Saturday, February 28, 2009

The act you've known for all these years.....

Whew--close call on the deadline with this one. There are less than two hours left of February 2009, and then I'll get to see if my birth month of March comes in as a lion or a lamb. Probably a lion, if the weather forecasts can be trusted. Snow seems to be encroaching on the mountains of western Maryland, so the first day of March will probably find at least a dusting on the ground, and possibly even a measurable accumulation, something virtually unheard of in these recent years. And so, I sit here typing frantically, trying to put together something coherent in the fading ides of February. The deadline is probably corny--I certainly deal with enough of them at work to make the idea of struggling to meet one on a Saturday night highly unpalatable. But here I am, two months (and only three entries) into my blog, and already realizing that my original, somewhat unrealistically-conceived plan to write an entry per week is looking less credible each day. I was going great guns, then suddenly everything in life seemed to get in the way of my journalistic ramblings. But, as my wife, Alison, always lovingly reminds me, "a writer writes." And so, I'll enter the third month of '09 writing about the most recent development which has served to not only capture my attention, but also to crystallize my creative focus for this year.

My previous entries have both been musical in subject, not too surprising a concept for anyone who knows me well. And also quite in keeping with my personality, they were inherently depressing recollections of musical moments of my past, treasured for what they meant to me at formative times of my life, but now bittersweet and elusive as they have faded into the lost annals of my youth. So how surprisingly refreshing, then, that tonight I'm actually examining my musical present (and future) -- an extremely unusual concept indeed. When I ruminated in my January entry about my obscure high school band called Scotland Yard, it was very much from the perspective that those days of live performance were special and meaningful, and quite likely to never happen again. I probably was unnecessarily melodramatic (as is my wont) in making it sound as if I've been strumming my guitar in a cave for the last quarter of a century. Nothing could be further from the truth, as for the last year and a half I've been actively involved in the worship group at my church, sometimes on bass and occasionally on piano or acoustic, even leading every now and then. But somehow, the dimension of participating in praise and worship seems rarified by the very nature of its purpose. I can't help but feel that much of the time I'm flowing in those worship sets, it's more the Holy Spirit doing the work and me just holding the guitar. It's always a case of trying to balance the live performance of music with the humility of not performing.

But one of the fundamental character flaws I still am trying to resolve is that I'm a ham. Have been since at least the age of four, when my mother says I used to do imitations of Richard Nixon to the amusement of the neighbors (which I vaguely remember, outstretched arms giving the peace sign and brow appropriately furrowed). So I've had a lifelong, comfortable relationship with being in front of people, speaking or performing. But many years in fact had passed since I had done anything in the actual 'performance' capacity. Probably the last occurrence on record was a concert I did with four friends in a hastily-assembled ensemble in May of 1997 at the bandshell of the Hagerstown, Maryland City Park. We were intended to be the musical accompaniment for the foot-weary participants in a Muscular Dystrophy Association charity walk as they concluded their course. We decided that it might be fun to put together a few sets of oldies (but specifically quirky oldies), and we practiced diligently for several months in anticipation of the event. With a ton of equipment, a professional mixing board, and another friend who was a skilled sound engineer, we set up on the stage, ran through a quick check, and prepared for what we thought would be a fulfilling culmination of all our work.

And then the heavens opened up. It was early May, and what was at first a comfortably cool day soon deteriorated into a drenching, raw expanse of unrelieved misery. The MSA walkers finished and climbed into the dry refuge of their cars, and the only audience we had were the wives, girlfriends, and handful of other foolishly-faithful souls who sat huddled under rainwear on the open-bench seating as we ran through our repertoire with something less than exuberance. My fingers were so cold I could barely play, and our guitars were starting to drift out of tune into that sickly, flat tonality so familiar to anyone who has ever played in the damp. It was a nasty, penetrating wetness, and I could feel my voice starting to become raw. My friend, Andy, seemed impervious to the suffocating anguish of the weather, stomping about with his Hofner bass, pounding out gutsy runs while delivering killer vocals in his classic rock voice. I felt a great deal less enthusiasm, struggling to sing the lead on Crazy Love and becoming acutely aware that I sounded horrible. We drifted through some Springsteen and Billy Joel and Doors, and then it was my turn again, singing lead on a song by Buddy Holly's old backup band, The Crickets, called T-Shirt. Andy introduced me, bounded to the side of the stage, and I moved in to the microphone.

By now the rain was coming down like somebody had opened a couple thousand fire hydrants directly above the bandshell. There was just enough air moving that moisture was drifting toward us from the overhanging eaves of the stage, and I was soon to learn that this was not the ideal environment in which to perform electrically-amplified music. I slowly strummed the opening chord of the song and sang, 'Could've seen my tears a mile away'....and then I saw my life pass before my eyes. As I leaned toward the mic, I saw in my peripheral vision an arc of clear blue-white light that jumped from the ball of the microphone and connected itself to my lower lip. I think my heart stopped for about five seconds. Somehow I kept playing, and struggled to remember the lyrics, the whole time convinced I would drop dead at any moment. I couldn't help but cynically think what a crappy ending to my life this would be, electrocuted on stage at the age of 32 singing a song about lost love to a crowd of fifteen people who themselves were trying not to drown. I listened to the cassette of the concert today and I think I could detect the exact moment when the arc of electricity lunged at me, a bit of a click on the tape and a subsequent change in my voice that seems to indicate a man learning about the theories of electrical grounding firsthand. We somehow limped through the rest of the concert, but all in all it was quite less than what I had originally hoped it would be. The greatest irony of all was that we booked the bandshell on a Sunday afternoon about a month later in hopes of being able to finally play our sets in the warmth of a June afternoon. We played the first chord of our opening song, Here Comes The Sun, and a violent burst of lightning crackled through the air. A few seconds later, a monsoon rain let loose and continued for the rest of the afternoon. We packed up and went home, and that was the last time I ever performed in public.

The last time, that is, until last Thursday night, when I was struck with electricity again. But this time it didn't come from equipment, but from the atmosphere of the coffee house where my friend, Bobby, and I made our debut, singing and playing our acoustic guitars. We play together every week at church, but here we were in the decidedly different performance mode, and we were loving every minute of it. The first time I ever heard him play, I was totally blown away, and when we began playing together at church, the musical chemistry started to flow. I soon realized that here was someone I connected with in all things musical in a way I couldn't have ever anticipated at this stage of my life. That he is in his early twenties and I'm in my mid-forties seems completely immaterial as we indulge ourselves in our beloved Beatles, or in the odd Irish and English singer-songwriter numbers that we treasure for their obscurity. We opened with If I Needed Someone, and suddenly I was twenty-three once more, and music was again very freeing and amazing, and the electricity I felt this time came from partnering with someone on the same musical wavelength with the same basic disposition, and seeing a crowd react to our outpouring of lovingly played and sung notes.

And now, in the company of Bobby, I've found something I forgot even existed. We're just getting started, but the productive sessions I yearned for in my first blog entry in January are washing over me like a tidal wave. It was certainly worth the wait, and I'm loving being drenched.