Friday, May 15, 2009

The Balance of Our Lives

For almost a month to the day, I’ve carried around a piece of paper with four names on it—Cheri Woods, Amy Farrand, Abby Henderson and Kasey Rausch, four musicians, playing April 13th, pretty much in the order they played….

They were playing a Monday night show called the Rural Grit Happy Hour, at a place in Kansas City called the Brick. The Brick’s a great little club, in an old bar that used to be the hang out for the press at The Kansas City Star just across the street. It’s got all the charm of a great dive, with incredible (probably too good) food and a familiar warmth.

After 23 years of music writing, never having this as a day job, and raising a daughter and trying to hold together two successive families over the past 17 of those years, the idea of nightly club crawling to hear someone doing something fresh and exciting tends to lose some of its charm, so, frankly this was a rare night out. A terrible thing to say in front of all of my musician fans whose battle cry is “support your local music,” but I’d developed a fatigue.

I use that word “fatigue” because I had a student in my office yesterday, a former chemist from Iran. He is trying to start his life over in the United States, and he talked about working all night to support his schooling during the day. He said, “You know, with metals, there’s a thing called fatigue, and once the metal develops that fatigue, it never gets its strength back. I’m worrying I’m reaching that point.”

I said something about people being more resilient than metals, but I knew what he meant. It’s the state of the world. The three fourths of us who have jobs that keep our heads just above water are tired, and the water’s deep.

Which is not a tangent—that’s what this great (yes, great) night of music was about….
After all, the idea of the Rural Grit Happy Hour is a sort of weekly acoustic jam session that works its way into a few sets by guest artists. It’s a sort of hootenanny, though it often dips deep into darker moments not as celebratory as that term suggests. Whether the influences are more rock or country, it’s folk music-centered, and by definition that means it’s music about work, struggle, defeat and death. It’s also about fighting the good fight and glimpses of hope; it’s certainly about reasons to keep on keeping on.

I was there that night to see Cheri Woods and Abby Henderson, for different reasons. The week before I had more or less rediscovered Rural Grit when one of the great songwriters (and spiritual forces) of the Kansas City music scene, Howard Iceberg had brought together his terrific band the Titanics to play there. That night, I’d heard a woman perform a sort of acapella music that worked some ground between slam poetry and mountain home porch singing. I don’t think I caught her name that night, but when Howard called up every music writer in town to come down and check this woman out the following week, I figured Cheri Woods must be that woman I remembered.

Abby I wanted to see for many complex reasons. Abby’s husband, Chris, and I have been connected well over a decade, one way or another, at one time as two activists on the music scene who met each other in a bar in Warrensburg, Missouri. Later, he was one of the few friends I hung out with when I was going through a particularly dark and lonely time in my life. I’ve always felt a certain debt to him, but it’s not a matter of guilt; it’s a matter of recognizing a true ally in every sense that matters, someone that makes you feel less alone in the world, a brother.

Though she would have no clue I thought this about her, Abby weighs just the same in my heart. Over the past year, she’s been fighting a Stage III inflammatory breast cancer, and she’s been doing so in a way that has brought together the local music scene to fight for healthcare in a way it never has before. She’s a real hero, in part because she doesn’t see herself as one; she sees herself as part of something bigger.

But I knew she was a great one long before all of that started. The night I met her, at a little restaurant on the Plaza where bands play on Sunday nights, we had a long impassioned talk about women’s role in music. This had been my primary area of interest for about 12 years at that point, and she was schooling the hell out of me. That was one of those conversations when you actually realize you are experiencing a benchmark in your life.

But I’ve never begun to repay the debt I owe to either Chris or Abby. Their fine band The Gaslights put together its first CD at a time when I wasn’t writing about local music, and various arguments I had with the production kept me from saying much about it nationally. When their second album came out, I was recovering from a near fatal heart attack and the knowledge that not only had a 100% blockage stopped my heart, but I had multiple arteries 80 and 90% blocked. This disease was never going away.

By the time I was writing about local music again, even a little, Abby was fighting her own illness. For various reasons, I still haven’t seen them perform together since all that happened. So, when I saw Abby’s name on the Rural Grit playlist the week after Howard’s show, I knew I had to go.

I’m glad I did. Cheri Woods gave a longer set than the week before, and her songs inspired this scribbled note on the back of that piece of paper I happened to have in my pocket: “porch songs, moon songs, poems that turn into songs and songs that turn into poems. Pressing her shoe, stepping, singing ‘I am ongoing even when there is no going on.’”

Everyone that night sang about what it takes to go on. One of the boldest and bravest voices on the local music scene (a woman who once laid me out flat, metaphorically, and rightfully, for botching a half-baked organizing pitch I gave her), Amy Farrand sang a spirited number about a mouse taking on a cat and a dragon woman who dared to take some poor guy’s job.

In a song about a B-Movie cowboy, Abby delivered a line that would resonate throughout the evening, “Some things are real and they’ll never belong in the final scene in the greatest song.” Then she sang about the struggle to find one’s place with the band song “16 Addresses” and another called “Little House on the Market.” She sang a beautiful tribute to her husband, called, I believe, “Christopher.” After that, she delivered a political statement called “Star Spangled Eyes” that felt note for note like a “Masters of War” for the 21st Century. She ended with a song I assume was title “I Say Amen,” about accepting life—as in dealing with the fight you’re given. If I wasn’t kicking myself for missing at least two years of the Gaslights before her set, I was after.

