Thursday, January 12, 2017

I’m beginning to feel distinctly that I am more trouble than I’m worth. It’s crunch time for Roscoe’s Basement — we’ve got a gig in less than a month, and our bass player will soon need couple of weeks off — but I am, by any reasonable metric, not pulling my weight. It’s bad enough that I can’t play a note, being as I am still in the early stages of physical therapy after my accident; I find myself having to bum a ride like a damned teenager.

My car is still fucked, and will be for some months while I sock away money for a full brake job. I work from home, and I live close enough to the PT practice that I can hoof it, and Danielle and I can make arrangements so I can cover appointments and family obligations — but she works full-time and has obligations of her own; imposing on her for transportation to and from band functions is out of the question. My bandmates have been incredibly generous; Tom has, on multiple occasions, come all the way out to pick me up, and Chuck has been kind enough to bring me home, even though I live on the ass end of Nowhere and am not in fact on anybody’s way to any damn place.

I should, in fact, be at rehearsal tonight. But despite everyone’s best efforts, we couldn’t find a way to get me across town. And so we have had to reschedule, which inconveniences everybody all over again. And so the band — one of the few areas of my life where I have felt like I was pulling my weight and making a net contribution — becomes another line in the deficit column. Another mark against me.

When I started looking for a band, I drew up a list of dealbreakers. One of them was: I will not play with anyone who I have to carry. And now that’s me. I’m the dealbreaker. I’m the That Guy that every band has to deal with. Every band but ours. Until now, anyway.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Craig goes in for his hernia surgery today, which will keep him out of commission for a while. He’s on complete bed rest for a few days, then under doctors’ orders to lift nothing heavier than ten pounds for about a month after that. He weighed his bass before going into the hospital, and it came in at nine pounds five; still, he’ll need to keep off his feet wherever possible.

Meanwhile, I’m starting my second full week of physical therapy, and amid the tears and groans and cursing, there’s some hope. My left arm still won’t bear any serious weight — I accidentally roll over in my sleep one night, and gasp so loudly I wake Danielle — but the fear is abating. Hearing it said aloud that what’s holding me back is just plain old muscle stiffness changes the equation. I know what it is to feel stiff. This is something I can push through, something I can work my way out of.

And I work at it. I do my routine of stretches religiously, twisting and reaching and bending though the cords of my arm are so tight they nearly twang, like a banjo tuned sharp ‘til the strings are ready to snap and take out someone’s eye. I push through. And I start to see results. In these early days, starting from zero, the initial gains are big; but “big” is relative. I can chop a carrot again, do the dishes, button a shirt. Little things. There’s so much still to get back. But it’s a start.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

We’ve convened for a Saturday-afternoon practice, trying to squeeze in as much rehearsal time as our diminished state will allow; I’ve borrowed Danielle’s Jeep for the occasion. Craig is still laid up, but he’s left his gear in our practice space; the plan is for Mike or Chuck to trade off on bass and guitar throughout rehearsal. Before we really get started, on a whim, I sling on Craig’s bass. I’ve scarcely looked at an instrument since that first day out of the cast; I reckon I might try to play a little — just a few scales, to see how the physical therapy is paying off. And by God, I find my reach coming back! It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but I can play again — at least, after a fashion.

We plow through our usual opener, “10 AM Automatic,” then I stretch my arm out, twist it, shake it. It feels… weird. Not bad, though; just weird. Deanna must see the puzzled expression on my face, because she asks if I’m okay. “Getting there,” I say. “I think I’m good for another song or two, actually.” Just to stay limber, I think to myself.

And pretty soon “another song or two” turns into an hour-and-a-half solid, and it is the purest joy I have felt in months. I have always loved the bass — its tactile quality, the way the thump carries through your whole body — and while I can’t muster much flash in my compromised state, I can still fuckin’-A groove. Tom’s drumming impresses me all over again; he finds the pocket early on, and we slide on in and stay there, locked in tight. It’s magic.

And then I have to stop — though not on account of my elbow. In the euphoria of regaining some range of motion, I have forgotten what else I’d lost: my calluses. My hands have gone soft during those six weeks in the cast, and my fingertips look like raw hamburger after a single afternoon of playing hard. I will be all blisters in the morning.

For the rest of practice and all through my drive home, though, I’m too high to care. Weeks wasted moping around, and suddenly I am useful again. I feel on top of the world.

