Lie A Little

I need to learn to lie, a little.

“And do you have any fruits or vegetables from overseas in your bag?” the immigration officer at JFK asked. I could feel Eric at my elbow silently urging me to be cool.

“Just this apple that I cut up and put in a Tupperware. I meant to throw it away back in London,” I said. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this – I should just lie, it’s not anything.”

“No, no – you’re doing the right thing,” he said.

Next thing I knew the officer was leading the way to the Agriculture Officer, holding my passport aloft. He looked like he was enjoying himself, not because he was being a jerk about anything but just because he’d needed a nice walk and thanks to me being an idiot was getting one.

When I finally collect my bags and am able to go retrieve my passport from the Agriculture Office, they toss my Tupperware from agent to agent and then make a ceremony out of having me dump the contents in a plain old trash can.

*

Eric and I spent the month of May in Norfolk England, on the coast of the North Sea. We did some work, I played a gig in London. Every evening we went exploring as the sky stayed light longer and longer. We looked in windows just lighting up, people watching big TVs, one or two front room offices filled with books and big ancient computer terminals, like an author from the nineties resided there. We tiptoed around the grounds of a stately home and watched high tide lapping into the sand; ate fish and chips with malt vinegar. Met up with friends and Eric saw his daughter and grandkids. I tried to write. One day I took a long coastal walk and just as I came back into the town my phone rang. “I just want to know who I am and why I’m here,” my dad said. I tried to explain it to him in the simplest terms, at the same time thinking his question made perfectly good sense.

Coastal walk

Riding in a car to Heathrow – this trip the first time we ever treated ourselves to such an indulgence. Instead of renting a car, driving the three hours, filling it up with fuel at the hell that is the roundabout just outside Heathrow (which roundabout? which part of Heathrow?), we got picked up by a guy in a nice car, who told us our safety and comfort were his only concerns. Is this how some people live all the time?

Steve the Mercedes driver was quiet and discreet, until we got him talking about his hobby – drones.

“Eric, you need to get yourself a drone mate,” said Steve. “Boys must have their toys!”

I wanted to tell Steve to come around to our house if he wanted to see toys. Instead I encouraged him to share more info about the drones because I found it fascinating and he really lit up when he talked about them. People need a project. He said they’d improved his life: he got up earlier to catch the best light for drone filming in the morning and drank less at night so he could get up earlier.

I’ve missed travel and just shooting the breeze with people like Steve. I now know of a whole facet of life and humanity and technology I’d never engaged with before.

*

I’d tried to get someone to help cut the grass while we were gone, knowing it would be a shaggy, unmowable mess if it went too long. The guy who used to help us out is ghosting me now, I don’t know why. I tried random numbers of lawn care services around town – either didn’t hear back or when I did they wanted us to commit to a weekly mow…for the whole summer! 55 x 4 x 3 or 4 = no.

I thought back fondly to the hard guy from some years back who’d told me “little Johnny isn’t gonna cut your lawn for twenty bucks anymore lady” and charged a shocking two hundred to do a one-time cut. Now I was searching for him again. Six or seven years ago he was a jerk – today he is a unicorn.

A friend who lives just out of town said she’d gotten the same from lawn guys, only not only did they demand she commit to every week – she had to rope at least two neighbors into getting theirs cut cause, otherwise it wasn’t worth it for the lawn guy to travel all the way out there…ten minutes from Main Street.

Ah, Main Street.

Our town has been discovered. From England, I saw the New York Times Real Estate section article about moving to Catskill, all the art and artists here. As usual with this type of article, it’s the comments that are most compelling – either sour grapes from city folk (“trust me, no world class artist would live in that dump”) or locals (“go away interlopers” – the definition of interloping extends from those arriving within the last year to anyone who showed up after Henry Hudson tied his boat up in 1690…) It was odd to see our friends and neighbors at this kind of remove and reminded me of the decades of touring, being away from home when anything important happens, you’re always somewhere else. When you’re home it all moves so slow you find yourself wanting change and excitement. From England I wanted Catskill frozen in a snow globe, just as we left it.

Another friend told me about his neighbor who might be able to help us out with the grass. Davey came over with his riding mower on a trailer. He went to work cutting, I got out the rake and started raking and bagging. In no time at all we were finished. Davey doesn’t cut professionally, he was just a nice guy helping some people out and picking up a little cash in return. He charged so little I tried to give him more money. There are good people.

