I had a realization tonight – an insight that had eluded me for as long as I can remember, which is that my career has been stymied by my own resistance to playing the game.
I’ve gone to extremes to learn the rules of the game, to get to know the players and their strategies. And then I’ve turned my back on this knowledge, insisting that “it shouldn’t be that way – it’s not fair! – that’s not how the game should be played!”
Flavortown!! Ever been there?? Funny how I got hip to Guy’s Grocery Games after watching a few episodes (well, okay – MORE than a few!) I saw that no matter how delicious any given dish was, (created from the insanely limited food list allowed), no matter how many nummy-sounds the judges made, if the chef hadn’t incorporated the prescribed ingredients according to the rules of the game, that chef would go home empty-handed. The Winner, while perhaps not as accomplished or skillful at creating wonderful FOOD as other contestants, would have ACED the game requirements, thereby prevailing and sweeping up the prize.
There are always excuses that can be made to explain failure, and sometimes I’ve hidden in the comfort they provide. But I think the truth in many instances is that I wasn’t willing to play the game, to kiss the Pope’s ring, to do whatever it took to succeed. I’m still not sure exactly why I made those choices, but tonight while listening to a recording of THEY’RE GONNA LOVE ME, I heard the bitterness and anger in my voice, my refusal to worship the dead gods of jazz at the expense of the living mortals. And I understood.
The good news is that there’s actually more to life than Winning The Game. And there are always other games to play.
I wasn’t a fan of jigsaw puzzles until I got married. In lieu of hard partying at a big New Year’s Eve bash, the Wolfram clan traditionally brings in the first of the year by completing a picture puzzle. Over the years I’ve played enough NYE gigs to know that puzzle-making is a more peaceful (if less lucrative!?) way to celebrate the holiday, and I’ve grown to appreciate them.
Certainly jigsaw puzzles, like board games and other pastimes, have flourished during these pandemic lockdown times. And they are satisfying to assemble; I’ve found them to be calming to work on, giving a sense of accomplishment and control as the pieces come together and the picture takes shape.
What makes a good-but-not-too-challenging puzzle is up for conjecture. Go on YouTube and you’ll see there are many differing opinions – some prefer still life, or scenic beauty, while others like abstracts. I lean towards scenes with lots of tiny details, because sometimes the loveliest photo has too much same-colored background, making it almost impossible to finish.
I’m comforted by the familiar – old LP covers of records I used to own, or Times Square in NYC, or old movie posters, or candy bars from the past. (Hey – a gal can dream!)
When I was in 4th grade, a classmate and I used to walk home from school together. Lynnsie was a very lonely girl – she may have been an only child whose mom, unlike mine, wasn’t waiting for her after school. In any event, she almost invariably wanted to hang out together much longer than I wanted to, and I had to tell her that I had other stuff to do – hence the title of this post. My family thought I was being cruel – and I definitely was being rude – but Lynnsie never took a hint and had to be repeatedly told that she’d overstayed her welcome. As much as my parents tried to make me feel guilty about telling Lynnsie to go home, I never did. I wasn’t exactly proud of my behavior, but my parents had also taught me to be self-reliant and I knew even at 8 years old that I was responsible for how I spent my time and in whose company I spent it.
Due to pandemic stay-at-home orders, we’ve all had plenty of time of late to consider who’s in our lives and why they remain. I peek in on friends via social media more often than I make phone calls nowadays. I actually began writing this blog with ruminations about former friends, and I continue to puzzle over the disappearance of certain people from my life. It isn’t exactly “ghosting”, but I think we DO amend our interests, priorities and affections over time, and definitely change what kind of treatment we will tolerate.
How much of an explanation do we owe other people when we recoil from them? I used to assume that everything needed to be totally understood before it could be accepted, but then I learned the hard way that some things are never explained adequately, and yet we have to keep living. Bottom-line, a lot of people are like Lynnsie (and I include myself!); we’re a bit in denial about unpleasant realities. Whose job is it to “make it alright”?
While the Golden Rule is a great ideal, there are limits. Ultimately it’s our own job to make peace with how things actually are. As my dad used to say, “nobody can take your bath for you.”
