Sunlight dims and the blue glow from the Lawrence Welk Show is a dull disco ball flickering a rhythm into the room. I know it is past my bedtime and the realization that it doesn’t make any difference to anyone but me lights me up. I am a party to the evening, not the center, and I revel in the shadowy watching, a thrilled observer. My grandparents are lit up too. High-balls all day, starting at noon. They play cards, watch soap operas, hold court as my eight aunts and uncles pass through the day with their various dramas and concerns.
I enter a space on the second floor of an office building. The room is carpeted and bare, with just some folding chairs in rows and nothing else. About 20 people have shown up for the past-life regression. We go around the room and people ask questions and say what they expect. One young woman says she wants to know in which life she belongs; she doesn’t think she is in the right place in time. She’s ready for this life to be over and get on to the next. I’m a little surprised that the moderator doesn’t seem startled by this blatantly suicidal statement, but maybe she recognizes it as bluster.
Step One. Love Led Zeppelin. I wonder sometimes about what makes a drummer a household name. There certainly aren’t many who are. Name recognition goes to the singer, sometimes the guitarist. It’s pretty rare for the non-musician to really connect with the person at the back of the stage. Unless they at some point sing a song (Ringo and Dave Grohl and Levon Helm) the drummer’s name often is lost. How did John Bonham become one of those who are celebrated as much as any of the other guys in the band? I chalk it up to feel. I chalk it up to love. There is an underlying emotion to the music that comes from the bottom up, rises through the songs like a deep and vital thing, infusing the whole ensemble with a powerful, settled feel and intangible poignancy. Any musician can learn how to play any Led Zeppelin song of course, but to make it feel anything like the original, you have to start with a love for that visceral, emotive foundation.
Nothing was working as I thought it was going to. Everything was hard. I moved to New York to be a writer, to throw my hat in with Capote and Fitzgerald, to rush the steps of Grand Central as Salinger had, to breathe the early morning fog in Washington Square where Cather had walked. To ride the ferry, very merry, and to stand at cocktail parties where editors and writers traded bon mots.
It was 1992. I stood behind the bar at a diner, Tom Waits on the stereo and an array of working stiffs asking for stiff drinks. The glamour of literary society never passed by Broadway and Bleecker. There was a stratosphere above 14th street where such things existed, but it might as well have been across the ocean, across a galaxy of time.
We’ve played together for almost fifteen years. We met in a band playing AC/DC’s music, and now have played Zeppelin’s for the past twelve. Along the way, we’ve collaborated on a handful of other projects, including my first solo album.
We are more alike than different. I would say time has proven that we are pretty perfectly complimentary. We are both nerds, autodidactic, readers and writers. I would say she is more verbal than I, but that isn’t a far stretch. It would be difficult to find anyone as well-spoken as Gretchen. Her ability to think quickly and speak eloquently makes conversations with her a delight. She is always present and engaged. She has a magical ability to see through to solutions. This is the second thing people fall in love with. The first is her open, light and friendly manner, and the fact that she doesn’t seem self-conscious at all about how physically beautiful she is. The way she looks is just an entry into her true loveliness.
I sit in the meditation hall, propped up with various blue beanbags, but this doesn’t stop the pain. It’s pretty much the same every time I sit. After some amount of time, my right hip develops a dull ache through the inner thigh, radiating to my big leg muscle and then down to the knee, up and over then down the inside of my shin and then to the group of nerves that pool beneath my inner ankle. I’m here to watch, not react. I am just a witness, a witness to pain, a witness to lack of pain. I’m to keep an equanimity towards either. Eventually, the point is to discover that this equanimity translates to every situation in my life. I have already seen it happen.
We just didn’t care about what you thought we were doing or what you thought of us or our agenda. We weren’t driven by desire to please, and if you thought that we were thinking that way, I can tell you right now that we weren’t. The Jiffy Lube guy who traded us an oil change for a joint, he knew as much about us as anyone did. He didn’t try to hit on us. He knew the ball was in our court only. He bowed to the power of three.
We stood together no matter what the cracks internally. The best way to get us to play well was to insult us, one or all. In fact, sometimes we’d use that knowledge, the unity of the common enemy, to our own advantage. If we were feeling a little lackadaisical or unconnected before a show, one of us would bring up an old insult while we were getting ready to take the stage and then you could be sure we were going ram the music down your throats. You have no idea how we loved playing our instruments. How every night was different, the guitar unearthing melodies and new rhythms endlessly born, the left foot tries a different pattern, the tempo adjusts, the ear uncovers something new. So much of the van conversation could be so esoteric, about furthering the playing, about what we strived to find in the moment-to-moment connection on stage. We searched for words to describe language that has no words, only feeling and sound. You’ll never know the emotional nuance of writing out a set list. There’s so much you’ll never know.
It was an outside concert and the promoters hadn’t made peace with the local authorities, so it looked like we were going to be playing to nobody, or more frustrating, to a huddle of folks looking in through a chain link fence. It was a gorgeous day, dry and warm and blue. We sat around, waiting for information, thinking we might be playing to no one.
How many shows have I played for no one? Or I should say, for the bar staff, and if lucky, for the other bands. How many excuses have I heard over the years for the lack of attendance? There is a big event in town taking people away from our show. There is an article in the local paper about gang violence at the venue. The sports team is in the playoffs and everyone is at the bar up the street because they have television. No one knows the promoter, or he’s pissed people off, or he’s on drugs, or he really just has no idea what he’s doing and the wan faces of the bartenders hint at secret stories of drama and corruption. It’s a beautiful day and everyone wants to be outside. It’s a rainy/snowy/steamy day and everyone wants to be on the couch.
The slide guitar begins.
It fills the monitor and fills the stage and fills the venue and it fills me up, hitting the frequency of my being.
My back straightens and I settle solidly on the drum stool. My hips are right angles; my feet melt into the pedals.
I breathe deeply, drawing the smell of bodies and heated tubes and beer-soaked carpets and taps and electricity into my lungs and I rest, unclenching my chest muscles and shoulders. The air runs down my center and into my diaphragm.
My pores expand and the sound enters, vibrating the channels in my veins open, widening tracks around my veins as they travel through muscle and tissue.
Today in the little park, the pug was sniffing around and I sat myself down in the morning sun. All was quiet except for construction noise a little ways away. It’s San Francisco, where some rich person is always building something.
I guess I hit the right hour for dragonflies, because there were a number of them zipping around the park. So beautiful and careeningly free. I recalled Thoreau and his thoughts about the innocence of nature. I remembered that dragonflies have sex mid-flight and flashed on the word “ecstatic.” At that moment, I saw a dragonfly just pop out of the air. One minute, barreling through the sky, one minute, gone. It was funny, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary that it, flying, would vanish in front of my eyes. They’re so chaotic and authoritative that surprise wasn’t my first response.