Riding With The King

I’m on tour with Tom Petty right now. Let me tell you, it’s a ride. The sheer size of the operation, the level of skill and expertise. Hit after hit, night after night. The volume of fans – the volume. But in the end, it  comes down to one thing: the music.

I’m driving from gig to gig in my Subaru and listening to Warren Zanes read his incredibly interesting, enlightening Tom Petty biography. I know everyone’s on to Bruce writing about his own life and I’m eager to take that trip too – but for now it’s answers to many questions I never knew I had about the blond one, and much to think about on the subject of art, ambition, how where you come from can point you where to go but not what to do when you get there.

A great aspect of Warren’s book is his connection to his subject – first as a fan and then as a musician himself, whose band ends up opening a tour for one of their heroes and experiencing first-hand a music business that these days exists in the mists of time like King Arthur’s court. Somewhere in a notebook I have scrawled a possible date at the Fillmore in San Francisco opening for the Heartbreakers – I was on the short list or maybe the medium list to fill a slot during the twenty nights of their historic stand back in 1997 and imagining that possibility is as potent and magical as had I actually done the date (maybe). I carry that possibility with me onstage every night – I can’t help it. I am always partly in your living room, bar, club or bookstore and partly onstage not only opening for but playing with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (the Clash, the Raincoats, Who, Bob Dylan’s band and dozens of others. Sometimes I’m with one of my heroes for real, Wreckless Eric, and it’s still a thrill).

Touring solo – it’s all coming back to me, there is nothing insulating you so it’s quite an emotional thing. You remind yourself why you’re doing it – to get up for that hour or two a night and bring your music to people – but unless you’re wearing some impermeable coating, you are absorbing the places and faces you encounter like any traveler would. These are piled on top of memories of other shows and tours over the years – oh, that couch in that dressing room. That couple, they were so nice. The people you meet and talk to, the bored barista (not the pickup truck with TRUMP emblazoned on the back, who cuts me off, he doesn’t get to play); even a hand reaching out from a ticket booth on a toll road, become your band – your Heartbreakers.

I’m only partway to Rochester when I have to pull over and take a nap at a rest area. Getting out of the house was overwhelming, trying to mail out records, load equipment, load records I have yet to mail out into the car. It didn’t help that painters were working on covering the chipped and peeling paint on parts of our house – they had removed the front step making it that much harder to actually leave and it all felt so significant. Eric helped me pack the back of the car and promised to text me a photo of the pack. He’s the best at arranging the gear and it was a sweet way to have him along with me for the trip – oh right, that leads and pedals case goes there.

Rochester I felt nervous being solo after a couple band shows and I was dorky and awkward in my banter but the audience (many of them friends or familiar fans) were with me and for me so it was okay. Stayed with our pals Rick and Monica in their cool house in a cool neighborhood – I love Rochester’s architecture and artistic bent, the arts and crafts palette reflected in the trees and sky must have something to do with the lake.

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Rochester

I had to nap again in the car on the way to Cleveland – maybe catching up from troubled sleep for the last few weeks worrying about this whole enterprise. There’s a feeling of throwing off worries and burdens on the road – you’re doing this very specific thing, not a hundred different ones, and you can just let everything else slide up to a point.

At the Beachland, an old Polish (?) hall with attached tavern, I’m being joined on a few songs by Chris Butler and Harvey Gold’s Half Cleveland outfit. We run through stuff and I go downstairs to the familiar dressing room only to be greeted by a room of half-naked women and men, g-strings and body paint: there’s a Halloween burlesque show in the ballroom. I stake out a tiny corner on a couch facing away from the makeup mirrors, all that flesh in green paint is kind of distracting, then the club owners Cindy and Mark and manager Matt who are so nice to me, tell me to use the office. It’s always its own thing and feels very homey, playing the Beachland, some dear fans and even a few of my cousins are there. I’m up against Tribe fever – no game tonight but there is baseball madness in the air. Wish I’d gotten more people but I don’t know how to make that happen in Cleveland short of throwing my lot in with the bustier brigade in the ballroom and slapping on some body glitter? I will still always go back if they’ll have me because to the people it matters to, it matters and that means everything really.