One March afternoon in 1974 I got a call from Gil Evans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gil_Evans); could I come over to his loft-apartment in Westbeth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westbeth_Artists_Community) to fix up some parts before his band’s gig that night at the Village Vanguard? I was then living in a basement apartment at 7th Ave. and 21st St., so I grabbed my supplies (pen, ink, manuscript paper and lick-&-stick staff strips) and headed downtown to meet with Gil.
Saxophonist Trevor Kohler was Gil’s copyist at that point, and I was surprised to see that many of the parts he’d copied were in turquoise ink (not exactly “standard”!) I’d also never seen as compressed sketch scores as what Gil handed me; talk about economy! Many of the sections had been erased and revoiced more than once. He was going to get his money’s worth out of that paper, by gum!
Thus began our relationship; most Monday afternoons I’d be on-call to patch up whatever section of an arrangement Gil was reworking, and then I’d spend my evening enjoying the band’s music at the club. The music itself was much looser than I was accustomed to, and week to week, I could rarely tell the “new” sections from the “old”, but my cover was waived and everyone seemed to be having a great time, so… what the heck!
Gil was a very laid-back guy, as was his wife Anita. It never occurred to me that their relaxed attitude may have been augmented by chemical enhancement. I’d get my assignment and be left alone unsupervised in their apartment for hours. Once when the phone rang, I answered and had to tell Miles Davis that Gil was asleep in the bath tub and unavailable to talk. I didn’t know about Miles’ raspy damaged vocal cords, so I took a message for Gil to return his call and then advised Miles that vitamin C might help, but maybe he should see a doctor for that horrible cold!
A few months after I began my tenure as Gil’s copyist, the band went on tour to Europe; I recently came across this YouTube: https://youtu.be/ihDjcW9u6y4 – they all look and sound just as I remember them; young and full-of-beans.
After a long delay, Gil was VERY excited to finally be recording the Jimi Hendrix album that first summer – and after having worked exclusively from sketch scores for months, I was shocked that Gil was actually capable of writing a full score, complete with individual staves, properly transposed for each instrument! Consequently the sessions at RCA were less last-minute and hectic, tho I missed the spontaneous backgrounds that the horn players would invent behind their cohort’s solos at their regular gigs. (Gil generally surrounded himself with younger people and encouraged them to take liberties with what he’d written).
Though I’ve looked back and wondered why I didn’t parlay more business connections from my copying clients, I never had the ambition to “go to school” on Gil, like Maria Schneider, who copied for him in the mid-80s. Sure, I admired Gil’s work. But to my ear, his orchestrations were too similar one to the next, and I was usually more interested in the original tunes themselves. (and distracted by the musicians, to be totally honest!)
I kept copies of some of his sketch scores, though – and after unearthing them from my file cabinet, recently decided to share them with the Library of Congress. Now anyone who’s interested can see first-hand how Gil was writing back then.
So much of what I personally need to let go of is “aspirational” – a word I feel applies to physical possessions as well as beliefs, strategies, ambitions and ideals. If things actually DO hold energy, sending silent messages, as author/minimalist-extraordinaire Fumio Sasaki claims, then decluttering is more than just making room for different stuff; it’s creating space for new ways of thinking and feeling, being and identity.
For women in our society, appearances are deemed extremely important, and though one would never guess by the baggy knits I’ve worn over this past pandemic year, my wardrobe includes quite a few aspirational pieces I’ve retained for a while – decades, even. It isn’t too far of a stretch to imagine that these clothes are whispering from the back of my closet: do you still love me? will you EVER wear me again?
I came across an online consignment shop a couple months ago and scored some bargains – the opposite of downsizing, I know! The Rescue Box of scarves (over 2 dozen for $16) REALLY blew my skirt up!! – https://www.thredup.com
A few days ago, after rigorous self-query, I was able to release a couple of boxes of otherwise-lovely items that no longer fit my psyche, coloring, age or figure. In Marie-Kondo-speak, they don’t “spark joy”. I hope they will soon for someone else.