Pre-mow

I wish I could give up bread – again. I really want to lose some weight. In England I walked miles a day without even trying but here in the US it’s always a project. If I could cut bread out of the equation, I feel like I could control my calories better. Instead of an essential part of life maybe I could look at it as a once in a while treat, or a long-ago friend like cigarettes?

*

My daughter is visiting from Los Angeles and we met up in Brooklyn to take a walk around the old neighborhood. We started at our address on Grand Street, the bones of the building looking not that different from how it had when we left over twenty years ago. Around it, everything had changed – now there are skyscrapers, luxury hotels, J.Crew and loads of other corporate chains – and so many good-looking, well-dressed young people. I remembered our car being stolen a few times, the endless racket from the ice cream truck depot across the street, coffee in a styrofoam cup from the Dominican bakery on the street corner. Several layers ago. We walked to where Grand ends at the East River and that one little area felt oddly, comfortingly familiar, a land that time forgot with the waves lapping against large rocks, benches missing their seats and a Chinese bride and family all dressed up and taking photos against the backdrop of Manhattan. 

I was pleased that something about our old street seemed to repel progress, like a little forcefield. We all need those around some tiny chamber in our hearts or memories, a spot where nothing and no one can pierce this perfectly imperfect world of our past especially the dreams we have for our futures which aren’t any better than the reality we end up in, just different.

In front of the good old place

How could my dreams of the future have encompassed girls in floaty dresses splayed on oversized wooden lawn chairs in the shadow of the big old Domino Sugar factory now under construction for a future as luxury apartments, or being the oldest person in the whole of Williamsburg on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Maybe not the absolute oldest – I passed a cool-looking older couple or two. How weird to exchange nods of acknowledgement just like back in the long-ago last century where spotting another musician or artist-type on the streets of this neighborhood led to nods or even greetings that blossomed into friendships because there were so few of us around. Imagine being excited to see a hipster type with a kid in a stroller nowadays, rather than annoyed or territorial.

In a coffee shop on Bedford, we were served by a grey-haired guy who almost looked young – I wondered it his hair was that color on purpose. Sylvia’s Mother was playing and I thought…hmm Spotify, but then Marie Laveau and then another Dr. Hook track and another. This was an actual old guy playing music at his job for his own enjoyment. “I like the Dr. Hook mix,” I said on our way out. It was like touching a match to a prayer flag: “Hey – thanks! I think Shel Silverstein wrote just about every song on there…” He retreated a little, not sure whether it was worth it to go full nerd. “Right!” I waved over the flame, giving it air. Burn baby burn! “So good,” I said.

“So good,” he smiled.

*

The hose caddy broke already, probably because I left it outside through a long, hard winter. My dad declines a little more every week, then rallies. He asks if I’m coming tomorrow and I tell him no, Sunday. He sounds disappointed. Would he notice the difference if I said yes I am coming tomorrow? Then at least I’d get to hear him be happy for a second.

I need to learn to lie, a little bit.

Apologies to Dr. Hook…

Like Walking In The Rain

I was in awe of Ronnie Spector from a young age. She was hard to miss with that voice, face, hair, dance moves and style. Her death in January 2022 was a blow to the whole world.

Her passing hit me hard. I didn’t know her well but felt blessed by the little bit of contact I had with her. How many angels do we get in life? Even though she had that bad girl image, I feel sure she was an intermediary between heaven and earth. If there is a God, they believe in joy, pleasure and a rebel spirit.

Age eight, St. Winifred’s Catholic School: Mrs. Wagner had been Miss Detillo the year before when she’d taught us second grade, but now she was married. She’d looked like Ronnie Ronette enough to make me wonder how she could be allowed to teach in the classroom next to Sister Aurelia.

Me and my friends did dance routines to the Supremes and the Shangri-las – we couldn’t come close to copying the Ronettes so we didn’t even try.

Age twelve, babysitting: The Stewarts, who lived across the street, were breaking up when I started watching their two girls, aged five and seven. I didn’t know any divorced people. Mrs. Stewart looked like Ronnie Spector – she had teased black hair, dark eyeliner and she worked as a cocktail waitress. She’d leave at four P.M. wearing a Beefeater’s uniform with hot pants, suntan-color stockings on her long legs and black high heels.

Age twenty-three – The Ronettes front and center in Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of A Sound, essential reading. It all starts to add up to more than pop songs. Safety in numbers, the sound and the sum total greater than the parts made making music feel possible.

