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At Fourteen

So I’m watching “Criminal Minds,” which I love because of the profiling part – I would love to have a job in which I had access to everyone’s most intimate, personal business. It wouldn’t have to be killers; I would be perfectly happy plumbing the depths of gardeners, ferry boat captains or veterinarians. I like to know what makes people tick, and I am limited to my own observations because the rules of polite society prevent me from asking the questions I really want to ask.

In the episode I’m watching, the impossibly beautiful Dr. Reed explains that the music that’s popular when a person is fourteen is “their music.” It defines them, he explains, no matter what they hear before or after. Although this information is, in the context of the TV show, simply a clue in building a working profile of the Piano Man killer, to me it is huge. I Google it, and it’s a “thing” that fourteen is, according to no less than The New York Times, “a magic age for building cultural tastes.”

I am as interested in figuring out my own psyche as I am in probing the depths of everyone else’s. I look up the songs popular in my fourteenth year, 1976, and I am horrified. It was a time when disco was not a joke, but the bread and butter of Top 40 radio stations. “Disco Duck” was on the list of the most popular songs of the year. Somehow, probably because I was a very serious cellist by then, living in a house in which pop music was largely ignored, I missed “Disco Duck.” I find it on Spotify and play it, well, the beginning of it, and satisfy myself that I was probably unscathed by that particular hole in my musical history.

There are other songs, though, that bring back memories of Levis cords, Earth shoes, feathered hair and roll-on lip gloss. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Take it to the Limit.” I think about the Eagles, who I never liked, and about the fact that I bought an Eagles album with my own money because Steve Maltby spent his time in Algebra I drawing alternative album covers with “The Eagles” in fat, curvy letters. I imagined that if I sat in my seat and hummed “Hotel California” he would overlook my frizzy hair and acne and recognize me as his one, true soul mate.

And then, because I felt so sorry for that girl that I was, so protective of her un-pretty, un-guarded self, I wonder about the possibility of going back and fixing her. I develop this plan in which I immerse myself in the music of 1976, let the memories come, and talk to the Ann who started high school that year. As if she were my own child, a dearly beloved creature struggling upstream in a world that made no sense, I will serve as a guardian angel and cheerleader. She was so totally lost, that girl, between a blithe, indulgent childhood and a future that appeared catastrophically bleak for those without silky hair and the ability to flirt.

The music thing is complicated. I rarely listened to “popular” music, even then. I listened to classical music most of the time, or The Beatles and the moody singer-songwriters who spoke directly to my soul. Joni, James, Carly, Jackson…they were my people. I am uncertain whether one’s “own music” is the music a person actually chose at age fourteen, or the music that waspopular at that time. I put on “I Write the Songs,” by Barry Manilow. Closing my eyes, I imagine a high school dance. For some reason, I can see everyone but myself – girls with long, perfectly feathered hair and lots of eyeliner and gloss are swaying in the arms of guys in bell-bottomed cords, and everything smells like bubblegum and Jovan musk. I try “Dream Weaver,” and I’m still not in the picture.

I look back at the article in the Times, and it says this: “’Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,’” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “’Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.’” This would seem to mean that the important music for me was what I listened to over and over again in my bedroom, based on advice from the friends I knew to be kindred spirits. It is not the stuff that played at dances, or on the car radio.

I start again with “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “Court and Spark,” by Joni, and “Fire and Rain” by James. I see myself, then, sitting on the floor in my bedroom in front of the record player with a pile of jackets, records and white paper dust covers strewn around me. I have a notebook, which is not as pretty as the Chinese silk covered diary I got in my Christmas stocking, but which has much more room for actual writing. I am thinking about the boy I love, who is my friend, but who is on the other side of some incomprehensible barrier. I yearn, I jockey myself into his car when a group travels to a movie or a concert, I sit next to him in the dark of a movie theater and listen to him breathe, imagining in some vague way how it would be to have him breathing closer, or with his head on the next pillow. I am writing poems for him, filling pages with words that release the worst of the pain for a while like a hit of something powerful but temporary.

Surprisingly, I am not as ugly as I remembered; I am certainly not as ugly as I felt at the time. I have thick, glossy chestnut hair, and a faintly exotic slant to my almond-shaped eyes. I weigh too much, but I am not, as I had recalled, monstrous. I have to decide, looking at my thrawn, adolescent self as she writes love poems in a Mead notebook, whether to tell her anything at all. My regression therapy plan is dubious, at best; if I lie around listening to Joni Mitchell and bucking up my fourteen year old self, it will violate the lesson I learned from Star Trek: when you go back in time, change nothing or Hitler will win.

I look more closely at the girl with calloused fingertips on her left hand, and, dear Lord, a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” necklace around her neck. If she does not suffer, if she does not lean into feelings as dark and endless as a moonless night, she will be a different person. If I tell her everything is really okay, that she’ll outgrow the acne and figure out her hair, that men will someday love her, she might change. She might morph into a confident, gum-snapping creature who stops writing and starts listening to disco. She might never discover Eliot Smith, “Lost in Translation,” or Colette. She might not write, might not need to write, and she might not feel compassion for those who suffer as she has suffered. She might not, after all, be me.

So I leave her there on the floor, knowing that the boy she loves is gay, knowing that her first real boyfriend will treat her badly, knowing that she will make some truly terrible choices because she hates herself with unshakeable certainty. The thing is, love her. I love her for every mistake she’s making as she rises to look in the mirror one more time, checking the constellation of pimples for signs of improvement, her eyes shiny with love for a boy who loves boys. “We Have No Secrets” starts to play after a pause and a scratch, and she sucks in her cheeks, piling her hair onto her head and then dropping her hands and releasing her face in an agony of resignation.

“I love you,” I say as I retreat, “I love you.”

Gigantour: In Which I Bang my Head Again

 Gigantour Poster

Last Thursday, I went to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Lest you should imagine a summer home for Henry VII, with crenelated turrets and a moat, the “Palace” is a gigantic indoor arena on the outskirts of Detroit. It is the home court of the Pistons, but Thursday night it was the venue for the multi-band, heavy metal Gigantour. Although I’m more of an Avett Brothers kind of girl, the tickets were a Christmas gift for my hard-rocking husband. It is not “my” music, but as I learned during my first metal adventure last summer, I am fascinated by the crowds, and, truth be told, I end up banging my own head as soon as I feel the vibrations from the towering stacks of Marshalls. Besides the which, if one only ever listens to music they already like they tend to become rigid and tedious.


On the cement balcony, a man tall enough to be classified as a giant, his height magnified by a perfectly groomed Mohawk, walked past me. “Smells like the chronic,” he muttered. It did. Like last summer’s Mayhem Festival, this crowd tended towards smoking of all kinds, and drinking ridiculously expensive beer. Unlike Mayhem, there were far fewer interesting costumes, and the emotional pitch seemed to be less religious pilgrimage than “I like metal and this is something to do in Detroit on a Thursday night.” The Mayhem attendees were, to a person, totally immersed in the metal life, from piercings and tattoos to the looks of rapture on their faces when a beloved band began to shred its way to musical nirvana. The Gigantour folk were more “regular” looking; the girl with purple hair and the guy with the Mohawk stood out from the crowd.

At the risk of sounding all snide and judgy, the Mayhem gestalt was a cross between London in the 80s and a Hell’s Angels gathering, while Gigantour’s was rather more monster truck rally.  The couple sitting next to me seemed to be on a date that just happened to take place in the middle of a metal concert – they missed the first two bands, she was wearing pearls and they seemed more interesting in trying to yell to each other over the music than in listening to it. They did not bang their heads. Since I heard both Mayhem and Gigantour in the same geographical area, I don’t know whether the differences were due to venue, musical offerings or the season (I suppose there might have been lots of piercings and tattoos underneath coats and long pants).

