Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh Canada! The Moustache Unfurls.

   Backstage. Ashia (dressed as catwoman) paints an acrylic portrait of Jason french kissing two belly dancers, while Robin sniffs a pound of cocaine. Xander fires his gun at my accordion again and he's too drunk to hit it, as usual.
   Mark? He's fashioned a kind of gamelon out of beer bottles and broken ashtrays and he throws bowling pins into the machine's guts while chain smoking Gauloises. The Elvis Costello glasses suit him. He employs an arcane and byzantine method to determine what rhythms he'll play that night—he consults the I Ching after each hit and a Tarot deck that is rumored to have come from the Medici family. Skip's moonlights as a bookie and he's dealing a shady poker game while collecting on the horse races. Or he's just breaking somebody's legs behind the alley. We're all drunk beyond belief and onstage in 5 minutes.

   Really? Nope. But I find that most people believe some version of this about my band (Vagabond Opera) or about me: That we're wild or insane or some rarefied combination on stage AND off. I'll dispel the myth now: When the curtain goes up I'm an accordion opera-driven machine what jumps off stage and dances the hora. I leap, I bound, I sing a high “C”, and try to sing it like it was the last note sung by the last man on the last day of earth as the black night is falling. I give everything.
   Beyond the curtain I'm rather unexciting.
   Now you know.
The Wise Hall Vancouver BC
   Two weeks ago we played in Vancouver BC at the Wise Hall . Here's my journal entry from before the show:

Backstage at the WISE Hall (Wales Ireland Scotland England). Feel a little sick. Hmm. Tired. Have a show tonight. Must pull it together. Took a nice walk. Back alleys. We're ...um what was I saying? Not quiet enough here or too distracting. Backstage. Want to sleep. I think I'm jet lagged. Yes, jet lagged. And a little hungry. I have some food here; I should be all right. Wooden floors here. Line out front. Looks like mostly older folks. Opening band is called Maria in the Shower. They keep asking questions of Robin.
Xander just brought back a whole bunch of beer.. I'm a little achy. Can I pull this together tonight? Oh please don't take your guitar out Jason. Shit he is.
Oh well, gotta look past the usual stuff that annoys me, gotta get out of that mind set and remember all of the people I meet who say that they wish that they did what I do. I sometimes wish I worked in an office! A routine, an apartment, security for my old age. Turn my brain off at the end of the day.
______, please be quiet.
Gosh I'm a little bitch tonight.
We got through the border all right.
Walked around the alleyways here just a little. I've been around my boy so much that I'm missing him right now. Suddenly cut off. It's okay until I see a kid and then I start to miss him.
First band called Maria in the Shower. I think I mentioned that. There was a little boy on a balcony. Made me miss Jascha. I miss Jill too. It's a little weird because I can't call here without using long distance. But it's nice to be alone too. Did I not mention that?
I'll have a little food.

   Some people maintain their persona off stage and nothing changes. I'm not like that. When I go to my local coffee shop with my son in Portland my moustache is undone and my jeans are on. Sometimes in social situations, I can barely manage a sentence. 

Photo:  Courtesy Adrian Derbyshire
And when I'm on tour—a different bed every night, a different meal time every day—I crave routine:

September 2010
Staying at a house here after five hours on the road. I'm in a teenager's room with Xander, Robin and Ashia. Slept some in the van but it's hard to sleep in a sitting position. Late, probably past 1 am. Looking forward to sleep and was questioning this life in the van as we crept minute by minute to two hours after my bedtime.
Bedtime? Am I five? Still it always disrupts routine and it takes a bit to get used to the transition. Of course this time I'll have gotten used to it and then I'll be home. Short tour, four gigs.
Robin is exhausted from his March Fourth tour in Germany. He hasn't adjusted to the time change.
But now I'm happy. Where we are staying is a real home and everyone has a bed somehow. That's better than a hotel.

