now playing: dolly varden, “progress note”
so i’m in the middle of a little data housecleaning, and i found the following in a word document that was in an old backup file. from the days when i was compiling my thoughts in a more centralized fashion.
not sure why i thought this would be relevant, but some of it is pretty funny.
Earthquake? What Earthquake?
January 16th, 1994 – my sidekick at the time, Todd Bartolo, accompanied me to one of our regular stops in Lewistown, PA…Kirby’s. I’ve heard that they’ve since closed, which is a shame, because it was a great place to play, and we always had a good turnout. This particular night was the coldest in recent memory, with a wind chill well below zero, and we were travelling in my old 1976 Ford Econoline with no heat. We finished up the show and were getting ready to tear everything down when a guy walked up to us and asked, during the course of our conversation, where we were from.
“Reading”, we answered.
His face fell, and he told us, “maaaaan…you guys had an earthquake tonight, dude.”
“…yeah, man… bummer.”
Todd and I looked at each other with that knowing glance that wordlessly said, “OK. Sure. Right. Whatever.” We then loaded into our refrigerated van and got ready to make the trek home.
If you’ve ever travelled 322 East towards State College, you’re familiar with the void that exists in that part of the state…and we had gotten just outside the city when the van started sputtering. I told Todd that if the van died, we would die with it, because it was just too friggin’ cold. I had a quarter tank of gas, and I didn’t believe for a minute that the gas was the problem. We managed to make it to a Sheetz that had only been built at its location for a few days and gassed up, and it ran fine the rest of the way home…cold, but fine. (we actually ended up stopping at a truck stop further along the trip to buy socks for Todd, since he was wearing those cute little ankle socks that didn’t provide much protection from frostbite..)
The punchline? We arrived home to find that our hallucinating friend out west hadn’t been hallucinating at all, and that there actually had been an earthquake in Reading that night…but, of course, you miss a lot when you live this life….
Speaking of COLD….
February of 1998, my then-manager booked me a short weekend trip to play at a couple of rooms in Kentucky – Picassos’ in Elizabethtown and the Second Song Coffeehouse in Louisville. Kind of a standard thing, we had someone in the area that I could split shows with, and in my then-characteristic abandon, I left for the gigs without really thinking twice about it. I had this habit of assuming that everything was taken care of (including making connections for places to stay…silly me!), so I left my apartment at 6AM and started south.
At the time, I was driving SYD (acronym for Suburban Yuppie Dirtmobile), my trusty ’89 Dodge Caravan. This vehicle was a wonder – 4 ½ engines during our time together. We travelled many, many miles together…from Memphis and Nashville to Toronto and many, many points in between – NYC, Boston, Pittsburgh, DC – you name it. This particular weekend, though, I had two gigs down south and then back home – piece of cake, right?
Well, the shows went well, and I got to visit Guitar Emporium in Louisville, KY (where I bought my first mail-order Les Paul years before) and did a lot of window shopping during the day. I also got to sit under a tree in the park and read for a few hours on that particular Saturday. I had slept in SYD the night before, parked strategically behind a convienence store, and had managed to shave and wash my hair (and select other body parts…too much information?) in the bathroom at the McDonalds’ on Bardstown Road the following morning. You see, these are the secondary skills that you glean as a musician…learning to make a Hilton out of a Motel Six seems easy compared to making a bed and bath out of a rest stop. So, having soldiered through the previous two days, I thought nothing of sleeping in the van after the last show of the jaunt. So, as per the lessons experience had taught me, I drove the first couple of hours up the interstate after the show to warm up the van, and climbed into the back seat and zipped my sleeping bag up around my face and went to sleep. Now, it was the first week of February, and I should have expected as much, but it had been pretty mild the previous two nights, so I thought not much of it….but this last night, it was COLD. I mean COLD. I sleep pretty heavily as it is, so I didn’t really feel it until the next morning, when I woke up. My nose and cheeks were almost numb from the cold, and were my willpower a little less weak, I’d have still been there, shivering, in the bag. I actually had to scrape the INSIDE of the windshield before I could start driving north that morning. All this to play two gigs that netted me $38.00.