Gigantour I 

There were True Believers in attendance, though, and we could see them clearly from our seats, a mere four rows up from stage left. On the floor, penned like potentially dangerous animals, were those who came to mosh and crowd surf, the ones who knew all the words and held their arms high to give the two-fingered salute. The floor was only half full for the first band, grew during the second, and was in full swing by the time headliners Motorhead and Megadeth played. A mosh pit opened in one part of the floor, and was in constant, dizzying motion for nearly two hours. As if by silent signal, moshers entered the circle and spun into one another without infringing on the space of those around the edges.

Gigantour II 

At the same time, bodies began to coast from the back to the front, raised and carried by an ocean of hands and ending at the railing directly below the stage. There, a patient row of security men in maroon polo shirts caught them, righted them, and made sure that they were unscathed before opening the gate and directing them back to the fray. Although the majority of surfers were fairly small people of both genders, there were several male surfers who had to have weighed more than 200 pounds; I was impressed with the ease with which the Palace employees caught and lowered them before they washed up on the barricade, and even more impressed with the casual, business-as-usual way in which a group of middle aged men handled the phenomenon of crowd surfing. While they might, in private moments, have shaken their graying heads and muttered “if my kid ever…,” they were consummate professionals in the arena.

lacuna coil 

Although I tend to get distracted by the sociological stuff, we were there for the music. The first band, Lacuna Coil, was an Italian goth metal group with a female lead singer. There aren’t that many women in high profile metal bands, so that drew me in; her stunning vocals and the interesting, occidental flavor of the songs kept me engaged. Striding back and forth in her black leggings, high-heeled boots and fringed black leather jacket, Cristina Scabbia was mesmerizing. There was a kind of supernatural, melodic, witchiness about the sound that hinted at ancient, European mysteries. Due to some inconsistent information about when the concert actually started, Lacuna Coil had a relatively small audience, with listeners filtering in during their set; I think the latecomers missed something worth hearing.


The second band, Volbeat, was a surprise and a delight. The Danish band has a retro, rockabilly look and an onstage charisma that had me bouncing and banging in seconds. Although I expected a Danish band to be all blonde and blue-eyed, and to have the ubiquitous long hair made for dramatic head banging, the guitarists all had short, dark hair, with the lead singer sporting a slicked-back, shiny pompadour that flipped charmingly as he played.


I confess that I’m always yearning for a tune to go with the beat, and Volbeat delivered. bringing down the house by asking if “anybody out there likes Johnny Cash” and moving into a rendition of “Dead Man’s Tongue” that started out with Cash-like solemnity and then broke into a wild, percussive flight of fancy. At one point, lead singer Michael Poulsen spoke from the stage to a young woman in the floor area, asking why she was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. After identifying the boy next to her as her boyfriend, Poulsen asked why he hadn’t bought her a Volbeat shirt; when he replied that he didn’t have enough money, Poulsen reached into his pocket, took out a wad of cash and passed it to the couple. It may have been shtick, but it was great shtick. I can say with absolute certainty that I will, in the future, voluntarily download and listen to the metallic rockabilly of Volbeat.


The third set was by the legendary Motorhead, led by the eminence known as “Lemmy.” Every girl loves a bad boy (or at least I do), and Lemmy is the gold standard. It’s hard to find out how old he actually is, but given the fact that he was being fired from his first band when I was in the eighth grade, it’s safe to assume that he’s pushing sixty. Still, when he appears on stage in his trademark cowboy hat and boots to sing “Ace of Spades,” he’s dead sexy.


I had expected to like Motorhead’s performance best, because their punk-infused sensibility always reminds me of The Ramones. I did not, however, find myself carried away by musical magic. There was nothing wrong with the performance, but it all sounded kind of…the same. It’s hard to understand Lemmy’s vocals at the best of times, and the distortion involved in live performance made it impossible. I was, however, interested in the fact that Motorhead seemed to have a roadie who did nothing but replace cymbals as they were beaten to death by drummer Mikkey Dee, and by the incredibly long drum solo during which Lemmy walked behind a wall of amps and smoked a cigarette – our position four rows from the side of the stage gave us a perfect view. I take great pleasure in imagining him asking Mikkey, in his gruff, Scottish Lemmy voice to “be a good lad and come up with a solo long enough for me to finish a fag.”


The last band was Megadeth, who I had heard at Mayhem. Their performance was tight, compelling, and visually exciting. Although I had been standing on three-inch boots for nearly three hours, and was out very late on a “school night,” they made me forget for an hour that I was just another uptight, suburban mom. The musicianship was superb, from front man Dave Mustaine to the workmanlike precision of drummer Shawn Drover, but what made me smile and whip my middle-aged hair was the charm. All three guitarists moved to every part of the stage, playing to those of us on the sides, and they were the only band of the night to do so. Watching guitarists Broderick and Ellefson face each other, smiling as they shredded, I felt the warmth of hearing a band that seemed to be genuinely happy to be making music, to be making music with each other, and to be making music for us.

Mustaine 2 

Metal may not be my first musical love, but just like Mayhem, my Gigantour bottom line was that I felt free, in the best possible way.  The thing about most live music is that I tend to feel self-conscious trying to dance, to clap, or to “groove,” always aware that I’m just a tightly wrapped white girl trying to be all cool and capable of a little get-down. At a metal concert, all I have to do is feel the beat and bang my head, which I can totally do – at Mayhem, everybody was banging and whipping their dyed, Mohawked, dreadlocked hair, and at Gigantour I still felt that the amplified vibrations ran up through the soles of my boots and straight to my constantly moving head. I probably won’t bang it so much that I have to follow in the footsteps of Dave Mustaine and have surgery to repair my blown-out neck, but I’m enjoying it more every time…and you just can’t bang your head to The Avett Brothers.


Photo Credits: (Except for the blurry, grainy ones, which are mine).

Words and Music

Lately I have been thinking about lyrics and music. I posted the two as alternative choice on Facebook, and was surprised to find that the vast majority of commenters believed that music reigned supreme. (My brother,  for example, commented “Music. Duh”). I remained unconvinced.

