Goodbye Old Paint?

I try to refrain from talking too much about physical ailments here (okay, except for sinus miseries… and skin cancer surgery some years back…and…and). There are much heavier problems in the world than these fleeting discomforts.

But (yeah) since I came back from Chicago two weeks ago, I’ve been really distracted by an eye infection. Pain, swelling, doctor, drops – I’ve been down a similar road before, only this time I can’t shake it. Aside from the discomfort and what feels like gross unsightliness, this eye illness is challenging my entire perception of who I am.

I think I’ve just gone the longest period of time since I was fourteen without wearing eye makeup. (Men, unless you’re Robert Smith of the Cure or Keith Richards – you might not understand this; loads of women too…we don’t all have the Maybelline gene). For these past linerless, mascara-less days – and maybe it’s the eye irritation talking here – I’ve started to wonder if my entire life has been a construct –  I’ve only existed insofar as I could be drawn in with liner and mascara?

It’s not like anyone would look at me and think HIGH MAINTENANCE! or step aside Kat Von D. But blame it on those Barbies of my childhood, with their drawn on faces – even when nude they sported eyeliner and I’m kind of the same.

It’s like I don’t know how to see the world without the weight of paint on my lid or lash saying – even if only to myself – I’m here. I exist. The act of meditation that is looking at your own eyes in a makeup mirror.

“You don’t need all that stuff,” my dad would say. That was the point – it wasn’t for the world to tell me how I looked best. It was for me to become the character in my head. She looked a little bit like Catwoman or Emma Peel. Then Patti Smith or Gaye Advert (though I guess I landed more in the vicinity of Pat Benatar – I blame my rust belt roots…did anyone really dangerous ever come from Pittsburgh?)

Twiggy’s false lashes. The Laugh-In girls. Lipstick was my mother’s generation but eye makeup was mod.  Eye makeup was mine.  I didn’t even know if I looked better with it or without it. It didn’t matter. Black lines, the thicker the better. It wasn’t coquetry, it went beyond pretty to pirate. It’s the way I controlled the face I showed the world . It’s how I got ready to do battle.

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New wave coat check girl ’79 – photo by Julia Gorton

I lived for liner! I could never give it up, I thought. Even when I’m older – I’ll be Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or Louise Nevelson! I definitely haven’t kept up that heavy hand. It’s been years since I wore false lashes (okay, maybe I backslid a month or two ago) and full-on black around my eyes but I’m still one for a smoky line. And the expert algorithm inside my computer screen sends pop-up ads to dance before me insisting there’s “A Better Way to Wear Makeup After Fifty!” “If You’re Sixty and Still Doing This, You’re Wrong!” If I click on them,  I might as well be dead.

Eye makeup after a certain age is like many things after a certain age: a habit. A reminder that you’re still here and you get to choose what feels good.  Flattering or not flattering, it’s a thing you do to make yourself feel like you. But who we are changes over time, if we’re lucky.

I’ve been wondering about all this in all that extra spare time I have now that I’m not wielding an eye shadow brush. I try to get some benefit out of these bad health moments. Learn any thing I can. Embrace the good. When I’m not putting drops in or hot compresses on my eyes, I’m astounded by the freedom; how life is truly simpler without makeup. No time spent putting it on, keeping it on, taking it off. There’s a beauty in just being you. Like a guy.

But I miss making that effort. The ceremony that divides life: here I am going to the gym or for a walk or to mow the grass – sunscreen. Now I’m headed to work, so I should groom myself – where’s my mascara wand? I went down to the city last weekend and I swear I felt more powerful not giving a fuck than when I try to look good. Were those servers or shop assistants being more attentive cause they thought “Badass” or were they just desperate to get me out of there quicker? These are questions I’ve struggled with for a while so it’s interesting to try it. BUT can I carry on the experiment when I actually feel good and am not struggling through a health issue?

How would I go on stage – I’ve often thought wow would I dare not put eye makeup on? I’m afraid I’ll disappear.  I look again to Patti Smith – her bare face, white hair – magnificence. Didn’t she have an awkward phase about ten years ago, to get where she is now? And like I said, I ain’t Patti, more Pat. I was born with a rust belt mom-on-a-joyride vibe that only a jail sentence would toughen up.

