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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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

Another Season

Sat Jan 21 , the day after the inauguration, the country was reeling into marching mode. Eric and I were getting ready to drive down to NYC to participate in the women’s march when I saw a post by Suzzy Roche that her sister Maggie had died. It took my breath away. I couldn’t put into words how much she gave me and the world in general. I sent Suzzy (who I’ve been lucky to meet a few times) my condolences and went on to the march.

I’m a musician who writes songs and at one time sang harmonies in an all-female trio. The Shams would have existed without me hearing the Roches and specifically Maggie’s Hammond Song, but there’s no doubt what I felt the first time I listened to that indelible piece of art changed the arc of my explorations –  you think you know what you’re doing: pop music , punk, country harmonies, check – you’re working on combining styles into something of your own  – and then to hear something that breaks all the containers: the combination of the three Roche sisters singing, Maggie’s song and Robert Fripp’s production and guitar — you’re in a person’s soul and times that soul by three and suddenly the possibilities of what a simple record can achieve are raised and you want to do more and better.

I wish I knew how to get back to that feeling with music. I don’t know, maybe this is one of the hardest things about getting older, that leap into the void used to happen often, without the immediately accompanying doubts and “yeah but’s” – it felt worth it every time to take a chance and learn something new and, in the excitement of learning, create in an uncynical way, to believe “this’ll show em!” every time, before enforced humility, “well, at least the couple hundred who will be interested, I’ll do it for them and for me too!” I’m not beating the bushes for hugs of encouragement here, just telling it like it feels sometimes. Watching YouTube clips of the truly great at their peak, it’s like taking cod liver oil years after you were sick – a bracing realization  that giants did truly walk among us and luckily I was too busy listening and copying and working on my own thing to be gagged by intimidation. When you’re twenty five or even thirty you listen and there are decades ahead of you to get there, but when you’re in your late fifties? You have to do some hard reckoning and admit the beautiful hope these records gave you is sort of in the past, except in how you can share the joy with a few dozen or hundred people on a cold night in Hoboken or Catskill or Columbus.

I got too busy after the march to think about Maggie Roche, and then my friend Greg Trooper died and even though I hadn’t seen him much in the last couple years, he and his wife Claire and son Jack were a huge part of my life in Nashville and it crushes me to know that Greg’s not out playing and singing somewhere and making people laugh and feel good. He also happened to be Maggie’s brother in law, and the tears I’ve cried for Greg, I know some went towards Maggie and the wonderful musical families of the Troopers, Mulallys and Roches.

Last night was a nice, quiet Monday in the bookstore/bar where I work and I put on Hammond Song. Playing this record in a public place is not something you enter into lightly. There’s a built-in responsibility playing some recordings because when heard by a receptive person for the first time they can be life-changing. It wakes up a part of you. This one creates awareness of a hugely-talented trio of sisters, and the quiet genius who wrote many of their songs, who is now no longer here. I knew that the young guy having a peaceful drink and reading a heady book would appreciate it, as he and I often talk about stuff and our last conversation had been prompted by Dylan’s Joey from Desire – not so much the song as the intense Emmylou harmonies that lift it into epic territory.

Put Hammond Song on and…wait. “What – what is this? When is it from?” After the song finished we talked about the Roches. I told him about Maggie. I didn’t mean to but I started to cry. Just a little – the bartender is supposed to be the consoling one. I didn’t embarrass myself. The young guy understood. When he left and I locked the door, I played the rest of the album – Married Men, Quitting Time. I went home and watched The Roches on YouTube. I think I’ll learn to play One Season. Maybe while I’m going nuts trying to figure it out, I’ll be that impressionable, delusional thirty year old again.

The 1,000 Year Old Woman

I’m pretty good at being a grown-up. You can drive your own car across New York state, stop and buy and consume a bag of disgusting malt vinegar-flavored potato chips; alternately enjoying and being repulsed by the chemicals and think “oh just a few more,” then fling the empty bag across the car and listen to classic rock while the miles roll by.