It’s best when they work together, of course, when they dovetail so seamlessly that the words could not have been set to any other music and the music cannot be imagined with any other words. The Magnetic Field’s “Busby Berkley Dreams” with its dreamy, tongue-in-cheek retro lyrics and the purposely untuned and ancient piano. R.E.M’s “Nightswimming” with music that warms and encourages the wistfulness of the lyrics to make an atmosphere all hot, “quiet night,” with the photograph stuck to the dashboard of the car moving through the dark, moist heat.
If you had to choose, though, sifting through the universe of  songs that compose the musical warp and woof of your spirit, would you choose the songs that made you move unconsciously to the beat or the ones that spoke to your soul with words that you could have written, if only you could write like that?
Although I am annoyed by a stupid lyric, there is an ease, a primal sort of connection to certain kinds of beats; we all feel the pull of “Money, Money,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Tutti Frutti.” Consider, if you will, the lure of the late, great “Mmmm Bop” or the “Do Ron Ron,“ or that Swedish song called “Cobrastyle” that had lyrics to the effect of “gdang gdang diggy diggy.“ We feel our hips loosen and sway, find ourselves snapping, tapping, humming and bobbing our heads. It isn’t about lyrics; the lyrics are utterly ridiculous. It’s about music as a drug, the kind that catches you the first time even if you are only half paying attention, and makes you want it again.
There are Ramones songs that are lyrically uninteresting but I will listen to them back to back because of the way they make me feel tough and fast and alive. There is a song called “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club that had me at “hello,” although I can make neither heads nor tails of the lyrics. It’s slow, deliberate, but persuasive in a way that won’t let me go until it’s finished. It’s kind of a dirge, but a very naughty, sexy dirge that makes me think I could really just put on my studded boots and try a little heroin if I didn’t have to drive the kid to school. You would not quote these songs, or write the words out and tape them to your notebook, but they get to you.
Then there are those other songs, those that are poetry set to music. The ones that  give you mantras and take-away stories to hold close during storms. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, The Beatles, Ani Di Franco, and The Smiths have all given me words, literally, to live by. Joni Mitchell gave me this:
You’ve had lots of lovely women
Now you turn your gaze to me
Weighing the beauty and the imperfection
To see if I’m worthy
Like the church
Like a cop
Like a mother
You want me to be truthful
Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
And I need your approval
I feel the pain in Cohen’s “love is not a victory march/it‘s a cold and it‘s a broken hallelujah,” the matter-of-fact resiliency of Di Franco’s “what doesn’t bend, breaks,” and The Smith’s “for once in my life let me, let me, let me get what I want this time.” The words “Let It Be” are my most basic directive in life. They are mantras, those words, they are worthy of attention, and thought, repetition and analysis.
But every one of those songs with the lyrics that I hold close, read like poetry and secretly believe to be written just for me, have beautiful music. They all have music that fits them, not perhaps the brazen, addictive riffs of “Mmmm Bop,” but a quieter charm that seems at first like a supporting player but becomes as essential as the words to a patient listener. You may start out listening to Tom Waits’ “Martha” and becoming entranced in the story of old lovers reconnecting, but soon you will find that the music itself, simple, acoustic and repetitive, spinning out into a chorus warmed by strings, is perfect. Perfect and necessary.
As it turns out, I can get what I think is a syllogism out of this: all great songs have great music, and some great songs have great lyrics, but not all great songs have great lyrics. That means, I think that a) I should not give up my day job and become a scientist, and b) music is more important than lyrics. They were right. Even my brother.
There is, in the final analysis, no need to choose. I will turn up “Superfreak” and bang the steering wheel, or I will get lost in Roberta Flack and (if no one’s looking) I’ll get all misty eyed. I will love songs that perfectly marry music and lyrics, a category which includes most of The Pretenders, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, The Magnetic Fields, Talking Heads, and hundreds more that I’m forgetting. I will love songs that have ridiculous lyrics but make me want to move, like those of The Bee Gees, Herman’s Hermits, and Abba. I will unconditionally love Van Morrison, whose lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible but which make me believe that I am in receipt of a communication from a soul that is yearning to connect with my own.
I’m not done with this, quite yet. I don’t know where to put logocentric genres like rap and hip hop, or dance and club music that seems to be all about the beat, but what about “I Will Survive” which has some of the best getting-through-a-breakup lyrics ever written? What about country songs and folk ballads that are really all about the story, the John Deere green, the lost maiden with the raven locks?  This analysis may be the work of a lifetime. Next year at this time I will write off all of my iTunes purchases as “work-related expenses.” After my death, a massive tome will be published outlining my theory on thousands of tissue-thin pages with multiple glossaries and indexes.
A girl can dream.


In 2007, I became a Community Organizer. It started with a photocopy stuck in the handle of the front storm door, telling us that the City planned to construct a 10-story building two blocks from our house, a building taller than any other in town besides the University’s new football stadium. This out of place structure was to be accompanied by a parking structure, several smaller buildings, and twelve condos ringing the only green space available to our fairly urban children. In a market in which existing retail space and condos sit vacant, this plan was the equivalent of an iron fist aimed squarely at the solar plexus of my neighborhood

I had spent the past few years deeply involved in town-gown issues, serving as the poster child for permanent residents in the community, winning myself an etched crystal bowl and a moment on the podium based on my work with the transient undergraduate population. I liked that role – favored child of the City, doer of good, deliverer of brownies, and recipient of awards. Once I read that wrinkled piece of paper I stepped beyond that safe, warm, place into a life of gritty, adversarial activism.

I was no longer Mother Theresa; I had turned into Angela Davis, Bernadette Devlin, or Patty Hearst with her SLA insignia. I wrote editorials in the local paper condemning the project, and I researched. I found a neighbor with a similar level of time and lividity and together we organized forums, spoke at City Council meetings, met with the Mayor, the City Manager, the City planning staff, and countless groups of concerned citizens. We uncovered the past wrongdoings of the developer involved in the colossal public-private development partnership and publicized them on a web site. We made T-shirts, leaflets and yard signs. We dealt with neighbors who disagreed and stopped speaking to us, neighbors who thought we weren’t doing enough, neighbors who were apathetic, and City staff who clearly wished we might someday be buried beneath the cornerstone of the ten-story building. We were consumed.

For months from the early 2007 until the summer of 2008 I fought The Man using everything from conciliatory charm to scathing attacks in the media, and my private life was buried beneath a mountain of meetings, phone calls, and research. By the time we lost the battle I was exhausted and disillusioned. I had lost friends, strained relationships and seemed to have spent nearly two years of my life on a worthless pursuit.

The giant building was still going to be built, our park was going to be edged with privately owned condos, and houses in an historic district were going to be demolished to make way for a parking structure to support the vehicles associated with the offices, restaurant, hotel and whatever else was going to appear at the end of our street. The calls from the newspaper still trickled in, and I still walked past neighbors who gave me the gimlet, but I was done with it all. It was time to focus on things that did not create hypertension, insomnia and impotent rage. I had fought the good fight and lost, made my peace with the impending change, and moved on. After years of intense civic engagement, I retired. I quit all committees and groups, handed the ball and scepter of Neighborhood Association President to a fresh horse, and slipped into private life with a clear conscience.

Last week I got a call from the president of another neighborhood asking me if I could help him with their conditional re-zoning issue. He had heard that I might know something about that, and that I had been involved in “trying to get the City to follow its own rules” a few years back. I listened, I politely demurred, and I pointed him to folks who knew more than I did. He called a second time – wouldn’t I please speak at their forum? They needed all the help they could get. I explained that my issue had been different, that I knew nothing about conditional rezoning, and that I had been so battered by my last foray into Fighting City Hall that I had retired. He cajoled, and I felt twinges of guilt. What kind of person was I to fight only for my own causes, my own backyard, and refuse to pitch in to help someone else? So what if I had no idea what his issues were, and had nothing useful to say at his meeting? So what if I hate all meetings so much that it is a condition of my current job that I do not ever have to attend one? I said “probably not,” and hoped he would go away.

Yesterday he called again. I felt my gut tighten, and my pulse quicken. I hit the “Ignore” button on my cell. I have a funeral to do today, and I am guiding my son through the first week of high school. I do not want this in my life anymore. It is my nature to speak up, to question authority and to challenge the status quo; it just isn’t my whole life anymore, particularly when the cost is so high and the benefits are not apparent. I do not want to speak publicly about the bad behavior of the City I live in, particularly when I speak not from any real passion or knowledge, but merely as Experienced Rabble Rouser, Abby Hoffman dragged to a forum to speak about conditional rezoning issues.

More than four years later, the project still hasn’t broken ground, although many buildings are vacant as the result of the City’s early, exuberant rush to drive out long-time tenants and make way for the Big Show. At the moment, driving into town from the West, it appears that one side of the street is a thriving college campus and the other is a ghost town of empty buildings with sad, red and white banners promising “future” development. Maybe, through no fault of our own, we actually won the battle. Maybe the monstrous tower will never be built, another plan will be made, and the ghost town will turn into something appealing, appropriate and useful.

Maybe, just maybe there will come a time when I am renewed and ready to fight again, and I will throw myself heart and soul into some new fight. I will become, once again, a disposable woman whose energy is willingly offered up to fuel the flame of civic outrage. Today I will use my influence and my vitality to create a comforting funeral reception, help my kid get his homework done, and welcome my husband home from a business trip. I will focus inward, struggling to ignore the jagged noise of guilt that comes with refusing to save the world this time. I will organize only my own, small and beloved community.