Age thirty-three: He was a Southern boy, I was a Catholic girl – two subspecies imprisoned in our respective repressed heritages trying to raise a child between us. I couldn’t articulate any of the frustration and anger and disenchantment I felt – in real life anyway. In songs, it came pouring out. All I Want arrived in words and melody combined – verses, choruses and bridges – sung in my head by Ronnie Spector.

Five or six years later, I opened a show for Ronnie at the Bottom Line in NYC. Joe McGinty who often played piano with me had started working with her. During my set, I introduced All I Want by saying I wrote it with Ronnie’s voice in my head and wouldn’t it make a great song for her to sing? She came right back into the dressing room after and said “I like that song, I wanna record it!” It was the closest to a Hollywood music bio dream life gets. Vision aligned with reality! Ronnie rocked everyone with her performance that night and continued to do so any time she played a show. It took a few years and a little prompting from Joe McGinty but I finally got a thrilling call from Ronnie and her husband Jonathan letting me know she really would be including the song in a recording session. (I’d recorded a version for own album Middlescence in the meanwhile, the vocal so raw I almost left it off the record.)

A few years later Jonathan played a rough mix for me through the speakers of a rental car in an underground hotel garage in Seattle where Ronnie was the keynote speaker at Rockrgrl, a music conference for female musicians. “That’s Keith Richards playing guitar.” Jonathan beamed. He sounded pretty good but the biggest thrill was Ronnie’s grit, trill and classic whoa-oh, oh-oh on the outro. The four door sedan felt like a rocket ship to girl group heaven. 

Nearly five years in Nashville as a staff songwriter for a publishing company but the only cuts (my songs recorded by other artists) I ever achieved were through my own efforts. I guess that’s just the way it goes in the music biz. A lot of it is hard slog and some of it is pure serendipity and looking back it’s the serendipity that counts. All I Want was released on Ronnie’s album Last Of The Rock Stars in 2006 – I bought a copy at FYE in Norwich UK the week before Eric and I moved to France.

I did my best to keep in touch with Ronnie and Jonathan over the years. I always felt like they were in my corner. I worked on finishing a song Ronnie sent via voice message years ago. I still hope to! Eric and I made it out to her London Christmas show in December 2019. How could it have been the last time?

I’d been crying over her death for months, but when Jonathan spoke about Ronnie at a women’s music fest in Woodstock – how for many years Phil would call and harangue her on the phone, tell her she was worthless, and how she fought back and kept going, I fell in love with her all over again. My heart broke a second time for Jonathan her husband.

I put on a subtly animal print skirt and tights that hold it all in and settled on a red silk shirt that needed my Tom Petty “You’re Gonna Get It” badge to keep the buttons from popping open. Black ankle boots. I drove the Subaru and Eric rode along as passenger, the route to New York City so familiar I thought to myself “here I go again” but this was a different journey than my weekly one to visit my dad. We were heading to a celebration of Ronnie Spector and I felt excited and sad and honored to have been invited. The event was being held at the new City Winery on the west side of Manhattan, and I knew from many years of experience that street parking spots around there open up at 6 PM. I parked in front of a place called Dog City which at first looked like a luxury condo or office building but was a spot for Spot to Pee & Play, get groomed, probably get a massage.

A big SUV with New Jersey plates was struggling to parallel park in front of us. “He’s got to be going to Ronnie’s event,” I said to Eric. The guy was a throwback to another era – dyed hair, all in black, slick boots. The current city folk on the street were in sports clothes, casual bright colors. The guy headed west, same direction as us. I looked down at myself – (almost) all in black, slick boots, a little color in my hair. Yep, I thought. I’m a throwback too!

There were quite a few of us headed towards the event. Waiting to show our vaccination cards and IDs at the door, I marveled at the white, daisy-painted skyscraper heels of the woman in front of me, her dark curls capped with a white silk yarmulke. Turns out she was Ronnie’s rabbi and later that night she spoke about how a person’s spirit remains with us after they’re gone. I’m trivializing what was an eloquent message. I wished I had a recording of her words – something I have never in my entire life thought after a sermon, speech or eulogy by a Catholic priest, sorry.

Before the tributes I ran into many old friends – musicians who’d been a big part of Ronnie’s last thirty years of performing and recording. Above us there were projected adorable and life-affirming images of the Ronettes performing, Ronnie and her two sons and friends and family over the years. Tracks played including Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory – her version has made me cry since I first heard it on She Talks To Rainbows back in the early 2000s.

