Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Another attitude

underground party
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I've had this cold the last week and a half, but I was determined to keep my birthday dinner date. Several of my best friends had arranged it, and with everyone's busy schedules, I wasn't going to be the one to cancel, and besides, I wanted to have some fun, dammit. As I was getting ready to leave, the phone rang.

"Hey, Happy Birthday to that former Pickup."

This only sounds weird if you don't know me. I had a band called the Pickups for over ten years, and the caller was Tony, guitarist extraordinaire, fellow Pickup and good friend.

It felt weird, hearing myself called a "former Pickup." It was my band, I guess you'd have to say. I wrote the songs, sang them and played the bass. But there had always been a lot of collaboration, give and take. Tony, Todd and I, we'd become friends, gotten involved in each other's lives. I'd seen Tony's kids from, well, Nancy's pregnancies into high school. The fourth member of the band was my sister, and though we obviously had our own connection, she also became absorbed in some of the traditions that were celebrated in these new circles of friends. Particularly around the holidays. On the Monday before Christmas, there is Todd's holiday party, on a Monday so working musicians would more likely be free for the evening. On Christmas Eve, the party at Tony and Nancy's house. Tony and his mom, Luisa, a native Sicilian, would make cioppino, for good luck. I would bring the Italian dessert wine. At some point in the evening, Nancy would insist that I sing "Rocky Raccoon," (this song seems to follow me through life) because of the line, "everyone knew her as Nancy." Tony's mom died a year and a half ago, but the cioppino continues. These parties, these rituals, mean a lot to me. I have my family, but my friends are my family too.

We never broke up or anything dramatic like that. I'd just gotten too busy, or more accurately, too tired. Tony and Todd are professional musicians. I on the other hand am a professional bureaucrat with lingering creative ambitions. The band was a serious endeavor, for a long time. We got some good reviews. We worked at it. But somewhere in the back of my mind was the notion that I'd never make it as a professional musician. I just wasn't the right type. I had some talent, some ability, but maybe not quite enough. Certainly other people with less talent than I had made it. They make it every day. But that's like counting on the Fame Fairy to tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey! You win the lottery!" I'd always had other stuff going on. Writing - I wrote every night. Scripts, novels, page after page after page. And I thought, figure the odds. Forty-ish, I'm not going to be a rock star at this point. A writer, that I can do. And that was always what the little voice in my head was telling me. You're a writer. Time to take it seriously.

But the thing that sealed it was studying Chinese. I managed through the first two years, working, writing, playing music, taking Chinese. The band made it into the new milennium. But by my third year of Chinese study, I just couldn't do it all any more. Doing a band - it's not just showing up for a gig. It's practicing. It's keeping your chops up. It's writing new material. People used to say, just play the old stuff, but you can't do that forever. You have to keep growing. You have to keep it alive.

The last time I sang in public was in March 2003. It was a fundraiser for Code Pink, the women's peace organization. I sang a song I'd written a number of years ago, about war and television and the absurdity of it all. Tony played guitar. That was the day the U.S. bombed Baghdad. And I thought, how is it that this song is still relevant? I wrote it ten years ago.

Lately, it seems like people keep asking me: when are you going to play again? You are going to play, aren't you? And I sort of shake my head and say, I haven't picked up my bass in more than a year. Not once. It isn't so simple.

But things keep changing. My sister is moving to San Francisco. "We have to do a gig before I go," she tells me. And I say, well, maybe I'll drag my bass out of the closet. But I don't.

Then I get this call on my birthday from Tony. Calling me the "former Pickup." And I remember a conversation we had a couple of years ago, over a few Sierra Nevada Celebration Ales. I'd always felt a little guilt, because Tony and Todd are working musicians who generally get paid for what they do. And we never made money. We just spent money. So I never wanted to ask too much of them, because they were already making a sacrifice.

And at some point in the conversation, Tony says something like, this is my outlet. This is where I get to play for fun and for the sake of playing. And I get all beery/teary-eyed, because it's never enough for me that it's just about me and my shit and trotting it out for all the world to see (or not, given that there's something like 20,000 bands in the greater Los Angeles area at any given time). It has to mean something to somebody else too.

Last night I got my bass out of the closet. I was thinking about change and death and stuff like that. I'm very attached to my bass. It's a 1976 Fender Jazz Sunburst, with a Badass bridge I put on years ago, and ground round strings (I have this thing about my strings). The pick-guard is decorated with puffy stickers from my proto-punk days - little soldiers manning machine guns, exploding ordinance, screaming jets - and on the body is a car sticker from Texas that shows a gunfighter through the bowed legs of another gunfighter. I love this bass. It's insanely heavy and the action is a little high, but it's wonderful fun to play and sounds great in the studio.

The strap had mold on it. How the hell did that happen? And the jack was messed up, so I had to unscrew it and clean it and bend it a little. But finally, I was able to plug it in and play.

It's scary how much you can forget, but I expected that. I expected that I'd have lost the special muscles and calluses in my hands and fingers that helped me play. I have small hands, too small to be a top-notch player, and I needed those muscles and calluses. It was scary to think of playing without them.

What I hadn't expected, what I'd forgotten, actually, is how it felt, the fingers on the strings, the sensual pleasure of it, making the sounds, dampening the notes or letting them ring. Yeah, I could barely stumble my way through one of my own tunes. But still...I'd played the bass for more than twenty years. It had been a part of my life, a constant, something that defined me. And then I'd put it away in the closet. No time for that any more. Time to get serious. Time to grow up.

Now I'm thinking, a half an hour a night. Surely I can make time for that.


Anonymous said...

Lisa, you can do a half hour a night!!! But start soon, before baseball season--

JR said...

Liza, you are pretty talented. What kind of music do you play? From the pic, it looks like some funk, blues, rock and roll. My fave female singer is Nico from her Velvet Underground period. Are you familiar with her? I listened to her when I was a kid and forgot about her songs until I saw Royal Tenenbaum in the theatre 2 Christmas ago. It was touching and beautiful.

Other Lisa said...

Dear JR,

Well, that's nice of you to give me the benefit of the doubt! I used to get a lot of comparisons to Chrissy Hynde as our voices are somewhat similar. I really liked bands like Talking Heads; the guys in the band are very talented players so we had a kind of jazz thing going on at times but in some ways we reminded me of the Police. Yeah, rock, sort of melodic, different rhythms, etc.

I'm familiar with Nico but can't say I know her stuff that well...I actually listen to a lot of music from around the world - and I really like pipa music!

thanks for writing, and yes, Anonymous, it's getting to be baseball time again!

JR said...

Love Chrissy Hynde, she got a sensual and magnetic voice, one of the fave song in my ipod is I'll stand by you. I was a big Talkinghead fan also in their road to nowhere, wild wild life period.
I like pipa, Erhu, Guzheng, yangqin and other string instruments. I was doing a culture project in my college class. I couldn't find any traditional Chinese music, so I used Narada Alasdair Fraser's poignant "Lament For Hetch Hetchy" from Narada wilderness collection CD. It is a violin piece but the sadness sounds like Chinese Erhu music. The music touched the whole class. What do you think of the 12 girls band from China?

Influenced by Jackson Browne, Bauhaus and Aztec Camera (Roddy Frame was a master guitarist), I learned to play guitar and wanted to be a bass player. My number 1 dream was to become a professional musician. Unfortunately I didn't follow up on that.

Other Lisa said...

JR, are you still playing? You know if you play bass, you'll always have people to play with! There are never enough bass players...

I've only seen/heard a little of the 12 Girl band - a friend of mine in China played me some of their DVD - how is the CD? Should I buy it?