“So, are you a reporter or something?” says the woman sitting next to me in the shuttle bus, as we bounce along a dusty, rocky road taking us from nine straight hours of bluegrass picking, grinning, dancing and general festival shenanigans back to our respective vehicles in the parking lot.
I can’t help but look at this well-meaning middle aged woman blankly.
“You had a notebook with you today, right? Or at least, that’s what a few lady friends and I thought we saw. You’d like, you know, watch really intently and then take a few furious notes. We figured you’re a reporter- or was that not you?” she furrows her brow.
She is right. It was me that she saw, doing exactly what she described. I can’t decide how to proceed in the conversation, though. If I admit to it, I’m not sure that I want to explain exactly what it was that I was doing, nor do I want to blatantly lie to her about being a reporter- which I am not.
“Oh!” I say, with no small degree of feigned nonchalance. “Yeah, that was me. You either have a very good memory or I stick out like a sore thumb,” I smile. I am going with diffidence and playing dumb. Perhaps if I play it off, it will seem normal for a person to go to a bluegrass festival with a Moleskine notebook and to spend most of their time not drinking and dancing like most of their peers, but rather being studious and listening as one might in a jazz club- attentively, respectfully and clapping politely after every solo.
“Well, a little bit of both, really. I mean, I have a pretty good memory considering the amount and variety of drugs I did when I was your age, but I can tell you what, we weren’t taking notes when Jerry was doing his thing!” she laughs the laugh of a thousand cigarettes and several thousand more joints, bongs, etc. I hang my head a bit, mildly embarrassed.
“Oh, no reason to be ashamed, sweet thing,” she pats my shoulder, her laughter dying down a bit. “But can I ask you one more question?” I look at her face, lined like a road map with all the places she’s been and all the things she’s seen. “Were those bright blue things in your ears earplugs?” she laughs again, harder than the first time. The driver, who has been eavesdropping the entire time, now joins her in laughter.
‘Good’, I think to myself. ‘This is nice.’
This is what I do, for better or for worse. I go to concerts both large and small, in venues of varying quality and patronage wearing earplugs and having a Moleskine in my back pocket. I’ve embarrassed friends, drawn stares, gawks and disdain from my fellow concert goers and been the butt of more than a few jokes. At yet, after nearly ten years of compiling stacks of notebooks and attending several hundred shows of varying natures, I still cannot, for the life of me, figure out why this is such a problem for people.
You’d think that I was wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress or walking a peacock on a leash.
In April, I took a group of eight students from the high school where I teach to see The Black Keys at the 1st Bank Arena just outside Denver. As ever, I had my earplugs and Moleskine at the ready as we walked into the arena. Finding seats was no small hassle, largely due to the size of our group, but we eventually ended up to the extreme right side of the stage- so extreme, in fact, that from my vantage point, I could see the entire length of the stage and the left profiles of all of the band members. Save for a man and a woman obviously on a date to my right, I was largely left unimpeded by crowds, flailing arms and dancing.
Though this sounds less than ideal, for me, the seats were perfect. I could hear everything, see everything and most importantly, write all of the interesting details of the show down without being bumped, poked, prodded or mauled.
Or, so I thought.
The show was progressing beautifully and I was deviantly happy with my Moleskine, taking notes on the set list, the band’s gear, interesting and pithy details about each song and some general thoughts on their music. Though I had to avoid being bumped by the couple several times as they danced about, for the most part, I was feeling nearly giddy about my ridiculous luck and the seats. I could actually see what effects pedals the guitarist stepped on as he stepped on them. I could actually see where the drummer hit each drum. This, for me, is near heaven. The minutiae of music is what I am most interested in and this show was hitting all of the right chords in that regard.
Suddenly, I became aware of a light in my face where no light should have been.
“R U A WRYTER?!?!?!” the woman smiled as she held her iPhone in my face while dancing and swaying to one of the Black Keys’ slower songs, her date behind her doing his awkward best to sway in her rhythm.
I shook my head yes. The crushing mammoth volume of the music was not conducive to explaining the finer details of what I was doing. Neither did I much care to defend what I was doing. She was, after all, infringing upon my own personal heaven. She smiled moronically, her attention returning to her phone to type out another message.