The Great Disappearing Audience Trick
Yet another Kirby’s story…I had the good fortune of having a core following at Kirbys’, a group of people I could count on showing up every time I was there…one of them, Marylou, was especially close to me. She was a joker of the highest order. On one particular night, she seemed especially intent on pulling one off at my expense – and she must’ve succeeded, because I still remember it…
The setup at Kirby’s was unique…I played in the basement tavern, and there was a piano in the room, but it sat flush against the wall that I stood against. This meant that if I wanted to play the piano, I had to do so with my back to the audience…which sucked, but it was one of the only places that I had access to a piano, so I felt obligated to use it. This particular night, I was in the middle of “Candle in the Wind”, and I listened as I played to the room growing really quiet…”wow,” I thought…”this is unusual for this room..” I finished the song to the same silence, and turned around to find that there wasn’t a soul in the entire room. After a brief pause, I heard uproarious laughter coming from just outside the doorway, and Marylou opened the door and everyone came back in…she had led everyone in the room outside during the song, and no one opened their mouth or gave away a thing. I was so intent on playing that I had no idea what was going on behind me until I had already been duped. And, of course, Marylou never let me live that one down.
now, in retrospect, i don’t remember why i started writing all that stuff down…i obviously hadn’t abandoned capitalization yet at that point…and i’d forgotten about a couple of those stories.
anyway, there ya go.
another one i found was written just after the death of folk musician dave carter…
i’m not sure why this news bothers me as much as it did for most of last night – i wasn’t terribly familiar with his music, and i only met him briefly, but he made an impression.
we saw him at Falcon Ridge last year…we were there for their mainstage performance, but it was so late, and so cold – we called it a night and went back to the tent and collapsed into sleep.
the next day, he and Tracy Grammer were at the festival stage, and Dave played a Christmas song he wrote, and talked about writing it in the middle of the summer because it was a commisioned work, and the awkwardness that accompanied writing it…i related to that, because i had done the same thing myself. i had to write “the road south” in the middle of august in a sweltering three room apartment above 5th street in reading, listening to the sirens and the wheeled subwoofers that coasted to a stop beneath the open window that faced the street – and i knew it wasn’t gonna be a Santa Song or a Frosty Song or a Birth of Christ song…i wrote instead about a fantasy Christmas trip home with Chris that i thought might happen someday. I had talked to her on the phone just prior to writing it, and told her that i was hanging up and i couldn’t talk to her until it was done. when i put that particular spin on it, it poured out – it wasn’t a particularly hard song to write, but it was a personal song, and they never seem to be….but writing a Christmas song, a Real Christmas song – there just seems to be this sense that other people should “get it” as such…but i really didn’t care about that.
so Dave asked for title ideas for his song and Dylan came up with one. So I took him with me to the rear of the tent to tell Dave his Grand Idea for the title of his Christmas song. Dylan, as is his way, was loathe to say anything when we first went back, but Dave talked to him (and to me) for a time, and Dylan seemed to feel at ease with him. He just seemed like such a warm and gentle person, sincere in talking to Dylan – I had told him that I was a writer as well…or maybe Dylan told him, I can’t remember, but Dylan told him his idea for his song title, and we chatted a little longer, and he turned to me and said, “I’d love to hear some of your music sometime, too…”
and i felt as though he actually meant it. and i never feel that. the fact that i remember that from the conversation is probably the most telling thing about the impression he made.
i’ve said “thank you” so many times that it almost feels contemptuous when someone complements me on my talent. to thank someone for their kind words is a motor response, an expected dialouge from someone that a stranger might admire or respect in a certain light…and when you travel in musicians’ circles, it becomes, over time, a phrase incapable of penetrating ones’ impervious cynicism.
