Love and Saint-Marcellin

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You’re on your way to Austin when you read that the state of Texas is suing the city of Austin for refusing to enforce the anti-sanctuary city bill. Remember that you put your finger on the map and said “I want to go here”.  Luck and timing aren’t really your strong suits.

*

You and Elizabeth McQueen who’s opening the Austin show sit in a happy hour bar and have a quick bite before playing. She’s forty, you’re fifty-eight. You talk about children, making music, what it’s like in Austin these days. She is closer to your daughter in age than she is to you.  You  remember when forty seemed like shouldn’t it be time to give this up? That’s when you moved to Nashville and realized you were only getting started. You still feel forty.

You need your glasses to: drive, read, look at your phone, read a menu, make sure your Instagram photos are actually in focus, string your guitar, check your makeup, put on your makeup. You’re not forty anymore.

*

You get off to a little bit of a rocky start in Austin, forgetting the words to a song you’ve sung hundreds of times. How come the audience is on your side? They are here for you. You wonder why you don’t play a gig every single day of your life.

*

After the first show, you open the calculator on your phone to add up the money in versus money out – how much you made from the gig and merch and will need to make on this trip vs. car rental, hotels, parking at Newark, gas. An amount comes up on the screen from the last time you closed up the bar after your Monday night shift and you think of how sometimes working those shifts you wish you were out doing gigs and now here you are, but doing the bar shift is so much simpler with no expectations or pressure – “let me make at least as much as a bar shift each night and anything else is gravy,” you decide.

*

The opener in a tiny room in a bar in San Antonio is a pretty young woman in Mexican dress who plays to a full room doing mariachi covers and Linda Ronstadt tunes. She’s sweet and has a beautiful voice but you just kind of wish she wasn’t there. When she introduces Poor Poor Pitiful Me as “another Linda Rondstadt song!” you caw from the corner of the room “It was written by Warren Zevon, not Linda Ronstadt! Know what you’re singing, it’s your job!” in the voice of an embittered crone. “I opened for him you know! He was kind. He’s dead now!” the crone shouts. Thankfully realize the voice is only in your head and you’re just patiently nodding along and smiling, up until the final song where she plays that Mexican standard Ay Ay Ay without a trace of irony. Resist the urge to start drinking. Have fun playing to a handful of fans and take the opportunity to play songs you don’t usually play and leave out the ones people always ask to hear.

*

Navigate the barbq ordering process in City Market in Luling – the restaurant part is big and bright with a counter but there’s a dark door that says ENTER HERE TO ORDER and there’s maybe a hint of flames and smoke back there but you’re a little afraid it’s all a big joke on first-timers and you’ll walk in to a broom closet while the whole restaurant laughs. Ask at the drinks counter and they say “Yes, go in there and order your meat.”

An old man in a snappy fedora and immaculate white shirt sits at a nearby table chatting with some strangers. “My wife says she’s giving up barbq,” he says as he munches on a sauce-laden rib. “Something on the news about carcinogens? I say for God’s sake we’ve all gotta die – let it be from something we love!” You’re half-sure the man is an actor hired by the barbq place, or the state of Texas.

*

After lunch, you see two men about the same size – one black and one white, the white one with a cowboy hat – carrying an antique table along the sidewalk. You try to figure out the story –  are they lovers, robbers – maybe you’ve watched too many episodes of Hap & Leonard?

Stroll on the shady side of the street and stop into the antique mall. You’re browsing the old linens and leopard-printed shoes and admiring a photo of a black gospel group in flashy outfits when you catch a glimpse of an older woman across the counter: she’s a little rough and weatherbeaten, like Thelma or Louise (whichever was the older one) a decade or two on – you realize you’re looking into a mirror.

The white man in the cowboy hat and the black guy come back in. The white guy looks like an older rancher. The black man is the proprietor of the antique mall. His wife appears from behind a rack of sequined costumes. You recognize her from the gospel group photo. “Is that your husband?” she asks, about the rancher who’s buying some chairs to go with the antique table.

*

Checking into the hotel in Houston, the desk clerk says “You don’t look anything like your photo” after you hand her your ID. That is your blessing and curse – where other people are apologetic about their bad driver’s license photo, even your worst ID picture looks more glamorous than you ever could in real life.

