“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” –Bob Marley
I was grounded more than a few times in my teen years. I remember missing certain rock concerts, some for which I’d planned for months: my reckless course had its exorbitant costs, some self-defeating. One late night, feeling the hit of a sorely missed show, I played the yearned-for artist’s record. I couldn’t turn the volume up, as my parents would wake up and complain, so, in my K-Mart nightgown, I hunched over on the shag carpet and nuzzled my ear up to the fabric speaker on the side of the Magnavox: up close, the sound was just loud enough for me to imagine being outside of the auditorium and hearing the music from inside. In that way, I appeased myself. With closed eyes, I told myself the temporarily believable fiction that I was attending the show, if at a distance, and it helped.
Like most of my friends and family, I’ve always been a music lover. I was born with natural inclination and a little talent, though I’ve realized few measurable music-related accomplishments. I dapple with piano, native flute and drum, and have near-perfect pitch. I can play the clarinet and the harmonica. I have a good ear and an open mind. I met a producer in New York at a Museum show, a few years back and when he asked “Are you in the business?” I could only reply “I’m in the business of loving music”, which was cute and true but somehow embarrassing because I’ve always felt I should be in the business, so I probably felt a little shame, too. As I’ve recently been exploring and hoping to strengthen my artistic perspectives, I’ve decided to assess my relationship with music: how and when I came to know it and to love it; some of my humbling experiences with it; and where I’ve found lasting, often transcendent musical fulfillment over the years.
The first thoughts I remember having about music, as a young child, relate to our family’s record collection. While I’d been exposed to music from birth, either in church, at home, or on the car radio, I was particularly enchanted with its primary source in our home, which was a record player and a collection of my parents’ own records, including the works of Eddie Arnold; Ella Fitzgerald; & Louis Armstrong, along with various classical albums and Broadway musical scores, to name a few. There were also a dozen or so old 78s which would have been inherited from either of my grandmothers. I vaguely remember the scratchy sounds of early jazz playing and the musty smell of the records as they spun quickly around on the turntable, seventy-eight rotations per minute. I came to relish that smell as we pulled the records out. When I recall those moments, anticipating the music, I remember a breathless, almost irrepressible excitement: I felt awe at the power of music and, by extension, its mysterious source, presenting it, magically, in our own home, in the car, and from wherever instruments and voices mingled. Mostly I remember the joy the records brought me.
I concluded at a very young age that when I heard the Beatles, coming from the car radio, it must have meant that they were up on the fourth floor of the WGAN studios in Portland, Maine, playing live. At some point the truth was explained and I remember trying to wrap my mind around the fact that radio was not always live, eventually digging the concept of a person in the studio spinning records, which could, as a result, be heard–no less mysteriously–on the car radio.
I remember learning to tie shoes in that same back room where we kept the record player. My mother showed me the movements with the laces, first on my red oxford shoes, then on her own while I followed along. I suppose I would have been three years old, sitting in the dim evening light, singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with my still-young mother, learning to tie my shoes.
One of my deepest internal memories is awakened whenever I hear Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”, to which, while holding me, my father would dance, sweepingly, around our living room. That feeling of moving to the music, while being held, has never left me and still registers as one of the best feelings to know in life. I’ve enjoyed the experience of rocking, cradling, and dancing with each of my two sons, easing them into baby sleep…and I’m no stranger to the pleasures of the hammock, complete with a pull-rope for gentle rocking. Yes, music was a pleasure to hear, I learned, but it also formed the perfect context for the rocking I enjoyed so much. I’d known both music and rocking since birth, but that particularly blissful sensation of moving with rhythmic, musical accompaniment won my heart and my lifelong devotion.
When we first got our Magnavox “hi-fi” stereo, Mom bought a new recording of Smetana’s “The Moldau”. When we sat together and listened, she explained to me that the music carried the sound of that great river, at first trickling over a hillside, growing in size, until finally booming forth and, spectacularly, making its thunderous way to the sea. Together, beneath our Picasso print of “The Lovers” which hung on the wall above the stereo, we listened to an already timeless composition. We were romantics in those moments, dappling in the magnificence of art, together.
