Two nights ago, Dave was trying to explain the magic of song lyrics. “I see them on the page, you know, and it’s nothing. Just some words. But then we play the song and it’s like…”
I wait while he pauses, his arms extended over the sink, his hands open wide. I want to say, “It’s like, now you get it?” I want to say, “It’s like, the way the words unfold within the melody and come together in rhyme makes you understand them completely differently?” I want to say, “Where have you been since puberty?” But I wait. He stands there, graceful violin hands poised in mid-air.
I know he’s heard popular music before. Yes, he’s a classical musician, but I’ve seen pictures of him impersonating Freddie Mercury back in high school. Or was that Mozart? He’s always absentmindedly singing Bohemian Rhapsody, though come to think of it that’s the only pop song I’ve ever heard him sing absentmindedly. Maybe he has only heard the one.
But now, suddenly, he’s in a band. The guy who doesn’t even own one Dylan album is in an alt-folky guitar-pop band, with soaring harmonies and great lyrics and hooks that stick in your head. Now he sings Woah-woah when he’s drying dishes.
He’s still standing there. “It’s like, you hear them with the music and…”
I want to say, “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing all these years, obsessing over John Gorka and Patty Griffin and Aimee Mann and Bob Schneider and, and…?” Didn’t he listen, all those times when I said, “Listen” to how Patty Griffin sings Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye and how John Gorka sings Mmm-hmm? But I wait.
The next day, he says, “It’s like, I listened to our recording yesterday, constantly, six songs in a continuous loop. It’s just an iPhone recording, but even still, it’s like… Take The Beatles. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And I wanna hold your hand. I mean, the words are kind of dorky, but in context…” Oh God. I hope he’s not going to fall in love with his bandmate. Though maybe I would do the same. A great songwriter with an amazing voice is a powerful force. Then he says, “It’s really just like German lieder.” And I know I’m safe.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” is what I allow myself to answer.
The weird thing about rehearsal every night and rewrites plus regular work every day is that when it’s over I feel like, What do I do now? Yesterday I woke up all headachy from celebrating the night before. The script is done. There are things that could be clearer, yes, but I don’t want to collapse the flower, press each petal under glass. I want some push and pull.
It’s like The Tell-Tale Heart, which Dave recites to me periodically as he memorizes it for a show. In a typical talkback, someone inevitably would ask Edgar Allan Poe, “Okay so is the old man his landlord? I assumed that, but I don’t know that I actually know that. Maybe he’s a relative, an uncle or something–”
“Okay, thanks for your comment–”
“Or if it’s the old man who is the lodger, and the narrator is actually the landlord, that would change the dynamic for me.” So, Edgar will have her pen and notebook on Monday. She will write down every comment. Then she will set it on the sideboard and forget it for a week or a month. Pick it up after Halloween and see what jumps out.
I’m already preparing myself for the let-down after the performances. It’s a double let-down. The event is past, and so there’s the classic post-vacation, post-party, post-partum funk. Then there’s also the disappointment I’ve felt before with the readings or the festivals I do, where I feel like I’ve written something good and the world was supposed to come knocking so they could produce it at Kennedy Center. When they don’t, I go through the typical artist’s hell, the flip-flopping between “I’m not good enough” and “how come nobody thinks I’m good enough,” a dog chasing its tail as these two meaningless extremes circle ‘round and ‘round.
But I’m prepared for that. Maybe I can sidestep it. And I have slightly different reasons for wanting this play out there. I’m angry about that boy. I know the play is not his story. I don’t know what his story was. But that just makes me angrier. At last, I feel the thing Fred Gaines talked about as his reason for writing plays. That it’s a social call. I still don’t exactly understand it or know if it will happen in that way again, but I wish Fred were still around so I could at least say, “I finally get it.”
Yesterday’s headache finally faded last night when we saw Chris Smither at Old Town. Fern and Frank called, last minute, to invite us. They had what is perhaps the best four-top at Old Town, table Z. It’s at the back, stage right, at the perfect sightline. The only one possibly better is right next to it—I meant to check but forgot. Perhaps it’s table Y? It has the advantage of being on the aisle, so there’s even more legroom.
Somehow I hadn’t appreciated Chris Smither before. I knew and liked a couple of his songs, but of course I’d never spent an evening with him. And to be sitting there with Fern, who is negotiating her sentence with such grace and wisdom and humor, it almost makes me jealous. No, it makes me feel I’ve got an example, a role model to follow if and when the C-bomb drops just when I’m planning a whole other set of adventures for myself and my best friend.
“What a kick in the teeth,” I remember her saying the first time we saw them after the diagnosis. I keep hearing that, as they navigate their choices and do things like treat friends to an evening of music. And now I have a whole new body of music to listen to and be inspired by.
