Adventures With Volvo In Gigland # 6

The Duo Gig

Slouched down behind the wheel, I could hear the blood pressure in my ears as I rounded the corner off the boulevard into the residential neighborhood. I found a space right in front of the house, and parallel parked in about 12 moves, back and forth. There were no cars behind me on the street. This exercise was the expression of my absent depth and spatial perception. Some party-goers were trying to exit their car in front of me, but had to stop in a small herd, while I sea-sawed my way up to the curb. I tried to smile through the windshield.  I have no idea what face I made.

I was there for a piano and vocal house concert, with my friend, Tosh Gelson, a popular and respected jazz pianist. I’d dragged Tosh to both shitty, and awesome gigs, all over LA, and he was also the pianist in my own band for three years, so I knew his chops and he knew mine. House concerts are like the close-up gallery at the Magic Castle, you’ve gotta work the notes like prestidigitation. If you have any flaws, any insecurities, the audience member two feet away from you on the ottoman, with the down turned facial cracks, will vibe a hole through your sternum. But this was Raya and Tosh, we were pros.

I stepped out of Volvo, slowly, securing the asphalt beneath my turquoise high heels. It wasn’t that I might fall off my shoes, it was that the Earth might fall away from my feet. I was prepared to explain that to any of the partygoers who had seen my parking experience. The house was on a corner surrounded by an excessively large lawn. Nothing but grass, and a long cement pathway to the door. Landscaping in the San Fernando Valley is all concepts, and no concept.

I hiked across the excessively large lawn, my turquoise heels periodically sinking into the earth, causing a hitch and a twist in my stride. This did nothing to augment my goal toward outward normalcy. Then, realizing I should probably be walking on the path, I made a diagonal turn towards the long cement slab, acting as if I had seen something interesting. In the last 20 steps to the front door, I conjured a story in case the fish swimming in my head started to leak out. Something about how I’d been sick for the last week and I was still on an antihistamine. Then I saw Tosh talking with audience at the door. I was relieved, and terrified.

Tosh was his charming, well-kept, softly social self. Somehow he managed coolness in khakis and Don Draper hair. He laughed at the correct times, at the correct decibels, both things I’ve always struggled with, particularly that evening. Clearly he knew the owners of the house, or they might’ve been fans of his. Though his reputation for class and quality was well deserved, and pretty much calcified onto the LA Jazz scene (more than mine), these were LA jazz patrons, and he needed their enthusiasm, long term. Intimate shows like this breed familiarity, appreciation, and most importantly, more gigs. And here came his singer up to the door, with all the composure of a bee hive in a brush fire.

“Hey Raya.”

“Hey.”

We hugged. He introduced me to a few people who I assumed were the owners, or fans, or friends, or maybe one was Margaret Thatcher. I had no idea. The moment I met them I forgot them instantly. I was trying to counteract my bubble-headed fog with exuberance, laughing at incorrect places at incorrect decibels. I remember shaking hands and saying “yeah” a lot.

I went into the bathroom to have some private time to collect myself. I think I was in there for a while, because when I came out Tosh was sitting at the piano, and the crowd was gathering around on couches, chairs, and floor pillows. I walked across the room, navigating odd upholstered arms, and a pink, marble, coffee table. At the piano, I got out my music book. I‘d had a set order in mind, but I couldn’t read the titles clearly enough to sort them. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the titles, I just couldn’t comprehend them. I handed Tosh my chart book with a smile and a nervous bounce. This is why I don’t do drugs.

Whoops.

***

The previous night I’d been enjoying the glow of the photons from my standing lamp bouncing softly off the eggshell walls of my living room. My friends from high school were visiting, and we were catching up. Manny, actually a childhood friend, the sharpest pile of scruff you’ll ever meet, a lawyer in stoner drag, reclined on the floor across from me. Tonight his wit was felt-tipped and harmless.

Ok so the stoner wear was not just drag, there was truth in the corduroy. Manny had been deep in the blunts since high school, and he knew what he could handle. I, however, didn’t.  In high school I was fiercely protective of my vocal chords, and I never smoked a thing. (Ok that one time with Aidan at Eagle Rock, but hardly.) On this occasion, Manny had two little doobies on him, which he had revealed and passed around. What could’ve been a safer time? Surrounded by friends, in my own space, nobody driving anywhere anytime soon. Perfect. After about 5 minutes Manny seemed the same. Groovy, but the same. I felt nothing.

Manny nodded at me.

“So how has the music business been treating you?”

I’d recently signed a record deal, and I was well into pulling the levers on the album-making machine. I was trying to break through the boundaries of the jazz genre, and I had some ideas about how to do it…but I didn’t say any of that.

Manny smiled warmly, half-lidded, waiting for me to answer his question.

“Been goin’ ok?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but in the time it took to gather breath, someone cracked an egg inside of my skull, and the yoke dripped down in a uniform curtain around my brain, halting all thought in an opaque, swampy, glue. I began to answer and…the ans…wer…dis….a……..ppear……..e...d....

Manny leaned back on his elbows and took in my living room. I watched my standing lamp disperse photons.

I felt a sense of loss. The usual bonfire in my mind, snuffed. I recall the rest of the night like GIFs: short moments which I can replay, but they’re disjointed from each other.

The first memory is the moment when I failed to answer Manny’s question. I remember Manny putting his head back with a languid smile and laughing just a little bit. I think he knew it had hit me.

My next memory is lying on the couch starting to shake a little. Someone suggested I might be hungry or thirsty.

I must’ve gotten up and obtained food, because the next memory is lying on the couch eating an apple, thinking “This is all I need. I’ll be fine after this. I’m glad I’m the kind of person who has an apple in my kitchen. Very responsible.”

Then I was standing in my hallway in the doorframe facing the living room. I was upright, but the room was slowly turning over to the right. Like the entire floor of my apartment was gradually rotating over and upending itself. I took a step and it snapped back. Maybe that was just a fluke. No, there it goes, it’s turning. I turned to my friend, Tess, who had not taken part.

“Tess, why is the room turning over?”

“What?”

“Whenever I stand still the room…”

“What are you talking about?”

“…but then if I move it stops..”

“Come sit down.”

“When did I get up?”