Still, you check the website of that night’s venue for the set time and see they’ve used a stock photo of a microphone instead of the picture you sent. Imagine this means they’re challenged at putting photos on their website and not afraid your photo is so offputting that it would literally repel customers who’d otherwise be interested in the show. But wonder all the same…

*

In some of the clubs, there are photos on the wall of all the performers who’ve played over the years. You see friends and musicians you admire; ones you’ve crossed paths with; a singer who quit your early band before she ever played a show with you and her head had to be cut out of the group photo and replaced with a different singer. You marvel at how many of these musicians are still hard at it, and how many are gone. You see your own face from twelve years ago, looking defiant. That’s how long it’s been since you toured solo. You’re not forty-six anymore.

*

It’s sweet how in every town, at least one or two people ask how’s Eric. You tell them he’s in Leeds, or Leicester. But he’s with you too because – when you’re not playing, and even sometimes when you are, everything you experience you think how he would enjoy it, or not or what he would say.

*

There’s a piece of cheese you’ve been carrying in your bag since you left home – Saint-Marcellin from the fancy store in Hudson. You keep meaning to throw it away, but every time you look for a trash can you can’t find one. At the Airbnb in Austin you don’t want to be the guest who left an old piece of cheese in the bathroom wastebasket, so you carry it to the next place, and the one after that. You promise yourself NO MATTER WHAT – how late at night and hungry you get, YOU WILL NOT eat this cheese.

*

A workman in a high visibility vest comes into the club in the tiny town of Crockett – it’s an old feed store where Lightnin’ Hopkins played often – and asks if you play the blues. You don’t want him to think you’re going to sit down and pull out a bottleneck or start wailing soulfully, so you say no. During your set, you realize you do play a form of the blues, because so many of your songs are about life’s challenges. Maybe the situations are too mundane to merit soulful wailing, but they’re real. The workman is probably home asleep in front of the TV.

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*

Finally find a trash can in Crockett and dump the cheese.

*

Your friend Scott gave you a stack of CDs to listen to. It feels almost nostalgic now, CDs. You pop in the Continental Drifters, it’s a collection of covers you heard them sing a dozen times and haven’t heard in years. Driving the back roads towards Dallas, you sing along with Peter, Susan and Vicky; Robert, Mark, Carlo or Russ. You’re in the Cowsills, the Bangles, the dBs; Hollies, Flying Burrito Bros and Fairport Convention all at once. You’re a Drifter too.

*

Stay in the Belmont Hotel after your Dallas show.  It’s deco splendor on a cliff overlooking the city. You go for a swim in the Mexican-tiled pool on Mother’s Day morning, the sky a deep blue and no humidity –  you feel like the richest woman in Dallas

Realize you were treated with respect and appreciation by every place you played on this trip – you are the richest woman in Dallas.

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You’d thought it would be fun to stay at Austin Motel your last night, but the price has doubled from what you and Eric paid last year. You look on Hotwire and score a 4 1/2 star hotel cheap, the only catch is it’s outside of town. Fifteen minutes from downtown, you check into a mountainside villa of Italianate luxury and splendor, and wonder if the whole thing is a ruse, a kidnapping plot (by whom? for what?) as three male models help you out of your car. There are suits of armor in the lobby, ancient crests, fountains, marble and frescoes – and none of this existed two years ago. Because it’s Austin, everyone is super-friendly. You’re possibly the only guest in the hotel. When you come back late at night, your bed’s been turned down and your guitar has been carefully placed on a luggage rack. It’s a little creepy. But the sheets are incredible.

*

Your friend takes you to see Brian Wilson in Austin – not the first time you’ve seen him but you’re sitting twenty feet away from the man and his fabulous band and from the first notes of California Girls, you’re overwhelmed by love – for music, Brian, your friend Scott who brought you here, every player on the stage. You feel very lucky to be here. Al Jardine is right in front of you too, singing Wake the World and Add Some Music To Your Day, these are all songs from records you listen to endlessly because they feel. so. good. Blondie Chaplin comes out and he is music. Seeing a show in Austin, like playing one, is a pleasure. Damn it, no matter how much it grows you still love the place.

