Knapsack

I shouldn’t have been there in the first place but I blame it on the Catholic Church, as I do most of my transgressions. Saks Fifth Avenue sits one block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, and through my twenties and thirties when I needed solace, when I didn’t have anywhere else to turn, I’d spend a little time in a pew, then approach the altar and light a candle. Then I’d go shopping.

Not for anything much – maybe a lipstick or the smallest size of Nahema perfume. But growing up, my mom would let me pick something marked way down in the Annual Sale (I still can’t figure out what a Saks was doing in downtown Pittsburgh) and the luxury department store still loomed large in my struggling musician/mom/temp worker life.The cathedral was cold and uncomfortable, the soaring arches made you feel small and doomed to fail. Catholics are born losers, square one you come into the world a sinner. Across 49th Street, Saks made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I had it in me to be a winner – or if not a winner a woman who could pass for one. At least smell like one.

I don’t remember when I first saw the black and white gingham check knapsack. I only know I made it my goal to own that bag. It said Kate Spade on the small label sewn on the outside, which I was a little worried about – thrift shopping was where I found most ot the clothes and housewares I owned. Designer anything was not my style, unless I’d found it used, for three dollars – then it was a triumph.

But the cotton gingham, the attention to detail, the size of the check and proportions of the bag – it became an obsession. I was temping around the corner, at Sony or CBS, and I’d visit the knapsack. Like a painting at the Met, an object to inspire me, until the pay day when I walked in, like a regular person with money, and bought it.

And the knapsack made my life better. It became a part of me. I even wrote a song about it. I drew it for my CD artwork. Tried to wash it at a laundromat. After a few years it got shabby, and felt ridiculously small, impractical. Maybe I just outgrew it, but in number of uses, in form and function and the happiness it brought me every time I hoisted it on my shoulder or back – before it just started to hang there like a lump – the bag more than paid for itself.

I felt so sad yesterday when I heard that Kate Spade had taken her own life. The realization that she was only fifty five stunned me. She’d had her vision to create something unique and specific enough that it spoke clearly to a young woman like me – to a city-ful and then a world of us – when she was just a young woman herself. Younger than me – she’d seemed like a chic big sister! That gift to help somebody say “this is who I am” and feel good about that. Seeing how huge the company and brand became, you might think that’s like saying you feel a kinship with everyone who ever ate at McDonalds. But there was a time when it was special. Whatever it became, what Kate Spade created was special.

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Loading the van, 1996

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To Play Live Is To Fly

I know I need to watch myself but…

A nice guy named Dan Gross did the sound and filmed my show at Bop Shop in Rochester last month and he sent me a link to watch the performance and approve it if okay. They’d like to post it on their website – but there’s always something I would rather be doing than watching myself.

It’s hard enough doing these solo shows – you’re alone up there: vulnerable, exposed – but to have to relive it? To sit and watch? Oh my god, I should do something with my hair…why do I have to nod so much? What happened to the rhythm there? Lord I’d better lay off the burgers and fries – forever. And on and on.

Or I could take the approach of a coach, go all Chuck Noll with a grease pencil on the screen: “see that move there? Once, twice – okay. But you do it enough that we’re in nervous tic territory here.” And “do you call that long meandering aside a story? Focus, Rigby, focus!”

The beauty of playing is that time goes away; self-consciousness too. Unlike a record that is meant to be scrutinized, a live show is a pact you make with the audience – what happens between you takes you somewhere together and if it works, you don’t even remember how it happened.

Remember how Townes sang “To Live Is To Fly”? To play live is to fly, except for the parts where your undercarriage is bouncing all over the tarmac.

So there was always something I’d rather be doing than checking out this video.

Like looking for the stove in my stylish Nashville Airbnb. They’ve got a little record player and a cute door mat that says “Hey Y’all!” and old posters of the town. But where’s the stove?

Then I’d rather play a show at Dee’s Country Lounge. And another at the Bluebird. I’d rather meet up with friends for coffee. I’d rather drop by the local radio station – when did Nashville get a cool community radio station? I’d rather love Nashville than look at myself.

Dan from the Bop Shop checks in – have I watched the video yet? I started watching and aside from wishing I’d had time to do something with my hair that’s kind of scraggly what with the humidity and the driving and fluctuating hormones, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed the show and that feeling was coming through in the clip. I even got teary during a song, just like I’d felt when I was playing. I promised him I’d get to the rest of it.

But first I needed to drive across half of Tennessee and through the mountains of North Carolina and play another show in Chapel Hill. And then I needed to drive back home but first I had to stop for the night somewhere outside Baltimore. A comfy hotel room and an evening to myself – the perfect opportunity to watch the rest of my performance (or at least enough where I could say oh fuck it, it’s fine, you have my blessing Dan!) but – hey, is that Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore in a movie from the nineties? I’d better watch that and – wait, isn’t that Diane Lane in Under The Tuscan Sun? Sure I’ve seen it four times but…I promise myself I’ll get back on it and finish watching the video, just as soon as I get back home.

But there’s one day to unload the car and then it’s time to head to England. And when I’m hanging out at our friends in Norfolk for a day, and Philip Roth just died and the arts editor of the Guardian asked me to write something about a favorite Roth book and I try to get out of it because they’ll have actual book writers writing, and then it takes hours while trying to make sense of Jumanji with my goddaughter Daisy, and then the next day I need to get to London to see Eric play a sold out show at the 100 Club, and the next day drive to Colchester and then Ramsgate and then the Leicester shows with him. And then there’s one day left to visit his mother in her new care home and his grandkids in the countryside and finally in some hotel late at night I fast forward through to the end of video and say “looks and sounds fine”. And now it’s up there.

