“You’re really great at your job,” the young woman said. It was freezing cold outside, a quiet Monday night in the bookstore/bar. Tom T Hall’s The Homecoming, the story of a musician’s life, played in the background.
“You mean BEING A ROCK STAR?” a tiny part of me wanted to shout. The rest of me smiled and thanked her and kept on washing beer glasses, polishing the bar, sweeping the floor. Earlier that day, I’d read fine writing about being on the road by Allison Moorer and Tift Merritt, seen Instagram photos from friends’ gigs in England and Germany and thought – even knowing what I know, how hard touring can be – that other people’s road diaries make me queasy with envy even when I’m out playing: “You had a dressing room?” or “You played at Shank Hall?” Except for when you’re up on stage (“You played on a stage?”) doing your best and giving your everything, that spectre of doubt – that you’re doing enough; that you are enough – is always there.
Am I crazy? I’ve been living for the moment I have a new record together – songs mixed and mastered and sequenced; everything lined up to go to the pressing plant and a release date and somebody to help me do publicity and the cover art and a photo. Now I’m starting to book gigs and it dawned on me just yesterday – this is happening. The thing I’ve been wanting for years (okay, I’ve really been wanting to publish a book, something I’ve never done, but I got involved in the whole agent and book proposal process and the publishing world moves at a speed that makes me think of tablets being chiseled one letter at a time); the thing – new work – that means I exist, that there’s a point to everything. It’s the way I know how to plot the course of my life, in three minute song increments; in multiples of twelve. In record albums. They used to come every two or three years: 96, 98, 01, 03, 05, 08, 10, 12. And then the last five or six years slipped past me. Some touring and playing in Eric’s band, a few solo shows, resurrecting the past a little here and there; working on writing, trying to become an author. I’ve started to compare my career to the walls of Five Guys Burgers & Fries – loads of glowing press, reviews, Best Ofs – and then you check the dates and realize they’re all from the last decade, and blurry with a mix of dust and hamburger grease.
I thank Greg Roberson, the Memphis drummer who came up to do some recording with Eric three years ago and said “Amy, what have you got? Let’s record something.” That was the start of this album The Old Guys that is finally finished and coming out February 23. 2018. I thank Eric my husband and producer for telling me “It won’t happen unless you show up.” Yep, this is like an award show speech, only the award is the one I’m giving myself – to still believe I can do this; to convince myself that anyone else will be interested; to care so much that the caring is its own reward.
One year before I turn sixty, and there’s no more music business, for me anyway. Or I don’t know how to find what’s left of it. I don’t know how to do anything but what I’ve done for thirty-five years now: write some songs that say how I feel, bring them to life so that feeling comes back again and again, and share them. I remember being twenty-eight, the age my own daughter is now, and saying “There’s no way I’ll be doing this – riding around in a van, playing in bars – when I’m FORTY.” Forty seemed the real there: that magic moment when all childish fantasy would fall away and wisdom prevail. So I had a kid. And realized I couldn’t stop. That being a mom meant even more reason to hold on to the artist part of myself, because that was what helped me make sense of being a mom. Of everything. As the parenting part has receded now it’s…this business of being older. And I thought I was “older” twenty years ago!
So maybe I am crazy. It’s the only way I know how to be, when I’m not pouring beer for people, or cooking meals, sweeping the floor, polishing the bar. Writing and dreaming of that moment when some girl says “You’re really great at your job” and I say “You mean this?” (gestures at guitar and microphone).
Eric and I came back from Madrid last night. It was a wonderful trip, too wonderful to write about, really – how to find inspiration in a good time? Then this morning I was combing through my purse and my fingers closed around a small, dusty, irregularly-shaped object.
It was a sunflower seed. I rubbed it, and remembered:
Waiting to board our flight for Madrid, a news story comes on the TVs at JFK, a van striking a crowded bike lane in Manhattan. Where did they say? Where? I ask Eric, thinking of my daughter out in the city. She just posted a photo of herself walking a dog, for sure Manhattan. Eric thinks it’s the Upper West Side. I feel bad to say I felt relieved “oh she wouldn’t be up there.” Then learn it’s downtown, west side. I text her, are you okay? Sometimes I wait forever to hear back from her when I text but she answers immediately that she’s fine. How awful for the people who lost their loved ones, out for a stroll or leaving work on a beautiful fall day.