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No matter how little it makes sense, and you think you should do something else, you still love music most.

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Harbinger

Since I left Pittsburgh at seventeen and moved to New York City to live the life of a naive bohemian, almost every place I’ve settled has been a neighborhood in transition. The East Village late 70’s to late 80s, Williamsburg in the 90s, Nashville the early 2000’s. I’m like the opposite of a widowmaker when it comes to urban development – whoever I cast my lot with bursts into life. Except for a brief time in Cleveland which exists in its own atmosphere forever and five years in rural France (same thing), I’ve gotten in and out just in time to see those I leave behind either get displaced or rich, when all we really needed was a decent school or place to get a cup of coffee, and a wine store where you were allowed to touch the bottles, not gaze at them behind bulletproof plastic.

And now, our town of Catskill. For the five years we’ve lived here, talk has been of how it’s going to happen – this town is going to explode with artists, cafes, vibrant culture and adorable shops. It’s a slow progress and in some ways I eagerly await the day when we can stroll around from boutique to cool dining spot to venue, but a part of me wants this place to stay as rough and workaday and dysfunctional and wacky as it seems to have been forever because it’s real and it’s us.

That’s why I don’t know how I feel about the toilet chair.

For over three months, as I’ve forked left up the hill to our house, I’ve had to look at an unsightly toilet seat/metal frame contraption someone discarded at the foot of a work in progress renovation of a beautiful old brick bulding, only all work ceased four years ago and the place sits empty, unfinished and sulking at passersby. The toilet chair seemed to underscore the sad fact of this stalled project, rumored for almost a half decade to be set to house a “nice Italian restaurant”. Uh-huh.

Every time I drove by the toilet chair, I’d get bummed out.  I’d feel some sense of obligation to pull up alongside and, with newspapers covering my hands, put the thing in the back of the car and drive it to the dump. But there’s no just dropping a piece of trash at the dump, you have to bag it and pay, and besides, the thought of my car being a random toilet chair conveyance would haunt me forever and I really love that car. I didn’t want to put it in our garage, and I didn’t want to leave it by somebody else’s house, or park it out of the way in nature, so there it sat.

When Eric came back from his travels a few weeks ago, I mentioned that it was still there: “Remember the toilet chair? Look, look – now that the snow is melted, shouldn’t the town come and pick it up? I mean, it’s bad enough the half-finished renovation depressing everybody, but then there has to be this toilet seat on a chair…”

“We should screw a toilet roll holder into the wall next to it,” Eric said. It’s his default solution to many random problems.

“And put a magazine rack beside it? What about a lamp too! And a little rug.” The ideas started popping.

Eric was rubbing his hands together. “It needs a sign. I’m going home to paint one now. It’ll say “Welcome to Catskill – take a dump on us”.

“We’ve got to do it!” I said. “It’ll become a feature of the town. Until the old guard, who don’t like change, see that something sad and unsightly and depressing is being enjoyed as an art project – then they’ll come and take it away.”

So we went home to get started, at some point, when we finished doing the hundred other projects we always have going on. I even dreamt about the toilet chair, pictured somebody putting a vase of flowers on a side table and how people would come from far and wide to have their photo taken sitting there. Eric and I talked about doing a postcard. Catskill would finally come into its own, the way they’ve all promised it would.

The next day – the very next day – the toilet chair was gone.

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And our long-awaited groovy local coffee shop began serving over the weekend.

I feel conflicted. If I didn’t love this place so much, I’d think it might be about time to move on.

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The Voucher

The other night I couldn’t sleep. Aside from worrying about the state of the world I wondered what if anything I’d accomplished in the last few months. My life has been in stasis, moving in slow motion. There was sinusitis and tendonitis (the doctor called it tennis elbow but I know the truth – it was the dreaded lesser-known, not-so-glamorous “shoveler”s elbow”.) Waiting and meeting with publishers for my memoir which at this point I really think I’ll likely go ahead and put out myself – hey, at least I’ll get the cover right.

