STRETCHING FROM PAST TO FUTURE
Jeremy texted me the other day saying, here’s a song for the Silver Spaceship, which is our supersonic all star party band, we perform here in Woodstock every New Years Eve and the shows are more like ecstatic rites, really, than shows. There are ten people in the band, back up singers, we all wear silver. Jeremy and I sort of share frontman duties. He does most of the musical heavy lifting and I’m more of the host, the captain, if you will. We switch off singing, sometimes share the vocals, and our bass player Jennifer takes three or four numbers herself.
So occasionally when Jeremy or I hear a tune that would be good for the band we send it to the other. We’re looking for songs with a solid dance groove that can help us build toward a head bursting dance explosion.
“Spaceship, question mark, with you and me doing leads?” And the link was to Rubberband Man by the Spinners. Wow. I hadn’t thought of that song in a long while. But it’s a song that carries a very specific memory from long ago.
“I love that song,” it texted back. And I quoted the opening lyrics, “hand me down my walking cane, hand me down my hat.”
I started doing theatre when I was a teenager, first community theater, then high school theater and then I auditioned for a show at the community college within walking distance from my house and got cast. I started doing plays one after another after another. I had found my purpose. My thing. My joy. A lot of the shows were musicals and I was a pretty good singer. My mom played music for us a lot when we were kids and encouraged singing which made an early impact. But I didn’t read music. In fact, one year my mom asked me if I wanted to learn to play the piano and I jumped at the opportunity. She bought an old upright piano from Dr. McKinney, who had an antique shop in the garage behind his house off the boulevard. He wore spectacles on the edge of his nose and whenever we would visit him, the bells hanging from the door would ring and he’d stand up from his desk, removing his glasses and say, “hello, Mrs. Wells, and hello young Master Wells.”
The upright arrived and sat in our family room. I loved to see it there, adding a cheap, old fashioned sparkle to our suburban home. Sitting at the bench I’d noodle and make up chords and imaginary songs. Mom got me piano lessons from Mr. Domingo at the music store on Avenue K. I’d meet with him weekly and he’d work me through scales and then have me begin learning simple versions of popular songs. I started off well, but as the weeks progressed I realized I didn’t the lessons, and never wanted to practice, I wanted to sit and play and make up songs. And I had a good ear, Mr. Domingo would often say that to me, and he had said that to my mom, too, when I first started. “Yes,” he proclaimed, “he’s got a good ear.”
The good ear often meant that I would figure things out without reading the music which required studying. One week, Mr. Domingo assigned me Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, and showed me where it was in the practice book. I went home and some time during the week I sat down at the piano, not opening up the book and just figured out the melody and added some flourishes. Done and done. I was quite proud of myself.
At my next lesson, I performed my own version of Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini for Mr. Domingo. When I had finished I turned to him expecting praise. “You didn’t practice,” Mr. Domingo said. This seemed entirely beside the point to me. But it was the last straw. He told my mother, when she came back to pick me up, that if I wasn’t willing to practice then this wasn’t going to work. So I stopped taking lessons and I stopped sitting at the piano and making up songs and one day I came home from school and the family room was back the way it had been before, she had sold the piano.
So learning parts for musicals took extra work because I didn’t know an e flat from a b minor, didn’t know what key we were in or any of that. I could follow the little black balls as they moved up and down and sometimes figured out by their proximity what the next note would be.
Imagine the thrill then, when I got into show band. Being a theater kid was fun and came easily to me, but being a musician was cool and required skill, how to play an instrument. I was intimidated by the guys in the horn section who sat stone faced in the orchestra pit while we made fools of ourselves on stage.
But I got into show band. Laura Hemenway, who’s my dear friend in Santa Barbara, led the band and gave me a shot.
Not only did I not know how to read music, I had never stood and held a mic and sung in front of a band. Just getting up to sing back ups was terrifying. I also continued my habit of not practicing so often arrived unprepared, not knowing my lyrics etc etc.
“I’ve got a really cool song for you,” Laura said one day when I got to rehearsal. “I want you to sing the lead.” My heart popped and jolted. She handed me the sheet music for Rubberband Man, a song I knew from the radio.
I was to work on it and come back next week to go through it with the band. More terror. Did I practice? Not really. Did I learn the words? Not really.
The following week at rehearsal I was on edge. I knew I wasn’t ready so when it came time to get up and do the number with the band I was quaking and put on a strange sweaty version of cool.
The bass began, then the fabulous horns, then, “that was your cue, Chris.” I had missed it. The rehearsal limped along from there. Not good at all. But I made assurances that I would have it.
At the end of rehearsal Laura announced that we’d booked a gig at the Air Force base in a couple of weeks. So I had a deadline to get it together. Rubberband Man was going to be on the set list.
The night of the gig I drove my dad’s van. Saturday night and since I’d never been to the base before I meant to leave a little bit early but by the time I left the house I was actually late. I drove East on Avenue K and knowing the Valley was laid out on a grid I decided to cut across before the next main cross street and shave a few minutes off my travel time.
It was growing dark when I turned left. This area had retained its agricultural feel more than the west side of the Valley and the road was old asphalt with soft shoulders. It ended at a crossroad so I turned right, the asphalt ended and soon the van was moving sluggishly through soft sand, I began weaving and skidded slowly off the side of the road and came to a stop. The engine idled, I pressed the gas and heard the tires spin without moving. This can’t be happening, I thought. I’ve got a great sense of direction, this shortcut is going to get me there on time, I’m going to sing Rubberband Man even though I still didn’t really know it.
But, none of those things turned out to be true. The van was stuck. The shortcut did not save me time and I never sang a Rubberband Man at that gig because I never made it to the base. Instead I got out and walked, next to a barbed wire fence. I could smell and hear livestock off in the dark. I made it back to Avenue K and found somewhere with a phone. My dad came to get me. We went back the next day to get the van towed and seeing it stuck on the side of the dosed next to a farm I realized how lost I had been. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I guess if there’s a moral to my story it’s: Be prepared. Don’t take shortcuts. And know your shit, the band is waiting.