Todd Biffard
  Here then is a travelogue of Vagabond Opera's latest tour told from a very unbohemian perspective: 

  The band had a choice of home stays after the WISE Hall gig. As soon as our show was over I buttonholed Todd, father of two, and told him I wanted to stay with him. He's got a four year-old and I think a two-year old and I knew that I'd feel better surrounded by art projects, toy trays and a family.

   We had crossed the border easily enough earlier that day and arrived with two hours to spare.
   The WISE hall is in East Vancouver and I took a walk nearby on Commercial Drive. I love my richly diverse Portland restaurant and food cart scene but Vancouver rivals it: in the space of a few blocks I saw Sushi restaurants, Greek Tavernas, Indian food, Pho, and The Controversial Kitchen that serves only free-range, grass-fed meat, from local farmers.
   And food co-ops. An abundance. I can think of two off the top of my head in Portland, but here they were clustered up all in a few blocks. Who knows how many more there were in other neighborhoods?
  Canada's like that. It kind of looks the same, but soon you realize you're in a parallel universe.
   Todd is 35 and lives in a large house in East Vancouver. Like me he's a touring musician with a family so we had a lot in common
   I got dropped off at a little before 2 am. Robert, the show's promoter drove me there. Todd's house was everything I wanted. A bed, finger paint art hanging up, and his wife had even made lasagne. We sat in the dining room and ate it and drank red wine.
   Todd told me that Robert was able to make a living bringing musical acts to Canada because he got a grant from the government. Even if he didn't make money on a show, as long as Robert broke even things were OK. That seemed plausible; I think Robert's organization was a non-profit. But when Todd told me that Maria in the Shower had gotten a grant to tour I felt reality's facade cracking. 
   A band getting a grant to tour? Really?
   The next morning I jotted down in my journal:

Is it internalized artistic oppression? I wanted to ask him how the government justifies making grants to bands. I mean I'm in a band and do believe that a good society supports cultural...um...what? I don't know because I'm not sure I really believe it and in fact am used to my role as professional musician as being almost an adversarial role or a “I make it despite the fact...”

Todd's view is that musicians are heroes. I don't know if I agree. He said that because people don't sing anymore musicians have a special role. Again I don't know if I agree. This is the sort of thing I used to think and I remember in my early twenties I wrote an email to my brother saying how musicians used to be shamans in ancient societies. I now am more apt to equate my profession with “The Hitch Hiker's Guide To the Galaxy's” definition of our planet: Mostly Harmless. At best I could perhaps say that we are keepers of a flame of sorts. 
   My wife and I have a basement freezer full of cow parts. We split a cow five ways with four other families each year and are part of a chicken and egg share too. We grow our vegetables and are members of two CSA's (farm shares). I'm sure we fit some stereo-type but as I'm immersed in it I have no perspective. I know that we've always been snobs about what we eat even as our diet has radically shifted over the years. When we were vegetarians we were self-righteous about it; when we shifted to a diet espousing raw meat and unprocessed foods we laughed at vegetarians, and now, as we eat all of our farm and cow share food we judge the poor saps who are still buying most of their groceries from stores that ship food long distances. We feel like we're in an exclusive club and our blood races whenever we meet someone else like us. In my mind this lifestyle is tied to Portland and I pride our burg on its forward and sustainable outlook.
   The next morning Todd casually mentions that he has a lamb in his basement freezer and I proudly tell him of the cow in ours but soon enough I feel a little deflated. Not only is he part of a farm share and a meat share but he says matter-of-factly, that most people are. In fact he acts as if it were no big deal and the conversation moves on. Portland suddenly feels provincial.

  Another journal note from that morning:
Before bed Todd mentioned that he liked having people stay at his house. That in fact he thought of himself as a “co-op” kind of person.
What do you mean by that?” I asked him.
Well you know I'm a member of a bike co-op and I've been involved in lots of housing co-ops over the years, and that sort of thing.”
I told him that in some circles that kind of talk in the states would get him branded a Marxist.

