Climb on a back that's strong....
I was thinking about what made me pick the guitar up this morning, while the wind whipped through my trees and crashed the chime bells together like ship rope and metal clanging in a harbor. Sitting here in the warmth with a slight creeping chill around my ankles from the cracks and creaks in this old house, warm coffee, a day to write and recover from a cold, send things out, wait for things to come, pack to go, unpack to stay, breathe and sit still...
I picked the guitar up finally for good at age 26 in the bedroom of my Morton Street apartment in the West Village of NYC. I should say that first. But I'd tried earlier.
In a house on a hill in my last year of college that I shared with a few really good friends that have stuck, some people I liked but never got to know and a few total strangers, we'd stay up with our stereos blasting, finishing our Theses, making sardonic jokes peppered with latin phrases like Rite and Summa, coming up with post-modern catch phrases for having sex, the inside clique of smarter-than-thous. Someone brought me "Steady On", vinyl, Shawn Colvin's debut. I remember taking Billie Holiday off my turntable for the first time in months (I was writing my thesis on her) and turning the lights off and listening. I was deeply in love with someone at the time who was completely unattainable and completely unavailable (at the time--he became available soon, but that is not part of this story. Its the longing that's important. The impossibility of the dream). He was hovering in my world like a teasing raincloud and I ached for That Which I Could Not Have and to distract from the constant tug and pull of my heart, I strung all-nighters together like a debutante's add-a-pearl necklace, living on Jolt Cola and coffee and bourbon and wine and whatever Mark down the hall was brewing. I was writing. Truth be told, I didn't even know what I was writing. I was writing around the heart of it. I was spiraling my own intelligence--trying to locate it like a miner, using Billie Holiday as my flashlight. I felt alternately puffed up with my own bravado and crushed by insecurity. And then there was the boy, in the corners, watching, hovering, not landing, going home to the girlfriend, but still flying around my skies.
It was the perfect moment to discover Shawn Colvin. She writes the way I think. Around things. Not bluntly. Not so flourid that I can't find it. But skirting the edge of the emotion so that when she lands, it shoots me directly in the right vein. I wore out the grooves in a month. At the time, I was a singer. I could play piano. I knew music - I saw the world through music. But I could not write a song.
In a few months, I'd graduate with honors and a few latin words next to my name in the program, with my proud family there. With the boy there, still wading in the shallow water, hanging around, curious. I'd choose to go study Shakespeare that summer in the Catskill woods, dive into the deep of the language, immerse myself in something I wasn't sure I was good at but I needed to try. A few months later the girlfriend was gone, and returning from the dark forest, I put my own life on hold to go live with the boy and test those waters. [Note: Not to sound defensive here, but putting my own life "on hold" was easy to do at that time. I had no idea where I wanted to journey next and sitting in someone else's dream was a way of taking a breath for 6 months. A time out. Sometimes lack of direction is a good thing]. I'd watch him play guitar, steal a few chords here and there, find my fingers on the frets in patterns like constellations. I bought a guitar that year. A Seagull. For $300.
In a year I'd have moved out, moved to Manhattan to be an actress (or so I thought). I wasn't sure where I was going but I was sure that if I stayed there holding his hand and his dream I'd never find mine so I lept off the highest dive I could find and landed on concrete, hard, with a subway token in hand and the sound of taxis honking and recycling trucks backing up at 3am. In a few years I let go completely of his hand, right thing to do, wrong way to do it, but regret is easy in hindsight. Not only did I "get a song out of it", I had landed on the back of his dream, that dangled behind him. I landed so hard, I tore off the tails of his coat, took his dream, while he went another way, found a wife, found a life, found another career. I bought "Fat City" and learned a few songs, found my way to a gig then a record then a signing then a tour then a career and now, years later, I'm here, in Nashville, listening again to "Shotgun Down The Avalanche" and remembering the day that I could strum that rhythm with ease, after 10,000 hours of practice.
A few nights ago after a show, someone offered their opinion. It happens. They thought my silly song, the easy stuff, Defined Me and wondered why I didn't play more of that. My 'joie de vivre' they called it. Why write the dark songs when I smile so easily. I didn't feel offended by the question, because we all want what we want. I can't give him the easy laugh all the time. We all want what we can't have. I countered that my dark songs have a crack of hope at the end, that I look at what is my truth. I'm not speaking for him, unless he hears it in between the lines. I think back to Shawn Colvin, who I have sung backup for by now, who I have shared the stage with, who I sat backtage with watching silly videos on Youtube. I wanted to say to her the fan thing, the "you are the reason I bought my first guitar" thing, but I held back, kept that my secret. But her music this morning, I'm hearing that thing I'm reaching for. The aching longing, the sadness, with the glimmer of sky at the end. So things seep in and pour out and its shocking to me that its been 20 years since that day Kennan gave me the record.
So I'm just gonna sit here for a while and let the record play and try to recall what it felt like in my fingers to hear this music without having any idea how to form the chords. The itch of the need. The wanting what you cannot have. Now I am older and I know that sometimes what you want that seems out of reach finds its way to you. In its own time.