Friday, March 26, 2010
My sister’s birthday was last Friday and as a present her and her husband came into the city and stayed overnight while the kids stayed with the grandparents. They live ten minutes away in our hometown but they treat it as though they are visiting a foreign country, a close-by excursion to their own little Paris, which I think is an awesome way to think about it all.
Friday afternoon she spent painting at an easel in Rittenhouse Square, and then they ate at a restaurant located at the top of one of the tallest buildings. I then met up with them at a smaller building, a two-story rowhouse style Polish karaoke bar in the Port Richmond section of town. Port Richmond is a long-standing Polish neighborhood. My sister somehow found this place as where she wanted to spend the last witching hours of her special day. We showed up before they had arrived from dinner, and the waitress held over the bar clusters of oversized bottles of Polish beer that seemed like reverse udders she was holding shut from the top. My dad handed them off to us one by one. They were mild and cold and satisfying.
Upon arrival a Samoan looking man with a long ponytail down his back was singing the pop ditty “Let’s Get it Started”. He seemed to be the only one that wasn’t Polish in the bar if not by immigration but by lineage from an immigration of the past but he was obviously a regular. Another regular was Eddie, a man with a ballooned reddish nose and a tendency, as I would soon find out, to yell all the lyrics of his chosen songs into the mic in a monotone growl. He also shares the same birthday as my sister which I would find out later.
I have to say that I realized my Polishness there with my blonde hair and oily olive skin. I looked at the stocky men at the bar and the woman named Basia serving them as they glanced at me with striking blue eyes and I could see the physicalities we share so obviously. Familiar strangers.
After the “Samoan”, a man took the mic and started crooning a fifties gem into the cordless mic. He was the host. He walked around and said hellos and handed out sheets of paper to pick a song out of the book we’d like to sing. The book was passed to me. It was a huge plastic-lined thing the size of an unabridged Webster’s. I was trying to find things they wouldn’t have but surprisingly they had a lot. I thought of all these people in the past, all these folks in all the 8x10’s that lined the wall caught in a candid and charismatic belting cameo blurred from the resizing, and thought about what song they had picked. What one of these has never been karaoke’d? Which one should I decide to sing? There are so many factors that come into consideration with what you decide.
I went with Angel by Fleetwood Mac because I’m trying to prep myself for a string of shows we have coming in May where a group of us are covering their Tusk record from start to finish. You have to choose a key and I chose the wrong one, and I struggled to get it out. It made me feel deflated and I felt like one does when you don’t get a point across or when I tried out to be in a play in school and didn’t get the audition right. I then sat in the corner and read along to all the lyrics of everyone else’s song on the projector screen as a student learning a craft while everyone else executed their picks or talked over the noise of Eddie’s growl.
Songs to me are such sacred ground, I take everyone so seriously that I just don’t think I’m cut out for karaoke, and I don’t mean this in a Debbie Downer way. I mean this in a stare at the lyrics as they scroll by, analyzing all the turns and twists and language maneuvers, trying to tell the drunk person next to me why this is a great song kind of way.
Joey, a friend of my sister’s, picked a Neil Diamond song with the line, “Money talks but it doesn’t dance and it doesn’t walk.” That’s a great line, it kind of redeemed Neil for me, and I thought about how it’s funny that that was what came along in this situation to make me hear that song that way. And so it went as I watched everyone, me dissecting each choice like I was sitting in my own tower of song, trying to understand all of the mysteriums and deliriums that occupied each one.
I got up again later to give “Wake Up Little Susie” a try, this time in a confident key (the right key is like good lighting) and invited the host with a gesture of my arm to join me for harmonies. We really started to kill it when my sister and mom rushed the narrow bar to sing, atonally but with wild enthusiasm and abandon, a group rendition in the one mic I held in my hand. Sometimes song choice is about bringing specific folks together. Songs are amphibious, multi-various, peculiar creatures and I love seeing how and why some gravitate towards certain ones, and others to others.
I must say, “Come Sail Away” has some goofy ass lyrics, but it works, cause within a song you are in its own world. How bout “Captain Jack”? Now there is a wacky song. And how about “Stolat”, the Polish version of Happy Birthday they played twice for both my sister and Eddie? Its words translate “May you live 100 years.” But only 100. After that it’s on to karaoke heaven.