I did a house concert or two, traveled to Canada to be artist in residence at a university. Played songs at some tribute shows:  a country show at Kate Jacobs’ bookstore in Hoboken, the Gene Clark show at Cutting Room; said goodbye to Greg Trooper at a memorial at St. Marks Church. Did a benefit concert for the local library at a new cafe in our town. Drank wine, poured beer, listened to other people’s problems across the bar. Helped Eric with some guitar, piano and vocals for his album and made progress on my own record too. Saw Bryan Ferry perform.

But as I sat under a blanket with my notebook and a cup of peppermint tea, it dawned on me that I’ve been operating under a heavy burden, and that nothing would flow, nothing would really progress until I got it over with and moved on.

I need to spend my Southwest Airlines voucher.

It was already stressing me out before the United Airlines fiasco, where a whole planeload of passengers turned their noses up at $800 flight vouchers, preferring to fly to…Kentucky. Free money it’s not. More like an internship for Southwest – as I’ve scoured the flight routes and schedules, looking for the magical getaway that will make me feel like I’ve been sufficiently rewarded for giving up my seat on a flight from San Francisco to New York last May, I’ve practically gained enough knowledge to – if not fly the plane, at least stand at the end of an airstrip in a fluorescent jumpsuit waving a couple of flags – did you know there are no direct flights from our local airport, Albany, to anywhere anyone would ever want to go?

New York City’s LaGuardia is a mere two hours and change away, but a day’s parking is twenty dollars, so that puts the trip over-budget before I’ve even bought a four dollar bottle of water in the airport. Newark has Southwest, and cheap parking, but the direct flights to anywhere except hubs like Baltimore and Chicago are few, and I stopped doing connecting flights years ago, unless they are absolutely necessary and remember – this is supposed to be a fun, free getaway.

Early on in my planning, I promised myself this one had to be a pleasure trip: no gigs. It had to be a trip I wouldn’t usually take. The names of places swam in front of me: Mexico City! New Orleans! Albuquerque? Miami!

But the months went by and I couldn’t commit. I don’t know how to take a vacation. The voucher should come with a personality transplant, one that would let me get a spray tan, squeeze into a cheap sundress and strappy sandals and take off for a weekend in Vegas. Only I’d have to fly through Baltimore to get there.

How about New Orleans? I could almost justify it as musical research – that’s right, I thought, I can see myself making that long-awaited foray into ragtime! Trombone Shorty might have a free afternoon to lay down some horns on a new song or two…or maybe I could soak up the atmosphere that will inspire a musical version of Interview With The Vampire? (Not surprisingly, it already exists – 2006’s Lestat, with words and music by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.)

Mexico City is my dream vacation destination, but did I want to invest the time into figuring out where to stay, what to see and do, and most importantly where to eat? This sort of pressure was taking any aspect of fun away, so even though the airfare was within reach with my voucher, the months went by while I waffled.

Twice I booked flights and cancelled them – that’s the thing about Southwest, they never penalize you for changing your mind. It’s hell for a worried, reluctant spontaneous traveler like me. If I get offered a show in Alaska, I will figure out the logistics, make the plan, rent a vehicle, book rooms and even a dogsled if necessary to go through with it. I can see the point of it, even if it’s just playing songs for a few people in a bar I wouldn’t hang out in as a customer. But to choose a random place for good times sake? Tell me doctor, how do I go to a town that won’t have a poster with my name on it hanging in a darkened corner or behind a smudged window?

Time was running out. I knew Eric was going to the UK in May (Southwest doesn’t fly there). The thought of no gigs was weighing on me almost as much as the voucher. I really want to have a new album out before I do a whole lot of shows but that’s not going to happen until late this year/early next. But – what about Texas? I went last year but haven’t done a little run of my own shows there in a decade. I found out Southwest has two direct flights a day from Newark to Austin. I got in touch with some clubs and booked gigs (I’m making this sound a lot easier than it really was, in the case of Austin at least), with a night or two off to do something fun or spontaneous. I mailed some posters.

I’m almost free.

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D Troop

“I think you’ll enjoy being here,” the director said as she showed him through the facilities.

They looked in the library: a wall of poetry, philosophy, music biography and memoir. DVD and VHS movies on a low shelf. He noticed Still Crazy and Payday in the collection: impressive.