The tributes were touching and varied, with Christine Ohlman a  beautiful beehived emcee. Joey Dee, who was sitting right in front of us in elegant pinstripes, was old school showbiz and sharp as he spoke, conjuring up a long-ago world of package tours, segregation down south and rock and roll singers looking out for each other. I felt sad but proud for Ronnie’s husband Jonathan and her large family who were out in force. Bob Gruen the rock photographer and his wife were at our table, Dennis Elsas too – these are names from the music pantheon of my past and I felt like Eric and I were kids who’d snuck in but weren’t we nearly as up there in years as all of these folks?

We left after a gang vocal version of I Can Hear Music with Ronnie’s band looking strong. Joey Dee behind the wheel of a fly BMW came to a quick stop and waved us in front of him in the crosswalk. It all felt surreal, remembering Paul Schaeffer talking about skiing in Ontario, Ronnie’s cousin and Ronette Nedra’s childhood reminiscences, Keith Richards in a video tribute and Ronnie’s lovely assistant, so sweet and genuine. We got caught up in swirls of young people clustering around restaurants and bars near and on Ninth Avenue. 

A buff guy walked by in shorty shorts and a sleeveless top, a perky kerchief around his throat. Didn’t this used to be Boys Town? Now it was a dubious restaurant row – we climbed dark slate steps past two massive bodyguards completely uninterested in a couple like us. “Is this a florist shop?” Eric asked as we walked through an acre of plants towards a purported steakhhouse. The restaurant part when we finally reached it was hell on earth based on the decibel level alone. There was no way food eaten here could be enjoyable, no matter how much they massaged the cows.

Eric saw the red and green lights of a pizzeria sign – yes. This was more like it. There’d been food at the event but too many people to catch up with. We got our slices and leaned against a counter to eat them. The pizza tasted like New York. That old mix of anonymity and autonomy, New York City’s greatest gift. In a fitting end to an evening for Ronnie, the slice tasted like freedom.

A day or two after Ronnie’s memorial, I started reading her autobiography By My Baby, the updated version with a foreword by Keith Richards. As I read, I felt moved by her honesty and candor just as I had when the book first came out in 1990. But I was riveted for new reasons. Along with the glory of the Ronettes success and how Ronnie found her way as an artist afterwards, Be My Baby tells the story of Ronnie and Phil Spector, who built hit records around her voice, married her and then kept her prisoner in a Beverly Hills mansion. One wondered how a smart talented woman could end up in a crazy situation like that; what a singular villain Phil Spector must’ve been. But a few years after Ronnie recorded my song, I had experienced my own version of that same awful dynamic. It struck me how her strength had been the kind of strength it takes to get out of an impossible situation and try to rebuild the self someone else had tried to dismantle. Tried, but failed. I’d had to do the same thing. 

How can we explain why certain artists move us and speak to us? And if they’re around long enough, and we’re around long enough, it’s possible that the reasons we relate to them change. Or maybe that need/understanding for all they had to offer was there all along, like seeds in a field, just waiting for life to rain down and bring new, necessary insights to light. Like Walking In The Rain, Ronnie’s spirit shines through the worst weather life has to offer. It cost her a lot but she’s been there and always will be, for anyone lucky enough to listen. 

Buy Ronnie’s book Be My Baby at your local bookstore or order online through bookshop.org. Her story will make you laugh, wince, cry and remember why she is truly one of the greats – her voice! The postscript she wrote in November 2021 will lift and then break your heart.

You can find All I Want on The Very Best of Ronnie Spector

If you or someone you care about is suffering from domestic abuse, please reach out

Better Help

I’ve been thinking I’d like to find a therapist. The last few years have been hard and I could use someone to talk to. I have Eric, true, and my daughter. Friends. But there are things I don’t want to burden them with when we could be talking about whatever’s streaming or whether or not they’ll put the concrete blocks back out on our local streets so that people can drink alcohol on the sidewalk this summer. You know, crucial, important stuff.

Same goes for accountants. The last several years I’ve done me and Eric’s taxes via TurboTax. It’s not that there was anything wrong with using a professional — I think I just needed to come to grips with the whole process to finally accept that there are many many things about making money and paying taxes that I will never fully understand. But I came by this knowledge honestly, through hard work. I put in a lot of hours and learned a lot of things before I threw up my hands.

