in checklist.
We learned that you have to make sure everyone in the band has their gear, and not just be concerned about yourself. Here’s why: the next morning after the gig, I get a call from Bob, the harmonica player. “Are my harmonicas in your gear?” He asked with urgency. Turns out Bob lost his harmonicas. And this is a big deal. Why? Because Bob’s harmonicas are custom harmonicas and the whole outfit including the leather case costs over $700. He thought he put them in the back of his amp but he couldn’t find them the next morning. After several phone calls to Madison, we finally decided that Bob and Brian should drive up to Madison again that day to look for the harmonicas. So, 8 hours after returning to Madison, they were heading back. Bob eventually did find them, but not in Madison. He went home again and checked the back of the amp again. They had slid under the reverb tank.
5. Bring Duct Tape.
I also learned that you can have fun on the road. We talked about music in the car, our families, and the albums that influenced as teenagers (actually, we talked about many things because Bob was producing an audio/photo montage of us for YouTube. More about that later). I learned that I can be happy on the road if I just be on the road instead of wishing I was back home. I learned that great shows start with greetings from happy dogs. I learned that we look great in the light of dusk at an outdoor show. And I learned that you can get really great thai curry at the Corner Store on Williamson Street in Madison. I’m a forty-one year-old woman who just did her very first road gig, and I learned that getting my ass out of the house to do something completely new and foreign is way more educational than sitting on the couch with a box of donuts.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while then you know I’m a wannabe musician who doesn’t really like to practice. I heard a saying from Bob, the new harmonica player in the band, about the differences between rock musicians and jazz musicians. Jazz musician like to practice, but don’t like to rehearse; rock musicians like to rehearse, but don’t like to practice. Then there’s me. Weeks go by when I don’t want to practice or rehearse. This is the odd paradox of my creative life: I like having created something, but I’m lazy about creating it.
It’s a miracle that I got this far being a drummer when my tendency in life is to be inertial. I wrote once that I would rather be sitting on a the couch with a box of donuts than be at a gig. So, I’m surprised when I actually do practice. You know, get out the practice pad, find the drumsticks, take out the metronome, get some practice books out, and sit there and do exercises. That’s practice. That’s boring practice. I managed to progress as a drummer initially because I had so much training as a child and I just learned how to practice. I knew that it was largely about repetition. Repeating something until it sounds right or is done right. In the end, it is this understanding of “practice” that makes me hate to do it. I hate doing it because it’s dull, but experience told me (tells me still) that it pays off. Gigs sounds better, performances are smoother, and in the moment of playing on stage the body, which has its own kind of memory, can kick in and do things that your mind is too slow to think of. I practice knowing its good for me, but not really liking it.
So it was a complete surprise for me tonight when I practiced and it was different. I liked it. I cannot tell you how or why it was different, but it was. Something shifted and instead of playing with my brain, the part of me that says “this is good for you, so do it,” I practiced with my body, the muscles, which say instead “man, this feels good.” And for the first time in my life, it was different. I fell into grooves and stroke patterns that I can’t play usually and played them better.
The blues pattern, for instance, has always been hard for me, but I could have played it all night. That triplet feel, that ONE-trip-let, TWO-trip-let, THREE-trip-let, Four-trip-let felt more real than it ever had. I heard the beat in my head, and then I heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf jamming on the top. For the first time ever, I got it. Eyes closed, sticks moving in rhythm, my lips humming the melody, I finally felt that blues thing, that feeling.
And after twenty minutes, the spell was broken. My arms got tired. I got bored again. I started wondering if I could play other beats I couldn’t play before. Ten minutes later I was sitting in the rocking chair not practicing. Those moments are fleeting — those it’s-so-effortless moments come and go. Even on stage, you can never count on it. Adrenaline helps, makes you think it’s all that easy, but we know in our heads if we have had that moment.
I wish I knew what made tonight different. Is it because I’ve been sick for the last month with the flu and a respiratory infection? Was I too tired to be intellectual about practice? Is it because I painted my office yellow and moved the buddha statue to the east wall?
I don’t know. But, I hope that practice will become easier — something I want to do if only to see if I can capture that moment again. That moment when being a drummer is mostly easy and not mostly hard.
We find inspiration wherever we can get it. And sometimes when we’re not even looking, really great inspiration comes into your boring job, sits right down, inspires you, goes to lunch with you, inspires you some more, goes home, and then friends you on Facebook. This is what happened to me this week — another busy week — when I wasn’t looking for inspiration. Inspiration walked in called herself “Laurie Lindeen” (http://laurielindeen.com/) and proceeded to remind me why playing music is still worth doing even when I haven’t touched a drumstick in four weeks.
One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that we have a venue for sharing and exposing other artists’ work to the college and to students. It was Brian’s idea (not mine) to invite Laurie to speak at the school; he had been an admirer of Laurie’s band Zuzu’s Petals in the 1990s. She had recently published a memoir about her experiences titled Petal Pusher and Brian had loved it. I had no idea who she was. But, dutifully, I supported Brian and assigned an excerpt of her memoir about playing in a rock band to my students. This was facilitated by Brian who handed me a copy of a chapter and an assignment and said, “Here, have your students read this.”
