“Why are we lining up out here?” I’m introducing my father to Trader Joe’s and I realize there’s just too much to explain to a 93-year old man regarding the cult of shopping at Trader Joe’s supermarkets, and how we need to Share The Road with bikes, and the way a woman who weighs more than a hundred twenty pounds is allowed to announce the news and weather on TV. It’s enough to get him to put on a mask every time we leave his independent living facility, and to bear with me while I check email and social media on my phone every hour – okay, half hour. My dad hasn’t lived on his own since he was in his late twenties and that was back in…the 1950’s? He hasn’t had to deal with the world without the buffer of a wife since he retired back in…the nineties? He needs patience and understanding.
I need patience and understanding. I only just realized nobody writes a blog anymore. It’s all newsletters, and subscriptions and – I’m already nodding off explaining it here. More and more, the world spins an extra time when you’re not paying attention, and catching up requires too much focus and desire. Not only that, but another leap of faith – “oh, we’re doing this now, makes sense (I’ll come to grips with why and how later but for now count me in!)” Like my dad’s insistence on going into a service station to kindly pay for my gas (“But…” I sputter through my mask, “You have to…communicate, with a person! And there might be other people in there—do you really want to y’know, be in a random space with random people, when we can just pop a card in here at the pump?”), my unwillingness to engage with Substack and Patreon (see, I can’t even say the word!) might erode any day now probably right around the point when neither of those platforms will be available to the likes of me any longer (whoops, there went Substack already – see, wait long enough and Blogger starts looking cool again).
Are we not allowed to use the formats that have served us for any length of time without painting ourselves as cranks, or curmudgeons? I never liked the word blog, but I’ve loved putting my writing online since before that word had even been coined. When I think about the subscription idea – my small coterie of readers sign up to hear from me directly and there will be no illusion of posting for public consumption because who’s going to find anything anymore – I feel sad, and hopeless at the futility of it all. I put thoughts out there and if someone stumbles on them and relates, that reader feels less alone and so do I. But if I write for my pre-ordained subscribers, it becomes a performance for a set crowd and I’m right where I always find myself as a musical artist – scrambling to sell tickets. As awful as this pandemic has been, not having to constantly sell myself has been a huge relief and made my life way less stressful than it has been for years. I sleep better, I work on stuff I love: I create, I muse, I write, I record. Now we’re all getting vaccinated and the gigs will start up again and I’ll have to fire up the “Like me!” machine and just thinking about that makes me queasy.
So when it comes to writing my online diary, I’m gonna just keep chugging along like an old man’s dinghy in a stream of sleek, shiny yachts (I have never found a boating metaphor so readily at my fingertips, but now that we have a little boat, I have to bat them away). Those yachts and even a few kayaks will pass and probably look at me pityingly if they notice me at all, but we’re all just trying to get somewhere we don’t need to go but feel compelled to aim for. Like my dad staring down the snack aisle at Trader Joe’s (“I just need some bananas and orange juice”), or pulling out his wallet at the Sunoco,raising his mask and licking his finger to extract a few bills (“No dad – nooooo!”) I’ll be a person out of time, for now anyway.
Pssst – remember I said about the like me machine? I have an online show (maybe the last one before the in-person shows start up slowly?) This Thur Apr 15, 7 pm pst/10 pm est – I’m not going to worry, just enjoy playing and maybe reading some stuff. I may even bust out the new banjo!
And don’t forget, Diary Of Amy Rigby is now available as a podcast HERE.
A delivery arrived on our little front porch the other day — a large box of books. Forty-two copies of Girl To City. Two years ago around this time I was finishing my book, working on a cover, trying to make the pieces all come together.
Funny, I hadn’t ordered any copies. I looked at the packing slip: STORE RETURNS TO PUBLISHER. Hmm, the distributor must’ve gotten something wrong because—oh wait, I’m the publisher. Stores returned the book. It’s over, my first book. It’s been a good ride but all that work, all my hopes and dreams of life as a published author—well it’s actually been pretty damn good but not in any of the ways I could’ve imagined. I don’t even remember what those ways were but I think they involved me wearing a cape with matching turban and riding in a limousine.