Just like dairy products languish in the fridge after a nasty cold, that eye pencil sits there staring at me by the vanity mirror and I can’t imagine wanting to put such an evil greasy substance anywhere near my tender, vulnerable being, ever again.

But I saw Chrissie Hynde on TV the other night, still defiantly sporting black on her lids. It wasn’t careful contouring and presentation, it was a flag – the opposite of white flag of surrender – it was “yeah I’ve seen the world; a lot of it”; more fuck you than fuck me; punker than pert cat eyes. I felt myself instinctively reaching for my eye pencil, like a samurai for her sword.

My choice, when I’m up for it again.

Or not. Maybe glasses instead? Forget about how I’d look – I’d actually be able to see.

 

 

 

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Into The Woods

“Any pizza is a personal pizza if you believe in yourself.”  Sign on a pizza parlor in Clarion PA.

Every year my family gets together in a semi-deluxe rustic lodge, usually in the wilds of Pennsylvania. These are my notes from 2017:

Help, I’m being driven mad by microfiber sheets and ceiling fans. Also a skylight with no blind to cut out dawn breaking twenty feet above the bed, and my whole family sleeping in somebody else’s house in the woods.

The family all together should mean peace and contentment, shouldn’t it? Over a dozen of the people I care most about in the world under one roof – so why was I tossing and turning and now sit wide awake at 5 AM wrapped in a polyester throw on a massive beamed porch staring out into the void that is the Pennsylvania woods? Why are my eyes sunken hollows?

Because I’m not working on my album this weekend and I feel like I should be working. Because I finally have a contract for my book and I’m afraid to look at it. Because I have a show on Friday (and two more later this month) and I hope I can remember how to get up and do what I in principle do but in actuality have only spent a small fraction of the year doing? Because it’s one more summer slipping away and my dad is very old – turning ninety in a few weeks – and that must mean my brothers and I are not actually in our twenties or thirties or even our forties anymore?

I know I’m lucky – except for my mom we’re all still here. But my dad seems frailer and smaller, and he used to be intimidating and powerful as only a dad can be. It’s been years since we had one of the showdowns these get-togethers used to inevitably lead to – me and him facing off in parking lots or on front porches of folksy bed and breakfasts; him asking when I was going to grow up and become respectably employed, and what about my daughter, how was I raising her – we’ve kind of laid all that to rest. I’d defend my corner with almost every fiber of my being, one or two threads reserved for thinking maybe he was right. Now he’s old and more accepting and to him I seem settled. Maybe I am settled? My daughter is grown up and I understand that all he really wanted was for me to be okay.

I go in to pour a bowl of cereal and it’s just him and me in the semi-deluxe rustic lodge kitchen, like back when I was a kid, he and I always the early risers awake alone together. He doesn’t have his hearing aids in and I’m in a manic sleep-deprived state and we turn our bleary focus to a hand-painted plaque on the wall: “When I die, I want to be buried in the woods so my husband will hunt for me.”

My dad chuckles. “Did you see that plaque?”

I say: “I don’t get it.”

“Well, she wants him to have to hunt for her, like he’d hunt for a bear. It’s funny.”

“No, it’s not,” I say. I just can’t help myself, I’m fifteen again, I’m the resident troublemaker. The respect-your-father fibers from a few paragraphs back hover over me shouting “NO” but the rebel in me presses on: “It makes no sense. She’d be buried in the woods, and he hunts and kills, and she’d already be dead. It doesn’t work as a joke, or even a platitude.”

Dad gets huffy. “Well, people can think whatever they want.”

“Yeah, but they don’t have to paint it on a plaque, and hang it on a wall where I have to look at it and be annoyed.”

“Well it’s their house, and in my book that means they can do whatever the hell they want.”

And THE OLD TEAM IS BACK! He, defender of authority and territorial rights, respect for our hosts and in turn respect for HIM vs…me. He picks up his mug of decaf and leaves, and I begin to understand what it will feel like when he’s gone, because I won’t have this anymore. Our contentiousness is part of who we are and the love between us, and as much as I’ve struggled with and hated him sometimes, there’ll never be another person in my life who made me and makes me me like my dad.