Coming from the airport into Madrid, we struggle trying to communicate with the driver. His English is as nonexistent as our Spanish. For some reason, Eric tries French – “Ah, c’est plus facile!” the driver exclaims. He was born in Casablanca and French is his native tongue. Suddenly we are buddies, pals. It reminds me of our time in France, how I liked hearing Eric speak French and the way it made it easier for me to learn. Those years weren’t easy, but they were special. It brings that back to me a little, being here in Europe again. We’ll always have…Cussac.
Check into our servicable hotel and take a nap before going out for a stroll. I’m tainted by my relationship with New York forever into feeling that cities kind of work on a grid and if we just go down this one street, well it’s pretty much parallel to that street, and so by turning left here we should end up there – a sure fire way to get lost. A sure fire way to end up – climbing a wall into what seemed like a traffic island but is in fact a giant fountain with Neptune at its center. For the moment the fountain is dry but as we scramble across to the other side, I start imagining the two of us limping back to our hotel drenched and sheepish. “Run, Eric, run!” I shriek, beginning to panic. We climb down over another wall and across a few lanes of traffic, unscathed but a little less sure about where exactly we’re headed.
The next time we pass the fountain, I notice they have stretched red and white hazard tape all around the perimeter. I picture CCTV footage of two late middle aged morons’ ungainly clamber and sprint being the straw that broke the camel’s back – “Ai ai ai, we can’t have this – get out there with the tape, Jose Luis…”
We’re in Spain for Lindsay Hutton’s sixtieth birthday bash. Lindsay is Scottish and lives midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but Madrid is his heart and soul, the place he comes to have fun and feel free. Lindsay, Eric and I are roaming the streets of Malasana neighborhood. What at first felt like another of the world’s great cities in a postcard-on-a-rack kind of way begins to come alive for real as Lindsay shows us his fave spots, like an Eggleston photo shows you Memphis. It’s in the details; knowing where and when to look. We sit in a tiny bar with cool seventies decor: “Gosh, how do these places stay in business?” We’re the only customers. “Don’t worry,” Lindsay says. “This place will be packed in a few hours.” It’s almost midnight. I take his word for it.
I’m sipping vermouth in Bodega de la Ardosa. Vermouth in Madrid is a revelation! Served on ice with a slice of orange. I’ve gotten some great tips from this Eater article and drinking vermut is one of them, accompanied by ham and anchovies and roasted artichoke and…the servers are so nice, after working hard to learn French I just wish I had spent some time learning Spanish. Rather than upselling, they dissuade us from ordering too much food. “If you want, you get more later, okay?”
Lindsay is spinning records at the Weirdo Bar. It’s one of the rock and roll bars all over this part of the city with name and aesthetic like you are in a garage rock Disneyland – Taboo, Angie, Madklyn, Tiki – not cleaned up but just those essential elements of the fairy tale and the only thing missing in this picture is you, preferably in a striped or band t-shirt, black jeans, unwashed hair with a pint glass in your hand.
The room is packed with friends, faces from years of gigs here and there swimming before my eyes. Lindsay plays Sonny & Cher’s “It’s The Little Things.” I shout along with him and the record, thinking of the Skeletons from Springfield Missouri who covered this song. I raise my glass to the late great Lou Whitney and dear departed friend Jim Wunderle, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks also, Springfield buddies who are suddenly in the Weirdo bar with us, singing along too.
We spend a day finding coffee (good), finding food (great), getting equipment and songs together for the Friday night party. I wish I had more clothes to choose from but we packed one suitcase between us and it felt like a fun challenge to travel light (always with one eye towards finding some fabulous Spanish thrift store scores).
Standing in a bare bones cafe, cash only, I’m waiting for Amy Allison to come back from a bank machine. We’ve just eaten a crazy, delicious meal or snack, the type I would never have back home – cold white wine, a platter of jamon, the Spanish national treasure, another platter of cold potatoes nestled in pillows of fluffy garlic mayonaise. Hot chorizo, action-packed green olives. Anything else I asked for on the menu they were out of. The proprietress has not smiled once, and continues to not smile as I wait. But I ask her if I can have some sunflower seeds from the little bowl by the cash register and she grudglingly nods. They are so salty, I almost choke and not wanting to be rude, surreptitiously place the rest of the handful in my purse.
