Friday, January 26, 2018

Just Show Up

JANUARY 17 - “I feel actually quite lucky!” a posh English toddler announces while sliding into the chair beside me. Accents like this only surround me when I leave the apartment. Although it would be pretty interesting to get up for a 4 AM pee and hear a little English ghost child talking to me. “A li-uhl much wah-taw then?”

Flipping through some paperwork from an asset management company, I might appear to be one of this town’s many moneyfolk. Unless they happen to notice the huge hole in my sweater’s armpit. Why do they always rip? Am I bad at wearing clothes?

Some part of the eight-story office building that is my mind tends to power down when I have to deal with this power of attorney business. I feel so ill-equipped for it that I fall into some sort of a panic spiral, ultimately using 800% of the required energy to not accomplish the task. The team effort helps. The one plus side I can find in his dementia is that he’s likely unaware of the our stress.

Fun topics, right? I am trying to write about this stuff more because I can feel that I’m keeping too much inside. I feel it when my eye starts to twitch, when I’ve slept poorly four nights in a row, when my breathing gets tight.

I never thought I’d lose my dad so early, in such a drawn-out way. Living in some kind of in-between netherworld… and doing it in my old bedroom... which means my parents are living together after a thirty-year break.

YEAH. Exactly.

To some people, the craziest thing that’s happened lately has been President Shithole. For me, that feels like the world outside my window finally becoming as crazy as my own personal life.

Dad gave no clear answers when asked about hypothetical health scenarios. So we didn’t make him DNR and he ended up on life support back in November. I know I don’t want to live like that. But to make him a DNR felt like killing our own parent. I now see that it’s not so cut-and-dry.

Anyway, what was I talking about… posh English children? Cappuccino?

I feel for the guy, not being able to get out of the chair, dress himself, express himself well verbally. The daily fits of yelling. Banging on things around the house. Breaking the front door knob the other day, just to do it. Being verbally abusive to my mom, his caretaker.

That dynamic adds a huge layer of stress. It’s all happening because my sister and I recognized the care he was getting at facilities - no matter how expensive - was inadequate. The bed sores. The wounds from constantly falling at night, forgetting he can’t walk to the bathroom. The facility that seemed like the sure choice had to discharge him because his care level became so far beyond what they were equipped for.

He is mad about what’s happened to him and his ex-wife must seem like a reasonable person to blame. I wish he knew he’s getting incredible care. How strange that, in the end, it was his estranged ex-wife who was able to step up to the plate.

We ought to be building monuments to this woman.

We are going through all of this to keep him out of the facilities. They are the easy option, but we know we wouldn’t be able to drive home knowing that he’s getting the care he needs. I would be less stressed-out, but have a harder time looking at myself in the mirror. I’m glad we are trying it this way, for now.

Meanwhile at the cafe, I’m working on breathing. Drawing the long, deep breaths I couldn’t access this morning. The stacks of paper in front of me represent my personal hell and heaven - the financial mumbo jumbo in one pile, song lyrics and Friday’s set list in another. The music projects can sometimes seem frivolous in the context of all this madness, but I know it’s not. It’s the work that I do. What I will have done with my life. It’s what my dad would want me to be doing.

I put together a new version of my band Monday night and got to hear nine of my songs come to life in a basement in Ewing, New Jersey. After we played “Yer Shoes,” the drummer, the great Joe Falcey, let me know that he taught the song to one of his music students. Between that and Brian Dillon’s live cover version of “Layers Of Winter Clothes,” I felt amazed to see that the music is affecting people before it’s even been released.

JANUARY 21 - ...and then I became myself again. First, at a smoky bar jam session with a bunch of old/new friends. Sitting in the corner of the bar with my Cajun Valve cap pulled low, playing wah-wah-assisted slide guitar with the reverb machine at full-blast, making up licks for songs I’d never played before, stopping to take a sip of Yards beer when someone would start singing. There was no money in it; just the chance to create sound with brilliant people for the sheer fun of it. A nameless band that formed by chance, never rehearsed, and will probably only play one time ever, playing tightly enough to get people to look up from their phones and become our audience.

That ended up being my warm-up for Friday night’s gig at Broken Goblet Brewery. I put together a version of the always-morphing Roadside Leaves band that was so big that we almost didn’t fit on-stage. Drums, bass, lap steel guitar, second guitar, violin. A beautiful bunch of sounds and that made my tunes really come to life.

