“You Might Be Interested In This”

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

 

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

Pure Volume

There was this shampoo a Nashville hairdresser turned me on to about a dozen years ago: Pureology Pure Volume. Designed to  lift fine locks like mine, it was truly worth the exta money it cost, when I could find it. I hunted it down when I went to Nashville or New York and imported it to France when I moved there.

One time on tour I left a just-purchased bottle in a Days Inn bathroom outside of Rochester. I remembered a few hours down the road and called the front desk of the motel to plead with them to send it on to me in Chicago. “You don’t understand,” I practically cried over the phone. “I need this stuff…I’m – I’m an -ENTERTAINER!”

“Oh I know that brand quite well,” the desk clerk huffed. And then, a little too bitchily, proving his guilt: “Anyways, we don’t steal expensive shampoos here.” I could hear his hair thickening and lifting through the phone line; smell the botanicals. No Gideon bible ever changed a life quicker. Internet searching helped me find another bottle in a mall outside Wheeling.

When money was extra tight, I’d try and skimp with John Frieda or some drugstore brand but there was no comparison. Good hair equalled confidence – and Pureology equalled good hair.

I saw the writing on the wall when I learned the small company had been bought by L’Oreal. The packaging stayed the same but suddenly it was a lot easier to find. Still smelled the same, still worked.

Until – it didn’t. My hair turned to straw. It was agony getting ready for gigs and even worse, looking at photos people would post after the shows. I knew, but I searched the internet anyway to find confirmation they’d changed the formula. “HOW COULD YOU? BRING BACK PURE VOLUME ORIGINAL FORMULA!!” mild hysteria registered on beauty forums (yes there are such places).

L’Oreal buckled. For a while they reinstated the old formula, calling it condescendingly  the“Extra Care” version. Until a couple months ago, when they stopped. The website says Extra Care is Discontinued. How could they? I have a new album to promote!

This is how it is then. I will soldier on.

I lost a piece of my nose a few weeks ago. It’s the second time I’ve had to have Mohs surgery for skin cancer, and in terms of symmetry maybe it’s best – left side, then right side. The doctor’s office was full of eighty year olds who all seemed to know each other from previous surgeries. Oh great, I thought. Do I have to join this club? Will I be back, again and again, to this (very competent) doctor’s office across the street from a bagel place in Fishkill? I texted my brother Patrick, who’s been through a Mohs procedure or two of his own. He texted back, “On my way in for Mohs today,” he wrote.

We went back and forth all morning, sending each other pictures of our bandaged faces. They got us both pretty good, worse than expected. It always is, I think. They downplay the procedure – “you can return to work in the afternoon!” Yeah, right. Not until I curl up trembling into a ball for a few days. The discomfort and distress had me way down. I mean hair products are something I have a little control over (not enough though: “BRING BACK PURE VOLUME RECHRISTENED EXTRA CARE FORMULA – NOW!”) but these little bits of ourselves that get chipped away, what can you do? At a low point I picked up my guitar and played and sang and it was like a miracle:  pure volume for the soul. I was myself again.

All as a roundabout buildup to promoting my new album. I’m excited and proud and thankful to Eric who really pulled me through the studio process. It took a while but it feels like it all fits together. And with limp hair and battered nose, I  look forward to getting out there and playing for people and having a chance to do something I really love to do. It’s too late to stop now.

You can pre-order The Old Guys here.  Tour dates below with more to come soon

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‘the spice of life’

If getting older is leaving childish things behind, and if Christmas is one of those things, this year is about the furthest point I’ve ever been from childhood. Of course every year we’re older. But isn’t that partly the point of holidays, to keep us moored to our younger selves? A box of ornaments we move from our parents’ home to our first apartment, to apartment, to house, to a storage space, to another house. Hanging up a faded glass Santa, you circle back to check in with who you were and how far you’ve come. Having kids you get to rev the whole time machine up again.

But some years are for throwing off the red and green paper chains of Christmas past and just going with what is.  You’re unmoored. This year is one of those. Eric and I are in England, the most Christmas-y of places, but his mother is in the hospital and so it’s been Christmas behind glass in our travels back and forth to visit her,  glimpses of other people in festive sweaters raising holiday pints through pub windows or hustling along dressed-up sidewalks with packages in their arms.