   I didn't get to meet Todd's family but he sat with me while I ate my breakfast.
   Todd thinks that Americans have more of a singing tradition than Canadians (with the exception of the Quebecois). The only song Canadian people might all sing together was some hockey song. I told him that the only songs most of us sing together are Queen songs at sporting events. Still he might have had a point. Recently my father-in-law Neal taught my son a song. He called him over and sang to him out of the blue, and pretty soon the whole family was singing the pig song in an elevator in a hotel in Conshocken Pennsylvania.
  I asked Todd to elaborate on what he meant about musicians being heroes. He said that song had vanished in modern society—people used to sing as they worked and used to sing together for pleasure after work—and that now musicians were the ones keeping song alive.
   I agree to some extent—I've been saying the same thing about music's historical function for years now. But I blanch at calling musicians—myself—heroic. And maybe if I did I would be one of those people who sported his burning man apparel every waking moment. But the truth is I'm doing this all out of compulsion. My fingers seek an accordion too often (ask my wife), and for two years I preferred sitting in my office composing an opera to sticking my face in the rain and my feet in the Portland forests.
   I don't mean to be self-deprecating but that kind of behavior strikes me as more of a sickness rather than the Hero's Journey.
   Todd's house is a work in progress and we talked about wiring and painting and window installation. I'm no hero. At best I'm a cartoon super hero (Moustache Man!) who's also very attached to his secret identity of a lower-middle-class Portland food snob, cafe junkie, and parent.


  And yet...
  And yet when I read my journal entry from two days later the idea of the heroic has penetrated it. Perhaps Todd got me thinking along those lines? We crossed the border back into the states uneventfully and drove to Northern Washington where we had a showcase.
  Those industry showcases: Abandon all Romantic notions of the Musician's Life ye who enter here! Here's how it works: two or three times a year our booking agent signs us up to “showcase” our band. We perform for fifteen minutes for presenters from all over North America and other parts of the globe too. Usually a Hilton is rented out for this and we play in a carpeted room in a basement. If you exit our showcase you will see a corridor with other rooms just like ours and other bands are in those rooms showcasing their work. 

View from the "Stage"
  I kind of like the challenge of compressing our show into fifteen minutes. And we only do these three times a year, at most. In the long-term they're lucrative for us, but I often see a look of desperation in the eyes of a lot of the musicians attending.
  As soon as our sound check was finished we went to the dressing room. We had a few hours. What did we do? Practice? Jam?
  I wish I had taken a picture. I'll give you a portrait here instead: a large dressing room with a long counter and chairs in front of the counter. Above the counter is a mirror encircled by light bulbs and by each chair is an electrical outlet.
  The members of Vagabond Opera took out our respective laptops, plugged them into the outlets and sat down for almost two hours catching up on emails and updating websites. We went out to eat Mexican after wards.
Not in Canada but you get the idea

A day off in Seattle and then a show at the Triple door finished it all up. Here's that journal entry I spoke of.

October 16th 2010

Seattle WA

I went sailing yesterday with the band (sans Jason), the boat piloted by Robin's cousin. We went out Puget sound, passed cormorants on a rocky pier with an iron ghost and dragon and into the wide water. Robin's cousin (I forget his name. Is it Chris?) is a man who is fifty-four today, a lawyer with a moustache, and he told us that sailing, especially nights, he gets to feel “Skinless”. He diffuses into the air, he says.
I've come to sailing late in life but, yes, you do diffuse and it is wonderful and exquisite. Coming home I made my way near the prow and stood there the whole time, alone at first and then joined by Skip. It occurred to me as I became diffuse that one of my problems is generated by too much damned thinking.
  And at the same time I thought, but what about this? Writing? This is self-reflection and draws from a deeper well, I think. If I am awake thinking and worrying it is calming to do something, and writing, even, is doing something.