I was recently listening to some disco tracks from the seventies and, afterward, found myself giddy with reverberations from what had, effectively, been a trip back in time: the recordings are exactly the same. When I hear them, I am transported: my brain responds as if hearing a familiar voice and I experience the music as precisely that. It really is quite wondrous and magical. I have no recordings of my own mother’s voice as I remember her in 1979, but when I listen to certain Rod Stewart songs from that year, I can recall, as vividly as being there, the experience of being sixteen and with my mother, of listening to Rod with her, often in the car. Hearing a specific track like that renders a composition: it’s like a photograph. Within it, things are intact. It’s that simple, and it’s real. I know my mother had her own musical heartstrings. She never really loved The Cars, as she loved Tom Jones, but she knew me loving The Cars. I remember seeing her moving to the beat of “The Dangerous Type” when I played it repeatedly in my room. We were close in those moments, her knowing me and the music I loved, her seeing me happy and us both moving together. I think of her when I hear The Cars, still. Looking back, we all–regardless of age–seemed to possess a raw and almost shocking innocence in those pre-internet, real-time days…knowing and loving one another and always loving music.
As a young, maybe five year old, Sunday school student, I was asked to join the youth choir. I sang a solo before our church congregation as part of a “special” program, likely Easter of 1968. I remember singing, from the balcony, “All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small!” to general, enthusiastic approval. People smiled, patting me on the head after the service and I knew that experience as uniquely mine: this was me being my unique self. I sang. I was received well. The seeds of my identity were germinating.
Throughout elementary school, I enjoyed art and music class more than anything except, probably, recess. I remember feeling great joy and excitement when our music teacher would show up with her various instruments. She played the auto harp and I was enthralled. Sometimes she broke out a bag of assorted rattles, cymbals, and other percussive instruments from around the world for us to play. She brought a marimba, once, and we were allowed to sample by hitting just a single note each. I remember how painful it was having to employ such restraint: I wanted to play the whole keyboard. But the miserly single note, so deep and resonant, did indeed whet my appetite for that beautiful sound at my fingertips. I’ve never had a complete marimba experience and, I admit, still yearn for one.
I was a fairly happy teen, bursting with life and ideas, sharp-witted but somehow deeply frustrated at what felt like endless limitation in the world. I was often quick to make bad decisions, in a hurry to find what felt to me like satisfaction. I remember articulating, at least in my mind, my greatest fantasy then, which would have been having a microphone set up, on a stage, in an empty arena, surrounded by miles of wilderness, where I could sing, as loudly as possible for as long as I wished. I wasn’t a particularly confident kid, but I listened intently to all the music I heard and I wanted that experience of singing and being amplified: I wanted to hear the sound of my own, unrestrained voice.
Humility and Circumstances
In eighth grade, I’d been aware of the upcoming school talent show and went to a rehearsal in the gym. Before long, on stage, a friend and I hooked up a mic and I turned it on, saying “test, test” and I noticed, with appreciation, the scope and depth of my amplified voice. I immediately swung into the chorus of a Raspberries’ song–one of my favorite 45s at home–and the room was hushed as all present turned to listen. I only sang out a few lines but I was pleased with the sound of my voice. I was in tune, on key, and perfectly amplified. A few weeks later, I bravely played the piano and sang “The Sound of Silence” before the entire seventh and eighth grades in the talent show. It was a big deal for me and for reasons too complicated for this essay, took more courage than one might think. I simply had to go through with it as part of my zealous campaign, I suppose, to strengthen myself, to forge my identity which I was certain would involve some form of musical expression.
I’d asked my father to come see me sing. Even though I professed to being a tough kid, I was saddened when he didn’t come to the performance. I’m not sure I ever told him how disappointed I’d been. He was a social worker and didn’t generally break up his days for personal stuff. I guess I’d been proud of my courage and it would have meant a great deal to me for him to see me doing something I loved, being myself before my peers. Odds are, I’d asked him once, passively, and failed to give him a reminder, all-the-while, hoping he’d show up. That was me as a young teen: afraid to ask of people what I really needed, always doubting that I could be worthy of their love.
I have struggled to remember what circumstance would have prevented my mother’s being there. I seem to recall some strong emotions being stirred around the subject and fear, with a dismal certainty, that when I mentioned the talent show, my mother may have said something to the effect of “Oh, Becky: You don’t want to embarrass yourself”. I’ve not been aware that I possess any powers of denial of feelings but it may be that I’ve blocked out a memory here. It would have been very much like my mother, without meaning harm, to project her own insecurities my way. If it had been anything like that, I wouldn’t have discussed it with my siblings. It was a cold and deeply personal cut I felt when my mother expressed what seemed like displaced doubt on me or my spirit or my occasional, foundering courage. I would have been ashamed to admit such little support from her so I would have borne it alone. Her doubt felt like betrayal.
