I miss playing music

What can ever replace the band, the clubs, the comradeship, the flow?

Published March 26, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am/was a bass player. I played in the same band as my spouse. Now I am separated and chronically ill.

Playing music was always, growing up, the most important and only safe part of me.  Music was my sanctuary, my heart, my sanity and my reality.

I saved my pennies and nickels (literally) and bought my first guitar at age 11. Two years later my guitar teacher, who I thought actually cared about me, was in fact emotionally sexually abusive and having been caught with his pants down in front of small children was institutionalized and I was betrayed. I lost my guitar somewhere along the way.

Kids happened, marriages happened then a new boyfriend left his guitar at my house. It was in its case, propped open against the hutch in the dining room. I was vacuuming. I leaned over and flipped the case closed. Time stopped and spun backwards. The smell of rich wood and metal and gray fuzzy case lining floated up and socked me hard with the memory of the guitar I worked so hard for and embraced through the insanity and fear that was my childhood.

Many years later he [the new boyfriend] gave me an electric bass the day of our wedding. We rehearsed and played in bars and wrote achingly beautiful songs that still make me cry and I would love to say we lived happily ever after but of course we didn't. We abused each other and our wonderful children so I moved out after 20 years and I am now brutally envious of his life. He sweats talent and draws people to him and I instead isolated myself to try and figure out where I end and the world begins and then I became horribly ill.

And it isn't just being sick, I thought being in a band would be so different than it was. I don't know if it was me, or the band, or the marriage or what but sometimes, a lot of times, it just really sucked. It is hard enough to be married to one person. In a band you are tied up with x number of other people and you depend on each of them in a most intimate, fulfilling and infuriating ways. When it is working it is heaven and when it isn't it grinds the inside of your head and heart. For someone like me, so guarded yet so longing for connection, it was fraught with peril. To give my best and only gifts of words and melody and to have them casually used or nonchalantly discounted cut way deeper than was reasonable. I made shit up that people were thinking and I made shit up about me.

I didn't get what the others did out of working for months to play our hearts out in front of 10 drunk people and some friends from work for 45 minutes. But then everyone I have played with all were in bands in their young days and I came to this way later than most. I wanted depth and reality and poetry and they wanted to jam on Foghat and Nugent and then I would walk out and piss everyone off. They didn't get that no one buys CDs anymore. In the end I felt like they just wanted to be in cover bands of themselves at age 20 and I wanted wild hot art. Of course as always, the truth is somewhere in between.

So I have played very little in the last two years. I miss it terribly in some ways and in others not at all. We played some really big shows and I felt like a fat old housewife doing karaoke, even though it was "real." If I were to go back into it I would have to be in a project that was authentic and somehow age appropriate, whatever that means.

My illness makes it hard to feed myself some days let alone be in a band, and solo bass is not a whole lot of fun.

I miss that jittery feeling of walking into a club on show night, I miss being "the band," I miss the thunder of standing inside a rock show at full velocity, I miss my low b string and thinking "bitch I will walk your drink off that table," I miss the last delirious song of the night and the sweat and the dirty duct tape and the feeling that every bit of you has been sucked out and given up to the gods of music and sex and just fucking rolling in life.

I don't know how to do this as a middle-aged, sick, introverted, separated woman who is exhausted by having to talk to anyone, let alone "do a show."

I wish there was a student center for grown-ups that I could go to when I am up to it and just not be there when I am not. I am sad and lonely and miss the friends who used to sit in my front room and play music until dawn. I don't know how to find new ones and feel too tired to try. I feel like if I drag my beloved Roscoe Beck 5-string (which was always bigger than my abilities) out of its case I would just sit and cry all over its beautiful candy-apple teal, low-slung body. And maybe that is exactly what needs to happen.

Well, this has helped. I don't know if it is what you were looking for but I feel a little better and maybe a little known. Since you are just some guy on the Internet that doesn't really make sense but there it is. Just the question helped me to think that maybe since I am not actually dead yet there is still a place in the world for a middle-aged introvert who can write songs that make people cry, and love and all of that stuff.

Thanks for asking.

Sick Musician

Dear Sick Musician,

That old intoxication of music tugs like an old lover or an old drug, seeming to say, You could have me again, seeming to say, I am still here if you have the strength for me. But it is not really here. It is gone and must be mourned.

It may come again, that old intoxication of music, or something else may come, some sustainable, more sane musical practice, or some other inspiration of songs, but this thing that is tormenting you is tormenting you because it has already gone but you refuse to let it go.

Let it go.

Whatever golden feeling of ruling the world and feeling all the adoration of a crowd comes over you in an instant while standing in line or sitting at a light, whatever tingle of erotic possibility in the face of the audience, whatever thrill of writing the perfect turnaround, whatever memory of hearing the perfect notes explode over the heads of ticket-buyers like primo bottle rockets on the Fourth of July, you have to let it go.

You describe it well: the intimate poetry of bandmates, the duct tape, the fuzzy smell of guitar cases. You do not have to convince anyone. We know how great it was; we who have done these things know and we sigh and nod profoundly when we hear this because we know about this love and this intoxication.

But can a person live without it? We must. We must live without everything that has passed; we must live in the immediate present because nothing else is real. There is only one thing to do with the present moment and that is to accept it as it is. Everything that has passed is already over and all we have are the tapes.

What makes the loss painful is the refusal to accept the loss: all that churning in the sleepless night, those violent urges to just go buy a big amp and set it up on the roof, all that bargaining with god and time and memory. Consecrate these memories. Let them come in profusion but consecrate them and know they are fleeting. Let your musical life, the things you have done, let all that live with you in vivid dreams but stop tormenting yourself as if it could ever come again. It was wonderful and something like it may come again but that specific thing is gone for now; in this crystalline moment; in this very second, you are alive and conscious but that is the past; what you are thinking of is not here.

For now that is all you need to know. Accept your condition. If you accept your condition, music will come back into your life of its own accord when it is time.

What could possibly replace the ecstasy of playing music? What could possible be as fun and cool?

Just about nothing, actually. At least it seems so now.

So maybe substitution won't work. Maybe we must accept and mourn. Maybe something will come along but mourning what is lost is the inescapable task at hand.

With our beloved poodle Ricky recently dead, I have been thinking there must be other ways to accomplish that intimate connection we crave with the nonhuman world. It can be done -- by immersing oneself in nature, by hanging out with animals, by gardening.

But there is no getting around the grief. If we have had a recent loss, then whatever we are doing we are also grieving. If you are chronically ill, then whatever you are doing you are also chronically ill. Whatever we do about the loss -- whether we say it aloud or remain silent, rend our clothes or mend our clothes, sleep or lie awake, overeat or refuse to eat, get angry and irritable or become passive, overdo it or underdo it or not do it at all, exercise, take drugs, smoke cigarettes secretly on the deck, take long drives nowhere, deprive ourselves senselessly of things we need out of pure self-spite, whatever our vices and addictions, our additions and subtractions, our attentions and distractions -- we will first and foremost still be grieving.

So grieve the loss of the music for now and be at peace. Be with people who care for you. Get out and feel the sunshine on your skin. Be grateful for each breath.

Do the simple things. It will come again when it is time.

By Cary Tennis

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