A friend recommended an accountant down in New Jersey — all strictly remote of course — and a couple of podcasts I listen to mention Better Help, an online therapy service. “Speak to a professional from the comfort and privacy of your own home.” It makes sense, I guess. No need to factor in travel time, Covid risk, scheduling. My insurance offers the same through an app. I guess it’s what people do now?

Only the idea is completely unappealing to me. Not just unappealing — downright untenable.

It occurs to me I don’t want to just talk to someone — I want a window into the life of my professional. Only through putting myself in someone else’s environment can I truly see where I’m at.

I tried the Babylon app through my insurance, setting up an input appointment via FaceTime. I felt comforted knowing the person I was speaking with was based in Queens. It helped anchor things — I pictured one of those cute 1920’s Tudor apartment buildings in Kew Gardens, near where my dad’s been living. But when the therapist came on the screen, her pretty face, smooth hair and big white teeth were interchangeable with one of the YouTube yoga instructors I follow. I wished she’d pull back the camera just a little so I could at least see whether there were pocket doors or the original casement windows in her apartment. I feel like I could’ve unburdened myself better then.

If you can’t have parquet envy or imagine yourself living an alternate life, not better or worse necessarily, just more well-appointed, are you really getting the help you need?

Maybe I should go into real estate.

I started looking back over the professionals of my past, and it occurs to me they were all so much more adult and together than I could ever hope to be and had the home decor to prove it. Elevator buildings; matching furnishings…art hung on the walls! That’s what I’m looking for. Confirmation that my choices in life are what make me the seeker and them the font of knowledge. Their ability to provide the trappings: the Kleenex box (real Kleenex rather than some off brand), not one couch but two (one for the waiting area!) and subtle lighting help convince me they have what it takes to support my quest for a deeper understanding of myself and in the case of an accountant, things of a financial nature.

When I lived in New York City, I was East Village all the way until we got priced out and ended in Williamsburg Brooklyn, back when it was a dump with not much more than a C Town supermarket and Polish bakery that featured day old pastries and rancid coffee in styrofoam cups, not the mecca for the fabulous like now. Every year at tax time I had an adventure traveling to my accountant on the Upper West Side — often the only time I made it up to that part of town. There were boutiques! Cafes and famous delis. It was the Movie New York I’d imagined my life would be, before I knew anything about…life.

Mr. Accountant lived in a modern-ish high rise with a balcony. I feel sure there was furniture with sleek metal tubing involved, an actual dining table with cane seat chairs. I’d drop off paperwork and then make small talk, a Jill Clayburgh wannabe in grubby Keds and a thrift store overcoat. My eyes lingered over every detail in the place: the ABC Warehouse rugs, a cream-colored couch. He practically had to shove me out the door after the appointed half-hour.

My first NYC therapist allowed me the same coveted window into — Stuyvesant Town of all places. I’d lived across the street from the leafy middle class enclave for years, and only glimpsed the lives of the inhabitants in passing and at the annual “yard sale” where everyone used the shopping carts they usually cluttered the aisles of D’Agostino and Gristede’s with to haul their unwanted copies of My Mother, My Self and Vidal Sassoon hairdryers out to the shaded sidewalks for an afternoon or two.

Joan the Therapist had the neutral furnishings, the earth tone clothes I imagined were the spoils of a life well-lived. Like a soundcheck before a gig, my subway ride into Manhattan, wait for the lobby buzzer and elevator ascent set up the session. Entering this other world clearly stated that my problems were fixable. How would I know when I was better? When I didn’t need the peaceful hum of Joan’s window fan, her view of a verdant courtyard so much less chaotic than the siren wails and ice cream truck cacophony outside my own windows?

My daughter’s pediatrician was my West Village fantasy life — just around the corner from Balducci’s, at an address I could only afford once or twice a year via Child Health Plus.

There was a dentist in the flower district, a midwife practice on Fifth Avenue near the Flatiron Building. I knew when I moved upstate, those moments of approximation to posh or, let’s be honest —solid middle class respectability— weren’t going to happen anymore. When we first moved here I got help from an accountant at a chic West Village address but it just wasn’t sustainable. Maybe that was why I went online to do taxes…the very house we live in now once belonged to an accountant. A Catskill accountant with wood-paneled walls, a dodgy wood-burning stove in the corner and battleship grey cubbies to hold his paperwork – it was all still in place when we moved into this house. It was a foreclosure. Where’s that accountant now?