You can check into a Hotwire hotel near Buffalo airport.  Turn your nose up at the graphics and loud music that probably felt edgy to a marketing executive when this chain was spawned a decade ago. Sit at the bar alone, eating buffalo wing flatbread (makes as much sense as a rib sandwich), drink a glass of Chardonnay and listen to two male pilots having a chaste love affair a few stools over: “And you know what, I’m not just saying this cause you’re Jet Blue, but do you know what my favorite airline is?”

A grown-up can finish her Zadie Smith novel, cry a little bit and then watch Bridesmaids for the fifth time. Wake up to a snowy airport landscape outside her Aloft hotel window and say “Shit – why did I stay by the airport in Buffalo? This is really depressing!” but kind of enjoy it at the same time. Pretending to be a criminal on the run is a good part of being an adult, possibly better than being one for real.

A grown-up on her own can arouse suspicion at the Canadian border, enough for the immigration officer to demand she go in to the office to give further information. “I’m doing an artist residency at the um…University of Western Ontario?” “What’s the name of the university? Have you done this before? When was the last time you traveled to Canada?” I never think about how seriously they take it at this border until I’m sitting there with the car window rolled down trying not to be vague.

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A grown-up can sit in a McDonald’s in London Ontario to use the free wifi so she can figure out how to reach her friend Norma’s house without GPS. Norma is a professor at the university and  set up the residency. Going back to school and being an authority is a part of being a grown-up I’m not sure I’ll ever have a handle on. There I said it. My future as a Professor Irwin Corey (RIP) of singer-songwriterdom is far from secure.

I’d been fretting about talking to Norma’s university students because I don’t know how to describe what I do, I don’t know how to sustain a career or find more of an audience, all I know is how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I hope maybe that’s a tiny bit of mature wisdom I can share.  The truth is when put in a position of authority I’m afraid I’ll be exposed to not be a grown-up at all.

I’d put together a little powerpoint of images because I figured that was a way to show the students who I am, where I came from, what things have been like for me, because that’s the only thing I’m sort of an expert on, but I was so filled with doubt about what a twenty year old Canadian pop music student knows or cares to know, that I sped through half the images, lingered too long on the other half and figured maybe I should just play a song because in the end those are the three minutes where I actually feel like I’ve got it down.

Talking to the students, I teetered between Mel Brooks 2,000 Year Old Man (which none of them have ever heard of, the 2,000 Year Old Man or Mel Brooks) emerging from a dusty tomb to croak how “there was no email! Everyone was looking for a record deal, and we had to find a payphone to book a show in the next town, have any of you ever seen a payphone before?” and Catherine O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack character in For Your Consideration (at least she’s Canadian, so there was a slight possiblity one of my references would ring a bell with somebody):

“Oh my darlings, you are so talented. That’s why you’re here, with me. But you are so – full of yourselves!” The students look at me, pens poised above blinding white notebook pages unsullied by any nuggets of wisdom. “Oh, I wish that I could jump cut you babies, right now, to the happy place that I’m in. I wish…but that’s your own journey.” Pause. It’s worth it.”

I don’t know how to be a grown-up in these circumstances, or I can’t summon the authority to be anything but an imaginary film version of a grown-up. Rather , I’m an awkward fourteen year old in the school cafeteria asking some wiser kids who’ve deigned to let me sit at their table – which is better, the crappy hamburgers or the lousy pizza? My sentences tail off – “Is this making any sense?” I say. Unless we’re all just having a conversation, about finishing songs or booking gigs, or hopes for the future. Then I feel alright. Maybe this is the way to do it, writer to writer, musician to musician. So I have thirty-odd years on them. I’m still trying to figure things out. When I stop, I guess that’s when it’s over.

