On Seeing and Songwriting

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my ex-boyfriend. I imagined losing 10 lbs and then running into him at the grocery store. I would meet his wife and understand with other-worldly clarity what the word “fine” meant. She’d be wearing a pale pink sweater that bulged at the waist and she’d greet me with a limp handshake. He could have hair—or not. Really, it had always been her that I’d worried about. He could still talk in that low, comfortable voice, but she needed to squeak a bit. Even though he had been decidedly self-absorbed and awful, I got hung up still on the unknown of her: Who was this woman who was better than I?

“Regan you need to get over it.” My friend Joey nicknamed everyone; I felt privileged but a little left out since he merely called me by my last name. He called himself “Erdessy,” a play on his last name “Ersek,” and often referred to himself in the third person: “Erdessy needs a beer.” We were Philly transplants sitting in the Zoo Bar across the street from the Washington DC National Zoo. I always thought Joey should have stuck out more in DC, but he assimilated fairly well: He dated attorneys; he stomached the steak sandwiches; he frequented sporting events but just didn’t root, root, root for the home team. He loved the Zoo Bar because it was dark, small, and a bit grimy. “Something Philly about it,” he would say—likely those gorillas across the way.

“Get over it? That’s a problem,” I sighed. Joey asked why and my response was immediate: “Because I don’t know what to do next.” But in fact, I had been thinking about how pathetically I’d been handling the latest break up. I was not the sap that I made myself out to be because I managed to keep friends, read books, and go to work. I wasn’t incapacitated. I had always been quick to laugh at myself; in fact, this latest chapter in my life seemed to fit right in with what I’d been teaching my high school English students. It struck me as I progressed through the American Literature program that I was in the company of some classic nut ball 30-year olds, single and troubled about it: Nick Carraway, following Gatsby around in a West Egg haze; Blanche Dubois seeking the kindness of strangers; and Emily Grierson from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” poisoning her ex and then cozying up to his corpse each night. Considering the post-30 crowd in our curriculum, I’d been handling my situation fairly well. But—it was time for a change.

“What you do next,” Joey said, “is what you wanted to do this time last year, before you met that bozo Frank.” I smiled, thrilled Joey had remembered and that he was still interested. “We start the band.”

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If I could compare this marriage of drummer (Joey), lead guitarist (Dave), bass player (Matt), and singer/keyboardist (me), to a marriage between husband and wife, and then compare the process of naming the band to naming a newborn, finding a name that fit those involved in the marriage was almost a deal breaker. We would have found good reason to annul since we obviously were not going to be able to work together on even the most basic of tasks. The DC residents (Dave and Matt) ultimately caved when we came up with Blue Route, named after a Philadelphia highway. We had less trouble deciding on a song list since together we really didn’t like too many of the same songs. Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, the Replacements, the Police all provided us with our first set.

We convinced Joey’s housemate Dan that we would be able to practice in the attic without making too much noise. Dan owned the house, so in exchange for the space, we as a group, well, we did nothing. The onus was on Joey, who mowed the lawn without prompting and kept the kitchen a little cleaner. The guys were upwards 30 as well, so they had dispensable cash flow, but none of us liked the idea of spending 20 to 40 bucks per hour renting a practice space. That would have been another deal breaker. The attic arrangement bought us some time and the four of us had dispensable time since none of us were married or even dating anyone seriously. As a result, we spent at least two days a week together as a band for almost three years.

I always felt a little self conscious saying the word “gig” as it applied to our performances. When I think of “gig,” I think of stoners in the high school cafeteria talking about their weekend plans: “Dude, coming to our gig on Saturday?” The same applies to even the word “band”—I feel the need to prolong the /a/ sound like I’m Sean Penn in Fast Times. Even after three years, I didn’t take myself seriously as a “band” member, but, that’s likely the reason why I look back on those years as being perfectly successful—no record label; maybe 25 “gigs”; and an aborted attempt at recording. But a lot happened in those three years, and in retrospect, being a rock star was one of the most stabilizing things I could have done. The Zoo Bar encounter was at the millennium’s shift. Basic math lands 9/11 right smack in the middle of those three years. In July 2001, one of my closest college friends died in a motorcycle accident. Exactly a year after his death, I lost my mother to cancer. Throw in the memories of Bozo Frank and you’ve got yourself some potentially expensive therapy bills. Though I bought another keyboard and several rock star outfits (I didn’t go leather when I could have—and now, post-babies, it’s too late!), Blue Route put us in the black not the red. And the only couch-time spent was on break in Dan’s attic, eating Doritos and checking Phillies’ scores.

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The Blue Route song list turned from covers to originals as the “band” practiced and gelled and discovered its sound. For me, inspiration to write songs has always come from a need to put voice to feeling; otherwise feeling threatens to debilitate. Sadness, grief, and uncertainty all seem to get the phones buzzing (contentment deadens the lines), so I was a prolific songwriter during the Blue Route years. Now, I’ve been married happily for four years and in that time, though I’ve produced no songs, my husband Dave and I have produced the two most beautiful girls I’ve ever known. For now— playgrounds and play dates. Soon enough— I’ll challenge myself to get back to playing the piano without angst as inspiration.

