Last night, I dreamt of an empty bedroom. It was peaceful and I didn’t understand why. It was an empty room with the kind of hastily-cut carpet to which I became accustomed as a kid. Revisiting the dream, I see myself dreaming about the kind of simplicity that was once available before bills, before my dad’s health took a dive and then another and then another. Before the wildly optimistic goal of my parents reconnecting thirty years later in the roles of caregiver and careseeker.
I didn’t get this at the time, but it was a room in the geographical location of the room in which I learned to play guitar, began making experimental recordings, dreamt of beautiful and unavailable girls and wrote songs about them. In this room with sad, gray carpet, I could live inside my own head and spend huge stretches of time exploring my imagination. In this room, I was free.
On this bench in front of Corporate Cafe, near the record store, it’s raining and my words are falling into little inky word puddles. I started writing a song for Dad in the back of this notebook. I sometimes hide new projects so I don’t have to see them until I’ve got the next idea. Get the timing wrong and it’s just another messy pile of words in the the stack of dirty, unfinished songs.
In ‘Count The Colors (For Marcella),’ I refer often to the idea of taking her spirit with me as I experience beautiful things that we might have experienced together. It strikes me lately that I’m feeling the same thing about my Dad. An amateur guitar player who loved The Beatles more than anything in his life other than family, I felt like I was somehow tapping into his consciousness as I drove to Snipes Farm and played an hour of Beatles songs with my friends.
Sometimes when I travel, hold my girlfriend’s hand, write, take a good picture, I feel like I’m enjoying some of the great things in life on his behalf.
“I used to take limos into the city to go to the theater. I lived a glamorous life! I did! And it all changed.” Just eavesdropping on the two elder beach bunnies sitting next to me at this boardwalk pizza truck.
Asbury Park Roasters, down the boardwalk a few miles, provided me with the best latte I’ve ever had, a mid-day mood boost on this complicated family beach day. Pushing a fella in his wheelchair four or five miles, I feel that I’m earning each euphoric moment. Strange work with odd returns, but it’s still a day at the beach. Plus, we don’t look haggard and argumentative in the photos. We just look fuckin’ COOL, Daddy-O.
A lady who lives on the beach in New England made me two heart pins. Hate is having a moment, but I’m keeping my heart. It is tattered, but it works great. Sick Day at home, Sick Night in The Jane Austen Room at the Alexander House Book Lovers B&B in Princess Anne, Maryland. A stop, host Elizabeth says, for many yankees traveling to the Outer Banks. Right off Lucky Route 13, it’s a charming, METICULOUSLY decorated house from 1885. There’s a comforter on our bed but only the nineteenth century ghosts are allowed to use it; there’s a different one for us. She’s retained the house’s original, nineteenth-century wi-fi password: 1885188500. Quaint. As. Fuck.
The Jane Austen Room celebrates Jane and the Regency English lifestyle. It all felt a little too fancy for me, so I promptly got naked in an attempt to de-class the place. It didn’t work. I was just a class-less naked guy in a classy place.
Nicky is reading the guestbook. Almost everyone has written in cursive. Some have praised the room’s “sexy color scheme.” Others have made pronouncements about how their night at the B&B rekindled the romance in their marriage. “We haven’t felt this young in years. Probably has something to do with how much we slept. Or DIDN’T sleep. WINK.”
Well, which is it?? Did you fuck all night or did you get a good night of sleep, you walking paradoxes?!
Since I last wrote, I’ve been to Lancaster, Hershey, Outer Banks, Chincoteague, Bethlehem, Princess Anne, Cape Charles, Wallops Island, Newport News. Some for money, some for family, some for shrimp. For my camera, it’s all the same - opportunities to take a shot that I can only take once. I’m sure I’ll have an expensive camera one day, but for now, I love having a camera that’s not too precious to take to the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head or a rain storm in Bethlehem. The busted LED screen shows my images with crazy glitches like inverted lightning bolts digitally striking my photos of flowers on serene, sunshiny days or the solar eclipse over Bucks County. It is tattered, but it works great.
At Brig O’Doon Coffee House in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, two little kids are repeating, with ever-increasing intensity, the words “BUCKING BRONCO!” I am scheduled to sing six songs in the recording studio across the street in ten minutes. My body, mind, and checking account each have exactly enough energy to do this session. If only I could switch energy levels with these kids! Good news for me, good news for These Kids’ Mom! These Kids’ Mom and I will do the best we can. These Kids’ Mom, I accidentally learn, “could have settled with Ben.” One of the kids just said, “go to bed, marshmallow” and I'll never know why.
I try to focus, but the person behind behind me inquires, “are everybody’s wrinkles the same?” and now that’s all I can think about.
One day earlier in the summer, we went to a funeral home to pre-pay for his funeral. Lawyer’s advice. The more I try to convince myself I’m unflappable, the weirder life seems to get.
Gone now for longer than I knew her, Marcella unknowingly (but, really, knowingly) left me with a huge, wonderful workload that I am still sorting through. It’s sort of funny how it’s become an escape from the current problems. The family situation is very complicated; a small-scale version of what’s happening to my government and my planet. The realization that there just isn’t anybody in charge.
I’m at somebody else’s bank and, via my aging iPhone’s speakerphone, a family member is yelling at the branch manager, accusing her - completely unjustifiably - of ineptitude. We want to imagine there’s somebody in charge. We’ve got a lawyer, but nobody’s really in charge. There is no project manager. This project is family. The project is complicated.