Everything Louder Than Everything Else

I was banging my head. I was in a crowd of 15,000 people, feeling the bass squarely in my solar plexus and raising and lowering my head rhythmically along with the bearded stranger next to me.  Two seats over, on the other side of my husband, a young girl was banging so hard that her long, red-brown hair flew up and over her face and then off again with the beat. It was like a religious ceremony in some kind of chanting tribe, the amplified beat, the roared lyrics, and the plaintive wail of electric guitars. We were all united, not moved by lyrics that spoke to us, or by a Brahmsian strain of melody, but by raw musical power. It was my first rock concert, and it was heavy, heavy metal

Earlier in the day we arrived at the outdoor concert venue, stepping out into a hazy, muggy sauna of an afternoon. Walking towards the snaking line waiting for admittance we passed cars in the lot in which groups were drinking beer, playing music and getting hair and makeup done. “So you didn’t have to work today” said a shirtless young man in wide legged black pants suspended perilously from his hipbones.

parking lot
purple tutufuck yoututu girl

“Nah,” said his companion, older by maybe twenty years. “But if  I’da had to work, it would have sucked.” I saw tattoos, everyone had at least one, and many people were covered with portraits, Old English letters, geishas, cartoon characters, skulls, Harley insignias and names. There were mohawks, dreadlocks, fishnets, spikes, studs, and two young women in bikini tops and hot pants. It was not a crowd of the tanned and the buff; much of the exposed flesh was pasty and many midriff-baring tops sat above a soft blob of gut. There were tulle tutus worn with striped leggings, six-inch platform Converse high tops, and piercings through ears, tongues, noses, lips, cartilage and navels. There were undoubtedly other piercings beneath the tutus and skinny jeans.

arm tattoo


The air smelled like Axe, pot, concession grease, cigarette smoke and rain, and the crowd was both orderly and courteous. Behind us, a group of teenagers wondered whether there would be cotton candy, and one of them suggested that if there were, it should be black. A group of young men discussed women, and one of them, dismissed an ex on the basis that when he met her, “she had a nice fat ass” but we were then divided by gender to be searched, and I never learned the fate of the ass. Moving into the line of women, I caught the line “-your carpe diem shit ain’t going in my apartment.” Again, momentum separated me from what was undoubtedly a fascinating story.

Inside the gates, we saw t-shirt vendors, concessions, and prominent product placement for Rockstar energy drinks and Jagermeister. People carried (nine dollar) beers, and fluorescent cocktails in long glasses shaped like guitars. There were lots of shirts for sale, as well as jewelry, glass hash pipes, skull caps and “booty shorts,” and the canopies over the merchandise bore names like “Heathen Productions” and “Hate Wear.” I was in another country, a country in which people dressed in costumes, everyone smoked everywhere all the time, and no one was hip, ironic or clever. The day was about passion, about being with other people who understood this thing and didn’t judge anyone for being outside the mainstream. Anything went.


We caught the end of an alternative metal band, the only act with a female member, and my husband fell a little bit in love with the tiny, beautiful person who growled, screamed and swore like a trucker. (Everyone swore like a trucker). Meeting her afterwards for a picture, we found her gracious, charming and adorable. In the metal world, I was learning, a lot of the roughness is part of the show. These were not, contrary to the T-shirts, the language, or the skull-heavy album art, corpse-eating and soulless creatures of the underworld. They were working musicians wearing wedding bands, running back to the buses to feed their dogs, and looking worn out with travel, heat and the demands of touring.

Rob and Lexi

In the crowd watching  another band, a “stoner metal” group, a mosh pit evolved in the crowd. All men, including a guy in a wheelchair, the moshing was not the violent and threatening thing I had imagined. It was slow, graceful, as I had always imagined things whirling to the beat of the universal pull in “A Wrinkle In Time.” It looked like a kind of carefully laid out stage fighting, and I felt completely safe and unthreatened by the weight of a flying body. The participants, mostly shirtless, a mix of ages and colors, made eye contact with someone, moved towards them balletically and gave them a gentle bump before spinning away with the grace and deliberation with which they had arrived. Moving to another outdoor stage, the crowd became less mellow and a string of people with linked arms pushed their way past us as the lead singer began whipping up a frenzy, nearly toppling my big, solid husband. Deciding that we preferred the mellow stoners to the angsty pushers, we wandered away from the stages to find something to eat.

mosh II

It finally rained, and we snagged a table with an umbrella near the concession area. A family joined us, a mother and her two adult foster sons, her significant other and the girlfriend of one of the boys. The son sitting nearest to me had a magnificent tattoo on his elbow, a spider web radiating elegantly from the pointed joint. We talked easily, and the mother told us that she had all her ticket stubs from every concert she had attended, starting with AC/DC in 1980. She had recently seen Motley Crue, and taken her mother. Although her conversation was peppered with the f-bombs that had come to seem perfectly normal, she was charming, friendly, and was the kind of person who had earned the patent devotion of the two young men she had fostered and loved. Amidst the rough and unfamiliar terroir of the heavy metal world I began to see a clear pattern of exterior toughness that could not obscure the tender hearts of good people. This whole rotting corpses/fuck everybody/praise Satan thing was an optional but flashy part of a cathartic ritual, a ritual in which we were all able to participate even if we were seventy and wearing khakis and a Polo shirt.

back tattoo I

Around five, after three hours of wandering, listening and chatting with random strangers, we took our seats in the huge amphitheater as the vast lawn behind us filled with those who had not been quick, lucky or liquid enough to snag indoor seats. I watched a large, puffy guy with hair the color of cotton candy, and a man in his fifties with long, wavy jet black hair, and tattoos covering both arms. I wondered what he did for a living. I wondered what a lot of the people did for a living, particularly those old enough that they probably needed real jobs to pay for concert tickets, food and gas. Did they wear long sleeves, pull back their long hair, un-dread their dreads, and remove the studs and silver barbells from noses and eyebrows? I felt old, conventional and judgmental for wondering, but wonder I did.

Then the music began, and I was caught, entranced, intoxicated by my first time at this rodeo of sound and lights and thousands of people feeling the same beat at the same time. It didn’t matter, then, what anybody wore or did for a living; I felt the barrier broken between tourist and native and I was open to the universe as I bobbed my head sharply to the speeding beat of a bass guitar or moved my whole body forward and back, directed not by something not cerebral but by something primitive, not caring what I looked like, who saw me, or if I was doing it “right.” In the battle for my soul, the metal world beats the hell out of the Ironic Hipster community for letting me lose myself without self-consciousness or a shred of detachment. Often, I feel that I am slightly outside myself observing and taking notes for later; in the middle of a live Megadeth song I was pushed firmly back into myself, living in that place in that moment, experiencing an unexpected confluence of Buddhist “presence” and metal exuberance.


In closing, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, and that I ended the day feeling not that I had endured, but that I had been enriched.  I do not like or admire the hate-related messages written across t-shirts, or the bashing of Christianity (“Your God Can’t Save You Now”), but it seemed that that was the province of the young, their generational push-back, calculated to generate shock and awe. The older generations were mellower, unconventional but not driven to highlight their disconnect from the mainstream. The musicianship was beyond fine, the show was run like clockwork, and the bands performing on the main stage treated the crowd like cherished guests. When the lead singer of Machine Head singled out a grey-haired, balding and bespectacled guy (to whom he referred as “the old guy”) in a striped, collared polo shirt, exhorting us all to admire his head banging spirit and giving him two long moments on the Jumbotron, I felt a wave of warm, sweet pleasure. We were, for one night, a community, a family, no matter what we did the rest of our days. It was rough, it was loud, but it was good.

awesome dread girl


For Those About to Rock

Mayhem Fest Fans 04

I grew up listening to classical. There was no “pop” music aside from three or four Beatles albums stuck at the end of a row of records, and an assortment of Peter, Paul, Mary, Arlo, Woody and Pete. I heard Top 40 radio in the car with my babysitter from time to time, but learned early that music of that kind was what my parents referred to scathingly as “baby, baby, baby, wah, wah, wah.” My brother and I were raised attending classical concerts, and we understood the prohibition on fidgeting and the horror of clapping between movements. It was not torture. We were not unwitting pawns in a “Baby Mozart” kind of scenario; we were doing a thing our family did together. When we did not love it, we knew to scan the program for the length of each piece, watch our watches, and buck up.

