The first three chords said, this isn't a family session. Elizabeth has not unearthed the second or third guitar from her bedroom, there has been none of the usual muttering about that spare envelope of strings I brought you LAST time, Elizabeth and MOTHER! WHERE THE HELL IS THE TUNER?! THIS THING IS A DISASTER. Per usual. I had, however, located the last three packages of stings during the living room excavation earlier that afternoon and left them square in the middle of the large, bare coffee table. Couldn't be missed However, Lucia, fiance, and Elizabeth's dad are still at the table. Elizabeth is on the red couch with T, I can see both of them through either door in the kitchen and the 1000 Watt Smile has been questioning Mike all evening about what he does with his time on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday nights.
The first three chords.
I put the roasting pan back on the stove top and turned the corner onto the landing at the top of the stairs, melted into the black cabinet with the china and crystal from the matriarchal line having come to me ostensibly beginning with Drucilla Lamb, wife of Jeremiah Robinson buried somewhere in Madison County, MO with his RANK and REV CO on the headstone. Having recently received the names and dates beyond my great grandmother and her aunt, making real what has been put in my hands to guard, augment, and pass on unlocks what you'd expect the ancestors to provide having been finally properly acknowledged.
I am invisible.
If he sees me he will stop. Or falter. Or finish the song he's started and be done with it. I am the one person in the world he will not play for other than what we do together when we are safe and alone the way we started in my bed all those years ago with the simple American Pie moving onto Warren Zevon when they got bored with that and I did NOT start with the Werewolf song although that was covered eventually. We started with Excitable Boy and then Lawyers, Guns, and Money, and by the time we got to Splendid Isolation the boy was hooked and has remained so to this day. Sometimes he sends his set lists and I see Splendid Isolation followed immediately by Nancy Griffin's It's a Hard life Wherever You Go, because, he tells me, they're already reflecting by the time I'm done with them and then I sucker punch them with Hard Life and I think it's the only way most of them are ever going to be able to hear that. My kid's personal children's crusade. It's about compassion, mom, you have to give a shit about the guy in the white hood too because where the hell do you think he came from? What is the nature of hate? Fear. Where does it come from? How does it stop? And on he goes except I've never heard the man sing because he's not ready to be that vulnerable in front of his momma. What if he should falter? What if he should fail? What if I should think him not quite good enough?
Sometime between whenever and whenever he moved from Everyday Mike at open mic Wednesdays to Something on Fridays and something else on Sundays and something about a radio show I'm not supposed to know about and not being willing to cross a boundary with my kids, this one most of all I bypass anything that happens to pop up on FaceBook because somebody decided to post him live from whatever studio he happens to be broadcasting from. Whole thing's a mystery and when the 1000 Watt Smile asked him if he got paid after having grilled the fiance up one side and down the other if his book was self-published (knowing perfectly well it was not) out of his mouth comes the word and a half smile,
Well do you have a day job?
Well what do you do during the day?
I'm an Industrial Designer?
I don't follow.
I make things. (not helpful, Mike)
Help me out here, what sort of things?
Things people use. (GOD, MIKE)
Like XE? (now she's getting even with you, Mike)
I don't know what XE is (shit, you really don't give a damn, do you)
The Human Experience. (um, 1000 Watt Smile, you know perfectly well what ID is)
Oh. That. We don't call it that.
What do you cal it?
What's the difference?
Humans don't always know what they're experiencing.
They don't always know what they're experiencing but a product has to fit in with the human. So how does a steak knife fit in your hand? If it's not a bad fit you don't think about it. If it's an exceptional fit then the carving of the cow is very easy and you still might not be able to tell me why you like that knife better or why it's maybe even safer. It's a human element, not necessarily a direct experience but that's a bad example. We did an entire surgical room once right down to some of the implements of destruction. My father always wanted to play with sharp instruments. We've been working with clean rooms from since just after I was born. It really pissed my mother off as I recall.
Turning to me... Why?
(me) It's a dessert topping! It's a floor polish! But wait! There's more! Because I was having a really hard time with a disinfectant that could be used on anything including the things that go in the mouth. I wanted him to go back into lighting, he was really good at it.
Mom, there's no money in lighting.
It's not my problem anymore either so there's that.
Back to your music, what do you play?
Mike takes out his phone and hands here his current play list which is really three play lists that can be and are cycled. I look at it and ask where his stuff is. Separate list and only at open mic. 1000 Watt Smile recognizes one song on the list of thirty. You don't know Warren Zevon? Seriously? Nope. Werewolves? His hair was PERFECT! OK, maybe but that's not on the list.
I only pull that out if I have one of those audiences.
Mike, all your stuff is dark and twisty.
I'm a dark and twisty sort of guy.
Why do you have The Circle Game? In case you get old people?
The old people who come see me do NOT want to hear The Circle Game.
So why do you have it?
Kids cry. They've never heard it before. It's the last song of the night.
The 1000 Watt Smile wants to hear The Circle Game. Mike confesses to having stopped playing it.
