Around the turn of the latest century, I was in my mid-20s. I wasn’t making great money, but it spent like plenty, for living as a single person with not so much in the way of family obligations or financial responsibilities (funny how that works). In many respects, I had more disposal income then than I do now, even while pulling in barely more than a third what I bill out these days.
I’ve since had the occasional thought, “MAN! What I wouldn’t give for that kind of throwaway cash now... and what do I even have to show for it from back then???” I guess that means I’ve finally reached the age and stage of life to understand what folks mean when they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” (not that getting to this particular milestone does anything for me). :-/ Though, to be fair, what I do have to show for it are a lot of avenues explored, as well an eclectic and educational collection of valuable memories, and many of the adventures (and misadventures) behind me which have helped me to become the person I am today — so I really can’t even afford to complain all that much.
I was single in the sense that I wasn’t married, but I was sort of casually coupled... Liam was one of my first semi-official male companions — I believe we even loosely referenced each other as boy/girlfriend — and I guess I didn’t know a whole lot about what a committed relationship was supposed to look like, but I’m pretty sure ours wasn’t it. (If I’m being honest with myself, though, even if I’d had an idea of what was expected, I don’t guess I’ve ever been that great at going by the rules — least of all when it comes to following the standard playbook or doing whatever else is most often considered typical.) He wasn’t my first roommate, but he was my first informal domestic partner, after I “accidentally” moved in with him (a tale for another time), so we sometimes shared space, but mostly didn’t. I almost always kept my own place, even if I was hardly ever there, but I had a ton of time to myself, often using it to contemplate the voids in my life, and how to fill the gaps left by what I felt was missing from it (since Liam and I were clearly not so “right” for each other that our life together was any kind of focus for either of us in and of itself).
I yearned for an external creative outlet — in some more accessible media than the files on my computer — more specifically, for expressing myself through music. A few years out of school, with the kinds of opportunities that had lead to soloing at the Headquarters of the United Nations becoming a more distant memory every day, I longed to reestablish the cooperative dynamic between artistry and alliance, discipline and talent I’d once known, that nourished the dramatic drive in my soul — and there wasn’t anything in my life holding me back from exploring my options. Back then, the free classifieds section of our local weekly arts publication — the City Pages (our Twin Cities’ answer to “The Villager” of Greenwich Village) — was the best resource for connecting with other musicians seeking to form new gigs or restructure working collaborations.
Because it had been years by then since I’d actively played an instrument well enough to perform in public, so I had nothing to offer there; because I’d learned through experience what a cold shoulder having the wrong “equipment” got me with most players (thanks to the disproportionately miniscule window of prospects open for females looking to break into the music biz — even in go-nowhere local cover groups), and because I didn’t have the inclination to invent a new wheel, I focused my search primarily on working gigs with steady contracts seeking to add or replace a female singer. There were usually a small handful; I’d periodically feel them out, sometimes get an audition. During one such exchange, I set up an appointment, then had to cab it, because I was temporarily without wheels after a recent fender bender.
The taxi driver was old enough to be my grandfather, and he looked every bit like the kind of B-list has-been you’d expect to find in some Minnesota variation of a Wilford Brimley movie, not that I was judging... I don’t routinely harbor much in the way of demands from the transportation service providers I encounter. He was a talker, though, as many are — I’d guess previously retired, by the looks of him... probably rejoined the working ranks on his own terms, less for the money, and more for the human interaction. So you can imagine my surprise when the indignation he expressed upon finding out I was headed to audition for a band was not so much related to some generational old-timer’s offense over the indolence of kids these days, but rather, his feeling of having been slighted because I hadn’t responded to his City Pages music ad!
He had the weekly circular up front with him at the ready, open to the musicians seeking musicians section... he passed it back to me, pointing out the spot circled in red sharpie, which was odd enough I was inclined to wonder how many times he’d already done that this week with other passengers. He’d come to figure out what I was up to because he not only recognized the address, but even knew the name of the band I was meeting — and felt compelled to offer his opinion on how “those yahoos” weren’t right for me, and didn’t deserve a gal as good-looking as me, which, considering the 40+ year age gap between us, came off a tad on the creepy side. I don’t remember the exact verbiage he used, but the tone of his frustrated rant about not getting the kind of responses from talented, attractive young folks he’d anticipated made me half expect to hear the words “whippersnappers” and “tarnation!”