In middle and high school I became a classical musician, and although I knew my Cars from my Eagles, I lived and breathed Brahms and Ives. I attended one “rock concert” in high school, a performance by Don Mclean. In my 49 years of life, that was my rock concert: a quiet, orderly group of people in a lecture hall listening to a mellow singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. When people say things like “I heard Aerosmith at Cobo in ‘78 – were you there, too!?” I know I wasn’t. I was at Don Mclean in the Erickson Kiva without a raised lighter, a dismembered chicken, a banging head, a mosh pit or groupies. No one peed at The Alamo.

My husband is one of those people who went to rock concerts, and can sling around names and dates with great panache. Last year he read a book by Dave Mustaine, lead singer of Megadeth, and became a true fan. Because I was not vigilant, because I did not heed the warning signs, this fandom means that for his birthday this Saturday we are driving to a big concert venue about an hour from here to attend an event called Mayhem Festival. Megadeth is the headliner, but there will be stages and stages of growling, hair-flinging speed metal bands. Godsmack! Disturbd! All my favorites! (She said with a sarcasm that was heavy, and possibly unattractive). The crowd will be heavily pierced and tattooed. They bang their heads, they know the songs, they raise their hands to make that sign that looks like the Texas Longhorn thing but isn’t. They have costumes for these things, particularly if they are women. I could not be more out of my element were I dropped from a plane into sub-Saharan Africa with nothing but a toothbrush and The Portable Walt Whitman.

So I am trying to prepare. I am listening to music we might hear there, a little Megadeth here, a little Straight Line Stitch there, as much as I can take at one time. I kind of like Megadeth, but I’m struggling with most of the rest of it which seems, honestly, to be the same piece of really loud, fast music with lyrics growled unintelligibly by someone livid and terrifying. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, and lyrics matter to me, so I make them up: “you took my peanut butter/you fucking S.O.B./if you weren’t my son’s father/I’d cut your tiny wee.” Stuff like that.

I am also troubled by the costume issue; it will be hot, and the things I wear when it’s hot tend to be cute A-line skirts with floral patterns. I have lots of black clothes, but little in the way of studs, leather, the shredded or the midriff-baring. I don’t think my hair is dred-able, I am still tattoo-less (despite my best efforts), and there is nary a silver barbell through my cartilage. I look very much like what I am: someone who belongs at a Sufjan Stevens concert. I worry about this almost as much as the debt ceiling.  I think about my clothes, and I think I will probably just end up wearing jeans, comfortable black footwear and a t-shirt. I will not be Cool, but I’ll be cool.

Finally, and this is a big deal for a self-conscious person such as myself, there is the question of what to do with myself while the bands are playing for hours, and hours and hours. In documentaries and still pictures from other Mayhem dates around the country I see arms raised, hair whipping, and moshing.( I am hyperventilating typing that word, “moshing”).  I do not know this music, I don’t really “get” this music, and I am not likely to roar when they play the intro to my favorite song. I want, as always, to be in-the-know, in-the-right, and one of the in-crowd, but it’s just not going to happen. I imagine myself flailing impotently for hours like the dancer who goes the wrong way and topples all the other swans. My plan at the moment is to do what I did when I was little and my grandmother took me to Catholic mass: watch someone who knows what they’re doing out of the corner of my eye and try to follow so fast that it looks like I know what I’m doing.

It will be an adventure. I will love watching the people as if I were visiting a new country, and I will strive oxymoronically to relax, get over myself and go with the flow of the day. I might bang my head, I might buy a tight, black Godsmack T-shirt and change in the bathroom, and I will undoubtedly ask 20 people about their tattoos. I might melt in the heat, it might rain, I might develop nerve deafness, and I might be involuntarily moshed.  I will take lots of pictures, and if I survive, I’ll write another post about what actually happened. Right now, I’m going to find my Portable Walt Whitman and buy one of those foldy toothbrushes.

Photo Credit:

Torch & Twang

Let’s be real, here. People who grow up like I did are not often country music fans. Aside from my mother’s odd taste for the sounds of the Grand Old Opry (acquired during her years at Wellesley, no doubt) I knew no country music unless it was from one of those “Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” ads that ran constantly on our local CBS station. Well, sometimes I caught a little bit of “Hee Haw” if no one changed the channel in time. Suffice it to say that “another somebody done somebody wrong song” was never my music of choice.

I like irony, subtly, and a literary lyric. Like my tea, I tend to like my music un-sweet, unless the sweetness is only one of many layers and has no cloying quality. There was a kind of song that made me queasy from the time I was very small:  “Baby, I’m a want you,” and “Cherish” come to mind. Well, and that other kind; the kind where a dog dies and is carried out to sea, or someone (or something) named “Wildfire” is apparently lost. There was a kind of broad, needy, whiny quality about those songs, and that Ick Factor seemed to exist in every country song I heard. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain?” Seriously?! Every song seemed to be a celebration of Good Ole Boys, brainless women who perpetually fell in love with (and were jilted by) Cads, and a blessedly unfamiliar world of tractors, church, and girls made to wear hideous homemade garments and/or sell themselves to feed their families. It was hyperbolic, sentimental and ridiculous.

Joni Mitchell sang “I wish I had a river/That I could skate away on,” and I knew exactly what she meant. I did not require her to explain that she was unhappy, why she was unhappy, or that she was unhappy because she had broken up with a guy named Jeff. I got it. I spent hours parsing Beatles’ lyrics for meaning (stymied mainly by my inadequate supply of psychedelic drugs) and posting lyrics I loved on my bedroom walls. “Skating away on the thin ice of a new day;” “I have become comfortably numb;” “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  The words were poetry, and they spoke to me, as good poetry does, in beautiful abstract tongues that offered me the answers to my adolescent problems if I was willing to do a little thinking. I had no truck with musical pablum.

In college, at the peak of my black-wearing, Marlboro-smoking archness,I took a break from my regular classical show and filled two-hours of radio with a mockery of country. I assumed a Southern drawl, used the name “Candy Memphis,” and played anything country that I could find in the record closet. I spun “Stand by Your Man,” and got my friend Wallis (who is really from Memphis) to call in live and request something called “This Bed’s Not Big Enough for the Three of Us”  in his more authentic accent. It was one of the finest mornings of my young life.

In the mid 90s, I met Cassie. She was the secretary in the law office below mine (I couldn’t afford a secretary), and we went to lunch together most days. She was a revelation to me, with her tough life story, her big wedding plans, and her propensity to dip her fries in her Frosty. She was un-ironic, an open book, untouched by cynicism or snark. Her fiance watched Nascar races and football games, and she watched with him. She had a cat named “Squeaker” and kept pictures of him on her desk. She read bride magazines, and went to blockbuster romantic comedies. When we took her car to lunch in the summer (my 10-year-old Honda had no air conditioning) we listened to country music.

By the end of August, I had fallen in love with country music. It wasn’t the old-style country of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty; it was the first wave of “new country.” I listened to Garth, Clint, Shania, Trisha, Lorrie, and Alan. I loved the sad stories, and teared up the first time the car was filled with the melancholy strains of  “Don’t Take the Girl.” I smiled at “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” I belted out “Friends in Low Places” and invited my (imaginary) drinking buddies to “Prop me up beside the jukebox” when I died.  With kd lang and Mary Chapin Carpenter as gateway drugs, I Went Country.

There was something I needed in that music, something about sweetness, and wholesomeness without edge or cynicism. There were songs about the joys of summer days, falling in love, staying in love, and raising a family that were some kind of balm for my single, 30-year-old heart. I remember sitting in my own car at the end of a work day, hearing Pam Tillis sing “Sweetheart’s Dance,” and bursting into tears. I didn’t really want to be what I was any more, I didn’t care about being cool and detached, I wanted a sweetheart. I wanted a sweetheart and a house with a porch, and a pie on the windowsill and a jar full of fireflies. I wanted Aunt Bee next door, and The Saturday Evening Post on the coffee table, and a boy who played baseball. I wasn’t necessarily going to wear gingham and call everybody “honey,” but I was sure as hell not seeing myself in a black suit with 3-inch heels and The Virgin Suicides as bedtime reading.

