michael's communiqué #4
So...the summer's not over...technically. But since I, and many of the people who are probably reading this are either on some form of school schedule, or still approach the calendar year in the firm grip of a suspended adolescence...it's OVER. Which is alright with me since in seems an inordinate amount of the amazing moments in my life have occurred between September 21 and the New Year's Day in various worn and haunted Long Island towns and their adjacent woods, fields, and beaches. Inside creaky houses dolled up for All Saints Day. And I have been working on my Halloween costume since the day I was born.
The end of this summer was a bit of a downer. The college where I teach on a part time basis cut art classes to save money (how surprising), leaving me in uncertain waters for Fall...waters which I will be swimming on my lonesome for the foreseeable future. There was a certain opaqueness to New York this summer that I found depressing. My friends and I felt pushed to the margins again because of what's in our hearts...and I suppose that is where we belong. Certain Hollywood gangsters flirted with us all summer but they will never take us to bed, because they are scared of what we would make them feel when we are inside them, or them us. Actually making love, paradoxically, is a whore's undoing. New York, New York it s a hell of a town.
...I must stop complaining before I start sounding like someone I don't want to sound like. We do what we do because it has meaning to us. If Fannypack has meaning to someone else...so be it. We let Marx & Engels down a long time ago, so we need to stop expecting their ghosts to come round and put a boot up a number of well deserving arses.
Now to the feature presentation...
Last week brought with it a bittersweet 48 hours which, much like grape cough syrup, tasted much more bitter than sweet when swallowed. But it did ease the pain quite a bit.
Last Saturday's Tiswas show at Don Hill's was a gloomy disaster. The club itself, on the corner where cafes fear to tread, smelling a bit like Paul Weller's piss...had a certain foreboding atmosphere from the moment we entered. Last year we played a raucous set here, and I bent a microphone stand in 12 ways while Andrea entranced even the most cynical Fred Perry-ist with a voice like a snake charmer's flute. Not so this time. First Darren missed sound check due to an unforeseeable family obligation. Then I lost my earplugs, which when a sound-system is under whelming, are all that keep me and voice in one place. Then someone walked away with a bag of our equipment, including our melodica (that keyboardy thing you blow into) and a tambourine. Then the band before us, which we graciously allowed to play our drum kit, took apart Tod's bass drum pedal in a moment of unexplained meanness. Also the front of our bass drum was kicked in (by someone, somehow) so that fragments of the words "My Favorite" were scattered across the front of the stage. I felt tense, rained on, and weary. I carelessly shouted my way through the set to a small, but supportive crowd. Drunk with frustration and umm beer I wanted to smash up the stage...but only managed to fracture each song with bored angst.
The night improved long after the last note was played. I stayed at the club until virtually morning dancing and talking with my friends and making new ones. Hours of Red Stripe and robot dancing proved a good analgesic. Lights swirled around me. Handsome British men teetered on speakers. A Swedish boy grabbed my balls. Girls in black eye-liner tumbled to floor, and upon me, like Jenga. By the time I crawled into bed, respectable folk were in church receiving absolution for just the sort of things I had probably done the night before. It's mostly a blur.
The next day returned to bitter when I received a pretty scathing e-mail critique of my performance, and particularly my singing, from someone whose opinion I value tremendously. Someone who in the past, was gentle to me when I was not, and who is now often not when I am. It was more expiring than inspiring in tone. Long ago...I wrote the liner notes for "The Informers & Us" single. In there I wrote about the mystery of "how a song was to be sung". People rightfully interpret it as a kind of existential allegory for the ways we wander home. But for me it was also literal. I have always struggled to find my voice as a singer. I was not born to be one, and I have come to accept that it is in some part the "unnaturalness" on my singing that helps it deliver its point. But in the last year and a half, my live singing has been getting more and more strained and tuneless. I felt detached from the beauty of what I was doing. There are a number of personal reasons for feeling as though I take the stage with a gray rain cloud permanently perched above my head, but they are private, and actually not principle to this story.
On one level the critique was helpful in motivating me to reconnect with the person who loved to sing, and who loved melody. Reminded me not to let my angst consume my joy. The critique was right on in terms of how I was struggling to harmonize, both literally and figuratively, and I felt emboldened to improve. On another level the critique saddened me. It reminded me of how, up until a couple years ago, I gave criticism in the same less than gentle way. Depression and insecurity can make one an artless taskmaster, and I felt ashamed just being reminded of it. I've learned that even the most melancholy pickle of a person should strive for a certain kindness, gentleness, and dare I say...grace. Now this doesn't mean that when I am striking a punching bag, that I do not fantasize about blackening the eyes of the entire Bush administration. But when it comes to the people you love. Be kind...