A half hour before it’s time to play, we’re hungry again. No time to find a real place to eat, we slam fresh juice and muffins at the most beautiful McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, just around the corner from the club. Hey it wouldn’t be a real gig without some hardship! I love how even in McCafe, in Madrid there is always fresh orange juice.
Me and Eric are onstage with Amy Allison. She’s singing Walking To The End Of The World and for one second I feel like Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins. Amy is one of my favorite singers, songwriters and just the most delightful person. The sound of her voice stops a room, stops time – it’s a treasure, like her songs that stay embedded in your mind.
Eric and I haven’t played a set together in a while now – we’ve played his stuff and we’ve played my stuff but Eric & Amy is almost a nostalgia act due for a revival sometime soon? Here in Madrid we’re the old team again, I remember how lucky to sing with this guy I am, the way our guitars mesh and when we play Do You Remember That, it’s our story being sung along to by a good many members of the audience. I’ve had the chance to experience that with Whole Wide World a lot, but for my own song? We played it as a gift to Lindsay but it was a gift for me too.
At three in the morning we went out with Amy and our friends Jon and Karen from NY, hitting the only spot still open that might serve food. The food was peanuts, but the swanky cocktails surely had some vitamins and it was a different kind of Madrid crowd, where we got to be the slightly obnoxious ones, a feat that would’ve been impossible at Wurlitzer where the volume of music and pint glass-sized gin and tonics required a commitment to hardcore partying I don’t think I possessed as a twenty year old let alone now.
It took most of the next day to walk a few blocks to find breakfast. Entered a random cafe and Jon and Karen were just finishing coffee and pastries, and then Amy Allison appeared. Funny how these things work – even in a huge city, when you’re one of a group traveling for a shared purpose you tend to move almost as a single organism. We all have walk-on roles in each other’s TV show “Holiday in Madrid”.
Eric and I decided to spend a little time at the Prado – I know it’s one of those “a day isn’t anywhere near enough – it would take a lifetime to see everything!” places but really an hour and a half was enough for Goya’s Black Paintings and a couple really weird statues I can’t get out of my head. It was fun and no big surprise to see some other partygoers in the galleries, like we’d taken over the city. Of course the pressure to have the ultimate experience is off because I go to every city, good restaurant and museum fully expecting to return someday.
I’m watching Suzy y los Quatros play a fun, rocking set at the Wurlitzer Bar, all part of Lindsay’s Sesentafest. Lindsay is the connecting tissue between musical acts and fans and factions from Sweden to Seattle, and Madrid which he calls Mad-toon in the best Scottish accent is his favorite place and now he’s made it all of our favorite place as two hundred of his friends have gathered here to make merry. Oh wait, he’s up there on stage! This is such a blast. Oh shit – he’s stage diving, going over backward into the crowd. I’ve never participated in that type of thing but it’s Lindsay, I HAVE TO. I can’t let him drop. It becomes my mission to provide one of the pairs of upthrust arms keeping him aloft.
Wow, he seems like not the biggest guy AT ALL but he’s really heavy! Come on people, pull your weight here, WE CANNOT LET HIM DROP. I’m sweating way more than I ever do at the gym or yoga – is there a stage dive workout class like there used to be punk rock aerobics? Because this is hard. Aren’t we supposed to hand him off to the throng of people toward the back of the club?
Phew, he’s been passed back and now forward and deposited back on the stage. The festivities won’t end with our dear friend and host riding through the streets of Madrid in the back of an ambulance.
I met Lindsay almost two decades ago in Glasgow, after playing my first Scottish gig ever. That night, a girl threatened to beat me up in the ladies room of Thirteenth Note club, and drunken football fans harassed and terrorized me until morning at the B&B where I was staying – pre-cellphone and no phone in the room to call for help. I didn’t realize this was my initiation into the Scottish fraterni-sorority, similar to hazing – they break you down to let you in and once you’re a part of it, that’s settled, you’ll keep coming back forever. Lindsay has been like a guardian angel to me since then. He’s made sure I never have to go back to that B&B. He ran the Cramps fan club and Next Big Thing fanzine and he’s done it all for love. He’s one of the kindest ways people like me – people without “people” – can keep getting back out there. People without people need people. He’s our people.