I drive back to the old hometown. “I’m gonna be honest with you because I’m an honest person, OK?” This new occupational therapist is a sweetheart. In his mind, he was driving a car just the other day, walking, bathing, And he’s very convincing. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know. Every time I go to his apartment - the geographical space of my dreamworld’s empty room - I re-teach him how to use his Blu-ray player. He tries his best to stay engaged in conversation. Before long, the topic returns to annoyances like the belt that straps him into his wheelchair. The OT mentions the incredible health risk that its removal would pose. But he promises he has no balance issues.
“The truth is that, this long after a stroke, only very small improvements are possible.” She told him it is unlikely he will walk again, or drive a car. He’s been told this before, but it’s not information that he retains. Shit, who wants to retain information like that?? She asks who helps care for him and he swears he’s left alone for weeks at a time. As Kina leaves, I walk her out and make sure she understands she was getting, for some reason, a fictitious account of his life. She did. She knew exactly what she was dealing with. I said, “I texted my sister and told her, ‘she’s very good!’” Her eyes welled-up and she said, “well, I love my job.”
During these eighteen months, we’ve dealt with a handful of golden-hearted people. For these people we are grateful.
My dad lights up when he sees me, Pam, or his grandkids. There is plenty of awareness and even more love. I know that he wants to be off on his own, a burden to no one. I share these stories because there’s something about seeing it in black-and-white that makes it easier to take. Easier to place in the context of my life’s story. And perhaps my perspective will influence someone else over time.
After Marcella’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I think it’s been hard for me to accept that any situation that doesn’t involve someone dying could rise to that level of importance. But the truth is that this is one of my life’s big challenges.
There is no quick fix. There is no fix at all. But there is a team. Nobody’s in charge, but I’ve got my sister and she’s got me. And just when shit gets too heavy to deal with, her little boy runs into the room speaking highly-cute half-gibberish about dinosaurs and my broken heart is healed yet again.
Meanwhile, I think I’m gonna take a cue from, well, myself, and express myself during times of strife in an attempt to not go insane.
I dedicate an Everly Brothers song to my dad at most of my gigs, including tonight’s. I thank him for bringing me to their concerts during my youth. Each time I do so, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I recall how they’d walk out on-stage with those black guitars and I’d feel like I had electricity shooting through my veins. I got to see the best of the best and that’s because of him. We didn’t always understood each other, but, when the music was just right, we were one.
Knit Hat Greg is on the patio with chips (you may know them as “crisps”) and a beer (you may know it a “beer”). I was missing the fall/winter-oriented items in my wardrobe to the point that I was wearing them prematurely. Today, just as I busted out the blue sport jacket with brown elbow patches, it was actually needed. I was astonished to see myself leave it on for the entirety of my 90-minute solo acoustic performance at Langhorne Coffee House.
A last-minute, low-key booking that ended up being just what I needed, spiritually, musically - even financially. I came up with an interesting set list that weaved the songs of ‘Count The Colors’ in between cover songs that inspired me during the writing. A conversation with a painter whose Irish landscapes adorned the cafe’s wall inspired renditions of a few Irish folk tunes, but otherwise I stuck to the program, the tunes I’m planning for the big album debut concert in October.
It’ll be my first ticketed concert, in a true listening room. I’m planning the design of the room, putting together a small band called The Roadside Leaves, printing out images of Marcella to hang behind me while I play. I will put her coat on a chair on-stage. I’ll tell stories. It will be fucking beautiful.
At the low-key coffee shop gig tonight, I could see that it will be a success. I could tell that the people - mostly strangers - could feel the emotional weight of the songs even before I explained the story behind the project.
My friend Matt, a sweet guy who’s an employee of the coffee shop and a gifted musician in his own right, told me that he could easily imagine this music on the radio. Said he found the stories I told in the songs compelling. Said he was shocked that I haven’t been doing ticketed, singer-songwriter gigs for years already. He was very sweet. I left feeling like I achieved what I wanted - a new plateau.
Nicky, her face almost distractingly pretty under the moonlight, surprised me with her impassioned response to the performance.
There have been bumps in the road, but to give up on this suite of songs (not to mention all the other songs waiting in the wings) would be to give up on a part of myself that would be hard to live without. It was only two weekends ago that I played one of the really lame bar gigs from which I leave feeling lonelier than I might’ve if I’d sung the same songs while floating around in space.
Don’t get me wrong; these gigs are important. I was in a series of really good rock bands in my mid-twenties, but to entirely carry the show yourself is a whole different proposition. I’m happy for every lame bar gig - especially the four-hour ones - because that’s what’s making me good.
The trick is to maintain my vision both on nights like tonight, when I feel like I’m floating on a cloud for hours after I play (cable box sez: 3:19 AM), and also during the frustrating times. Band members who don’t do their homework. Venues unwilling to take a chance on somebody new. All you can do is keep going, swap out the dispassionate for the passionate, keep pushing your own quality control standards higher. I don’t know when or how, but I believe that Marcella and I are gonna make a splash. She’s not gonna let her songs go unheard. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t gonna argue with an Italian ghost.
After I played, a guy commented on the different voices I use. From the rockclamations of my early days to the folkwhisper that some of dreamier new songs require, I’ve learned to drive my voice in different gears.
I thanked Nicky for coming to my gig and told her it was especially moving to sing “No Grays And Blues,” the song that I wrote using words Marcella left behind in letters and other notes, with her in the room. “Why?” “Because it’s in that song that she opens the door to you.”
no matter where this life brings you
know that I’m always loving you
and if someone new ever comes along
sometime after I am gone
don’t be afraid, give your heart a chance
to love and be loved
love and be loved