For my Grandpa JJ’s birthday, I played the old Carter Family song “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” a song he taught me posthumously via the McGarvey family jam session tapes from the ‘60s. We did a duet version several birthdays ago; me singing along to the tape from about fifty years earlier.

On the nights when I’ve got enough energy to play a good show, I go into a slight panic before playing. The energy turns on me. I try to focus on setting up equipment and other technical concerns, avoiding conversations with people, avoiding the chance to psych myself out in some way. I took a walk around the industrial complex with my girlfriend to try to loosen up a little.

I went on-stage in a tailspin, wondering how I convert myself from an introvert into an extrovert in the next five seconds. This is a familiar dance, though. I’ve got experience with this. I remembered how it works. Just play. Just show up and play. The music will take over.

And it did, almost right away. The Carter Family tune was followed by two older songs of mine. “Imagination 2011: The Scenic Route” and “The Dirt & The Moonlight.” Then my friends joined me for half of the songs from “Count The Colors (For Marcella).” I took a couple seconds to tell the crowd the story behind the album; just enough to pique their interest. My band played great and the songs were received well by the hometown crowd.

Somehow, that music never feels morose for very long. Something about the way that I approached the writing allowed the songs to acknowledge the sadness without losing sight of the joy that was the bedrock of our relationship. I felt, as always, a sense of calm and peace having brought Marcella’s name and energy into the air.

As a way of thanking the crowd for listening, we did a set of well-known rock music next. Wilburys, Petty, Neil, “When Will I Be Loved” for Phil Everly’s birthday. The ever-fiery Joe Falcey made my day by replicating that song’s unique drum arrangement.

We did an interesting version of “gettin’ closer,” a song from my first-ever songwriting night back in 2007; I sent it out to Matt Park to thank him for supporting my music both before and after we played in a band together. We followed my rant-as-song “My Grass Is Greener” with a version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” that made one lady feel, as she told me later, “like I was stoned!”

It’s fun doing those long, electric, freak-out songs in front of people who might think I am strictly a folky.

Local harmonica legend George Price joined us for a jam at the end; I would’ve played ‘til 4 AM if the bar wasn’t shutting down.

I posed a question to myself before Christmas when my work started to dry up. I’d emailed all sorts of places that had never heard of me and (nicely) asked them to give me money to play music. Most did not respond. I had a sneaking suspicion that the lack of a response from Johnny Applesauces’s Bar & Grille didn't mean that it was time to hang up my rock & roll boots (they are actually just Clark boots), but I felt frustrated to have been passed over for, more than likely, somebody less talented. My schedule and cupboard were not bare, but a little too close for comfort. My question was: why?

In this great musical weekend, I found my answers. Just show up. Life happens in person. Some things will happen over email from time to time. Social media has benefits. But most of the stuff that matters will happen in person. In person, it's easier to see who really means it. I understood that all I have to do is keep doing my work and the word will continue to get out. Try not to let stress, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, inertia keep me tucked away at home too much. Just show up.

This weekend also showed me that, with love and music as my gateway, all the joy I ever had is still available. I am probably aging a little faster since my dad's struggles intensified, but I'm willing to collect these bags under my eyes, go a little greyer, wear slightly bigger clothes, and so on, if it means that I get to still be around traveling, telling my stories, sharing good energy with people.

Actually, it's been nice getting older and having fewer (and shorter) moments of self-doubt, having a more defined sense of mission.

I wouldn't have imagined I'd end this post this way when I first started it, but it's true. Just like that posh English child. I feel actually quite lucky!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Those Who Know Know

Christmas Eve. Eye is twitching just a little and my head feels like an overworked laptop that needs a restart and an operating system update. I am fortunate to have a bit of alone time before launching myself into Christmas. There is a chance of greatness because my girlfriend and her family are absolutely wonderful, as are my sister and the rest of my local family. A chance of fucked-upness because the days of having non-upsetting interactions with my dad are over. It’s something that takes a few hours (on a good day) to emotionally recover from.

I don’t know if he is aware the holiday is coming up, and if he is, he might be feeling guilty and confused about it. Losing his mind to dementia, having lost much of the use of his body to a stroke. He’s worse off since the pre-Thanksgiving hospitalization when he was on the brink of death due to sepsis and a heart attack. The doctors did amazing work, but the guy that came home from the hospital (after a few weeks at Mount Horrible Nursing Home) is a much different guy.