We rock to the Nomads, a cool Swedish band Lindsay’s told me about for years, they are clearly warriors who’ve done this forever and make it matter. The Dahlmanns played a tight set earlier, they made me smile with their up version of Dancing With Joey Ramone, it felt like a dream to hear my song from a spot in the audience. And a quartet of cute women from Norway called Reine Laken played a brief set, hanging on for dear life as they don’t do gigs often. I loved their joy and enthusiasm – it reminded me that the Raincoats were probably that very moment playing a set in NYC in celebration of the 33 1/3 book about their classic first album. I thought of how they really lit the fire for me, that this isn’t about doing it right (though you try to as very best you can) but doing it real – that’s what will always matter most. I couldn’t be in two places at once but for a second it almost felt like I was.
Heading back to the hotel we bumped into friends who were going off in search of churros and chocolate, the thing to have when you’re needing something other than alcohol at three in the morning. After a half an hour or so walking in a general direction, sniffing the air for sugar-dusted fried dough, we started to resemble that group of bleary survivors in the Poseidon Adventure, bumping into another group or two of bedraggled revelers on rain-slicked cobblestones, greeting each other with one word: “Churros?” I expected a hellish KFC-stye counter bathed in fluorescent light but when we finally found the place, it was dark green and wood paneled and glamourous and snooty, with photos of celebrities lining the walls and porcelain cups of the richest chocolate. Each of us dunked and raised our swords of crispy deliciousness, individual Excaliburs, all kings and queens of Madrid fated to come back. The only thing missing was Lindsay, who was at the Wurlitzer club still rocking. But I plunged an extra churro deep into the chocolate, pulled it out and lifted it high, then ate it for him.
It had become a little bit a of a holy grail for me – to find a clip of my appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I began to wonder if it had ever really happened. And then the other day – it found me! I was looking for a good live version of Eric and I playing Tom Petty’s Walls and, down at the bottom of clips from dimly lit house concert appearances and sweaty club shows recorded on cellphone cameras angled to maximize every pockmark, flesh roll and wrinkle, I saw “Amy Rigby 2000 Oct 5”. That date felt familiar…a copy of a copy from somebody’s VCR…paydirt!
Nearly twenty years since glory was almost mine. I thought I remembered it all so well – the call that came a few days before, announcing a guest cancellation and could I be in New York City that coming Thursday by 2 PM? It just so happened I would be on tour promoting my new album and had a show in the city that very same night! Sure, me and my band would be in Cleveland the night before, but no problem, we could sleep a little while and drive the eight hours in time for setup and soundcheck, tape the show and be at the old Joe’s Pub for linecheck and gig at 8 PM.
Yep, I remember it like a crazy dream: checking out of a motel on Interstate 80 at 6 AM as another random musician friend happened to be checking in for the night. I remember making a stop at my former Shams bandmate Amanda Uprichard’s shop on Lafayette Street to pick up a dress to wear on TV. I remember the deluxe spread of sandwiches and treats backstage in the Late Night studio and how nice and professional everyone was. I was permitted only one of my own musicians on the show, so I asked guitarist Steve Allen to accompany me on Cynically Yours. The Late Night band, Jimmy Vivino and Max Weinberg and company, had worked up a note for note recreation of the doo-wop style backing on the album version of the song and we ran through it. I was amazed how good they sounded.
Then – the part I forgot, until I watched the video just now:
“And what was the thinking behind this?” The Late Night hairdresser held a wispy piece of my wispy hair between his elegant fingers as if bad layers were catching. He twisted it this way and that, fluffed my too-short bangs; poufed the back and let out a huge sigh. He widened his eyes at his own reflection. “I will do my best.”
I was going on TV in five minutes.
Who amongst us hasn’t suffered a bad haircut? This certainly wasn’t my first. But why – why – had it come just days before my first and very likely sole appearance on late night television? And why wasn’t I cool enough to just…do nothing at all about it, instead of letting a stylist pouf me even more hopelessly, with no time for it to settle?
I’d remembered feeling terrified as I stood in my spot waiting for Conan to announce me. I’d remembered getting through the song pretty well, and the thrill of being asked to sit on the Late Night couch. I’d remembered Conan admiring my green Greco guitar and proudly showing me his Gretsch backstage. I’d remembered Paul my drummer having a run in with guest Jackie Chan in the men’s room.
I’d remembered watching myself on a TV behind the counter of the original Original Ray’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue when the show aired later that night. “Huh, that’s you,” a guy said and then: “Gimme a slice, not too hot.”