But back to therapy, where I’d like to go. There’s this therapist I have my eye on who lives at the foot of a mountain. She told me she wasn’t taking new patients but to get in touch if I was stuck. I’m imagining purple clapboard with bright green trim…a babbling brook to babble by out back. My expectations have changed— not lowered, just adjusted. By this point in my life, I’ve bought a few things at Crate and Barrel myself and I know that’s not the answer. It’s just an older wiser woman I’m looking for really, maybe even one who can chop wood. Please let there be a gazing ball in the yard…

Not exactly a therapist’s couch

Up In The Air

The Southwest flight circled Albany airport, unable to land due to dense fog. It was already close to midnight – we’d been sitting up in the air for over half an hour.

“Sorry folks,” said the captain. “Looks like we’re gonna have to take you all over to …Syracuse.”

The whole plane groaned through their masks. I struck up a conversation with the older woman next to me. I’d admired her chic tote and we’d smiled earlier at our matching Kindles. She told me she and her husband were visiting from San Diego. I told her I’d just been to see my daughter in Los Angeles.

“Are you retired?” she asked.

When an older person thinks you’re in the same club – well it makes you take a good hard look at yourself.

Remember my last post where I swore I would take that trip without my guitar and enjoy it? Well, I had. I’d flown out of Albany a mere week before, amazed at fellow upstate New Yorkers dressed in shorts and flip flops to fly, even though the temperature when I parked in the economy lot was hovering just around freezing. A brief layover in Chicago (you can’t fly anywhere you really want to go from Albany except maybe…Chicago) and clear skies all the way across the Grand Canyon to California. Hazel picked me up at Burbank Airport, driving so ably in her sporty Honda CRV – it was great to see her adapting to her west coast life. We bought pastries at Porto’s, marveling at the low prices and kindness of the counter staff. Then we took a walk around the reservoir in Silver Lake. The temperature was perfect; people were smiling – welcome to L.A. It was so good to be there.

The Airbnb I’d booked for a few nights had a stunning view across the hills all the way to the Hollywood sign. The turntable much-heralded in the listing didn’t work and neither did the wifi (standard Airbnb style over substance) but the host did come down and try to get a record to play through the speakers. He failed at that but managed to make the wifi happen.

Hazel and I walked around Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. and put our name in at Hama Sushi. 

“Is that your mother? She’s nice-looking,” a bum walking past said. Not to Hazel, but to a guy that looked like Hazel’s much older brother who was standing nearby. Referring to me. “Hey it’s a compliment,” the bum said. He must have caught the shattered expression on my face. I’m not just a mother but the mother of a strange grown ass adult man in the world’s eyes. The pandemic has laid to waste any remaining shred of hope I could still pass for vaguely age indeterminate. Ouch.

But what’s the alternative? Everywhere I turn, I see reminders of heroes and friends no longer with us. The Hollywood Bowl, where Tom Petty played his last show, the street where Don Heffington lived. Sights of past glories: in an Uber I passed the Iliad bookshop that stood next to the studio where I recorded a lot of my first album. Hazel and I met up with Roger Trilling, one of my oldest friends, at the Red Lion, a long-running German brewhouse Roger and I used to frequent in the 90s. We had a drink at the Dresden and I got a little misty remembering the times I’d seen Marty & Elayne tearing it up in there. Drove by the former site of the Ambassador Hotel where my parents had seen Steve and Eydie at the Cocoanut Grove and where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. So long ago. A school stands there now.

In typical New Yorker fashion, I’d declared “I’ll take a walk and get us some breakfast!” from the Airbnb high up on a hill in Silver Lake. I knew parking on such a steep street wasn’t an option but surely walking is always possible? I misjudged my GPS directions and went down the wrong side of the hill and then was faced with a choice: either call my daughter and tearfully beg her to come pick me up (“It’s Mom! I’ve walked down and I can’t get up!”) or scale the incredibly steep hill to right my wrongs so I could carry on down the other side to a bakery I’d scoped out.

Walking up that hill

Now I grew up in Pittsburgh so I thought I’d seen and walked every kind of hill there is, but this was insane. I was nearly on my hands and knees for some of the climb. Zigzagging for part of it. Crying and whimpering. Nobody saw me because nobody is ever out on the streets anyways in L.A. unless they’re busy running, but I knew.

“I used to be quite good at this thing called travel,” I said.

A sunny late afternoon in Malibu was a great reviver. We stumbled on the Adamson House at Malibu Lagoon, a 1920s gem of old tile and Southern California landscaping. Hazel drove us back through Brentwood and Beverly Hills and I found myself repeating the phrase my dad had used to describe my driving skills a few months back: “You’re a regular Joey Chitwood!” which made way less sense to Hazel than it had to me, and I’d had to really forage in my memory to locate a long-ago figure of racing lore.

