Into The Woods

“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.

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From McMahon cabin family slide show – home from NYC Christmas 1976, photo by 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.

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Aforementioned upcoming shows

  • Fri Aug 11    New Haven, CT         Cafe Nine (w/Willie Nile)
  • Fri Aug 25    Willow Springs IL    house concert (email Jeff@gandtenterprises.com )
  • Sat Aug 26    Chicago, IL                 Bucktown Arts Festival

Cruise Control

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.

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Backyard

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.

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Tanglewood

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.

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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.

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Two drafts and a proposal – sorry, trees.

It’s only late July though. Still on cruise.

Lightweight

Please, make it stop.

I am drowning.

I clearly thought I was better than I am.

Every week, I go further under, and I try but I just can’t get out from beneath this weight.

For years, I imagined what it would be like to be the person I find myself today,  and the sad fact is — that person is a fraud.

A pretender, someone who claimed to love reading, when really — all she wanted was a tote bag.

Okay, not just the tote bag. I wanted the apartment on the Upper West Side, the big sunglasses, the lox and bagels from Zabar’s. A short story now and then, or a restaurant review.

Not the crushing weight of constant analysis: political, cultural, moral. That’s right. I am not up to the task of being a subscriber to the New Yorker.

But I don’t have the heart to cancel my subscription.

Honey, remember how we always talked about moving to Northern California? Why don’t we just head out there, y’know — just…go?

Is it really worth it to do that change of address thing for the post office? I mean, how much mail do we really get anymore? We can probably find some nice people to sell the house to. This area is totally coming up. All kinds of people are looking for places to live around here, people like us. Ones who, y’know, read? Stuff like the New Yorker? That and the Greene County Examiner?

I feel better already. Just knowing I don’t have to chuckle knowingly at another cartoon. I mean, I could if I had to but — life is short and it’s kind of a relief knowing I’m not as clever as I thought I was.

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Love and Saint-Marcellin

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You’re on your way to Austin when you read that the state of Texas is suing the city of Austin for refusing to enforce the anti-sanctuary city bill. Remember that you put your finger on the map and said “I want to go here”.  Luck and timing aren’t really your strong suits.

*

You and Elizabeth McQueen who’s opening the Austin show sit in a happy hour bar and have a quick bite before playing. She’s forty, you’re fifty-eight. You talk about children, making music, what it’s like in Austin these days. She is closer to your daughter in age than she is to you.  You  remember when forty seemed like shouldn’t it be time to give this up? That’s when you moved to Nashville and realized you were only getting started. You still feel forty.

You need your glasses to: drive, read, look at your phone, read a menu, make sure your Instagram photos are actually in focus, string your guitar, check your makeup, put on your makeup. You’re not forty anymore.

*

You get off to a little bit of a rocky start in Austin, forgetting the words to a song you’ve sung hundreds of times. How come the audience is on your side? They are here for you. You wonder why you don’t play a gig every single day of your life.

*

After the first show, you open the calculator on your phone to add up the money in versus money out – how much you made from the gig and merch and will need to make on this trip vs. car rental, hotels, parking at Newark, gas. An amount comes up on the screen from the last time you closed up the bar after your Monday night shift and you think of how sometimes working those shifts you wish you were out doing gigs and now here you are, but doing the bar shift is so much simpler with no expectations or pressure – “let me make at least as much as a bar shift each night and anything else is gravy,” you decide.

*

The opener in a tiny room in a bar in San Antonio is a pretty young woman in Mexican dress who plays to a full room doing mariachi covers and Linda Ronstadt tunes. She’s sweet and has a beautiful voice but you just kind of wish she wasn’t there. When she introduces Poor Poor Pitiful Me as “another Linda Rondstadt song!” you caw from the corner of the room “It was written by Warren Zevon, not Linda Ronstadt! Know what you’re singing, it’s your job!” in the voice of an embittered crone. “I opened for him you know! He was kind. He’s dead now!” the crone shouts. Thankfully realize the voice is only in your head and you’re just patiently nodding along and smiling, up until the final song where she plays that Mexican standard Ay Ay Ay without a trace of irony. Resist the urge to start drinking. Have fun playing to a handful of fans and take the opportunity to play songs you don’t usually play and leave out the ones people always ask to hear.

*

Navigate the barbq ordering process in City Market in Luling – the restaurant part is big and bright with a counter but there’s a dark door that says ENTER HERE TO ORDER and there’s maybe a hint of flames and smoke back there but you’re a little afraid it’s all a big joke on first-timers and you’ll walk in to a broom closet while the whole restaurant laughs. Ask at the drinks counter and they say “Yes, go in there and order your meat.”

An old man in a snappy fedora and immaculate white shirt sits at a nearby table chatting with some strangers. “My wife says she’s giving up barbq,” he says as he munches on a sauce-laden rib. “Something on the news about carcinogens? I say for God’s sake we’ve all gotta die – let it be from something we love!” You’re half-sure the man is an actor hired by the barbq place, or the state of Texas.

*

After lunch, you see two men about the same size – one black and one white, the white one with a cowboy hat – carrying an antique table along the sidewalk. You try to figure out the story –  are they lovers, robbers – maybe you’ve watched too many episodes of Hap & Leonard?

