Between running our Kickstarter campaign (which succeeded – thank you thank you thank you), finishing and trying to set up things with the new album and booking a load of tour dates, I can’t get my head around writing. Every time I pick up my notebook I end up strategizing: “now if we’re in Raleigh, we could go to Atlanta but then again maybe we should head back north at that point…I wonder if that club’s still there in Charlottesville?” and on and on.
With any new record, the hope is there – this time, it’ll all come together. I decided to put up something I wrote a little while back about a similar moment in time, twenty-five years ago.
It’d be embarrassing to give a full accounting of employee farewell parties thrown in my honor since I started trying to make a living as a musician. So I’ll just describe the first one.
It was October 1987 and I was leaving Time Equities Inc, the New York City real estate firm where I’d worked my way up – from lowly assistant’s assistamt, to file clerk, to word processor – but where most everyone still knew me as the girl who’d sung that song about the copy machine and the rolodex at the company talent show. Yes, File Clerk Blues had been a minor triumph. I’d felt like Paul LeMat at the Rockwood Dairy Christmas party in Melvin & Howard. Even the company president, ever-intimidating Francis Greenburger, had smiled.
For the two years I’d been a steady employee at TEI, my first actual long-term day job, birthday and going-away parties had been a common and welcome afternoon diversion in the office. Sometime mid-celebratory morning, a card would circulate up and down the halls tucked discreetly inside an interoffice memo pouch. From cubicle inbox to outer office desktop, neatly circumnavigating the intended recipient, the card now filled with scrawled names and well wishes would eventually land back in the hands of the office manager, who was responsible for organizing hirings, firings and everything in between. Petty cash would be dispersed to send someone (usually me, though not this time) to Jon Vie Bakery on Sixth Avenue, for a large cake with an inscription in the famous butter cream frosting. Around three thirty, a signal would go from office to office and through the phone system: “It’s time – Conference Room.” Everyone would troop down to the large conference room usually reserved for closings, and wait for the person being feted to arrive through a contrived errand (“bring these forms down to the closing, would you?”) Lights flicked – off, ON – SURPRISE! Thirty or forty work friends and near-strangers you saw more than your own spouse standing around sweetly, awkwardly; everyone enjoying a break from work but anxious to get back, timing it so they stayed long enough to be cordial without looking too eager to slack off.
Yes, somebody else had gone for the cake this time and I was the dumbfounded last person in the darkened conference room – it was me they were wishing well. After years of rehearsals and shows, recording on 4-tracks and in studios from New York to Nashville and back again, my band Last Roundup’s first album “Twister” had finally come out, and we were leaving on a seven week tour of the U.S.
The recording had been achieved in Springfield, Missouri in a studio built by the heiress to the 7 Up fortune. Produced by Lou Whitney of midwestern garage legends The Morells and Skeletons on the same equipment where Boxcar Willie created the megaselling records he hawked on late night television, and then mixed at Philip Glass’ studio in downtown Manhattan by Glass’ engineer Dan Dryden, the bizarre pedigree of the album befitted a group of punk-loving East Village ex-art students who called themselves a hillbilly band.
I’d been sitting at my desk in the corridor, daydreaming, looking through the open door of one of the attorneys’ offices and out his window, from the eleventh floor of Time Equities and directly across Fifth Avenue to the Illustration floor of Parsons School of Design. Maybe this was the price of finding an office job below 14th Street, one within walking distance of my apartment: the daily sight of my art school, the place where I’d spent four years drawing life models and fashion models, quick poses and long poses in charcoal and crayon and ink. Flat gouache and transparent wash, all the skills I’d learned and had barely used since I decided I couldn’t pursue art and music at the same time. I watched a girl who looked how I must have looked on that very same Illustration floor seven, eight years before: a white man’s shirt, hair tied messily up off her face, drawing with complete concentration. As if applying marks to paper was the most important thing in the world. Studying to be an artist. That had been me. I’d never imagined myself working day after day in an office, typing letters and contracts and making photocopies.
But that was all about to end. Because, down the hall they were gathering in the conference room, with cake and white wine, and a gift certificate from Sam Ash Music Store.
My brother Michael had been booking a tour for our band for months, calling clubs in Omaha and Chicago and Austin – on Thursday between four and six P.M. or Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock, or alternate Fridays at twelve Central Standard Time because the bar took booking-related calls then and only then.
And I’d been sneaking press clippings in manila folders into the copy room. And when no one was around, I’d been copying, cutting and pasting: articles from East Village Eye and Soho Weekly News, a blurb from the Village Voice; a New York Times review of a Doc Watson show that compared our songs to Raymond Carver stories – I’d been especially proud of that. The press kits had been mailed out along with the cassette version of the album and a glossy black and white photograph of the band – the four of us grinning in front of a backdrop my brother and I had painted on a giant roll of white photo paper: angular instruments, more 50’s moderne, less rustic than our earlier red barn and hay bale aesthetic. We’d been evolving.
Michael had managed to line up five weeks of gigs taking us all the way from New York to California. The two additional weeks of shows it would take to drive back to New York he’d be confirming from payphones as we headed west across the country.
And then, when all that touring was over, we’d never need our day jobs again! What with the album, and the shows, and some press and radio, we were about to become professional musicians for real.
So I’d handed in my notice a few weeks ago, at Time Equities. They’d already lined up a replacement: someone who knew MultiMate. I clutched my Sam Ash gift certificate in the conference room and promised everyone I’d come back to visit. The whole office had signed the card for me, wishing “Congratulations on your record!” “See you in the charts” and “Remember all of us when you make it!” The Jon Vie cake never tasted so good.
And when I returned as a temp a half year later, pregnant, nobody asked what I was doing back in the office. When the next afternoon celebration rolled around they just passed me the interoffice envelope in the morning, and in the conference room handed me a slice of cake.