And maybe someday when I have time, and even thinner hair and feel even less in shape, and need a music stand with lyrics on it because I can’t remember anything, and might even need to sit on a stool for part of the show because I’m eighty, maybe then I’ll really watch it and think hey I almost knew what I was doing.

Come along and help me make it happen:

  • Thu Jun 7      Catskill NY              HiLo   8 pm
  • Sat Jun 9        New York NY         Berlin 9 pm  (Felice Rosser opens)  tickets
  • Sun Jun 10     Baltimore MD       An Die Musik  Roots Cafe w/Geoffrey Himes  5 pm
  • Sat Jun 16      Ojai CA                    Rain Perry’s house email for info
  • Sun Jun 17     Los Angeles CA     Wild Honey concert  (w/Seven Deadly Five) 4 – 7 pm
  • Thu Jun 21    San Francisco CA  Hemlock Tavern (Tino Drima opens) tickets
  • Fri Jun 22      Chico CA                  house concert
  • Sun Jun 24     Santa Cruz CA        Michael’s on Main (Alex Lucero opens)  2 pm tickets

 

If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends

Driving west – Rochester. I listened to Jean Stein’s West of Eden and wondered about her, a sad end for an interesting woman, she jumped from a window of her Manhattan apartment last year. A lot of madness and depression pops up in her oral history of Hollywwood and Los Angeles, and over the whole thing hangs the shadow of her ending her own life. It’s one of those books I was excited about on release (she was responsible for Edie many years back) and I moved it around the bookstore, hoping it would catch someone’s eye but it never did.

Stayed at my friend Rick and Monica’s cool mid-century house – we had chicken from the outside grill, the first hint of spring in the air, and Monica helped me iron towels to turn into merch. My friend Ted was doing his first solo shift at the bookstore/bar, covering for me, and he called for help closing the register. I’d only just trained him the night before. I felt like an expert pilot on their night off, helping a frantic stewardess land the plane while downing imaginary highballs in the corner of a dusky hotel bar, the muscle memory kicking in: “That’s right, now you subtract the tips from the total and add in any checks – any checks? and that there will be your drop. That’s right – don’t panic – you did it.” It helps to remember things you’ve got down, when you’re setting off into the unknown. Starting off on tour is always the unknown.

Next morning I got up very early to drive to Cleveland. I had an appointment at 11 AM to screenprint some of my tea towels at a print workshop/collective. I realized as I pulled into town about 10:15 I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go, so I went to the neighborhood where the Beachland club is, thinking it had something to do with there. I found a coffee place and cursed that I was wearing dark, heavy clothes – temperatures in the mid to high eighties just didn’t seem possible.

Found the workshop and a nice young woman set up the screen and really did most of the hard pulling of the ink with the squeegee while I placed and lifted towels. She was just so good at it.

When we were done I got in the car and automatically started heading for the neighborhood where Hazel and I lived her last year and a half of high school. Past a once derelict part of town that now appears to be taken over by Cleveland Clinic, then along Euclid past Case University, and up Mayfield through the quaint Little Italy street that thankfully still looked pretty much the same.

I found myself getting sentimental much of the time I was in Cleveland – it must be because it was the last place I lived with my daughter before she went off to college and I moved to France with Eric. We had a nice, simple old apartment across from beautiful Lakeview Cemetery and  I worked a series of pretty grim jobs to make ends meet while I got a new album out and started touring for it, in between taking Hazel to look at colleges and do that whole application process. It had snowed constantly, my van got stolen, and I spent most of my time alone, but we’d had sweet moments with our dial-up internet and watching TV shows and films from the DVD store on Coventry. I think I’d just gotten on MySpace…

A night off before my gig and Cindy from the Beachland took me out to eat at a nice bistro she’s involved with and I loved the Cleveland vibe of the bartender & the hefty plates of food – they do eat in this town! The next day I was driving around again and tuned into the Beastie Boys and then Roxy Music on a local radio station. I heard them talking about this interesting artist who’d been putting great albums out for years and who was playing at the Beachland that night – they were talking about me! Part of me was tempted to drive right to the station and pound on the studio door: “I’m here! I’m here, let me in” but I enjoyed hearing tracks from my album on the car radio, it rocked the Subaru so hard I almost started crying on Richmond Road.

The gig got off to a great start when the young guy who advanced the show greeted me at the door complimenting my boots and the streak in my hair: “It’s like Keith Richards – what, did you just decide to try something a little different?” he asked. Yeah, like not dying my hair, I said. It’s hereditary, I think – my mom had a silver streak in the same place. “Native American?” he asked – that was a first. “No, Italian.”

It was just a fun night where everything worked and I started to get into this playing alone thing because you can play whatever feels right for the moment and just go with it without feeling like others on stage are tapping their foot or looking at their watches. Not that they ever do but I know how it feels to stand around on the bandstand not wanting to look useless so I’m hyper-sensitve to that. And when you have a band, you’re together to create together, but when you’re alone, it’s only you. Some old faces from the past including my friend Mike DeCapite who surprised me – he’s from here, wrote a great book about it called Through the Windshield, and is the one who warned me of the loneliness of Cleveland but what can I say – the place feels like a home away from home in some ways.