“WOOOOW!!!! THAT MUST B SOOOOO COOOOOOOL!!!!!!” Her exuberance, it seemed, was like her use of the letter ‘o’- misplaced and overused. I half smiled and returned my attention to the stage.
A few moments passed and I was beginning to fall under the spell of a delay-laden version of “Everlasting Light” as I felt a nudge to my elbow. My pen smudged across the page.
“SO WHO DO U WRYTE 4?!?!!!??!”
Turning my head slowly towards her so as to show my general frustration at both being bothered in the first place and then having my writing smudged across the page, I held my hand up in the universal sign for “small” and turned my attention back to the stage. To say that my frustration with this cretin was rising like a tsunami tide would’ve been an understatement.
“U SHOULD FUCK EM!!! HAVE SOME FUN!!!! YOU WANT OUR BONG?!?!!?!?!”
I politely, but curtly shook my head no and scooted a few steps closer to my group in the hopes that the neanderthal might get the hint that I was not there to be texted at, that I wanted to be left alone and that I, moreover, did not want to be told who to fornicate with.
There were a few more moments of precious solitude as The Keys ripped through “Strange Times” and the singer stepped to the stage.
“This could be the last time you see us tonight. Really. It could be,” he tuned his guitar, clicked on a fuzz pedal and looked at the drummer as the sticks clicked and they ripped into “I Got Mine”.
“YEAH!! LAST TIME U SEE EM!!! U SHOULD HAVE SOME FUN! FUCK WORK!! DANCE!!!! BONG?!??!?”
Smiling politely, I again turned my attention stageward as the drummer pummeled his drums, thundering through the waves of fuzz and wailing feedback of the tune. Though I still held my Moleskine and pen close at hand, I’ll admit that I couldn’t help but sway as only an awkward white man who is usually uncomfortable with “swaying” of any kind can- from the knees and with as little commitment as possible.
I can only assume that the morphodite took my broomstick-legged swaying as an invitation of some kind, as I suddenly found her pelvis on the side of my leg. I looked at her in shock and awe and she smiled back as though she were not only having the time of her life, but that she was doing nothing even remotely inappropriate and/or completely socially reprehensible in pursuit of the aforementioned “fun”.
Leaping backward as though I had been electrocuted, I shocked my would-be groper and sent her reeling back towards her date offended, confused and, I hoped, a little ashamed of herself.
Of course, I can only hope that some sense of shame was incurred. More than likely, this was not the case. After all, it’s usually not.
I have never heard a bass buzz, twirl and spin before. Admittedly, it’s a little disconcerting as these adjectives fly directly in the face of what a bass- and a bass player- usually do. Basses are characterized by heavy adjectives. They groove, drop, thud and lay down, but that is not what is happening as I sit in a small recital hall on the campus of a very small college.
Thanks to a bit of good luck and a connection to one of the music professors of this less-than-ilustrious academic institution, I find myself sitting no more than thirteen feet away from Victor Wooten, bass virtuoso extraordinaire. His dreadlocked and balding head sways and bobs back and forth with every note he plays. His eyes are toward the floor and he will occasionally step on the looping device at his feet to add another layer to the ever-growing composition he has treated us to over the course of the last seventeen minutes. His notes dance along with him, each one saying something specific and adding to the story that he is trying to tell us.
Before this performance, I would’ve flatly denied an invitation to hear unaccompanied bass guitar for seventeen minutes straight. Now, however, I might consider it.
Normally, virtuosos take every opportunity to blow their audiences out of the water. They want to show every trick, technique and “Holy hell, look at that!” that they have in their arsenal. Wooten, however, is not doing this. Though he has gone outside the normal bounds of bass playing to create specific sounds- whether by scraping a fingernail along the grooves of his thickest string to create a rhythmic pulse or by plucking the strings just above the headstock of the guitar to achieve a muted chime sound- he has not once shown the slapping and popping techniques he is so famous for. Instead, he is creating a composition in real time that is much closer sonically to a piece of chamber music than to the bluegrass/funk/fusion he is known for with his main gig, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, who are playing the community concert hall later this evening.