Within three years, I was married to my sweetheart, and the mother of a potentially baseball-playing boy (We tried, but I think that part of my fantasy life is over). I now have a house with a porch, and although there is rarely a pie on the windowsill…there could be. I have swung back to some kind of center, musically and personally; there’s a little Keith Urban and a lot of old Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson on my iPod, but it coexists with “Vampire Weekend,” “Spoon” and a little Jay-Z. I still admire the incredible voices of most country singers, voices that put Britney and Gaga to shame. I also admire the singer-songwriters who craft poems and set them to music in ways that are sometimes as sublime as anything I loved in my youth. I have choices, about what I listen to, and whether I’m feeling more Edie Sedgwick or Aunt Bee on any given day, and that’s part of what makes life worth living.

I guess something just had to give, back in the days when I Went Country. I don’t know that it happens to everyone, and it certainly doesn’t happen in a 120 degree car with Pam Tillis on the radio. I’m sure that during that 3 minute song I felt myself change. I understood something, I  took a leap of faith from the safe ground of self-protective cynicism to the unknown territory of admitting that I wanted something as common as a family and a home. I identified with that raw, patent need for love and safety that I had dismissed and mocked for more than thirty years. I would never, in my current incarnation, pick country music as my favorite genre, or even my second favorite. It might make third behind classical and alternative; then again, it might get bumped by classic rock. In a Tom Petty-George Strait smack down, well, never mind. All I know is that when I needed a catalyst it was there for me in all of its resplendent sweetness and spiritual generosity. For that I will always be grateful.

Poet and Peasant

During my brief tenure as a cello student at the New England Conservatory, I often earned money as a “ringer.” Various musical groups in the greater Boston area possessed of rather more ambition than talent would put works on their programs that far exceeded the capacity of their members, and we would be summoned to save the day. We appeared for the last few rehearsals, displaced the existing principals, and discreetly collected our checks after the concert. Sometimes the natives fawned over us, but more often we were regarded with bitter suspicion as the ousted regime set out homemade cookies during the break. As an eighteen-year-old I found it ridiculous that anyone would be unhappy to be rescued from the morass of bad intonation and terrible bowing. It was simple: we played well, and they didn’t. Looking back with the perspective of thirty more years, I see that we were somewhat insufferable.

One of our more lucrative gigs was the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. The director, Mr. Baer, had great vision, and an admirable unwillingness to be discouraged by the lack of local talent. He programmed things like Peter and the Wolf, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the Rossini Stabat Mater, assessed the gaps in his talent pool, and called the Conservatory. He personally drove a van from Melrose to Boston, picked us up, and transported us to the school where we rehearsed. I was happy because not only was I earning money, butthe group of boys who were my constant companions were always on the Ringer Roster – they generally became First Oboe, First Bassoon and First French Horn. Many nights, after a full day of classes, the ride to Melrose, and the rehearsal, I fell asleep on the ride home, my head on the shoulder of one of the boys, half-hearing conversations about chord progressions or Mahler as the dark, Masachussetts night raced past the windows.

In addition to the folding money and an excuse to hang out with my friends, Melrose was balm to my battered ego. In high school I had been good in a fierce, competitive sea of musicians. Our orchestra was nationally known, we played standard orchestral repretoire, and we had chair challenges to keep us on our toes. As high school seniors we played an entire, solo recital and soloed with the orchestra. We graduated and headed to Julliard, Curtis, Eastman or other schools known for their music programs, and became musicians and music educators. I had succeeded in that musical hot house, ignoring the fact that I really hated performing, and that there was really no joy in it for me, ever. At the Conservatory, my chinks became gaping holes, and it was a rare day when I did not see the disparity between Real Musicians and my fraudulent self. It was their passion, the oxygen in their universe, and they grumbled about hard classes or a tough new concerto, but they were energized by the challenge. I was not energized; I was depressed, exhausted, perpetually terrified of exposure and failure, and increasingly unable to see any future in music. My technique was not solid, my sound was muted by fear and tension, and I was too clenched to play with any real emotion. In Melrose, I was still Good. I sat first chair, I sounded wonderful in comparison to the rest of the section, and it was bliss. It was a break, a haven and a chance to be, if only for a few hours, what I thought I was in the first place. A musician.

In the spring of my freshman year, Mr. Baer announced that our next Melrose engagement was a Pops Concert, and that the program would include Franz von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture. The piece, which is somewhere beyond schmaltzy, involves a long solo played by the principal cellist. It’s slow, pretty, and the kind of musical bon bon that requires practice and skill, but sounds far harder than it actually is. I sat behind my cello, trying to remain blank and immobile while a current flowed through my body. I could do it! I couldn’t do it. I would really be a star! God, I’d screw it up. I heard a voice. (A real one). “Ann?!” Mr. Baer was saying, looking at me from the podium. “Can you?”

“I’m sorry, can I…?” There was a quiet titter from the ranks of displaced cellists behind me.

“Can you do the solo – I can bring in somebody older from NEC, if you’d be more comfortable.”

“No” I answered, “I can do it.” I filled my vest with bombs, and started the timer.

“Great.” He smiled and ran a hand through his thick, black hair. “You know you don’t get paid extra, though – just fame and glory.” The laugh came. I smiled, distracted by the ticking of the timer. “Plus,” he added, “there’s a surprise involved.” A scout in the audience? A record of “Melrose Symphony’s Greatest Hits” featuring my solo? The stakes were high, indeed.

So I practiced endlessly, far more than I had practiced anything for the school orchestra, my lessons or my string quartet. The saccharine nature of the music made it easier for me to sound emotional – there was no subtlety required, no interpretation. It was simply a matter of showmanship. I milked every slide, put in a breath of space where it would build suspense, and generally played up the musical drama of the gentle, lyrical poet in contrast to the bombastic and rambunctious peasant in the second part of the piece. Think Little Nell tied to the tracks, followed by a daring rescue; I was playing Little Nell’s theme on the most soulful and plaintive of instruments. It was guaranteed to make the crowd go wild.

The first rehearsals went splendidly; I played well, I hit the high notes, and I was gratified to see admiration in the eyes of those seated behind me. My friends, all better musicians than I was, were delighted that I was doing so well, and the gay one (with whom, predictably, I was in love) offered to French braid my hair for the Big Performance. The night of the dress rehearsal I swaggered in with my cello, feeling that old sense that I was a Real Musician, stickers on my case, the best rosin, a life of adventure ahead. I could end up in Amsterdam, smoking great pot and playing with the Concertgebouw. I could be touring Asia, riding bullet trains in my distressed bomber jacket and reading Camus while the Violins had sectionals. Maybe I’d be in an all-girl quartet and wear flowing, Bohemian dresses and play arrangements of Black Sabbath.

I sat at the front of the cello section at the dress, on the edge of my wooden chair, through the wedding cake opening of the overture. All eyes were on me. The solo was coming. The moment was pregnant with hope and redemption. I lifted my bow and started the solo, thinking I sounded good -damned good – and catching Mr. Baer from the corner of my eye as he nodded encouragement. He backed off the podium, motioning us to continue playing as he backed towards the edge of the stage. When he emerged from behind the fraying curtain he was accompanied by a slender, elderly black man in a vest with a watch chain. As I played, Baer stepped quickly back to the podium, and the old man began to tap dance. He was tap dancing to Poet and Peasant, embellishing my mournful notes with that old, soft shoe. He grinned, he turned to wink at the principal flutist, and and he mugged at me with an expression of comically broad melancholy. I felt terribly hot, then terribly cold, and I knew that no one was looking at me; I had become the soundtrack. He was the surprise. My solo ended, the music became fast and dramatic, and he bucked and winged dramatically across the stage. He was the surprise, he was the show stopper, I was…a mediocre eighteen-year-old cellist getting fifty bucks to make him look good.