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I have homes all over the country, really. That’s a beauty of going around and around again and again playing places – the visits layer up and the memories make the towns your own without having to endure the ups and downs of life as a local. There aren’t many cities I play that haven’t at one time or another been a candidate for “I could live here”. That’s part of what is so seductive about touring – you give a piece of yourself each time so you’ve got a stake in the place. Even if nobody else showed up to see you – you were there.

Back up to Rochester. It has that nice old architecture like Cleveland but is an easier size. The Bop Shop is a huge store full of records on top of a huge basement full of records. This is another place that’s figured in my life supportively several times over the last dozen years as has Tom the owner and our nice friends Rick and Monica to the point where Eric and I had it down as a possible spot to move to in America – “even if we have to go to Rochester, we’d be okay”. Still, I was worried no one was coming to the show except a few friends who were there when I walked in, and Norma and Richard who’d come from Ontario. I went down to the basement to get ready thinking “whatever it is will be fine”. I stared at this album cover tacked to the wall, an older blowsy lady named Belle Barth. She’s wagging a finger at the camera with a salty look in her eye and the album title is “If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends.” Without really wanting to, I made Belle Barth my new patron saint right then and there, and when I came back upstairs all the chairs were full. The audience was great and I really enjoyed playing and felt like I was getting the hang of this thing.

Columbus felt so far away – I had to backtrack through Cleveland. I finished West of Eden and started listening to Before The Fall, a thriller we’ve sold a lot of at the bookstore. A little self-consciously hard-boiled and philosophical (the author really has it in for hipsters)  but makes the time go by. After a few hours I wondered how the narrator could read the words in such a fast, clipped voice without swallowing their own tongue and then realized I had it on something like double speed. When I slowed it to regular human pace, I found myself drifting off, so had to speed it back up again.

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The Columbus show was in a suburban basement – it felt magic down there with twinkly lights and a nice crowd, many of them longtime fans. I used to go on the radio a lot in this town, WCBE was the station, but I have a few stinging memories too, like the local paper running my perky promo photo with the caption: Is it Amy Rigby – or Shelley Long? Back when everybody kind of hated Shelley Long. Also the time my car broke down just outside of town and I got towed to a weird hunting/tackle shop that supposedly also repaired cars and I felt sure I would probably never get out of there, just find work waitressing at Bob Evans and marry a hunter.

Anyways, Columbus fully redeemed itself. Belle Barth would’ve been proud. There was a reporter there from the Dispatch doing a story on house concerts, and I read a little bit of Bob Dylan’s speech from the Nobel banquet (not the awards show of course), where he says it’s easier to play for 50,000 people than 50 – that 50 is a bigger test of your honesty. I think about that quote a lot.

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Cincinnati – most of my gigs there have been on the other side of the river in Newport, Kentucky which I believe is where Skeeter Davis comes from? A show where Todd Snider didn’t make it and I rewrote Beer Run to entertain the crowd, a show where Todd did make it and I opened and later got so stoned that I went around and around the big circular hotel next to the highway for what felt like hours looking for my room. Eric and I played in Southgate House upstairs bar back in 2008 and they said the phone had been ringing off the hook all day about the show and when we came back from eating dinner, Lisa from the band Wussy was playing a set and as we came up the stairs Eric said “That’s the sound of somebody singing in an empty room.”

Ten years later I came to play a Sunday night gig at the Northside Tavern, set up by Mark Messerly from Wussy. He and Chuck Cleaver of the band opened with great solo sets and where I thought I’d be battling bar chatter, it was a rapt audience who were with me on every word. Big tall ceiling that let the sound wash up and over, I was in a dark heaven.

A day off to do some driving, I made it to Kentucky north of Lexington.

“Are we on central or eastern time here?” I asked the desk clerk at the hotel I’d checked into to sleep and answer emails and promote the rest of the tour and do some booking.

“Uh – I’m not sure,” she said. Wow. I found a Kroger to get a salad and settled in with an Adam Sandler movie on TV.  There was even a pool and a hot tub.

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Next day I found a great coffee and bike shop in Lexington and then took a little drive around. They seem to have a great fear of speeding drivers in this town, everywhere were traffic-calming devices and speed liimit signs decreeing UNLESS OTHERWISE POSTED THE SPEED LIMIT IN LEXINGTON IS 25 MPH outlined in bright red or flashing lights. It made me wonder what had or has gone on here, are the citizens madman speed demons more than other places? I remember allowing myself to be forced into wearing cat ears on stage at a show in this town years ago when I was doing gigs with the late Duane Jarvis. I still think of DJ often, it’ll creep up on me in odd places like this – little flashes of killing time and having laughs in pockets of the US I never expected to find myself. Yet here I was, back again, looking for a hat shop because I remembered me and Duane buying hats in this cool old shop. I used the GPS to try to find something called Mad Hatter – could that be it? – but it took me to a quiet residential street, eerily deserted at two in the afternoon and I thought “you can’t repeat the past.”

Now I’m in Knoxville. It’s been a trip. I’ve got memories of here too – a gig with DJ in a church turned theater and a radio show in a tiny trailer out in the country. Opening for Bob Mould at the Bijou Theatre. Staying with Martha Hume and Chet Flippo, the great country music writers who are both gone, in their beautiful house outside of town, with Last Roundup and then the Shams – thinking, wow, writers own a house? I was obsessed with Martha’s book You’re So Cold I’m Turning Blue and Chet’s biography of Hank Williams Your Cheatin Heart, and then through Stephanie Chernikowski got to meet them and they were wonderful to me.