Isn’t that the beauty of a junior high talent show? We get a chance to enter, like the Gong Show, if-we-must, and we measure the risk. It’s a given that being eaten alive is a distinct possibility but we do it if we feel the urge, if we’ve got something we humbly, recklessly, and likely, imperfectly, or otherwise, wish to share. But we don’t discourage someone who’s got the mettle, right? Anyway, it could be what occurred. That she wasn’t there to see me is noteworthy: I know she would have come if I’d wanted her there and I know myself well enough, and remember how upset she could make me with her doubt, that if she had indeed cautioned me about embarrassing myself, I would absolutely not have wanted her there. I would have kept the date a secret from her and that would explain why Dad might not have had it on his schedule, even if he’d meant to make the time.
I was in trouble, notoriously, in those junior high days. I believe I set records for detentions served. Not just for academic indifference but for assorted pranks, antics, illicit or defamatory cartoons of school staff, and planned, benign mischief for known substitute teachers. I was known as the class clown, to many, and my act was to disrupt, with often slapstick precision, meaningful progression in certain classroom settings, with some sort of comic diversion. It was not uncommon for a teacher to pause, chalk-in-hand, and chuckle, outright, giving me the floor for a few seconds, then the official business-at-hand would resume and no problems would arise. Sometimes, though, I would push, or keep chuckling, or not comprehend a boundary being crossed, and I’d wind up with a detention and a pass to the principal’s office. At my school, in the mid-seventies, the office staff received me by showing me to the windowless school supply closet, where they’d placed a single desk for me. I suppose that in theory I might have used the time to catch up on assignments but it’s likely I drew more pictures, or architectural house plans…which kept my mind occupied. I try and recall my home life, what I thought of myself in those days, and all I can think is that I was still innocent, just seeking attention, if, for lack of anything else, for my lively, spirited effervescence. For my sharp sense of humor. I was a displaced entertainer-before-my-own-time. Anyway, it would have felt good having my father and mother see me doing something substantial and rich, not just more improv in the classroom or appallingly bad report cards. It would have felt great. I wasn’t a sensation but I was a contender.
I’d always been musically inclined. As a young child, I was curious about pianos but they were never accessible to me. I remember one of my first strong desires being to explore and behold the sounds. I understood the piano’s function, and I’d seen women playing in church and on television. I knew that sometimes people got dressed up and played shiny, black pianos as big as our living room, making music that sounded nothing like church hymns. I wanted to make acquaintance with the piano. I wanted to know the depth of that resounding mystery. I’m still drawn to the instrument and its powerful properties of reverberation. In those early years, it seemed that every time I encountered one, I was told, simply, “no”, as if I was a kid who would “bang” on the keys.
One time when I was very young, I found myself, with one of my siblings, in the Sunday school classrooms in our church basement, unsupervised, for a few moments and there were pianos, unattended: closed, but accessible. I approached one and distinctly recall the creaking weight of the wooden dust cover as I lifted it, slowly, and then the magic of the keys, resplendent before me, like an open book. I still remember the smells and the exact way the keys looked, all that shiny ivory…and each one laying perfectly level, at rest with its neighbors in pleasing succession…up one way and down the other. And then, the weight of the keys, the way they moved just right beneath my fingers when I depressed them. The real mind blower for me was, of course, the sound itself. After a few thrilling notes, I sat down, depressed the foot pedal and listened as the exquisite sound expanded and carried and then I felt it reverberating through the bulk of the piano frame…and, by extension, up the length of my limbs and along my spine. My wonder for the piano was consummated with this dalliance: the great mystery was now a known, if mostly forbidden, pleasure.
I didn’t get to spend much time at the piano, though. Profound as my first encounters were, they were inevitably cut short by temperament or ordinance, and soon forgotten in the whirlwind of school and home life. My parents had given me, when I was five, a tiny little toy piano which, disappointingly, had about nine poor-sounding keys. Then we had a tabletop electric organ, which I played by the curiously non musical notation songbook and later, by ear, though the range of 20 keys was limiting and it simply wasn’t a piano. Our family did acquire an old, upright piano that came with the house we bought, in 1973. I turned eleven that summer and I was able to play and listen and learn the scales…and before long I could strike a melody from memory and then some chords, and finally, produce some rather awkward but respectable arrangements.
I’d had some exposure to different instruments over the years. My uncle’s friends in Nova Scotia had come in kilts and played bagpipes and accordions for us when we visited there. In third grade, I got a “toy” accordion for Christmas. There were twelve keys and it was something of a legitimate instrument, if made out of childish pastel blue plastic. I could play a few tunes and bore the distinction of being the only kid in the district who played an accordion for my classmates, dressed in wool knickers. When my parents returned from a trip to the Andes, three years later, there was an Incan flute among the many gifts they bore, and I was making melodies almost instantly. I also discovered that I could play my father’s harmonica. My excitement for exploration of deeper musical experiences continued to grow.
