Tuesday, August 24, 2010

it's only rock and roll, tyrone

The river’s muddy guts had backed up, exploded
Spillin’ out the facts, fast and a lot
Spillin’ out the facts of the city’s dirty secrets
Like a city surfacing from out of the brack

"It's Only Money Tyrone," Marah

I saw my favorite still-together (though sometimes just barely) band last weekend at the 8x10. They played to about twenty still-living (though sometimes just barely) people. It was a Sunday night. As if that were an excuse.

Marah is Nick Hornby’s favorite band, too (About A Boy, High Fidelity); you can trust him. Trust Sarah Vowell and Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. But most of all trust me. You missed something serious.1

Favorite has different manifestations these days. As a kid, I pinned pictures of my favorites to the bedroom wall. If the poster was nice, I caught the corners with the flat part of the tack, rather than poke a hole in the paper, a trick my decorator mother taught me. I clipped and collected articles about the bands from Creem and Circus and Trouser Press and any other magazine that featured them. I knew all the members’ names and what they looked like and all the lyrics to all the songs and owned all the records, including the Japanese bootlegs and the colored vinyls, which I bought at Howie’s Music Machine in Pikesville, where, it seemed, older hipsters spent the entire day in their leather jackets, leaning on the racks, listening to music no one else had ever heard of, where I spent the day when I became an older hipster, leaning, listening. If Ivan Kral had walked down any street, I’d have recognized him. No way could Lenny Kaye or Earl Slick or Julian Cope escape me.

When you got home from the record store, you could run your fingernail down the middle of your album jacket, which was wrapped in thin cellophane, and in seconds you were transported to a place you stayed for hours. If you were lucky, inside would be something more than just a white sleeve with a circular cutout that made the record label visible. Lyrics were especially precious, but posters were adored. And there was another secret about a record: in that end space of smooth, unrecorded vinyl, you could sometimes find a hand-printed message like “ANT MUSIC….”

So who are Marah? They are a gritty, loud rock band, in the tradition of Springsteen—but with the edge of the Replacements and the poetry of Dylan. I would probably recognize the lead singer/guitarist and founding member, Dave Bielanko, on the street, but only the fishnets gave Christine Smith away in the ladies room at 8x10. I don’t know all the words to a single song by heart except the second best song ever recorded, “It’s Only Money Tyrone.”2 I think I know the name of only one album (Kids in Philly) besides the new one.

Part of the blame falls on a group that keeps breaking up and replacing its members. I asked the newest, guitarist Bruce Derr, why Marah frequently disbands. Hired three months ago for the tour, Derr’s not even on the latest record, Life is a Problem (which was released on vinyl and cassette). “It’s definitely not Dave,” he said. “Dave’s one of the six nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

My friend Kim and I don’t really believe him, partly because Dave's the one constant, and partly since Bielanco basically called us all douches when we didn’t clap at the end of one of the songs. I think we were awestruck. Honestly, even if we could tell the song was finished, the band immediately started the next without a pause, and then Dave mumbled a conversation with himself about our lack of applause.

Dave, we loved it. You are brilliant.

“I really don’t know why [members quit],” Derr said. It's not like they bitch and gripe in the van, which carries the four men and one woman and all their gear from here to there to way over there, with Bielanko and Derr at the wheel; they're the ones who don't drink. Mostly, he told me, they ride in a comfortable quiet.

I'd like to give the talented (keyboards, accordion, harmonica, vocals, coolness) Christine Smith a medal for sticking it out so long—“five and a half years—longer than anybody,” she said. Except Dave, the only original member of the band on this tour.

But that’s a small part of the story. Most of the blame lies with the digital download. It is bad enough wrestling with a CD’s shrink wrap, then trying to pry the too-sticky silver tape from the ends before getting the damned thing open, only to crack the door off the plastic case. Sometimes you get lyrics and photos inside, but, Sonny, I’m too old and tired and busy to get my magnifying glass to read that shit. And when it’s one of those fancy folding things, trying to refold it and squeeze it back into the slot of the front of the case when it’s suddenly expanded and puffed out, like a fucking map, is even more frustrating. And then—FUCK this CD, bitch! YOU listen to it.

Now we have the digital download. We go to iTunes and buy whatever songs we want, sometimes not even a band’s whole album. We stick the songs on our iPods, where they compete with a thousand other songs we’ve not listened to enough, and now what? How do we know the words or the band members’ faces if we are not listening to the records in our bedrooms all day long, staring at the album cover, the images and words etching themselves forever in our minds the way serial numbers and “ANT MUSIC…” “FOR SEX PEOPLE” are etched in the vinyl of Adam and the Ants’ first album?