Anyway, Knoxville’s always been odd gig central and this time was no different.  I had dinner with Tim and Susan Lee who’ve lived here since the early 2000’s when I played in the deserted downtown square on a hot summer night. Now the downtown is booming, the lights of the Tennessee Theatre lit up for two nights with Jason Isbell, Richard Thompson opening –  the world has turned upside down. Steve Earle was down the street at the Bijou. I was scheduled for this noon radio performance broadcast live from the Knoxville Visitors Center in downtown. One of those “you never know who’ll drop in” and “hopefully it’ll be fast and painless” kind of gigs we do because, well – why do we do them? Cause I’m here and they asked…because I like community radio. We do them to prove we exist? Maybe Steve Earle will wander by and say hello. Maybe Richard Thompson will stumble in, whip his guitar out of the case and join me.

I arrived for the soundcheck and a couple guys were slumped in chairs in front of the stage area. Turned out they were the other act and were supposed to go on second because there were two of them and only one of me, but they were very sick and so were going to go first and then probably on to a hospital. I kept a few yards away from them and started to set up my stuff. One of them rallied enough to ask if my amp was a reissue or an original, and to start making all kinds of suggestions about how I should use the type of amp he had because he hated to see a woman or even just a person struggling with a heavy amplifier – through his illness he was a great humanitarian. The host of the show came in and told the guys maybe they really should go to the emergency room, and she’d be happy to have them on another time.

Then Red the host started putting reserved signs on all the chairs and I heard her telling visitors there’d be a few stools at the back, but that we had a large group coming in who’d be taking all the seats in front of the stage. Maybe Jason Isbell and the whole crew and band? Richard too, and Steve for old time’s sake.

“A middle school group from the Episcopalian School of Knoxville are coming in for a field trip,” I heard her tell someone else and then I started getting nauseous.

Suddenly the set I’d put together to span thirty years & a new album in half an hour could not work. These are children. What did I have to say to them? My new album is called The Old Guys.

Twelve year olds – on a field trip. Do you remember field trips at that age? All I can think of is boys, how field trips were opportunities to be with them in circumstances different from the classroom. The forts and museums and farms we visited were merely sets to walk around in, to judge your position in the hierarchy outside the classroom. See that woman in a ruffled cap churning butter? Uh, kind of. Mostly I’m just hoping Jeff or Sonny or Tommy will notice me. I’m wondering why Mary Beth is sitting with Karen and not with me.

So I was about to be the lady churning butter, only up on a stage. I started crossing songs off the list – words I couldn’t say in front of twelve year olds, sentiments or ideas that translate perfectly to a room of people in their fifties, forties, even thirties and twenties but – tweens? What would Belle Barth do? Trust me – she would’ve stayed in Miami, or Frisco, or Vegas-no, Reno. She would’ve been out the door and canned her agent.

While this was all going on I got a text from a friend at work that she wasn’t covering for me that day as I’d mistakenly thought, so suddenly I was scrambling to cover my bar shift back in New York while I was dreading going on stage in Tennessee. I remembered all the times I’d been shelving books or pouring beer thinking “And when I get back out there, playing my songs…” and here I was about to do just that but had forgotten about the bizarre circumstances performing artists find themselves in on a regular basis. I had to stop myself from thinking just how peaceful it would be at the bookstore right then, I’d put on Arthur Russell and take chairs off tables…

Instead I got up in front of the tweens and the passersby and I actually felt warmth and attention from the whole crowd, even the kids. Maybe I was just churning butter in their eyes, their crush reflected in my pickguard. Maybe I was bawdy Belle Barth – “If I embarrass you, tell your friends” , a salty older lady they’d kind of tell their parents about later when pressed for something, anything about that field trip to downtown Knoxville. But I got through it and added another layer to the map of possible places: here, here I can really, really become myself.

on tour-9

Take Me With You When You Go

Hello, it’s me.

Does anyone remember – me? That old bag, who used to regale you with tales of the road or, more often, what it’s like being stuck in a garage with an army of bicycles, a load of wood offcuts, empty guitar cases and wicker lawn furniture that takes up a lot of room, serves no purpose, but is impossible to throw away?

I know, I get it – times change. Old stalwarts like me, and wicker, outlive our usefulness. Things move on. Tom Petty’s gone. And yet. The world needs witnesses. The doers need those of us who notice the being done. It helps if we can lend a practical hand along the way, and I think I’ve managed that well. Without leaving indentations on people’s thighs, that I know of.

Which is why I found myself giddy with excitement when I heard the Ms. and the Mr. firing up the touring machine. Surely, I thought – but I leaned up against a wall smoking a cigarette when I thought it, just so, y’know, it wouldn’t look like I cared or anything – surely, somebody needs a bag again? An aide de camp, a trusted friend, a hold-all…I threw my nylon shoulders back, put a brave smile on my face…and waited.

February and March passed. They were gone without me. April, he left and I sat sentry while she shifted boxes around and mailed out records. I heard them explaining to people excitedly that they’d released new solo albums and would be on their own separate tours and – I worried. In my world, they belong together. Oh it wasn’t them I was concerned about. They’d be fine, I mean they were doing this thing on their respective lonesomes for years before they got together. My fears were selfish: namely, who would get custody of yours truly?

I pictured them each on their individual trajectories: he in road warrior mode, burning down city after city, she taking a lighter approach, or maybe she just wasn’t as successful at booking herself.  Whatever, her dates had gaps, but she swore those would be filled with writing and what she calls research but I’ve come to learn involves smoked meat, grapes, sporty activities or lurking around bookstores. Either way, they’d be criss-crossing at least a part of the globe, and surely one of them would take me along as part of the journey.