A trip to the desert was a good way to blow the cobwebs out. Like way too many places, “I’ve been there” but aside from a pointless gig at a coffee shop and a mystical stay in Gram Parsons’ room at the Joshua Tree Inn, my desert memories are scarce and I looked forward to having Hazel show me stuff as she’s been spending lots of time out there. It was fun stopping in Palm Springs for a classic coffee shop meal at Billy Reed’s, which Hazel declared looked “like your parents’ house!” It did have that stuck-in-the-early-seventies flair with faux Tiffany lamps, dark wood, ceramic knick knacks and plants a-plenty. My parents’ house, the house I grew up in, sold in the year 2000, lives forever in my daughter’s mind like my grandparents’ house does in mine.

Hazel reminding me of my mom, in the place she said reminded her of my parents’ house

We listened to fantastic dance radio station KGAY out of Palm Springs on the drive to Yucca Valley, bumped along a dirt road for a mile or two to stay with Hazel’s boyfriend in full desert glory, the nearest neighbors a vague notion rather than a visual reality. It was spectacular out there, in a rustic way. We hiked at Joshua Tree, tried to watch the new West Side Story which just made me want to watch the old West Side Story even though I might have to try it again. I smoked weed, saw Pioneertown; did yoga on the desert floor keeping an eye out for scorpions and snakes. We went to a swap meet and I found a hippie-ish batik skirt to wear for the new life I planned for me and Eric where we lived in a desert shanty (apparently that’s everybody’s imagined new life as there’s not a shanty to be had out there anymore).

The just-about closed desert swap meet, once used as a film set
Desert inspiration

Hazel and I drove up to Big Bear which was spectacular and snowy (“wait – you’re in California and you’re looking at snow?” said Eric, from snowy New York. “What are you, crazy?”) and on to Lake Arrowhead which reminded me a little of that Simpsons episode with the Stonecutters, like there was some kind of slightly evil entity in control of the lake and everything and everyone around it, but we stayed in this cool old ramshackle hotel called the Saddleback Inn where neither of us slept well – there was a mysterious closet with the beginnings of a flight of steps towards the back that just felt unsettling but isn’t this why we travel? To wonder about things that don’t matter? And forget things that do, and then remember they matter again, with renewed force.

It was nice to have a chance to talk and it was also fun to listen to the music Hazel brought along on the trip. I feel so stuck in the past with what I listen to sometimes, relying on music to wrap me in a warm familiar blanket rather than challenge me. 

Back in L.A. I stayed with friends Tobi and Clyde. I’d played at their house back in November 2019, one of my last house concerts before things shut down. It was nice to visit with them and we took a walk around the neighborhood and saw the house where Leonard Cohen lived and also Muhammed Ali. Hazel and I hiked up to Griffith Park Observatory and enjoyed the beauty of Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. We ate some wonderful food and drank nice cocktails here and there. I kept wishing I had a better wardrobe, my upstate New York clothes felt too utilitarian for sunny, breezy L.A. I ran into a friend or two and wished I could hang out in Los Angeles more often, for longer. 

Flying back home, I changed planes in Chicago again. It was St. Patrick’s Day and Midway Airport was filled with people in shiny green boas, green top hats and athletic shirts. The whole time I was traveling, Eric’s voice lodged in my head, making his usual funny remarks and the voice went into overdrive now, doing a fake but convincing Irish brogue. Is that just marriage, especially after two years of essentially seeing hardly anyone else for any length of time? You begin to wonder what thoughts are yours; who you are out in the world, all of that. It was letting a genie just a little bit out of the bottle, going out west like that. I wrote about not knowing who I am out on the road without a guitar and part of it is just as an individual person, who used to travel around all the time on my own. I’d met some of Hazel’s friends at a gallery opening and introduced myself as “Hazel’s mom” not even bothering to add my own name at the end – like it wouldn’t come out, it felt too strange: Amy. No guitar, no husband, just a mom of a full-grown child at large in the world. No wonder I don’t know what to wear anymore.

“So, are you?” the older woman with the chic tote and the Kindle in the airplane seat next to me said. “Retired?”

Like a trial lawyer I jumped to my own defense as a working person: Retired, me? Never! I heaped on all the evidence, the guitar I left at home which usually traveled by my side, gigs to come, no pension or IRA, how I’d work til I die. I had to do it, to still feel like someone. An entity. Out there in the world. Up in the air.