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Got to be the Beachland

The next day is a long drive to Champaign. I play at Cynthia and Ernie’s Sandwich Life house concerts – I’m not sure if the name comes from Warren Zevon’s quote about enjoy every sandwich but I met Cynthia through blogging (she reminded me we connected over my Hannah and Her Sisters Thanksgiving post from back in France) and I may have been the first of their now dozens and dozens of house concerts. Again I’m up against baseball, and Halloween weekend, but it’s a sweet crowd and I really enjoy playing this living room that feels like a house I might live in, full of interesting old stuff, a close family, lots of talk, music and good food. Thank you my dears.

I remember to get an oil change before I leave Champaign and it’s an easy drive to Willow Springs IL, I don’t even have to pull over for a nap this time. Petty is touring with Dylan by now, he’s in a dark patch (Tom has a lot of dark patches really, more than I would have ever expected) and there’s a stunning moment when Bob, who’s been kind of going through the motions on this tour, is reborn, right onstage in Switzerland. I love how the author weaves in Dylan’s Chronicles scene and corroborates with Tom Petty the reanimation of our beloved Nobel laureate. I must go back and reread Chronicles. I feel a little guilty listening to a book about music on the road instead of actually listening to music, but it just occurred to me I listen to music all day at my bookstore job, surrounded by books I can’t read because I’m working in a bookstore so this all makes sense!

The Willow Springs house concert is a dream. Jeff and Missy have set up their living room like a perfect little club, chairs and little tables for people to put drinks and food. They treat me so well and even though the Cubs are playing everybody focuses and listens intently.  I’m enjoying this now, feeling more comfortable being up there on my own. I drink a Moscow Mule in a copper mug and hang out talking til I feel like I should go – I don’t want to be the House Concert Performer Who Never Leaves, holding forth while the crowd of friends dwindle down to the hosts feigning yawns.

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The audience is getting older…

I have a scare the next morning when my phone goes black. Yes we used to tour without phones, internet, fax machine even and I was up for that then, because there was no other way, but having GPS on the phone saves so much time, energy and aggravation that the thought of having to go back to the old ways has me freaking out for an hour or two – even in the simple act of writing down directions to a mall with an Apple store I screw up and end up driving south two exits before I sense something is wrong. I pull into a service station and start groping in the back seat for my road atlas and then remember it was the Toyota Siena that had the road atlas in the back seat. I suddenly had a real pang cause I used to love to read maps. No phone, no phone – oh God, the thought of having an interaction in the service station just held no appeal. I decided to just head the other way on the interstate and sure enough duh, there was Chicago gleaming in front of me. The mall with the Apple store was massive but I managed to penetrate and locate (no phone! no phone!) first a glowing Microsoft collection of squares and Apple just across a fake village green with real grass. It took only a few seconds for one of the technicians to solve the problem and then I had to find my way back to my car, happy I had deposited my tour cash in a bank machine that morning because there was every store you could imagine and gig money has a way seeming like Monopoly money if it stays in your pocket too long – “it’s not real! Life is not real!”

