“Does that hurt?” the dentist asks as she inserts a needle into my gum to numb me. I think I might pass out. I can’t move to nod or shake my head so I slap my thigh. She tells me I’m doing really well.
I’ve stood onstage in front of ten or a hundred or a thousand people. Lived on the bad side of town when there used to be a bad side of town. Gone through childbirth without anaesthetics. Traveled to Swindon on a Saturday night. Used the restroom in Penn Station. But my fear of pain from dental work or gum surgery is enough to bring me near to fainting. What is it about that specific vulnerability of the dentist’s chair?
I listen for the bland pop music I heard when I was checking in, desperate to focus my mind on anything that isn’t Dr. Smith and her assistant passing tools back and forth. I hear her ask for “the 2 x 2” and practically rise up out of the chair. I try to celebrate my status as a living person, with tissue and nerve endings, when my head could be a clean, stripped skull (must be a result of just finishing this great novel about Georgia O’Keefe). I reduce my existence to two possibilities: potential for pain or skull. I press the nails of one hand into the palm of the other while a neighboring dentist pops in to take a quick peek at the progress.
“That is amazing! Awesome,” the dentist says and goes on her way. Pain or skull; pain or skull. Being afraid means I’m still alive.
I think back over the past several weeks of travel to distract myself. Memories crowd around. I am not here with kindly Dr. Smith and her assistant doing God-knows-what to my mouth. Instead I’m:
At Atwood’s Tavern, Cambridge MA. Feedback, fist pump and exit the stage to applause. I’ve had a wonderful time playing this late Sunday afternoon show to a nice crowd of fans and friends. I burst through the fire exit door in lieu of a backstage, panting and enjoying the cool May air on my sweaty face and damp shirt. Lean back against a brick wall, open my eyes and – I’m in the middle of a restaurant patio. Diners at picnic tables are tucking into meals; a few of them cast amused looks in my direction. Back in the bar, people are still applauding. Not long or loud enough to demand an encore yet but I weigh the options and emerge a little too soon back on stage because it’s easier than standing outside feeling like an idiot. Ah show biz, I miss you when I’m away.
Changing planes in Dallas, for a show in Amarillo. I hand my boarding card to the flight attendant. “You are a total rock star!” she beams at me. Really? I think. She knows me? I shoulder my guitar in its case a little bolder, prouder.
“Thank you, sir,” the flight attendant says to the businessman just behind me. “You are a total rock star!”
Checking into the Austin Motel – I discover Uber are no longer working this city as of a day ago and take the trusty city bus to town. After a long climb up S. Congress to the Austin Motel, I check in with my guitar looking sweaty and disheveled and discover there’s only enough in my checking account to cover one night. It’s odd how prices of everything have doubled and tripled since twenty years ago but earnings stay the same?
“When my husband comes tomorrow…” I promise them I’ll pay for the second night then, hoping the phrase “my husband” lends an air of legitimacy but wondering if it might do the opposite. I imagine the staff nodding knowingly every time they see me from then on – this ‘husband’ who never materializes, or changes every couple hours. I’m thinking they should be paying me, to bring back some of the old atmosphere of the place.
When Eric does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s been on tour for weeks, his straw hat and Buick taking on the seedy air of a con man. We look at the bland young people clustering around the coffee place next door and talk about renting ourselves out to add atmosphere; a couple of salty characters from the days when the world (and this town) was weirder…
On the way back to our room, we pass a man and woman who’ve seen better times. She’s got a pronounced limp and wears Hawaiian print pants, he’s in shorts, socks and sandals. They’re in matching bright orange t-shirts.
“Butt out, you two!” Eric says. “We’re the weird old couple in the motel.”
Joining Eric for a few songs every night – This is Eric’s tour and he asked me to come up and sing and play a few songs which is really sweet because since we’ve been together, a big part of our relationship has been playing music and even though it’s great to go out and do our own things again, performing together is special and romantic. The first night in Austin I’m waiting by the stage for my entrance in Whole Wide World and – wait, that very enthusiastic guy who’s been bopping and nodding his head intensely for the whole show is actually climbing onto the stage and striding straight up to the mic to sing the song as if he’s the special guest. Eric kindly deflects him and then our friend Mike Fickel helps him off pretty quickly. At least I have my guitar so people don’t think I’m just one more in the queue to sing Whole Wide World.
Spending a night in magical Marfa, TX –
To bring Eric to town, the residents held a bake sale. Maybe it’s a little like Hudson with more art and less antiques (and the nearest city is El Paso not Manhattan) but I fell in love with this place. There’s something about the sky.
