Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rehearsing the Past, Singing the Present

Women, Women & Song got together for a rehearsal today.
This simple declarative sentence may not mean much to you, so I’ll fill you in on the background.
Women, Women & Song was a trio consisting of Libbie Anthony, Velvet Neifert, and yours truly. We played and sang our way through the 1980s, disbanding in 1991. We were described as “tender, corny, and hilarious,” among other things. We had a lot of fun, and when the fun ran out, we disbanded. That was in 1991.
We’ve had a few reunion appearances, and recently were asked to come together, one more time, to play a set at the Strawberry Festival this year. After thinking about it a few days, we all said yes.
We had to think about it because, darn it, we aren’t as young as we used to be. We don’t remember all those songs anymore, although we seem to remember the ones we sang most often, like “Island Life,” and “I Won’t Wait to Be Happy,” and “What’s for Dinner.”
We have doubts about our voices now. We can feel and hear a difference, even if other people can’t. My voice, for example, sometimes cracks like a teenage boy’s. I don’t have as much air as I used to. In a trade-off, I can sing lower notes than I used to.
There are other changes: we all wear glasses now. Velvet’s hair is an elegant white, and mine is “more salt than pepper.” Libbie is a blonde, though a few months ago she had black hair with white highlights.
Velvet is the center of her large extended family, and has kept singing, in groups and as a solo, over the years.
Libbie is a legendary director of island musicals, using her gift for bringing people together to work for a common goal, and giving a generation of island children their first taste of “the theatah, the dahnse.”*
Me, I write this column for the local alternative newspaper, have the joy of my own extended family, and occasionally pick up my guitar and sing.
One of the first things we did when we sat down together was compare the arthritis lumps on our fingers. Whoopee.
Then we worked out a rehearsal schedule. Velvet lives off-island now, although not far off-island, but plans must be coordinated.
Then we talked about which songs we wanted to sing.
Then, the moment of truth: we sang a song. We started with “I Won’t Wait to Be Happy,” probably because we always started with that, and after a couple of false starts and a little throat-clearing we made it through pretty well.
Then we sang about ten more songs, and most of them came together well, especially as we warmed up. It was sweet to hear the old harmonies again, once we remembered them. Remembering all the words was harder. Fortunately, I have many of my originals in hard copy.
The hardest thing for me was figuring out the chords to use for “The Key of ‘R.’” This is one of Libbie’s songs which has been picked up and passed around the folk music world. Libbie does not play guitar anymore, so she and I sat and sounded out chords that would fit into the “key of R-flat-minor-seventh-diminished, with a dominant ninth” progression. We think we got it, but now my thumb hurts. Stay tuned for further thoughts on this. (Further thoughts: after a second rehearsal, my thumb really hurt. Libbie has suggested we do it a cappella. Or perhaps I'll dig out my mother's mandolin, which is what I used to play when we sang it. This is still in process.)
We have a few more rehearsals, and then, on Saturday, July 12, at 1:45 in the afternoon, we’ll get up on the Ober Park stage and we’ll do it again, like we used to, only older, and wiser. We invite our old friends to come out and join us, and we’ll all sing together about “Island Life,” and “The Way of Sex,” and a few other things. You won’t want to miss that.
*”The theatah, the dahnse,” is a Betty MacDonald phrase, but I forget from which book.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Moves On

Lenny Bruce died, so God gave us George Carlin. Now he’s gone, too. I read it on the internet last night – George Carlin, dead at age 71 from heart failure.
I didn’t know George Carlin, but I lived in Los Angeles from 1969 to 1971, when his star was on the rise.
He had worked as a conventional stand up comic for a few years, doing well at it, which is unusual enough, but then something happened. His partner in the 1960s, John Burns, says they saw Lenny Bruce perform, and that opened George’s eyes. He started doing a different kind of comedy.
I first saw him at the Ice House in Pasadena, just before he started dressing like a hippie. The buzz about him was that he had been successful, and had given it up to try something different. That got attention, and astonishment, and respect, in Los Angeles, where everyone was trying to make it in show biz, and nobody much cared how.
He was still wearing a suit and had short hair when I saw him, and he got his thumb caught in the microphone holder. Or maybe he didn’t; maybe he was doing a schtick with the mic stand. I don’t know. I just remember he was really funny.
Then he showed up as the hippy-dippy weatherman on Laugh-In. “Forecast for tonight: dark.” And so on. I think that’s when he started getting well-known nationally.
Towards the end of 1970 and beginning of 1971, I was playing open mics and occasional weekend gigs at a former A&W stand on the Venice Beach known as The Other Side. The thing about doing open mics in L.A. is, you don’t know WHO might show up – mostly beginners trying to find their legs, like me, but sometimes someone successful who needs to try out new material on a live audience. Carlin lived in Venice at the time, and he discovered The Other Side, and decided it was a conveniently out of the way venue where he could try things out, both to work up new material and to keep his stage chops with a small audience. So open mic night audiences sometimes, surprise! got to see George Carlin, live and in person, working at the performing end of the former root beer stand.
I was in awe of him – he was famous, for goodness’ sake. I hoped I’d get to talk to him and know him, but that was not part of why he was there. He was there for his own purposes, and boy, when he was done, he came off stage, exited through the kitchen, and disappeared into the night before anyone could stop him. I could understand his need to maintain space and not have to expend his energy being famous, so even though I appeared on the same stage he did a few times, I never got to know him, or even talk to him.
I did get to hear that new material. None of which I remember. So passes away the glory of the world.
He had an unconventional point of view, and that’s why people loved him. He was honest, which annoyed the hell out of people. He is, in his own words, “a footnote to history,” because of Supreme Court rulings on obscene language which were the result of litigation about his piece, “The seven words you can’t say on the radio.” He had bookings until the end of this year, at least, and if you google him on the internet you’ll find offers to buy tickets for his performances. Oops. I guess it takes a while to update these things. He’d probably get a good riff out of that.
So long, George – you made us laugh, and think. I really like that in a person. Thank you.