I expected to watch this video thinking “aww, sure I was at least forty but forty was still kinda young, right?” I remembered how I felt like Rodney Dangerfield when the audience laughed in the right spots. ” I remembered it all, but not the part where I looked like a cross between Joyce from Three’s Company and a D minus on a Student Hairdressing Exam – Medium Length Wavy Division.
Is this what’s called a humblebrag? Maybe so. What good would it be to find the clip if I couldn’t share it?
But how can I share it without apologizing for looking kind of like a dork?
And reminding myself I got my wish by finally finding this clip of a proud moment in my life. Would it have been better to have it only as a memory stored in my head, where I looked more sassy, less shy, hit every line just right, and my hair was perfectly imperfect, instead of …this?
Maybe not. Then I couldn’t measure what a long way I’ve traveled since then. How lucky I am to still be doing this.
And how, it being from the year 2000, we were still kinda living in the nineties. Doesn’t that excuse any style error? Things were still real then, man – we didn’t know any better.
Tom Petty was my guy like I bet he was your guy. Bob Dylan is too godlike to be that guy. Listening to Bob is like looking at a locomotive streaming through a staggering sunset: how the hell did that happen, and how lucky am I to be here to see it? you shake your head wondering. Tom was the guy standing there raising his can of beer to that glory. He gave the whole scene scale and perspective, so you could be part of the majesty too.
If that sounds too humble for the excellence of what he did, consider the part of the picture just out of the frame – he’s balancing on a guard rail, at the edge of a cliff. In cowboy boots. Yep, he didn’t make all the hard work it took to be there our problem. It only dawned on me when I read Warren Zanes excellent biography of TP this time last year: in addition to the talent, that level of commitment, an absolute belief in the medium of music. The sacrifice and selflessness, along with appetite and ego, it took to get there and stay there.
But Tom wasn’t always right. I thought Tom got it wrong a few years back, and it kind of pissed me off.
It was that adorable, maddening scene in the Runnin Down A Dream documentary where Stevie Nicks is saying “and I said c’mon Tom, let me join the band” and Tom says, granite-like, “THERE ARE NO GIRLS IN THE HEARTBREAKERS.”
I walked around for days fuming after watching the movie. How could he say that? How could he deny Stevie? And all of us – the scenes between them, their performances together, are emotional highlights of the film.
THERE ARE NO GIRLS IN THE HEARTBREAKERS.
So that’s how it is, huh? Keep your crappy boys’ club! I kept thinking, like I’m ten outside my brothers’ pup tent in the woods. One of them stands sentry with a cheesy Gunsmoke rifle. I want in that tent, even if they’re only in there passing around Sgt. Rock comics. I want in that club!
But here’s where Tom was wrong. I thought about this a lot last night, as we waited through the agonizing few hours where maybe, maybe he was going to make it. I thought about it off and on through the hours after it was announced by his family that he was dead and I tried to sleep and kept waking up thinking “damn”.
There were always girls in the Heartbreakers!
Starting with American Girl, Tom Petty’s songs (or Petty & Campbell, but Tom’s lyrics) often focus on female characters. They aren’t objectified, and they aren’t caricatures. There are details that make them living, breathing women and they are usually in the process of busting out, finding themselves. Free Girl Now; Swingin; Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Walls from the She’s The One soundtrack could only be about a girl.Wildflowers.
Fill in your own here. He couldn’t have Stevie in the Heartbreakers, because that job belongs to all of us. The male rockers had their archetypes up there, but that softy Tom, that romantic Southern boy, let us gals write our own roles. We got to decide who we could be, rocking and free.
Anyways, it’s a theory. It’s the best I can do today, knowing that Tom’s gone.
I try to refrain from talking too much about physical ailments here (okay, except for sinus miseries… and skin cancer surgery some years back…and…and). There are much heavier problems in the world than these fleeting discomforts.
But (yeah) since I came back from Chicago two weeks ago, I’ve been really distracted by an eye infection. Pain, swelling, doctor, drops – I’ve been down a similar road before, only this time I can’t shake it. Aside from the discomfort and what feels like gross unsightliness, this eye illness is challenging my entire perception of who I am.
I think I’ve just gone the longest period of time since I was fourteen without wearing eye makeup. (Men, unless you’re Robert Smith of the Cure or Keith Richards – you might not understand this; loads of women too…we don’t all have the Maybelline gene). For these past linerless, mascara-less days – and maybe it’s the eye irritation talking here – I’ve started to wonder if my entire life has been a construct – I’ve only existed insofar as I could be drawn in with liner and mascara?