Then I was on the couch again, and people were leaving. My friends, Tess and Mason, stayed a little to make sure I was ok, but I guess they decided I was. I went to bed around 3am. I think. I would sleep it off.

high face

high face

Next morning.

Day of my duo gig with Tosh. I sit up in bed. I am still high.

I remember walking into the kitchen and thinking about this. The apartment was no longer turning over, but my ability to form sentences was not where I had left it before last night’s joint. I spoke to my mother on the phone, and though I do not remember the conversation, I remember trying very hard to seem engaged. I have no idea if I succeeded.

I sat down with something edible. In all of my pot experience (all five times), I had never felt so otherworldly. Then again I’m such a lightweight, one regular Tylenol gives me a buzz. Then I remembered a dribble of a conversation from the previous night. I remembered the word “laced.” Oh no. This was not friendly herb. This was something more sinister, and I would have to ride the wave to shore.

I sipped my tea. No I didn’t. I consumed something.

I walked around my apartment, hoping that physical activity would work it out of my body.

I lay down.

I drank water.

I tried, very intentionally, to compose linear thoughts.

I walked around waving my arms.

I did important work with small pieces of paper and lint.

The room was turning over to the left now. I tilted my head to the right side whenever the room turned over left.

I put my gig books in my gig bag.

I walked around some more.

I might have showered.

Then it was 5:30pm. I was still high.

Somehow I put on tights and a dress and heels, and fortunately black is standard for gigs, so brain cells were not needed for color matching. Though I did put on turquoise heels. Then I printed out driving directions, and remembered the gig was in the valley, so I would be sitting in rush hour like this. I do not endorse driving under the influence of strange substances, were I to be in this situation now, I would have a friend drive me – but I was 25 and high, so I did the wrong thing.

***

Volvo and I sat on the 405 North. Sometimes we fossilized in automotive murmur, other times we rolled forward with all the abandon of a funeral procession. Tail lights and headlights all around us, doing the same. I was actually glad for the gridlock, because I was not convinced of my faculties. I was not having vision problems, no more room turning over, but my grasp of my surroundings was not 100%. When we moved, I watched the street lines, staying in my lane, trying not to look at any other drivers because I was sure they would know. I felt like I had an aura of guilt and lesser gravity. I stopped at an intersection.

A woman with a shoulder length page-boy cut and a sweater set stopped beside me in a mini-van. My mind lit up like a lightening field.

“That woman just rolled down her window. Shit, look away. Is that woman looking at me? Who cares, what’s she gonna do.”

I turned up the radio. It didn’t help, she could still see me.

“She’s a FED. I’m not a criminal, I’m fine, I’m just tired. She’s looking at me. She’s looking at the signal – no, at me. What is she, a hired pig? Plain-clothed cop? Holy hell, I’m on edge. She’s a soccer mom, she doesn’t know. She turned. Jesus Christ, I’ve gotta get low.”

I slowly slid down in my seat, and shrugged my shoulders up. I gave her a side-eye as I pulled away from the intersection. I continued across Magnolia blvd. in this fashion.

magnolia blvd

magnolia blvd

There have been plenty of gigs where I’ve fudged some lyrics on a song I don’t really know. Plenty of times I’ve come in with the wrong verse, at the wrong time even, and the band caught me. A big part of being a competent musician is watching out for your fellow musicians on stage, and also trusting them to cover your ass when you do something weird. However, when you’ve only got yourself and one accompanist, like on this night, you are, musically speaking, naked.

Next to the half opened baby grand, I adjusted the mic stand to my high heel height, and twisted it tight. Some functions are instinct, no matter how cognitively compromised you are.

Tosh adjusted his black rimmed glasses and asked if I was ready. The only sound in the room was the cheap hiss from my cheap PA speaker. A bunch of financially comfortable jazz aficionados softly stared me down from pastel couches. I was momentarily caught in a thought loop about whether Tosh’s glasses were cool accidentally or intentionally. Did he have them before the hipsters had those kinds, and if so, was that because he knew the cool was coming, or was he accidentally cool, like your grandpa is accidentally cool when he wears the same cardigan sweater the guy wore in that Weezer video? No, he knew.

“Raya?”

“Yeah.”

“Can’t Take That Away From Me?”

“Yes. The chart in A.”

“That’s the one you gave me.”

“Right. Cool.”

The piano rang with the familiar introduction to a song I sang all the time, but my brain was behind…or ahead?

“God this is taking a long time. Was the intro always this long? It’s only 4 bars, is he stretching it? What song are we doing? They’re all looking at me.”

The closest audience member was two feet away from me, and the room was dead silent save for the piano. I remember a lot of women with well-quaffed hair, and they all had the same face. Their communal face was staring blankly at me. I smiled behind the mic, and tilted my eyes over at the chart. He was 3 bars into the 4 bar intro and I had forgotten the first words. The audience was so close. They were so close. They could hear everything. My skin was damp. The intro ended. I began.

“Theeeee….”

I held the first word for a long time, as if I was milking it. I was, but not for musicality. I was waiting for the rest of the song to download into my brain hole from the ethereal Jazz Mathmos*. It was like I was trying to read a page of lyrics somebody was waving at me from across a room, behind textured glass.  Tosh looked up at me. He is a good musician so he caught what I was doing (though not why) and he stayed on the first chord, doing little textural glissando things. Tosh was good. Then, like a turd from the sky, the lyrics splatted on my consciousness.

“… way you hold your hat, the way you sip your tea…”

I made it. Now the rest of the song will be auto pilot. I smiled, snapped, bounced a little. Tosh took a solo. His notes tripped off the piano and danced around the room, making people do those jazz recognition head bobs - those motions acknowledging something lovely or hip has just happened. Then I realized I had lost my place. This hadn’t happened since I was a teenager. Getting lost is amateur, but I was chemically handicapped, and dazed with paranoia. I started reciting the lyrics to myself while Tosh soloed. I counted bars. I heard his solo begin to trickle off and I jumped in.

“The waaaaaaaaay you wear your hat..”

I jumped the gun by half a bar. Tosh did a double take so quickly I heard a small sonic boom.  His eyes sent a red alert to his brain, and his neurons scrambled to set new coordinates. Command talked to Engineering, and the hands were dispatched back to the top of the tune. All of this was capped with an adjustment of the glasses, and a side glance, with more than a little shade. And of course a smile for the crowd.  Tosh was good.