Who the hell is Marah? No wonder you missed them. But I didn’t. I didn’t miss one moment of their energy and power. I didn’t miss the chance to yell, “ONLY MONEY!” when it looked like Dave was trying to decide which last two songs to do, and I didn’t miss him say, “Yeah, let’s make this one count” to Bruce, who did make it count.

I didn’t miss the chance to hear my new number one favorite song of all time, live, like they meant it, like it's never been played before, ever, from my favorite band, Marah.

1You miss something serious when you miss Chuck Prophet, too.*

2”Thunder Road.”**

* I would say you’re missing something serious when you miss Bob Schneider, but I’m wishing a lot of you drunk fratboys and party girls would miss that show altogether and leave him to the drunk grownups.

**The Boys are Back in Town” is number 3.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

summer lovin', had me a blast

Today, I nearly suffocated in my daughter’s room, buried alive under a mountain of clothing, a lot of it gorgeous, most of it too small. Half still had tags; the other half was barely worn because my daughter prefers to wear the same pair of shorts and the same Beatles t-shirt every day. After she’s worn something else, she drops it on the floor of her closet, where it soon becomes buried under the next thing that’s not her favorite shorts. For two hours this morning, she tried on everything, every single piece of clothing, including costumes appropriated for School of Rock shows. As the hills of shirts, pants, dresses, and school clothes eroded, new mountains formed—these marked for uniform exchange night or a friend's daughter or her cousins. I filled paper shopping bags until they tore. The air in Serena's room was suddenly oppressive, mixed with fabric chemical smell and anxious lizard smell and stress armpit smell—mine and hers. We had to take a break before tackling the drawers.

This is part of our back-to-school ritual. So are wondering whether we skipped this back-to-school ritual last year and lamenting the brisk disappearance of summer vacation. What too-moist beast ate the days? Yet when I look back on the friendships I forged in three short months, the places I visited1, the pictures I took, the nose I pierced, the concerts2 and meals and leisurely drinks I enjoyed, I feel fulfilled and lucky.

While my husband was on his annual retreat in Zion Canyon, Utah, his personal mecca, from where he sent us amazing letters, we were each supposed to write a song to be played upon his return. Serena started some complicated piece about Freddie Kruger. Marty played some chords he didn’t commit to memory. But I did my assignment with gusto, writing what I call “The Country-ass Song.” The lyrics start like this:

You keep moonshine whiskey on the kitchen sink
So when you’re doin’ the dishes you can take a drink
And wash it all away
Like you try to do every day

Spy your girl through the window on the tire swing
You always told your baby she could do anything
But so could you
And this is what you choose to do

So no regrets, no tears
Throw in the towel
Toss back a few more beers.

It’s not autobiographical. Well, the beers part, maybe. But I do like my days. Even today. Especially today. This kind of purge and reorganization is spiritually cleansing and enlightening (note to relatives and friends: don’t buy the girl anything pink or with any kind of heart or flower or bow). Sure, summer’s a tough act to follow—this weekend alone is jam packed with concerts and dinners and lunches and company. But autumn always kicks ass!

Now, post-ritualistic closet upheaval, I feel more ready to let go of the summer of 2010, one of the hottest summers on record; the summer of Resurrection in a can; the summer of a bouffant ‘do and Hairspray at the pool; of running five miles again; of dinner and drinks with my homegirl, Sheri Booker, and our agent, Betsy Lerner; sushi with Bahhhhhhhb’s drummer; crabcakes with Monica Mansfield. So long, summer of poetry and music and friends and one delightful, glittery gem twinkling beside my nostril.

Shameless Plugs

1I spent the perfect amount of time at the beach—with my sister’s family and my daughter, as well as with a new friend, Betsy Merrill. I overcame my fear of flying to attend the Madison, Wisconsin wedding celebration of a dear friend, Gabi Helfert, overcoming severe stage fright to play her and her new partner (and my new dear friend), Joey Johannsen, a song. I stayed with a beautiful woman, Lee Davenport, whom I met online, and visited with the talented printmaker, Tracy Ducasse, my funniest friend , Teena, and the beautiful writer, Carrie Kilman. People visited me, too—like Janer and Joy, two pals from back when the Internet was only just invented! My house has been full of love this summer. One good pal, Monica Mansfield, examined my old dog, Cleo, and brought her medicine; instant love right there. And Gail Dragon was my buddy for an overnighter, seeing Jason Ager at a tea house before driving home to North Carolina. I relished my time with BFFs, too—Kim Webster, Kim Stanbro.