Maybe they had hammered out a plan already, deep in the night or at one of those coffee places they keep in business when they’re home. I could see the rota: two weeks in the Subaru with her, maybe a trip to Blighty with him (I’m not sure why it’s called Blighty – I intend to find out. Bags don’t use the internet so, the only way to get answers is to go there. I hope he can see that.) All these possibilities…

Which is where I find myself this morning. I see their cars sitting in the driveway. She’s  Ohio-bound, and he has a NYC show tonight and then the UK. See, I know what’s what. I could recite both of their itineraries from memory. They need me – together; separately. They. need. me.

And I don’t know who I am without them both.

Did I fall asleep? I heard an engine, and wheels. Twice.

Hey, where did everybody go? Anybody?

hello goodbye show

Amy Rigby on tour

  • Thu May 3   Cleveland OH   Beachland Tavern (w/Johnny Dowd) tickets
  • Fri May 4    Rochester NY    Bop Shop Records 8 PM
  • Sat May 5    Columbus OH   Hogan House Concerts  tickets
  • Sun May 6   Cincinnati OH  Northside Tavern (w/Mark Messerley & Chuck Cleaver)
  • Wed May 9  Knoxville TN    WDVX Blue Plate Special at noon/Sweet P’s BBQ  6:30 PM
  • Sat May 12  Nashville TN     Dee’s Lounge 8 PM
  • Tue May 15 Nashville TN     Bluebird Cafe (w/RB Morris, Bob Woodruff, Jon Byrd) tix
  • Thu Jun 7    Catskill NY         HiLo
  • Sat Jun 16    Ojai CA               Rain Perry’s house concert
  • Sun Jun 17   L.A. CA               Wild Honey Backyard Concert (w/7 Deadly 5) tickets
  • Thu Jun 21  San Fran CA       Hemlock Tavern
  • Fri Jun 22    Chico CA             house concert
  • Sun Jun 24  Santa Cruz CA   Michael’s on Main  2 PM show tickets

Wreckless Eric dates too many to list! Find them here

 

Don’t Follow Him, He’s Lost Too

Nine pm on a Saturday night in an English seaside town, Eric and I eat in Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips restaurant across from the seafront. We’re just like the other couples sipping large glasses of wine (the English equivalent of a “small glass” is a half pint) and tucking into their cod and chips and mushy peas, only Eric doesn’t drink, and told the waitress “no mushy peas”. (I tried the mushy peas and agree they belong only in a color photo or black and white film.) We’re just like the other couples making occasional conversation while the overhead speakers dotted in among the modest chandeliers play the type of music good old Harry would have liked back in the day.

“And he gave it all up for a girl – from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania” a male and female ensemble croon in a chorus repeated often enough to sound like a threat.

We’re just like the other couples, only we’re not. We’ve just finished five weeks of touring together, Eric playing in my trio, driving all over England and before that the northeast US. We’ve loaded in, soundchecked, rocked, talked, loaded out, found hotels or friends’ houses; somewhere to eat, somewhere to change clothes; decent coffee, bad coffee. We’ve listened to music or silence, or each other, or the drummer. We’re just another couple but we’ve lifted amps, packed guitars, unpacked guitars; wadded dirty clothes back in our suitcases, shared deodorant, shared Manuka honey and echinacea, waited patiently while the other did interviews on the phone.

Maybe the other fish and chip couples are ambulance drivers together. Maybe they’re doctors or own their own fish and chip shops and them coming to Harry’s is like us going to see Loudon Wainwright or Television.

“One bill or two?” the waitress asks. “One’s good – we’re married,”  I say. She seems surprised. What did she think, this was a Tinder date? The least romantic second date ever? A business meeting? It’s Saturday night on Easter weekend – who goes out looking for love, or makes deals, then?

“Ah, you married.”

Walking back to the hotel along the seafront, we remind ourselves to slow down and do our best to stroll given the wind, the rain and the temperature. We come up behind another couple a decade or two older. They amble along side by side in their overcoats. He’s wearing big white gloves. Almost gardening gloves. The gloves glow through the mist against his dark coat, attracting the moonlight.

I am transifxed by these gloves. The man strolls in his overcoat, appearing comfortable next to a woman who’s got to be his wife, they are so similar in height and gait.  But his hands in the gloves are doing a ballet. Behind his back, he clenches, he flaps, he flattens one palm and circles one wrist with the other.

“He’s signaling us, Eric!” I say. “He’s sending messages of distress: Help, I am being held against my will. This woman is not my wife. Alert the authorities. Help. Me.” He is so solid, so secure as he strolls along, but his hands say otherwise. Maybe it’s not distress – maybe it’s pure self-expression. He wishes he could be out on the seafront in a ballgown or a tutu, on a skateboard or smashing up stuff, but he can’t, so he takes his hands in their white gloves out to play.

The hands flatten and flap again and I revise – definitely distress. The couple turn into a building entrance and climb the steps. The hands flutter – we should follow them! She’s taking him to a dungeon. I mean, they’re going up stairs but there’s probably steps going down somewhere in the building…

See how I can do this? I can go off on an imaginative tangent, just like Robert Christgau. When he writes a review I’m not sure if he’s the man in the white gloves signaling what’s really going on with him, or whether he’s me trying to interpret the man in the white gloves and getting it all wrong. All I know is that it was fine when he’d conjecture about me as a single mother, my work, my songs, hell even my breasts. It was fine cause I was hungry then – I wanted what ever any critic would say about me as long as it felt sort of like a compliment.

