NORTHERN LIGHT part 1
Musicians are essentially lazy. It’s a paradoxical crew. I know many who can play all night in perfect rhythm, not missing a single beat, but can’t show up to something on time if their life depended on it.
Musicians learn to work in a different field of time, which bears no resemblance to time outside the music. Looking back, it often feels like one or the other never happened. Nothing is left over.
My first morning home from the Alaska tour I feel like a wave, having crossed the ocean only to crash into the shore, losing all the moments and memories forever as they sink into the sand. I sit on my own steps, stare at my own walls and feel out of place. Then, as i’ve done a million times before, I put the trumpet to my lips. It always feels cold and weird at first. Then I close my eyes and release a breath.
And there it is.
That sound. That sound that is softer than a blanket, stronger than a stone house. It’s hot as fire, cool as water. It wraps around everything in the room, everything drowns in it. It’s gentle, it’s violent. It’s taken me 20 years to build it, and helped put food on my table for the last 10 of those. It swallows me whole. Then my breath runs out and it’s gone.
We land in Petersburg, Alaska, around 3pm. It’s our first stop on what I am calling the Northern Light Tour, partly as a hopeful incantation that we see the Aurora Borealis, but also because this tour is an exercise in traveling Light. As travel to and within Alaska is expensive (due to a stranglehold monopoly held by Alaska Air) we decide to play the shows as a duo. My partner on the tour is Amrit Basi, great friend and greater drummer. My role is Navigator and Pilot, in a sense, and he takes care of the Heavy Artillery. For style and sheer power, I could not ask for better at my side. We bring minimal equipment, and rely on a mixture of preparation and spontaneity to provide the rest.
Petersburg, AK, on Mitkof island, considers itself to be a Scandinavian town, despite around half the population being Tlingit. There is also a long-standing Asian community, and as much racial diversity as any American town, but the Vikings win in the ra-ra department, and so it is. Without dispute, it is a fishing village towered over by imposing mountains, including one spire taller and separate from the rest called the Devil’s Thumb. As we drive into the town I wonder what kind of place it might be if even He’s trying to hitch-hike out of there. Then again, it could be a sort of critical review: One Thumb Up.
We drive straight to the school auditorium for our set-up and sound check. Doors in 3 hours, show at 7pm. After 9 hours in transit so far we aren’t in great shape. I mention being hungry, and we are brought some fruit. I peel the Washington sticker off an apple that tastes as fatigued as I am. After testing the sound, things are rough. Its hard to get a musical bearing between us. Cues sloppy, enthusiasm impossible to muster. I stumble through an old tune that Amrit has never heard before, but I am determined to include in the set list I’ve made on the plane. The set list is all-important. Most musicians know dozens upon dozens of tunes, but which ones we choose, and the order we choose to play them in is often where the magic lies. A set list is the only visible map we have of the intangible experience we are about to embark on. The link between two fields of time.
Amrit and I practice for the next hour or so, trying to loosen up and feel a bit of confidence about what’s supposed to happen onstage. At one point we simply stop.
Backstage, among sets, props and general detritus from school plays, we are shown a buffet of food made for us by members of the community. Freshly baked garlic bread, 3 different soups, many salads and a variety of fresh garnishes and spices. It is overwhelmingly generous. Boing! My stomach makes one of those fox faces with the bug eyes and tongue unrolling from the old Tex Avery cartoons. But my head wags it’s finger at me. I’ve played enough shows to know that gorging the stomach before spending 2 hours playing the accordion, trumpet, singing and jumping to and fro doesn’t work well. Aside from the discomfort of trying to move one’s diaphragm in opposition to a full belly, things can happen during the performance like hearty belches while singing ballads, or in extreme cases the need to vomit a bit part way through a particularly physical show. Just sayin’.
I limit myself to sipping on some spicy coconut chicken broth, and to be honest, I’m feeling rather ambivalent about the whole thing. Are people going to show up? Will the set list work? Will the songs hold up without a bass player? Will the tour break even? Is it worth scraping our family savings account clean on plane tickets, leaving my wife and kids at home to prance around in my patent leather shoes in lonely Alaskan fishing villages? They hold the doors for ten minutes, then we’re on. At the last second I decide to add something to the show. I tell Amrit to wait in the wings. I’m going to start alone with the trumpet.
The trumpet has a long and magical history. It’s role has always been to alert any of our tribe within earshot of the onset of something important. Like a neolithic version of Facebook. Horns of bone and metal have been used in hunting and war for thousands of years. Royalty and Religions have recognized its power and employed it to induce awe and loyalty. Being loudest, it’s the choice instrument in parades, festivals and carnivals around the world. It has the power to defend structure or overturn it. In one of my favourite stories, the unarmed desert-wandering Israelites topple the walls of the city of Jericho simply by playing trumpet.
I stand beneath the lights of the sold-out auditorium alone, and like I’ve done a million times before, I lift the horn to my lips. I have no plan of what to play, just that meditation breath and then getting out of the sound’s way as it winds through the room, filling every corner. It’s a well-made room and the horn sounds good in it, so i decide to really take it for a spin. I spend some time exploring the basement of the horn, those really low notes. Rolling them around, stretching them out as long as I can. Then, when the moment is right, I start to dance up the ladder, higher and higher, relaxing as I go and letting the high notes soar out the top, sparkling like icicles on a winter morning. Then a nice controlled fall back down, a few pirouettes along the way, coming to rest at a soft low C – the first note I ever learned to play. I lower the horn, relaxed as a new born baby, and the applause crackles like a good fire.
