The Duo Gig
Slouched down behind the wheel, I could hear the blood pressure in my ears as I rounded the corner off the boulevard into the residential neighborhood. I found a space right in front of the house, and parallel parked in about 12 moves, back and forth. There were no cars behind me on the street. This exercise was the expression of my absent depth and spatial perception. Some party-goers were trying to exit their car in front of me, but had to stop in a small herd, while I sea-sawed my way up to the curb. I tried to smile through the windshield. I have no idea what face I made.
I was there for a piano and vocal house concert, with my friend, Tosh Gelson, a popular and respected jazz pianist. I’d dragged Tosh to both shitty, and awesome gigs, all over LA, and he was also the pianist in my own band for three years, so I knew his chops and he knew mine. House concerts are like the close-up gallery at the Magic Castle, you’ve gotta work the notes like prestidigitation. If you have any flaws, any insecurities, the audience member two feet away from you on the ottoman, with the down turned facial cracks, will vibe a hole through your sternum. But this was Raya and Tosh, we were pros.
I stepped out of Volvo, slowly, securing the asphalt beneath my turquoise high heels. It wasn’t that I might fall off my shoes, it was that the Earth might fall away from my feet. I was prepared to explain that to any of the partygoers who had seen my parking experience. The house was on a corner surrounded by an excessively large lawn. Nothing but grass, and a long cement pathway to the door. Landscaping in the San Fernando Valley is all concepts, and no concept.
I hiked across the excessively large lawn, my turquoise heels periodically sinking into the earth, causing a hitch and a twist in my stride. This did nothing to augment my goal toward outward normalcy. Then, realizing I should probably be walking on the path, I made a diagonal turn towards the long cement slab, acting as if I had seen something interesting. In the last 20 steps to the front door, I conjured a story in case the fish swimming in my head started to leak out. Something about how I’d been sick for the last week and I was still on an antihistamine. Then I saw Tosh talking with audience at the door. I was relieved, and terrified.
Tosh was his charming, well-kept, softly social self. Somehow he managed coolness in khakis and Don Draper hair. He laughed at the correct times, at the correct decibels, both things I’ve always struggled with, particularly that evening. Clearly he knew the owners of the house, or they might’ve been fans of his. Though his reputation for class and quality was well deserved, and pretty much calcified onto the LA Jazz scene (more than mine), these were LA jazz patrons, and he needed their enthusiasm, long term. Intimate shows like this breed familiarity, appreciation, and most importantly, more gigs. And here came his singer up to the door, with all the composure of a bee hive in a brush fire.
We hugged. He introduced me to a few people who I assumed were the owners, or fans, or friends, or maybe one was Margaret Thatcher. I had no idea. The moment I met them I forgot them instantly. I was trying to counteract my bubble-headed fog with exuberance, laughing at incorrect places at incorrect decibels. I remember shaking hands and saying “yeah” a lot.
I went into the bathroom to have some private time to collect myself. I think I was in there for a while, because when I came out Tosh was sitting at the piano, and the crowd was gathering around on couches, chairs, and floor pillows. I walked across the room, navigating odd upholstered arms, and a pink, marble, coffee table. At the piano, I got out my music book. I‘d had a set order in mind, but I couldn’t read the titles clearly enough to sort them. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the titles, I just couldn’t comprehend them. I handed Tosh my chart book with a smile and a nervous bounce. This is why I don’t do drugs.
The previous night I’d been enjoying the glow of the photons from my standing lamp bouncing softly off the eggshell walls of my living room. My friends from high school were visiting, and we were catching up. Manny, actually a childhood friend, the sharpest pile of scruff you’ll ever meet, a lawyer in stoner drag, reclined on the floor across from me. Tonight his wit was felt-tipped and harmless.
Ok so the stoner wear was not just drag, there was truth in the corduroy. Manny had been deep in the blunts since high school, and he knew what he could handle. I, however, didn’t. In high school I was fiercely protective of my vocal chords, and I never smoked a thing. (Ok that one time with Aidan at Eagle Rock, but hardly.) On this occasion, Manny had two little doobies on him, which he had revealed and passed around. What could’ve been a safer time? Surrounded by friends, in my own space, nobody driving anywhere anytime soon. Perfect. After about 5 minutes Manny seemed the same. Groovy, but the same. I felt nothing.