Friday, June 20, 2008

So I'm reading this book...

So I’m reading this book about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, these great songwriters who wrote so many of the songs of my generation, and as I get near the end I am blown away to realize that they too are struggling with getting older and feeling past being relevant, and they're constantly re-inventing themselves, working for causes, mentoring people.
I think about my own call and intention to “do it again,” “Pick up that guitar and sing,” and the more I think about it the more mad it seems, which makes doing it seem necessary – like the less rational it seems, the more important it is that I do it.
Meanwhile, here I sit, Mary with the mononucleosis, and a cold, and not enough energy to drive to town for groceries, which would just use gas, anyway, so no big loss – I stocked up last week and we’re fine – and I wonder if I’ll ever actually be able to get up and do it again, sing, write songs, live a life with a broader meaning than the mom, wife, grandma, friend, etc., that I am – those things are enough for most people, but here I am, still trying to write, to make sense, to make people laugh, and think.
Could be worse.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Searching for Treasure

We moved into our current home last October.
At the time that we moved I had a fresh case of mononucleosis, as well as pneumonia, and bronchitis. Also sinusitis, which hardly seems worth mentioning except for its small contribution to my overall feeling of having been run over by a steamroller.
I spent the winter living with mono, an little virus that, like the boll weevil, was lookin' for a home, and found one in me. I knitted, and slept, and watched movies, and slept, and read, and slept. I did have enough energy to complain about my lack of energy. I'm better now, still tiring easily but bouncing back in a few days. Last winter I didn't have an ounce of bounce in me.
Now that I have a little more energy, I'm starting to do things I have put off for a long time, like unpack the boxes we threw stuff into when we moved last fall. Early excavations reveal that I have enough pens, pencils, and blank paper to supply a small stationery store. I have been shoveling writing implements into my desk drawer and have been piling blank notebooks and sketchbooks on bookshelves.
Having dealt with that layer, I have hit the real silt and sludge of daily life: boxes and boxes of photographs, files, clippings, songs, poems, letters, receipts, bills, catalogues, instruction booklets for gadgets we threw out years ago, and other non-specific memorabilia.
The difficulty attached to these items is that I feel I have to look at each one. What is it? Why do we still have it? Do I wish to keep it, and if not, do I recycle it, shred it and then recycle it, or toss it? If I keep it, then where do I keep it? It's a tedious process and I find myself talking to myself: "Well, pretty easy to see why I've been ignoring this stuff."
There was a reason that each item ended up in one of these boxes. The reason might have been as solid as my belief that I have to keep bank statements for seven years, or forever; I can never remember which. Pictures of the kids at any stage of their development – gotta keep those! Letters from our long gone mothers? Keepers. That chunk of Scharffen Berger chocolate? Score! Or at least I thought it was a score, until I nibbled off a bite. It doesn't taste nearly as good after nine months in a box.
What I'm looking for is treasure. The treasures are what keep me going back to those dusty boxes and their dusty contents. They're in there, in between the terribly important notices that came in the mail that I meant to read later.
My husband and I aim to travel into our so-called golden years (my husband says that we are now "nouveau elderly") with a lighter load. The immediate goal is to have an emptier, tidier home. It is tedious work to do an archaeological dig on your own life, but it seems to be necessary to deal with the past before you're free to enjoy the present. Also, there will be fewer things to trip over in the house, and that becomes more important as we get older. It will be easier to find and enjoy the things that have meaning – what's the point of a treasure you can't find, or enjoy?
We are also saving our sons the tedious job of doing this after we're gone. They of course would just shovel everything into a dumpster, and don't think I haven't thought of doing that myself, but there is so much to shovel, and honestly, there is treasure in there. Not the money kind, the heart kind.
That's what I'm looking for as I pick up each item, dust it off, figure out what it is, and make a decision. Not exciting work but worthwhile in the end.