Cubs fever was intense and here I was worried about Halloween festivities being too much of a distraction. Halloween comes every year but not so the Cubs in the World Series. I felt a little like an intruder at a family reunion, a friend of a friend of the family, wanting to leave these folks to their jublilation that I couldn’t begin to fathom because I grew up in Pittsburgh in the seventies, when sports team domination was ALL we had going for us. The Reckless Records instore was fun and went off fine, got to talk to some people and sell records. Then I needed to drive to Rockford for a show at Mary’s Place set up by Michael Whyte, who’s a facebook friend and musician and writer. We’d decided to go ahead with the show no matter that a ballgame would pretty much destroy any possiblity of a crowd , especially on a Sunday, but I’m really glad I went. Mary’s was a characterful old bar full of characters – I liked playing there. At one key point in a song, a good line I’m proud of, there was a cheer in the bar, one of those moments you hope for – then I realized that on the TV hidden from view in a corner the Cubs had just scored. I was playing with the Cubs now! Michael and his wife Kathy were wonderful, and Rockford is full of great old buildings, a perfectly preserved American town fallen on hard times but attempting to come back. Birthplace of Cheap Trick (cameo in the Petty book), I got to see some spots of local significance  and really want to give a gig there another shot.

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Birthplace of Cheap Trick

Driving back east, I was reaching the end of Petty. It brought me to tears a few times, partly love of Tom, partly Warren Zanes’ writing, partly that general feeling of connection/isolation that driving alone on the interstate brings – trucks you become attached to for several miles, pass and see again in the service area; an ambulance I despise as he sits a firm sixty mph in the passing lane for miles, then find myself missing when I finally get around him and he’s just a speck in the rear view mirror. Part frustration, looking back at my own story, part elation that I still get to do this. Part excitement mixed with resignation before the final gig of this trip – before I head up to teach at a songwriting workshop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – that most loaded of gigs: playing in Pittsburgh, where I come from. Still figuring that one out.

thanks Tamara Guo for this Pittsburgh clip

Begin Again

The songs I have down. It’s the tea towels that were making me nervous. I’d offered a free hand-screened towel as an incentive to do some pre-sales for my album release and then remembered I haven’t silkscreened anything in decades.

With the help of our friend Clif, I was able to turn a drawing into a screen and our living room into a screenprinting atelier, with Eric displaying dazzling ironing skills and Karen Schoemer making a cameo as wet towel runner. I only wish I’d ordered more towels for the initial run so I’d have a load to sell, but I honestly wasn’t sure how well things would go.

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Tea towel artwork

The towels turned out beautifully and I’ll have more to sell soon.

I decided I had to start my Mod Housewife shows at Spotty Dog, the bookstore/bar I’ve worked at for almost five years. I think playing in a place where everyone knows you is scarier than playing in a much larger place, but given the amount of time I’ve spent serving people, sweeping the floors, washing pint glasses and arranging books and restocking toilet paper, it’s almost like performing in my living room so I felt comfortable when we set up to play – “let me just move this book display over here.” Doug Wygal, the original drummer on the album, Eric on bass and Alexander Turnquist who is one of my co-workers and a stunning solo twelve string-guitarist, helped me create a joyous racket. That’s what it feels like to me, playing this old stuff and some new songs too. I was able to walk into work two days later with my head held high. I know the locals and regulars & my co-workers think of me as the bartender too polite to yell “LAST CALL” so it’s nice to show them that’s all a cover, at least part of the time.

 

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Rocking the stacks – photo by Karen Keats

Cambridge was Sunday, an afternoon show at Atwood’s. I like this place a lot. Nice atmosphere, good food and people come out. We did this one as a trio but still had too much equipment to fit in the Subaru, so Eric drove his Buick and Doug and I caught up on stuff on our drive, he worked at Sony for years and I spent a lot of time temping there so we were reconstructing a little piece of midtown history on the drive. Played a rocking show and sold records and chatted with people. Home by ten P.M.

I worked a shift, communing with the books until the bar got busy. I feel lucky to have a fun part-time job to balance out the art and commerce, it’s comforting to put books on shelves in their places, fill up people’s pint glasses to just the right level, dim the lights, put on good music and hear snatches of the different conversations going on. Maybe I’m just getting to a different phase of life where I don’t worry as much about what it’s all coming to, or maybe I’m just on a high from playing a few shows and the angst and doubt will come creeping back in?