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From McMahon cabin family slide show – home from NYC Christmas 1976, photo by my dad

“Come back dad!” I want to shout as I write this in my notebook. Let’s talk about the plaque some more. Or anything! Let’s hang out in the kitchen awake alone together just a little bit longer.

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Aforementioned upcoming shows

  • Fri Aug 11    New Haven, CT         Cafe Nine (w/Willie Nile)
  • Fri Aug 25    Willow Springs IL    house concert (email Jeff@gandtenterprises.com )
  • Sat Aug 26    Chicago, IL                 Bucktown Arts Festival

Cruise Control

Summer is a way of measuring time. A place marker, a pause button. Wait.

Summer is cruise control. The world rolls by as you tool along with the windows up. There’s a cold drink in the cup holder and a tune playing and this is what you hold onto: the pulsing bass, the ice cubes melting, your chosen speed.  A Mercedes is bearing down behind you – that’s their summer, so you slip easily aside to let them streak through. You don’t realize how hard you’re concentrating. You pass a huge shape on the right and think “truck” but that’s not you, you’re on your way somewhere else and you’re going to arrive eventually but you have to put in the driving and the miles.

This is my summer so far.

Bought two items of clothing that I have never contemplated owning or wearing before: a rain jacket and a pair of sport sandals.

Ugh – even the words make me shudder.  But every time I went to head out for a walk in the endlessly rainy weather, I thought “wouldn’t it be great to have a lightweight jacket with a hood I could just throw on?” Then the heat would come around again and I’d think “…sandals you can wear in the mud or even water…what do you call those?”

A big deterrent to getting on with my life wardrobe-wise has been my ingrained belief that I live an entirely different existence than the one I do. I realized this when I asked myself, as I tried on a pair of dreaded sports sandals “yeah, but can you wear them in New York City?” It pierced my soul to realize that this reflex question so tied to my sense of identity, the imagined self I carry my existence around in like a load of tattered dirty laundry in a sleek aluminum roller bag, was nearly obsolete.

I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been to the city in the past year.

One trip to the city this summer was to play in Eric’s band for his show at El Cortez. It was a few weeks of work preparing for this show, a lot of new material and after Texas I was suffering with tendonitis in my left arm and hadn’t wanted to pick up the guitar.

It was exciting to play this new stuff, and fun to hang out with Doug the drummer and Artie who was playing the trumpet and bass. I worked through the discomfort and the warmer air helped as it finally turned to summer for real. I remembered how much I love playing piano and organ too. The tiki club in Bushwick wasn’t the easiest spot for a show, the stage was tiny and cluttered but we pulled it off. At the end of the night I slipped and fell loading from the stage – never a fun moment to be flat on your ass in public but the bouncer scooped me up off the floor and the mic I lost in the scuffle appeared a month later in the bag we keep stands in, so all was right.

I worked. Hudson is full of visitors now. The bookstore/bar ebbs and flows. I never expected to be serving customers for so many years at this place, but I still love it, even when staff changes and drama and vandals squeezing tubes of oil paint in the art supply section have me tearing my hair. When I have no shows to play, or haven’t just come from playing a show, with a toilet brush or mop in my hand at the end of a bar shift I ask myself is this what I do? I know there’s more. It’s just that music and writing feel like an illusion sometimes, and I don’t do nearly enough of either of them but what is the right amount? And you have to work on new stuff – and live, to find something worth writing about – to go out and do it again. I think.

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Backyard

Nature: Sitting in the backyard, looking at the trees, birds and flowers. Mowing the grass. Walking through our neighborhood, or a nearby village or nature preserve. Sitting along the Hudson. Home. It is so lush and beautiful all around this year. Riding my bike at dusk when the air feels cool – I’ll never get tired of that feeling. I’ll forever be twelve on my bike.