Then we did, Corcovado. Another one I know like my own name. We got through the first section, then I decided I should scat. Now, I’ll try to make this simple – Corcovado has an unusual form, the last chord of the song becomes the first. Not just the same chord repeated, but the same bar. Usually the last phrase of a tune will take 4 bars, the last phrase of Corcovado has 2 bars, then the 3rd bar becomes the top of the song again, dig? What does this mean for the vocal/melody? It means you cut of the last word of the phrase and start at the beginning again. You only finish the last verse, on the very last time through. This is super cool if your brain is working.

Let’s just say that by the time Tosh was playing the second time through, it sounded like we were performing two different songs. My performance had become completely unsalvageable, and I had lost the ability either to anticipate chord changes, or to improvise based on the ones passing right by me. I was a moaning oracle without the gift of prophesy. I was a crazy person. I started in on long notes, hoping to hold until I got musically situated. I tried moments of vocal percussion, short phrases – all of it sounded like somebody having a seizure over a piano track. Finally Tosh came to the top of the song and started playing the melody, so my addled brain could tell my mouth to bring it home.

We did one long set, about an hour. For a duo gig, that’s about 12 songs. Every song went something like the first one. Halfway through the intro I had no idea what country I was in, then two seconds before starting to sing, the lyrics would crack me in the head like giant hailstones. Or giant turds. Giant turd stones. Then I had to count every bar during the solo, singing the lyrics under my breath. I was sure the people in the first few rows knew. I was also sure someone in the back row was sneaking out to call the police. I was sure S.W.A.T. was already in the bushes.

We concluded with Misty, an old reliable tune, everyone knows. Once the lyrics arrived in my brain hole, I got through the tune naturally. I went into a scat solo, and judged my location in the music by Tosh’s body language. Once Tosh was off and soloing, I tried to look professionally hip and charming. My thoughts were racing.

“Let’s just smile…closed mouth smile...that feels right. Shit, I shouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. Then they’ll know. But that’s weird.  I should make eye contact with everyone.”

I lifted my head and made eye contact with everyone in the room very slowly. I felt good about it, then I realized that Tosh had been soloing over Misty for 4 cycles, while I’d been looking creepily at our audience. I looked at him and he raised his eyebrows like, “Anytime this year, pal.”

I jumped back in and ended the song.

***

As we packed up, the floor sitters rose to shake our hands and say thank you. The couch sitters began to stretch and talk. I gathered my books and pages and made small talk with Tosh, but we were both raw from the Bizarro World version of our usual set. Tosh stayed behind and schmoozed, but I knew I had to get out of there. I needed directions back to the freeway, and the lady of the house gave them to me, but I couldn’t keep them in my brain hole, so I had to get a pen and paper. (When I found the directions the next day, I saw there were only two streets written down). I rushed through goodbyes and, laden with two bags of music, speakers, and a few drifting pages shedding like dried leaves off my shuffling body, made my long, high heeled trek back to the street. I loaded up my car, got in, and then I felt rude that I had rushed out.  I shouted a thank you back to the house, because at  that moment it seemed like a socially acceptable thing to do. I thought I was being friendly, but when I recall their faces, I’m sure I was only causing the guests to wonder what I was yelling, since they couldn’t hear me across the excessively large lawn.

large lawn

large lawn

I got home and sat on my couch. I thought of calling Tosh to explain, or apologize, but I didn’t. There was an apple on the floor with a bite taken out of it. Had I any analytical skill at that moment, I’m sure I would’ve interpreted the existence of that trope, but I hadn’t any.

I looked at the spot on my floor where Manny had been sitting, when he gave me the shit. I thought about his question. “How has the music business been treating you?”

“You never know when the world will turn upside down.” I would’ve said.

.

.

.

.

.

*The Mathmos is a swirling, bubbling, liquid essence of evil and power, from the science-fiction sexploitation film, Barbarella (1968), starring Jane Fonda. The Mathmos surrounds and powers the decadent city of The Tyrant, and has various other magical powers. I imagine there is a benevolent Jazz Mathmos surrounding the places where Jazz is played, which can connect, on the subconscious level, with jazz musicians, to give them ideas and lyrics when they are in times of need.

Adventures With Volvo In Gigland # 4

My First Wedding Gig

It was an afternoon gig, and the bride had very particular requests. Most important, she asked that I sing “Through The Eyes Of Love,” the theme song from the 1978 figure-skating drama, Ice Castles. Just that one song, during the reception dinner. Technically speaking, not a hard gig, but there were other special details.

Most notably, I was to be part of the ceremony. It was an outdoor wedding, and the bride requested that I begin the ceremony by walking down the aisle, dropping petals. After the bride reached the front of the ceremony space, next to her waiting groom, I was to stand with the bridesmaids. It was also decided that I too would wear a white wedding dress, and a pearl headband the bride had purchased just for me. These would’ve been the strangest gig requirements I had ever received, but I wasn’t really thinking in those terms since I was only 8 years old.

And the bride was my mother.

In my mind, the wedding is still going on. Dylan Thomas put it best when he said, “The memories of childhood have no order, and no end.” Volvo and I still roll by the hotel on our way to someplace else, and, because the courtyard is bordered by a high wall, I have no visible proof that the ceremony ever ended. It feels natural that I would walk into the hotel courtyard, to encounter my waist-level memories in media res. My mother releasing a grand laugh in response to a grown-up quip I didn’t catch, in a grown-up conversation. Tidepools of baritone from the men, unintelligible jargon. Whitewater chitter from the women, bubbling down to the softest babble. It was a bright summer storm of friends, family, and business guests who nobody could name in a year’s time. Everyone was careless and abundant. Everyone was proving something to someone else. It was all, literally, over my head, and it would be years till I was part of that conversation. Now I can’t get out of it. When I pass the hotel, I’m reminded that there was a time before I felt I had to prove my worthiness at a gathering.

But from an early age, I did care about my looks. As with any gig, I prepped my wardrobe ahead of time. Something appropriate for the event. Now, I choose from several black "gig dresses" of varying lengths. Some low cut and beaded, some short, some longer and more demure. Sometimes I wear tight pants and high-heeled boots. Essentially, gig wear is clothing you could either wear clubbing, or to a casual funeral. On the occasion of my mother's wedding, however, I needed something special, so I selected a wedding dress of my own. A conical mountain of layered tulle, topped with a satin bodice, and lacy straps. I was a mini-bride.