Desert at sunrise, making like Georgia O’Keefe

Setting Out

“Were you touring?”

“You play gigs over there?”

“You gonna do any shows?”

That’s life as a touring musician. If people see that you’ve been anywhere, or are getting ready to go away, there’s the feeling that it includes work. Home is home but home is also the road and there’s something reassuring about being able to tell whoever asks “Yes – I was working.” “Yep, got some gigs.” Vacations are something other people take because they have jobs that pay that don’t involve travel and they need to break up the routine of being home. When you travel a lot to play gigs, the idea of staying home is the novelty. Seeing one season change to the next and then the one ofter that and beyond seems gloriously stable—the changes happening around you as fixed point.

I haven’t spent four consecutive seasons in this house or any place of residence since the 90s. Watched spring turn to summer then the grass stop growing and the leaves fall, rake them away and wait for snow to arrive without big gaps, until these past two years.

Travel! If I’m setting out on a trip, life must be returning to something resembling what it was before.

Only it isn’t quite and I’m not, right now, traveling to play music. I feel sheepish, embarrassed almost, to say I have very little of that kind of work at the moment. Just a gig here and there in the nearish future. So why am I getting on a plane?

Last month Eric and I flew to England, something I used to do nearly as often as driving down into NYC pre-pandemic. Everything has shifted since my last trip to the UK in January 2020. I left behind slippers and hiking boots, old clothes I’d been wearing to work on a flat we were fixing up. I had a tour booked for March/April that year (Working! I was going to be working!) When it all got cancelled I put those gigs out of my mind because I’d spent months setting them up and all of that came to…nothing. I’d ordered and paid for books to sell, shipped over a load of records. But everyone lost due to the pandemic and these work losses were relatively small compared to what my family and pretty much every person you and I know has suffered.

We used our travel vouchers from 2020 and no, we didn’t play any gigs in England. We worked on the flat, saw friends and visited Eric’s daughter and partner and grandkids. We did get out the guitars at one point and thought of forming a soft rock cover band but no gigs were played. Eric got a request to use a song in a Super Bowl ad and it went the whole world without him getting up off the couch.

It still felt weird to head to the airport without guitars on our backs. Isn’t that who we are? The people who take turns using the restroom so the other can watch the pile of bags and guitars? Wearing a mask at the airport and onto the plane was nothing – it was helpful actually cause I didn’t know how to arrange my face to greet the flight attendants without a part jovial/part pleading expression that would entice them into letting me stow a guitar in the first class coat closet.

“Hello – I’m just…a passenger?”

“Welcome aboard!” So this is how people live, all the time? It was interesting to not feel special/annoying/a nuisance.

I’ll set out again tomorrow and get on a plane for Los Angeles. I bet you’re wondering if I have a gig out there? Even as I write this, I’m thinking shouldn’t I have just booked a little-

No. I’m going to visit my daughter. Around the time my life of touring started, back in the late 80s, I became a mom. I’ve felt proud and strong that I never let being a mother get in the way of creating and playing music.

Me and Hazel (2004?), on the road, heading for another joint…

But my poor daughter. I think we took one non-music related trip when she was growing up, to the Florida Panhandle. I dragged her to shows, to recording sessions, always on tour, in planes trains and automobiles. When she moved to L.A. almost a year ago, I started looking forward to visiting her out there. I love California and L.A. in particular. But it’s a long way to go without a gig. Am I allowed to just…visit?

I’m a mother. It was a big job I did with love and no small amount of bravado and now looking back as you do at this age, the regrets come. I was selfish in the way artists tend to be — need to be? Always with my eye on the prize. Often forgetting that I’d already won.  Work is important, it’s part of who we are, but it’s not everything. 

I never had the chance to enjoy an adult relationship with my own mother, to take trips or have lunch together. By the time I was old enough to fully appreciate the force she was—how cool, how funny and fearless— that woman was gone. I wonder what it would’ve been like?

So now I fly to see my daughter. No guitar, no gig. I feel lucky to do it, a trip rescheduled from back when things shut down after starting up again after shutting down after…I know I don’t have to apologize. I do it while I can, because I can.

If I see a person getting on the plane with a guitar, I admit I’ll probably look at them with envy. Then I’ll remember there are other things in life.

I might stick my leg out and trip them.

Just kidding. (sort of)