Most of the people in attendance occupy one of three camps: hippies who just want to “you know, like, totally jam out, man, like Jerry-style”, music students who are here to earn a bit of extra credit or bass players who can’t believe that their god has come to earth and decided to give a master class.
I am none of these. I’m just a drummer who is interested in seeing world-class musicianship and who is mildly amused by the disappointed faces around him as Wooten, eschewing anything that would come close to pleasing any of the aforementioned people groups, is instead making his futuristic looking bass sound much more like a cello than a spaceship. I find myself in awe of the man- his musicality, his ability to pull so many sounds from his instruments, the intimacy with which he pulls said sounds and the testicular fortitude he is showing by blatantly ignoring the clear expectations of his audience.
He leans down to the looping machine and slowly rolls the volume back until a scuffed shoe can be heard in the back of the room. Someone coughs. There is silence. No one is really certain how to respond until I start clapping in earnest appreciation. The applause catches and he takes his bass off, setting it on a stand beside him.
“Hello,” he says. He tousles his dreadlocks and smooths them back, running his hands from his forehead to his neck. The lights in the recital hall are shockingly brilliant and they shine off his piano key skin. “I’m Victor. Thanks for coming.” We applaud again and the head of the music department walks on the recital floor to hand Wooten a water bottle and then quickly steps away.
“How many of ya’ll are bass players?” Wooten asks. Thirty or so hands go up around me. “Well,” he chortles. “I’m awfully sorry to have put you through that. I just wanted to make some music rather than play bass.” He takes a drink of water and the silence is as the bass should have been- heavy.
“What does that mean?” a student, obviously a bass player, is incredulous in the back of the room. Wooten looks up at the student and nearly chokes on the water as he stifles back another chuckle.
“That’s one hell of a question, brother,” Wooten picks up his bass again and turns up the volume of his amplifier.
“SPLANGKATAWHAPITAFOOPITTIKAWHOPITAKAPLOM!!!” He assaults the bass and its strings, playing, in the span of five seconds, every possible advanced bass technique he knows. The volume is so loud and the noise is so obnoxious that my hands rush to cover my ears. His hands move at supersonic speeds and his bass shudders at the abuse it is absorbing.
He stops just as suddenly as he started and the small room erupts in applause. He brings his hands up to silence it again.
“Man, I’m glad ya’ll liked that, but that’s not music. That’s just noise. No form, no forethought- just a bunch of noise and fancy technique.”
The crowd gets quiet. Many shuffle their feet, mildly embarrassed. Over the next hour and a half, Wooten regales us with stories from the road, his brothers and how their influence led to his playing bass and, most importantly, listening.
“How many of ya’ll like listening to music?” he asks. We all raise our hands. He laughs.
“No, you don’t,” he says. Silence again envelopes the room. “You don’t like listening to music. You like the idea of being someone who listens to music. You like being seen listening to music. You like what it does for you in the eyes of the opposite sex. You like hearing music. Hearing and listening are two different things.” He waits. He watches our faces as we process the information. A minute goes by.
“How many of you like to read?” he breaks the silence. I am one of a few who raise their hand.
“You,” he points at me. “You a music major?”
“Then what the hell are you doing here? Did you get the wrong room? We ain’t talking about Tolkien here!” We laugh along with him. “What is your major?”
“This is good, this is good. I’m going to get the right answer from you. I’m glad I called on you, kid,” he rubs his hands together. He is Mr. Miyagi, setting us all up for the “Wax on, wax off” routine. “Okay, so when you read for class, what do you normally keep with you all the time?”
I already feel guilty. I know where this is going and exactly what he is going to say and I cannot believe that this thought has never occurred to me before.
“That’s exactly right,” he says. “You have a pen. And what the hell do you have a pen for? What do English professors, well, English teachers, what do they talk about all the time?”
“Active reading. You keep a pen with you to take notes, to write in the margins- to be actively noticing what’s going on.”
“Man! I am SO glad I called on you, kid! This is good! This is SO good! Active reading! We’ve got a real scholar here in the recital hall! Thanks for letting me pick on you- ya done good. Ya done good. So I ask the rest of you- you’re here. You went out of your way to get a ticket to this limited seats event. You got a ticket to come and see me and not one of you has a notebook to take notes, to write down what you’re seeing! Some of you even brought your basses like you was going to get the chance to play- but NONE of ya’ll brought notebooks! You did all the work and got none of the payoff! You worked eight hours and didn’t pick up your paycheck!”