This was followed by a beautiful set by local favorite Kasey Rausch. I was excited to see Kasey again (after probably four years) because a friend of mine always raved about her and tried to get me to go out to see her. This, too, was a beautiful set, with Rausch singing tough but tender songs about her East Texas roots, living in Parkville, Missouri, and sitting on her own front porch, contemplating her uncle’s death.

That last song, like so many others that night, captured the moment. When I looked to my right, I saw Chris and Abby fighting their fight, and to my left sat the great music editor for The Star, Tim Finn, who had lost his wife, restaurant critic Lauren Chapin, to a brain aneurysm just about four months before. (All of this is common knowledge in this neck of the woods or else I wouldn’t use these names.)

But I couldn’t help thinking about this group of us that sat at two tables, with connections that extended in all sorts of directions. Across from Abby, sat Erik Voeks, who made a wonderful record years ago that I reviewed, who later became my record store guy and who now played bass for the Gaslights. At my table sat the music editors for both the city paper and the alternative press (The Pitch) I write for as well as other music writers for both papers, including my two decades old friend, fellow music writer Mike Warren, the godfather to my child.

And that was significant because we felt a little like a family that night, not the nuclear sort that sees each other all the time, but an ad hoc assemblage bound together on more levels than we could count. And one of the things that tied us together more clearly than ever was a sense of our mutual mortality. Those healthcare struggles we’d all been involved in for years (every band plays damn near as many benefits as paying gigs) had become part of our own day-to-day lives. And, as Kasey Rausch sang that porch song in her final set, I was struck by just how fragile and precious this moment was, all of us together, hanging on each note, hanging on for dear life.

I couldn’t wait until I got home that night to write my friend Jenny about Kasey’s performance. Jenny had been a student in a fiction class I taught the semester I had my heart attack, and in those precious moments after I came back to work, I came to appreciate my students more than ever before because they helped me adjust to my new life in more ways than I could count.
One of those who stood out was Jenny, who had lost her own father to a heart attack when she was only 8 years old. With my daughter on my mind, I sought out her insights into what my daughter was going through and what she would be going through if the worst happened. She reassured me a great deal about the choices I was making, and we had other ties. She was an artist and a musician, pretty much on the same career path as my wife. We always talked about getting them together, and I needed to meet her husband, who played in a cover band, and her son, who she talked about all the time.

But those things never happened. We stayed workplace friends, her dropping by the office sometimes, talking on e-mail, always planning to get everyone together some day. And after a year, she’d moved to Tucson, Arizona, where her husband had taken a new job. It seemed like a good place for her—her family having plenty of places to do the kinds of outdoorsy things I knew they all loved to do together.

After I got home that night, I went on Facebook to write her, and it took a moment for me to process what I saw there. Friend message after friend message with the letters R.I.P. I found out from her sister-in-law, also on Facebook, that she’d died from a brain aneurysm two months before. I knew she had high blood pressure, her concern about her own impending heart disease being yet another tie that bound us together, but I always knew I would go before she did. She was just a kid, 34.

So, of course, one reason it’s taken me a month to write this is that I’m still processing that death. The fact that I’m writing this shows I’m not done. But that’s okay. I don’t even want to be. I found a stack of 9 Eels CDs she burned for me, along with her handwritten liner notes, in my desk drawer. I’d never gotten around to listening to them. I haven’t quit listening to the first album, Beautiful Freak, for any length of time sense.

After all, that’s yet another tie to the Brick, the fact that we all feel a little like freaks, and we’ve found our place in music, and in music, we can at least see each other’s beauty and feel some affirmation of our own. And despite the snarky tone of most of today’s music writing, what got me into music, and what characterized that group at the Brick that night, was a deep sense of compassion in music and a call to dream. My writing has always been a fumbling response to that call.

So, I write now about that call a month later—because I don’t want any of us to forget why we started to do what we do in the first place and why the needs that bind us together are so precious. Music has helped me dream of a world where everyone has superior health care and where everyone can do what they do best—whether it’s make music or paint pictures or write or build houses or fix electronics or save lives, or all of the above at once—and everyone can do so while having their physical needs met (clothing, shelter, a netbook in every hand) and while having the freedom to express themselves openly and honestly.

I don’t think it’s too big a dream, and I know it’s waiting to be born. I could glimpse it in the faces around me that night at the Brick, and I could feel it in the music. “Imagine,” John Lennon called, but he didn’t want us to leave it there. “Keep Ya Head Up,” Tupac said, but he didn’t want us to leave it there either. “Think,” Aretha sang, demanding the means to an end. The ties that bind us together, like the straw that binds together the proverbial brick, are the basic tools for working on that dream. We need to see that, never forget it and never stop building. As Jackson Browne once said, “There are lives in the balance,” only the balance of all our lives and those that come after.

Thank you Cheri, Amy, Abby and Kasey, for the beautiful and eloquent reminders.

Check out The Gaslights’ beautiful new single as a free download--