When I got my “dream job” as an arranger at a jingle company in Chicago in 1979, I was mostly thrilled to be using my musical skills and in the studio practically every day. But I was also chagrined that after every recording session, there was rarely any feedback for the charts I’d written. I didn’t feel it was out-of-line to expect some small verbal acknowledgement that I’d done a good job, especially under pressure and last minute, so after the first few weeks of determining that the clients were genuinely happy, I privately asked the boss about it.
He looked at me like I was out of my mind, and as much as said to me, “what are you? a baby? you’re getting a paycheck – that should be acknowledgement enough!”
I felt shamed for having asked, but still a little defensive, and thought to myself, “what does it cost to let someone know that they’ve done a good job?”
Too often we humans take ourselves and one another for granted, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Four decades later, I’m still chewing on this, and sometimes when I can’t sleep, I silently reassure myself that I’m good – I deserve to breathe and live and exist. Because whether the boss will acknowledge it or not, I know that it’s true, and sometimes I just need to hear it. We all do.
One year we stopped by our friend’s 2-flat in Wrigleyville (after having endured a glum church dinner); Pete’s friends were theater folk and we had SUCH a great time hanging out with them… and then were sent home with a LOT of leftover pies! YUM!
This year we’re staying pretty much low-carb, so… no pies!! And there won’t be anywhere near as many HUGS as I’d like. But I’ve recently reflected that every day, year ’round, I get plenty of smiles from my loved ones; on FaceBook, in emails, and framed in the living room. I’m grateful to have so much love surrounding me; whether from people still on earth or dearly departed, they warm my heart beyond measure. Until this pandemic passes, I’ll content myself with these and count myself incredibly blessed! 🍁
I’ve been encouraging a couple of friends to write and publish their memoirs; we get on the phone and I LOVE hearing about their career adventures – stories I think would interest every reader, not just those “in the biz”. Some of the most amazing tales are so vivid they make me gasp! Do I believe every word? I admit that sometimes it’s a stretch, because it seems incredible that so much could have happened to one person in one lifetime. But then I remember some of my own peccadillos and wonder how many people might have a hard time believing they actually happened. (I was there – they did!)
Marie was recalling her years playing piano at the mall in front of Nordstrom’s, and it brought back some of my favorite memories of performing in hotel lobbies and having random strangers start to dance as they passed – or begin to sing along! Jamie tells me about growing up in the mixed bag that was America in the 50s & 60s and it reminds me of the compromises my own family made to stay together. These stories need to be shared no matter how they might have become slightly embellished over time. If there’s enough truth, it validates the emotions and lessons to be learned.
We rewatched FARGO the other night, which purports to tell the true story of what happened in MN and ND in 1987. IMO, the film holds up VERY well 24 years after its release, while the additional material on the DVD reveals that the story was entirely the creation of Ethan and Joel Cohen and never actually occurred. But there’s enough truth in the characters, accents and attitudes that we go along for the ride, with “the willing suspension of disbelief”… and it winds up being True Enough.
I recently came across a memoir by a songwriter I’d met in the mid-1970s and perused the pages offered on the LOOK INSIDE by amazon; it certainly sounded like the Paul Vance I knew; dynamic, uncouth, and SUPER-self confident. Were all of his stories accurate? Does it matter? He’s honestly present in this book, telling it “how it is” – or at least how he remembers it! It’s authentic and for me it’s true enough.
Dr. Bertice Berry has been posting daily stories online during the pandemic; http://www.berticeberrynow.com. She frequently dissolves into tears during these videos. Are all of her stories based on absolute facts? I don’t care – I believe her because they’re true enough!
Remember Elvis’ TEDDY BEAR? ♫♬ https://youtu.be/jf9Wg2OkSbE Remember these lyrics? I don’t wanna be your cheetah, ’cause cheetahs run too fast! I don’t wanna be your panther, ’cause panthers don’t know how to make love last! I don’t wanna be your leopard, ’cause they’re too hard to spot! I don’t wanna be your cougar, your lynx or any kind of ocelot! I just wanna be… your Teddy Bear! ♫ ♬
Were all these wildcats in the mix before Bernie Low & Kal Mann settled on “tigers (that) play too rough” and “lions ain’t the kind you love enough”? (Can you prove they weren’t?) It amuses me, and it’s true enough! ♫♬
It was supposed to be a 2-week engagement playing and singing piano-bar at the big downtown hotel in Altoona. I’d signed a contract stipulating I was to be paid $250/week + room w/breakfast and dinner. I boarded the Greyhound at Port Authority at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM in order to arrive before my 6PM start, noshing on liverwurst sandwiches as the bus stopped at seemingly EVERY little town in Pennsylvania.