And now things are waning, until I finish this next book. Damn.
I tried not to feel sorry for myself because publishing my first book has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I flashed on an image of Girl To City sitting proudly on the memoir/autobiography shelf of the bookstore where I work, and how the store’s been closed to browsers for over a year now and I know it’s been that way for stores all over. So maybe readers didn’t actively not buy my book, they just never got a chance to see it on a shelf in a random store. I started feeling more sorry for the bookstores all over than I did for myself, imagining many many titles being returned. Nothing to be ashamed of. Better to add up the victories than the losses when possible.
But I wonder how long I’ll leave these books in the middle of the hallway floor, to trip over every time I go up the stairs where my desk waits for me to write some more. Maybe that pile of books is the totem I needed to inspire me to get the next book done.
I can still sell these copies, especially if I ever go out and play shows again. When will we go out and play shows again?
“Amy, is that you? Are you at the door?” I’m calling my dad from New York and he’s in Pennsylvania.
I tell him I’m not, but that I’ll come and see him again soon. After that there’s not really anything to talk about, and he can’t hear me anyway, so we hang up.
Last week started with glorious weather. “Oh how I love working outside!” I shouted, as Eric and I raked and shoveled soil, sawed and snipped roots, rolled out garden fabric. The sun was shining and the air was warm for the first time in months. We could actually see shoots of green pushing up through the ground.
Then we moved on to an old decaying shed that has been a blight on our backyard since we moved in almost ten years ago. Eric cut away chain link fence and we began dismantling, knocking out rotting sheets of wood, clearing away dead vines wrapped around everything.
A few hours later, I was typing away at my desk after tripping on the pile of my first book in the hallway when I noticed I’d been absentmindedly scratching my arm for a while. I remembered a terrible bout with poison ivy a few years ago, how I’d vowed to never be blasé about working outside again…
“Patient is a pleasant 62 year old woman, presenting with contact dermatitis…”
The doctor spoke into his voice to text app. I looked around the tiny examination room, expecting to see a rosy-cheeked washerwoman with her hair pulled back in a wispy grey bun, then realized he was talking about me. Shit, am I really that age? Somehow it sounds much older when you hear it said out loud. But I felt proud how even with raging poison ivy rash that was driving me insane, I still came across as pleasant. “You oughta see me on one of my good days doc,” I wanted to say.” I think the adjective would be…ebullient.” I liked the Doctor. As he went on with his report he referred to my adventures dismantling “an old barn” and called poison ivy “the culprit” responsible for my rash.
The doctor called in a prescription for steroid cream. I walked to our local Walgreens to pick up the prescription and they told me my insurance was with CVS now. We may be the only town in America where CVS hasn’t sprung up directly across the street from Walgreens. I’d need to go to another town.
I drove down to Saugerties for the poison ivy prescription. I was in agony but thought the drive down country roads would be a good distraction. I know people outside of this area tend to think of Saugerties as something to do with the Band, and Bob Dylan and Big Pink but it feels more like weekend bikers and giddy city folks, blue collar Republicans, boating, horse shows and the odd artist and hippie.
The prescription wasn’t ready so I went into the little shopping district of the town and tried a cute coffee place I’d passed a thousand times. Something weird went on with the girl behind the counter’s Square reader and she’d told me to just come back and pay when I was finished with my coffee.
She called her boss on the phone and you’d have thought they were trying to land a plane. A man strolled in and started to order.
“Look at this guy,” I thought to myself. “What is it about Saugerties…”
He wore sport shorts, short-sleeved zip up sporting shirt in matching shades of grey and he positioned himself like a baseball coach in front of the counter, hands on hips and muscled legs splayed out ending in sporty sneakers, also the same shade of grey. Grey ballcap, sunglasses perched on top. He ordered a coffee drink – I’m not sure what, I only heard the part where he said “and could you put four espresso shots in there?”
Fine. I was just wondering how I was going to pay for my coffee and a cute little baby bib I’d chosen off the rack of “Upstate and Chill” sweatshirts and other weekend-in-the country-for-city-folk garments. The young woman behind the counter had just informed me and the sporty guy that it was going to have to be cash only. I asked both of them if there was an ATM nearby, but no one seemed capable of answering me. I heard him say something about “pay it forward.”