Manny nodded at me.
“So how has the music business been treating you?”
I’d recently signed a record deal, and I was well into pulling the levers on the album-making machine. I was trying to break through the boundaries of the jazz genre, and I had some ideas about how to do it…but I didn’t say any of that.
Manny smiled warmly, half-lidded, waiting for me to answer his question.
“Been goin’ ok?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but in the time it took to gather breath, someone cracked an egg inside of my skull, and the yoke dripped down in a uniform curtain around my brain, halting all thought in an opaque, swampy, glue. I began to answer and…the ans…wer…dis….a……..ppear……..e...d....
Manny leaned back on his elbows and took in my living room. I watched my standing lamp disperse photons.
I felt a sense of loss. The usual bonfire in my mind, snuffed. I recall the rest of the night like GIFs: short moments which I can replay, but they’re disjointed from each other.
The first memory is the moment when I failed to answer Manny’s question. I remember Manny putting his head back with a languid smile and laughing just a little bit. I think he knew it had hit me.
My next memory is lying on the couch starting to shake a little. Someone suggested I might be hungry or thirsty.
I must’ve gotten up and obtained food, because the next memory is lying on the couch eating an apple, thinking “This is all I need. I’ll be fine after this. I’m glad I’m the kind of person who has an apple in my kitchen. Very responsible.”
Then I was standing in my hallway in the doorframe facing the living room. I was upright, but the room was slowly turning over to the right. Like the entire floor of my apartment was gradually rotating over and upending itself. I took a step and it snapped back. Maybe that was just a fluke. No, there it goes, it’s turning. I turned to my friend, Tess, who had not taken part.
“Tess, why is the room turning over?”
“Whenever I stand still the room…”
“What are you talking about?”
“…but then if I move it stops..”
“Come sit down.”
“When did I get up?”
Then I was on the couch again, and people were leaving. My friends, Tess and Mason, stayed a little to make sure I was ok, but I guess they decided I was. I went to bed around 3am. I think. I would sleep it off.
Day of my duo gig with Tosh. I sit up in bed. I am still high.
I remember walking into the kitchen and thinking about this. The apartment was no longer turning over, but my ability to form sentences was not where I had left it before last night’s joint. I spoke to my mother on the phone, and though I do not remember the conversation, I remember trying very hard to seem engaged. I have no idea if I succeeded.
I sat down with something edible. In all of my pot experience (all five times), I had never felt so otherworldly. Then again I’m such a lightweight, one regular Tylenol gives me a buzz. Then I remembered a dribble of a conversation from the previous night. I remembered the word “laced.” Oh no. This was not friendly herb. This was something more sinister, and I would have to ride the wave to shore.
I sipped my tea. No I didn’t. I consumed something.
I walked around my apartment, hoping that physical activity would work it out of my body.
I lay down.
I drank water.
I tried, very intentionally, to compose linear thoughts.
I walked around waving my arms.
I did important work with small pieces of paper and lint.
The room was turning over to the left now. I tilted my head to the right side whenever the room turned over left.
I put my gig books in my gig bag.
I walked around some more.
I might have showered.
Then it was 5:30pm. I was still high.
Somehow I put on tights and a dress and heels, and fortunately black is standard for gigs, so brain cells were not needed for color matching. Though I did put on turquoise heels. Then I printed out driving directions, and remembered the gig was in the valley, so I would be sitting in rush hour like this. I do not endorse driving under the influence of strange substances, were I to be in this situation now, I would have a friend drive me – but I was 25 and high, so I did the wrong thing.
Volvo and I sat on the 405 North. Sometimes we fossilized in automotive murmur, other times we rolled forward with all the abandon of a funeral procession. Tail lights and headlights all around us, doing the same. I was actually glad for the gridlock, because I was not convinced of my faculties. I was not having vision problems, no more room turning over, but my grasp of my surroundings was not 100%. When we moved, I watched the street lines, staying in my lane, trying not to look at any other drivers because I was sure they would know. I felt like I had an aura of guilt and lesser gravity. I stopped at an intersection.