Eating our way across the Southwest –
Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson. Bacon-wrapped dogs in freshly-baked rolls with salsa, pinto beans, mustard and yes, mayo.
Driving from Tucson to San Diego –
Some of the oddest landscape I’ve ever seen is on I-8. Rocks piled on rocks, we climb and climb in the car, feeling like no human should be here. We talk about early settlers, wondering how they kept going: “It’s got to be just over the next mountain…well maybe the one after that.” Of course the sun is directly in our eyes. We reach California.
“Eric, Eric! The Border Patrol up ahead…hope they don’t make us get out of the car.”
“Why hey there, you folks came all the way from New York just to see us?” the guard looks like Walter White’s brother-in-law. But he’s smiling indulgently into the open window of Eric’s Buick and it strikes me we don’t look like Belmondo and Karina, two mad outlaws on the run, but an older couple teetering on the edge of exhaustion. “You two have a great trip,” the border guard says and goes back to joshing with his buddies. But, but – we might be dangerous! I want to shout.
Flowers and flours in San Diego – We stay in a sweet old-fashioned motel on the edge of town the night before the San Diego show and spend the day eating: donuts for breakfast, beer and grilled cheese at Stone Brewing for lunch, tacos from the taco truck across from the club, pizza to kill time before the show. It’s the most fun I’ve had in San Diego, the club people and crowd are really nice and maybe I like the town better when it’s cool and overcast, not flaunting itself. The road construction is a nightmare getting north to L.A. at two a.m. – we stop in a Denny’s for waffles to cap off the carb-fest.
Checking into (and out of) a Los Angeles Airbnb –
“Ready to go? Let’s get started.” We’re on foot dragging suitcases but the saucy London lady on Eric’s Waze app commands: “Drive Safe!” Her voice pierces the sleepy Los Angeles neighborhood, its only competition a rooster that started crowing as we locked up the Buick a block away from the Airbnb camper I foolishly thought seemed like quirky fun when I booked it a month ago.
“Shut up you bitch SHUT UP!” I shout. Eric grapples with his phone while mine exhorts “You have reached your destination!”
“Where, asshole – WHERE?” It’s five in the morning and we’re looking for a lockbox . When we finally find it and pry the rusty numbers into formation to get out the key for the gate and the camper, we’ve woken up half the neighborhood.
I had misgivings about this place, the hostess constantly in text contact eager to know our arrival plans. The last thing you feel like doing after playing a show is making small talk with a needy Airbnb host. I’d informed her before booking that we would probably arrive in the middle of the night. “No problem!” her message shot back. “I’m usually up late anyway!” The red flags had been there all along but I clung to the idea of the camper as an antidote to L.A. hustle, the carefully staged photos promising verdant views and coffee on a cosy deck on a hillside.
We let ourselves into the vintage camper. If “retro charm” is another phrase for decades of grime, dusty screens riddled with holes and stained carpets, this place had it in spades. I was immediately fixated on the paisley sheets, rubbing between thumb and forefinger the sleazy fabric, as if rubbing could change nylon to cotton.
There’s a big silverfish and some slugs in the sink. I hate to be those people, the Trip Advisor gestapo looking for something, anything to be wrong (“the spaces in the parking lot were very narrow, making parking a challenge for my wife and I”) but this place feels rank. I scroll back in my mind through the glowing reviews and question my basic expectations: cleanliness, care and consideration – even the instruction sheet is grubby and dog-eared, as if using a fresh piece of paper cuts too much into the profits. We decide it’s not worth it even to tough it out the first night, because there will be our host in the morning, eager to explain all the charming aspects of this camper. Eric films the place on his phone while I whimper. We head back out, the rooster crowing, and check into a Holiday Inn Express – from what I read Neil Innes won’t stay in anything else and if it’s good enough for Neil and his wife, it’s good enough for us.
Playing at a beautiful wedding in the Valley – Sometimes you show up to play a wedding and the only people who’re interested are the bride and groom who’ve hired you; the rest of the folks just wish you’d disappear. This event is nothing like that, everybody is super-excited to see Eric play and they like me too. It’s a gorgeous twenties style-house in a ranch setting and even though I felt shy about coming (“Are you sure they want me too?” everybody is so cool and nice, and the bride and groom are so sweet, it makes my trip out west worthwhile.
I’m imagining myself drinking red wine at Wombleton Records in L.A. or driving through the Grapevine and past Bakersfield when Dr. Smith steps back triumphantly from her work: “And rinse and spit. You did great! One of our calmest patients ever.” This is a fairly new dental practice, but still, it feels like some kind of accomplishment. Must’ve been that canyon air.