While we struggled to get him out of the vehicle, he started yelling, in regards to my mom, “she’s a killer!” It’s nice to not have to live at Mount Horrible any longer, yet the return home seemed like just another negative experience for him.

My mom, incidentally, is the reason he was alive when I came home from New Orleans. Sure, she gets white paint on our stuff from time to time, but she’s no killer.

To have been moved back home is a good thing, but the overall situation is not and I’m having trouble pretending it is for the sake of conversation. It’s been devastating for my sister and I, yet so drawn-out that we don’t feel compelled to bail on our commitments as you might during a more compressed crisis.

I was playing a gig the other night and, while I thought I was playing well, I wasn’t getting any feedback. Sometimes, nobody wants to be the first to clap. In my emotionally worn-down state, I took this to mean that I was doing a bad job. This fucked with my head as I was, very unhealthily, looking for a loving audience to repair my damaged psyche.

“Those who know, know,” Jolly said. The people who could see that I was in some sort of crisis are the same people who are on my side, anyway. What played like a feature-length movie in my head was, in the room, a blip.

After the illness and death of Marcella, I felt unshakable. Like I’d been through the worst. I hadn’t. Now it’s one of my parents. It doesn’t matter that it’s been drawn out since January 2011. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have the fighter’s spirit that Marcella has. It’s my dad and it’s devastating. That relationship is a universe of complex feelings and sweet memories and strange dynamics and illnesses and deep, deep, deep love. An endless stream of New Jersey locales that have some sort of Dad Memory attached to them.

The day of the latest move, I was just angry. Angry because it’s easier than sad. With anger, there’s control. When he was in the hospital and he’d so recently been close to death, I was able to just be sad. It felt healthy. Anger is a head-against-a-brick-wall to sadness’s long, winding river. A river, at least, takes you somewhere. The scenery will eventually change if you take the ride.

This situation has shown me how supportive my girlfriend is, how strong my mom is, how unified my sister and I are. How resilient we are.

To leave your kids to make decisions like DNR status is so wildly irresponsible, but because of our close and very communicative relationship, we just speak freely about such things and come to our conclusions. It crossed my mind that our relationship could’ve easily ended at MANY junctures if we had opposing opinions about the many financial and medical decisions we’ve had to make without his guidance.

I am so lucky to have her. I’m glad they made two.

And I’m glad that he’s my dad. I talk about him at almost every gig I do, especially when one of those great, old Everly songs is coming up next. He shared his favorite things with me and now they are my favorite things, too. I feel like I’m enjoying them for him.

As this year winds down, I feel that the support of my loved ones kept me from going off the deep end. 

A new year is coming and, in that year, I want to get more love but need it less. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Those Are The Ones I Keep

I've enjoyed expressing myself in prose and visual art over the years, but it's through music that I communicate the most directly, with the most emotion. I consider this my life's main task.

Since my 2015 trip to Nashville, I've had a renewed focus on my songwriting. I'd already written a few hundred songs by that point, released a few things here and there, but I felt lost. I have found my way with the help of my late girlfriend Marcella. Even in her absence.

I'd written about a lot of almost-wases and might-have-beens, troubled rock stars, crooked politicians. I'd written about a lot of imagined things. When I resumed my writing, it was time to write about very real time spent with a very real person to whom I felt I owed a debt. This called for not only a resumption of my work, but a raising of the bar. This music - existing only on-stage so far - has received the kind of feedback I hoped it would.

The October 2017 debut performance was, more than a fun night, a life highlight. Even more exciting, I've found as I've dug into my archive that there are three albums of material that I feel just as strongly about. Three more song cycles, each reflecting different eras, different sides of me.

I don't know that I've accomplished as much as my friend and collaborator Patrick thinks I have, but I know that I have spent an incalculable amount of time crafting these things and that, in each of these forty-two songs, I said exactly what I wanted to say.

The truth is that I don't understand a damn thing about writing (probably why I failed English in college); I only know that I keep showing up to work and, sometimes, magic happens. Sometimes I play the song back and it reminds me of a tune that might be playing on a jukebox in some strange dream you're having at 4:11 AM.

Those are the ones I keep.