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Tanglewood

Concerts: Mahler at Tanglewood and Yo La Tengo in Central Park (I already told about Dylan at Hutton Brickyards). Two of the great outdoor music spaces, one old composer I don’t really get and one of my favorite bands at their best. I enjoyed both experiences immensely. Walking down Fifth Avenue on the sultry Summerstage evening, I asked Eric if he could picture us as an old couple living in the city. See – my delusion remains intact! We’re shabbily urbane and suavely decrepit with the Sunday Times in a shopping cart, maybe a cute little dog – “Lunch at Boulud?” I ask in my fantasy, as we shuffle along, back to our elevator building.

We watched: Better Call Saul Season 3. Orange Is The New Black. Long Strange Trip, the Grateful Dead documentary. Nashville, living for each new episode. Broadchurch the same.

I read: Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer’s spot-on memoir of growing up a randy girl. I didn’t just read it, I crawled in her head or she poked around in mine. David Browne’s Grateful Dead book. James Salter’s Burning the Days. At our local cafe the HiLo, that has become an extension of our living room we love hanging out there so much, I’m making my way through a tiny old copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a book I loved in the past. It’s this edition, from the communal bookrack in this place I’m enjoying, as I picked up a pristine copy in the bookstore the other day and it held no interest. I’m praying nobody pockets the book, though I know how it ends.

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I was drinking coffee and writing in Moto, the Hudson coffee shop an extension of our kitchen, and nodding my head to the Turtles “You Showed Me” when it was wrenched off and a surface-pretty voice started singing “YOUNG and IN LOVE” over and over til I thought I would scream but there was something in the music and the way she said it that made me have to find out who it was. Lana Del Rey. I went in to work and put on the Turtles.

My two big destinations this summer – a new solo album and the book I’ve been working on for almost a decade (I found the notebooks from France when I was getting started for real, 2009) – actually came into view. Eric and I have spent days in the studio aiming to wrap up this recording of my songs we’ve had going for a few years. They are all hanging together and it feels like an album. The Old Guys is the title. And finally, it looks like I have a publisher for my book. I’m afraid to say anything more than that for now. The record I will put out myself early next year. I can see a beautiful star-filled sky on the horizon when I think of both of these things finished and out in the world.

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Two drafts and a proposal – sorry, trees.

It’s only late July though. Still on cruise.

Summer Night

“Have a great time folks” said the policeman as he guided us in to the field that would serve as a parking lot for the night. We were in Kingston to see Bob Dylan at the Hutton Brickyards, the first concert event ever held at this beautiful modernized long-abandoned industrial space. A parking pass I hadn’t ordered or paid for had mysteriously arrived in the mail, so the night already felt magic. Back up the hill on the gritty main street of the town, we’d seen a very long line of concertgoers waiting at a shuttle stop. Parking is always an issue in Kingston. Part of it is topography (the town is hilly and you’re always butting up against ravines, train tracks and trestles, then water) and part is small city politics – it’s a convenient way to say “nah that’ll never work – the parking will be a nightmare”. But not this time. They were doing something new.

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“This is sooo much easier than going to see Dylan at like Forest Hills Stadium or something,” I said to Eric as we strolled a few yards down a gentle slope along the Hudson River with a trickle of other concert goers. An early evening blue sky poked through old metal rafters of the brickyards framing a few shiny red semi tractor trailers and three sleek tour buses: Which one do you think he’s on?

“Step up for the Metallica concert!” One of the grinning security men cheerfully looked in people’s bags and patted down a guy or two. All the staff greeted everybody with a smile and then they filtered us in through different gates: $150, $75 and $55 general admission. That’s us. The hoi polloi; rabble. I’d bought the tickets on a whim when they’d added this second show after the first sold out in an hour: $55 a piece had seemed indulgent at the time. Now I was kind of wishing we’d gone big, because, well Bob was on one of those buses and pretty soon he was going to be standing (he’d stand some, wouldn’t he?) right there in front of us and – how often is that going to happen for the rest of our lives?

Eric and I staked out spots on the barricade separating seated $75 tickets from standing $55. The place isn’t huge, holds 3000. The stage was close enough to make out a grand piano to the right center, Tony Garnier’s upright bass, drums back in the corner of stage left. An elegant set-up.

