The Wedding In The Hills
“Hey, there baby.”
“Hey, what you doin’ tomorrow evening?”
“I’m open, what’s up?”
“Can you do a gig? It’s a wedding ceremony reception.”
“Ceremony or reception?”
“ ’Round 5 we gotta get there.”
“Ok, ‘til when?”
“It’s up at the…Jewish place…near Mulholland.”
“The Skirball center?”
“That’s it. It’s a wedding.”
“Yeah, the wedding.”
“So after the ceremony, or during?”
“I want you to do a jazz set at the beginning, and then we’ll do the Motown and soul set.”
“Ok, two sets.”
“Then you can sing some backgrounds on the top 40.”
“So 3 sets?”
“It’s a wedding.”
“Right. How long do they want us?”
“It’ll pay 250. ‘Bout 2 sets, we’ll do 3 sets of material.”
“So two, or…three...?”
“Alright baby, see you there.”
“Ok, so 5pm to around...”
After getting a phone call from Red, I was always more confused than before the call. Not just about the subject we discussed, but a kind of existential limbo - the “staring into the space between the wall, and the dust particles on your eyeball” kind of limbo. Red was the type of band leader who could jovially train wreck any musical situation he was put in charge of. And the audiences loved it.
The simplest gigs, became a run-on slush of oldies, jazz, and improvised Top 40 hits. His gigs were good money, but he didn’t take breaks, and you had to brace yourself for Gig Twilight Zone; i.e., he never asked if you knew a tune before he pointed at you to sing it. He always hired me for the jazz numbers, but inevitably, Red would point, and I found myself staring out into the void between the audience, and the dust particles on my eyeballs, singing what I could recall of the vowel sounds to Earth Wind and Fire’s “September.”
“Do you remember the eh-nee ma-naah ba-da mem-ber ah we-ah ma-nah na-na em-ber ah wa-nah n’na a-waaaaaay….”
This is where the existential limbo comes in. When you get through a song in that manner, and everyone freakin’ loves it, you think to yourself “Why am I trying so hard to write songs with insightful lyrics, when everyone is satisfied with unintelligible, rhyming noises?” Then you grin, and try not to think about that anymore.
In Gigland, there are some things you just have to get ok with.
Volvo and I left my apartment around 3:30. Gigbag, my Lincoln Center bag which held my gig paraphernalia, was riding shotgun, and I had already checked that all four of my green music folders were in there. As usual, I had checked and re-checked my microphone five times since I got on the road. (I am not obsessive compulsive; I am pathologically thorough. Repeatedly.)
Finally slowing down to a pre-gridlock, respectable creep, with the rest of the auto-insects, we entered the pass between the hills. This highway, over the hills to the San Fernando Valley, was the route to my elementary school. The path of the 405 and Sepulveda, up to Mulholland Drive, is branded on my neural core – my soul.
In 1984 I melted a black crayon in the back seat of the family Nissan Maxima on Laurel Canyon coming from Mulholland drive. In 1987 I got in a banana chip fight with Matt Burns, in the back seat of his mom’s car, on the 405 South. Every weekday of my childhood, from the top of Mulholland Drive, to and from school, I looked out over The Valley - a dusty, glittering circuit board of boulevards, low-rise polygons, and tiny twinkling cars, all knit together by a veil of smog blanketing the porn industry. It was beautiful. At night, it was a grid of multicolored stars, on a nothing of blackness. It looked like the future.
One of my last childhood memories up in these hills was when I went to the Bat-mitzvah of Rebecca Snyder at Temple Leo Baeck on Sepulveda Blvd. Rebecca and I lived in the same world of highways, passes, and mountain crest drives. We went to the same elementary school, wore the same uniform, took the same tests, and watched our mothers freak out in the same Sepulveda Blvd. traffic jams. Rebecca also had one of the biggest houses I’ve ever seen, but at the time it didn’t seem like a mansion to me. It was just Rebecca’s house, a place for sleepovers and little girl mischief. Heck of a lot bigger than my dad’s one room studio apartment on Hollywood Blvd, but those things didn’t register the same way in my kid mind.
