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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Harbinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Voucher

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

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

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

I need to spend my Southwest Airlines voucher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m almost free.

Mod Housewife tour post-7

D Troop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troubadour was the title of the song.

I never thought I’d get this far

With an okay voice and a Kay guitar

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

And a troubadour has to lay it down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greg Trooper laying it down