I went back to try and get some food – there were vendors from local restaurants set up under another rustic metal awning. An air of almost-affluent country fair with some hick elements – we were in Kingston after all. I remember coming up here for a wedding many years ago, when I still lived in the city. It was a big Italian affair down by the river and I felt like I was back in the fifties. Things have progressed a lot, with an influx of restaurants and artists, but it’s still a fairly provincial place. Changing. Standing in line to get a wristband to buy alcohol, I looked around for somebody I knew, as in some ways Kingston is our “big city”: we get our hair cut at the fabulous Le Shag salon there; go see shows at BSP sometimes; have guitar repairs occasionally; drink coffee, stop by Doug Wygal’s record store or Stockade Tavern or Adams for groceries. The ads for the show trumpeted that Dylan had never played Kingston before and there was a feeling of local boy coming home as it’s just down the road from Woodstock and probably where he used to go do his more comprehensive grocery shopping.

In front of me, a bald satyr in expensive jeans and hand-tooled leather belt flirted with his boyfriend and I felt sure it was the doctor we’d first gone to when we moved to the area. It had to be him. He declined to get a wristband, either because he doesn’t drink or more likely couldn’t bear to show anyone an ID revealing his real age. I almost wanted to say “Hey, remember me? Poison ivy and and a bad case of conjunctivitis five years ago?” but the moment passed. We really hadn’t clicked with the guy but there’d been something fascinating about him and now for the rest of the night I would see him darting everywhere waving a chocolate ice cream cone.

Does that happen to you at shows? I’ll zero in on a few characters and then they’ll come in and out of view constantly, like an extra in a movie crowd scene you can’t take your eyes off of and construct a whole backstory for; or that loud laugher on old Honeymooners and I Love Lucy episodes who distinguishes herself with that extra edge of shrill hysteria. For me at the concert it was The Doctor and a tall young guy with long dark blonde locks under a flat cap, looking like he’d studied old concert photos from the seventies, R. Crumb drawings or pictures of Lynyrd Skynyrd – he was here there and everywhere the whole night causing me to wonder where he kept going, who was he there with, what did this concert mean to him? Was it his first time seeing Dylan and that’s why he was bouncing around with excitement, or was it just the drugs?

I gave up on food — the lines were so long and chances were I’d have to make my way back to Eric with my hands full of pulled pork tacos at the exact minute the lights went down and I couldn’t let that happen. Back behind the barricade we wondered how the band would come out, in what order. What would it be like? Eric had never seen Dylan before and for me it had been at least a decade. For a brief moment I had a vision of somebody helping him onto the stage but I shook that thought out of my head. No. He’s 76, not 95.

And then: the rhythm guitar player, stage left in a sharp silvery suit and low fedora and then – the rest of the band and among them: Bob. Looking the same. Impossible. Rangy, roguish, the stage light illuminating that head of hair that probably has doctoral theses and books written about it – at very least its own Pinterest. Bob. Standing behind the piano. Launching into – oh one of my favorites – Things Have Changed. I am in my own Bob Dylan dream and he is singing this one for me.

The band is so good. The audience is so shiftless and aimless back here though, fetching drinks, chatting, milling around. He’s playing Don’t Think Twice and Highway 61, his singing as great as ever and a group of yoga ladies are negotiating who should go get some snacks and white wine a few rows forward – I want to hit them with something, instead I hold my bag up as a shield to block them from my view because now Bob is ambling over to the straight mic stand to croon one for us. I’ve avoided listening to him doing standards, but here in person it all makes sense. The golden backlights and footlights, the lyrics and melody : Why Try To Change Me Now? He poses with the straight silver mic stand so naturally and when he sings “I always was your clown”, the song touches me in a way it never did by Sinatra because I hear Frank through a glaze of sepia as forever my parents’ era and music, but Bob’s been where I want to go and done what I want to do so he’s singing in my ear.