“great set, tom.”
“dude, that song is amazing.”
“i loved your record.”
it’s a record of the damage that a prolonged existence on this rung of the food chain does to a persons’ expectations. It made me into someone capable of being unmoved by the compliments of the very person or persons i wanted to reach with my music.
coming from another musician, of course, whatever was said was automatically bullshit. i saw it so many times during the Grape Days – a fellow musician tells another musician that his new songs are really cool, good stuff…until he escapes to the bar for a beer, at which time “his stuff is really tired, man….” “what’s up with that shirt?” “he wasn’t at Ben Arnold’s party last month, was he?”
thus the reason I find myself here, voluntarily extricated from the Grape and the Grape Days.
yet that day at Falcon Ridge, I felt like I was in the presence of the Real Thing for a couple of minutes. Someone who played because he loved playing, who wrote because he loved writing, who interacted with the people who took the time to see and hear him out of genuine, sincere gratitude…
he was 49 years old when he died, and he was a very accomplished musician – jazz pianist, degreed…yet he found his voice in folk music. i can’t help but admire that, too.
but i found myself feeling sad that he’d passed on, partly because of the impression of him as a person that i’d formed from that one meeting, and from having read what Tracy had posted on his website when i checked it yesterday when i came home – i found myself mourning as much for her loss as for the worlds’.
and the irony is that wendy and i discussed exchanging vows at falcon ridge – which, this past weekend, was the scene of a dave carter tribute concert and a memorial…and which would have made it impossible for me to try and impose nuptials into the same space.
it was almost as if we weren’t supposed to know about it before we left, and we weren’t supposed to hear about it until we came home…
the memory of this past week as we lived it out will be largely uncluttered by any memory of it having occured during the week after Dave’s death, yet his death feels like a loss to me. in a lot of ways, i’m not sure why…i feel like i should be harder than this by now.
so last night, i lay in bed next to my new wife, who knew (of course) that I was sad, and in my fashion, i was purely unable to talk about it. i wasn’t able to tell her that this was affecting me the way it had, or why, or make any sense out of it until i had time to think about it today and put it into perspective.
so i lay there, with tiny tear tracks finding their way from my eyes into my hairline, staring at the ceiling with my insides twisted up, unable to really deal with it in any way that made sense on what i’d probably call a rational level.
and i felt a loss for my son, too, who had lost another potential role model before he got the chance to fully experience what he was about.
I started to tell him about it when he came downstairs last night to go shopping, but it didn’t seem like it was a huge priority – he’s still of an age that doesn’t feel the weight of death the way we do when we grow up and learn to interpret death as loss – death, to a child, is totally foreign until they lose someone who represents a personal loss.
Dylan doesn’t feel these kinds of losses yet.
This all seems to contain a message for me – as have a whole string of events that have played out over the past few months.
First, my old lawyer books me for a show in DC and manages to parlay it into a fresh shipment of “mutual angels” – which had been out of print and largely forgotten, so i thought, until then…
then Pete from Shame asks me to open a show for them and tells me that an opportunity exists for me to make another record for free.
then I go to Albany, and to New Hampshire, during the course of our vacation, and find out that there are still people out there who I had no connection to who love my music, and who want to see me continue to make records…
i feel like my resistance to all this has been justified in my own stubborness, my own trite refusal to write, sing, play, record – feeling that if i wasn’t doing it for a viable (meaning large in my mind) audience, then I shouldn’t bother….my whole “what’s the point”-ness.
i think if anything significant comes from feeling a sense of loss from Dave Carter’s death, it’s that there are reasons to do this that have nothing to do with who might be listening at a given point.
some of this might still be relevant – i have two separate auditions for a couple of different situations this weekend, and they’re both things that i’d really be psyched to be a part of…not sure what else to say about any of that until such time as i have something substantial to report.