I reviewed the area he’d highlighted, which in only a few poorly structured run-on sentences of mostly incoherent babbling, managed to precisely showcase exactly the kind of emotional baggage I had a natural instinct to steer clear of with a 10 ft. pole. I don’t recall what it said, specifically, but if you picture the character I described, then imagine Yosemite Sam published his post, you probably wouldn’t be too far off on your general impression. The more relevant point, though, was, it didn’t meet either of my criteria — established groups in search of female singers — so that’s all I told him about my reasons as I handed the paper back to him, hoping that would be the end of it. Sadly, it was not... he was doing most of the talking by that point, so I just held my breath and waited it out... fortunately, the ride wouldn’t be that much longer.
As he dropped me off, Art Carney the cabbie couldn’t resist the urge to make one more last ditch pitch at getting me together to “jam” with other potential band mates — using such hard-sell closing tactics, I started to suspect his last job had been as a used car salesman in one of those cheap, “BUY HERE / PAY HERE” lots for poor saps with bad credit, and that image suddenly somehow perfectly rounded out the entire persona, which explained a lot. I might have said I’d have to see how things went here first — meaning in the meeting he’d taken me to — but I’d think about it, and maybe follow up if I was still looking. As for that next encounter, well... the smell of ganga wafting from the house hit me so hard while I was still on the sidewalk, I almost thought about just getting right back into the taxi without even knocking on the door, til I realized I wasn’t willing to pay the price — which would surely be episode II of Grandpa’s woes on everything wrong with today’s music players, complete with a heaping helping of “I told you so...” so, on I went.
Inside, the entire main level had an open floor plan completely cleared out of any furniture except bean bag lounge chairs, and all the accoutrement of a regularly working band... drum kit, mic stands, etc. The room was low lit except for a handful of overturned crates covered with Indian pashminas and tie-dyed serapes to hold lava lamps and incense burners — as if that helped — and there were actual beaded curtains separating sections of the space. If I were to ever write my musical memoirs, I might devote half a chapter to my brief experience with that groovy collective of doped-out hippies whose frontman was a nearly identical doppelganger to Brent Spiner in Independence Day — if he dressed and spoke like Shaggy of The Mystery Machine Gang — but, suffice it to say, we were not a good match, and our association didn’t last long.
A few days later, I received an unexpected, out-of-the-blue call from Grandaddy Hackman, who’d apparently kept my number in his cell phone from when it was entered into the service dispatch as part of the process required to order the cab — so the driver can text upon arrival. He let me know he was finally set up with enough responses from his ad for gathering a group of various instrumentalists to play together, and he wanted me to join them. Now, mind you, I don’t know if chauffeuring practitioners have any sort of professional code, but if so, I would expect this surely would have violated it. Still, as I wasn’t playing out anywhere yet, and I’d since sorted out my vehicle situation, I agreed to the meeting, and took down the address.
After a trek out to a suburb on the cusp of the outer metro ring from where I lived in Minneapolis — any further and I’d have declined on distance alone — I found Gramps hosting in the free-standing party room of an upper middle-class townhome community, which was clue #1 this wasn’t going to be the typical garage / basement try-outs. I was the only female presence at this showing, but along with the mature coordinator, there was a drummer, a keyboard player, and a bassist, none of whom were kids, but even the oldest of them probably only had about 15 or so years on me, which still put them 25 or more behind him. I was the last to arrive, apparently because I’d been given a different time to come than the rest... I guess Gramps had wanted them all to get a good rhythm going with each other before they brought in a singer.
I walked in the way I always did on such occasions in those days... dressed like I was ready to take the stage of an arena shared with Heart and Queen, and sauntering with the confidence of a rockstar who owns the place... back when I could feel every eye in the room on me, and soak it all in — when that kind of high felt right to me (man, I wish I still had that much swagger in my game!). At the time, I was in-the-know enough to have a finger on the pulse of groups getting gigs in the cities — if you wanted to play the big clubs who paid out the big bucks (enough for a 6-piece to take home), you stacked your setlist with whatever music the primary demographic is nostalgic for, with a hard-hitting focus on the kinds of dance numbers that would get them out onto the floor — because dancers sweat, and sweaters drink, and all managers really care about is whether you can pack the house. So, naturally, given the decade, I was anticipating heavy 80s rock, with a few classic 70s throwbacks, and one or two ballads, for the sweethearts to slowly fall in love all over again.
I was not expecting Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison — mainly, because I had an interest in working someplace other than VFWs and American Legions, preferably for audiences who hadn’t seen action in Viet Nam. I realize that era was probably Grandpa’s heyday, but if that’s what he was going for, why bring in all the rest of us young guns? Weren’t there others out there of the more senior variety he could have opted for, who would be better acquainted with and accommodating to such wistful stylings???