But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t want his praise that feels like a put down. I don’t want him talking about me in terms of my first husband who, bless his heart I have not been married to for twenty years. I don’t want him praising while panning and damning my partner, my husband, by saying he’s kept me too busy to do much work on music when he’s done nothing but encourage me to work. I don’t want him dismissing my hardworking husband for taking the easy way and living on the past when he’s done nothing but try to outrun the past.

I don’t want his readers thinking something’s a rave review when it feels hurtful and personal and dismissive.

Sure he can say what he wants. But I don’t have to feel complimented when I really feel angry. I don’t have to wear floppy white gloves to express myself.  And I don’t have to follow the older guy in the floppy white gloves. I write my own story, thank you.

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Love, Not Glory

This is it – the day six months ago I willed, begged, prayed/made happen (with a lot of Eric’s help). My record release. Thank you God. What does it mean to me to get this record out? Everything. I knew it had to happen when I was artist in residence at a college music class. “When did you last put out new music?” one of the students asked. I groped back in time and mumbled a year: 2012. “That’s five years ago!” one of the kids said. “I wasn’t even in high school yet!” And that was a record me and Eric made. What kind of artist was I?

Going out to play is just getting started and so nerve-wracking. With the record you did everything the best you could but what about playing music for people? That has to happen now, every night.

The first show – the hometown show – I am flying. I’m always afraid to play in the place where I work because I see the people there every day, but the show is like part of an ongoing conversation only I have a guitar, an amp and a microphone, Eric on bass and Jeremy on drums. I refrain from straightening books and wiping things down with a bar rag. We all celebrate.

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Spotty Dog photo by Jeff Economy

Brooklyn is another homecoming, to a place I left almost twenty years ago but that will always be part of me. I realize with a twinge of sadness that upstate feels like home now and the city feels like the past – the great love who changed me forever and made me who I am, but my restless soul said I had to move on. (It’s not for nothing I still think Freebird is one of the greatest records ever.)

Lenny Kaye joins us. Hearing him sing and play is decades of music history compressed into his elegant frame and wacky presence. When he rocks alongside us, I can’t help it, I feel like Patti Smith for two seconds.

When I start an old song, people cheer and it stuns me. I add a reading which feels good because I’ve spent so much of the last decade writing and being around books. When the show ends I see a couple of my brothers, old bandmates, friends from the past. It is all over too soon.

At home I pack and ship CDs and booklets. When will the LPs arrive? Probably when I’m away and they will end up buried in snow.

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I play a few shows just me and Eric. It’s weird cause together we’re the old band. But it’s comfortable too and helps me get myself grounded a little. In a Harrisburg wine bar, we’re pretty shambling, but it brings me down to earth. I think the first two shows I was kind of in a daze, like opening night of a play but without a script or a director. Pace yourself.

That first hotel mirror at two in the morning is always a shock. Already road-weary. Oh my god, that’s what I look like? You get used to seeing yourself at home, surrounded by your own stuff. By the third hotel room, it’s easier: “oh, I look like that.”

In Pittsburgh, my true hometown, the place I was born and grew up and left at seventeen, we dine at a cool downtown restaurant with my brother Pat and his wife Karen. I look at the wall of bottles filled with whiskey and rye, brisket burgers, tattoed bearded waiters. It doesn’t seem possible this place has caught up with the rest of the world – in Pittsburgh, it will always be somewhere around 1975.

“Where’s the Brass Rail?” I ask my brother. “Remember old Tom who used to cruise (our brother) Michael when he was waiting for the bus home from Isaly’s?” Kaufmann’s became Macy’s was boarded up for years, is becoming condos now. Things change.

“The low spark of high-heeled boys,” says a big, older ponytailed guy sitting behind me in a Pittsburgh coffee shop. I turn to see who he’s talking to. He is on his own. Some things don’t change.

I say hi to my old friend Lonesome Bob. I knew him in New York and then Nashville and now he lives here. His voice shakes the room downstairs which I can sense from the dressing room is not so full. Three rave reviews/articles in the local hometown papers – the music writers love me in Pittsburgh. Things change – that was the title of one of Lonesome Bob’s albums. But I still can’t get more than twenty-five people to come see me play in Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia threatens to be a shitshow – the aftermath of a snowstorm, a neighborhood bar on a bill with a six-piece band, no time or place to change clothes, but ends up a triumph. One for the books, one of the best shows of my life. Wires, wood, beer bottles, cables. People. Funny how some nights the combination just works.

Cambridge, a Sunday night, Oscar night, the aftermath of a snowstorm. I do a radio interview in a guy’s car parked outside of the club – holding a mic with a big ball pop shield, sitting in the front seat of a newish Ford Focus. I get choked up talking about stuff and wonder what a passerby would think at the sight of my radio host and I. Look at the nice retired couple playing radio show: I am Rupert Pupkin, I think to myself. I am Alan Partridge.  We blast through the set for a warm crowd. I tell the story of my early band Last Roundup coming here to audition for Rounder Records. How we opened for Sleepy LaBeef, the great rockabilly legend. I remember thinking “Poor old guy! He’s got to be at least fifty!”

How many years have I been coming to this town? Our friend Norma hangs out after and I watch her walk off into the Cambridge night, back into her past, to find her car. We drive the few hours home, staying awake reading a ridiculous Facebook thread on  whether Eric Clapton is or is not a decent rhythm guitarist. “Bollocks,” says Eric. Next morning we say goodbye to drummer Jeremy who has work commitments.