Spent yesterday packing up and mailing the pre-orders and their corresponding tea towels while a team of house painters worked on the front of our house. Aside from the roof, it’s the first time we had somebody else do work around here and Eric was so sweet, bringing them coffees on a tray – he was going to scrape and paint the weathered parts himself but being up on a ladder alone just doesn’t work and winter is coming. It’s going to look so beautiful when it’s done, we won’t recognize the place.

He changed the strings on my 12-string and acoustic guitar instead.

It feels strange setting off on my own this morning. I’ve played some scattered solo shows the past year but this is the first time I’ve gone off on a solo run in over a decade. The last time (when…when was it?) the world was pre-Facebook, pre-smart phone, pre-Obama! I’m excited and looking forward to playing. I can’t help but pick up on the World Series excitement: Cleveland vs Chicago, I’ll follow that thread of rust belt rivalry and swoop around back to Pittsburgh to remember where I came from. Teach at a songwriting workshop in upper, upper Michigan and come back home to vote.

Cueing up Warren Zanes’ Petty biography for my first audio book of the trip. Running down a dream – again. It always feels new.

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Call Mary

The white slip of paper glows on the windshield of my minivan parked in front of the bar/restaurant/venue where I just finished performing.

Damn! A parking ticket. There goes part of the money I made tonight.

I snatch the paper from under the wiper blade and am relieved to see it isn’t a ticket, just some lame flyer. Before I crumple it up to throw in the trash, I examine it under the streetlight. It’s a drawing of a shaggy-haired person – could be a man or a woman – confidently holding a cutaway acoustic six-string. Above, in an elegant font, it says: “Learn to play guitar…FINALLY! Call Mary, 617-429-9441.”

I look up and down Somerville Avenue. No other vehicle has a white slip. Only mine.

Ha! I think. Haven’t I just played for ninety minutes to a decent number of people (given the economy and tonight’s TV schedule)? Didn’t they clap and cheer and buy records afterwards?

But the flyer is too artful to be dismissed. If the font was Comic Sans, Helvetica, Courier, Times New Roman even, I could laugh it off. But no, whoever made this flyer has style, class, attention to detail – they know.

I look at the other cars again: no white slips. That proves it – whoever put that flyer on my windshield knows the truth.

“Learn to play guitar…FINALLY! Call Mary.”

The “FINALLY” in all caps seals it. Mary has been watching me for decades. She saw me years back when I played in the theatre across the street, a much bigger venue. True it had been on a bill with others, a celebration of the label I was on at the time. What a night, standing ovations. Anything seemed possible. Now I’m playing on the other side of Somerville Avenue, label-less, in a bar/restaurant/venue. If I could take back those hours I’ve spent aimlessly trawling the clearance racks at TJ Maxx, listening to other people’s hits through the loudspeakers, Mary would’ve targeted somebody else.

I picture Mary in a candlelit room. Her fingers brush the strings of her guitar and climb higher and higher on the fretboard, all the way into curve of the cutaway while her hair cascades over the soundhole. Notes join together and snake up to the ceiling and out the windows, anointing her sleeping neighbors with love and peace. Mary plays for the joy of it, for the sheer act of creation – not for acclaim or a paycheck. She’s not even smug about it – Mary is above smugness.

Joy, love and peace. I’m calling Mary.

 

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Photo by Karen Keats

On tour and looking for Mary in Cambridge MA Sun Oct 23 4 PM at Atwood’s.

A Mother’s Love

“If you love, love the moon. If you steal, steal a camel.” Egyptian proverb

Your honor, I stand before you accused of stealing a coat. If it pleases the court, I have a few words to say in my defense.

I admit the coat belonged, or rather belongs, to my grown daughter, and that I agreed to store it, along with a lot of larger and bulkier items, until the time she felt fully moved in to her new apartment in the city. So for the last couple years, we have stowed a queen-sized mattress, several boxes of books and records, a dresser, some lamps and a trunk in the garage. I’ll add that half of our attic is devoted to “the archive”, a near-shrine: my daughter’s Barbie collection, Simpsons memorabilia, Happy Meal toys and 90’s Disney merchandise. Let the record show I have never shirked my parent-as-storage-facility responsibilities.