I told my parents that music was my joy and should be my vocation. I asked for piano lessons and they told me they doubted I would practice. It never happened. I remember my mother advising me, regularly, on the impracticality of music as a context for meaningful, or sustainable, occupation. I asked myself, privately: but what about all the musicians out there?
Which leads me to the topic of the clarinet. I like clarinets just fine. I do. I enjoyed learning to play ours, but it hadn’t been my idea: it had been my older, more disciplined sister’s choice. So when I was old enough to take “band” in school, with lessons, I was offered clarinet lessons. My parents didn’t want to buy another instrument so I played the clarinet. I guess I feel a tad resentful towards the noble clarinet: I’d really wanted to learn to play piano. Band instruction was free at school, and didn’t include piano, of course~so I decided to acquiesce and do what they wanted me to do. I’ve always tried to comply with others’ wishes and do the practical thing. Looking back, I wish that my wishes had mattered more to me and to everyone else. I had natural ability and desire but my battle seemed futile so I surrendered.
There’s one more little anecdote about a musical door closing that I should share, a door that I wouldn’t have dared to knock upon, but upon which, with encouragement, I did, and was met with a cruelty that shook me so deeply I regard my bearing it as another measure of impressive courage in my younger years.
I’d been rebelling some: skipping school, drinking, trying to smoke cigarettes. Nothing much worse than any of the girls my age. Though I knew better, I messed around with a little shoplifting of candy bars and such. A pair of earrings at the Mall with girlfriends. I was obnoxious sometimes, guilty of loud, attention-getting behavior. But at that point in time, I was largely solitary, falling somewhat astray of the conventional crew, many of whom I’d known since kindergarten, who would be graduating in the spring. But I had my core of friends who I trusted, still.
I’m not sure what specific trouble I’d been in but I’d been advised to join an extracurricular group at school, something to keep me busy. I was hoping to bring my GPA up and possibly graduate even if it meant summer school. I was willing to give it a go. So I decided that joining the choral group would please me…being a naturally inclined singer and all. It felt like I was going to give my old self a fair chance. What better extracurricular activity could I have hoped for?
For some reason, instead of going to see Mr. Lowell, the group’s advisor, I spoke to my friend, Leia, who was a member of the group which was charmingly called “The Lowell Corporation”. I asked her to mention to Mr. Lowell my hopes of joining up, and she said she would.
I went about my day, reasonably comfortable in the world which, I still thought, was an okay place. I just went on with things, thinking that I’d catch up with Mr. Lowell, that he’d smile and say “Yes! Leia mentioned your interest! Welcome!” and that my life would be on course.
The next day I saw Leia in the student smoking room (that’s right) and I asked her if she’d spoken to Mr. Lowell. I’m not sure why, or how, she could have been nonchalant but she was. She said, “He says he’s sorry but there’s no room.” Disappointed, I questioned her some more, surprised that my good idea could be impossible. I guess when I said “Well I’ll talk to him”, she was compelled to tell me “He says you’re the wrong material.”
I’ve tried to console myself over the years: Maybe Mr. Lowell never did say that I was the wrong material. Maybe Leia was jealous or embarrassed for some reason and didn’t want me in the group. Maybe Leia had never even asked, having found my request awkward, or too much for her so she invented the story which she might have supposed to be plausible. Whether or not it was ever spoken by Mr. Lowell doesn’t matter. What does matter is that someone spoke those words to me and, to my seventeen year old ears, when just coming around after being in a tight spot, it might as well have been a death sentence. “You’re the wrong material.”
I’m sure that within hours I was out of the school, either drinking at a bar or hitch hiking in that direction. I really don’t think I ever went back. My self esteem was so low. I think the wound was so deeply felt because I didn’t feel any love from my friend. In my mind, if that teacher had been depraved enough to have said something so awful to a close friend of mine and she not only hadn’t defended me but reported it back to me as doctrine, I wasn’t very well-loved by my peers or my school authorities. Who were my friends? It never occurred to me, in the terrible aftermath, that Leia might have made the whole awful thing up. Looking back, she was a bit of a stiff, conforming girl, exaggeratedly concerned with her appearance. It’s hard to imagine she didn’t feel at least slight hesitation being asked to speak on my behalf to her apparently snobbish chorus advisor. Maybe the whole thing had been a lie, a misunderstanding.
Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of the depth of my sadness afterward and how impossible it felt for me, trying to process all those feelings, too ashamed to share them with anyone. I blamed myself for how my friend treated me. I blamed myself for how Mr. Lowell allegedly wouldn’t give me a chance and kept me outside of the group with judgement and scorn. These things really pulled at me. Nobody I knew talked about real stuff and I was on my own with my utter abandonment. I felt forsaken and guilty about it. Who would want to hear my voice? Who could ever want me? I couldn’t conceive of finding anyone to look into things for me, or to champion my cause. I was so ashamed; I couldn’t seek counsel for something I couldn’t even speak of. People would have to know to feel and I didn’t want anyone to know how terribly unwanted I’d been made to feel. It’s a little humbling recalling all of this: I understand about the awful, crippling shyness I’ve felt most of my adult life. So at odds before others…peers and elders and children. My confidence soared while parenting my young boys; while I was in college; and up into entering my fifth decade. I knew great confidence when drinking or celebrating music, but beneath the confidence remained an unhealed teenager. I finally told my parents about that painful experience when I was about twenty-eight. I still felt ashamed, but it was good to at least share something of my old reality with them. I remember my mother apologizing, earnestly, for my experience. She said she wished I’d been able to go to her, that she would have fought for me, and I appreciated that.
I found brief solace in the arms of strangers. I once awoke in the bed of my best friend, Lizzy’s, boyfriend. She appeared in the doorway, hissed “Some best friend!” and stalked away, never speaking to me again. We had all drunk together. I didn’t mean to sleep with him. He didn’t matter to me but I’d drunkenly betrayed she who did matter. So it was then, in the winter of ’79-’80, that I felt the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life. That business at school with Leia and then the loss of my dearest friend, Lizzie. I have flashes of the impossibly bright winter sky in Portland in those months, the frozen brick sidewalks, me walking around way too desolate for a seventeen year old girl. And I remember the songs: The Cars; Hall & Oats; Rod Stewart; The Bee Gees; The Rolling Stones…and how, while so sad, so awfully heartbroken, I could feel joy hearing the music. I feel a real, humbling compassion for myself when I hear certain of the old songs now: there I was, the courageous young me, scared and worn out with pain at a tender age but soldiering on, finding the joy in the music, extracting the richness where I found it. I know that when I hear “Do You Think I’m Sexy”, by Rod Stewart, time stops for me: in an instant, I’m there, and the whole expanse of my future, and everyone else’s, lies before us, unknown. And there I am, in Portland, Maine, on an unnamed, icy morning in late 1979. I used to think, when, in “L.A. Woman”, Jim Morrison sings “Never saw a woman, so alone…”, that he had, obviously, never seen me.
I remember those few months of playing the clarinet in the school band: it may not have been my instrument of choice, but when we performed together, all twenty one of us, I felt the distinct thrill of being a part of the music being created. I recognized it as a fine and timeless human experience and felt a sense of deep gratitude for the privilege.
At some point in high school, I’d been listening to the Bee Gees singing “Nights on Broadway”, and had such a flash of joy that I exclaimed “The musicians must be having so much fun: I want to do that for a living.” And I did want it. More than anything. The revelation gave me many hours of gratification. I’d recognized my calling. What else would I ever do? I’d found the perfect plan: my occupation would be doing what pleased me more than anything else. But other things happened. Every time I mentioned it to my mother, she would look doubtful and reiterate the perils of the music business…citing the fates of Janis Joplin & Billie Holiday, So, I’ve spent my life waiting tables, cooking, cleaning, substitute teaching, providing daycare, doing odd jobs nobody else will do, and arguing, pointlessly, with mostly unimaginative, lazy men.
