Listening #62

On weekends, I play guitar in a string band whose membership varies between two and five members, depending on the location of the job and the amount of pay offered. We're reasonably good at picking and singing, but we lack the originality that would make someone want to buy our albums, which is why we haven't made them. Our little group is McDonald's, not Le Circe or even Applebee's, and I'm at peace with that.

My favorite jobs are the ones where people listen, or dance, or both. But those jobs are increasingly rare. You might have guessed that from the simple fact that I had to say, in all seriousness, that my favorite jobs are the ones where people listen, or dance, or both.

Last June we played a wedding reception at a posh lakefront house. It was an outdoor job, under a crisp, white tent on a picture-perfect day. Every song met with applause, and some pretty young women, including the bride, took off their shoes and danced to the uptempo numbers, such as "Sally Goodin" and "On My Way Back to the Old Home." The only tedium was supplied by a drunk who spent most of the last set loudly requesting Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy," and who seemed genuinely unable to understand why a group such as ours—two guitars, mandolin, banjo, and upright bass—might decline to play it. But the day ended happily, and the pay was terrific: the most money I've ever earned playing music. I love weddings.

Later in the summer I played two smaller-scale jobs in the cocktail lounge of a grand old resort hotel in Cooperstown. At the first, an apparently wealthy family—evening wear for the adults, rep ties and blazers for the pre-teen boys—occupied the tables closest to the stage. They hung on every note we played, and responded with genuine applause and words of appreciation. The mom even dropped a ten in my guitar case, which I'd carelessly left open (although my tip was confiscated before I got to it). At the second job, the nearest tables were occupied by some tipsy but not-unfriendly labor-union reps who were having a convention on the premises. They requested "Free Bird" and "anything by Dave Matthews," but otherwise left us alone. The party moved elsewhere and the bartender paid us early, saying we could leave if we wanted to. Musicians often drive home so late at night that the animals who cross the road in front of them are ones they've never seen before, so we said, Yes, thank you.

Three Friday evenings ago we played for a local historical society, at a deconsecrated church in the wilderness. It was a benefit job, so the band was down to its fighting weight: two of us. We were encouraged when our sound check met with applause; we shouldn't have been. A small portion of the audience listened to and applauded our first few numbers, but after a while they appeared restless with the notion of listening for its own sake, and turned to conversation instead. By the halfway point in our first set, it was clear that our band had taken over the same function as the boom box that had supplied the music before we arrived: We were a backdrop to something else. By the end of the set, a herd of four-year-old boys had made a game out of running toward the stage at full speed, dropping to the polished floor at the last moment, and slamming into it with their feet. To the extent that they noticed at all, their parents seemed amused: relieved that someone else was entertaining their spawn for a while.

Today—really, seriously, today—my cell phone rang, which it never does. It was an educated-sounding elderly man, who responded to my admittedly meaningless How ya doin' with a drippingly sarcastic Thank you so much for asking. He was calling on behalf of Carnegie Hall, and wondered if I would like to donate the same amount of money as last year. I wasn't in the mood, so I told a small lie. Actually, I told a big lie: I said that I was sitting in my car in the breakdown lane of a busy road, and asked if he would please call back some other day. I might go to hell for that.

Is it real?
I love my mother, but I don't love taking her shopping, especially when my nine-year-old daughter is with me. Like most good grandmothers, she feels compelled to buy Julia everything she wants, and a few things she hasn't thought of yet. Like most good dads, I feel compelled to keep any of that from happening.

But we were shopping together not long ago, and I made the mistake of turning my back on them. When I turned around again, I saw that Julia now owned a new blouse: a curiously stylized thing made of brown satin, with ruffles down the front, in the manner of Prince's stage outfits or the undergarments worn by certain Congressmen. It was too late for me to object, but I did raise my eyebrows pointedly—in response to which I was informed that the garment in question was a Hannah Montana shirt.

Again I made the mistake of asking, and I learned that Hannah Montana is a television show on the Disney Channel, the title character of which is a teenaged girl who leads a secret life as a pop singer. Subsequent conversational expeditions unearthed more gems:

One: The actress who portrays Hannah Montana is Miley Cyrus, the daughter of singer Billy Ray Cyrus, whose sole hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," led some to wonder if "Purple People-Eater" and "They're Coming to Take Me Away" shouldn't be welcomed into the canon of pop standards after all.

Two: Performing as Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus has charted a number of hits of her own, all of which appear to have been written by committees of songwriting professionals.

Three: By the time you read this, Hannah Montana's live show will be appearing at Albany's Pepsi Arena. That venue was the Knickerbocker Arena before it was purchased and renamed in an effort to sell more garbage to concertgoers, and thus make more money for the parasites who feed off them. Ticket prices range from $150 to $3000 a seat. (That's for a children's show; by comparison, tickets to see John Mellencamp range from $100 to just under $400 a pop.) Julia's classmate Danielle, whose father owns the local Rock of Ages Memorials franchise, will be there, along with all of Danielle's sisters, at a total cost of just under $2000.

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