Lovesick is next. The sound is good and clear but just wish it was a littler more powerful in this new venue when the chorus comes in. I love Dylan’s piano playing: Summer Days which I used to skip over and then became one of my faves on Love & Theft is next. His playing and singing is pure enjoyment, and the whole band has a roadhouse looseness that just makes me feel good. But it’s the standards that stun me and move me and make time stand still. These songs have never spoken to me except as pieces of impeccable craft because you always hear them sung by great singers and that kind of singing has never done anything for me, it’s the cracks and bumps and unruly personality I crave, but his breathing and control are astounding still. Does Bob swim?

I make a note to seek out the song about two trains running side by side (Long and Wasted Years it turns out to be – Tempest, an album I missed entirely – 2012.) Stormy Weather and Once Upon A Time weave spells with their melodies and artful truths I can usually distance myself from.  I just wish the people speaking Russian behind me would shut up! I turn and glare at them through my school marm glasses, fierce enough to make them move away or maybe they just need a lobster roll at the exact moment that Bob is singing Tangled Up In Blue? A barroom version of many people’s favorite somehow feels more poignant than a reverent reading — I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing this one live, or maybe I have but there’s no doubt I was almost an entirely different person back then so…see that’s one of the beauties of Bob – he shares his mantle of mystery so I board that fishing boat from whatever my daily reality is at that particular moment so it’s always the first time.

There’s been a strict no cellphone rule mentioned since before we even entered the brickyard and it’s really refreshing to enjoy the screenless atmosphere; only the occasional picture-taker. If I could have captured one moment with a photo, it was Autumn Leaves – the beautiful amber lights simultaneously sihouetting and illuminating the band and the graceful drape of Bob’s suit, bent knee and bowed head “…and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song”…so glad that autumn, Keats’ season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, has become a longer season than all the others and you can just keep putting winter off cause who wants to think of Dylan in a chair by the fire with a blanket tucked around him? Only when he’s ready.

The stage goes dark.  They come back for an encore of Blowing in the Wind followed by Ballad Of A Thin Man – planned but not obligatory.  Devastating. The lights come up.

This has been a big deal for Kingston, the inauguration of a venue this size in a small city that has struggled for years. I thought the running of the place was pretty close to impeccable, but I missed the intense, experienced focus of a big city crowd. Though maybe that’s a fantasy I keep, that there are pockets of sophistication and civility where our heroes are given the respect and attention they deserve. It was a lovely setting with  boats pulling up alongside and a soft breeze off the river and a skeleton of the brickyard that built Yankee Stadium (now demolished). I was going to say I could’ve done without the constant flow of shuttle buses cresting the hill just visible behind the stage throughout the show, but there was something utilitarian and beautiful about them and I imagined Bob enjoying the rhythm and fairground-on-the-edge-of-town aspect of it all, and even though I now envy the Forest Hills crowd with that iconic venue’s legacy of historic shows, we got to stumble out past the semis and tour buses and shout goodbye and thank you with a couple of hippie kids as the fleet pulled up the gravel hill in line with the audience’s cars and the same cop that had waved us in shined a flashlight to let Bob’s bus driver know “yep, you can go now buddy.”

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Bob’s bus photo by Eric

Gotta Serve Somebody

It’s coming up to the season where an old bag gets antsy, dreaming of past glories. Especially one who’s been cooped up in a garage all winter, except for – get this, a concert for the library. That’s been the extent of my professional life so far this year – no UK, no Texas –  one local gig just down the hill. A bag starts to wonder who the hell it even is anymore.

But I had this crazy idea, because by the sound of things the couple of the house aren’t going anywhere much this summer.  No more touring! she cries until her record and book are finished. He’s already got another one in the can. And hey, they’re the artists and you gotta respect that. But back to my idea.

Every now and then in this dank hole, I get a chance to look at a newspaper and I read a little while back that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are playing just up the hill at Mountain Jam in a week or two. I also saw that right around that same time, Wilco are on the other side of the river and up the road a ways at Solid Sound Festival. Now that’s a lot of music happening.

And when you break it down, that’s a hell of a lot of bags. Think about how many old Tom Petty himself must use. What I’m imagining and – hear me out, I know it sounds a little wacky but – Bag Fest. A chance for all the bands’ bags to kick back, chill out and just be bags together for a little while.