  I am sitting here, now, in B's bed.  I slept on a futon on the floor next to Robin but I made my way in here now as I know this typing would wake Robin up.
  Nothing can seem more pathetic than a single man, but I suppose I say this as a man rescued. Rescued from what? Rescued from discomfort. If this room were spartan I might admire it but it, and the house, is instead...how shall I say? Frugal? No, I have no beef with frugality. Miserly and non-abundant.
  It's cold here for one thing. But that's not it. It's just the home of a single guy—every cereal box is almost empty, there are no vegetables in the vegetable drawer, all the books on the book shelf are leaning to one side, there's a pair of used socks on the bed and five hard-backed books strewn on it too on the left side. It's cold and uninviting and you know the first thing a girlfriend would do is clean, straighten up and get new curtains, then new furniture. Shit, I would do that too, at this point in my life.
  But this isn't, even if it sounds like it, in judgment against the man. He has two kids from a previous marriage, he's an instrumentalist for orchestra, the property itself is beautiful and you can see he has a yard he keeps well and that he's interested in cooking (lots of books on it and lots of good spices).
  And of course it's a rather nasty thing to go into these people's houses and poke around, then write about them! 
  I am almost forty and somehow not famous, as I thought I would be, and not embedded as an icon of Western art. It's good, actually. Once you give up that shit and it falls away the real work begins and you realize that your life is heroic and perhaps being an icon would just confuse the matter anyway.
  Good I am getting to something deeper here, a deeper source, I just felt it and don't know if I can articulate it but it reminds me of the usefulness of this process. The deeper thing? I can feel my life resonating like a dark bell, the overtones of my childhood ring out and beneath them is this deep sounding something too. It feels profoundly spiritual and holy in this moment looking out the window at that shimmering tree.
  I was in Philly last week, with my family, and passed the house I spent my first eight years in and I think I had a dream about it or just thought about it later, how my grandfather planted an apple tree in the backyard there and how it was flourishing when I was a child.
  You can get so distracted by the outside so it's good to feel, right now, that I am inside of this ringing bell of my life. I think the distraction in this moment comes from thinking about Vagabond Opera always as where we are going but you might miss where you are if you think along those lines too. I am in Seattle with people I love. I work with them, I play with them. I really shouldn't worry about how far we advance. To be alive with them and moving through life with them at this moment is such a gift.
  And it's all been a gift, my grandparents, my childhood, what a gift! Who do I thank? WHO DO I THANK? I don't rightly know. It's shabbat and that's a good starting point for me to reflect on all of this.

  Backstage at the Triple door. Ashia, in her underclothes, is stuffing a necklace up her black arm-length gloves and practices slowly pulling it out. Jason is reading a book out loud about polyamory to our guest cabaret dancer Lily Verlaine (I'll be carrying her naked body offstage later that night). Two of the Harlequin Hipsters (a dance troupe) are all made up like Pagliaccio and Arlechinno and are working on a sketch where Xander gets slapped in the face (“A slap in the face. It's the new high five!”). Skip is dressed in a double-breasted suit and has his lady on one arm and holds a beer with his other hand. Robin is playing the clarinet and I say to him, “Rabbi Akiva said that you cannot play a long black instrument after the sabbath, but then Rebbe Elimelech replied that you could as long as you were wearing a funny hat.“
Lily Verlaine
The Fresh Pot Cafe
  Later, ending the show grandly, one of our fans proposes on stage (his paramour accepts), but for now I sit down on the couch with Mark and observe this magnificent circus. Moments like these the lines blur between on stage and off, between absurd and heroic. They're probably blurrier than I think all the time. I feel my accordion sense tingle—someone out there needs me to sing them an aria!—and I don't resist as I begin to turn, once again, into Moustache Man. After the show, I'll drive home and then sleep in my bed in Portland, wake up and go to the Cafe with my family.The faint traces of last night's upturned moustache may be discerned briefly before the steam rising up from the coffee cup unravels the curls.

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