4:15pm. The hills to my left were scrubby, but still green, it was not yet fire season. Volvo had spit out America: Greatest Hits and the radio was talking to me about American Idol. I thought to myself, “A gig with Red should be one of the tasks on the show. Whoever can get through one of these with their mental health intact, deserves to win.” Volvo and I turned into the stone lined parking area at the Skirball Center, and I followed my side-man spidey-sense to a back outdoor area where I could hear some commotion.
Most of the guests had already arrived from the ceremony, and the bar area was populated with uncomfortable shoes, switching weight from side to side. The bandstand was directly across from the bar set-up, and I saw Red on stage joking with the guitar player. I was wearing my short little black number with the beads on the front, so I walked up the stairs to the riser with my hands skimming my hem.
From the small elevation of the stage, I could see the usual wedding crowd breakdown. There was the young set, 20-somethings like myself who felt very much like adults, but were still allergic to the idea of marriage. Close relatives of the married couple squinting in laughter and forecasting gossip about future children. Not-so-close relatives, huddled in smaller groups, with out-of-town haircuts. Random unattached humans, either hanging back by themselves, or working, diligently, at processing alcohol into their brain space.
I’ve observed countless LA wedding parties from this vantage point, and one thing always stands out: the unofficial segregation of Los Angeles society. There were all sorts of people attending the wedding, but all attendees were white. Everyone coming from the kitchen, or on the bandstand were some kind of brown. Maybe not the cater waiters, but the cooks. I’m not faulting the wedding planners, the venue, or the wedding families for this – it’s not an issue of fault, nobody did anything wrong – but it is a reality. Normally, this fact of my job didn’t bother me, mostly because singing for weddings wasn’t my career. Making my own records was (and is) my career. Singing weddings was my necessary income. I had always considered myself slightly removed from this dichotomy, because I had a different musical identity elsewhere - but in this part of LA, these hills, I couldn’t disappear into “gig Raya” as usual. There were too many memories, too much familiarity in the faces of the crowd. I started to feel awkward. Private school girls aren’t supposed to enter through the kitchen. Then again, gig-hustling jazz singers aren’t supposed to come from private schools.
So the wedded couple came in, the band played a flourish, and Red cued us into a funk/soul set. So much for starting off with the jazz repertoire. Right away, Red points to me, “Raya! Grapevine!” Wonderful. I stepped to the front as the band began the standard intro. Right away, wedding guests started filling the dance floor, because eeeverybody loves “Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Not actually a good wedding tune, y’know, a song about somebody hearing that someone is going to leave someone? Whatever. Nobody listens to lyrics. Thankfully, because I raised the mic to my lips, put on my best, heart-wrung-soul face, and let it out:
“weeee-eeel I guess you wondered how I knew ba-ta naaaan tuh meh m blue from s-muh-na aaaah! Noo-b’fuh twee na-ba–na aaaaahz luh-b’more.”
Just before the pre-chorus, my eye caught some motion at the foot of the stage. A dude was waving at me. Holy shit, it was Ivan, from my elementary school. I hadn’t seen him since Rebecca’s Bat-Mitzvah. I gave a little wave and continued.
“too-me na-na spaaa-aah I mah-seh
We-do fah-nah yesterday,
Don’t you know, I heard it through the Grape vine...”
By the chorus, the half tipsy crowd was swaying with the groove like lake weed. They were also singing along with me, so I wasn’t as worried about the lyrics.
After that number, Red took the lead on “Love Train,” and I did some ooohs and aaaahs behind him, then the band stepped back to allow for some toasts from the wedding party. I stepped off the riser to get a quick soda, but Ivan met me at the corner of the stage.
“Ivan! Oh my God!”
“How are you, wow is this (burp) is this yer band?” Ivan was pretty smashed.
“I sing with them sometimes.”