“I can come back another time for the bib, no problem,” I said. Again I asked, “Is there an ATM anywhere in town?” I sensed a stranger was about to buy a baby gift for me to give to someone else and it just felt…weird. The girl was too busy figuring out how to pour four shots of espresso.
The guy took his drink and bounced on out into the world, while I stepped up to the counter to figure out how I was going to pay with there being no cash point in the town of Saugerties and the young woman not able to use Venmo. I suggested she write down my credit card number. “There’s other ways you can take payments,” I said. Was my poison ivy rash making me bossy and impatient, or was this person just maddeningly useless? “You know, or just tell me where I can find cash?”
“He paid for you,” she said.
“What? The bib too?” The man was gone.
I don’t know why but it felt sort of…aggressive. I can see that he felt in a funny position if he said “pay it forward,” thinking he was buying a stranger’s coffee. I’d offered a get out by saying “don’t worry about the bib!”, when I’d sensed a magnanimous gesture looming. He probably didn’t want to lose face with the cute girl behind the counter, as if she would notice or care. “Mom,” I pictured him imagining her saying when she got home, or even “Hannah (her roommate), you won’t believe what a kindness this handsome stranger did today…” The type of generosity of spirit we all should be so lucky to have.
I think the rash was making me cranky, and delirious. Or maybe it was the hot wind whipping piles of last year’s leaves around down the street.
I picked up my prescription and as I drove back home, I popped in an old CD, my second album Middlescence. I’d brought it along because Don Heffington died this week. I could’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s Brownsville Girl, or an Amy Allison album; Emmylou’s White Shoes, He played drums on so many records, but I wanted to remember him playing on one of my records. His playing and presence added a lot to my first two solo albums, and he became a friend and an important part of my artist journey. Listening to his epic fills, stately timekeeping and deft percussion was like looking at a photo album from a memorable trip.
I’ve been mourning Don but I think I’m also mourning a part of my life. The famous quote from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” applies well to the music biz of the late twentieth century. I was lucky (is that the word?) to have the experience of recording budgets, time reserved for the making of an album and all that went along with that: producer, musicians, studio and engineer; mixing, mastering and sequencing; cover art, promo photos etc etc. It was all very eventful, maybe overblown, the pressure was real, the possiblities felt endless.
Nowadays recording is part of everyday life and there’s an ease to that—I feel fortunate I learned to make records the old fashioned way, so it is instilled in me the urge and the craft. Eric is always ready to fire up whatever machine and help me record, and these days releasing a track or an album on your own is a demystified series of steps you take when you’ve committed to the idea. The pressure comes from nowhere but inside.
It’s okay to mourn the past, and who we used to be in it, but there’s no going back there.
Except I’m working on another memoir, so I keep going back there and maybe that’s where all these thoughts are swirling in from. My first book was a coming of age, and the second book is harder, because prolonging a voyage of discovery takes a lot of messy effort, and mistakes add up, and how do I make that entertaining? I tend to tune out in artist memoirs where the last several chapters become a litany of tours, TV shows; this album, that album. I can understand all that a little better now: along with those benchmarks, real life that goes on after those early moments of discovery can be repetitive, mundane; and how to find a narrative arc and craft a story out of it all is a challenge.
I just found a notebook from back in that era of my life and on one page it says “Find better video store” and right there, I wonder where I’ll find the poetry in the late 90s/2000s…I think the point is to not look too hard. More and more, I realize time is not limitless. I might not have ten years to write this book.
I come back home and Eric’s set a bass amp up in the living room and cables are trailing across the kitchen floor and the steroid cream helps with poison ivy rash, so I feel good that I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it. We plug in a guitar to record a new song I wrote, but first I play a few bars of bongo drums that Eric loops. I bet Heffington would think that was cool.
I’m trying something new, recording my blogs ie doing them as a podcast a la Girl To City. You’ll be able to listen as well as/instead of reading – here’s a link to the first one: https://anchor.fm/amy-rigby/episodes/Rambling-Vines-etv9m1. Thanks for spending time here, I really do appreciate it!