At the end of eighth grade, I remember feeling afraid that I’d actually not “pass”, and be forced, in extreme shame, to repeat the year and not move on to ninth grade and high school. Somehow, even though I’d spent more time clowning than studying, they passed me. I know a few teachers and staff members believed in me and my mind and supported me. Not all of them did. I didn’t really mean to be a jerk but I may have been one. I read Mad Magazines, watched too much mindless sitcom television, and had a noisy tv comic’s aesthetics. I loved slapstick and irony. I remember, still, my delight when my math teacher happened to insist we students go out and retrieve any math books that might be in our lockers, as classroom volumes were dwindling in number. I shrugged, when urged to go check. “There might be one or two,” I mumbled. Five minutes later, it was my pleasure to have to beckon for help with the door as I struggled in with twenty one volumes of “Modern Math” textbooks, my face fixed in a sheepish nonchalance. The other students roared with laughter which got me laughing, strengthening my faith in general mirth as a way of being. I needed the positive contact. I would spice up Home-Ec class, in the late afternoon hours, by hiding in various places in the four teaching kitchens we had. I think I loved this room best, at school, as it was on the southwest corner and the pleasant afternoon light would pour in the windows, falling on the sample living rooms in a way that felt, unlike anywhere else in the school, homey and inviting. It was a place to, sometimes, enjoy a quick catnap and smell the apple crisp we’d assembled and put to bake. I liked it best when Mrs. Brant would be elaborating on some domestic imperative, turn to a broom closet, and shriek upon opening it, startled at my impish countenance as I chuckled with ghoulish delight at her and at the good fortune of another gag coming off perfectly. So, it was, perhaps, this kind of experience, that motivated my associated teachers and school administrators to determine that I should not be allowed to go along with the rest of the eighth graders on the end of the year trip out in Casco Bay to House Island. It was so long ago now that I can barely recall my feelings. I believe the seventh graders were decorating the gym for the prom and that I was–surprisingly–allowed to help. But that sense of being so bad that I needed to be isolated has stayed with me. To this day, I struggle with abandonment, with judgment, with exclusion, and with gossip. I like to think that the greater student body and the staff of my old public school scene were good people, just unable to fully appreciate my particular eccentricity. There’s a reason they were there and not teaching Montessori somewhere. I remember our art teacher was kindly and he spoke to me, encouragingly, about my art. I don’t remember much more support. I know that my home designs were being noticed: there was brief, hopeful discussion of my taking “wood shop” with the boys, and buckling down on math to pursue a career in architectural design. I was flattered but couldn’t see myself on such a disciplined path. Despite setting precedents for my single-digit in-class math grades, I had tested as one of two eighth graders qualified to study algebra in high school. I just never made the time nor had the focus to apply myself to the repetitive, formulaic arrangement of complex numerical equations. I really just wanted to make music.
Sustaining Melodies: The Music That’s Saved Me
There have been some pianos.
In those dark, late-in-high school years, after losing Lizzy and being disillusioned with my support networks in general, I found pleasure in the performance of live music, mostly rock and roll performed at either our Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, or at bars in and around that city.
I’d been a precocious kid and, by fourteen, was buying beer for my older sister, who at the time was sixteen and couldn’t pass for eighteen which was the drinking age in the summer of ’77. By the time I was sixteen, I was drinking in many local establishments, mingling with men way too old for me, and, ultimately, seeking out and flirting with as many rock musicians as I could reach. I made some friends, took some risks, and compromised myself regularly. But I found deep, lasting joy in some of the music I was hearing. The musicians appealed to me in their pretty-boy anonymity and also in their magical powers of creating wonderful music but the sound would sometimes stop me in my tracks. I remember dancing to certain, lively numbers, covers of dance-able top forty songs I knew, and loving the experience. I was enjoying one of my favorite things: good, loud music, and I was moving to the rhythm. I’d regularly attend gigs with bands up from Boston at the Free Street Pub, a somewhat raunchy Portland pool hall whose motto, at the time was, simply, “Disco Sucks”. The place was delightfully old and bore authentic grime from the nineteenth century. I remember seeing bands called “Panda” and “Poor Boy Symphony” in the smoky haze, as a fairly young drinker. The bar was in Portland’s Old Port district, along the waterfront–before revitalization–and I used to envision the very same establishment, a hundred and fifty-years earlier, filled with a noisy crowd of drinking sailors, whalers and sea merchants, stomping boisterous feet to a fiddler’s lively sea chanties, by dim lantern light.
Some big -name rock bands came to perform at the brand new Civic Center, a massive, concrete structure in the heart of Portland. My friends and I would hitchhike in and hang around the back door until someone let us in for free. I still recall my breathless excitement as a band’s tour bus would pull up at the loading dock, behind the big stage. I loved the energy of the celebrities and their unquestionable air of importance.