2Peter Frampton, Yes, Bahhhhhhhb (Bob Schneider, for the uninitiated), Taylor and Evan, Justin Trawick (this Friday, 8x10, CD release!), Jason Ager, The Dead [Fucking] Weather(!). And the best: I watched my daughter nail sax, guitar, and vocals on The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and I watched her band, the Oxi-Morons, play a block party. Oh, and she plays again Saturday and Sunday at Angel's Rock bar, the hits of 1970, followed Sunday by Marah!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


When she discovered that the glittery gem on my nose went all the way through it, my mother cried. “You’re forty- [inaudible mumbling],” she stuttered through the tears, as if there were a deadline on body mutilation.

The good news is that since it’s not a pre-existing condition (like tattoos and, now, tongue piercing), I’m not out of the will. And after the initial shock, it was business as usual—telling jokes at brunch, planning my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I sat to the right of my mother, the glittery booger visible only to my husband and daughter.

No one who has seen me has asked why I did it. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem out of character. Maybe it looks as though it’s always been there. When I tell people on the phone or online, about half of them ask why.

I did it because I could. Because it would only hurt for a minute. I did it because I met a woman twenty-five years ago, a waitress at Bertha’s, who had a stud in her nose, and she was exquisite—certainly not in spite of it and maybe not even because of it, but it gave her a pinch of exotica. Since that day I longed for one of my own. I did it because it had just enough risk—a little bit of pain but not too much, a little bit of permanence but not too dramatic should I decide to just rock the empty large pore for the rest of my life. And it’s pretty. I like it. I can’t think of a better reason than the last one.

For awhile, I got the stick-on kind, just to see how it would look. When I’d remember, which was rarely, I’d carefully remove one diamond chip from the adhesive and drop it down the bathroom sink drain. Then, with the drain stopper in place, I’d remove a second one and affix it with Liquid Bandage, which would sting and smell bad for a few seconds. I’d go out somewhere, and, within an hour or two, I would scratch my eye, accidentally brushing against the chip, which would disappear into the ether.

Those who’d caught its glint would ask me if I finally went and did it. When I’d say it was a stick-on, I could see both their relief and their disappointment. Perhaps the relief was more because they didn’t have to imagine the pain of the needle. But the disappointment was, to me, more palpable.

I am not a faker. I have never pretended to be something I’m not, never lied about my skills, not even on a job application or my résumé. I had fake nails for my wedding only; I bit them off on my honeymoon. I color my hair, but it’s real color on real hair. I don’t pretend to like bands just because they’re cool.1 And I don’t lie.2

I’d given up the idea a month ago when a friend told me I’d have to take it out for surgery or x-rays, that the hole would never close. And then I thought: who lives that way? Who makes a decision based on what would happen should she ever need surgery? So when my sister told me on the boardwalk that she’d asked about the nose piercing at Dimensions and that she’d pay for half, I started to consider it seriously. Serena came in with us and whined the whole time, having just been turned upside-down (by choice) and around and around (also by choice) and become so sick that only a snowball would make her feel better. So we left, and I vowed to give it serious thought. That night, I talked to my husband for a half hour. He’d already hated the idea, even though he didn’t think it looked bad at all. And when he finally said what I wished all people would say—“It’s your body; I have no right to tell you what to do with it”—fate was sealed.3

I prepared my daughter, who also hated the idea, and sent her to the pool with her cousins and uncle. I chased a beer with a big shot of vodka from the freezer (thanks, Tom), and gave Beth the keys to my car. She drove me to Dimensions, where I handed over my ID, signed the Health Department’s forms, and picked my nose ring. I waited upstairs. When it was my turn, I sat in a big scary chair and watched the tattooed dude open the big scary autoclaved tools. My sister squeezed my hand. At some point, while the big scary needle was dangling from my nose, she stopped looking.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I said.

“That was the easy part,” the dude said. And then he put the jewel in.

“Ow,” I said. But I was completely still, unlike my sister, whose face was buried in my back. When it was over, it stung a little, but it wasn’t awful. We went back to the condo, and I took a swim, after which it bled a bit. And, with the exception of the occasionally pawing in the night, it’s only given me a moment of trouble.

With my mom. And only for a moment.

* * * * *

1I’m sorry, Vampire Weekend and Decemberists. [yawn]

2In fact, there’s only one lie I’ve told with regularity, and it had to do with whether I was smoking. I have not smoked since I was pregnant—not even once—but I used to keep my smoking habits secret from my family.*

*Then again, it’s totally within my power to shave a few inches off my thighs in a self-portrait, to lighten the dark circles under my eyes, to smooth out the kinks and dings in my skin. But that’s art. And, with the exception of nonfiction, art can’t lie.

3I ask because we are a team. And though he can’t prevent me from poking a hole in my nose or writing on my skin, I respect his opinion, and his unhappiness with my decision would make this a mistake.