On the way home, my friends offered comfort – they knew that I had anticipated a Brave New World, and been sadly disappointed. I stopped practicing the solo all the time; I stopped practicing it at all. I had it, it wasn’t going to get any better, and it really didn’t matter if I played the whole thing with one finger and a straw hat on. In fact, that might have been more appropriate, given the tenor of the performance. I was a bitter, bitter girl.

I showed up on the night of the performance in my long, black dress, my hair French braided with tasteful sprigs of Baby’s Breath, and I knocked it out of the park. The audience was transfixed by Bojangles, from the first gasp when he shuffled on stage, to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his act. Although it is customary for a conductor to ask a soloist to stand and take a bow, I was not really the soloist, and there was no solo bow.

Afterwards, as I packed my cello and picked the  itchy sprigs of flora out of my hair, the old man approached. I kept my face neutral; I was not, under any circumstances going to become part of his fan club. “Hey,” he said with a bow, “you play real good. How’d you get to be so good, young as you are?” It was harder to resent him; he was fairly charming. And, I might add, a damned fine tap dancer.

“Practice” I answered, snapping the locks on my case. “you must practice, too, to dance like that?”

“Ah,” he smiled, “I do. That I do. I used to be famous, all up and down the Poconos, other places like that. Not much call for tap dancers now – good to have a show again.” Mr. Baer and the Symphony Ladies were approaching, trailed by a man with a bag of camera equipment.

“It was a pleasure working with you” I said, extending my hand. He took it, turned it palm down, and kissed it.

I only knew that my heart had changed, I did not know that that old man with his watch chain and his clicking shoes had given me more than a great story. He loved what he did, he burned with it, and the smallest gig was a chance to spark an audience and set them on fire. I didn’t have that, and I never would. From where I sit now, my fingers un-calloused, my bow arm gone to seed, it’s clear that it all happened just as it should have.

Evelyn Remembered

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the teacher placement auditions at The New England Conservatory were a somewhat crooked version of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. The string faculty had already selected, argued over and assigned the plum students long before any of us arrived; the auditions were about the rest of us. I played badly, and despaired.

When I received my class schedule, I saw that I had been assigned to study with a woman whose name I didn’t recognize. Only two of us were to be her students, and she was supposed to contact us about when and where our lessons would take place. It was customary that lessons were given in the main Conservatory building across the street from our dormitory; permanent faculty had studios, while other teachers taught at conservatories across the country, and used whatever room they could reserve when they taught in Boston.

Maybe a month into the school year, on a Sunday, the buzzer in my dorm room sounded two short bursts – a message from the switchboard operator that I had a phone call. The phone was at the end of our hall, and, assuming that it was my parents, I put down the riveting history of keyboard sonatas I had been reading, and ran. Once connected, I heard not my mother’s voice, but, a raspy and jagged one, faintly breathless. “This is Evelyn Greely. I’m across the street. Can you come for a lesson at one?” It was bizarre, unfair, and hideously short notice.

“Uhm, sure.” I answered, looking down at my pink slippers, “Yeah. What room?”

“I don’t know yet,” she answered distractedly, “you’ll find me. Let Lanford know he’s at two.”

“Lincoln” I corrected automatically.

Lincoln,” she said with menacing precision. “Let Lincoln know.” Then she was gone.

At twelve forty-five I was searching through floors of practice rooms in the main building, carrying my cello, looking through glass doors at people singing, playing pianos, practicing flutes, and holding ensemble rehearsals. On the top floor, I spied a woman I recognized from my placement audition. She appeared to be at least 80 years old, with a face plaid with wrinkles and an emaciated body in sweat pants and a sweat shirt. She seemed to be scrubbing the floor around her chair with paper towels, and when I knocked, she looked up and gestured for me to come in.

“I’ve just,” she started, breathing hard, “had a little accident.” I smelled urine. I knew that she needed help, and I knew I could help her, but what did it mean that I had just met my teacher and she had just peed on the floor of a practice room?

“I’ll get more paper towels” I said, leaving my cello outside the door and sprinting to the ladies room. Not thinking was good. On my return, she took the fresh towels from my hands and handed me a wad of damp, brown paper, which I threw into the trash can. After a further swipe, she handed me the final batch of towels, sat in her chair with one leg over the other and motioned for me to retrieve my instrument.

“It’s amazing,” she said as I unpacked, “that you play as well as you do with such terrible technique.”

After which, she turned everything upside down. She descended from a different line of cellists from my high school teacher, and disliked my phrasing, my bowing of the Bach Suites, and my “ass-backwards” pivot shift. She had, in fact, been the protegeé of Pablo Casals, and had been very famous “back in the day;” although she had clearly not been floating through life on a gossamer cloud of fame and success. I subsequently learned that she had a drinking problem, that she hadn’t performed in years, and that (I was thrilled to learn)  she was the teacher assigned to the students no one else particularly wanted to teach.

Lincoln and I were trying to make the best of things, not ready to relinquish any idea of ourselves as valuable commodities, but it was hard work. After the first Sunday lessons, which lasted for several hours, Evelyn called Lincoln to say that she just couldn’t make the drive into Boston again; could we catch the bus out to Belmont and have our lessons at her place?

It was only 8 miles to Belmont, but on a city bus, with a cello, it was interminable. All the way there I fretted about having to have my lesson in front of  Lincoln, a lesson being the most harrowing kind of exposure of one’s frailties as a musician, particularly when one was required to un-learn everything that one had learned in the past 8 years. From the bus stop we had to walk to her house, and we waited on the cement stoop as she shuffled to the door. Inside it was both sickroom and cave; heavy curtains were drawn against the daylight, heavy furniture filled the visible rooms, and every surface was covered with dusty doilies and framed photographs, mostly of Casals and his colleagues. It smelled bad, like pills and urine and possibly mold. I sat in a horsehair armchair while Lincoln had his lesson, uncertain whether I was meant to be watching and listening, but having nothing else to do besides looking surreptitiously at  Casals beaming benignly from the photograph to my left. I barely survived my own turn, hands shaking as I played Bach for her, was stopped, felt my hands being moved manually into new and untenable shapes, played more, and felt the hot sting of tears as she raised both of her own hands in a gesture of frustration.

Several weeks passed, and I received the call on the community phone, telling me that it was too much for her to teach back-to-back lessons. She asked that I come alone, and that I stop at the “package store” on my way to her house, to pick up something for her. The following Saturday I made the long pilgrimage to Belmont alone, relieved that my shame would be hidden from Lincoln, hoping that I had made enough progress that she would be less impatient, and that maybe she would see me as a worthy part of the Casals lineage.

The package store was kitty corner from the bus stop in the center of Belmont, and it occurred to me as I hoisted my shoulder bag and cello that I was under age, and that they might not be willing to give me whatever she was expecting. I didn’t have much experience as a drinker, and imagined perhaps a bottle of wine, or of harder stuff. When I stepped out of the sun and into the dark, narrow shop, the man behind the counter took in the cello and gave me a pitying smile. “Here for Miss Greely?” he asked, bending down behind the counter. I nodded. He came up holding a big box. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a bottle of anything. “I’ll tie it up for you,” he said, “make it easier to carry over to the house.”

“I’m only 18,” I blurted, “I mean, you know, is it okay for me to take that?” He smiled again, busy with his twine.

“Are you going to drink it?” He asked, looking up.

“Uhm, no, but I was just worried…”.

“It’s okay” he said, coming out from behind the counter to hand me the box. “been doing this for years.” I put my bag’s strap high on my left shoulder and lifted the cello with my left arm; the man held the box under my right hand until I was ready to grasp the sturdy twine handle he had crafted. “Best to Evelyn” he said, holding open the door. I walked the two blocks to the house, bottles clanking, getting curious stares from strolling couples and dog walkers. Maybe this was what it was like to be an adult, maybe this was all normal, maybe other people did stuff like this every day, and I just didn’t know about it. I tried to cast myself as the lead of an eccentric art film, or a moralistic Dreiser novel in which the Perils of Dissolution were exposed. I yearned for my parents and my own home, which seemed to recede with every step.