I do too. The LPs arrive at Spotty Dog just before my Monday shift – the guy unloads that pallet right into the back of my car. Working behind the bar is almost like a holiday: I show people the record, pour beer, stay off the phone and computer, play music (“Play us your new album!” a nice person says. Uh, no.)

Pack and ship. Pack and ship. Rehearse with drummer Doug. Another snowstorm.

New Haven in the snow. Load in includes Eric shoveling the sidewalk. It’s a quiet night in New Haven, Frank Pepe’s AND Sally’s Apizza have closed due to the weather. But Cafe Nine is great  – Paul the owner is a sweetheart – and Shellye and Dean who open are always wonderful. Kid Congo shows up and we play Sex Beat and then Joey Ramone to the small crowd. And in the end Modern Pizza is good – they’re the newcomer in town, only been around twenty five years.

My MAGNET magazine pieces start to run – I wrote two dozen short appreciations, things I like or recommend. I’ve been so crazed I can’t even remember what I wrote about.

Pack and ship, pack and ship. Phone interviews. Another trip to the post office. I have a pair of jeans I need to hem but my eyes feel too tired and threading the sewing machine seems impossible. I roll the hems for now.

Northampton we have dinner with Byron Coley and Lili Dwight in a local institution burger place. Eric makes Byron laugh. Eric makes us all laugh. I never know what to expect in Northampton but Parlor Room is full and they are all with us. I always feel like I could live here, I guess we found a more New York version down in Catskill and Hudson. It’s over too soon with Doug drumming.

Pack and ship, some more interviews; rehearse with Steve Goulding. Steve played with me some back in my New York and Nashville days, but he and Eric haven’t played together since: the recording of Whole Wide World in 1977. That is amazing music history. I quickly decide these two should have their own segment of my show, where they sit on a couch and talk about Brinsley and Nick and Lene and all the stuff we all want to hear about those heady prehistoric days. They are delightful and entertaining in the van.

Asbury Park is its own thing and always will be, thanks to Scott Stamper who’s been running the Saint forever. It’s a proper rock club, but with chairs this time. I love playing here. The Boss is still on Broadway so there’s not that tension wondering if he’ll show up to give his blessing – phew (but consider it implied). We stand around and talk after the show while the pretty door girl vacuums the stage and mops the entire club. Our lodging after is an Ocean Grove guesthouse with giant teddy bears in the parlor. It’s one block from the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s so cold and windy I don’t get anywhere near the beach the next morning.

My winter coat has become me. When I see it hanging on a dressing room coatrack, I feel like I’m looking at myself. When and if it ever becomes warm enough to go outside without a coat, will I still exist?

Jammin Java outside of DC. From the dressing room I hear lots of laughing and talking – “Is there a busy restaurant right next door to here?” I ask Steve. When Grahame and Ann from the Crowd Scene play their opening set, I hear clapping and cheering. The place is full. I always feel so moved playing in this place, I don’t know how everybody finds their way here.

We stop in Guitar Center in Fairfax, on the way to Richmond. Beltway Warriors looking for Excalibur – one guy seems to have every amp and pedal in the store arranged around him like Stonehenge. White shirt, chinos, his coat and tie cast off – he shreds towards nirvana, or maybe his wife just doesn’t let him do this at home. He does it for love, not glory. Okay, maybe a little Guitar Center glory.

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Take me away, Beltway Warrior

It’s a last minute gig in Richmond but it sounds great in the Sound of Music studio and some people do show up. On the way here I started getting messages that Fresh Air was running a review of my album. Even my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother emails me congratulations. I remember what a great drummer Steve is, the Richmond folks are in awe of Eric and Steve – true legends in their midst. And there they are doing my bidding ha ha ha! My cousin Ceci takes us to the wine bar where one of her sons works – the food and beer scene in Richmond is exploding. It was an early show so there’s actually time to eat and drink something besides a granola bar off the floor of the van. We stay up way too late drinking wine and talking with Doyle, Ceci’s husband, joining us.

A day of more shipping, coffee drinking and barbq eating, and then we’re off to drive to Mountain Stage. It’s recorded in front of a live audience in Charleston, West Virginia which is about four hours from pretty much anywhere. It’s an honor to be invited to play this long-running show they broadcast on a couple hundred stations. Host Larry Groce, musicians and crew have all been here since the early eighties. It’s intimidating – I’ve stood next to Ricky Skaggs on this stage, and Alison Kraus. It’s a little hard getting the band sound happening on the carpeted stage with a baffle in front of the drums, and scary to play The Old Guys for a mountain crowd raised on bluegrass. They like my words and humor but I want to be one of the pickers too.

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The other acts on the bill this night are a hip Welsh trad outfit, a New Orleans jazz quintet, the beautiful and talented singer Shannon McNally and Niger prog folk Afro pop Tuareg group Tal National who I’ve seen kill at the tiny Half Moon in Hudson. An odd assortment, it really does feel like A Mighty Wind with a voice coming through the old-fashioned loudspeakers backstage: “Ranky Tanky , ten minutes to the stage, Ranky Tanky – ten minutes to the stage.”

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Tal National waiting to play

Showbiz existing in its own small universe. I’m proud they consider me part of the family. The session airs around April 20.

Drive nine hours to drop Steve off in Brooklyn and then another two and a half upstate. I was packing for England yesterday, trying to stay calm and not look at the frightening state of our house, my car, my clothes, hair and skin. The backyard with fallen trees – I’ll deal with it all in April, I keep telling myself.