And when I say dude looked like someone’s Grandfather, I’m not intentionally trying to be ageist. Don’t get me wrong, I realize there are plenty of our elders who can still maintain an incredibly commanding stage presence. I mean, Neil Young looks like someone’s granddad, too — and very well could be, I suppose (but in fact, isn’t) — though nowadays he comes off less like a rocker, and more like he should be in a rocker on the front porch of a retirement home; Rod Stewart looks like he belongs in a wheelchair; Ozzy can barely form a coherent sentence anymore, and I’m pretty sure Keith Richards and Willie Nelson are probably long overdue for a private swordfight in an underground parking lot somewhere — but put a mic in their hands and an ocean of adoring fans in front of them, and you’ll believe folks who say you’re only as old as you feel... at least for 90 minutes a night at a few hundred bucks a head, anyway.
That kind of legend, though, this guy was not — he was hunched over like Quasimodo, as if his guitar strap held the collective weight of all the world’s stage fright jitters — creating a sympathetic ache in the bones for anyone who cast an eye in the direction of his slumped shoulders, only to become fixated on his abnormally twisted spine, which then naturally compelled one with an overwhelming urge to try and help him sit down, or at the very least grab him a walker. This was certainly not the type of figure one expects to find at the front of any musical group, not even a bar band — this was the kind of silhouette you would expect to see in a Metamucil commercial. But that wasn’t even the worst of it...
No, the worst of it was... Grandpa sucked. He worked his pedal like he was thought it would help him run a yellow light, with no real concept of its purpose; his guitar playing invoked the same feeling I would expect of most parents having to sit through second grade recorder concerts, and based on the pained expressions of the rest of the room, I’m sure it wasn’t just me who thought so — I suspect everyone gathered there were all busy calculating in our heads exactly how long we would have to stay to meet the requirements set by the social standards of “Minnesota Nice” before we could make our excuses and escape. I’m positive from the time I showed up, that timeframe was actually less than an hour, but it felt to me when it was over like it had lasted for about a week and a half.
As I made my exit, trying to restrain myself from sprinting to my car, I was motioned over to where the drummer was hanging out on the patio with the keyboard player, both having a cigarette. I explained I didn’t smoke, and I had a long drive ahead before an early morning, but he promised he would be quick, and there was a pleading kind of desperation in his eyes demanding attention, so I relented. His first confession was, based on our host’s skill level — or lack thereof — he’d been ready to leave only 5 minutes after he’d got there, except for one thing... Gramps had told him a female singer would be stopping in later, and he knew a good one had the potential to be what he referred to as a “powerful weapon in any band’s arsenal;” and the reason he’d stayed after I came on the scene was because my presence had “upped the ante.”
His second confession was — as he said, “like any red-blooded American male” — he’d initially been unable to tear his eyes off my gigantic set of lungs... right up until the moment I opened my mouth to sing, whereupon I had changed everything about the name of the game for him. He’d gone to audition for a band, but instead, a rudderless crew had materialized in front of him, and he was ready to take the reins, man the wheel, and run with it. Together, we comprised a powerful front, an accomplished drummer, capable keys, and what he referred to as a “swinging dick” bassist — which was his way of saying, what the bass player offered would do for the time being, until we could get someone better — all we needed was a competent guitarist with some genuine sex appeal, and we’d be good as golden. We caught the bassist on his way to load up his trunk, and we all agreed to continue the conversation at the nearest Denny’s, where we talked shop, and sealed the deal.
I broke my rule about looking for working groups, but the drummer seemed to know what he was doing — he’d been a musician for Disney Studios (not that there’s much excitement in laying down the cymbal track for the theme to the “Duck Tales” cartoon, he admitted, but the money was good enough), and he’d toured with Brass Kitten back in the day (not that I’d ever heard of them). More importantly, though, I’d be getting the chance to have an equal contribution to the functionality of our act, rather than just coming in as a hired gun to stand on my mark and do my thing — which was appealing to me on a whole new level, so long as I trusted we could get it done. And I did... we had an organizer who was hungry to eat, literally — he had an 18-mth-old baby girl to feed, and drumming was all he did for a living... we were going to make some real money. It was starting to seem like I was finally right where I needed to be to start making things go the way I’d wanted for what seemed like forever, and I was plenty good & ready — it was about damned time.