Now I’m not talking about those pro road cases, the flight cases of steel that get rolled out like a military operation. They’re a different type of professional. Let’s be honest, when you reach that level…do you even have a soul anymore? No, I mean the lesser in stature but equally important no-fixed-use bags. Call us the utility players. Where does Tom throw his yoga mat and hand weights? Mike Campbell probably hits a lot of yard sales when they’re out there, where does he stick those printed shirts he finds? Jeff Tweedy from Wilco must need a carry-all to stow all the merchandise from other bands he scoops up at festivals. Cables and strings when they’re all just sitting around the bus and the guitars come out. Listen, in addition to purely practical application, they need bags like us around to remember what it’s like to do time in a mangy van. We’d be a motley bunch, but I think it would be really fun. Fire up the barbq, no hierarchy or having to put on airs and graces – just really let our hair down. It’s going to be-

Oh wait. I just remembered who else is playing around here really soon: Dylan.

Shit. Dylan’s bag. We’ve got to invite him. I mean, it wouldn’t be right to leave him out, but –

What if he shows up?

True, he’s just a bag. But…he’s Dylan’s bag.

There’d be no getting around it. I can picture the scene, a bunch of us throwing a frisbee in the yard, cutting up, feeling free.

A shadow crosses the sun and – he’s here.

“Hey, you came!” one of the easy-going bags, probably Nels Cline or Ben Tench’s, would say and hand him a beer, which Dylan’s bag would politely decline. Everybody would sort of shuffle around awkwardly for a while, and then being Dylan’s bag, he’d say something inscrutable but hilarious that would break the ice. In no time we’d be comparing strap width and then the stories would roll out:

How much weed does Tom really smoke?

How do you fill the minutes during an epic two hour set – do you feel obligated to stand by the whole time?

Is John Stirratt opening a barbq place?

What do you do during the down season – do the Chicago bags stay put all winter? Any great recollections from trips to Japan or South America? (I mean basically it’s me asking a bunch of questions. But these bags have been doing this a long time, they know how to craft a tale). So it goes around the fire pit – of course we’re all arranged around the fire pit by now, the flames crackling and illuminating the craggy canvas folds of the veterans, the smooth nylon/Cordura of the rookie bags — until we reach Dylan’s bag.

He yawns a little bit. Cracks his buckles. Looks up at the stars in the sky and lets out a sigh.

Man – you just – we all just – feel that to the depths of our PVC linings. Deeper even.

Because we know he won’t say it, what we’re all thinking. But – we’re here. Together. Lucky to be doing this. Well me, I’m not doing anything much, but…I’m lucky anyway.

And over a hill somewhere, Bob’s going “where the heck is my bug spray? And my harmonica…Hey, has anybody seen my bag?”

And we’re all looking at Dylan’s bag and it’s clear like the night sky filled with stars.

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Lightweight

Please, make it stop.

I am drowning.

I clearly thought I was better than I am.

Every week, I go further under, and I try but I just can’t get out from beneath this weight.

For years, I imagined what it would be like to be the person I find myself today,  and the sad fact is — that person is a fraud.

A pretender, someone who claimed to love reading, when really — all she wanted was a tote bag.

Okay, not just the tote bag. I wanted the apartment on the Upper West Side, the big sunglasses, the lox and bagels from Zabar’s. A short story now and then, or a restaurant review.

Not the crushing weight of constant analysis: political, cultural, moral. That’s right. I am not up to the task of being a subscriber to the New Yorker.

But I don’t have the heart to cancel my subscription.

Honey, remember how we always talked about moving to Northern California? Why don’t we just head out there, y’know — just…go?

Is it really worth it to do that change of address thing for the post office? I mean, how much mail do we really get anymore? We can probably find some nice people to sell the house to. This area is totally coming up. All kinds of people are looking for places to live around here, people like us. Ones who, y’know, read? Stuff like the New Yorker? That and the Greene County Examiner?

I feel better already. Just knowing I don’t have to chuckle knowingly at another cartoon. I mean, I could if I had to but — life is short and it’s kind of a relief knowing I’m not as clever as I thought I was.

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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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