Raya flower girl

Raya flower girl

Standing next to me, in the dressing room mirror, the actual bride looked curvaceous and tall. Something about the sheen of the satin, the pointy heels, and the piled curls, cheated her miles above her natural 5’2.” The gown was custom - off-white satin, plunging v-neck, confident décolletage, and a silhouette displaying a solid year of aerobics devotion and protein drinks. She was statuesque. I was proud of her, if an 8-year-old can claim that.

The sublime detail, the iconic beauty of the gown was the lace. I still have a piece of it hanging from my curtains. The bride had chosen to go with a non-traditional train, and to attach long tendrils of floral-shaped lace from the open back of her gown. The textile hung in ghostly white vines of leaves and roses. The veins of the leaves lay embroidered over criss-cross micro-threading, stretched out from a median vein, like a ladder of light rays. Rose spirals, floral births, erupted between the leaves, radiating within themselves. All of this fell down her back like a hanging garden. The leaves and flowers trailed about a foot behind her when she walked, shuddering a little when there was a moment of breeze. Or that’s how I remember them.

The single design flaw was that the dress was floor length, and so precisely tailored to her silhouette that she had very little space for walking. There was no kick pleat or stretch. In her stately poise, she had to take quick little steps if she wanted to get anywhere. In my present mind, it beckons the tip-toe of a geisha. So the dress was not engineered for optimal mobility – it was intended for a sense of awe. Sensibility be damned! A woman only gets her first wedding once! And on her second wedding, she really gets to rock it.

mom's lace

mom's lace

There were maybe 10 rows of backs in chairs. Maybe more. I didn’t count. I was waiting for my cue to throw the petals. I was a little nervous because the grown-ups were nervous, but I didn’t want to show it. The first rule of gigging is not to upset your employer. The band began the wedding march, and I started with my basket of rose petals. I reached the front row, and I sat down. I looked back at the aisle covered in rose bits. Good work.

I don’t remember much about the ceremony, except the line where the officiant said something like “…we are blessed to have Pam’s daughter, Raya…” and I thought that was nice and wondered if it was genuine. Not whether or not they actually liked me, but if they really felt blessed on this particular occasion, or they just felt obliged to say that because I was standing there.

Then there were more lines about lovey things, and I started to get choked up. It wasn’t about the words themselves, I was not “touched,” per se, but I was feeling something. I don’t know where my dad was that day, but I suppose he knew where I was. Maybe that was part of it. Everyone we knew and loved was there, except him, obviously. Still, I didn’t understand why I was crying. The bridesmaids started to notice. I got self conscious about it, my mom turned around and I bowed my head. Shit, I was ruining everything. This was not my job.

***

Singing was my job. Inside, the reception hall began to murmur. I found the pianist from the ceremony, who I’d been practicing with for weeks, ever since the bride requested the song. He had the sheet music, and we reviewed the intro quietly while the guests found their seats. As I rehearsed under my breath, the feelings from the ceremony wrestled around in my core, under my flouncy tulle. Combined with performance nerves, they were different feelings now. The sadness came into focus, and it was not sadness. It was the drenched weight of helplessness, and anger. In my 8-year-old head, I may not have been eloquent about my feelings, but I knew that every word of this song I was about to perform was a lie. “Please, don’t let this feeling end/ it may not come again/ and I want to remember.” All I wanted was for these feelings to end. I did not want to remember this day, or these feelings, and I hoped they would never come again. This was a day of loss for me. My mother and father were the two pillars of my heart, and one was happy, and the other was getting replaced. My world was destructing, and I had to sing pretty about it.

The master of ceremonies announced that the daughter of the bride was going to sing a song. I joined the band on stage, and the intro began. I’d practiced every day after school, and I knew the words like a monologue. I knew my emotional hills and valleys, my cadences, my crescendos and decrescendos. I knew what to do, and what was wanted, my only concern was that I didn’t want to cry again. That is not professional.

flower girl singing

flower girl singing

The introduction was almost over, and I felt my first note shaking in my throat. I breathed in. I released…. “pleeease…” it was clear. A strong, simple note. It disguised my state of being. I continued as I’d practiced, note for note, breath by breath. It got easier, and for the first time, during a performance, I felt myself detach, and part of me was looking back at me. The conflict between the words and the truth was so great, I had to observe it. I guessed that was what it meant to be “beside one’s self.” I was on stage to give beauty, and sweetness, and love. I was there for my mother. That was my job.

As the song progressed, pulling me along with it, I felt another point of view surface - I began to feel sincere. I realized that performance is two things: the part you give to the audience, and the part you keep for yourself. I opened up into the chorus, “And now I do believe / that even in a storm we’ll find some light / knowing you’re beside me I’m alright.” For the first time, I felt the comfort of expression. I wasn’t singing to the wedding crowd, or even to the wedding couple. I was singing to the music itself. “Knowing you’re beside me, I’m alright.” This was my comfort. And I didn’t cry.

The tune went over well, and I left the stage. The rest of the gig was all grown-ups saying I did good, mama looking beautiful, step-dad smiling with his friends, and more congeniality and socializing I didn’t understand. I think I chased my cousin around. The bride and groom had a good time, and I eventually took off my pearl headband because it was squeezing my brain.

I would say something about the end of the night or the drive home, but I don’t remember. This is why I’m not sure it ended, and when I drive by the hotel, I still hear the errant guitar line from the band, and the wash of grown-up’s casual posturing. I may walk into the hotel courtyard one day and find my petals lying still, where I let them fall, waiting for the brush of lace.

floor petals

floor petals

Adventures With Volvo In Gigland #5

The TV Gig

My text message ding, dinged. Message from Sara:

"This is like purgatory."

I texted back,

"I don't think we survived the shuttle ride from the parking structure. I think this is purgatory."

“LOL”

I heard her laugh from the other side of the partition between my trailer and hers. Really it was the same trailer, so we could’ve easily spoken to each other, but after such a long wait, the whole band had finally receded into themselves, all verbal energy exhausted. We were waiting to get called to set, for an on-screen gig we’d been on for 3 days. The first two days we’d had more action, but this final day was becoming surreal. The separation between our trailers was just a wobbly, brown painted, folding door, which separated a single space into two. I walked out of my trailer door and sat on the top of the metal stairs.  Sarah was already on her respective stairs to my right. She said something about how she keeps checking Facebook and Instagram and there's nothing left to check on, no new email in the past 5 minutes, yet she keeps going back, like a crazy person.

