Maybe Someday, But Not This Week

This week, two musical kindred spirits are coming to my area to perform. And I will see neither of them.

One is Ben Harper, who will be appearing tomorrow at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I first became aware of Ben from his scintillating cover of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields” for the soundtrack of the 2001 film I Am Sam. Ben’s vocals floated through the song, reinterpreting the already very familiar tune to become something fresh. After that I went out and bought “Fight for Your Mind” and “Diamonds on the Inside”. The songs from these two albums remain alive to this day. I heard one cut recently on an episode of the CBS series The Good Wife.

The other is Robyn Hitchcock, who will be performing on Wednesday at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. Robyn launched his career in the London punk scene, but I became enamored when I heard him play on the radio on “Mountain Stage,” which broadcasts from West Virginia, of all places. I ran out an bought his 1991 CD “Perspex Island,” which fit right in with the Richard Thompson CDs that I was also buying at the time.

Robyn Hitchcock, c. 1991 (photo: Merlyn Rosenberg)

Robyn Hitchcock, c. 1991 (photo: Merlyn Rosenberg)

It would seem to be a no-brainer that I would go see at least one if not both of them. But there are many things to consider. First, there is the question of who I would go with (going alone is not an option). My wife would probably hate both of them. Our musical tastes overlap by only a thin slice. After our decades of marriage, we have reached an understanding that we like what we like, and it is not worth the effort to try to convince each other otherwise.

Secondly, neither of my children are quite old enough for a night on the town (and if I were to bring one, I’d have to bring both, or neither). Which brings me to reaching out to someone outside my family, and that only gets complicated. These are the trade-offs one makes in life.

Additionally, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to paying money for a live experience. It has to be pretty much a guarantee, or I will feel ripped off. Buying a ticket to see Ben or Robyn would be a pretty safe bet, but it becomes much less so when I have to convince the companion to come along. I can’t make a promise to someone who does not already know the music, and I’m not enough of a good time myself to make up for any deficiencies (real or perceived) that might become apparent at the concert.

I’ve seen some of my music heroes before–Richard Thompson, John Gorka, Colin Hay–and I’ve been pretty happy. And yet some bits somehow don’t fall into place, and I’m left wanting…what? I don’t know.

I do know some people just spend the money and go to concerts enough times to finally experience that right moment. I just see that as a lot of money to spend that I don’t have. I need each penny to count.

I realize that maybe it’s me, that I may be making too much of it. That maybe I should just suck it up and go.

And maybe I will someday. But not this week.

Looking For the Heart of Jazz

IMG_1037“I’m a classical guy,” says Larry, the pianist. “I’m used to having a score in front of me and just playing. This is a whole new mindset.” Jazz is a mindset–I’m in total agreement.

We’re meeting for the first time, the five of us, having answered the call to form a jazz combo. The call came from the jazz program at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. Technically, it’s a class—we had to pay for the eight weeks—but more than that, it’s an experiment in learning to play music together.

I came to play drums, although I’m not really a drummer. That is to say, guitar, and not drums, is my instrument of choice. I also play bass guitar, and in that role I was part of a folk/rock band for four years. Over the years, though, I’ve dabbled with the drums and as a bassist, I have a good sense of rhythm. But I’ve never pursued drums seriously, or any instrument for that matter. I’m a musical hobbyist.

When the e-mail arrived saying drummers were desperately needed, I thought to myself, Why not?

We enter our practice room located in the Music Center at Strathmore, a performing arts facility. The room has an almost excessively high ceiling, nearly as tall as it is wide. One wall is lime green and one baby blue. The other two are white. A whiteboard extends along the length of one wall.

There are five pianos, not counting the electric keyboard, and a drum set, fairly stripped down, with a snare, the kick drum, one tom, and a floor tom. Guitar amps and music stands are scattered about, and chairs are stacked in the corner.

Lyle, our instructor, greets us. He knows Larry and one of the guitarists, Andrew, from before. Lyle is probably in his mid-thirties, handsome with a Latino flair. His instrument is saxophone, but he can hold his own on the piano. He is in effect our bandleader and “cat herder.”

We start playing right away. I don’t have many jazz songs memorized, so I concentrate on keeping the beat steady while listening for the changes. Lyle tells me what the groove should be–he always says “groove.” He’ll say it’s “swing” or “bossa nova” and I take it from there.

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“I don’t know much jazz stuff,” Andrew, one of the guitar players, tells me at our second class. “I come from blues and folk music.”

I nod. The five of us have different musical backgrounds, but we are all in this combo for one reason: to learn more about this music form called jazz. And Lyle does his best to help us in the one hour we have per week.

Lyle clearly loves jazz. He gets excited as he talks about the songs we could do. He’s here at eight o’clock on a weeknight. You only do that if you enjoy it.

IMG_001He talks about common jazz forms, such as the II-V-I chord progression. And he talks about soloing. In jazz, it’s all about the soloing. Lyle explains soloing as if the notes were food on your plate. If you’re really hungry, he points out, something simple will suffice, just to get you by. Once you’re full, though, you can start being choosy, picking things that are more interesting, that have more flavor. It’s the difference between using an F major scale in your solo, or playing in the Locrian mode.

Even though I’m the drummer, I still pay attention to all the music discussion. I hope to be able to apply it to my guitar playing someday, to absorb the jazz feel, to gain more insight into the musical form.

Neil, the trumpet player, and Mazyar, the other guitarist, handle most of the solos. As the only horn player, Neil is in effect the lead instrument. The rhythm players—the piano, the bass, and drums—all support the horn. We are to let the horn lead, taking cues from him, Lyle explains. In doing so, we abandon pathways we’re heading down if he leads us in another direction.