On Facebook I asked how others would explain to these youngsters about songwriting – and the answers and comments poured in.  But listening to their fully formed songs, or honestly, before I heard a single note, I sensed nobody in the class needs help expressing themselves in that way or if they do they are set up to find out in their own time. These kids had to audition to be here, an audition I probably couldn’t pass. I know a lot and have done my time writing and playing but again, I can’t bring myself to expound on much of anything. I hope I gave them something helpful to chew on but in general I’m more myself writing or performing than talking about those things.

“You were really helpful,” one of the students said at the end, “because we could look at you and see ourselves doing that!” Hmm. All part of the service ma’am – I’m so ordinary, I make everything look possible!

img_0701I drank some wine at Norma’s house and we talked and watched films and videos together and I magically felt myself coming back to full-fledged adult. By the time I breezed through US immigration and hit the NY State Thruway, I was practically Large Marge, the badass lady trucker who terrorizes Pee Wee Herman.

“Gimme a coffee, regular and a chicken panini, kid,” I said with more gravitas than I’d felt in days, sending the girl behind the counter at what would hopefully be my last Tim Horton’s in a while scurrying for paper napkins and creamer. “It’s going to snow later tonight,” my voice boomed now, summoning my dormant inner oracle. “You can count on it.”

Blame It On The Boss

I’ve finally almost put the tissues away after a trip to the doctor and giving up dairy. I’ve been blowing my nose for weeks, since England. Sinus infection is hell.

I’ve been reading Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, for weeks now too. I finished yesterday.

Did the book affect me so deeply because I’ve been sick, or have I been sick because the book affected me so deeply?

I think both.

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I never expected I’d be so moved by this guy’s words and his story. I’ve listened to him plenty, been fortunate to see him a few times, even defended him on occasion. A few years back Eric and I dusted off some Creedence covers for our gigs in Asbury Park just in case he wanted to join us on stage, as he’s been known to do when he’s off the road. (He never showed up!)  But ever since I missed his historic Syria Mosque show in PIttsburgh during the Born To Run tour, I have frequently been out of time and out of touch with The Boss.

Yet I knew from the advance press and from the cover photo  that this was going to be a special ride. The soulful, awkward picture; the revelations of a fraught relationship with his Irish-American father and how he was blessed with a magic Italian American mom, just like me  –  the indisputable commitment to his art and his craft; the undeniability of his loyalty to where he comes from and who he came up with and yes, his frequent dance with depression, an egotism bordering on madness, an ability to think huge, to want so desperately to include everyone in his art – well you have to choose your moment to read this kind of book. Mine happened to be when I was suffering with my annual bout with sinusitis. I’ve wept frequently. “What’s he up to now?” Eric reading his Rita Coolidge or Thomas Cobb book beside me has asked. I’d put down the tissue and do some selective reading aloud, avoiding the sections that would make me blubber in front of my husband. Some revelations aren’t meant to be shared, they need to be discovered by each reader, on their own. Those moments where a writer sees themselves so clearly they see you too.

I knew he’d be able to spin his tale, but I just never expected him to tell me so much about myself. About what it means to do what musicians do. He made me feel alternately proud to have stuck at it for so long, ashamed of myself for not working harder, thrilled to be allowed to pick up a guitar or play a song I wrote for a crowd, depressed at every missed opportunity to do more, better. Oh Bruce, why do you have to be so good, so true? Even when you want to catch him on it – hey, you cast people aside,  you were a dude, you had Patty to raise the kids, a staff at your bidding – he pays tribute to them all, gives credit and you have to love him and thank him for taking us out there with him. He even describes putting double insoles into his (carefully chosen – style vs. functionality) boots and spraying down his hair for the Super Bowl gig so that when he steps on that stage, well we get to be there with him and it’s a privilege but not how you expect it to be. Onstage is the place his brain takes a rest and he is at peace – like most of us look at the waves on the ocean, taking us away from ourselves – that’s Bruce in front of a massive crowd, and he channels that peace and energy back to keep his patch of sea rolling and it’s a miracle.