The feeling doesn’t last long. Danielle and I have a social event in the evening, and I can’t quite manage to tie my own necktie; I have to ask my teenager for help. Still, I’ve leveled up. One rehab goal achieved, and the next within sight. Not a bad Saturday’s work.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We’re at Finn’s Tap Room in Victor, New York. My wife and kids are here. We’re finishing up a pretty good meal, and I am psyching myself up to morph from family-man Jekyll to rock ‘n’ roll Hyde.

The run-up to tonight has been intense. I’ve been an absolute monster in physical therapy, and at home I’ve set about rebuilding some rudimentary guitar chops. I started on an old nylon-string of Danielle’s, and worked my way back up to my Martin. As of our final rehearsal, I could manage three out of the four chords to “Sympathy for the Devil” with some skill — full barre chords are still tricky — and given that I only play on a handful of songs anyway, I’m ready to take the shot. (Playing the tambourine still feels like I’m sending an electric shock up my arm with every hit, but I suck it up.)

And this isn’t just a big night for me personally — it’s the longest gig we’ve ever played as a band, our first full show by standard bar-band definition: three sets spread over four hours. I’ve taken the lead in writing the set list, drawing on years of solo and band shows to craft something with pacing, something that moves, that almost tells a story — breaking up blocks of songs in the same key or with too-similar tempo, salting our originals throughout the night, looking for natural segues, mentally rehearsing patter to yoke it together when we do shift gears; I’ve been working with the others in the band at every step in the process, kicking ideas back and forth over email, and we’ve written and scrapped a half-dozen lists on the way to tonight.

And now we’re here. Thirty-four songs. Three-and-a-half-hours and two breaks.

Finn’s Tap Room is a newly renovated space, a clean, spacious bar and restaurant that caters to a ski-resort crowd. We made the drive out in the late morning to set up and run a soundcheck in the nearly empty house. It’s making for a long day, but it has allowed us to be picky with our sound. We’ve got dedicated monitor mixes and reasonable stage volume. We’re spread between a raised platform in the corner and a small wooden dance floor immediately in front of that; the tiering lets us all hear each other without being uncomfortably loud, while giving us room to move. Craig — who’s still not at 100% but is, God love him, game to try — has a comfortable chair for when he needs it.

I’ve never been one to drag my family out to these things, but Shaun is home for the weekend, has never heard us play, and has expressed an interest in doing so. And so we’ve driven out an hour early and gotten a table for dinner. I pick at mine — I don’t want to get too loaded up before the show, and I have a mild phobia of accidentally belching on mic — and before dessert, the rest of the crew rolls in.

And then it’s go time.

And we are goddam dynamite.

Our hard work pays off in the pacing. The first set, the songs are is short and poppy; the middle is heavy on love songs in honor of Valentine’s Day, but sequenced to constitute a commentary on love and love songs, before things get spiky for the conclusion. We are just on — no technical glitches, no trainwrecks, all in good voice and good spirits, listening to each other, tight and solid. A quick break, then a second set — a little more hard rock, a little more new wave angularity, and a set-closing romp through Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” climaxing in a three-way percussion fight between Tom’s drumkit, Deanna’s cowbell, and my darabouka.

In the break, I amble down to wash my face and refill my water bottle. The hour is getting late, but there’s still a good-sized crowd at the bar and out at the tables; some friends and family, sure — though Danielle and the kids had to split mid-set — but plenty of strangers and new friends here for the long haul. Business is brisk. The owner is happy. This is what we live for.

The third set is loose and jammy. If writing a set list is occasionally an exercise in “One for you, then one for us,” this go-round is mostly (if I’m being honest) just for us — a ramble through Weezer’s “Undone,” a raging “Helter Skelter,” a tear through “Sunshine of Your Love.” By this time, though, we’ve built up enough goodwill to have earned a little self-indulgence; and even our self-indulgence is disciplined. The power pop format keeps our guitar players on a pretty short leash most of the time, but Mike and Chuck are unshackled here. Their interplay on “Love Buzz” crashes like waves, ebbs and flows like the tides; and Mike takes a long solo on “Sympathy” that raises the huckleberries on my arms, his hair in his eyes, long face blank with concentration. We end at the four-hour mark on the dot, wrung out but absolutely satisfied in the knowledge that we have delivered the goods.

We take our time with the load-out, and have a leisurely beer at the bar. For some reason Mike gets started talking to Deanna about horses, her great passion, and I start to lose track of the conversation.  Even having to impose on Chuck for a ride home doesn’t get me down.

It’s another level up; and even though I will get up on Sunday aching head to toe, with ears ringing and my voice shot, tonight, at this moment, I feel ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Next: Driving on Slow Hand Road