I got tired of the crying. I want them to cry about the kids in freaking Belfast, not about white kids running out of time.
Will you play it anyway?
Can't promise I remember all the words.
Do you really forget songs?
Oh yeah, all the time. Unless I wrote it. Then I remember. I don't forget the chords or the bridge though.
I really didn't expect him to play anything. I thought he might sit back the way he always does with Elizabeth next to him and she'd learn a new song from his playlist and they'd sing a little but he wouldn't belt out much because he was sick. His voice was just coming back and he was still coughing. He drank what looked like half a gallon of water with his wine and admitted to not having a cigarette in three days it hurt so bad which is when half the family found out he smoked. Apparently I was the only one. Only the 1000 Watt Smile. She believed.
I knew he wouldn't, couldn't possibly do this in his mother's house without benefit of at least one sister, preferably the older sister harmonizing with him and something completely safe. He would like it if he is mother sat down and sang Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me with him so I could sing it in the minor key with him and let his sisters soar. So, so safe.
I melted into seven or eight, I've lost count, generations of women, speechless. I turned and saw the fiance filming and thought, I'd better get this on video right this second because I am never going to hear it again.
I got 1:06 of Old Crow Medicine Show - Wagon Wheel sounding more like Darius Rucker than Dylan but definitely wanting the fiddle and the base of Old Crow behind him for sure and in the last :30 you could almost see him looking around for the harmony to step in.
This is not my son and it is my son and I have not heard this man sing before despite all those years in the car and on the bed and the back porch and Lyle Lovett and his Large Band and If I Had a Pony, I'd ride him on the.... I thought I might get one more out of him if I moved slowly to the couch and sat next to the 1000 Watt Smile very quietly. It would be easier to hold the phone at the right angle. I sat down and he just smiled at me and I cried and he asked, deadpan,
Mother, do you need the tissues?
No, I have a perfectly good sleeve, thanks.
1000 Watts began the Circle Game Campaign and Mike laughed and said, I bet you'll like this and she looked up the lyrics with each song because she wanted to sing with him. I could hear her but she only belted it out when he finally did get to the Circle Game and forgot the words and she did it for him. In the mean time he went through one after another until he said, I'm going to do Run Around.
Run Around? As in Blues Traveler? I didn't see that on your list.
That's one of the first four CDs I ever bought in 1994 when I moved into the apartment in Ansonia and I played that thing to death with Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Cracker's Kerosene Hat, and I can't remember the other one. There was a song called Nancy and something about bending a spoon, I don't know.
Yeah, I've had that rif in my head forever. I was eight years old when you were playing that thing to death and I loved it and then it just wouldn't go away. A couple of years ago I heard it in a bar and I had to ask half the people in the bar what it was because it was a radio and I was about to call the station when some old guy told me. Then he said it was the only decent track on the whole album.
I beg to differ.
Yeah? What else was any good?
OK, maybe but it's not Run Around.
This is very true. It is not Run Around and Run Around is why I bought the CD and that's about the only track I ever played and if you recall I burned the tracks I liked onto tape and played those.
Mom, you realize that was ridiculous, right?
It's hard to get a decent recording with an iPhone from 20 feet away and as he put it, no acoustics, no mic, no backup, no damn harmonica (wait for it) and I could hear his voice going with each song so that when he finally got to the Circle Game he sang the damn thing so fast just to be done 1000 Watt had trouble keeping up.
So this doesn't do him justice but it made his momma cry.
Someday, he said, someday I will tell you when you can come but I want you to know I planned this. When I got sick I was really scared I wasn't going to have any voice at all and it wasn't until about two o'clock today I thought I might be OK. But I planned this, Mom. It's the best I can do for you for now, is that OK?
Yeah, kid, that's more than OK. Maybe for Christmas you can sing me some stuff from Zevon's last album. And maybe some Tom Waits or some Cohen, maybe some John Prine, the older stuff?
Don't push it on the Leonard stuff, Mom.
Right. Right. Right. Leonard was ridiculously overrated.
Is. Is ridiculously overrated.
Mike. The man is dead. Let it be.
Finally. You overplayed Suzanne the same way you fed us too much eggplant parmesan and we're never going to be the same.
I am trying to convince him that he wants to convince Elizabeth to pick up her violin (not that she's actually put it down, she plays four days a week at school) and learn Old Crow's fiddle part for Wagon Wheel and if he shifts just a little bit she can back him up and we'll see what THAT sounds like. Throw Lucia's very sweet mezzo soprano in there on harmony...
But he'll never do it for an audience. It's been played to death and hacked to death and even when you listen to Old Crow at the bridge without the vocals and tried to meet that, the musicians in the room would drop their heads in shame for you because the song is for the lowest common denominator. He keeps it to reel in the unruly masses and it almost always works.
And besides, he tells me, I can't exactly take a sixteen year old into a bar where they card you at the door.
...but that's only at the front door, Everyday Mike. They don't card the musicians coming in the back door who don't so much as step off the stage much less get within three feet of the bar (CT State law).