I have written some songs, I can play the guitar well enough to accompany myself among others, and—contrary to my sister’s verdict—I can sing. But I’m not a musician. So I gravitate to people who are, like my friend Matt, like my brother Andy, like the people who hang out at The Duplex when Neil Herman hosts his singer-songwriter night, once a month at 61 Christopher Street.
I was on the bill last night, and my performance was truly compelling. Seriously now, I was fucking amazing. I’ve never sung so well. The songs I was singing, which of course I wrote, made new sense to me because they didn’t feel like mine—they were, finally, somebody else’s compositions, something made by another person, in another life.
My sister always made fun of my attempts at singing, maybe because she wanted the musical territory for herself. She had a beautiful voice, she sang in the church choir, she was flamboyantly theatrical, so I took her word for it. I never sang in her presence, or anybody else’s. And then she died at the age of 30, quite a while ago, on August 19, 1977. Soon after my brother gave me a guitar as a Christmas present.
At the time I was living with a real musician, Sandy Mazzola, a graduate student in History at Northern Illinois University like me, but someone who also made a real living by arranging (changing the key and everything else) songs for crooners. That’s when music became oxygen. Not like oxygen—it became indispensable to getting through the next hour, if I wasn’t hearing it I knew I would decompose. Silence wasn’t going to kill me, but I didn’t want to cry, either.
So I started writing songs, started singing, playing around with the guitar, amused and distracted by this new identity. My sister’s absence enabled me. Her death was a musical gift.
The format of the singer-songwriter nights at The Duplex is pretty straightforward—you do three of your own compositions, with as much introduction or explanation as you choose. Last night I did songs written in 1978, 2008, and 2009: “No More Goodbyes,” “God Auditions,” and “This Prisoner.” Again, my performance was truly compelling. Ask anybody.
And then a woman named Marianne Osiel took the stage with a tiny guitar and a glaring, impatient demeanor. She played that little thing as if she were Doc Watson discovering the miniature version of his dreadnought, and she sang like an angel of complicated matters, like sex, love, death, and choices never made.
I try not to take this shit too seriously because it’s the “out-of-body” kind. You get transported, as the saying goes, and you have to reintegrate yourself before you can talk about what happened. But last night I was overwhelmed by the music this woman made. I’ve got talent, I can sing and I can play. She’s got a lot more than talent.
Early on in D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classical American Literature—is that a great title or what, ca. 1912, nobody else thinks “American” literature even exists—he talks incoherently about how you have to learn to recognize the gods, the ones you ought to worship when they’re face to face, on the street, in the room, right there in front of you.
That’s what it felt like last night—recognition. I felt like a mortal in the presence of something utterly transcendent.