But back to the coat. Your honor, when I found it crumpled and wadded up in one of my daughter’s trash bags full of clothes and realized it was a fine quality camel hair coat, I took the time, trouble and expense to have it dry cleaned. My motives were selfish, I admit, but I fully intended to return it to the bag after I wore it once or twice. I even showed my daughter the courtesy of asking if I could borrow the coat – true, I was in England wearing it at the time and we live in New York. If I recall correctly, my daughter chuckled when I told her I had appropriated – I mean worn- the coat. I believe her exact words were “Oh, Mom.”

When I returned home, I forgot whose coat it was and just got used to enjoying it. Everything was fine until my daughter came for a visit and saw the coat. “I’d like it back,” she said. “Can you bring it next time you come to visit?” Here’s where things get a little blurry. The main point is – why can’t I keep the coat?

I’ve never denied my child anything. When she was growing up, I wore thrift shop shoes so that I could put new Skechers on her feet. Summer camp, gymnastics classes – whatever she needed, I found a way to provide.  By keeping the coat, I’m only following that maternal instinct – the coat is in fact too big for her. I’m just looking out for her welfare, the way a mother does.

In summary, I’d like to – hold on, I just had a text from my daughter. Poor thing has a cold. I’m always telling her to dress warmer. On second thought, your honor, may we have a dismissal? I need to drive down to the city to drop off a coat.

 

Twentieth Anniversary

I usually resist going full-on self-promotion here on my blog (even though it can’t help but creep in regularly) but I have to go for it this time as I really want anyone out there in range of my upcoming shows to know about them. It’s been ten years since I did a solo tour and my head is spinning with fear and excitement. Still booking/trying to make a few more things fit/convince this club or that promoter but this is the general shape of things for now. Yep, I still have the coat…

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Odds Against Tomorrow

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty —

“I’d like a birch beer, lots of ice.” It’s eleven AM in the bookstore/bar, I’m running behind, haven’t counted the register. “Take your time, take your time, I don’t want to be a bother,” the guy says “—Hey, don’t pour THAT much in the glass!”

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty — “Hey excuse me, are you the only one working today?” the guy says. I guess I’m not good enough for you, buddy? Tough. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty — oh shit, wait, where was I?

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –

“Excuse me, miss — could you look up a book for me? It’s called Odds Against Tomorrow. They made a movie of it—“

A-ha! This is sounding familiar. I thought I recognized this guy. l know what’s coming next and try to head it if off: “Oh, right!” I say cheerily. “They shot it right here in Hudson”—

He won’t be denied his moment: “It starred Harry Belafonte. Directed by Robert Wise. I was in it.”

I admit I was charmed the first time I heard this story, over four years ago, of how famous noir film Odds Against Tomorrow was shot in Hudson in 1959, and this gentleman, then a young boy (“though you won’t believe it to look at me, I’m sixty-three now; I was ten at the time”) had a role in the movie as an extra. The second time, two years later, I was merely bemused. Now he’s sixty-seven, I’m four years older too, and this time when he starts launching into his story of how Harry Belafonte was so nice, I practically snarl “And every year, for years after, he sent you a Christmas card, yeah – I know, I know!”  But I restrain myself.

“So, hey do you have that book in stock? I asked that nice girl, the one who wears jeans a lot, who works Tuesday and she said she couldn’t find it.”

“Nope, not in stock – I can see if we can get you a copy—“

“Nah, it’s out of print. There’s another book by the same name, but that’s not it.”

“Okay well, I better count this money-“

“Sure miss, take your time.”

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –

“It’s written by William…um, McGivern, not the other guy.”