Flash forward a few months, and our fearless leader gave me a random call one night with a sense of urgency a touch more stressed than was normal for him, to ask if I’d been watching the news. I hadn’t, because I didn’t (and still don’t), but even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on the before-we-go “final five” spot he was referencing... it seems there had been a terrible accident on the new light rail that had killed a taxi driver — the very same one who had originally brought us all together. We harked back to how unimpressed we’d initially been with him (I think the term thrown out was “two-bit hack”) but he confessed even if he’d bad-mouthed the old man maybe a bit more than he’d deserved — because it was fun to be catty sometimes — he would never have wanted him to die... he would never wish that kind of end on anyone.
I had to talk my by-then good friend off the anguish ledge, to steer him from his overwhelming guilt, to remind him that people die every day, and most of the time, there’s not much we can do about it. We aren’t capable of causing bad things to happen to others just by the power of our will, and even if we don’t always have the best thoughts about some folks, that still doesn’t produce an invisible cyclone of cosmic energy somewhere that can somehow bring about the ruin of those at whom we have directed negative thoughts — if it did, what a powerful weapon that would be, and what a different world we would all be living in. The reality is, something bad happened to someone we’d both encountered briefly, and while that can certainly impact one with a profound reminder of our own mortality, it shouldn’t cause us to miss a step in our own lives, any more than to take a moment of silence, and be grateful for our many blessings — especially those who care about us.
That seemed to have the positive effect he needed to hear right in that moment, but I get where he was coming from... death has a way of shaking us all to our core — especially the abrupt, unpredictable kind. It forces on us an immediate and intense, pinpoint-focused perspective of our very existence, like a magnifying glass on an ant, which can be pretty jarring on any given day when such a thing isn’t on your to-do list, particularly if you happen to be an ant. In my case, it reminded me that, like sand through an hourglass, the moments we have for pursuing our own interests are always steadily slipping away from all of us every day, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.
I suspect this is what Grandpa cabbie must have been feeling when in his mid-late 60s he picked up a guitar — I’m guessing either for the first time, or the first time in ages — and determined there was no time like the present to form a band and play the music he’d always loved. I don’t know what inspired him in that moment to tackle that particular mountain... I don’t know what else he’d achieved in his life by then, or what he felt was missing — but I know it seemed to me like a mirror was being put in front of my face, and I’d do well to take a good long hard look. At the time, even though my dream of being a rockstar — or at the very least being able to call myself a professional musician — was still a distant image in a far-off place with a chasm between us I didn’t know how to get over, it still felt like working with this group had me on the right track, and maybe, finally, I was on the road to something else... something newer, brighter, more exciting, more rewarding than the everyday grind of managing property.
In that mythical musical memoir I may never get around to writing, my experiences with the band accidentally formed by a frustrated older taxi driver — which did not include said frustrated older taxi driver — would most certainly garnish a small collection of chapters, with a handful of engrossing tales. But, in the end, we never went anywhere... eventually the drummer* abandoned us for what he referred to as “the bigger better deal” (*who for very different reasons I won’t get into here no longer haunts my friends list — but let’s just say there’s only so much “obsession” I will tolerate). So, effectively, all but our illustrious ringleader got kicked to the curb, just as we had once done to a sad old cabbie with a new guitar, a lot of expensive equipment, no genuine artistic aptitude or real musical talent, and a rapidly dwindling dream of something more.
I hadn’t thought much about that experience in many years until recently, but, the older I get, the more I’m starting to understand what it might be like for one to find yourself in your twilight stages as no more than a frustrated cabbie, when maybe you’d had such greater, grander plans for your life. I certainly never would have expected to find being the 46-yr-old mother of a toddler on my own personal bingo card. These days, most of the music that comes out of me has an audience of one — but it’s a pretty special one — and it’s teaching him a profound love for the sound that soars, that soothes, that inspires... it’s teaching him to sing.
Maybe that isn’t what I’d planned to do with my life, and maybe 20 years from now, I’ll find myself in a cab wondering why no one responds to my ad. Though I do hope, if so, that even then — I still know how to get attention when I want it, how to rock, and how to lead — because, until there isn’t, then there’s still time. And, this... this moment, right here, right now — this has to be good enough for me, because it’s everything I have in this world to show for the whole of my life so far — so I’d better make the most of it.
LJ Idol | Season 11 • Week 24 - Topic: LIVE YOUR HORN
This post has been brought to you by an association with the online writing community forum, LJ Idol.
This work represents one half of the collaborative effort put forth by “AlarmaSoulson,” the creative team of AlyceWilson and KarmaSoup. The challenge was to choose a partner with whom to create an “intersection” of correlated entries. As our fates are intertwined, please be sure to check out her contribution on this theme:
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Please also give a warm shout out to my very accommodating cohort, whose willingness to reach deep into her own past and pull out a story with such eerie similarities to my own have resulted in the uncanny pairing we present here.
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