The dining hall featured a breakfast buffet that reminded him of those free Super 8 and Hampton Inn spreads of years ago. A ponytailed resident was removing a waffle from the “make your own” station. Perpendicular to that a table of cold cuts was beginning to sweat, and in a cooler on the floor, budget-brand beverage bottles and cans floated in tepid water. Funny how that made him feel at home.

“Let’s just take a peek in the activities room and see what they’re up to.”

A group of older gentlemen were seated in a circle, guitars in their laps. Some were white-haired, others dyed auburn or black, with eyebrows to match. On closer inspection, one of the gentlemen was a lady. They all wore variations of a uniform: straight-legged jeans, black t-shirts with faded white logos; well-worn plaid shirts with western details; a leather vest here and there. A few examples of interesting footwear peeped out from the jeans: pointy-toed snakeskin boots; sport sandals over socks patterned with sayings that spoke of the late 2010’s: “Fuck This Shit” and “Beer: It’s What’s For Breakfast.”

“Now this one I wrote in a Motel 6,” one of them said, as the others nodded supportively. A few chuckled.

Troubadour was the title of the song.

I never thought I’d get this far

With an okay voice and a Kay guitar

I’ve seen it all, boy I’ve been around

And a troubadour has to lay it down

He sang the same verse twice but nobody noticed or cared. He was singing their lives, here at the Home For Senior Singer/Songwriters.

Then they played a drinking game, going around the circle telling stories about those they’d encountered along the way. Anytime someone heard a name of a fallen friend they’d done time in the trenches with – shared a stage, a publisher, a wife or husband, a battered vehicle, a bottle – they took a drink. Most of them drank coffee or water, a few drank herbal tea, a very few old warriors sipped Basil Hayden from their mugs. But when they heard a name that resonated, they drank deep whatever it was, and looked off into the distance, like looking at the neon beer signs at the back of a bar, or ceiling lights reflecting off the bald heads in a house concert crowd on a suburban Saturday night.

There were tales of names celebrated and names obscure. The stories all had a black humor in common. The songwriters listened to the stories with heads cocked and smiles of recognition, each story reminding them of stories of their own: that night in Denver, or Cleveland or Iowa City.

This winter storm where five people showed and they played anyway, by candlelight.

That promoter who put you up in his Victorian house, but wouldn’t let you sleep until he’d subjected you to a few hours of Al Stewart performances he’d collected and cataloged over the years, the tip of the iceberg but you’d pleaded that the next day was an eight hour drive.

They quoted this line or that great lick in song after song written by those they’d been lucky to sit alongside, and since they were no longer here to do it themselves the old songwriters played their songs for them.

Then someone mentioned Greg Trooper, and to a man (and woman) the craggy faces softened. He’d crossed paths with most of them, and they all had a favorite song or story. Ireland, or 21st Century Boy; Everything’s A Miracle. He had so many.

But there was a memory in each of them too deep to talk about; a kindness he’d done for them  too specific to share. A generosity of spirit that had lifted them up when they’d needed it, and along with his outward talents  it was this ability to give that made Greg someone they would never forget. When they sang his songs, that spirit filled the room.

As they all sang along to “This I’d Do” the visitor joined in from beside the potted plant. He’d met Greg too. He wasn’t ready to retire yet, but when he was, he knew this would be fine company to be in.

A shuttle driver came in and announced he was leaving in fifteen minutes.

“Where are they going?” the visitor asked the director.

“Oh, he drives them into town for their gigs,” she said. “Y’know, people’s eyesight. Too many DWIs. It’s a service we provide.”

“You mean – they’re not retired?” he asked.

She laughed. “You know better than I do the answer to that question,” she said. “How would they pay – “ she waved her arm “- for all this?”

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Greg Trooper laying it down

Another Season

Sat Jan 21 , the day after the inauguration, the country was reeling into marching mode. Eric and I were getting ready to drive down to NYC to participate in the women’s march when I saw a post by Suzzy Roche that her sister Maggie had died. It took my breath away. I couldn’t put into words how much she gave me and the world in general. I sent Suzzy (who I’ve been lucky to meet a few times) my condolences and went on to the march.