A year ago this week we were still planning to fly to England, Mon March 16. Large gigs had not shut down over there yet—I saw people posting about seeing Elvis Costello at London Apollo and thought “Really?” but none of the promoters I had shows scheduled with in the UK had spoken to me about cancelling yet, except a literary/music festival in Wales. My Sunday March 15 show down the road from us in Woodstock had been cancelled—the club decided to shut down for the rest of the month. Eric and I went around and around about whether we should go or stay put. Eric wasn’t feeling 100% well. He’d felt off since he came back from the UK a few weeks earlier, but we still gathered up suitcases and prepared to close the house for a month and a half. I’d spent a long time booking and trying to spread the word about my UK Girl To City tour. Folks were already posting about full lockdown in Italy and Spain but it wasn’t possible that all that would apply to us, was it?
Sunday Mar 15th I woke up finally getting it through my head—there would be no gigs. I felt sadness and a sense of relief—not because I was so worried about this virus that was still such an unknown, but that I was off the hook with the gigs which I’d so looked forward to playing but also dreaded because I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up. I’d also been worried about being stuck in England in the flat we’d left half-finished: no kitchen sink so having to wash dishes in the bathtub, no counter tops in the kitchen. How would Eric and I get by trapped inside a construction site if lockdown or quarantine happened over there?
Remember how it all unfolded? Monday I worked one last bar shift for a fellow worker who didn’t feel comfortable coming in. Wiping down the pen after each use, washing my hands in the bar sink after every transaction. News went up and down the street in Hudson that New York was shutting down at midnight. I locked up the bookstore/bar like I was saying goodbye to a friend and felt sure I’d be back there in a few weeks.
Weeks turned to a month, two months. New York cases and deaths went through the roof. My brothers and daughter, friends in NYC barely left their apartments. Eric felt ill but couldn’t get tested because he didn’t have a fever. I lost my sense of smell and we were finally able to schedule tests up in Albany. The drive-thru site was—a word everyone used so much this past year it’s probably off limits forever but I’ll say it—dystopian. White tents. Workers in full PPE. We got swabbed through the windows and cried as we pulled away from the testing site.
Eric’s test came back positive and we were told to stay in our house for two weeks. The county health department hung a bag on our doorknob with two thermometers (hey thanks!) and called us every day to get our temperature readings. We were supposed to be quarantined FROM EACH OTHER so when they called me and asked if I knew Eric’s temperature, I’d say “Hold on a second” and shout “Eric! What’s your temperature?” in a shrill voice even though he was sitting right next to me.
Spring came. We visited a friend’s flower farm a half hour from Hudson and when we were back in the car heading home Eric started feeling awful. He was sweating, clutching his stomach, chest, arms and legs. I drove to the hospital like a maniac because taking even a minute to stop and call an ambulance seemed impossible but I kept an eye out for cops the whole drive; I really wanted them to stop us. “My husband’s having a heart attack” I shouted when I jumped out at the kiosk set up outside the emergency room because of coronavirus. Eric was taken away immediately in a wheelchair and I waited in the car.
Looking back over my blog from this past year I see I’ve gotten down way more than I remembered writing. Time closed in on itself when it wasn’t expanding to infinity. We’re back around at the beginning again and I have to admit it’s all getting to me now, which is crazy with the end in sight. I think the end is in sight?
Everyone has been affected in their own way and I feel like we’re some of the lucky ones. I’d been hoping to come up with a cheery new post that would sum everything up but I’m just kind of putting one foot in front of the other, trying to make progress on a new book, a new record; waiting for the second dose of the vaccine. One night after the first shot I woke in a panic, thinking WE ARE COVID, having lived it and run from it to now be injected with it in some form is a heavy thought.
Driving back and forth to see my dad in Pittsburgh is taking it out of me. God bless my brothers who live nearby him and especially my wonderful sister in law Karen (don’t you dare call her A Karen) who’ve been trying to help him deal with losing his wife and his autonomy on a day to day basis. Mortality has never felt so at the forefront of my mind. I don’t know why I thought I’d be immune to it, like I could just sidestep the whole issue. Ha!