A young guy on the other side of the room waves a notebook in the air. Wooten notices. He points.
“There it is, boys and girls. That’s the payoff. That’s how you keep me long after I’ve gone and forgotten where the hell this school is and what I said or did there. That’s how you keep what you need to remember.”
“THIS PLACE IS BLOWING UP ON TWITTER RIGHT NOW!!!” my friend screams in my ear.
“WHAT?!??!” I remove one earplug and the true din of the downtown Austin bar is deafening. That my friend has no hearing protection whatsoever deeply disturbs me. I put the earplug back in and lean in to hear her.
“PEOPLE ARE TWEETING THIS SHOW LIKE CRAZY!!! IT’S TRENDING RIGHT NOW!!!!” She shows me her phone, which is logged on to her Twitter account. She’s right. #tallestmanonearthantones IS blowing up. People are tweeting left and right about it and a new tweet shows up seemingly every second.
I look around. Though they’re all shouting and drinking and being obnoxious, people are indeed tweeting to the left and right of me about the show. Not being a Twitter user myself, it’s not particularly difficult for me to imagine what I might tweet were I to be given the chance:
Sweet Jesus tap dancing Christ, people are obnoxiously loud @ #tallestmanonearthantones
He finishes the song and the irony lays like a wet wool blanket over the room. No one claps, nor acknowledges that he has even stopped playing. The din is so loud that one man and an amplified electric guitar makes no bearing on the volume of the room whatsoever. It would seem that everyone is so busy either drinking and cavorting or Tweeting and Facebooking about how great the show is that they are missing the actual show entirely.
The Tallest Man on Earth who, it ought to be known, might actually be the shortest, steps up to the microphone and clears his throat. No one looks up, no one notices. He waits a moment. He clears it again, this time louder.
“UH-HEM!!!” he shouts into the microphone. Finally, half the crowd looks up toward him with a slight disdain evident on their faces as though their evening has been infringed upon. I cannot help but laugh.
“You’re obviously free to do whatever you like, but I can’t for the life of me understand why you paid money to get in here if all you’re going to do is drink and be obnoxiously, overbearingly loud. There are plenty of bars in Austin that don’t cost whatever the tickets were to get in here,” he says. Though his English is pitch perfect, The Tallest Man on Earth has just a trace of a lilt in his speech that betrays his Swedish home. I laugh as he politely, though caustically, continues to berate the audience and says what I’ve been thinking over the course of the last few songs. “At least have the courtesy to go elsewhere so that people who do actually want to listen, have the opportunity to. Is this how it is with all venues in America?”
I consider answering him with a hearty “yes” as he steps away from the microphone again and tunes his guitar. Shaking my head and still laughing, I write down his mini rant. I draw an arrow from his words to my own:
“Austin and listening- not so much.”
It’s worth noting that his rant has not worked. Most people have not even heard it. They are still too busy drinking $1 PBR’s or doing shots at the bar and shouting to one another. Perhaps Facebooking pictures of themselves, tagging their friends or Instagramming their drink. I am disgusted by this. When I moved here with the friend who currently accompanies me, I had romantic notions of Austin being the sort of place where listening to music trumped getting absolutely obliterated at the bar. My friend grabs the notebook and pen from my hand.
“WHO THE EFF DOES THIS GUY THINK HE IS?! RUUUUUUUDE!!!” she scrawls on the page. I look at her and she grimaces.
“I THINK IT’S KINDA NEAT, REALLY. HONESTLY, I FIGURED AUSTIN WOULD BE A TOWN THAT LISTENED TO MUSIC. BUT IT’S THE SAME HERE AS IT IS ANYWHERE. NO ONE WANTS TO LISTEN. THEY JUST WANT TO BE SEEN AND DRINK,” I scrawl back.
She reads what I’ve written and takes a long, hard look at me. She grabs the notebooks again.
“YOU’RE SUCH A FUCKING HIPSTER BITCH,” she scrawls back. I laugh as I read and I cannot hear the sound of my own laughter.