And I did. The chapter I read could have been a posting on chickdrummer. In it Lindeen writes about the aftereffects of gigging, the adrenaline that races through your veins the next morning, the hangover that comes not just from alcohol, but from the experience.
“It’s difficult returning to your normal life the morning after a gig. I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed newlywed with an afterglow. More like a haggard mental patient following shock treatment: After all that adrenaline leaves your body, you are left with a ferocous hangover. The counterchemical is as down as the adrenaline is up. Antiadrenaline is the darkest shade of navy blue; it brings a sort of postcoital depression.”
I read that in my office preparing for class, but I felt like the proselyte of a new religion who had just heard holy words from an oracle. You said it, girl. I had always wondered what that was. That funk, that weirdness I felt the morning after gigs. The first two years of gigging I rode the adrenaline high for two days after the show, but as I get older I want off the ride the faster. Roller coasters are great, but who wants to live on one? So, I had to develop a new after-show routine. We leave the club as soon as we can, no hanging out to talk with other musicians, we come home, unload the gear with the precision of a S.W.A.T team, and I shower, I eat something light and healthy — grains, vegetables, tofu, fruit — I do yoga to stretch the worn-out muscles, and I try to be in bed before 2 am (reasonably early for musicians), and the next morning I try to get up at the same time I always do instead of sleeping late. I learned to do this out of my own sense of self-preservation. I’m 40 years-old, not twenty, and the physical strain of shows takes a toll on me that it doesn’t on some young thing.
And that was what was so inspiring about Laurie. She writes about and talks about what gigging and being a “rock star” (in quotes because the term is relative) really means. It means you can still suck at your instruments and still record and gig, it means you don’t have to be a virtuoso, it means you can do it just for fun, and here’s the inspirational part: it means you can be woman. And she also speaks from the perspective of a woman who has matured and reflected on what the years in a rock band in her twenties means for her now and how it influences her writing. “I write listening to the backbeat; I hear how the vocal sits on top,” she said. That too, I think, is also the benefit of music outside of music. It changes our understanding of other arts.
There aren’t a lot of books by female musicians that tell you what’s like for us. There’s umpteen million books about male musicians, their gear, their groupies, their drug problems, but there aren’t many written by women. The other inspiration in Laurie’s public appearance is that I could see how she inspired the young women in the audience. I could see it in their eyes and the way they looked at her with one question beaming from their faces: How did you do it? In the end, it doesn’t matter that you or I may have not heard of Laurie Lindeen or Zuzu’s Petals. What matters for some of the women (young or old) in the audience is that there was another one out there who tried to live life on her own terms.
Our first CD was recorded in the spare bedroom that housed the cat litter box and the drums. The second CD was recorded in a make-shift studio in a rehearsal space on Chicago’s West side. And now, the third CD, which we had been saying we would record but never did, is being recorded back at home. In the living room this time instead of the spare room, because that room was taken over by our rabbit and her cage. In this third recording endeavor, I have finally realized with a clarity that I had not realized before that I hate recording.
In the beginning, I thought I disliked recording because I was new to drumming and playing drums by at itself was stressful with or without recording. During the second CD, it was less agonizing, although still taxing. We were in someone’s studio space who took care of the details of miking the drums and running cable and setting levels, and helped to make the experience less stressful for both of us. Despite the success of that, we missed the intimacy of the first CD, the spontaneous, recording-by-the-seat-of-your pants quality. And, well, let’s face it –recording at home is free. Recording in a studio costs money, and we’ll need that to duplicate the disk and pay for the covers. So, we’re back at home. Mikes and cables over the place, rabbit locked away so she won’t eat hundreds of dollars worth of cable, and now, Bob, the harmonica player, squeezed into the living room with us.
The addition of a third person has done a lot for us. We argue less because there’s company. I work harder at not being sarcastic or snide or looking outright bored, which I often am while I record. And, more importantly, because I don’t like recording, there’s someone there to be excited with Brian about recording. Bob likes it, too. In our sessions with Bob, I realize how much of a downer I must have been for Brian during the first two CDs. I think it’s because recording is nothing like the experience of playing live (at least for me). Drumming live, from my experience, is like being a racehorse in the paddock waiting for the race start. We want at those drums. We want noise, and the pure adrenaline of letting loose. Meanwhile, recording (at least for SPiL) is about restraint. It’s about me holding back and laying out an even rhythm that Brian and now Bob can overdub. Drumming in this situation is more about staying out of the way and less about driving the band. So, it’s not as much fun and it requires more concentration. I have to listen more to myself (which I hate) and hear whether I’m rushing the beat or whether I’m playing too loud. It’s about maintaining an openness and tranquility, which, frankly, I suck at most of the time. And when I record, I realize just how much I suck at it. I realize that practicing and music training is what helps with this. The violin training I had as a child, I now realize, was about being calm when I was nervous. About playing when I did not want to, and about focusing when I was agitated. That may explain why at 15 years-old I gave up (or gave in) and went with the messiness of my personality. I went with the unease, the activity of mind, the itch to move.
It’s only now, in my forties, having exhausted a life of constant change and movement that I see the value of just sitting still on the drum throne and tapping a constant beat, something even and consistent, undramatic. Calm.
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?
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….
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!