We arrived last week fully intending to buy gifts, put up a tree and make a nice dinner with Dorothy, Eric’s mum. She’s been in and out of the hospital so much from falls and just being frail, we thought it’d simply be a matter of showing up and taking her home from the hospital. It took about a day for it to sink in she wasn’t coming home any time soon or at all.

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So this holiday has been sitting with her talking about things real and imaginary, and trying to figure out what her future is. It’s good we came over – no gigs like the last three out of four Decembers – we need to be here. We get to visit Eric’s daughter and grandkids too, and that is wonderful. My mother died years ago and my dad is hale and hearty so I’ve never been through this and I don’t know how to help Eric work his way through it except to be here.

Did I mention our rental car is candy apple red – with a spoiler?

Every day we drive to Worthing (well, Eric drives – I have yet to work out manual right hand driving) and park in the ridiculously tight hospital car park. Eric parks in the same spot out of superstition. Our hideous red car in that spot holds everything together. We walk past the car park pay station and the hospital restaurant which was called Shoreline (Worthing is right on the sea) when we previously visited Dorothy here, but has now been renamed insultingly ‘the spice of life’.

“Ha ha ha,” I said the first time we saw the new sign. “That would really be the end of all hope wouldn’t it, having to eat a meal in ‘the spice of life’.

Eric promptly renamed it The Bland of Death.

The Bland Of Death became a marker in our twice daily visits to the hospital as we tried to get Dorothy to hold on to the idea that we hadn’t come to spring her and that the hospital staff weren’t likely to bring us all a tray of sandwiches no matter how nicely she instructed them to, as Christmas got closer and Eric and I made a pact with each other we’d get festive another time.

Christmas Day we showed up later than we had the previous few days and one of the nurses said sharply “She was asking for you all morning!” making us feel extra guilty for finally succumbing to jet lag and just sleeping as late as we needed. There were nurses in antlers and they gave the patients a nice Christmas lunch. Eventually we went out for a walk at the beach, which gave new meaning to the word ‘brisk’ – I have never experienced strong winds like that. It wasn’t cold, just punishingly intense. I think we enjoyed being pummeled.

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Of course it made me hungry.

“Eric, we need to find a sandwich or something before we go back to the hospital. There’s a BP Station-“

“We’re not having petrol station sandwiches for Christmas! Let’s try to find something better.”

“There’s an Indian restaurant there.” It looked grim.

“What about the Harvester pub?”

“I’m not eating in the Harvester pub.” Understood.

“I hate to say it but – there’s a Toby Carvery over there,” I said, not holding out much hope as I know how Eric feels about the words “gastropub” and “carvery”.

He didn’t disappoint: “We are not going to a Toby fucking Carvery!”

I can’t even have the satisfaction of being mad at him because I know he’s right. Imagine the dullest Denny’s at four AM on some desolate stretch of highway in Indiana or even Wyoming and you’re talking more joy.

Another grim Indian and a promising looking lit-up Co-op Supermarket that was in fact closed and surrounded by tempting food donations brought us back to the vicinity of Worthing Hospital. We pulled the glaring red car into our usual spot in the car park (Free Parking Christmas Day!) and it was unspoken or maybe one of us had to say the inevitable: we were aiming to eat Christmas dinner or at least lunch in the Bland of Death.

“Oh please let it be open, please let it be open,” I prayed. I said that I thought I might cry if we couldn’t have something to eat in the Bland of Death, and I kind of meant it.

It was four thirty in the afternoon. The cafe had closed at four.

I didn’t cry, I laughed weakly. We ended up driving back to Dorothy’s house, where she’ll probably never live again, to cook our Christmas duck breasts (they cook fast and were delicious) and then drove back to the hospital.

Dorothy was happy to see us. The woman two beds down threw her special Christmas sausage rolls across the floor. Edna in the next bed cried out endlessly for a pair of knickers lost sometime in the 1940’s. Through the darkness we could see our red rental car across the car park, across from the parking arm raised high, waving FREE PARKING FOR CHRISTMAS.

“I imagine you wish you had a different mother-in-law,” Eric’s mother said in a lucid moment.

No I don’t.

Driver

“Excuse my language,” said Danny the Subaru mechanic, “but sometimes you need to drive the shit out of this car. Cause you’re not really a driver, are you?”

I felt hurt. I drive! I drive a lot. I love driving!

“Just take it out and really put the pedal down – don’t, y’know, endanger yourself or anybody – and don’t tell the police I told you but  – in a straightaway, just get it up there fast and really blow it out…”

I’m not a driver…I’m not a driver? I WANT to be a driver. I don’t want my car sputtering and gapping because I don’t have what it takes to be a DRIVER.