“That’s cool, wow.”
Ivan was bleary, but I could tell he really thought it was cool that he knew someone in the band. I’d heard he was a musician now himself, but he never did this type of paid gig, so he wasn’t familiar with the whole music-as-work thing. He continued his wobbly conversation.
“So how is...are you doing? Are you doing, playing….making, music and ..stuff?”
“Yeah, I have a couple of records out.” I wished I had one on me. I really wanted to demonstrate that I had more to show for my life since elementary school than a wedding band.
“Wow, that’s great. You sound great. I’m going…over there now.”
“Ok, nice to talk…bye”
I made it back to the bar to get a glass of water, in time to hear Red tuning up his bass. I started to hurry, but a woman touched my arm. I turned around,
“It’s Rebecca, Rebecca Snyder.”
“This is my cousin, Daniel’s wedding.”
“I remember Daniel, he was…”
“A year behind us.”
“So how are you?”
I really wanted something impressive to say, but a)I couldn’t think of anything, and b) I felt like I was already breaking some Gigland rule by talking to the family of the groom. Only the band leader talks to the family, the rest of us smile and play music – but Rebecca didn’t know that rule.
“I’m good, singing, I graduated ‘SC a couple years ago. Music school.” “That’s great! I have a million more years of med school left, but I’m excited.”
“Thanks, hey, you really sound good. It’s cool that you’re still singing, good to see you.”
Rebecca couldn’t have been more sweet, or more sincere, and I could not have felt more out of place. This wedding party used to be my world, but now I was only a visitor. If I had stayed in touch with her, stayed in her world over all the years, I would’ve been invited to this party instead of hired for it. But then would I have envied the singer on stage? Would I have been cognizant of the social duality at all? By the time these thoughts had been thought I was on the bandstand again.
We only played one more set, as it turned out. Never did any jazz. Red got lost in the chord changes for “I will Survive” and I ended up singing the final chorus about 15 times, running out of breath, wondering if I would, in fact, survive.
The band packed up, and the two corners of society politely parted ways. The struggling musicians thanked the rich people, and the rich people thanked the struggling musical people. Everybody was very gracious and kind. Everyone was simply living their lives, doing what they do. But I was standing there between two lives. And I couldn’t get ok.
Volvo and I took the long way home, over the crest of Mulholland Drive, overlooking The Valley. The circuit board was half alive with electric dots, and half veiled in chemical sunset. It’s not that I ever aspired to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any of the respectable professions where my old friends found themselves, it’s just that I never expected to see them again before I “made it.” Whatever that means. So I could show everyone that I stuck to it, did it my own way. Now I was motoring over the same roads I saw every day as a child, wondering if I would ever live out the dreams of that little kid. The little kid who never, ever, intended to sing cover tunes for the family weddings of her classmates, for rent money.
Night was on the valley, and the circuit board stretched to the invisible hills. In this kind of dark you ask the core questions. Do I keep pushing this life? Like this? How much push do I have left?
My phone beeped. I pulled over at a “scenic stop” (they have those along Mulholland). I already had another message on my phone from Red.
“Hey baby, got a call for a…thing at the Beverly Hills , uh..Hilton. Tomorrow. It’s at 1pm, daytime thing. It’s one set. I want you for the jazz set, and then we’ll do the usual cover thing for the other sets. It’s about 3 sets, but we’ll do it in two. They said they want a band around noon, so we’ll probably go till about 4, if we start at 1. It’s a private party…birthday or something, but we don’t have to sing the song or nothin,’ probably no jazz on this one, ‘bout 2 hours, ok hit me back, baby.”
I thought, “Well, at least I’m unlikely to know anyone at that affair.”
I looked out at The Valley. The long, flat, universe of ordered, blinking, stars. There was a light wind at my cheek, which reminded me of early fall, in the school yard.
I heard myself say, “I wanted so much.”
I sat back down in Volvo. I called Red back. “I still do.” I’ll keep pushing.