What happens next is beautiful. Amrit walks out to the drums and our minds seem fused into one. The set list works perfectly, like a well-engineered machine. Every joke between songs lands right on the mark. Part confession, part deception. Truth wrapped in fiction wrapped in truth. The sets whirl by. Amrit, the audience and I are locked in tight, riding the waves as one. It’s not technically perfect, but we’ve reached that rare state where even mistakes are cherished as an integral part of the art. It’s what they call a great show.
And thank god for it. Over a mountainous plate of salad and bread backstage, the walls of Jericho begin to topple. The producer informs me that she will indeed pay us the full contracted amount (a topic in question when i announced our arrival as a duo) and that almost all the cds we brought to Alaska have sold. Also, Joe, the owner of one of the local bars, wants to book us immediately for later tonight and the next night too. She hands me the cheque, and my financial worries start to fade. This is the magic of music. Amrit and I quickly change into dry clothes and hurry to Kito’s Kave, where we play from 11 to 2:30 am, before staggering up the street to our room at the Tides Inn.
My phone rings in the hotel room, 9:30 am. My head is gripped in fog as I pick it up.
“Jack? We’re wondering why you aren’t here.”
The voice on the other end is prim and alert, the opposite of mine.
“The kids and teachers are waiting. your workshop was supposed to start at 9:00.”
“Shit. Sorry, I thought it was in the afternoon. ”
“I’m sorry, i’ll be right there.”
As i dredge myself out of bed, the only thing I’m fully aware of is that I am now the full embodiment of the lazy musician stereotype. It was an honest mistake, I mixed up the schedule, blah, blah, blah…there’s no excuse really. I’m just the lazy asshole on his way to the elementary school. Now.
I get there out of breath, staggering into the school with my accordion, trumpet and bag of rhythm bones. In theory, I was to arrive at 9:00 am and instruct two classes back to back in the playing of the rhythm bones. Todd, Brendon, Martin and I used to do this on certain Maria in the Shower tours. But I still have some Jameson singing through my brain from the previous night, and I haven’t actually touched the rhythm bones in about 7 months. The kids get settled, I introduce myself, and pick up a pair of the bones, two small sticks carved and bent into rib-bone shapes.
“It’s easy!”, I say, then look down at my hands and can’t remember how in hell I’m supposed to hold them. The teachers and principal are watching me from the back of the room, arms folded. i make a few flourishes with my hand, producing a few pathetic clicks. I pass them out among the kids, not breaking my ‘everything’s fine’ smile. Chaos as they all try at once to play the bones. One student begins to cry.
With about half the class time left, I am somewhat desperate to turn this thing around. By now I have mostly remembered how to play the bones, and 2 or 3 kids have got the hang of it. But I need a clincher. A wild card. A last round double or nothing bet to save the situation. I survey the room for clues.
Pinned to one wall is a lyric sheet for Hound Dog.
“Do you kids know the song Hound Dog?” A resounding cheer fills the room.
Thanks to my childhood spent as an Elvis impersonator, I am able to pull off an impressive rendition of the song with my accordion, complete with hip moves. The atmosphere is buoyant.
“Now let’s do it again, this time you sing and play along!”
Thus we spend the remaining time shouting out 2 or 3 more renditions of Hound Dog, the kids happily singing along and clicking the bones in and out of rhythm. It’s a hit. Or as much of a hit as I can hope for. Thank you, 20th century Pop Music Marketing Machine.
Riding a bit of confidence, the second class goes much better. Some of those kids even stay after to ask questions, seeming really inspired. All told, I will say that I narrowly avoided being a bad influence on the young children of Petersburg.
It is now noon and coffee is in order. As I walk into the espresso cafe, I notice a pickup truck parked out front, idling. In the bed are three deer, spooning each other tightly in order to fit. Their heads are twisted at peculiar angles, fur matted with blood, expressions totally serene.
Amrit and I kill it again that night at Kito’s Kave. It’s a Friday night, and the bar is full. Friday night is a magical time amongst working people. At a show like this, the thing to do is not stop. Forget set lists, the point here is to drive straight into the hurricane and eventually come out the other side. Decisions must be made split second, since the environment is in total flux. That is the way bar culture works. People who attend formal concerts, have bought their tickets in advance and shown up on time are the kind of people who appreciate order. But (sometimes the same) people who populate a bar on any given Friday night are doing so to forget the tyranny of the schedule they’ve been under all week. Trying hard, and sometimes spending a lot of money, to induce a feeling of anarchy temporarily. So though for me and Amrit our time on the job is just beginning, it must not appear at all like work. It should seem effortless to play without stopping for hours. Taking regular breaks implies that we are watching the clock. Instead, to really let some sparks fly, we become assassins of the clock. We pee on the face of time. Everything becomes relative. Things can be substituted for other things. Identity and Matter reveal their nature as entirely porous. It’s what we call a great Friday night.
We play until 2:30, swap stories at the bar, then just make it back to the hotel in time to pack up and rush to the 4:30 am ferry. There is no other ferry option – in the off season these boats only run every few days. i manage to buy our tickets with a straight face, teetering beneath the sign that reads “we reserve the right to refuse service to any persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs”, and we careen onto the ship. The sun is hinting at rising. This is a twelve hour voyage to Juneau. The scenery is reputed to be beautiful; many people pay handsomely to take cruises through these waters. Amrit and I totter to our bunk beds where I find a copy of Gideon’s Bible. I open to the book of Job. Amrit is already snoring.
Man who is born of woman is
of few days and full of trouble.
He comes forth like a flower
and fades away; he flees like a
shadow and does not continue.
And then I am asleep.