There are some very coveted gigs, and if you land one, you expect it to go a certain way. Side-lining is a good gig. It’s when musicians get called to a set, to basically pretend they’re playing music on the show. Generally, real musicians get called to do these because it looks more authentic. Why not use the actual musicians who played on the recording? Because often the show needs musicians to have a very particular look on screen, one which fits the vibe of the show/scene. Sometimes the recorded musicians will have the look, sometimes not. I was lucky this time, since I was the recorded singer, and got to be the one on screen as well. I think my hair is “in” right now.

So that’s what we were called for, and we'd been waiting at the base camp with all the wardrobe trailers since 9am. Sara and I had already made the obligatory “look how much fun we’re having on the set!” Instagram video, and the extended arm Facebook selfie, and we were now face to face with actual, static, second-by-dragging-second, reality. Social media had become ineffective. It felt like the 1990s. Now I remember why melancholy was so popular in that decade. Still, this was the 3rd day of the gig, and I was hoping for something cool to happen.  Looked at my phone, 3 o’ clock. No lunch, no word, just sitting in a parking lot in Hollywood, in a heat wave, in full hair and make up.  It was the most fabulous tedium I've ever experienced.

trailer door copy

trailer door copy

My swanky digs

Great expectations

2 weeks earlier, when I got the call for the gig, I was totally surprised. It was not just a session, but an on-screen gig for a TV pilot. They wanted a singer who could both sing the part, and appear on screen.

"I'm your huckleberry!" I yelled into the phone.

Actually I didn't do that. But I did take the gig.

I grew up around the TV industry. My mom is a screenwriter, and I went with her to deliver scripts to studios all the time. I also went to an art school with the kids of actors and directors, yet still, jaded as I can be about “the industry”, Hollywood often surprises me.

I thought I knew what to expect from the 3 days I was called to the set. I imagined yummy snack tables, milling around in cool clothes while waiting to shoot, shooting the shit with extras and crew, hanging out with my fellow band members, and maybe getting to know a few shiny actors (hey, I'm not above being impressed). Basically, all that was accurate, but my mental timeline was far too compact. A day on the set of a shoot is like a projection on a screen made of a special stretchable fabric. The fabric keeps stretching, and stretching, and stretching, until the elements of the picture pull further and further away from each other. Eventually there is so much space between the activities in your day that they seem to never end, and never quite begin. "Set time" is a dramatization of cosmic expansion. This is what I've come to. Spend enough time in a trailer where half of your couch has removable cushions and converts to a toilet, and you start to contemplate thermodynamics and degradation. I decided the name of the shade of crappy brown paint on my trailer walls was called "entropy."

Sara shifted in her leopard print blouse and black leather pants. I didn't envy her in that get-up, in our Saharan version of March. I was lucky enough to get dressed up in a light-weight, lavender, Zac Posen frock. Knee-length, very low v-neck, very very low. One could say the architecturally risqué tailoring made mountains out of molehills. The garment was tight around the thighs, yet had some room around the low stomach area, kind of a vintage silhouette, forgiving in its way - which was good since I was experiencing some expansion in that area.

me in Posen

me in Posen

Me, in Zac Posen, Pre-GI epic drama.

"I think I had too much coffee."

I made the squinty-eye, wrinkle-nose face at Sara, indicating a combination of distress and humor. It was more distress.

"Are you feeling jittery?"

"No, it's just not sitting right. I don't drink a lot of coffee, usually."

We wandered over to the trailer of the woman who was playing the restaurant hostess on the TV show. She had a much bigger trailer with a rug in brighter colors. We talked about... honestly I don't remember. I had gone through both my protein bars, and the coffee was getting restless in my stomach. I chewed some gum and tried to participate in the conversation, but I could feel my personal velocity slowing down and getting heavy. I had a little wave of dizziness. I decided to walk back to my trailer and took off my shoes. I felt the hot parking lot asphalt under my feet. Felt good. Went back up to my trailer and laid down on the half couch half toilet. My stomach felt round and toxic, and my eyes drifted over the entropy colored walls.

Things had been good

So our job, for the past two days, had been to get made up, suited up, get on stage, and look like a really cool band. The past two days, we’d mimed our moves while listening to playback of the session I’d sung a few days prior. It was a riot to watch the band try and physically match the recorded instrumental rhythms and solos. Sara had an Oscar worthy “guitar face,” and Ryan, the bass player, was 100% grooving.  Sam was solid on air-drums, and Ed, on piano, turned on this aloof intensity, and really varied it up from take to take. Together, we created a really slammin’ work of fiction.

tje band copy

tje band copy

Sara(guitar) allows Ryan(bass) to smell her guitar, then I air my armpit at Ed (keys). Sam (drums) is a nice normal person.

These first two days were fun, but also hot, long, and weird. After the first couple of takes, they’d turn off the playback, so we’d mime playing and singing in silence. It was a silent concert, for a silent audience of extras, pretending to dig us. Everyone was dressed to the nines, enjoying food they couldn’t eat, and music they couldn’t hear. First it was a lark, but after about five hours, we all began to wilt and sweat through our powder.

The Culprit?

I was in form fitting dresses the whole time, so my mission was to only eat food which didn’t cause bloating. Low carb, in other words. Perfect food? Eggs! And what did they have, but a whole tray of hard boiled eggs, and deviled eggs. I went to town on them. In retrospect, I should’ve taken a broader perspective and thought about eggs sitting outdoors in the heat. For hours. The ramifications of this. But I didn’t. And I’m not saying they’re responsible for my eventual gastrointestinal peril, I’m just saying there were deviled eggs outdoors, for many hours, I ate many of them, and the devil is in the details.

The Honeybucket Blues

4pm. Finally called to the set.

Between 3pm and 4pm, I had made ample use of the bathroom trailer.

You don’t appreciate how much your body can hold, until you see it leave you. And Good Lord. Why is a porta-potty company called “Honeybucket?” COULD they have come up with a more disgusting mental image? Why ruin both honey and buckets? I digress.