Stroll on the shady side of the street and stop into the antique mall. You’re browsing the old linens and leopard-printed shoes and admiring a photo of a black gospel group in flashy outfits when you catch a glimpse of an older woman across the counter: she’s a little rough and weatherbeaten, like Thelma or Louise (whichever was the older one) a decade or two on – you realize you’re looking into a mirror.

The white man in the cowboy hat and the black guy come back in. The white guy looks like an older rancher. The black man is the proprietor of the antique mall. His wife appears from behind a rack of sequined costumes. You recognize her from the gospel group photo. “Is that your husband?” she asks, about the rancher who’s buying some chairs to go with the antique table.

*

Checking into the hotel in Houston, the desk clerk says “You don’t look anything like your photo” after you hand her your ID. That is your blessing and curse – where other people are apologetic about their bad driver’s license photo, even your worst ID picture looks more glamorous than you ever could in real life.

Still, you check the website of that night’s venue for the set time and see they’ve used a stock photo of a microphone instead of the picture you sent. Imagine this means they’re challenged at putting photos on their website and not afraid your photo is so offputting that it would literally repel customers who’d otherwise be interested in the show. But wonder all the same…

*

In some of the clubs, there are photos on the wall of all the performers who’ve played over the years. You see friends and musicians you admire; ones you’ve crossed paths with; a singer who quit your early band before she ever played a show with you and her head had to be cut out of the group photo and replaced with a different singer. You marvel at how many of these musicians are still hard at it, and how many are gone. You see your own face from twelve years ago, looking defiant. That’s how long it’s been since you toured solo. You’re not forty-six anymore.

*

It’s sweet how in every town, at least one or two people ask how’s Eric. You tell them he’s in Leeds, or Leicester. But he’s with you too because – when you’re not playing, and even sometimes when you are, everything you experience you think how he would enjoy it, or not or what he would say.

*

There’s a piece of cheese you’ve been carrying in your bag since you left home – Saint-Marcellin from the fancy store in Hudson. You keep meaning to throw it away, but every time you look for a trash can you can’t find one. At the Airbnb in Austin you don’t want to be the guest who left an old piece of cheese in the bathroom wastebasket, so you carry it to the next place, and the one after that. You promise yourself NO MATTER WHAT – how late at night and hungry you get, YOU WILL NOT eat this cheese.

*

A workman in a high visibility vest comes into the club in the tiny town of Crockett – it’s an old feed store where Lightnin’ Hopkins played often – and asks if you play the blues. You don’t want him to think you’re going to sit down and pull out a bottleneck or start wailing soulfully, so you say no. During your set, you realize you do play a form of the blues, because so many of your songs are about life’s challenges. Maybe the situations are too mundane to merit soulful wailing, but they’re real. The workman is probably home asleep in front of the TV.

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*

Finally find a trash can in Crockett and dump the cheese.

*

Your friend Scott gave you a stack of CDs to listen to. It feels almost nostalgic now, CDs. You pop in the Continental Drifters, it’s a collection of covers you heard them sing a dozen times and haven’t heard in years. Driving the back roads towards Dallas, you sing along with Peter, Susan and Vicky; Robert, Mark, Carlo or Russ. You’re in the Cowsills, the Bangles, the dBs; Hollies, Flying Burrito Bros and Fairport Convention all at once. You’re a Drifter too.

*

Stay in the Belmont Hotel after your Dallas show.  It’s deco splendor on a cliff overlooking the city. You go for a swim in the Mexican-tiled pool on Mother’s Day morning, the sky a deep blue and no humidity –  you feel like the richest woman in Dallas

Realize you were treated with respect and appreciation by every place you played on this trip – you are the richest woman in Dallas.

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You’d thought it would be fun to stay at Austin Motel your last night, but the price has doubled from what you and Eric paid last year. You look on Hotwire and score a 4 1/2 star hotel cheap, the only catch is it’s outside of town. Fifteen minutes from downtown, you check into a mountainside villa of Italianate luxury and splendor, and wonder if the whole thing is a ruse, a kidnapping plot (by whom? for what?) as three male models help you out of your car. There are suits of armor in the lobby, ancient crests, fountains, marble and frescoes – and none of this existed two years ago. Because it’s Austin, everyone is super-friendly. You’re possibly the only guest in the hotel. When you come back late at night, your bed’s been turned down and your guitar has been carefully placed on a luggage rack. It’s a little creepy. But the sheets are incredible.

*

Your friend takes you to see Brian Wilson in Austin – not the first time you’ve seen him but you’re sitting twenty feet away from the man and his fabulous band and from the first notes of California Girls, you’re overwhelmed by love – for music, Brian, your friend Scott who brought you here, every player on the stage. You feel very lucky to be here. Al Jardine is right in front of you too, singing Wake the World and Add Some Music To Your Day, these are all songs from records you listen to endlessly because they feel. so. good. Blondie Chaplin comes out and he is music. Seeing a show in Austin, like playing one, is a pleasure. Damn it, no matter how much it grows you still love the place.

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No matter how little it makes sense, and you think you should do something else, you still love music most.

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Harbinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.