Tag Archives: Steven Van Zandt

Music Is My Strawberry: How concert-going saves me

It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)

If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!  (http://deoxy.org/koan/18)

tiger

photo: catlovers (flickr)

We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.

Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.

Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.

When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.

Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.

That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.

And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.

Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.

"Little Steven" guitar pick

I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.

Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.

I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.

The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.

one single strawberry

photo: WIlliam Warby (flickr)

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under music, ramblings

Movie reviewish: “Not Fade Away”

Caveat lector: This isn’t really a proper movie review. I don’t know much about movies, and wouldn’t begin to try to critique a film from an artistic standpoint – I think you have to really understand a genre in order to do that. For a good example of a proper film review, I liked Leonard Maltin’s. This is pretty much just my own personal reaction to the movie; very personal, as you will see by the end.

"Not Fade Away" movie posterGiven that David Chase’s coming-of-age film  “Not Fade Away” is basically a love letter to rock & roll, it won’t surprise anyone that I liked it. Okay, I think it had some issues with pacing – there are times when scenes blow by quickly and I wasn’t really sure whether I had maybe missed something. There were some subplots that were interesting but never got fleshed out – the bit about Grace‘s hippie sister, for example. I was disappointed that the female characters were generally pretty two-dimensional, especially Grace herself; she’s just the pretty but slightly confused girlfriend, and though she’s on screen a lot, we never really get to know what makes her tick. And while I loved the last three minutes or so, the final arc towards the ending (the L.A. part) seemed a little muddled and out-of-place to me.

But you know what, I still loved this movie. I loved it a lot. The soundtrack, as one would expect given the involvement of Steven Van Zandt, is absolutely killer. The Van Zandt original featured in the film, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” is catchy as hell and just a great song. (You can read my review of the soundtrack album over at Blogness.)  The scenes where the band is learning to play are beautiful; the one where they’re working out “Bo Diddley” in particular made me want to run out of the theater and go start a band. There’s a hilarious cameo by Jay Weinberg (son of E Street drummer Max Weinberg, and until recently the drummer for punk band Against Me) as a drummer entirely ill-suited for the band he’s playing with; for the benefit of those who get it I will mutter here “No junior Ginger Bakers.” The acting is generally very good, especially leading man John Magaro, of whom I bet we will be seeing a lot more, as well as Meg Guzulescu who plays his sister – a tiny role, but she really shines. Anyone who grew up in the sixties will appreciate the attention to authenticity and detail throughout the film; it felt absolutely real. And I dare you not to walk out of the theater humming and/or dancing.

But mostly, and this really isn’t that much of a spoiler, I love that “Not Fade Away” isn’t a success story. It would have been easy to make a movie about a band that makes it big, or for that matter about one that crashes & burns dramatically. But as the lead character’s younger sister says at the beginning of the movie, this band is like most bands – you never heard of them. Does this mean this is a film about failure? No. The message of the film, to me, is that following your dream and doing what you love is not wasted time, regardless of whether you find “success” or “failure” or something in between. More specifically, the movie posits rock & roll as something worth pursuing and holding on to and in fact as the greatest thing American culture has produced.*  You can argue about that latter point, but you can’t argue that the movie and its characters come most alive when they are playing or listening to the music they love. And that has nothing to do with recording contracts, commercial success, or anything else.

As the daughter of a musician who made a modest (very modest) living for a while playing in your basic hotel-lounge cover band, and as someone who took guitar lessons for a while and came close enough to not sucking at it to have some pretty daydreams, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of musical “success.” When you spend hours and hours practicing your craft and you never have the kind of success you daydream about, have you wasted all that time and effort?

I think about that a lot, actually. When my dad got a “real job” teaching psychology at a university and moved us to Indiana, he pretty much stopped playing music. He probably could have found some guys to play with on weekends for fun. But having been good enough to play professionally, I think he recognized that no longer practicing regularly meant that his chops deteriorated quickly, and I think it was hard for him to enjoy playing if he didn’t have the facility with it that he used to have. So he stopped. Like him, I have enough of an ear to hear that when I pick up the guitar to bash around on it now, I kind of suck. I was never a professional-level musician but I was coffeehouse-level good once, and now I can’t even play that well. It’s hard for me to do things just for kicks, without wanting to be good at them. And so, mostly, I don’t play.

And what “Not Fade Away” tells me is, fuck that shit, just play. If it makes you feel alive, it doesn’t much matter if you suck or if you’re good enough to get a record contract. Being good enough to get a contract doesn’t mean you’re going to end up famous anyway. Like all those other bands you’ve never heard of, you probably won’t. You may find yourself in a strange city living a life entirely different from the life you were dreaming of, but on some street corner you might hear music and remember what it feels like to be alive again. And that, this movie says, that is what matters.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a guitar that needs my attention now. Rock on.

___________________

*At the very end of the movie Evelyn, younger sister of main character Douglas, turns to the camera and says “I had to write a term paper, and I wrote about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock & roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?” The question is left verbally unanswered, but Evelyn begins dancing in the middle of the deserted street, a graceful little go-go sequence that celebrates youth, rock & roll, and life itself. I would argue that her dancing answers the question pretty definitively. Rock & roll wins out – if we let it.