It’s not like anyone would look at me and think HIGH MAINTENANCE! or step aside Kat Von D. But blame it on those Barbies of my childhood, with their drawn on faces – even when nude they sported eyeliner and I’m kind of the same.
It’s like I don’t know how to see the world without the weight of paint on my lid or lash saying – even if only to myself – I’m here. I exist. The act of meditation that is looking at your own eyes in a makeup mirror.
“You don’t need all that stuff,” my dad would say. That was the point – it wasn’t for the world to tell me how I looked best. It was for me to become the character in my head. She looked a little bit like Catwoman or Emma Peel. Then Patti Smith or Gaye Advert (though I guess I landed more in the vicinity of Pat Benatar – I blame my rust belt roots…did anyone really dangerous ever come from Pittsburgh?)
Twiggy’s false lashes. The Laugh-In girls. Lipstick was my mother’s generation but eye makeup was mod. Eye makeup was mine. I didn’t even know if I looked better with it or without it. It didn’t matter. Black lines, the thicker the better. It wasn’t coquetry, it went beyond pretty to pirate. It’s the way I controlled the face I showed the world . It’s how I got ready to do battle.
I lived for liner! I could never give it up, I thought. Even when I’m older – I’ll be Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or Louise Nevelson! I definitely haven’t kept up that heavy hand. It’s been years since I wore false lashes (okay, maybe I backslid a month or two ago) and full-on black around my eyes but I’m still one for a smoky line. And the expert algorithm inside my computer screen sends pop-up ads to dance before me insisting there’s “A Better Way to Wear Makeup After Fifty!” “If You’re Sixty and Still Doing This, You’re Wrong!” If I click on them, I might as well be dead.
Eye makeup after a certain age is like many things after a certain age: a habit. A reminder that you’re still here and you get to choose what feels good. Flattering or not flattering, it’s a thing you do to make yourself feel like you. But who we are changes over time, if we’re lucky.
I’ve been wondering about all this in all that extra spare time I have now that I’m not wielding an eye shadow brush. I try to get some benefit out of these bad health moments. Learn any thing I can. Embrace the good. When I’m not putting drops in or hot compresses on my eyes, I’m astounded by the freedom; how life is truly simpler without makeup. No time spent putting it on, keeping it on, taking it off. There’s a beauty in just being you. Like a guy.
But I miss making that effort. The ceremony that divides life: here I am going to the gym or for a walk or to mow the grass – sunscreen. Now I’m headed to work, so I should groom myself – where’s my mascara wand? I went down to the city last weekend and I swear I felt more powerful not giving a fuck than when I try to look good. Were those servers or shop assistants being more attentive cause they thought “Badass” or were they just desperate to get me out of there quicker? These are questions I’ve struggled with for a while so it’s interesting to try it. BUT can I carry on the experiment when I actually feel good and am not struggling through a health issue?
How would I go on stage – I’ve often thought wow would I dare not put eye makeup on? I’m afraid I’ll disappear. I look again to Patti Smith – her bare face, white hair – magnificence. Didn’t she have an awkward phase about ten years ago, to get where she is now? And like I said, I ain’t Patti, more Pat. I was born with a rust belt mom-on-a-joyride vibe that only a jail sentence would toughen up.
Just like dairy products languish in the fridge after a nasty cold, that eye pencil sits there staring at me by the vanity mirror and I can’t imagine wanting to put such an evil greasy substance anywhere near my tender, vulnerable being, ever again.
But I saw Chrissie Hynde on TV the other night, still defiantly sporting black on her lids. It wasn’t careful contouring and presentation, it was a flag – the opposite of white flag of surrender – it was “yeah I’ve seen the world; a lot of it”; more fuck you than fuck me; punker than pert cat eyes. I felt myself instinctively reaching for my eye pencil, like a samurai for her sword.
My choice, when I’m up for it again.
Or not. Maybe glasses instead? Forget about how I’d look – I’d actually be able to see.
“Any pizza is a personal pizza if you believe in yourself.” Sign on a pizza parlor in Clarion PA.
Every year my family gets together in a semi-deluxe rustic lodge, usually in the wilds of Pennsylvania. These are my notes from 2017:
Help, I’m being driven mad by microfiber sheets and ceiling fans. Also a skylight with no blind to cut out dawn breaking twenty feet above the bed, and my whole family sleeping in somebody else’s house in the woods.