“NO,” I scrawl back. “THEY’RE AT THE BAR. I’M THE NERD WITH THE NOTEBOOK.” I point my chin toward the ceiling and close my eyes in pride and self-satisfaction. A lightbulb strikes in my head and I go back to the notebook, furiously scribbling. I click the pen dramatically and hold the notebook up to her face.
“SCENE AND DRINK!!!”
She punches me in the arm.
I am in a Portland hotel relaxing at a bar. It is a good place to relax. The lights are low, things are quiet and there is a quartet of grizzled black men playing jazz standards in the corner. They are quintessential jazz musicians. Dark suits, dark ties, instruments that no longer glow with newness. They have seen countless stages and played millions of notes. They are not here for the money, though I’m sure that the bar must pay well. They are here because they love “Stella By Starlight”, because they can’t imagine a better six and a half minutes than “All Blues”.
They are here because they are in love with jazz.
I am underage. I’m not supposed to be in this bar. I was allowed in under strict parameters by the drummer because of the way I watched his ride cymbal from the door. Between songs, he waved me over and the bouncer kindly obliged. The drummer is a large man who could easily be a former football player. Well over six foot and heavy set, his touch on the drums is that of a loving father. He whispered to me that I may stay as long as I sit a table directly facing the band. I may order nothing. I may not move.
Though I was not raised on jazz, my high school band instructor was also a drummer and quickly instilled in me the lore of the giants of jazz. Monk, Miles, Bird, Sonny. Of course, I am nineteen and in college and too cool for my own good and so, I only listen to jazz on headphones when no one else is around. I play jazz on Thursdays, in the privacy of a club that no one else at the small college I attend knows about. The rest of the time, I play metal and rock and punk and anything fast, hard, heavy and loud.
But here, I am a devout student. I will do anything this man tells me to do.
I listen. Closely. I lean in to every solo, clap respectfully after every one, just as I have been taught to do. I quickly endear myself to the band. The upright bass player admires my hands quietly tapping rhythms and he smiles at me. The saxophonist bows with a flourish as I applaud his solo. I clap earnestly and with a Texas-sized smile on my face after every tune.
“This one’s for the white boy here,” the piano player says as they jump into a cool jazz tune whose title now escapes me.
A hand taps me on the shoulder. I turn to face a beautiful older woman who glows at me, as proud as a mother on graduation day.
“They like you, baby,” she says. The drummer points at her with his brush and she points back. She is his wife and they snicker at each other like high schoolers. We listen together for a few minutes. My cell phone rings and my girlfriend’s name appears on the screen. I have been so entranced by this band that I have forgotten to call her. I pick up the phone and hold it to my ear.
“Hi,” I whisper. “I’m so sorry I forgot to call.”
“Hi,” She says loudly over the receiver. “Why are you whispering?”
“I’m in a jazz club listening. I-” the phone is taken out of my hand. The woman looks at me. She is not angry, but neither is she pleased with me.
“This had better be your momma, boy,” she scolds quietly.
“It’s my girlfriend, ma’am. She doesn’t-”
“Hello, baby girl,” the woman says. “I know that you’ve called to talk to your cute boy here, but he is listening to jazz music and getting one hell of an earful. He’ll call you back, I promise, but music is sacred and oughtn’t to be interrupted. You ought to see the look on his face. It’s like he’s seen G-d Almighty and indeed he has. He’s seeing music. I promise he’ll call you back, sweet thing. You have my word. I’m going to hang up now.”
And so she does. She places the phone on the table and her husband laughs audibly. This is not the first time she has done this.
“You keep that in mind, baby,” she whispers in my ear. “I don’t care who you’re with or how cute they are or what you think you might be doing. You’ve got the ear- that trumps everything. There aren’t enough people like you and I in this world. We don’t just hear- we listen. We need more listeners, more listening and a lot less talking. You keep that in mind and you’ll do just fine. I can see it.”
“Ye- yes ma’am,” I stutter. I have never been more embarrassed in my life.
“That’s alright, sugar. You’re young yet. You’ve got the ear, but your hormones sell you out,” she smiles again and I breathe out a little. She pats me on the shoulder again and squeezes. “You be sure to call that girly, too. I’ll not have you make me a liar.”
The drummer blows his wife a kiss.