1 Comment

Filed under music, reviews

Crazy Kindness: Some thoughts on love and authenticity

This past weekend I made a whirlwind trip to Kansas City for, yes, a Springsteen show. Drove there on Friday, went to the show Saturday, drove back home Sunday – a total of about 960 miles round trip. I got what I expected – hours in the car to listen to music and sing at the top of my lungs where nobody will hear me, some time spent with friends I don’t see often enough, and an absolutely fantastic concert (see my review on Blogness). I also got some surprises along the way, all of them good ones, all of them occasioned by kindness.

Anne Haines and Steven Van Zandt

Anybody know this guy? He seems cool.

Yep, that is me with Little Steven, aka Stevie Van Zandt, aka Miami Steve, aka Silvio Dante, aka someone who has been one of my heroes for many years. I had the incredible good fortune to be offered a pass to his pre-show meet & greet, and so I doubled my lifetime count of E Street Band members I have met (readers of my previous blog will recall that I met Max Weinberg when he came to Indianapolis with his big band a couple years ago). He was exactly like you expect him to be: relaxed, funny, a little sarcastic, charming, and definitely the center of attention in the room.

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because you will inevitably be disappointed. But that hasn’t generally been my experience. I mean, I don’t expect them to walk on water. I’m old and I’ve seen a few things and I’ve gotten over thinking anybody walks on water. I haven’t met anybody, ever, who was fully incapable of being a jerk now and then. (Okay, I never met Mother Teresa, but I bet she lost her sense of humor a lot.) I think sometimes people have ridiculous expectations when they meet somebody they admire. It’s a real test, sometimes, to just make yourself stay in the moment and enjoy it for what it is. I’ve had varying levels of success with that (not that I’ve met THAT many famous people, mind).

The thing I have always admired about SVZ, perhaps most of all, is that he seems to be someone who’s determined to be exactly who he is at all times, no matter what, and not try to change himself to fit somebody else’s idea of who he should be – even his own idea of who he should be. He’s been known to piss people off by making political or artistic statements, by wearing what he likes to wear, by doing all kinds of things. And the sense that I got (in the oh, minute and a half that I got to chat with him, and the half-hour or so – ok, I don’t know, I wasn’t exactly checking my watch! – that he was in the room with the group of us that were there that night) was that he’s someone who is very comfortable with who he is. Yeah, being who he is has paid off pretty well for mister rockstar/actor/DJ/record label guy. But you get the impression that he’d be the same person regardless. If he were, I don’t know, a factory worker or an elementary teacher instead of a rockstar, he’d probably be out there supporting local bands in the evenings – as it is, his “local” is international in scope, and when he discovers a band he loves he has the means to help them get a wider audience instead of just being one guy going to their shows and maybe dragging his friends along sometimes. Just for example. There are things that he cares about pretty deeply, and you get the sense that he would care about those things whatever his position in life happened to be, it’s just that he’s got the wherewithal to care about them louder than most people do.

I could be completely wrong about the guy, of course. This is just what I’ve surmised about him from following his career(s) for a few decades, and from the deep sense of authenticity I got from him in the brief time we were in the same room. (Okay, we were also in the same room for three hours afterwards, but the Sprint Center arena is a REALLY BIG ROOM and he was pretty busy at the time.) I’m sure he is thoroughly human. I’m sure he has bad days, and I’m sure I don’t ever want to piss him off. *grin* But he inspires me to try to be more authentic myself, to let myself care deeply about the stuff I care about, and to work hard while still managing to laugh a lot of the time. Not a bad sort of hero to have, methinks.

[And before anybody else asks. No, I do not have any advice to give you on how to arrange for a meet’n’greet with anyone in the E Street Band or anyone else. I really have no idea how these things usually happen. Mine came about via the good fortune of being in the right place, in the right time, and perhaps with the right attitude about such things although who knows. All I can say for sure is, enjoy the experiences you get and be kind to the people you meet, and you won’t have too many regrets.]

* * * * * * * * * *

Getting to meet someone I admire so much was just one of several memorable kindnesses that were extended to me over the course of the weekend. I was a lucky, lucky girl. I got to spend time with some friends I don’t get to see often enough, and I got to meet some new friends I liked a great deal. Even the crescent moon over the gleaming silver Sprint Center seemed to be shining down with a particular benevolence on Saturday night.

After the meet & greet I found my way to the arena floor and, because it was the sort of weekend when things happen easily (like walking near the arena and turning around to realize that a Twitter friend that I’d hoped to meet just happened to be walking right behind me), I almost immediately located two different groups of friends at the back of the pit. I said hi to both groups, filled them in on a bit of where I’d been and what I’d been doing; and then because I had to choose one group to hang with during the show, I chose the ones who were over towards the side of the back of the pit. There was a lot of room there, which meant we’d have room to dance and an unobstructed view of the stage. And since I probably would have been hanging with these folks during the lottery anyway, I was in the same spot I would’ve been in regardless, which assuaged any lingering guilt feelings I might have had over my good fortune that evening.