When I paid the bill, Danny’s wife Amy (our conversations are usually along the lines of “Hi Amy, it’s Amy. “ “What can I do for you Amy?”) said sweetly, “Just drive the shit out of it once a week.”

So I did. The first time I felt sheepish and found myself looking over my shoulder. I thought ‘this is a job for my husband.’ He’s always putting the pedal down and has the speeding tickets to prove it. I’m kind of cautious. Sure I’ll drive seventy-five on the highway, when everybody else is, but I don’t want to get in trouble. Not that I can’t be rash. But I felt like I was trying on a new personality the first time I shot up a road not too far from our house.

It felt good. And the car started driving better. I was telling it what to do. I started looking forward to the straightaways.

* * *

“I want to pick up my product,” the man said when I asked if I could help him. He stood by the register of the bookstore/bar towards the end of a quiet Wednesday shift.

“Your product? What kind of product – something you ordered?”

“My product,” he said, already sounding exasperated. I was worried he sought something requiring discretion – hair color, an aid for erectile dysfunction, lacy panties (not that we carry any of those things) so I aimed for discretion in return.

“Kelley the owner knows I was coming in for it,” he said. “It’s a product to sell in the store that you don’t want to carry. I’m picking it up.”  He started moving around to the side of the register, craning his neck to look at the shelves.

“If you could tell me what I’m looking for- “

“A product – it could be in a bag, or envelope. It’s a product I made.” He was starting to get on my nerves. We sell books. And toys. And beer and cider. Art supplies Herbal remedies. Was it animal, liquid, vegetable or mineral?

“How big is it?” I didn’t think it was rude of me to ask.  “Is it hard, or soft; round or flat? It would really help if I knew what I was looking for.” I told him I’d text the owner and see where his product was.

“You do that,” he said. As I was texting, he asked if she’d responded yet.

“I’m tired of this,” he said. “You people!” He started coming around the register – “I think I see it there, I want to get it.”

“You can’t come back here, I’m sorry, just tell me what you’re looking for!” He kept coming, moving behind the bar. “You have to stop!” I cried. “I’m patient with everybody, but you’re really trying my patience, now tell me what it is you want from back there and I will get it for you.”

“You’re an asshole!” he said.

Now I’ve been called some things (not a lot of things, but a few): a slut, a tramp, a bad mother and a dilettante. But I’ve never been called an asshole. I don’t know how to be an asshole. Except for writing songs and some impulsive decisions, I’ve lived like I drive. I wish I’d learned to get angry. Sometimes assholery is required.

It’s never too late to learn.

“NO – YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE,” I said. “I’ve been trying to help you, but you won’t tell me what you’re here for. You can’t come behind the counter. Now get away,” I said, as the bar patrons suddenly started looking on, interested. Blake my co-worker stopped his conversation and came over to see what the fuss was. He handed the man a stack of colored squares like post-it notes. I heard a woman saying he’d brought them into the restaurant where she tends bar too. $40 fridge magnets.

“This place is awful!” the man was shouting now. “It’s the worst. You’re awful. You’re all awful.”

“We’re all awful?”

“Yes, you’re terrible! You’re the worst!” He was grasping his product now and backing out of the store, shouting all the while. I remembered him coming in for art supplies on many occasions, how I went out of my way to be friendly to the jerk and never even got a polite nod out of him.

“You’re an asshole!” he had to say it again.

“NO, YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE.” So I had to say it again.

“I love you, Amy,” one of the regulars said as he pushed out the door hopefully never to return.

“Amy’s nice to everyone,” another customer said.

Somebody else came up to give me a hug.

At least I hadn’t started to cry. That’s the hardest thing – when instead of being mad, instead of righteous, productive anger, the tears come. Like the sputtering of a Subaru.

I clocked out and got in my car. I’d planned to stop off for some cheese and wine to bring home. But I needed to drive.

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New album The Old Guys comes out February 23.

The Homecoming

“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).

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The Old Guys will be released February 23, 2018. Tour dates coming soon. In the meanwhile I’m playing a benefit for Planned Parenthood at Bell House Brooklyn with Cindy Wilson of the B-52s & Kaki King, Wednesday December 6. And pouring beer & selling books.

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Heartbreakers

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.

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Tom & me. We’re all Heartbreakers, aren’t we?

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