Takin’ it on the road.
October 18, 2010 § 3 Comments
Should I be embarrassed?
It doesn’t seem that long ago–I was thirteen, hugging my grandpa’s arch-top Harmony guitar and singing, “There is…a house…in New Orleans, they call… the Risin’ Sun…”
Shivered-through with the deep and abiding sorrow of the song, and trying to figure out the guitar part, I played the 45 of Eric Burdon and The Animals over and over. I knew nothing about playing a guitar, but worked on it with focused desire. After two weeks of focused desire my mother signed me up for guitar lessons.
Al Schwark was the bored purveyor of guitar lessons at Farrington’s Music Store. Sitting in a tiny practice room, knee to knee, he showed me the basic chords. To make the buzzy fingerings more interesting we sang. To my amazement he liked my voice. That was his big gift to me—suddenly I could sing.
Word got around. My sister told her friend Milo who had just aged out of The Columbus Boys Choir because his voice had changed. He and a friend had started a band. He brought the friend, Steven, over to our house. I auditioned on the patio, and wow! I was in.
Other members came on board. Billy Lappan was short and cute and good at learning the words. Jan Zawadski owned a way-cool Fender twelve string and wore John Sebastian glasses and a “Sergeant Pepper” jacket. Our band was called “Half Price Paradise.”
Steven became my first genuine boyfriend. I remember sitting, hidden on the basement steps listening to the guys practice a song that had no girl part. I fell in love with his voice and his wolfish shadow on the wall.
And then, high school was over and I was sitting on another set of stairs in a dormitory at the Rhode Island School of Design, my parents driving back to our home in New Jersey. With me was the only family member I was allowed to bring to college, my six string Guild guitar. Stunned and sad I was singing “Both Sides Now,” (the acoustics were great in the stairwell) when Rob Carlson, the musical entertainment for the “Welcome Freshman” gathering, came inside for a drink of water. That day, instead of sitting on the lawn with the other freshmen, I performed with Rob.
For years there was always someone to sing with. But as I got older the opportunities to sing were fewer and farther between—and I didn’t search them out. I was struggling to become a writer and working a day job, being a wife and mother. My voice was pushed to the back of a high shelf. Used infrequently it lost much of its range. Every now and then I heard a glint of what my voice had been and I missed it, but I told myself singing was something I used to do, a passion outgrown.
Then I began helping my friend Nancy sell her pottery at a Saturday market, which is where I met Craig. The sign inside his open guitar case said all tips went to Echo, a local group that helps needy families. I stood amidst the pottery, amazed. I had never heard anyone put out as much music as Craig could all by himself.
And he often had help. Spread at his feet were maracas, tambourines, and assorted noise makers. Craig could get old ladies to pick up a shaker and remember screaming for The Beatles. He could get babies in strollers to rattle in time to Buddy Holly and Hank Williams. His exuberance made everyone want to join the band.
So one day I did.
I walked over and added a little harmony and just like that the girl who sang was back. I found myself looking forward to Saturdays with longing. Some weeks my voice was there, others it cracked and went flat. But little by little it returned.
One day Craig said, “Let’s take this show on the road!” We both have spouses and elaborate adult lives, but the road is more a state of mind than the number of miles traveled.
Craig and I are now a duo called “Hot Tamale.” We play close to home, basically anywhere that will have us. We have played next to the dunk tank at the Dollar Theater’s twentieth anniversary celebration, and on the deck of a seafood restaurant on a night so cold we lost all feeling in our feet, and at a biker chili cookoff, and tucked into a doorless closet at The What Café. And I love it.
There are few moments when I am more present than when singing. Music mainlines emotion. All the ache of every heart ever broken, all the yearning for what should be but isn’t, all the ecstasy of falling in love, ride the tide of a handful of chords.
And as we perform, I watch listeners close their eyes and mouth the words silently, and mothers pick up their babies and dance, while the guy with the inward smile is remembering a date he had sometime in the sixties.
I’m fifty-nine, and Craig is sixty-one. As we knock around the local venues we run into other veteran musicians. Among us we have an incredible number of years of fingering chords and building intricate ladders of harmony. We bring long experience to our interpretations of songs. We know life–and that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
The music is still in us, and it has to come out.