As philosophical as I aspired to be, I still felt like warm dog puke sitting on the Subway coming back from a little lunch at Teany with a sympathetic band member and two supernaturally supportive Swedes. They assured me that I was closer than I thought to the place I wanted to be. But 15 minutes later I was fully engaged in feeling sorry for myself in the half empty garbage strewn subway car. I felt like no matter what I did, it would never be good enough because what is inside of me is just not good enough. I felt that not even Rodin could render a sublime form out of a pile of cold mashed potatoes. I was simply a brooding butcher, and as the critique implied, there was little hope of me being anything else.
It was at this point that things got interesting. A few feet to my left, there on the subway, stood a raggedy black man in his late forties, covered with the kind of bruises one gets from spending each night sleeping where things are not soft. He muttered to himself. Each of his teeth seemed to be making a run for it in different directions. His eyes were weary, his clothes held together by the congealing of filth. In his hand was a soiled coffee cup for begging. Having just recently finished Brecht's beggar themed play "The Three-penny Opera", I was taking more detailed notice of him then ever before. My heart sunk even further as I took him in.
But then...his mouth opened...and out came...I don't even think I can begin to explain this...the most beautiful falsetto opera singing I had ever heard. IN ITALIAN. His eyes just glazed over as he sung this lovely lilting melody. He swayed ever so slightly from side to side. It was all I could do to not collapse in my chair. In my own overly symbolic way, I saw him singing right to me, or something beyond us singing right THROUGH him to me. It was as if it said. "No matter how ragged you feel, no matter how busted and bruised the dark ages have left you, no matter how those around you see you you have in you a voice...and it is beautiful...and you must sing with it...because...you can...and you should and you must. You are not the ruined reflection in the window of the N Train. You are the glorious ghost of a thousand melancholy songs sung once more with feeling until you almost collapse. The same now, singing at Don Hill's as it was in a Roman amphitheatre 500 years ago.
I fumbled to fill his cup with dollars and quarters as he resumed mumbling and shuffling his was down the subway car. I was speechless and stayed that way for quite some time. If God is dead, then we have in our ingenious humanity, the potential to resurrect him for moments at a time, for moments like these. And thus we are our own creator, and we are all divine, and CLOSER than we think.
When I relayed this improbable sequence of events to my best friends, they stood half fascinated, half incredulous. Essentially they asked me "Do you fantasize, or fabricate these experiences to match the mystery and melancholy of the songs you write?" And I answered in the truest way I could. "No I fantasize and fabricate the songs I write to match the mystery and melancholy of the world I see."
It really is a beautiful place, sad but beautiful.
Singing la, la, la, la, la, until the fin du monde...
As a bit of an addendum my September has not really improved all that much aside from a few evenings out with the Todbot. I went to war with a sneaky insect in my apartment. A nasty cold left me watching Monday Night Football in Kleenex covered paralysis. But on the bright side, we have a new booking agent, Palace Booking from Park Slope Brooklyn, and perhaps we will be visiting the rest of the country soon. We celebrated signing on with then by going to see the excellent STARS at Southpaw, where I and booking agent Tom bonded over Rheingold's, a painfully obscure jukebox, and a photo booth that took our 3 dollars and gave us nothing but heartache. We also played shows at Sine and Pianos on the L.E.S. where we sparkled our way through our sets, only pausing long enough to abuse a stuffed Hello Kitty. I sung my little heart out, and felt closer to finding my inner crooner. Closer...
I went to see Lost In Translation last night with Todbot and another charming chum of mine in Cobble Hill. It is really, really good. Not the film to end all films, but really, really, really good. And it s not just because Sofia Coppola one of only 4 Italian hipsters in New York other than me. The movie manages to be both pale and neon and deeply unsatisfied. It is patiently desperate, and rarely have I related to a feeling more.
It brought me closer to Tokyo than I am likely to get anytime soon. It reminded me of how magic and boredom are like two sides of a coin when adrift in far-away places. But more than anything, it reminded me of how LOVE is really all of the small moments you get right, around all of the big ones you don't. Holding hands and running without knowing where you're running to. It made me miss traveling, and wandering, and the people whom I have traveled with,
More than this there is nothing.