I’ve stopped going to rock shows. It’s not because I had children and have settled into a nurturing later life. I’m as footloose as ever, and I work 11 to 7 so I could be at a rock show every night of the week. And it’s not because I’m over the hill. (Well, maybe a little.) But I was over the hill when I got into rock. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy rock shows anymore. The last one I went to – King of France, Dawn Landes and Robbers on High Street at the Mercury – was terrific and I had fun. But I don’t feel the old eagerness when a new Village Voice comes out – I don’t pant to see who’s playing where. To quote an old Cowboy Junkies line, “My heart doesn’t race like it did once before.”
Part of the appeal of live music, for me, was watching young people claim identities that weren’t given to them by their parents. I thought it was incredibly cool for people to rename themselves things like Tulip Sweet or Joey Methadone, dropping a wedge between themselves and the past where their families had assigned them an identity. Actually it was more than cool – it seemed really daring.
It sounds weird, but it came to me relatively late in life that you could reject the identity your family slung on you. It wasn’t till I was in a rock band in Michigan at age 35 that I thought, Hey, I’m not that fat malcontent they labeled me. I’m a musician. I’m a rock musician. It was the most thrilling identity I’d ever considered – it made me happier than anything up till then had.
I know that sounds jaw-droppingly late as a milestone in growing up, but it supports my theory that we mature at wildly different rates. I believe a 12-year-old Samoan teenager can actually be more emotionally mature than a 34-year-old married schoolteacher in Seattle (Mary Kay LeTourneau, now out of prison and living with the boy she fell in love with). I got a lot of flak for that opinion but I stand by it. He was in some ways older than her, and I don’t think it was a case of abuse.
Rock’s capacity to empower young people also fascinated me. Watching Maria Christopher, the pony-tailed leader of Boston’s Dirt Merchants at a sparsely attended show at Kalamazoo’s Club Soda, I was riveted by her authoritative playing and cool, commanding presence. At Club Soda any night of the week, there’d be a kid doing something weird or brave or crazy. One band came in looking like regular scruffy rock and rollers, but the singer changed into a full-body kitty-cat suit, little furry ears and all. He sang in dissonant stuttering shrieks, a kind of sophisticated noise rock, seeming unfazed by his weird get-up. Fronting a punk band, a girl played lead guitar with her hand coming around from the other side of the neck – conquering the common problem women with small hands have with bar chords by simply getting to the hard notes from the other side. Her chords came out all different – they were mostly low notes, and her playing was defiant and bold.
The common denominator was they all had this bravery and conviction. I was mesmerized by people who could show this. In Seattle, I saw Mark Eitzel, and I wrote in my journal afterwards: “I found watching him was essential. You could listen to him and get swept away on his words – you were kind of stunned as a song spread out slowly, encompassing time, metaphor, complication, and you could close your eyes and follow it a lot of places. But not to look at him was to miss seeing this bent-over, beautiful person, his legs crossed and angled under him, his arms continuously reaching and closing in, emphasizing, receding as he bends forward again – now his head’s more important, now his hands. His body is totally involved as he goes into and into the song…” It was writing that went on and on, trying to get at the essence of what I was seeing and feeling. It was a compulsion – I was constantly falling in love – star struck, rock struck, whatever.
When I moved to New York, I still went out and found this wild bravery in the rock clubs. But I also wanted to play music. So I had dual obsessions – my guitar, my tape recorder, my effort to get somewhere close to the brilliance I’d been studying. I worked on songs and went to open mics, with middling success. I had a couple of small gigs, and my friends really liked my songs. But they were my friends – I had doubts. Then I’d go to a club and see someone like Will Oldham, who can wail away from inside a song like he’s lost to everything but the feeling, and the song swirls around him in gorgeous waves. And I’d think, no, I can’t get there. That’s not open to me. Just watch. It was more than a bit conflicting. So finally I gave up trying to play and write music.
For a while I kept going to shows, but as time went on and music stayed a big part of my life, I realized I was spending too much time as part of an audience. I felt like I was dedicating my life to appreciating other artists. If you have any creative ambition of your own, there comes a time when you can’t go out and watch the results of other people’s hard work. You have to stay home and do your own.
I still revere rock musicians. But if I can’t be one, or not a good one, I want to write. This year I’m writing a novel in the mornings before I go to work. It’s going really slowly. But I have to do it. I have to do something of my own. I can’t stand there clapping forever.
Photo by Beth Boller.