What a pest.  Maybe I’ve been at this job too long?

I’m curious and look it up. The McGivern book is out of print, and the internet search for Odds Against Tomorrow mostly yields results for Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel of the same name.

I pretend the guy’s not there and finish counting. Then I get out a broom and start sweeping, too busy to minister to the needy.

Later, it occurred to me I have my own story that I tell over and over. I guess we all do. My first solo album Diary Of A Mod Housewife came out twenty years ago this month. I’ve done plenty of other things before and since then (haven’t I? haven’t I?), but that’s the one the most people know. If we don’t mention what we’ve done, will it be as if it never existed? The album’s out on vinyl for the first time in October. You can pre-order it here.

Back in the bar, I’d felt a little guilty for being annoyed, and turned to ask the guy what it was like, working with Robert Wise – who directed over forty films including The Sound of Music and West Side Story.  But there was just a sweaty, half-drunk glass of birch beer on the end of the bar, with a half-poured soda bottle next to it.

 

Been There

You probably haven’t missed me, but I’ve missed you. Yep, it’s your old pal, the Bag.

I’ve had almost two years of quiet contemplation in the garage. I know, it sounds like a lot. But in the world of nylon gym bags, that’s nothing. A blip in a long, long 600-denier polyester life. Guaranteed.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to: writing my memoirs. I’ve got an agent and everything, who promises me things will really happen if I can just come up with a decent title. So I’m trying these on for size:

  1. Holding It All In
  2. The Things I Carried
  3. The Longer The Arm, The Shorter The Handle
  4. In It For The Long Haul: From Little League To Rock’s Big Leagues (I know, that one needs work)
  5. Schlepper

That’s a few anyways. As you can see, I’ve really been working hard.

I kept starting to write an update, but figured everyone was so busy with all that’s going on in the world, they didn’t need to hear a grumpy old bag venting, or an annoyingly upbeat bag talking about how good life is, so I’ve kept quiet. But this thing happened the other day, and I need to tell somebody.

Okay, so I heard a lot of excitement from the house. There were houseguests coming and going, regular summer stuff. But this sense of anticipation, I could feel it. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought maybe those two lovebirds were going to have a new addition to the family, but I do believe that ship has sailed (for her anyway) and I don’t have them down as pet lovers, what with all the traveling.

Every day, she’d be out there looking for the UPS man. And she kept talking about how their lives were about to change for the better. I was all ears, sitting here in the dark with the recycling and old wood.

Finally I saw a box the size of a small child delivered, and heard some whooping and hollering. “It’s here!” she cried. She even did a dance around the breezeway, which was frankly embarrassing. I mean, have some dignity lady. But this was clearly a big deal to her, so I let it go.

Then – nothing. It was quiet in the house. No wild banjo picking, so there went that theory. No didjeridoo lowing in the night (“all I can say is – didjeriDON’T” I’ve heard him joke in a fake English accent, so figured that was a long shot).

I’d kind of given up hope of finding anything out when the garage door opened and somebody flung a cardboard box into the pile of recycling. I waited until it was all quiet and then crept over to take a look at the box that had held this new whatever that was rocking their world.

It’s a garbage can.

A kitchen bin. Stainless steel, with a foot pedal.

This is depressing.

I know they’re in there, taking turns popping trash into the bin.

“Remember when you used to be all about the music?” I want to shout.

But I was looking back over her old diary entries, and it seems we’ve been here before. “Ma Poubelle Nouvelle” she wrote, in 2011. My New Trashcan. It’s a touching read, about how things just weren’t right for the two of them in France, and the garbage can in the kitchen proved it.

In two weeks they’ll have been here five years. And they chose me not long after to help them along on the journey. They’ve been building a new life for themselves and this trashcan upgrade is some weird totem. I guess I should be a little more accepting.

Maybe even work all this bin business into my memoir?

It’s going to be a winner. They might even make it into a movie.