Walking to the set shuttle, every step was a seismic event, beckoning a coffee tsunami inside me. I sat down in the van next to Ryan.

“Are you ok?”

“No. Had too much coffee.”

“You need to take something?”

I don’t remember how I answered.

When we got to the set, a restaurant on Melrose ave., I was hoping to get in and out, to head off a mounting bodily catastrophe.  Of course they’d changed the shooting order, and we were sent back to wait in the tent in the alley – and I was getting weak, and increasingly unsteady. I thought I knew about “set life” because I’d grown up around it, even done some TV as a child. I had this vision of casual glamour and efficiency. My expectations were not glitzy, but maybe a little cushier. From my folding chair, set up between a tent and a forklift, listening to the insane ramblings of my GI gurgles, the word “cushy” did not apply.

After my fifth trip to the porta-pod of shame, the band started to give me the ick/sympathy looks. The “oh you poor thing don’t touch me I don’t want to get what you have oh poor baby ew get away oh I’ve totally been there oh God I’m so glad I’m not there I’m here for you stay away from me” faces. No blame, I would’ve done the same thing. Every time I went back and forth to the porta-potty, there was this dude sitting on the corner of a wall. I wonder what he was thinking, seeing this woman, in a designer dress, all made-up, wobbling into the porto and out again, every ten minutes. Around then, the set medic was called to check me out, and it was decided the shuttle would take me back to base camp where I could lie down.

The Purge

So I was back in my trailer, on my half couch half toilet, wrapped in a sweater provided by the wardrobe department. I lay there for an hour until my stomach told me I had to sit up. I turned toward the mirror. My incredible smokey-eye make-up had gotten messy, and brought out my bloodshot whites.  My hair was asymmetrically flat on the side I’d been laying on, and poofed on the other side. I’d unzipped half the back of my dress, and a halter strap was hanging off a shoulder. My skin was pale, my posture cavernous. I was a hot mess. I felt incredibly editorial. Definitely couture.

I couldn’t get comfortable. I knew my gut was making some immediate plans. I couldn’t blame the coffee, but I couldn’t really blame the eggs either, I’d had them the day before. Didn’t matter now, this party was already bumpin.’ I pulled over the plastic trash can and scooted near. This was not how I imagined my super cool TV gig. Then I turned and puked. In lavender Zac Posen.

post barf

post barf

Post-barf selfie.

One Last Scene

I sent a text to our liaison to the set, Bianca.

“Ok, just barfed. That was either the end or the beginning.”

“Oh no…on my way back. Do you need anything?”

“Might be fine now haha. More Gatorade?”

“Got it.”

Bianca was awesome. She told me we had one more scene to shoot, and I could totally sit it out, and they would make it work – but no way. I wasn’t about to look this good vomiting for nothing.

When I got back to the set, everyone had their car wreck eyeballs on. The eyeballs that roll over you like a horrible attraction. They all knew what had happened. Make-up fixed me, and I walked up onto the stage. Luckily the scene was really short, and went well, so after all that, I went home.

I got a ride from my friends Melissa and James. One drove my Volvo with my withered self in it, and the other followed in their car. They did this because they are awesome. I dribbled out of the car and up stairs into bed. I put a bucket down at the foot of it, just in case.

I couldn’t believe I was through the gig. A three-day marathon of waiting. Still, I did it. Not the way I thought it was going to go, but on the other hand, here I was: laying in bed, weary, drained, still in full hair and make up, stomach concave from food and water loss. All in all, how much more Hollywood could I be?

Some Action

Around 3am I woke up to sounds in the house. Seemed like a great deal of motion. I checked the baby monitor, but all was normal with her. The sound continued, getting louder downstairs. I had no power in my limbs. I was completely drained, but the sound was getting closer to the baby side of the house, and my biological imperative to protect my young was overpowering my sleep deprived listlessness.

I wrapped up in my robe, and crept downstairs. I heard the sounds above me as I crossed the dining room. Burglars? Goblins?

My senses became alert and instinctual. I took on feline expressions as I padded towards my daughter’s nursery. The sound grew louder in the hall outside her room. I gathered her up and walked back into the middle of the house. The scuttling seemed to transverse the roof, and ended up in my studio. Now the noise was coming from my bathroom. Loud.

I crept back upstairs, and woke Bear.

“Bear. Bear!”

“ *snuck, sniffle* wha?”

“There’s something in my studio bathroom.”

“Huh?”

“Something in my studio bathroom. It’s an animal or something.”

“Shit.”

Bear wrestled himself out of bed, and staggered into consciousness. At the top of the stairs he could hear the commotion from my studio. We tiptoed down the stairs. Bear, followed by me, with Sonatine in my arms – a tiny family parade, or hunting party. We stood in a clump outside the doors of my studio, listening to the weird tossing and scratching sounds. Bear motioned for us to back away. Bravely, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors (albeit in an Elvis t-shirt), he pushed open the doors, and entered the darkness towards the direction of the sound.

Reacting to mental images of my husband crashing out of my studio, covered with scratch marks and possibly feral dogs, I made haste to the kitchen.  I opened up the armory, A.K.A. the broom closet, and extracted a broom and a Swiffer. I also had the option of a plunger, but I thought it prudent to consider length. I returned to the lair of battle, armed for the sake of my progeny and my man. There I stood, warrior queen. Slung with our single heir, and the weapons of our fortress. I decided I would give Bear the broom, and I the Swiffer. I also unlocked the front door in case it was a “save the women and children” situation, and I had to run out the front, trailing woodland creatures and cleaning supplies in my wake, leaving my husband in the dining room, prostrate, covered in feces and rodent fur.  I was prepared for both contingencies.

I heard Bear coming toward the doors. I was ready. I whispered hot and loud, “So??”

“Not in there.”

“Huh?”

“Coming from the roof.”

“…the roof?”

“Yeah. I’m going back to bed.”

I was happy about the lack of wild dogs, but I’ll admit, a little let down. I’d sort of been expecting some action. Oh well.

Bear went back upstairs, and I went back to the nursery to put Sonatine back to sleep. I’d just begun to bounce her, when I heard Bear’s searing, whispered, scream from the stairs.

“RAYA! RAYA!”

I rounded the corner.

“What?!”

“Get up here! Now!”