I’m a musician who writes songs and at one time sang harmonies in an all-female trio. The Shams would have existed without me hearing the Roches and specifically Maggie’s Hammond Song, but there’s no doubt what I felt the first time I listened to that indelible piece of art changed the arc of my explorations –  you think you know what you’re doing: pop music , punk, country harmonies, check – you’re working on combining styles into something of your own  – and then to hear something that breaks all the containers: the combination of the three Roche sisters singing, Maggie’s song and Robert Fripp’s production and guitar — you’re in a person’s soul and times that soul by three and suddenly the possibilities of what a simple record can achieve are raised and you want to do more and better.

I wish I knew how to get back to that feeling with music. I don’t know, maybe this is one of the hardest things about getting older, that leap into the void used to happen often, without the immediately accompanying doubts and “yeah but’s” – it felt worth it every time to take a chance and learn something new and, in the excitement of learning, create in an uncynical way, to believe “this’ll show em!” every time, before enforced humility, “well, at least the couple hundred who will be interested, I’ll do it for them and for me too!” I’m not beating the bushes for hugs of encouragement here, just telling it like it feels sometimes. Watching YouTube clips of the truly great at their peak, it’s like taking cod liver oil years after you were sick – a bracing realization  that giants did truly walk among us and luckily I was too busy listening and copying and working on my own thing to be gagged by intimidation. When you’re twenty five or even thirty you listen and there are decades ahead of you to get there, but when you’re in your late fifties? You have to do some hard reckoning and admit the beautiful hope these records gave you is sort of in the past, except in how you can share the joy with a few dozen or hundred people on a cold night in Hoboken or Catskill or Columbus.

I got too busy after the march to think about Maggie Roche, and then my friend Greg Trooper died and even though I hadn’t seen him much in the last couple years, he and his wife Claire and son Jack were a huge part of my life in Nashville and it crushes me to know that Greg’s not out playing and singing somewhere and making people laugh and feel good. He also happened to be Maggie’s brother in law, and the tears I’ve cried for Greg, I know some went towards Maggie and the wonderful musical families of the Troopers, Mulallys and Roches.

Last night was a nice, quiet Monday in the bookstore/bar where I work and I put on Hammond Song. Playing this record in a public place is not something you enter into lightly. There’s a built-in responsibility playing some recordings because when heard by a receptive person for the first time they can be life-changing. It wakes up a part of you. This one creates awareness of a hugely-talented trio of sisters, and the quiet genius who wrote many of their songs, who is now no longer here. I knew that the young guy having a peaceful drink and reading a heady book would appreciate it, as he and I often talk about stuff and our last conversation had been prompted by Dylan’s Joey from Desire – not so much the song as the intense Emmylou harmonies that lift it into epic territory.

Put Hammond Song on and…wait. “What – what is this? When is it from?” After the song finished we talked about the Roches. I told him about Maggie. I didn’t mean to but I started to cry. Just a little – the bartender is supposed to be the consoling one. I didn’t embarrass myself. The young guy understood. When he left and I locked the door, I played the rest of the album – Married Men, Quitting Time. I went home and watched The Roches on YouTube. I think I’ll learn to play One Season. Maybe while I’m going nuts trying to figure it out, I’ll be that impressionable, delusional thirty year old again.

The 1,000 Year Old Woman

I’m pretty good at being a grown-up. You can drive your own car across New York state, stop and buy and consume a bag of disgusting malt vinegar-flavored potato chips; alternately enjoying and being repulsed by the chemicals and think “oh just a few more,” then fling the empty bag across the car and listen to classic rock while the miles roll by.

You can check into a Hotwire hotel near Buffalo airport.  Turn your nose up at the graphics and loud music that probably felt edgy to a marketing executive when this chain was spawned a decade ago. Sit at the bar alone, eating buffalo wing flatbread (makes as much sense as a rib sandwich), drink a glass of Chardonnay and listen to two male pilots having a chaste love affair a few stools over: “And you know what, I’m not just saying this cause you’re Jet Blue, but do you know what my favorite airline is?”

A grown-up can finish her Zadie Smith novel, cry a little bit and then watch Bridesmaids for the fifth time. Wake up to a snowy airport landscape outside her Aloft hotel window and say “Shit – why did I stay by the airport in Buffalo? This is really depressing!” but kind of enjoy it at the same time. Pretending to be a criminal on the run is a good part of being an adult, possibly better than being one for real.