In recent decades, I’ve known, briefly, the joys of singing into a mic, not alone, but before friends and a general crowd, at karaoke in a honky tonk bar out west. I mustn’t downplay the joy this experience brought me. I had laughed at karaoke singing in the 80s, thinking myself above it, keeping a good distance between myself and the messy business of all that “silliness”, incredulous at the seeming desperation of those who would partake. Then, in early 2001, I gave it a try. I was a natural…probably more delighted with myself than my peers were witnessing me, though I know they recognized my fire. I sang an oldie, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and delivered it with such precision and surety, that after the last note, I simply jumped up and down in place with joy. I turned out some fine renditions of classic rock, seventies rock, and even some eighties tunes, over the next few years, but then the bar closed down and Wayne and I stopped social drinking and it hasn’t happened for quite a few years . I’ve been out to a few hopeful gigs on visits back west, and it’s never the same: never the right mood, never the right mic, never the right song. But I will always remember the magic I felt at the end of a winning performance of Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee”, say, or Marvin Gaye’s exquisite “Sexual Healing”, at The Hideaway, with my friends screaming applause, the whole room electrified with the magic of my number. I don’t know when I’ve felt more completely gratified. We know it wasn’t my music, or anything like that: it was just me, being myself at the karaoke mic and thriving. I really liked hearing friends say “You need a band!”
One of my most memorable musical experiences was covering Thelma Houston’s disco classic “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. It really was a pivotal moment for me, something I’d dreamed of since loving the song in the seventies. In the boozy excitement preceding being called up to the mic, I’d forgotten how special the song was to me so I was, indeed, a little giddy stepping forth. But then those first few sparkling notes sounded, followed by a few introductory “Mmm-Mmmmm”s from Thelma, and the mic was all mine. The little screen was there, so I chimed in with its white letters spelling out “Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive”, and then I was free-form: “without your love, Oh, baby…Do-on’t leave me this way, no…I can’t exist, I’ve surely missed, your tender kiss…” and then the next thing I knew, I was rolling with it: “Aaawwwww, baby! My heart is full of love and desire for you! So come on down and do, what you got to do, come and satisfy the need in me! ‘Cause only your good loving can set me free, yeaahhhh….” I wasn’t quite a Houston but I believe I was sensational. It felt sensational and most everybody there, including a great many friends but also acquaintances with whom I didn’t ordinarily click, seemed to think I was. These were the High Karaoke days at our beloved Hideaway and all stripes were in the house. Jaws were agape as I killed it. I remember feeling, inevitably, very much in control of the song. My voice carried the high notes, if briefly. My timing was right, and I was on key. I moved with the lyrics and sang with an easy authority. It was so good that I, of course, jumped for joy after the last note, really feeling the force of the house reaction. They seemed to roar in delighted approval and, for a few precious moments, I was known as a worthy musician: a performer worth watching. I suspect that this performance must have been the one that earned me a long-hoped for invitation to sing with a local band. I gained some confidence in these moments and began to understand the nature of true self love. My life had by this time been blessed in many ways but this joyous experience added a new dimension of fulfillment for me and the following years were undeniably charmed in its wake. I never managed to perform with that band, but I was heard…and recognized as, conceivably, the right material. I still dream of a karaoke mic, in the right place, with just the right reverb, and the possibility of hearing myself sing, my voice now as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. I yearn for that experience of knowing myself as part of the music, as part of the rich tapestry of art and wonder uniting us all.
I”d left, with my boys, for California, in 1994. I finished my degree in June of ’95, and in August of that year, attended, for the first time, the local, grassroots though world-famous reggae festival, called Reggae on the River. The event would change my life, and, over the course of the next twenty-three years, define my experience.
I’d heard about the festival from my sister on my first visit west, six years earlier, and remembered thinking it sounded essentially wonderful. I hadn’t been to any musical events for years and by that time, I’d lost my lifelong interest in contemporary pop sounds. But I knew I loved reggae and three days of live music in the sunshine not only appealed to me…it was a musical imperative: this wasn’t to be missed. I needed to try it out first hand.
As it turned out, I was given a job working in the Irie Kitchen, backstage, in exchange for a spot in the volunteer campground, a backstage pass, a premium parking spot, and free admission for my two sons. We went over, with friends, early, to bushwhack and carve our campsite out of the great, fourteen foot high blackberry hedges growing in our designated oak grove. There were Madrone trees with their glossy, golden red-smooth limbs, mixed with the oaks throughout the place, while all around and beyond the concert “bowl”, were the southernmost Humboldt hills, carpeted with giant Douglas firs, golden grass, and towering redwood groves.
We watched as what we would come to call “Reggae City” came to life: over the “summer” bridge crept a steady procession of celebratory-looking vehicles. Buses of all shapes and sizes; vans; bicycles; people on foot; mothers and babies, fathers and kids, everyone carrying, seemingly, as much as possible for the weekend. Reggae music issued from nearly every vehicle as it ambled over the rickety bridge, the occupants offering their wristbands for the security guys’ inspection before entering the festival proper, while people swam and played in the river on either side. The water was clean and clear and not too low, flowing easily.