Something about a snowstorm approaching. I finally have a chance to talk to my daughter on the phone after a week of occasional texts. Stop off at the bookstore to put in an art supply order. Pack and ship, pack and ship. Accept a delivery of the second printing of my booklets. Eric’s CDs arrived, his record release just two weeks away. Mail some posters. Cook dinner.

A text from the airline says our flight today’s been cancelled. We fly tomorrow AM, after the snow. I feel relief. Time for more packing and shipping. I’ll push the UK shows (will we really be playing in England in a few days? With our friend Ian Button on drums?) from home for a day. I might even pick up the guitar. Remember Guitar Center guy. Love, not glory.

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Get your records right here! Cut out the middle man.
  • Sat Mar 24   Resonance FM London Hello Goodbye show
  • Sun Mar 25 Hull UK  O’Rileys tickets
  • Mon Mar 26 Marc Riley show  BBC 6 Music
  • Tue Mar 27 Brighton UK  Prince Albert tickets
  • Wed Mar 28 Leicester UK   The Musician tickets
  • Thu Mar 29 Bristol UK  Thunderbolt tickets
  • Fri Mar 30 London UK  Betsey Trotwood tickets
  • Thu Apr 26 Hoboken NJ  Little City Books tickets
  • Thu May 3 Cleveland OH  Beachland Tavern (with Johnny Dowd) tickets
  • Fri May 4 Rochester NY  Bop Shop tickets
  • Sat May 5 Columbus OH  Hogan House Concerts tickets
  • Sun May 6 Cincinnati OH  tbd
  • Wed May 9 Knoxville TN  Blue Plate Special (noon) + Sweet Pea’s BBQ (6 PM)
  • Sat May 12 Nashville TN  Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge
  • Tue May 15 Nashville TN  Bluebird Cafe (in the round with RB Morris + Jon Byrd)
  • Sat Jun 16 Ojai CA  house concert (email for details)
  • Sun Jun 17 Los Angeles CA  Wild Honey Backyard Show
  • Thu Jun 21 San Francisco CA  Hemlock Tavern
  • Fri Jun 22  Chico CA  house concert
  • Sun Jun 24 Santa Cruz CA  Michael’s on Main (2 pm afternoon show!)

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“You Might Be Interested In This”

“Facing your fears about success or failure has become a pressing concern lately. Only your self-doubt is standing in the way.” AQUARIUS, week of February 17

There was a moment a few days ago – a perfect moment. I’d picked up some art supplies at Spotty Dog and helped out a co-worker who was struggling with no internet and a bar full of customers. I’d gotten a rare hug from Earl, a local painter, and found a piece of cardboard in the garage for a desperate artist trying to frame something. I felt almost saintly. I told a favorite shopkeeper about my album and how long it had taken and how hard we’d worked (I have to keep mentioning how much time and effort Eric put into this record) and how excited I was, no matter what happened. She congratulated me on the creative success of getting new work together and just about launched into the world and I said “that’s it – no matter what happens, I did something.” But do I really mean it? If nobody’s interested, will I still feel that way?

As I spun down the street in my Subaru, I saw another friend walking her dog and I rolled down the window and shouted and waved. Some opera was playing on the car radio and I sang along like I was in a Woody Allen movie when it was still okay to like Woody Allen movies. I thought “This is happiness.”

*

I’ve been working so hard and so long to get all the pieces together for this record to come out. It’s been busy, it’s been nuts and now – it’s totally quiet.

The calm before the storm? Or is this the storm? Was the storm last week? Have I already been as busy as I’m going to get and the rest is all downhill?

*

An older couple in the store yesterday said “You look just like Mary Steenburgen. You know, she’s married to Ted Danson?” I nodded – I have heard that since the eighties. “You could sign up for one of those doubles agencies,” the man said. “My cousin does it – he looks like Sean Connery. Old Sean Connery. They hire him to show up at parties in a tuxedo and pose with a martini. You could do it too.” I make a note (Old Mary Steenburgen) and file it away with other backup plans.

*

I got an email notice that the CD version of the album was coming via UPS yesterday – seven large boxes. I was looking forward to the knock on the door and the same UPS guy who drops off book orders at the bookstore saying “hey sign here” and joking about more books for the store and me saying all proudly “no it’s my new album.” But somehow the truck came and went and there were seven boxes stacked neatly on the front porch, no signature required.

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I got an email from Amazon: “Based on your browsing history, we thought you might be interested in this” and it was a listing for my new album. I hope I’m not the only person who got that message?

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A customer I’ve served for six years at the bookstore/bar said “I heard your voice on the radio. They were playing your new song, about The Old Guys? Sweet. Hey, how much is this book?”

*

I want to send my most precious critic the new album to listen to, but I’m scared. Her opinion means so much to me. At the same time, I don’t want her to feel required to have an opinion of work I do. Is there any show biz mother who doesn’t have Diana Scarwid as Christina Crawford’s scathing “I am not… one of your FANS!!!” from Mommy Dearest lurking somewhere in the corridors of her mind? Being a proud parent comes easy and natural, but expecting pride or even acknowledgement from your kids feels like asking too much. At the same time, as I press send on this download link to my darling brilliant daughter, I only hope she’ll think I did something good.

*

We went to see Loudon Wainwright last night. Seventy-two – still writing, performing – making me laugh and cry with his words, a certain chord on a guitar and his wit and world view. A new record is a moment. But it’s part of this – a lifetime of words, chords; making something that wasn’t there before.  I want this.

 

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The Old Guys comes out February 23. Tour dates and other info here.