A woman with a shoulder length page-boy cut and a sweater set stopped beside me in a mini-van. My mind lit up like a lightening field.
“That woman just rolled down her window. Shit, look away. Is that woman looking at me? Who cares, what’s she gonna do.”
I turned up the radio. It didn’t help, she could still see me.
“She’s a FED. I’m not a criminal, I’m fine, I’m just tired. She’s looking at me. She’s looking at the signal – no, at me. What is she, a hired pig? Plain-clothed cop? Holy hell, I’m on edge. She’s a soccer mom, she doesn’t know. She turned. Jesus Christ, I’ve gotta get low.”
I slowly slid down in my seat, and shrugged my shoulders up. I gave her a side-eye as I pulled away from the intersection. I continued across Magnolia blvd. in this fashion.
There have been plenty of gigs where I’ve fudged some lyrics on a song I don’t really know. Plenty of times I’ve come in with the wrong verse, at the wrong time even, and the band caught me. A big part of being a competent musician is watching out for your fellow musicians on stage, and also trusting them to cover your ass when you do something weird. However, when you’ve only got yourself and one accompanist, like on this night, you are, musically speaking, naked.
Next to the half opened baby grand, I adjusted the mic stand to my high heel height, and twisted it tight. Some functions are instinct, no matter how cognitively compromised you are.
Tosh adjusted his black rimmed glasses and asked if I was ready. The only sound in the room was the cheap hiss from my cheap PA speaker. A bunch of financially comfortable jazz aficionados softly stared me down from pastel couches. I was momentarily caught in a thought loop about whether Tosh’s glasses were cool accidentally or intentionally. Did he have them before the hipsters had those kinds, and if so, was that because he knew the cool was coming, or was he accidentally cool, like your grandpa is accidentally cool when he wears the same cardigan sweater the guy wore in that Weezer video? No, he knew.
“Can’t Take That Away From Me?”
“Yes. The chart in A.”
“That’s the one you gave me.”
The piano rang with the familiar introduction to a song I sang all the time, but my brain was behind…or ahead?
“God this is taking a long time. Was the intro always this long? It’s only 4 bars, is he stretching it? What song are we doing? They’re all looking at me.”
The closest audience member was two feet away from me, and the room was dead silent save for the piano. I remember a lot of women with well-quaffed hair, and they all had the same face. Their communal face was staring blankly at me. I smiled behind the mic, and tilted my eyes over at the chart. He was 3 bars into the 4 bar intro and I had forgotten the first words. The audience was so close. They were so close. They could hear everything. My skin was damp. The intro ended. I began.
I held the first word for a long time, as if I was milking it. I was, but not for musicality. I was waiting for the rest of the song to download into my brain hole from the ethereal Jazz Mathmos*. It was like I was trying to read a page of lyrics somebody was waving at me from across a room, behind textured glass. Tosh looked up at me. He is a good musician so he caught what I was doing (though not why) and he stayed on the first chord, doing little textural glissando things. Tosh was good. Then, like a turd from the sky, the lyrics splatted on my consciousness.
“… way you hold your hat, the way you sip your tea…”
I made it. Now the rest of the song will be auto pilot. I smiled, snapped, bounced a little. Tosh took a solo. His notes tripped off the piano and danced around the room, making people do those jazz recognition head bobs - those motions acknowledging something lovely or hip has just happened. Then I realized I had lost my place. This hadn’t happened since I was a teenager. Getting lost is amateur, but I was chemically handicapped, and dazed with paranoia. I started reciting the lyrics to myself while Tosh soloed. I counted bars. I heard his solo begin to trickle off and I jumped in.
“The waaaaaaaaay you wear your hat..”
I jumped the gun by half a bar. Tosh did a double take so quickly I heard a small sonic boom. His eyes sent a red alert to his brain, and his neurons scrambled to set new coordinates. Command talked to Engineering, and the hands were dispatched back to the top of the tune. All of this was capped with an adjustment of the glasses, and a side glance, with more than a little shade. And of course a smile for the crowd. Tosh was good.