I look forward to sharing this work with you soon, and I send my thanks to the folks who have been early supporters.

For anyone who is interested in helping me release this work, you can help support me by purchasing music and merchandise at (name your own price), attending a gig, or by leaving thousands of dollars under my windshield wipers. It's the blue Scion in the parking lot; ya can't miss it!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Main Man

We went to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain as the November sky slowly turned red wine red. One more shot of beauty for the road. I suddenly felt ready to head back to Pennsylvania and see what was waiting for me there. The news back home was so bad that I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to see my dad again, let alone wish him a happy sixty-fourth birthday.

Among the chaos, I found my goal. I focused my intentions on bringing music to him. Bringing back to the guy who brought it to me in the first place.

In the meantime, I sent a link to the recordings of our 1960s family jam sessions, as recorded by my teenaged dad. I was happy to fill the room with the sounds of his parents talking and playing music from a thousand miles away.

I got a text from my cousin about how excited my dad was about the prospect of having me play guitar for him.

The first time I visited, he wasn’t talking, but he’d occasionally lock eyes with me. I knew he was in there. I was expecting him to be in a rough shape, and he was. I just tried to stay calm and take it in slowly. I unpacked my mahogany Martin guitar and sang him songs for about an hour. Whichever songs crossed my mind - Willie Nelson, Beatles, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams. My sister came by and we did a nearly-competent version of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It was the first time I ever sang to my dad, one-on-one.

When I walked back to my car in the hospital parking lot, I could feel that I’d gotten to the other side of the crippling anxiety I’d felt back in the swamp. I was feeling heavy, but not too heavy to put one foot in front of the other and move through my life.

The second time I visited, he was talking a little, though largely indecipherably. I left much sooner than I had the day before, itching to start setting up my stage in Bristol. As I kissed his head on my way out, he gripped my hand very tightly and started crying, hard. I’d never seen him cry before.

I played the first set of my gig and then went upstairs to eat dinner. I wondered if I’d finally seen something so traumatizing that I wouldn’t be able to process it. But within seconds, I was crying, too. Those extra-painful, special-reserve tears. Yet I saw them as an indication that I would be OK. Righteous noticed I was upset and came over to comfort me.

As I made my way back downstairs, some ladies let me know that the ass of my pants was ripped wide open. I let them know, “it’s gonna be that kind of a show!” I wrapped my dress shirt around my waist ‘90s style and proceeded to have a great night of music with my friends.

Next day was Thanksgiving. I promised my dad I would film some of our gig, so I showed him a video I took of Righteous, Brian Dillon, and I singing The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York.” He let me know he liked it and asked that I come back the next day. I found out later that he was even more tired than usual because he now had pneumonia.

I came back the next day and, as I approached his room, I realized that I flew home expecting to face my own pain about my dad’s failing health, but it turned out that I was facing his pain, too. A poker-faced kinda dad in his healthier days, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might have such a glimpse into his sadness, his fear. The pain is real, but I know the love is as strong as ever.

Before I left that night, he said, “JJ played guitar for me last night.” My grandpa, Nelson “JJ” McGarvey, has been gone ten years, but it still struck me as a beautiful thing to say.

I’m not sure if he said “I love you more than you know,” but I know he could have - and does. His eyes - so bright and blue - looked beautiful to me. I’d never noticed that before. This guy has been my main man for a very, very long time.

He’s lost a lot in this new setback, having already already lost most of his independence following his 2016 stroke. The doctors, though, have performed amazing work.

On his birthday, Cousin Patti and Aunt Gail brought balloons, Pam brought a funny stuffed toy that plays a snippet of The Beatles’ “Get Back,” my mom and our friend Linda, both early loves of my dad’s, each brought a card. I brought 8x10 prints of four photos. His friend Mike FaceTimed from his house in Honolulu, playing snippets of The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Birthday” on piano. I played along on my Martin, a multi-time zone jam session.

Between the April 2000 family portrait and the images of his grandkids, I was able to bring both the missing older generation and the new generation to him. Too old and too young, respectively, to join him in that hospital room. The photo of the New Orleans sunset from the previous week represents the life I’m living, a life in which I happen to be indulging in many of his biggest passions. Feeling like I am enjoying much of it on his behalf.

In the hill photo, we’re all healthy and happy and I’ve got my hands up in the air as if to say, “WE’RE FREE!”