I don’t feel strongly about soloing on the drums. Actually, I find drum solos a bit annoying, so I don’t wish to inflict that on others. By the fourth class, I’m getting more comfortable with the swing, bossa nova, and funk grooves. I listen and watch, trying to keep it in the pocket.

Lyle says that we could try something called “trade fours,” where every four measures everyone drops out except the drums. It’s a way to feature the drummer for a few bars. To do this, the bandleader holds up four fingers during the song. The drummer always has the option to shake off the suggestion, like a baseball pitcher taking signals from the catcher.

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The final class of the session is to be a performance. Lyle wants us to have arrangements for the songs we’ve worked on to make them more interesting, make them stand out as not the same old thing. We try different tempos, different openings and endings. We try to take songs that have been in circulation since the 1950s and ’60s and make them our own.

On performance night, a younger combo goes first, all high-school boys. They are very good and most of the audience is there to see them. I’m nervous as I sit through the young guys’ set. When it’s our turn, I climb behind the kit. I’ve been onstage before, but every time it feels new, raw and unscripted, wide open to the possibilities.

Performance night.

Performance night.

And then our four songs are done. As with most musical performances before, I am absorbed by my mistakes and all of the things I could have done differently. But my family and friends say it sounds great.

I guess we succeed in pulling it off. Considering that we’ve only spent eight weeks together, we do as well as possible. But that’s the heart of jazz. It’s a group of individuals coming together to speak through music. We hear what each other has to say, and hope that those listening will find our sounds worth their while.

Where Do the Days Go?

If I had work where I felt fully engaged, where I felt that I was using my skills for some helpful purpose, where my efforts were recognized and appreciated, then I would be able to go home each night with a feeling of accomplishment, satisfied with the knowledge that I’d done good that day. Evenings would be relaxing down-time, and I would be available for whatever was needed, whoever needed me.

As it is, I feel that my work hours are wasted time. I feel that I’m making the trek each day to fulfill an obligation, waiting for the time when I can go home and when my real life will begin.

Unfortunately, the daily ritual, in all its unsatisfying ways, grinds me down, so that by the time I reach home again, I’m running on a nearly empty tank.

If we have something planned for the evening — a school activity, my son’s baseball game — then I go with it. It will provide meaning for the day.skycranes

When there’s nothing, though, I drink some wine before dinner to recharge. It helps to bridge the gap between my lost work hours and the precious few that remain in the day. And I find that I need to seek out a task. Many people plop down at the TV for the rest of the evening, but to me, that’s more time wasted.

So I pay bills or balance the checkbook. I help one of my kids with homework or organize my desk. During summer, when the days are longer, I’ll mow the lawn or do other yard work.

And when there’s none of that to be done, I’ll want to play my guitar. Except that my nails will be too long, so I’ll have to cut them. Then I don’t want to bother with pulling my guitar case from the corner and tuning up. So I don’t.

Or I’ll think of all the great writing I could be doing. But I don’t.

I just sip my wine and wonder where the days all go.

Stay At Home

As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.

“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.

“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”

“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.

“????”

We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?Trust me.

But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?

A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”?  When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.”  For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”

For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.”  It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”

My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do.  I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).

Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well.  I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice.  And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice.  Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.

In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives.  One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment.  That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”.  If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals.  We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.

I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me.  But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.

Was It Something I Said?

We broke up by email.

“Dear band friends,” it said. “I emailed Mike yesterday to let him know that I was planning on leaving the band and that I thought we should disband. We talked it over today and we are in agreement — while we may individually (and collectively) continue to play music in various configurations, the band is no more.  –Brad”

bassman

Me – the bass player – going for it at one of our better gigs.

I was okay with it at first. There had been some signs that foretold our demise. Our drummer had quit and we were struggling to find our sound without her. We needed to either a) locate a new drummer or b) figure out a new configuration to play our songs with what we had. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that it just wasn’t going to work out.

But then, about six months later, I found out that, with a new band name, Mike was playing again with our singer. A few months after that, Brad had joined them and they played an outdoor gig nearby.

That meant that, besides the drummer who quit, the band was back together. Except without me.

I won’t say that it didn’t sting. Because it did. And it still does.

At the outset, the break up seemed unremarkable. I’d been with the band for four years, and Mike and Brad had been playing together for about six. We’d performed a respectable number of paying gigs and recorded a CD. But these kinds of things have a life cycle, and time was beginning to take its toll. The drummer quitting was the final straw, and while we tried to limp along for a couple of months, it wasn’t working and we knew it.

At least, that’s what I thought. But now Brad, Mike, and the singer are playing together again, so there clearly is no tension or grudge held there. The drummer quit. Of all of us, I’m the only member who

  • was not consulted on the break up,
  • did not leave voluntarily, and
  • was not asked to rejoin.

I think they’re trying to tell me something.

But what? I gave all I had to give to the band. My bass playing was only getting better. I provided valuable suggestions on riffs and arrangements that were readily adopted. I supplied back-up vocals and percussion. I showed up to all the gigs. What did I do that merits being exiled? Was it something I said?

Sure, if I wanted to be blunt, I could ask. But I’ve only had a few conversations with Brad over the past year, and none with Mike. It’s not like I’ve had the opportunity to easily bring up the topic. And I don’t think it would go over well if I showed up unannounced, demanding an explanation. That would just make me look crazy.

Besides, actions speak louder than words. The message is loud and clear.

The new band will be performing in the next couple weeks. They have a different guy playing bass. They didn’t even extend me the courtesy of a personal note.