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May 10, 2011

Planes, Mini-Vans, & Chevy Vegas (AKA: I Was Saved By Rock & Roll)

"Please, Mom, Pleeeease!" I begged my mother, desperation leaning toward hysteria. "I will do anything. Please take me. Please!" It was January 23, 1983. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were performing that night at the Tucson Convention Center and I had Hard Promises playing on our pink portable record player, trying to convince my mother that he was good. So, so good.
"It's noise, Beth. Just sheer noise. Where is the melody? Is there a melody?" My mother had no use for contemporary Rock, but she loved music and I could see her resolve slip a fraction of an inch.
"Listen to the organ, Mom. He has an organ player!"
"Yes, and he also plays piano."
"Piano and organ?"
I had hit pay dirt by bringing up the band's quasi orchestral instruments.

We were new to the area and didn't know anyone, but somehow my mother convinced a neighbor’s surly teenage daughter to let me tag along with her and her shaggy boyfriend to the show. I climbed into the back of his 1974 Chevy Vega, still thanking my mother through the window, hoping she wouldn't see the floor, which was rusted so thoroughly, a wide patch of concrete was clearly visible below my dangling feet.
"You're the best, Mom."
"Don't smoke any marijuana!" was the last thing I heard her say.

My parents had taken me to see Billy Joel at Westbury Music Fair sometime in the 70's, but this was something else entirely. When the house lights went down and the stage lights came up, a sea of people moved forward toward the stage, lifting me out of my Keds, taking me with them. The first crush of sound led by Mike Campbell’s guitar blended with riotous screams into a wall of pure, frenetic joy. Music can be a hard love, the fleeting tail of a departing narcotic, and an obliterating beast. In those first few moments of my first big concert, suspended barefoot off the ground amid ten thousand strangers, there was nothing I wouldn’t have done to keep that sensation nestled between my ribs, a sonic pace maker, for the rest of my life. I was eleven years old and I felt positively saved by rock and roll. I bet if you’re still reading this, you can relate.

Though music had always been a constant, both as a language and as a great source of comfort, I started college with the vague idea that I would go to law school and work in international politics. When I picked up a guitar at 22, however, those indistinct plans and my academic career were succinctly over. Singing, playing guitar, and writing obliterated everything else in my day to day life. Within 24 hours of starting to play, I had bloody finger tips from writing my first song. Within a week, I played my first open mic. Within a month, I had my first solo gig (with AO Forbes, to whom I will always owe an enormous debt of gratitude). I never questioned my career choice or its trajectory, never doubted that getting on stage was something I could or would do. In the way youth is offhandedly brazen and a little arrogant, I inadvertently stepped into a wholly unexpected and unplanned life.

For seventeen years I’ve moved from gig to gig, writing compulsively and effortlessly some years and passing great chunks of time without writing anything at all. I’ve played large theaters and tiny living rooms, sometimes in the same week. I’ve played with musicians whose talent and generosity turned me back into a tongue tied, blushing 11 year old. I’ve had years where I put 45,000 miles on my minivan and slept in more motel rooms, on more blow up mattresses, and at more Flying J truck stops that I could even begin to remember, let alone count. In 2002, I spent more time in an Econoline van stuffed with people, instruments, PA equipment, and dirty laundry than I did in my own apartment. For the first two years I dated my husband, we spent only about six months together and were pleasantly surprised to discover, when I finally took a break and returned home, that we still actually liked each other. I once had a police escort into a small New York town when, running late for load in, I was stopped for speeding but instead of receiving a ticket, was informed the police officer’s wife was on the village’s cultural events board and, yes, they had been wondering where I was. I’ve driven into unknown towns right at sunset when autumn is in its last lap into winter, so achingly lonely it took every fiber of my being not to get back on the interstate and drive through night and day for home. On stage I have broken fingernails, broken boot heels, slipped, dropped my guitar, and mid-song hit the microphone so hard with my lip that I had to continue singing with blood dripping down my jaw, down my shirt, and into my bra. Off stage, I’ve been honored to hear people’s stories of lost parents, astonishing childhoods, and brilliant loves and met inordinate kindness along the way, most often from strangers. Best of all, on a minuscule scale and with nothing other than my voice, I am sometimes lucky enough to stir into an audience that heady mix of emotion and sensation first kindled in a precocious, barefoot and wide eyed eleven year old.

I travel less now that I’m rounding the bend toward 40, but I feel inordinately lucky not only to play music for a living, but that I’m doing it in an era when one need not be tethered to the established music industry to have a pretty good ride. It has, indeed, been quite a ride.

Posted by bethamsel at May 10, 2011 4:46 PM

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