The family all together should mean peace and contentment, shouldn’t it? Over a dozen of the people I care most about in the world under one roof – so why was I tossing and turning and now sit wide awake at 5 AM wrapped in a polyester throw on a massive beamed porch staring out into the void that is the Pennsylvania woods? Why are my eyes sunken hollows?
Because I’m not working on my album this weekend and I feel like I should be working. Because I finally have a contract for my book and I’m afraid to look at it. Because I have a show on Friday (and two more later this month) and I hope I can remember how to get up and do what I in principle do but in actuality have only spent a small fraction of the year doing? Because it’s one more summer slipping away and my dad is very old – turning ninety in a few weeks – and that must mean my brothers and I are not actually in our twenties or thirties or even our forties anymore?
I know I’m lucky – except for my mom we’re all still here. But my dad seems frailer and smaller, and he used to be intimidating and powerful as only a dad can be. It’s been years since we had one of the showdowns these get-togethers used to inevitably lead to – me and him facing off in parking lots or on front porches of folksy bed and breakfasts; him asking when I was going to grow up and become respectably employed, and what about my daughter, how was I raising her – we’ve kind of laid all that to rest. I’d defend my corner with almost every fiber of my being, one or two threads reserved for thinking maybe he was right. Now he’s old and more accepting and to him I seem settled. Maybe I am settled? My daughter is grown up and I understand that all he really wanted was for me to be okay.
I go in to pour a bowl of cereal and it’s just him and me in the semi-deluxe rustic lodge kitchen, like back when I was a kid, he and I always the early risers awake alone together. He doesn’t have his hearing aids in and I’m in a manic sleep-deprived state and we turn our bleary focus to a hand-painted plaque on the wall: “When I die, I want to be buried in the woods so my husband will hunt for me.”
My dad chuckles. “Did you see that plaque?”
I say: “I don’t get it.”
“Well, she wants him to have to hunt for her, like he’d hunt for a bear. It’s funny.”
“No, it’s not,” I say. I just can’t help myself, I’m fifteen again, I’m the resident troublemaker. The respect-your-father fibers from a few paragraphs back hover over me shouting “NO” but the rebel in me presses on: “It makes no sense. She’d be buried in the woods, and he hunts and kills, and she’d already be dead. It doesn’t work as a joke, or even a platitude.”
Dad gets huffy. “Well, people can think whatever they want.”
“Yeah, but they don’t have to paint it on a plaque, and hang it on a wall where I have to look at it and be annoyed.”
“Well it’s their house, and in my book that means they can do whatever the hell they want.”
And THE OLD TEAM IS BACK! He, defender of authority and territorial rights, respect for our hosts and in turn respect for HIM vs…me. He picks up his mug of decaf and leaves, and I begin to understand what it will feel like when he’s gone, because I won’t have this anymore. Our contentiousness is part of who we are and the love between us, and as much as I’ve struggled with and hated him sometimes, there’ll never be another person in my life who made me and makes me me like my dad.
“Come back dad!” I want to shout as I write this in my notebook. Let’s talk about the plaque some more. Or anything! Let’s hang out in the kitchen awake alone together just a little bit longer.
Aforementioned upcoming shows
Fri Aug 11 New Haven, CT Cafe Nine (w/Willie Nile)
Summer is a way of measuring time. A place marker, a pause button. Wait.
Summer is cruise control. The world rolls by as you tool along with the windows up. There’s a cold drink in the cup holder and a tune playing and this is what you hold onto: the pulsing bass, the ice cubes melting, your chosen speed. A Mercedes is bearing down behind you – that’s their summer, so you slip easily aside to let them streak through. You don’t realize how hard you’re concentrating. You pass a huge shape on the right and think “truck” but that’s not you, you’re on your way somewhere else and you’re going to arrive eventually but you have to put in the driving and the miles.
This is my summer so far.
Bought two items of clothing that I have never contemplated owning or wearing before: a rain jacket and a pair of sport sandals.
Ugh – even the words make me shudder. But every time I went to head out for a walk in the endlessly rainy weather, I thought “wouldn’t it be great to have a lightweight jacket with a hood I could just throw on?” Then the heat would come around again and I’d think “…sandals you can wear in the mud or even water…what do you call those?”