Because he knows what it is to be the little guy, that is his greatest talent, so when I stepped on not an arena stage or even a foot high riser but a rug in a living room to play Dan & Liz Ferguson’s house concert the other day, I felt Bruce in my ear or over my shoulder, going isn’t this the best? And when I stand in front of a mic to record a vocal for my new album that matters because it matters to me, there’s the Boss again, next to my heart, going “It’s what you feel inside you need to share that matters.”  Yep, it’s Rock n Roll 101 but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded so emphatically and empathically  by an indisputable expert.

Maybe I’ve been a little malleable reading this book because I’ve been under the weather but it’s a miracle how the moment you need to hear a voice saying “It’s okay – it’s not easy, in fact it’s damn hard but you can do this, you must do this” – well, who’s been waiting all these years to be my buddy, my coach? That guy in the t-shirt.

So I thought I’d put the tissues away for good yesterday as I closed the Springsteen book and wiped away a last tear. My head was definitely clearing up.

But then I was listening to President Obama’s farewell address last night. He was that voice of measured, seasoned optimism that looks all the more sage and sane – almost saintly – when you compare it to what it’s about to be replaced with. The terrible possibilities of what’s ahead for this country were screaming almost loud enough to drown him out. But they couldn’t. He believes in us. It made me want to “grab a clipboard” as he said, do something. Something good.

As the Obamas left the stage, they played “Land Of Hope and Dreams”.  I held Eric with one arm and grabbed for the tissues with the other.

The World Has A Cold

“Bup-Bup-buh-buh-buh,” sings Jona Lewie over the supermarket loudspeakers. Eric and I are in the fray at Tesco alongside merciless shoppers lunging for cheese and sausages and bottles of wine or Christmas crackers, their trolleys serving as battering rams. I run back to grab a trolley even though we only need a few things.

“Spotty Dog – Now” says my phone. But I’m in England. I hope Otto got my message about covering this last shift for me. I picture the bar and bookshelves, familiar faces, happy chatter, the Marianne Faithfull version of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” that’s been playing nonstop for the last six months. I feel a misty wave of longing, aware that sometime in January I’ll be standing behind that very bar thinking “gee, I wish I was back in England fighting it out at the supermarket.”

We drink tea and eat Victoria sponge with David Thomas and his girllfriend Kirsty in a Hove tea room. He just happens to live around here. I’m too shy to tell him I saw the first Pere Ubu CBGBs show, when he was still Crocus Behemoth and I couldn’t get over how he had the nerve to wear a wide tie when everyone else was wearing skinny ones. The man dictates his own rules. Drinking tea with him and Eric is like some weird summit of pop music outliers of my youth – I feel like we should be filming this, talking about who makes the best mince pies, and Cleveland, and Mark Twain.

“How did the rest of the tour go?” David and Kirsty ask.

“Tour, tour – oh right, the tour!” It feels like a century since the tour ended, one week ago, with a fun show in Leicester. I’ve been suffering with a cold, like the whole rest of the world, and staying with Eric’s mother, trying to help her get her strength back after weeks in a hospital bed. Eric and I take turns walking her across the living room floor and bringing cups of tea, both drenched in sweat from the cranked-up heating topped off with a raging gas fire while the TV blares a special about a man who dons a rubber mask and custom wig to perform as Frank Sinatra and a revolving cast of carers drop in. When we’re gone, they’ll keep coming. I want to hug every one of them but they’d probably call me “that daft American”.

I keep thinking of the brilliant Gay Talese article for Esquire, 1966, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold”. Consider this paragraph:

Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy. 

Yes, it’s like the whole world has a cold this month. Congestion and muddled thinking, where you grope to remember what it was like to feel good and healthy. The only thing clear each progressive week is that things will never be as simple as they were the week before. The malaise punctuated by peaks of terror and valleys of dull depression. I don’t want to go home where Donald Trump was somehow elected president but is it any better anywhere else?

I want to go home.