Things were not auspicious when I arrived; my room was NOT ready, so I had to wait in the lobby for 45 minutes until it had been cleaned. Then I found that the air-conditioning in the room didn’t work – something you’d rather not have to face after spending ten and half hot hours riding on the bus, desperately needing to freshen-up before the gig! After I hunted down the manager, he told me the AC would be fixed by the time I turned in, but by then there wasn’t time to get dinner before the downbeat. Oh, well!
The boisterous crowd was celebrating some bigwig’s retirement and mostly ignored me, even when I asked for requests. I kept getting the stink-eye from the manager, who became more and more inebriated as the evening wore on. He began making snarky comments while blowing smoke in my face during my first set and continued to verbally harass me nonstop during my breaks. This gig was not looking good for an entire fortnight’s duration!
Now, I was raised to be a person of my word, my rent was due soon and I couldn’t afford to bail on this gig, but I knew this abuse would continue for the entire 2 weeks if I didn’t find Plan B. So, after the 3rd set I made “an executive decision” and called my friend Jamie (collect!), to see if he’d loan me the $500 I’d expected to earn, and was incredibly relieved when he said, “Sure! Don’t put up with that! Come on back home to New York right now!” At the end of the night, I took the $32 in tips I’d earned, packed up my suitcase and walked over to the Amtrak station for the 1:30 AM train bound for Penn Station. 6 hours later I was back in Manhattan, safe and sound.
There’s an old joke my dad used to enjoy telling with the punchline, “what? and give up show biz?” The agent who had set up this engagement seemed totally unsurprised when I called later that morning to tell her what had happened, and I suspect I was not the first nor the last singer-pianist to have taken a powder on fame-&-fortune in Altoona!
I’d never played a gig like this before; my friend Mara Purl had invited me to join Teji Ito’s band to provide music for a fashion show. I was to add keyboards to the group which featured Mara on koto, Dan Erkkila on flutes, Genji Ito, Cherel Winett Ito and Guillermo on percussion and shakuhachi. Say WHA???
There was no sheet music; we were all just supposed to listen to each other and extemporize, adding whatever might fit with what everyone else was playing. I was sure the resulting cacophony would be terrible – but somehow it began to gel during the rehearsal (otherwise known as my audition!?) – and then… the gig!
The venue was an art gallery and the models were all dancers from the NYC Ballet. Their gorgeous silk attire was breathtakingly beautiful, and they seemed to float on air as they danced to our spontaneous music – it was a “happening” in the best sense of the word!
We played for about an hour and then it was over. Mara and I returned the Fender Rhodes I’d borrowed back to the friend who’d lent it to us, then brought her koto back to her Park Avenue apartment. As it was a lovely spring afternoon, I decided to walk home to my place in Chelsea.
As I passed a storefront on West 34th Street, an attractive young man popped out and invited me to “take a free personality test ” I was so surprised and in such a good mood, I (uncharacteristically for me!) agreed. It took a lot longer than I’d thought but I was sure that I was “ace-ing” it! Turns out – like everyone else who gets suckered into taking this test – not-so-much! The results were graded and it turned out that I was an amazingly defective excuse for a human being – desperately in need of the help that only Scientology could afford me.
All I could do was laugh! I’d just come from the headiest musical experience I’d ever had to that point, making music with Teiji and his group just a couple hours earlier! I’d been paid handsomely and felt on top of the world! Buoyed by that experience, I continued home in the twilight, still high from the gig. While I might have been susceptible on some other day when my self-esteem may have been shaky… “not today, L. Ron Hubbard! Not today!”