When I first went to college I signed up for a minimal meal plan, to save money for tuition. There were no cooking facilities or even refrigerators in dormitories back then... I had one of those cheap little electric kettles and I bought myself packets of instant cream of wheat-- a relatively new product. The previous years I'd gone to high-school in a morning session (over-crowded school-scheduling) which required a 5 AM wake-up to walk dogs and put together a sustaining breakfast. I cooked myself a pot of hot porridge or wheat cereal-- this took some twenty minutes-- with butter, cream (yes-- my indulgent mother) and brown sugar, cafe-au-lait-- which had to get me through six long break-less hours until lunch. Even the memory of it is hearty and good. My first homesick dormitory morning of instant mush was horrifying. It tasted like paper--was either pasty or soupy-- gritty and awful. Coffee was no better.
I've never been able to drink instant coffee. As low-maintenance and minimal as my eating habits have become, by necessity, fast food has never been my thing. I like brewed coffee-- pour-over, fresh-steeped. In my son's well-designed office there are several varieties of machines which produce a perfect cup in seconds; individual servings with endless combinations of roasts and flavors... lattes, espresso, cappuccino-- all pre-measured, packaged in a disposable clean pod... all tasting, to me, suspiciously like airport coffee. I've noticed many, many new chains of dedicated boutiques, all featuring some brewing or roasting specialty-- the craft of coffee, the process-- some at a premium that rivals the price of a good pound of fresh beans. They all seem to have a following. It seems even the post-millennials know the difference between office-brew and high-test. My son goes out to Starbucks for his caffeine fix. Manhattan is packed with chefs and food choices. While McDonald's and Burger King don't seem to suffer, restaurants of all varieties,-- take-out trucks and stores offer seriously decent dishes for every meal. Sommeliers have never been as sought-after; cheese experts, pastry chefs are in high career-demand.
So what happened to music? Why do we get this variety of instant shake-and-bake beats and lyrics that pass as records? Where are the writers and the inspired, tormented poets-with-guitars? Out in a tent on a backroad in Mississippi? Sleeping with the gypsies in a caravan in Croatia?
I've been playing in bands for 40 years or so, and consider myself a second-tier musician. I sympathize with the geniuses of my circle who surpassed their curriculum before they even entered music school-- who could not only show their teachers a few things but can play their proverbial asses off. Many of them live in low-income or subsidized housing projects. Some of them are dead, having indulged their souls and bodies in the process of challenging their own talents... or tormenting themselves in the self-doubting ritual of most brilliant artists who see the light and cannot quite get there every night. Few of them receive the acknowledgment they are due; they must turn on award shows and watch the endless accolades of achievement doled out to the mediocre and uninspired.
It is like watching a cup of instant coffee win the taste award year after year. It's a depressing sentence.
On another level, I co-host a weekly jam in a New York City club whose name bears tribute to one of the great figures in American music. Many of our friends and wonderfully talented colleagues join us in celebrating our community here, in perpetuating a certain tradition. But nearly every week we are joined by someone who gives themselves a list of credits-- who gets up onstage and displays the musical flavor-profile of a water-cooler-style instant coffee. Do they get this? Are they listening? I don't know. Some of it is simple skill and practice. Some of it is 'ear'-- the ability to discern what is good from what is merely adequate. But much of it is simple failure to listen. Can these people distinguish a freshly-grilled burger from a fast-food filler-patty? I would think so. But here they are, offering up the audio version of plastic food choices, sometimes via instruments which belonged to celebrities before them, which cost a small fortune, but sound cheap and misused.
Or is it that we are not just deaf but blind? In this world of a billion pairs of fashion eyeglasses, people do not see themselves. We have Beyonce-unlikes who flaunt themselves on the street-- women of age with enhanced lips and injected faces who choose to dress and behave like their own daughters. I remember becoming 40-ish... I could see in the mirror I was turning like a late-summer leaf-- from a youngish woman to a mature one. At first I was panicky and loathed myself-- discovered tricks of hair-color and make-up. But then I began to realize it's not so bad-- I don't have to be beautiful all my life; it's time to focus on content. I've been loved; I can still continue to love. So I have left behind my girlhood; there is still the memory and the experience. And now, I have long left behind my 40's and in photographs quite see the beauty I did not understand at the time.
Recently I had an accident on the subway steps; it wasn't too serious but I noticed my knee had somehow kept the memory of some old injury and was stubbornly refusing to heal itself. It was reminding me of my past-- fiercely holding on to some long-forgotten fear and stress of pain-- maybe from my ballet days. A friend of mine has had a cancer recurrence.. like a message from his body-- a voice-- a scar which was untended.
Late Monday night, after my gig, I watched St. Louis Blues on some free non-cable network. This is the story of the great W.C. Handy-- his struggle with music. Even the actors playing these roles-- Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt--- Ruby Dee... had a kind of genius and exquisite talent we rarely see in our time. The voice of Eartha Kitt-- unadorned, unadulterated-- those eyes-- I could not take my eyes from the screen. The temporary blindness of W. C. Handy-- the depth of his musical nature-- how he nurtured and groomed this as he matured. I think of my fellow musicians here--- even myself, with my handicaps and mediocrities-- how many thousands of nights we stood trying to understand ourselves onstage-- learning to listen and find our place in the music; how we suffer and starve-- me, the Princeton summa cum laude girl with the scholarships and accolades-- struggling to just be-- to let go of being loved, admired-- to be sometimes misjudged or slighted, hit on by club-owners and horn players--- chided, praised, cheated, marginalized and drowned out-- just for these moments of musical truth-- for my tiny contribution to something larger. I am no genius; I am a cog, but I think I am finally a listening, genuine cog.
W.C. Handy had his retribution: parental forgiveness, restoration of sight-- great lifetime acknowledgment. Not so for me-- I have my old scars, like the pain in my knee which will heal, telling my story, somehow inserting themselves into the music-- the experience, the joy, the sweat and truth we try so hard to convey, with tedious long years and words-- 2-track soundbites and voices ringing like old bells in the face of the Instagram wall that stands before us with ever more facile digital brickwork, every day. And yet, I wouldn't trade a single analogue minute, old and scarred as I am, me and my vintage guitars, my scraps of paper and my dreams.