Before long, the many hundreds of volunteers and their families arrived, along with roughly 4500 ticket holders. What had been a grassy field along the river bar had been transformed into a spectacle of parked vehicles, gleaming in the sunlight, within which was a band of ticket-holding campers’ campsites along the river…extending nearly a mile to where the river took a sharp turn to the south. All along the water, on both sides, were people sunning themselves, or just enjoying the river. Back toward the bridge we could see the volunteer campground, with the live oak grove, the acres of parked vehicles there. and finally the definition of the festival grounds: if you just looked upstream, there was the river, with the impressive campground flanking it, but quite close you could see the “bowl”, and the great stage, with its big, grassy field before it, defined by the food vendors on one side, and other merchants on the other two. This field extended out from the stage, to the base of a rather steep, grassy slope, creating the amphitheater atmosphere which we called the “Concert Bowl”.
At Reggae–its official “pet” name, locally–I met people from all over the world. I heard sound that seemed to represent–and compliment– every pleasing sample I’d heard in my life. I ultimately came to know the festival as “church” as it was there that I felt the closest to God I’d felt since singing in the choir. I felt the bass beneath my feet and the love in my heart and all around was gladness and art. For three days we lived communally, with plumbing and hydration and sometimes food insecurities, but every challenge was met with refreshing simplicity and kindness. Needs were met and people were good to one another. And there, sometimes so exhausted my legs wouldn’t move, I danced to music from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, England, Asia, and other regions far and wide. People who spoke very little English danced and cried with wonder, and, with the rest of us, simply embraced their neighboring revelers at the close of particularly good sets. Smiles were ear-to-ear and the tears of joy flew as freely as the river, as abundantly as the draft beer, pouring non-stop in the booths in those hours. Babies were born, marriages performed. My son once announced that he’d won a goat, which he couldn’t readily claim, in a poker game with some congenial African musicians.
After a few years, my job changed to backstage security, which was always fun. I worked the press tent one year, and my favorite gig was keeping the band entrance, and greeting the musicians as they arrived. I was a social butterfly and experienced sheer delight at that important, and lavishly appointed, post. The musicians and I would bow at each other, with the deepest respect, as they passed, and I felt a sense of joyous pride welcoming them to our humbly grandiose stage. All of this in the sun, beneath brightly colored parasols, with endless reggae music pouring out of the mile-high speakers. Nobody was troubled, for three days. The music would stop, it seemed, for a few hours before dawn, but, by 7am, it was playing on the PA again, and by 9:30, coming from the stage. Then, all day, until the wee hours, on Friday and Saturday nights, and finally ending before midnight, Sunday. I would dance all day, and then, after the final set and a leisurely saunter along the grassy path and through the oak grove to my tent, I would fall into sleep with a big, satisfied smile on my face.
Me being in California, timed with the magnificence of that festival, seamlessly confirmed Reggae on the River as one of the great loves of my life. All the challenges of my young life, all the years of my ex husband wanting me to “grow up” and accept boredom…all of my mother’s doubt, and all of the horrible loneliness from being either misunderstood or simply “intolerable” to others simply vanished when I danced, barefoot, on the sun-drenched grass, to the sumptuous, rocking rhythms of well-amplified reggae music in the company of thousands of gentle, like minded souls. I was indeed “confirmed” in the Church of Reggae as my most godly, inspired, and love-filled self. I will always be grateful for the experience of that event in my life, every summer for so many years. My faith in humanity, in love, and in the power of music to enliven, to heal, and to unite, was finally fully consummated along the South Fork of the Eel River, in beautiful little Piercy, California. It was a precious time and place and we were all blessed to be there. The music still resounds in my mind and in my bones: a sweet and potent elixir, the soundtrack of me, among friends and joyous revelers, moving, ever-dancing, to that impossibly wonderful sound. We called it Reggae on the River.
I did achieve some piano fulfillment in my cabin on the mountain in California, gazing out into Four Mile Canyon, allowing the course of my feelings to play out, my fingers alive and dancing, producing cascades of voluminous sound; rapturous melody reverberating from my fingertips, through the keys, through the plywood walls of the cabin, and then outward, into the swelling expanse of the canyon.
Sometimes, hiking, alone on the mountain, I’d find myself toning, freely, to the sky: I would just let my voice fly, one note to the next, digging the way the sound carried, depending on the wind, the relative fog, or the direction I was facing.
I think that sometimes, when I sing, I’m channeling those moments in the balcony as a young, choir girl: Just the right material: reverent; worthy; and unashamed…singing my praises.
I’m grateful for all the music I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and for all the musicians who create the world of shimmering sound that keeps my spirit enlivened.