Hand-sewing calms me. Singing and playing do too when I can motivate myself. New lyrics to this old song I wrote with Sherry Rich back in my Nashville era (was it really almost twenty years ago?) popped in my head the other day. It made me laugh and wince a little which helps to remind me I’m still alive with a song in my heart. I hope it’ll do the same for you.
Thanks to everyone who came to the online show at Arden Gild Hall! Sometimes I miss playing so much. And sometimes…
I’m walking through a town where there’s a festival. It’s warm and sunny. No makeup on but I think that’s probably good, only the people I want to see will see me. I notice a guy crouched on a curb, hanging out with some other people, and realize it’s my guitar player friend Steve. He looks so cool—sunglasses, denim jacket, great boots. I try to wait until the other people move on to go over and say hi.
After we catch up for a minute, I walk along and enter a sort of warehouse building and a guy in the corner says “You must be one of the artists—you probably need one of these” and he hands me a laminate and a canvas bag of swag: stickers and beer coozies and bottle openers. “You’re gonna have a great time,” he says. Then he tells me I’m playing in front of a bar on the main street in town.
“Wait, what do you mean?” I ask. “Are the gigs all staggered?”
He looks at me blankly.
“Well,” I continue, “If there’s a loud band from Cleveland (I don’t know why I say Cleveland, it’s just the first city that pops into my head) playing at the same time outside the bar across the street, how will anyone hear me?”
“Wow—you just want everything, don’t you?” the guy says. “No, they’re not staggered. Everyone just plays—that’s what creates the atmosphere of music. If you don’t like it, don’t play.”
“Well…FUCK YOU,” I say. He looks shocked. I smile. “Just kidding, buddy. I know you’re only doing your job. It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be great.” I walk off in a bouncy way, smiling and seething. Where’s Steve playing, I wonder. Does he know about this bullshit? How many more years do we have to put up with this crap?
I’ve been out of a job for almost a year. My touring musician job and my bookstore/bar job.
Unemployed. Don’t tell my dad. Working to him is everything, and I guess I’m kind of the same way.
That’s okay – you can tell him. I’ve told him, but these days he has a hard time remembering things.
“She’s a sweetie – what a sweetie,” I heard him say to my brother. I was in the kitchen, putting food on plates. I turned and looked behind me to see who my dad was talking about. Then realized he meant me. It was a shock. I know he cares about me, but compliments and endearments from him are rare.
My dad’s wife died last month and he and I just spent the most time we ever have alone together, talking and crying and laughing. (I got tested before going, and didn’t even have to buy a case of wine to do it.) All these years I’ve never stopped running from gig to gig and one upside of the pandemic is time, the kind of time I haven’t seen in decades. I’ve made a Girl To City podcast, started another one called Looking For The Magic, written songs, started working on a new book, designed and printed a teatowel, uncluttered parts of the house, even found a mop and bucket to use on the kitchen floor. And when my dad needed me I could actually be there.
But I do have a job next week – a gig. I’ll pack up the car with an amp and my guitars after figuring out a general set list and an outfit to wear. Oh wait, first I’ll get a Covid test. Then I’ll drive down to Arden, Delaware to this pretty old hall. There’ll just be me and the sound guy/camera person. And I hope some people out there tuning in.
It’s not the first online show I’ve done this past year, but I haven’t done many. People have asked me why not more, and I know it’s been a nice way for fans to support musicians they love, tuning into live shows. I did one all the way back in March and streaming with our slow internet was a challenge. I’ve filmed a song here and there to try and support venues I care about and Eric and I did short online sets for a local candidate back in October. And then there was the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show in December reminding me how much it means to play music, to be together with friends. We call it working but it feels closer to religion.
So I think I remember how to do this. I hope you can pick up a ticket and join me next Friday Feb 5 at 8 PM ET (you can watch anytime for the 48 hours after also). Let me know if there’s anything you want to hear me play! I won’t see you or hear you but I’ll know you’re there, maybe enjoying a refreshing beverage or mug of hot cocoa.
And then I can tell my dad, next time we talk and he asks how it’s going; if I’m working – “yeah, I had a gig.”