as small as a patch of clover
Time has passed, and here we are: Older and more like ourselves.
I am six shows post-pandemic reopening, and I don't know what to say about it, so I'm going to tell you about the Von Maur Department Store in Lindale Mall.
When I was in 8th grade, my family moved from a little town in southeastern Kansas (Ft. Scott) where our backyard was a pasture full of cows or horses or scrub brush, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where you could get a speeding ticket from a traffic control helicopter (or so I told my Kansas friends when I wanted them to be impressed with my new BIG CITY life).
A shiny black grand piano sat in the middle of the Von Maur Department Store at Lindale Mall. Every weekend while mothers and daughters navigated pressed linens and rayon tops with shoulder pads, a woman wearing a stylish chiffon scarf around her neck played a mix of Beethoven, show tunes, and the entire Reader's Digest Best Of- Treasury.
This woman, this piano, and the Von Maur Department Store at Lindale Mall, is my forever point-of-reference to the concept of live "background music". I thought of this recently while playing music without a PA (venue request), barely audible over a very very crowded and very very loud room.
The people in attendance were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing -- eating, drinking, and enjoying one another's company. And I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing -- playing music in the corner and staying out of the way. No one was being rude. No deals were broken. No crimes were committed.
But it wasn't working. Not for me, anyway.
Every independent solo performer has stories about playing to disinterested rooms. Three-to-four hour gigs standing/sitting alone playing music that 0-3 people are listening to is an experience. Depending on the day, the place, the expectations (of performer and audience), the song, the minute, the mood, it's: hilarious, annoying, lonely, fine, demoralizing, boring, privately entertaining, bizarre, good practice, or all of the above (simultaneously or in shifts).
I have played a lot of these over the last 10 years. In fact, it's probably what I have played the most.
...when no one is listening, I imagine the music as swirls of water-colored energy, ribboning through the room, around and in between pairs and trios hunched over their tables in conversation.
...when no one is listening, I people-watch. I map out relationships and guess at personal stories. I count stripes and patterns, the number of men wearing blue, the number of women wearing green.
...when no one is listening, I try new songs or old songs or I extend intros and outros and instrumental breaks just because it feels like rest.
...when no one is listening, I marvel at our collective inability to measure the size of things -- either everything is of consequence or nothing is.
...when no one is listening, I am in the middle of a lake as big as a continent or as small as a patch of clover. My little wooden boat rocks back and forth until I am either asleep or nauseous.
Six shows in, post-pandemic reopenings, and I am trying to remember my old tricks.
In the very very crowded and very very loud room without a PA... I felt like a ghost. For the length of at least one song, I worried that I would die on the drive home and my spirit would be forever chained to that room. For decades to come, custodial staff and the last stragglers of wedding parties and company events would report the faint din of piano keys and a woman's voice like a ribbon snaking across the backs of their necks. They would reflexively sidestep the spot where my guitar had sat on its stand without knowing why. I would become lore; except by then, my name will have been forgotten and reassigned, or mispronounced so many times it had finally landed on Petra or Prudence, the Singing Ghost of Building A.
I remembered an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. She talked about how she had handled defeat and rejection in those early slogging days of writing. She had a practice of checking in with her soul. If everything on the external had fallen flat, she looked inward and asked her soul, "You okay? You good? Should we keep going?" And her soul would answer back, "Yep!"
A burst of laughter and cackling exploded at the table next to me. I bent low over my guitar, my ear nearly touching the side, to hear it. Was I playing the right chord?
You okay? You good? Should we keep going? I asked my soul.
Yes, she said, but it's time to reconsider what you're doing here, don't you think?