A grown-up on her own can arouse suspicion at the Canadian border, enough for the immigration officer to demand she go in to the office to give further information. “I’m doing an artist residency at the um…University of Western Ontario?” “What’s the name of the university? Have you done this before? When was the last time you traveled to Canada?” I never think about how seriously they take it at this border until I’m sitting there with the car window rolled down trying not to be vague.

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A grown-up can sit in a McDonald’s in London Ontario to use the free wifi so she can figure out how to reach her friend Norma’s house without GPS. Norma is a professor at the university and  set up the residency. Going back to school and being an authority is a part of being a grown-up I’m not sure I’ll ever have a handle on. There I said it. My future as a Professor Irwin Corey (RIP) of singer-songwriterdom is far from secure.

I’d been fretting about talking to Norma’s university students because I don’t know how to describe what I do, I don’t know how to sustain a career or find more of an audience, all I know is how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I hope maybe that’s a tiny bit of mature wisdom I can share.  The truth is when put in a position of authority I’m afraid I’ll be exposed to not be a grown-up at all.

I’d put together a little powerpoint of images because I figured that was a way to show the students who I am, where I came from, what things have been like for me, because that’s the only thing I’m sort of an expert on, but I was so filled with doubt about what a twenty year old Canadian pop music student knows or cares to know, that I sped through half the images, lingered too long on the other half and figured maybe I should just play a song because in the end those are the three minutes where I actually feel like I’ve got it down.

Talking to the students, I teetered between Mel Brooks 2,000 Year Old Man (which none of them have ever heard of, the 2,000 Year Old Man or Mel Brooks) emerging from a dusty tomb to croak how “there was no email! Everyone was looking for a record deal, and we had to find a payphone to book a show in the next town, have any of you ever seen a payphone before?” and Catherine O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack character in For Your Consideration (at least she’s Canadian, so there was a slight possiblity one of my references would ring a bell with somebody):

“Oh my darlings, you are so talented. That’s why you’re here, with me. But you are so – full of yourselves!” The students look at me, pens poised above blinding white notebook pages unsullied by any nuggets of wisdom. “Oh, I wish that I could jump cut you babies, right now, to the happy place that I’m in. I wish…but that’s your own journey.” Pause. It’s worth it.”

I don’t know how to be a grown-up in these circumstances, or I can’t summon the authority to be anything but an imaginary film version of a grown-up. Rather , I’m an awkward fourteen year old in the school cafeteria asking some wiser kids who’ve deigned to let me sit at their table – which is better, the crappy hamburgers or the lousy pizza? My sentences tail off – “Is this making any sense?” I say. Unless we’re all just having a conversation, about finishing songs or booking gigs, or hopes for the future. Then I feel alright. Maybe this is the way to do it, writer to writer, musician to musician. So I have thirty-odd years on them. I’m still trying to figure things out. When I stop, I guess that’s when it’s over.

On Facebook I asked how others would explain to these youngsters about songwriting – and the answers and comments poured in.  But listening to their fully formed songs, or honestly, before I heard a single note, I sensed nobody in the class needs help expressing themselves in that way or if they do they are set up to find out in their own time. These kids had to audition to be here, an audition I probably couldn’t pass. I know a lot and have done my time writing and playing but again, I can’t bring myself to expound on much of anything. I hope I gave them something helpful to chew on but in general I’m more myself writing or performing than talking about those things.

“You were really helpful,” one of the students said at the end, “because we could look at you and see ourselves doing that!” Hmm. All part of the service ma’am – I’m so ordinary, I make everything look possible!

img_0701I drank some wine at Norma’s house and we talked and watched films and videos together and I magically felt myself coming back to full-fledged adult. By the time I breezed through US immigration and hit the NY State Thruway, I was practically Large Marge, the badass lady trucker who terrorizes Pee Wee Herman.

“Gimme a coffee, regular and a chicken panini, kid,” I said with more gravitas than I’d felt in days, sending the girl behind the counter at what would hopefully be my last Tim Horton’s in a while scurrying for paper napkins and creamer. “It’s going to snow later tonight,” my voice boomed now, summoning my dormant inner oracle. “You can count on it.”

