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!”

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Orleans Part II

“I got ‘the look’ from the doctor. Like, into my soul.”

We’d shown up in town on a Tuesday morning and people were already partying. We started at Cafe du Monde, immediately covering my trip uniform - black dress shirt, black pants, and black jacket - with powdered sugar from the three beignets. I made a light attempt to clean it off, but decided to just allow New Orleans to dirty me up however it wants to.

Hopelessly exhausted, we threw ourselves onto a lawn on the edge of the Mississippi and just laid there, seemingly for hours. As terrible as I felt physically, I was blissed-out to be in this new place, to see the Mississippi River for the first time. I turned to my girlfriend more than once to say, “I’m so happy right now.”

We returned to the river later after hearing some sort of incredibly loud, mildly-out-of-tune organ. It was the Steamboat Natchez’s steam calliope and it was the best thing I’d ever seen. Some shadowy figure was playing this wild-sounding organ while the boat docked at the Toulouse Street Wharf. The steam from the calliope was illuminated in the night air by multi-colored lights, as if each note had its own hue. Tunes were strung together into one big, unrelenting medley, until finally you hear the last cluster of notes echoing off all the French Quarter’s buildings at once.

Corn cakes at Who Dat Coffee Cafe and then a streetcar journey to the fantastic art museum, sculpture garden, and botanical garden. My camera and I hunted for the most beautiful batch of Spanish moss. There wasn’t a sign saying we couldn’t stuff a bunch of clementines into Nicky’s purse, so we did. I bought her dinner for her thirtieth birthday that night, but I think we had more fun eating stolen clementines on a porch swing.

An omelet with alligator sausage at Cafe Rose Nicaud. To field the phone calls and text messages and emails about my dad’s health in such a party-positive environment has been a bit strange, but it’s a familiar dance. Besides, New Orleans is not afraid of the dark side.

Walking away from the circus-like sounds of the Steamboat Natchez’s calliope to better hear my sister as she updates me about the doctors’ theories about our dad’s unconsciousness. There’s no good time or place to deal with such things, so I’m doing it under a palm tree, drinking chicory coffee.

My dad’s health has been an ongoing concern for sixteen months (and, in a broader way, for seven years), but this new hospitalization is the kind of thing that puts you into shock. Your body protects itself. Slows ya down. This is a good place to move slow.

Befriending street musicians, drinking Hurricanes and Sazeracs, eating top-notch food. We got a huge serving of pork chops at Adolfo’s and gave part of it to a dog named Disable. “He used to be Able, but then he got hit by a car; so now he’s Disable.”

“I started making your drink and my hand wouldn’t let me stop pouring.” This server at the historic Antoine’s Restaurant didn’t know he was my guardian angel. I fist-bumped him, as you do when you meet your guardian angel.

The following morning, I’ve followed the sun to a lounge chair beside the pool. We found the perfect hotel through our friend Marianna - a few dozen steps from the action, yet isolated and quiet. We wake to the muffled sounds of the courtyard pond.

New Orleans keep giving.

I asked someone, “have I taken too much?” They said, “take as much as you’d like.”

“Creole mustard. There’s creole mustard everywhere.”

“How are we ever gonna eat anything again?”

“This is your second chance to buy weed.”

Walking the streets of New Orleans - particularly the day we finally bought Hand Grenades - I actively tried to put the situation out of my mind. Like some sort of invisible fog I was trying to sidestep.

Early morning musicians in Washington Square. I walk down Elysian Fields Avenue as an old man sings “Mama Tried” as well as anyone ever has. A small group of friends listens intently, looking like they’re in the same spot on which they slept.

We’d come home at night and still be able to hear the Frenchmen Street street corner band from bed. Lamothe House, in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood and built in 1839. Bourbon Street was a little too Times Square, but Frenchmen Street was always just right.

Some of those songs from Automatic For The People I was listening to were recorded across the street from our hotel in the supposedly haunted house that used to be Daniel Lanois’ studio. As great as my time in Nashville has been, I found myself trying to deny that New Orleans is the best music city I’ve been to. Each day, it became harder to deny.

The day of the news about my dad’s setback, I brought my brunch leftovers to the edge of the Mississippi River and listened to a grey-bearded, top-hatted man from Minnesota play a set of country songs. I imagined spiritually connecting to my dad. This scene, like so many in my life, was one I could imagine him enjoying.

We took a streetcar to the Garden District, first stopping at Lafayette Cemetery #1 with its above-ground tombs. Somewhere over 7,000 have been interred on this single block. The tombs were often funky and weather-beaten, but much more beautiful for it.

On the way there, a hilarious, charismatic streetcar driver stopped between stops to ask that we have a moment of silence for the sexually abusive politicians who have not yet been caught. The older white couple behind us grumbled a little, but I thanked him when we get off at our stop. “Thanks for telling the TRUTH.”

At Dat Dog, a Crawfish Etouffee Dog washed down with an Abita Andygator. I finally ordered something too spicy to finish in one sitting. We took a standing-room-only streetcar back to the French Quarter and I finished the other half.

We’re in Louis Armstrong Park for the Gumbo Festival, laying in a field with our beers, listening to yet another brilliant band.

For our last day, we got a rental car and drove out to a park. But first, PoBoys and gumbo at Restaurant des Families across the highway. Out the window, an alligator sunbathing on a tree branch.