Oh lord. It was true, we were being attacked. Our walls were being breached. It was dogs. It was goblins.

I followed Bears’ shadow into our room, and around to the bathroom. He pointed out the window. Oh God. What was it.

Squeezing my baby tightly, I leaned over the moonlit bathtub, to peer out the window… and there it was, the carnal truth.

Two Raccoons. Fucking on our roof.

Bear turned to me, “Thereya go.”

So there was some action that night after all.

Fucking Raccoons

Fucking Raccoons

And here are some fucking Raccoons. Not our fucking Raccoons, these are some fucking internet Raccoons. They're Fucking Raccoons.

Adventures With Volvo In Gigland #3

The Solo Gig

I felt myself squinting my eyes on the big notes, and getting extra breathy on the verse.

I was trying.

So hard.

Too hard, not to take the whole rendition too far…

but it’s almost impossible not to go the full ham sandwich when you’re singing the theme from Titanic.

Oddly, that is not the reason I was not asked back to perform at Coconut Cove.

I’ll tell you the moral of the story up front: Sometimes you don’t win the room.

Sometimes the final act isn’t heroic.

Sometimes the whole point is just to show up, and do it.

Then you know you did it. And that belongs to you.

flowers

flowers

You see, it was evening, and I was finishing up my instant stove-top Palak Paneer at my desk, when I got the call from Sam, asking about the “solo gig”. My first thought was “Hell No!” I’ve never done a solo vocal/piano gig in my life! But then I stilled myself. I could develop this skill, and get better at it. This could open more performance avenues for me, if I could suck up the courage to do it. I looked through my slat-blinds, at the creepy dude across the alley on his balcony. Ever since he saw me accidentally drop my towel after a shower, he spent more time out on his porch. I needed to improve my circumstances.  Maybe I should take the gig?

Let me back up a moment. So, for 4 years I did a gig at a popular place called Coconut Cove in Rowland Heights. Actually it was a family restaurant, full of large groups of parents and babies, and also pods of hip, Asian teenagers, with amazing hair. The restaurant was the tropical jewel of a strip mall, in an asphalt lagoon. It was a flat, stretched out hive of salons and boba places, next to the hulking rush of the 60 freeway, the asphalt ocean.

Felice hooked me up with the gig, because it was a two singer thing, and she was often the other singer. The other regular singer was a girl named Kat, and we all rotated with a few other singers. The band was pretty regular, headed up by a jovial and incredibly cool man named Mo Lincoln, on guitar. Ron was on v-drums, and Ben (who, as I understood it, was kinda famous in Thailand) was on keyboard, and key bass.

It was an easy, low-key gig, but after 4 years there was some kerfuffle on the business side, the place changed hands, and the band was cut.

However, the original owner set up a new restaurant in a location nearby. Really nearby, like across the parking lot, and he still wanted music, but not as big a group. So this was when I got the call from Sam.

Sam was an old Japanese man who always sat at the bar with a mug full of no less than 8 bags of green tea. One of the kindest people I’ve met, soft spoken, with a smooth but freckled complexion. I always thought his complexion was so thin, I wondered if I was seeing through the first few layers of his skin, like bible paper, or the paper of the tea bags he coveted. Sam was close with the owner and close with the band, and he suggested they just have me come back to do the gig solo, vocal and piano.

green tea

green tea

Ok fast forward again, back at my apartment on the phone with Sam. I turned the blinds down with my hand, to block out creepy balcony man. I don’t usually jump into musical situations, where I might be out of my depth - but I needed to move, and my funds were low. So I asked Sam if there would be a piano there, he said yes. So I took the gig.

Now to figure out how I would actually do it. I had a big jazz chart collection, but pop tunes are a different animal - and I hadn’t memorized the words to most of them (see my previous post about how well I know lyrics to pop tunes), so these charts would have to do double duty as music/lyric sheets. (for non-musicians, chart = sheet music). IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT RAYA IN THIS PARTICULAR SITUATION:

1)    Raya is not the world’s best pianist. She does what she needs to for her own compositional purposes, and for teaching when needed, but when it counts, Raya hires a pianist.

2)    Raya is confident singing, but may have a hard time hiding a certain amount of contempt/mocking-tone when performing songs she feels are high on the cheese scale. It’s easier to hide this with a band.

The Making Of The Charts.

binders

binders

My plan involved binder rings, plastic page covers, multicolored printing to make the chords pop out, and very big fonts. Very big.

I combed through my green, jazz-gig binders, my big blue top-40 lyric binder, and my student binder (full of music I would never run over with my car, let alone perform).

But here I was.

Staring at the theme from Titanic.

Hey, it’s a good theme. A great pop ballad!....for Celine Dion. Not me.

I sat in front of my computer, confusing my Word program. Lots of lines of lyrics, framed on both sides by chord symbols in blue. Much use of Tab button. Took a lot of pages, and I found myself taping edges of plastic sheet covers together to make a 3 page fold. High ingenuity. Low tech.

Putting The Book Together.

Order was crucial. You want a mix of ballads and “up tunes” to keep the people with you. Also, I did not have the luxury of another player to take instrumental solos to extend the length of the song (oldest jazz trick in the book), so I needed a quantity of tunes to fill the time.

Practicing On Mom’s Piano.

me at piano

me at piano

All I had at my apartment was a synth a la 1995, with non-weighted keys, and pedals I had to chase around the floor with my feet.

I threw my newly compiled “solo piano gig” book in Volvo’s passenger seat, and drove over to my mom’s house to practice on a real piano. I started with some R&B tunes, the kind with about 4 chord changes for the verses, and maybe two chord changes for the chorus. I figured out ways to approximate the grooves, and I actually got into it. When a song has only a few chords to think about, you can focus on your singing more... oh wait a second…

(In the voice of Morgan Freeman: “And that was that moment Raya understood pop R&B.”)

After practicing that set, I had some tea with mom, and discussed the goings on of the local squirrel population. Then we talked about her new book (a newer one can be found here), and how much longer she thought Volvo was fit to take on the kind of mileage I was demanding of him. I said I was sure he’d be fine for years. What, did she think he was going to break down in the middle of an intersectionor something? Moms worry. She asked if they had a piano there, and I said of course! Kind of a pre-requisite to a piano/vocal gig? Then she asked if I was scared. My performer’s practiced self confidence wanted to say no, but this was mom, so I let the mask fall. I was honest.