“After You” was one such song— inspired by the break from Bozo Frank. I fired it out in one sitting; the lyrics and melody came easily and (thankfully) at the same time. I had recently read a song writing guide and had decided to pay closer attention to the structure: Though the initial outpouring of words can be liberating, listeners need a pattern, a clear link from point A to points B and C. It’s the song writer’s duty to make it easy for the listener, unless of course, the songwriter is Bob Dylan, in which case, he can do whatever he wants. “After You” was a simple song, word-playing with the title phrase. Three verses, a bridge, a chorus, just a few chords, catchy in a Tom Petty kind of way, if I may. With a friend’s help, I managed to record “After You” along with a few other songs, and on a whim, I sent the disc to the Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW) writing contest—deadline August, winners announced in November. Like Bozo Frank, SAW never called.

And that was fine. Blue Route would do something fun with “After You” and the fans would love it. More originals surfaced. We managed to garner crowds because we all had friends and co-workers who needed to get out more. We mustn’t have sounded too bad, because they came back to hear us play at Staccato, the Metro Café, Tommy Joes, Whitlows, IOTA, and the Grog and Tankard.

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My parents came to one of the Grog shows. At the time, my mother didn’t know she had cancer. She was too busy losing her vision to Macular Degeneration. The irony was not lost on me, the fact that my mother—the one who misses nothing—couldn’t see. She had the wet and wicked kind of the disease, where the blood vessels grow and leak into the retina, causing straight lines to look wavy. Other things potentially happen: doorways look lopsided; close objects seem further away; intensity of colors fade, but whatever the symptom, the result in my mom’s case was complete loss of central vision. When she was at our “gig,” though, she took it all in, every thud of the bass.

She and I never spoke about my lyrics, though a loving parent would have recognized upon one listen how sad her songwriting daughter must have been. Years before I’d ever stepped foot inside the Grog and Tankard, after an earlier break-up had stunned me, my mom wrote me a letter suggesting that I refocus my attention. Concentrating on the sadness can be addictive, she wrote. The best way to beat it is to look up and out. She must have known that songwriting and then performing was my way of doing just that. She didn’t have to actually see me on stage at the Grog; she could hear me muscling through my disappointment. It strikes me now that I saw about as much as she did that night, under the watchful glare of a hundred people and some serious stage lighting. I was looking up and out, refocusing my attention from staring faces and bright lights. And she was right—I was happy.

When our family went to the beach, months before the Grog show, my mother allowed that she could still see the ocean and the stars, each so vast that her peripheral vision could accommodate. Months after the Grog show, I drove up to Philly from DC for a surprise visit. Periphery is okay when you’re looking at the stars and the ocean, but not when you’re dying of cancer trying to see your own daughter from a hospital bed. I felt small, invisible, like nothing. But the way she looked at me, just the same—the way she held my hand as she bragged to the nurse about her “beautiful daughter”—that both broke and mended me. And there was her portable disc player by her bedside; she told me she’d been listening to my cd.

Seven years since her death and I still stew in the sadness. I have to stop myself from looking too deeply in and too far down when I miss her, when I wish she’d met my husband and my girls, when I wish she hadn’t lost her sight before she died. It is hard for me to come to terms with that last one, to find a silver lining. But my dad, my siblings, and I were all so muddled and worn when she was sick—my mom never liked to see us sad.

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What does it take to see what’s important, or feel it if our eyes aren’t clear? How do we look directly, with genuine appreciation and deserved wonder at what is in front of us every single day? Straight lines blur and colors lose vibrancy when I wallow, when I get anxious about what I don’t have or what I haven’t done.

One November night, years ago, I walked into the Clarendon Grill, a music venue in Virginia. The Songwriter’s Association of Washington was holding the 16th Annual Mid-Atlantic Song Contest Awards Ceremony. First and Second Places were allotted in every category: Country, Folk, Children’s, R and B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Gospel, etc. Some winners were going to play that evening. It was a Sunday night; I didn’t have much going on, and I wanted to see what I was up against, as a songwriter who’d just started to call herself a songwriter. Who were these people that could structure and sing? Who were these writers that were better than I?

I hadn’t ever been to a bar alone before. I didn’t even order a beer. I grabbed a glass of water, sat on a stool in a quiet part of the room and started to flip through the program that I’d picked up at the door. For kicks I went to the page—Adult Contemporary. I’d submitted three of my songs under that category just months earlier. Geez, I thought, not only is there a First Place and a Second Place, but there’s a slew of Finalists…I counted them, 8…and another slew of Honorable Mentions…I counted them, 8—and there it was in writing, the last on the page: “After You—Katie Regan, DC”.

SAW never did call, but in early December, I received in the mail an Honorable Mention certificate—the same kind of certificate I got when I finished my sailing class at summer camp, on that rough paper, the writing a bit raised. I still have it somewhere, but I can grab from memory that moment in the Clarendon Grill a lot faster than I can put my hands on a piece of paper. I smiled–fine, alone, and smug as hell to be 18th on a list. I bought myself a beer and took a good look around, ready to let those songwriters make my life a little easier, singing me through to points B and C.



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