“Bup-Bup-buh-buh-buh” sing a couple wheeling their trolley to the tiny car next to ours.  They smile at each other in snowflake printed sweaters and for one second I feel cozy like in a supermarket ad on TV.

“No one, but NO ONE, should have to spend Christmas on their own” decrees a Salvation Army ad on TV that plays about every ten minutes. We changed our tickets to stay with Eric’s mother an extra week. We will fly back ON Christmas, which actually feels like a relief because I’ll have had about as much Christmas as I can stand by then. We’ll dress up and maybe Business Class will be empty and we’ll get an upgrade? Or the pilot will be wearing a Santa hat or something wacky and the whole plane will laugh together.

“When will it end?” The Yardbirds – I keep hearing this refrain from Over Under Sideways Down in my head, every time I reach for another tissue and blow my nose.  It’s one of many songs we listened to in the car on this tour that keeps ricocheting around my head, that and A Salty Dog by Procul Harum and Mickey Jupp’s Moonshine, this is so us, geeking out to classic rock while the moon rises over a field next to a road between two towns. It wouldn’t have been the same, doing these shows without Eric. I remember whenever I sing Do You Remember That or Don’t Ever Change how lucky I am to have him.

(thanks to Daisy Wake for the clip from The Apple Tree in London)

“If you’re looking for a nice white wine, that one there is really good.” Umm… Blossom Hill? A woman in a knit hat with a smiling face is, shockingly, speaking to me in the supermarket.( A thing I really miss about the northeast US when I’m in the UK is a general open, easy manner I take for granted. I said “isn’t it a beautiful day?” to a man sitting with his dog outside a cafe in Norfolk the other day and he recoiled like the Wicked Witch of the West having water thrown on him – how dare I let my cheeriness invade his private surly territory?  But I understand, it’s a small island.) I’m so shocked that a stranger is talking to me in a store that I say nothing and the woman with the knit hat says it again. “Really nice flavor.” “Are you American?” I ask. “No, Canadian – but that doesn’t mean I don’t know good wine.”

Eric and I stand in The Mobility Shop, looking at wheelchairs to see if there’s some secret to finding the brake lock since we have yet to locate it on his mother’s version which led to her and I descending into a heap on the sidewalk outside a beauty parlor while a young stylist just inside the door looked on in horror. We’re taking his mother back to the beauty shop tomorrow.

“We’ve got competition,” Eric says under his breath in the cafe when a woman tries to hold the door open with one hand while pushing her mother’s wheelchair in with the other, knocking over stools and a sheepskin-strewn armchair along the way. We greedily down our coffees and try not to eavesdrop on the “Would you like cheese on toast? Or a lovely cup of tea?” conversation we had in the exact same spot ourselves yesterday. We’re on our own today. It’s like when you buy a new make of car and never noticed how many Subarus there were on the road before – how many, how many friends, family, strangers dealing with their own mom or dad in a wheelchair, in a care home; dementia, Alzheimer’s, illness or just plain old age. I feel so fortunate my dad has his wife and they keep spry and healthy, and I have four brothers too and their families, and my daughter. My mother’s been gone so many years it’s like Eric’s mother is my honorary one. I admire her wit and spirit and it’s wonderful to hear her say “You and Eric are a really good team”. I can’t bear the thought of her shoved in a corner somewhere.

When I want to fall back asleep every night after I wake up due to this damned cold I restrain myself from opening my computer to see if something new and bad happened in the world and think back on the gigs I’ve played over here , how they add up to many happy moments and it helps to remember these things are still possible; joy is still possible.

Eric’s daughter and grandkids are coming by.

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I find myself looking up the Catskill Price Chopper supermarket’s Christmas weekend hours – we must be going home.

Wishing everybody peace, love, joy and hope in some form (and clear heads, throats and sinuses)  over the holidays and in the New Year.

The Alien

“Have you been to England before?” a customer back at the bar in New York had asked, when I told him I was leaving for a trip to the UK.