Then we did, Corcovado. Another one I know like my own name. We got through the first section, then I decided I should scat. Now, I’ll try to make this simple – Corcovado has an unusual form, the last chord of the song becomes the first. Not just the same chord repeated, but the same bar. Usually the last phrase of a tune will take 4 bars, the last phrase of Corcovado has 2 bars, then the 3rd bar becomes the top of the song again, dig? What does this mean for the vocal/melody? It means you cut of the last word of the phrase and start at the beginning again. You only finish the last verse, on the very last time through. This is super cool if your brain is working.
Let’s just say that by the time Tosh was playing the second time through, it sounded like we were performing two different songs. My performance had become completely unsalvageable, and I had lost the ability either to anticipate chord changes, or to improvise based on the ones passing right by me. I was a moaning oracle without the gift of prophesy. I was a crazy person. I started in on long notes, hoping to hold until I got musically situated. I tried moments of vocal percussion, short phrases – all of it sounded like somebody having a seizure over a piano track. Finally Tosh came to the top of the song and started playing the melody, so my addled brain could tell my mouth to bring it home.
We did one long set, about an hour. For a duo gig, that’s about 12 songs. Every song went something like the first one. Halfway through the intro I had no idea what country I was in, then two seconds before starting to sing, the lyrics would crack me in the head like giant hailstones. Or giant turds. Giant turd stones. Then I had to count every bar during the solo, singing the lyrics under my breath. I was sure the people in the first few rows knew. I was also sure someone in the back row was sneaking out to call the police. I was sure S.W.A.T. was already in the bushes.
We concluded with Misty, an old reliable tune, everyone knows. Once the lyrics arrived in my brain hole, I got through the tune naturally. I went into a scat solo, and judged my location in the music by Tosh’s body language. Once Tosh was off and soloing, I tried to look professionally hip and charming. My thoughts were racing.
“Let’s just smile…closed mouth smile...that feels right. Shit, I shouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. Then they’ll know. But that’s weird. I should make eye contact with everyone.”
I lifted my head and made eye contact with everyone in the room very slowly. I felt good about it, then I realized that Tosh had been soloing over Misty for 4 cycles, while I’d been looking creepily at our audience. I looked at him and he raised his eyebrows like, “Anytime this year, pal.”
I jumped back in and ended the song.
As we packed up, the floor sitters rose to shake our hands and say thank you. The couch sitters began to stretch and talk. I gathered my books and pages and made small talk with Tosh, but we were both raw from the Bizarro World version of our usual set. Tosh stayed behind and schmoozed, but I knew I had to get out of there. I needed directions back to the freeway, and the lady of the house gave them to me, but I couldn’t keep them in my brain hole, so I had to get a pen and paper. (When I found the directions the next day, I saw there were only two streets written down). I rushed through goodbyes and, laden with two bags of music, speakers, and a few drifting pages shedding like dried leaves off my shuffling body, made my long, high heeled trek back to the street. I loaded up my car, got in, and then I felt rude that I had rushed out. I shouted a thank you back to the house, because at that moment it seemed like a socially acceptable thing to do. I thought I was being friendly, but when I recall their faces, I’m sure I was only causing the guests to wonder what I was yelling, since they couldn’t hear me across the excessively large lawn.
I got home and sat on my couch. I thought of calling Tosh to explain, or apologize, but I didn’t. There was an apple on the floor with a bite taken out of it. Had I any analytical skill at that moment, I’m sure I would’ve interpreted the existence of that trope, but I hadn’t any.
I looked at the spot on my floor where Manny had been sitting, when he gave me the shit. I thought about his question. “How has the music business been treating you?”
“You never know when the world will turn upside down.” I would’ve said.
*The Mathmos is a swirling, bubbling, liquid essence of evil and power, from the science-fiction sexploitation film, Barbarella (1968), starring Jane Fonda. The Mathmos surrounds and powers the decadent city of The Tyrant, and has various other magical powers. I imagine there is a benevolent Jazz Mathmos surrounding the places where Jazz is played, which can connect, on the subconscious level, with jazz musicians, to give them ideas and lyrics when they are in times of need.