Given the events of the evening, I will never be able to be objective about the show itself. I was in a happy place and there wasn’t anything that was going to shake that. Luckily, it’s easy to say that the show was great and feel confident about that. Personal highlight for me was “Incident on 57th Street” – an early song I absolutely love, and one I’d never gotten in concert (and consider that, although I haven’t been to nearly as many shows as a lot of folks, my first Springsteen show was in 1978 so I go way back). I may have hyperventilated a bit when the song began, and it was just gorgeous. I’m now down to two “all-time favorites I’ve never heard in concert” songs: “The Promise” and “Lost in the Flood.”

My other highlight was “My Beautiful Reward,” which opened the encore. Bruce dedicated this very rarely-performed song to his cousin and road manager, Lenny Sullivan, whose unexpected death forced the last-minute cancellation of the Kansas City show in 2009. It was hauntingly beautiful, exquisitely performed with a spare arrangement featuring Soozie Tyrell and Nils Lofgren, and clearly deeply felt by Bruce. I still had a lump in my throat when the lights roared up and “Born to Run” ripped the arena wide open – I think it might have been the first time I wasn’t ready for the full-on celebration that song always elicits.

Since I was in the very back of the pit, I had a great view of Bruce whenever he sang from the platform between the pit and the main GA floor. I’ve seen the “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” tribute to Clarence Clemons a few times on this tour, and it’s always moving as the audience gets its chance to celebrate the Big Man’s memory. The recent addition of the late Danny Federici to the memorial slideshow has made it bigger and better, I think; a celebration of everything about the E Street Band that is now lost to the past – just as time causes all of us to lose aspects of our youth.

Bruce always stands on the rear  platform, mic held high to catch the audience’s cheers, and silently watches the slideshow. I’ve thought a lot about those moments – how it must feel to him to look at what are in a sense old family photos in front of thousands of screaming fans, what led to his decision to perform this particular tribute in this particular way. Because it is, make no doubt about it, a performance. I’ve seen fans commenting as though Bruce is putting his private grief on display as he watches the images – and I think it’s way more complex than that. I think it’s very possible that what he feels at that moment may be anything but grief (it’s been a couple of years, and he’s been through this tribute many many times now, and it can’t possibly be the fresh raw wound that some fans seem to want it to be) – but I think that he is performing grief in such a way that the audience, and for that matter the band, and for that matter Bruce himself, can access grief from the past, or the future, or the depths of the present.

I guess this is old news to people who are performers, but I’m just beginning to understand it myself – even though I’ve had some small experience with performance via poetry readings. I know that when I read a poem, I’m not exposing my deep inner self or whatever; I’m voicing a made thing that has, in a funny way, a life of its own outside of me even though I wrote it. I’m pretty sure it’s the same for a singer. He doesn’t have to feel terribly sad in order to make the audience weep during “My City of Ruins” – he only has to embody the feeling of sadness, which is a different thing. By offering up the grief performance of the “Tenth Avenue” tribute, Bruce is offering access to a set of feelings that the audience may choose to participate in. Which is not to say that it is a dishonest thing – and here we are, back to authenticity again. The feelings, even while being a performance, are very real. It’s like the important difference between facts and truth. Bruce may not necessarily be offering facts in his songs, even the ones that sound pretty damned autobiographical. But he is, absolutely, offering truth. And in the case of a Bruce Springsteen performance, that truth is conveyed in the music, in the lyrics, in the tone of voice, in every muscle of his body (he is perhaps the most physical performer I’ve ever witnessed, taking bodily risks as he crowd-surfs, making himself physically vulnerable to the audience, pushing himself to muscular limits).

Sometimes I am very aware of the performance as performance, as Springsteen enacts the persona of Springsteen. Now we’re going to have Goofy Bruce, now Mighty Rocker Bruce, now Serious Intense Bruce. It’s not that he is being inauthentic, but he is definitely in character. And sometimes, at moments, despite all that I know about it being performance, the truth of it shines so brightly that it makes me catch my breath. During “Tenth Avenue” in Kansas City, there was one of those moments: as a full-face portrait of Danny Federici filled the screen, Bruce reached his hand out towards it as if to touch — as if he could reach through time and mortality and use the genius of his physicality to touch his lost friend again. Yes, performance. Yes, he may even have rehearsed that precise gesture. But it was authentic, it was truth, and it pretty much broke my heart right there.

Bruce Springsteen and projected image of Danny Federici

photo / Stephanie Korby @PenskeMaterial

And in a weekend filled with acts of kindness and generosity, maybe that was the biggest one. Bruce isn’t standing there on that stage saying to the audience “Hey! I’m having feelings! Look at me!” (Okay, he’s definitely saying “look at me” sometimes – a performer’s got to have an ego! – but bear with me.) No – he’s saying “Here. I made this thing out of feelings and memories and muscles and sweat. I made it for you and I am giving it to you now, here, tonight. Keep it in your heart and maybe you can use it for something someday.”

Maybe that is kindness. Maybe that is even, in its own way, love.

20 Comments

Filed under music, ramblings, Springsteen