After that lesson, my third, there were two more. Both took place at Evelyn’s house in Belmont, and on both occasions I was bidden to stop at the package store to pick up what I later learned was an astonishing quantity of Scotch whiskey. My last two lessons devolved mainly into long sessions of story-telling in which I heard about Casals, touring, concerts at Marlboro, and life as a classical musician in the 1950s and 60s. Evelyn had attended Smith College and done graduate work at Julliard, she was smart as a whip when focused, and clearly, and terribly sadly, seemed to have been in love with Casals. After some initial uncertainty about whether I was actually going to have A Lesson, I relaxed in my armchair, listened, asked questions, and joined her in the past.

It was a romanticized past well-suited to an 18-year-old girl, full of romantic intrigue, backstabbing quartet members and longing for love with an unattainable man. I longed to ask her whether she and Casals had actually been “together,” or whether she had just wanted him, but she wasn’t somebody you could just ask. She wasn’t a girlfriend, or a friendly stranger on a bus. She was, in her memories, an eminence, and the unfolding was at her discretion and on her schedule. There was no sentimental Tuesday Afternoons with Morrie about it. She was a messy, sad, drunk, and her stories were not even vaguely aimed at imparting to me valuable lessons which I might use as I moved through my own life. She needed to talk, and I was both disconcerted and thrilled that an adult was confiding in me, telling me “everything” in a way that had never happened in my sheltered existence. I forgot the smell, and the bottles, and the fact that I had to play a jury in May for which I was totally unprepared; I was part of something bigger, something that made sense to my soul in ways that chord progressions and sonata form never would.

Once I fell in love with Evelyn, she vanished. In April, apparently alerted to the fact that we had received essentially no instruction during the school year, Lincoln and I were given the option of playing our juries the following September, after studying with someone over the summer to “get up to speed.” Although I’ll never know, I suspect that my parents, or Lincoln’s, or both had called the school’s President to express their thoughts about paying thousands of dollars of tuition in exchange for minimal and eccentric private instruction. When we returned to school, we had a new teacher, a kind, sober man who gave regular lessons and useful advice about difficult orchestral passages and practice techniques. I lasted six months of that year before staging my own disappearance, packing my cello and my stereo and heading back home to apply to a “regular” college. The following February, while I was living at home and waiting to find out whether I would be admitted as a transfer student to Oberlin College, I got a late-night call from Lincoln. Evelyn had died, he said; a heart attack. Although she had seemed to me to be ancient,  she was barely 59.

Sometimes, in a fit of self-righteousness, I have believed that Evelyn failed me completely. If she had been sober, alert and interested, my first year might have gone better, and I might have stayed there. If only she’d been the adult and let me be the kid, I say to myself, if only she’d done The Right Thing, I might really have succeeded as a musician. Lately, though, I think that she did all that she could do. She gave me more, in those long, dreamy conversations, than any other teacher gave me in hours of drill and encouragement. Perhaps, behind the alcoholism, the illness, and the dissolution, there was still a discerning person who saw that I wasn’t meant to be a professional musician.  Maybe she abandoned any hope of whipping me into shape, choosing instead to beguile our time together with stories that needed to be heard and kept. There was no “fixing” her, at that late date, and probably no way to Svengali me into the next Yo Yo Ma, and neither one of us tried to do the impossible. Instead, we gave each other something outside any regular rules of student-teacher engagement, and of immeasurable value.

Forgotten But Not Gone: An Open Letter to Caleb Followill

On a whim, because it had a very cool cover, I bought the latest issue of “Spin,” which promised to reveal to me the “Best of 2009.” It had a nice looking guy on the front, who the check-out person (Janet) believed to be Ashton Kutcher, but who was, in fact,  Kings of Leon’s lead singer Caleb Followill. After doing all of the dreary old Responsible Person things that I am obligated to do under the Geneva Convention (putting groceries away, making lunch, changing over the loads of laundry) I relaxed with my new magazine, hoping to find suggestions about bands that would make my pulse race, and my world expand. Instead, on page 4, I found a second picture of the handsome Followill behind a quote attributed to him: “[t]hat woman in mom jeans who’d never let me date her daughter likes my music? That’s f–king not cool.”

To say that I was stung would be an understatement. I had a brand new iPod Touch, I had just downloaded Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” on the recommendation of the considerably friendlier editorial staff at “Paste” magazine, and I was just hoping to find some more ideas about music to love. While I saw myself as an evolving, interested connoisseur of cutting edge pop culture, I had apparently been relegated Beyond the Pale, a mom-aged person doomed to listen to Billy Joel and Supertramp for all eternity, on 8-track tapes.

Here’s what I would like to say to the smug Mr. Followill (who, I will tell you without editorial comment, was photographed wearing a cross):

Dear Caleb,

If you are really an artist, I find it hard to believe that it matters whether or not your audience is “cool,” or what they’re wearing, or how old they are. Your self-conscious categorization of “cool us” and “not-cool them” makes it clear to me that while you may be talented (and I believe that you are) you are not really an artist, you are a complete and total sell-out and media whore. (No offense; us mom jean wearers just get really hot and pissed off sometimes, if you know what I mean). If I had a daughter, I would discourage her from dating you not because you are a pompous and self-proclaimed badass who gives interviews cherishing every bender, hangover and droppable name, but because I believe you to be narcissistic and immature.

If you are really an artist, Mr. Followill, you have something to say, you have a way of seeing the world, and you have a heart filled to bursting with the need to be heard. You write and sing not because it’s easy, or lucrative, or attracts groupies. (Those are all fun things, and I don’t begrudge you your perks, but that’s what they are. They are the collateral stuff that comes with recognition and popularity).  It is intellectually and artistically lazy to fall back on the cliché that Old People are shocked by everything new, from Elvis to the Beatles, and that the measure of success is the extent to which said Old People faint in shock and clap their withering hands over their hairy ears. You do not achieve success as an artist by excluding any potential listener, reader or viewer, although it may be part of achieving success as a commercially successful pop star to make your desired market segment feel like unique and special flowers. Do you want to be Britney Spears, or do you want to be an artist? It’s your business, really, but you should probably be honest about it.

It is a shock to me, a real shock, to learn that there is a caste system among listeners of alternative rock, or indeed any other kind of music. I am a person of the precise age and demographic you identify as “not cool” as a listener. Although I do not personally own a pair of mom jeans, I am old enough to be your mother, my hair is graying and my right knee hurts when it’s damp out. Inside, however, I am still very much alive. I have a full range of emotions, much as you do, and I also respond to music in the same way that a younger member of the species might respond. Lyrics move me, beats make my feet tap, and certain melodic lines and harmonies make me close my eyes or hit “replay” until I have gotten all the juice out of the experience. My point is that while you probably don’t want to date me, I am viable audience from the viewpoint of sharing an experience, a feeling or a message. If you cut me, do I not bleed? Does it really, seriously diminish your work if I like it? If so, that’s incredibly cold. Cold, short-sighted, reductivist and arrogant.

In closing, Caleb, I will acknowledge that artists have always had a person or group in mind when they created. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with checking your work against the imagined response of a patron, an unattainable lover, or even a competitive colleague. I don’t know who you think about when you write songs, although I’m pretty sure we can rule out women in their 40s. There has to be more than that consciousness of a possible audience, though, there has to be a loss of yourself in the work. That loss of self-consciousness is the point at which you cease to be a skilled craftsman making a product, and become an artist who no longer has the power to shape the work to please anybody else. If you cross that threshold, it won’t matter if your message is received by a woman in mom jeans, her hot and debauched daughter, or the night janitor at Madison Square Garden. It won’t matter if your listeners are “cool,” it will only matter that you have the relief and delight of connecting with a kindred spirit, a human in the vast sea of humans who responds to your words, your voice, your message. It’s all up to you, though; frankly, now that I’ve said my piece, I really don’t care what you do.

One more thing, though, Mr. Followill. My mother was right: pretty is as pretty does.

Best regards,



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