A big deterrent to getting on with my life wardrobe-wise has been my ingrained belief that I live an entirely different existence than the one I do. I realized this when I asked myself, as I tried on a pair of dreaded sports sandals “yeah, but can you wear them in New York City?” It pierced my soul to realize that this reflex question so tied to my sense of identity, the imagined self I carry my existence around in like a load of tattered dirty laundry in a sleek aluminum roller bag, was nearly obsolete.
I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been to the city in the past year.
One trip to the city this summer was to play in Eric’s band for his show at El Cortez. It was a few weeks of work preparing for this show, a lot of new material and after Texas I was suffering with tendonitis in my left arm and hadn’t wanted to pick up the guitar.
It was exciting to play this new stuff, and fun to hang out with Doug the drummer and Artie who was playing the trumpet and bass. I worked through the discomfort and the warmer air helped as it finally turned to summer for real. I remembered how much I love playing piano and organ too. The tiki club in Bushwick wasn’t the easiest spot for a show, the stage was tiny and cluttered but we pulled it off. At the end of the night I slipped and fell loading from the stage – never a fun moment to be flat on your ass in public but the bouncer scooped me up off the floor and the mic I lost in the scuffle appeared a month later in the bag we keep stands in, so all was right.
I worked. Hudson is full of visitors now. The bookstore/bar ebbs and flows. I never expected to be serving customers for so many years at this place, but I still love it, even when staff changes and drama and vandals squeezing tubes of oil paint in the art supply section have me tearing my hair. When I have no shows to play, or haven’t just come from playing a show, with a toilet brush or mop in my hand at the end of a bar shift I ask myself is this what I do? I know there’s more. It’s just that music and writing feel like an illusion sometimes, and I don’t do nearly enough of either of them but what is the right amount? And you have to work on new stuff – and live, to find something worth writing about – to go out and do it again. I think.
Nature: Sitting in the backyard, looking at the trees, birds and flowers. Mowing the grass. Walking through our neighborhood, or a nearby village or nature preserve. Sitting along the Hudson. Home. It is so lush and beautiful all around this year. Riding my bike at dusk when the air feels cool – I’ll never get tired of that feeling. I’ll forever be twelve on my bike.
Concerts: Mahler at Tanglewood and Yo La Tengo in Central Park (I already told about Dylan at Hutton Brickyards). Two of the great outdoor music spaces, one old composer I don’t really get and one of my favorite bands at their best. I enjoyed both experiences immensely. Walking down Fifth Avenue on the sultry Summerstage evening, I asked Eric if he could picture us as an old couple living in the city. See – my delusion remains intact! We’re shabbily urbane and suavely decrepit with the Sunday Times in a shopping cart, maybe a cute little dog – “Lunch at Boulud?” I ask in my fantasy, as we shuffle along, back to our elevator building.
We watched: Better Call Saul Season 3. Orange Is The New Black. Long Strange Trip, the Grateful Dead documentary. Nashville, living for each new episode. Broadchurch the same.
I read: Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer’s spot-on memoir of growing up a randy girl. I didn’t just read it, I crawled in her head or she poked around in mine. David Browne’s Grateful Dead book. James Salter’s Burning the Days. At our local cafe the HiLo, that has become an extension of our living room we love hanging out there so much, I’m making my way through a tiny old copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a book I loved in the past. It’s this edition, from the communal bookrack in this place I’m enjoying, as I picked up a pristine copy in the bookstore the other day and it held no interest. I’m praying nobody pockets the book, though I know how it ends.
I was drinking coffee and writing in Moto, the Hudson coffee shop an extension of our kitchen, and nodding my head to the Turtles “You Showed Me” when it was wrenched off and a surface-pretty voice started singing “YOUNG and IN LOVE” over and over til I thought I would scream but there was something in the music and the way she said it that made me have to find out who it was. Lana Del Rey. I went in to work and put on the Turtles.
My two big destinations this summer – a new solo album and the book I’ve been working on for almost a decade (I found the notebooks from France when I was getting started for real, 2009) – actually came into view. Eric and I have spent days in the studio aiming to wrap up this recording of my songs we’ve had going for a few years. They are all hanging together and it feels like an album. The Old Guys is the title. And finally, it looks like I have a publisher for my book. I’m afraid to say anything more than that for now. The record I will put out myself early next year. I can see a beautiful star-filled sky on the horizon when I think of both of these things finished and out in the world.