“I’ve been going since I was nineteen,” I said, unable to sum up my relationship with the place in one sentence. An odd mixture of awe, intrigue and comfort.

After all these years, when I am in Britain – without having to think about it too hard, like a photo of your own face in a mirror – I am still a stranger in a strange land.

Take the tea towels. I proudly announced to audiences in Glasgow and Manchester and then Louth that I’d printed my own with some help, based on my love of the charity shop versions I’ve been scoring for decades.

In Louth, deep in Lincolnshire, the audience chuckled. Eric and I have often driven through the rural county, famous as farmland and as the birthplace of Bernie Taupin and Margaret Thatcher; where the great eccentric musician Robert Wyatt resides these days. Britain’s version of South Jersey crossed with Kansas, it smells a bit like cabbage.

“How much are the tea towels?” an older lady asked at the end of the show, when I took my place behind my merchandise displayed on a hostess trolley. I was astonished, quite moved even, that she’d lasted my entire two sets. They’d been a lovely audience. And she wanted to buy something too?

“They’re twenty each,“ I said.

“So cheap!” she replied.

“Oh, I’m glad you think so – I wasn’t sure if they should be fifteen maybe but they’re all hand-printed and so each one’s an original artwork really…”

“I’ll just go get some money.”

I got on with the business of selling albums and talking to people. In a little while she came back. “The tea towel,” she said. “I’ll take two!”

Beaming, I placed two towels over her arm, while she handed me:

Two twenty pence coins.

40P.

I don’t think you can even buy a square of toilet tissue for 20P.

I couldn’t say anything. It would have been too embarrassing. For her, for me, for the entire county of Lincolnshire and the world in general.

The price list I’d hung up showed the amounts: 10 & 20 for CDs, LPs and towels. But I’d left off the pound sign. Being the alien, I’d had a crisis of confidence when writing up the sign. Did the symbol for pound go before or after the number? Was it one line or two through the L?  Oh they’ll know what it means, I’d thought. Being the alien, you don’t always know what you’re dealing with.

I saw the triumphant lady heading back to her group of friends, tea towels slung over her arm. Before she had a chance to send them over to buy this bargain item, I shoved the rest of the towels in a tote bag and ran.

I hid in the dressing room as long as I could, to keep myself from blurting out “You! Are you kidding me? What costs 20P? Even in a charity shop you can’t buy a used pair of underwear for that.” I hid. When I came back upstairs she was still hanging out with her cronies. Don’t older ladies have to get to bed ? It started to dawn on me she was the mother of one of the promoters. Nice guys all. But when, one after another they came up to me to buy an album, I was hard as nails: “Twenty pounds.” I saw them wince. ” Yep, that’s how much.” (Okay, one I let off for a tenner and his Bill Hicks paperback that I’d been eyeing all night).

“Can we leave now?” I kept saying to Eric. “I really need to leave now.”

When we were finally in the car, I shared my shame. “I just couldn’t tell her it was pounds not pence! ” I said. “Do you think she was taking the piss?” (Sometimes an alien expression is the only one that says what you’re aiming for.)

“Forget it, Amy,” said Eric. “it’s Lincolnshire.”

I’m down to one towel over here now. But somewhere in a country kitchen just outside Grimsby, a redoubtable housewife polishes a dish with her bargain cloth, while the second one dries on the back of a chair.

“Quite good, these towels,” she tells a friend. “And so reasonably priced! You must get one next time Amy Rigby comes to town.”

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Come see the alien and her English husband playing some bass and guitar over. Sorry, no more towels.

  • Thu 8 Dec   Bristol       Thunderbolt
  • Fri 9 Dec     Southampton   Cafe Reflections
  • Sat 10 Dec   Cromer   Community Center
  • Sun 11 Dec  London   Come Down & Meet The Folks Apple Tree  6 PM!
  • Tue 13 Dec  Brighton Prince Albert
  • Wed 14 Dec Leicester The Musician