Smither introduced one new song as “a classic blues progression that you’ve heard a thousand times. But I haven’t written one in a while, so…” That was the song that made me buy the album on iTunes this morning. There were easily a dozen that could have prompted the purchase, but this was the song I needed to hear again immediately.
It ain’t what I know that makes me blue
It’s what I thought I knew
After the concert, we waited for Fern and Frank to buy a CD and get it signed. I had on my new birthday boots and my new birthday coat and the felted wool fez I got in Dingle, back when we traveled instead of fixing up the house, and I felt the confidence of my matchiness. I saw Fern and Frank at the front of the line, talking to Smither, who had a big floppy grin on his face. What a great guy. I went up with my phone, a little late, as they started to move along for the next people in line. “Can I just get a picture?” I said, snapping away, secretly remembering the no-pictures announcement before the concert.
They all leaned in, and I got a nice shot to send my friends. “I love your hat,” said Smither. “It’s great, isn’t it?” I beamed, proud of myself for not blurting out, “I got it in Ireland!” My uncomfortable post-concert exchange with John Gorka a few months ago apparently taught me something. It’s so lovely to think that one is making progress.
“You’ll never be what you’ll never be
But you can always be the one for me baby”
Maybe? On the page it looks cute and romantic, but the first time I heard it I had to stop my car, I was crying so hard. My uncle George had just died, and I could feel the family falling apart. Polite disagreements over who got which rosary and who deserved keys to his apartment and what it meant that this cousin came to town while that one only called.
A cell phone held to Uncle George’s ear as he lay dying, yes William Faulkner I’m sorry I didn’t pay better attention in American Lit, unconscious in the ICU bed. It’s awkward being the one holding the phone to his ear. My brother is saying his goodbye from Colorado. I’m not sure when to pull the phone away. Uncle George doesn’t respond, can’t respond. He lies still with his eyes closed, his normally lean and leathery face looking puffy and unfamiliar. After a few minutes I hold the phone up to my ear. “…softball games, and that time you came to visit with my dad, man Uncle George, every time I go to that ridge we hiked to…” I put the phone back to his ear.
“This is the way that life is supposed to be
And there’s a reason that you just can’t see
You’ll never be what you’ll never be,” but there never was the one for Uncle George. He was single all his life. My mom thought he might have gone on a date once.
“I went off in the cruel world
Like a gun in a crowded room.” Did I send that one last week? It’s hard to keep track.
I’ve been meaning to talk to Christina about that. I want a dumbed down version of the rules posted right on her page. I know you can send one lyric a week, but when does each week start and end? I know she takes pictures inspired by the lyrics. But either she decides, or visitors to the page vote…Somehow a winning photograph is chosen each month. And the submitter of the winning photo’s lyric gets a print. I want everyone to enter, because I love seeing the photos she’s come up with so far.
And I love the nostalgia factor, the callback to days when songs were front and center in my identity, when I posted lyrics on my dorm room door, to make a point. “You may ask yourself well, how did I get here?”
Another thing I like about running is the excuse to listen to music. Old random mixes on an iPod I’ve got hooked up to a speaker next to the treadmill. I haven’t synched it to iTunes since about 2009, so usually I just pick one of the on-the-go playlists I made years ago and just run to that. Yesterday it was a scramble of Cake and David Wilcox and Blossom Dearie that must have made sense at the time. In retrospect it’s too bad there wasn’t something from Etta James. She’d have done a great “Napoleon.”
Most aren’t fast enough to be workout songs, but also I like to sing as I run. I figure if I can sing, then I’ll be able to chat with a running partner when I start running outside. But also, singing makes my heart feel good. It makes me happy.
As I was running and singing along to “Jesus wrote a blank check” I thought about how singers, good singers, seem to give equal treatment to both intricately constructed lyrics and those that seem like just the easiest next rhyme.
“I don’t want to be number four
But I can hear a knock at the door.” Does number four mean something? Is number four the only one who hears the knock?I don’t want to be number four either. Or is it a joke? Great songs travel with the lyric as if it’s the only truth, the only world.
My mom used to worry about Uncle George driving home from the suburbs to his apartment in the city. “Wait ‘til rush hour’s over, George,” she would say when he came to visit.
“No Phyl, I’ll be fine.”
“But they’re crazy this time of day. They drive so fast.”
“That’s okay. I put my tapes in and turn up the sound. They can honk or pass me, I don’t care.”
My mom would fume after he left. “He’s the only one going 30 on the Eisenhower. Someone’s gonna rear-end him and then he’ll care.” But he always made it home okay. I like to think of him cruising down 290, singing along to whatever he listened to, probably Perry Como or Bing Crosby. I’m glad I was never behind him on the road, because I would have been swearing my head off. But in his world, singing along, he was content.
“Napoleon’s a pastry
Get this under your brow
What once used be a rooster
Is just a duster now”