“Yea.”

“That’s alright. Sometimes you need that.”

mom and me tea

mom and me tea

After tea, I went back to practice the harder stuff: jazz, Bossa nova, some Stevie Wonder, the tunes where I needed to use extra pedal to wash out my lack of improvisation skills. But hey, get those chords wet enough and noooobody knows what you’re getting away with. (pro tip!)

I was starting to actually feel good about the gig. Starting to imagine myself making something out if this. Sitting at the piano, getting all emotional, maybe straddling the bench like Tori Amos, taking requests and adding my own spin to them…finally my weekends might be worth driving an hour each way for $80.

The Gig (observe life-like rendering)

b abay front

b abay front

I confidently unloaded my little PA system, my speakers, my stand. I threw Gigbagover my shoulder, with my microphone and specially compiled solo-piano gig book. I was a professional. The room was mine.

The new Coconut Cove was spacious, to the point of being a bit cavernous. Apparently word hadn’t gotten out about the new location yet, so there wasn’t the usual bustle of touristy looking people, and the regular people with amazing haircuts, to absorb the bounce of sound. It was boomy, and everything was shiny.

Sam met me at the door, glad to see me. He brought me over to the owner, who also seemed glad to see me. Everyone was glad. I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, do my thing, and make everyone gladder.

Sam and the owner led me to the middle of the restaurant, where there was an area cleared away, about 20 feet from a section of booths. Spacious. There were other booth sections further away to my right and left, and I swear there was a sound delay from the clink of those dishes to my ears. I didn’t see the piano yet, so I assumed they were going to roll it in after they showed me the place. Then we stopped, next to some unused tables. Sam looked to me.

“There it is.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. He walked me around the group of unused tables, and there it was, the “piano.” I hadn’t been able to see it around the group of tables, because it was too short.

I had no idea what to say, as I faced the smallest, shortest, most 1989-tastic Casio keyboard, I had ever seen.

It made my home keyboard look like a 9-foot grand piano. It didn’t even have 88 keys.

“So here’s the piano.” He said, as if I had no idea what I was looking at –and I kind of didn’t. He showed me the on switch, the volume button, and the drum loop pad, which he clearly assumed I would be making use of. There was also a set of chimes. (I’m just gonna leave that sentence there.)

And then it hit me, even worse than what I realized they expected I would do, was what I realized I could not do - use the pedal. Because there was no pedal! My subterfuge was doomed. All would hear my horrible chord voicings and choppy attacks! I heard my mother’s voice in my mind,

“Will they have a piano there?”

O’ maternal intuition! Why did I not listen to thee!? “Piano” just doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

keyboard

keyboard

But I smiled,

“Great!”

and began to set up my music.

“Oh lord.”

I released a quick prayer to the ancient Greek diety, Prechorus, God of Song Structure.

“May the carbs hit them quickly, so I sound better through the fog of calories.”

I sat down at the piano shaped object. It’ shuttered a little when I scooted close. If I’d sneezed it would’ve hit the floor.  I looked over at the orange buttoned, key pad with pictures of various drums and percussion instruments. I looked away.

I started with Alicia Keys. There was some immediate recognition from the scattered family groups and little teen clusters. I leaned on the arpeggios to fill space. It worked. Then I moved on to some other R&B tunes which relied on short, specific textures. Did a Ne-Yo tune. Even got some some claps.

After 40 minutes, I announced my first break,

“OK, I’m gonna take a little break now, I’ll be back.. in..”

Absolutely nobody was paying attention me. I felt like continuing,

“…in a second after I toss this Ebola fecal matter I’ve got here into the salad bar. Ok enjoy your dinners.”

I went to the bar, Sam seemed unimpressed. Even he, behind his tags upon tags of teabags flapping out of his green tea mug, seemed nonplussed.

“Waiting till the second set to break out the rhythm?” He asked.

I laughed, instead of answering.

Second set, I got into the power ballads. Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Mariah…the good part was that the familiarity trumped all my mistakes, the bad part was I just couldn’t get through “My Heart Will Go On” without snark. Let me be clear, Celine Dion sings her butt off, she's an icon for a reason - so much so that it is almost impossible not to impersonate her. I sincerely tried not to affect the super quick Celine Dion vibrato, but I was doing it by the time I caught myself. I felt myself squinting my eyes on the big notes, and getting extra breathy on the verse. I thought I had it under control, but when I got to the key change I could not avoid the obligatory hair flip.

“Yooooouuuurr Heeeeeere..”

FLIP.

“…there’s NOOOOOO-THING TO FEEEEEEAR…”

I simply could not play the chord with out it.

Oddly, that was one of the only tunes which got applause.

Second break. Sam was not at the bar.

Third set, busted out my Astrud Gilberto voice. Didn’t matter. I was about as aurally interesting to this crowd as the air conditioning. At the end, Sam came over and handed me my $80 and some food I’d ordered. I knew it was the last take-out I would ever get from Coconut Cove.

take out bag

take out bag

Sam said thanks, and walked me to the door. I loaded my speakers, Gigbag, microphone, and self, back into Volvo. I looked through the front glass of the car, through the front windows of the room I had planned on entertaining. I had gotten so ready for this, only to be sabotaged by a featherweight piano-shaped object, with no sustain pedal. The diners could not have cared less that I was there, and I let down some people who thought I had a particular skill - particularly skills with 1989 drum pads - which I did not.

Back on the road, we rolled up onto the freeway ramp, and watched the night dissolve around the 60 West. We drove home through a tunnel of obsidian and headlights. Starless, full of echo. I talked to Volvo,

“Man, that sucked.”

Volvo released an upward whisp through the air vent, asking why.

“Because I wasn’t who they thought I was, and I didn’t give them what they wanted.”

Volvo puffed a warm, frowney sigh through the side vent.

“No, I’m not sad. I actually feel good. I did it…I really sucked, but I played the whole damn night. I played a solo, vocal/piano top 40 gig. And I never want to do it again!”

Volvo puffed in solidarity, and we listened to Steely Dan all the way home.

flowers

flowers

I didn’t win that room.

My final act wasn’t heroic, but it was courageous.

I guess the whole point was just to show up and do it.

And I’ll always know I did it. And that belongs to me.