Like so many flipped-over insects before me, I found myself on my back at Jean Lefitte National Park in Louisiana. Some sort of anxiety was hitting me so hard that I felt like I needed to jump out of my skin. I thought about trying to make myself sick, but I knew it wouldn’t help. I put on a podcast and we walked a little faster, eventually leaving this strange panic behind me. Something in my psyche was breaking; perhaps I’d finally spent too much time away from my parent in crisis.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

New Orleans Part I

Some kind of ambient noise on the plane in the key of B, complimenting the feedbacking guitars at the end of this song. I don’t know which town I’m above - that big, bright cloud could be over any number of states in one of two time zones. My body and mind were having none of this early morning travel, Bucks County to Newark, Newark to New Orleans, so I tried to listen to them and satisfy their needs. I calmed myself as well as I could with Pepto-Bismol, meditation, and a podcast about Bela Lugosi. Or was it Pepto-Lugosi, meditation, and a podcast about Bela Bismol? It’s very early.

Having awoken together at 3:30 AM, I shared my first smile with Nicky at about 7:46 AM. Settled into my window seat, one photo of a fantastic sunrise over North Jersey recorded onto my camera, the day’s second medication pumping into my ears - Year Of The Horse by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The kind of person who gets nervous when he’s not the one driving the car, it can sometimes take a while for me to become comfortable on a plane. I needed The Horse and The Horse came to me.

Having felt satisfied with the songs I performed at the Count The Colors Debut Performance, I have found myself starting songs about any past experience that I recall with that shiny, gold patina that the best memories have. Some of my top-shelf recollections involve rock & roll pilgrimages I’ve taken with my Aunt Donna.

The evenings that stand out the most, I’m at both sides of twenty. I know who I am, but in the way that a twenty-year-old does. Donna was one of those figures who shows up to provide you with the kind of rich, unique, sometimes wild experiences that no one else can, when you’re still young and impressionable. The freewheeling, fearless extrovert to my quietly observing introvert. A tall lady from New Jersey who raised two kids, has seen it all, is all fucked-up on Dunkin Donuts coffee, and is not gonna take any of your shit.

YOU, specifically. Your shit! None of it.

A summer night in Manhattan. Neil manages to own the room while playing a set of all-new songs. When he follows this first set with a set of the old standbys, it’s mass euphoria. Gleeful garage band hands attack screaming guitars. I sneak down from the nosebleeds to make use of a section vacated by high-rollers who couldn’t take the heat and left before the party went into high-gear. I gesture to Donna, but she motions me to go - she and her brand new Sri Lankan friends are settled into their seats, enjoying a more-than-a-little-funny cigarette. Although she’s not a guitar player, she points to Neil’s big red pedal board, noting that it seems to have all its lights on at once. A guitar so loud that you could imagine hearing it underground in Penn Station.

For reasons lost to time, I am wearing Donna’s purple backpack backwards, a backpack with peace sign and LSD patches sewn onto it. I’m among the thousands cheering, but I’m so close to the stage now that Neil and I had locked eyes and were sharing beaming smiles with each other for so long that I found myself imagining what I would say to him if he could hear me.

Donna was my gateway to this experience and lots of others that have retained their golden glow even after the significant passage of time. The best news is that there is more to come.

From the plane window, a huge lake in distance - which one is it and is it mentioned in a Lucinda Williams song? Dipping into some clouds on our descent, my music-enabled calmness might be tested. So far, so good.

Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles about the heavy spiritual presence in New Orleans. A well-known liar, I’ve come to appreciate his manner of telling the truth. I found myself in the same room as him last weekend. I didn’t really have the cash, but Tom Petty’s passage encouraged me to make it happen.

The things I’ve seen Neil Young do with his black guitar, the things I’ve seen Patti Smith do with words, and the things I saw The Everlys do with their honey-glaze harmony will be with me forever. And now I’ve seen an inspired Bob Dylan alternately crooning with a silver microphone stand and spouting street poet foam-mouthed madness while pounding a piano in an old vaudeville theater in Philadelphia. Even without a photograph (Bob runs a tight ship), that image isn’t going anywhere, hanging in the massive gallery of rare and beautiful sights on the walls of my mind.

I’ve followed Bob from a distance, appreciating the old, new, and new-old records at my own pace and admiring stories of his charming strangeness like the night he was picked up by the Long Branch, New Jersey police for wandering around on a rainy night. Somebody asked me if that really happened. They said he looked like a stranger. He feels that way to me, too. Yet I feel that I’ve taken him in now. A scrawny kid who wanted to walk on-stage and play some rock & roll.

Landing in New Orleans, the floaters in my tired eyes flickering like stars, adding bonus sparkles to the already-glistening water below.

Riding the tram on Wednesday morning, my now-thirty-year-old girlfriend by my side. I didn’t bring as much money as I wanted to, but I did bring the clothes I wore to last month’s Count The Colors concert. In my dress pants and jacket, I look more like the town’s older men than younger men.

I’d slept from 7:30 to 7:30 and then stepped out onto our second-floor balcony of this nineteenth-century hotel to drink my first coffee. Coffee with chicory is how they do it here. Listening to R.E.M. and gazing at the gorgeous, empty courtyard with its palm trees and fountains, I found myself in one of those rare, perfect moments that you instantly recognize as such.