From the corners of the centers of our universes, over and out…..
Monday, March 8, 2010
“I like him because he shows me different ways of looking at things.”
A friend said this to me while attending the Todd Snider concert at the World Café Live in Philly. I agreed and realized I had forgotten that in my head, that simple truism of how the best songs make you see something, and it could be something you already know or feel, and turn it all on its head for you a bit, showing it to you from a different angle. We have bird’s eye views and we also have song’s eye views. I love being there when you have a room full of people digging on this and singing along or with lips closed making an appreciative faint “hmmmmm” accompanied with a gentle nod.
Todd Snider is a favorite of mine. He has a song where he takes on the voice of a stressed out middle age father at a fast food take out window pondering maniacally about having to get his daughter the car she wants and another in the voice of a tree who has been cut down and turned into a newspaper. It got me pondering songs that are favorites of mine and why it is I like them so. “My First Lover” by Gillian Welch is a particular one and there it is again with making you see and feel something differently, a song of the story of her first lover with the song that was playing in the background as they rolled around on the floor the centerpiece of it all.
Sometimes the centerpiece might be buried in a barn, or lying along side you, or in your pocket or up pressing along the inside of windowpanes of a house you fly by on a road. I think Joni Mitchell bringing my focus in on a frying pan in My Old Man is classic and I’ll never forget John Prine’s Spanish Harlem in which he goes to a strip club and turns the chorus of the song into what the exotic dancer is telling him to do while leaning into his ear…..
Go into the country
Eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus
On your own.
I think it’s important to stop and consider why you love the songs you love. The best ones always inspire me to go out and find my own centerpieces. The worst just make me want those other songs.
Once in a review a writer compared me to Eudora Welty, an American writer of the 20th century whom I had never read. My friend got me a book in which Welty writes about her beginnings and I really liked something that she says, and I feel it touched on something about all the greatest writers and songwriters as well,
“I suppose I was exercising as early as then the turn of the mind, the nature of temperament, of a privileged observer; and owing to the way I became so, it turned out that I became the loving kind.”
Long live the loving observer.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
"I'll put my foot
on the living road
and be carried from here
to the heart of the world"
-Lhasa De Sela
Yesterday I found myself at the obituary page in Mojo magazine. People all die in different ways. Usually there’s a heart attack, a middle age man who was young enough that it seems only slightly surprising. There’s also maybe a drug problem that takes someone. I looked to the right side of the page and there I saw a name of a female artist I had seen 3 years ago at a small club in Philly named Lhasa.
I said this out loud. I was kind of confused to imagine this girl not alive when it felt like I had just seen
her perform vivaciously, tenaciously, and possessed with a lifeblood. If there was anyone who wasn’t dying it was her and her performance made her seem to the audience as if she were a phoenix infinitely overcoming any borders, both physically and mentally.
Lhasa, born in America to a Mexican father and Lebanese-Jewish-American mother, mixed traditional Latin American songs with originals, and was strongly influenced by both Mexican and Klesmer music, as well as Eastern European Gypsy music, Middle Eastern Music, and alternative rock. She would sing in all these different languages, giving the same strength and care to all of them. She encapsulated the emotive qualities of Opera and traditional Latin torch singing through the eyes and heart of a fearless seeker, and sung the songs like they were manifestos she wrote up while crossing the desert and floods of humanity.
Lhasa de Sela died in her thirties of breast cancer. About a year and a half after that show she was diagnosed and lived for 21 months more. I kept waking up in the middle of the night remembering her and also remembering this cardboard box of sparklers that I have tucked away in my bottom dresser drawer from somewhere I can’t even remember. These two things kept bouncing around in my hazy half-asleep head. Again and again these two things over and over. I’ve forgotten on nights like Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve to bring them out and use them, even forgetting they were there entirely, but I know now what I’m going to do. I’m going to take one out and light it and with that nervous awareness that comes with knowing they burn fast shake it around like crazy before it cuts out. For Lhasa. We never knew each other personally but I miss her dearly in this world.