Blame It On The Boss

I’ve finally almost put the tissues away after a trip to the doctor and giving up dairy. I’ve been blowing my nose for weeks, since England. Sinus infection is hell.

I’ve been reading Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, for weeks now too. I finished yesterday.

Did the book affect me so deeply because I’ve been sick, or have I been sick because the book affected me so deeply?

I think both.

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I never expected I’d be so moved by this guy’s words and his story. I’ve listened to him plenty, been fortunate to see him a few times, even defended him on occasion. A few years back Eric and I dusted off some Creedence covers for our gigs in Asbury Park just in case he wanted to join us on stage, as he’s been known to do when he’s off the road. (He never showed up!)  But ever since I missed his historic Syria Mosque show in PIttsburgh during the Born To Run tour, I have frequently been out of time and out of touch with The Boss.

Yet I knew from the advance press and from the cover photo  that this was going to be a special ride. The soulful, awkward picture; the revelations of a fraught relationship with his Irish-American father and how he was blessed with a magic Italian American mom, just like me  –  the indisputable commitment to his art and his craft; the undeniability of his loyalty to where he comes from and who he came up with and yes, his frequent dance with depression, an egotism bordering on madness, an ability to think huge, to want so desperately to include everyone in his art – well you have to choose your moment to read this kind of book. Mine happened to be when I was suffering with my annual bout with sinusitis. I’ve wept frequently. “What’s he up to now?” Eric reading his Rita Coolidge or Thomas Cobb book beside me has asked. I’d put down the tissue and do some selective reading aloud, avoiding the sections that would make me blubber in front of my husband. Some revelations aren’t meant to be shared, they need to be discovered by each reader, on their own. Those moments where a writer sees themselves so clearly they see you too.

I knew he’d be able to spin his tale, but I just never expected him to tell me so much about myself. About what it means to do what musicians do. He made me feel alternately proud to have stuck at it for so long, ashamed of myself for not working harder, thrilled to be allowed to pick up a guitar or play a song I wrote for a crowd, depressed at every missed opportunity to do more, better. Oh Bruce, why do you have to be so good, so true? Even when you want to catch him on it – hey, you cast people aside,  you were a dude, you had Patty to raise the kids, a staff at your bidding – he pays tribute to them all, gives credit and you have to love him and thank him for taking us out there with him. He even describes putting double insoles into his (carefully chosen – style vs. functionality) boots and spraying down his hair for the Super Bowl gig so that when he steps on that stage, well we get to be there with him and it’s a privilege but not how you expect it to be. Onstage is the place his brain takes a rest and he is at peace – like most of us look at the waves on the ocean, taking us away from ourselves – that’s Bruce in front of a massive crowd, and he channels that peace and energy back to keep his patch of sea rolling and it’s a miracle.

Because he knows what it is to be the little guy, that is his greatest talent, so when I stepped on not an arena stage or even a foot high riser but a rug in a living room to play Dan & Liz Ferguson’s house concert the other day, I felt Bruce in my ear or over my shoulder, going isn’t this the best? And when I stand in front of a mic to record a vocal for my new album that matters because it matters to me, there’s the Boss again, next to my heart, going “It’s what you feel inside you need to share that matters.”  Yep, it’s Rock n Roll 101 but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded so emphatically and empathically  by an indisputable expert.

Maybe I’ve been a little malleable reading this book because I’ve been under the weather but it’s a miracle how the moment you need to hear a voice saying “It’s okay – it’s not easy, in fact it’s damn hard but you can do this, you must do this” – well, who’s been waiting all these years to be my buddy, my coach? That guy in the t-shirt.

So I thought I’d put the tissues away for good yesterday as I closed the Springsteen book and wiped away a last tear. My head was definitely clearing up.

But then I was listening to President Obama’s farewell address last night. He was that voice of measured, seasoned optimism that looks all the more sage and sane – almost saintly – when you compare it to what it’s about to be replaced with. The terrible possibilities of what’s ahead for this country were screaming almost loud enough to drown him out. But they couldn’t. He believes in us. It made me want to “grab a clipboard” as he said, do something. Something good.

As the Obamas left the stage, they played “Land Of Hope and Dreams”.  I held Eric with one arm and grabbed for the tissues with the other.