Last night at the Rockit Room

Last night I played a show at the Rockit Room in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco. I don’t know that I have anything particularly profound to comment about it, other than that it was important to me, and that as a result I’m sleep-deprived and a little sick today, therefore not feeling particularly moved to do any other deep analysis or commentary.

I’d been excited about this show ever since I landed it a month and a half ago. Truth is, though I’ve considered myself a serious musician for over ten years, everything I’m doing now is pretty new territory for me. It’s the first time in my life I’ve devoted nearly every spare moment to music, and actively sought to create as many extra spare moments as possible. It’s the first time I’ve tried to actively and unabashedly self-promote, the first time I’ve really hustled for gigs. And this was the first paying show at a specifically-for-music (as opposed to food) venue that I’d landed without having any preexisting contact.

The night before my band had our first rehearsal with everyone present. Guy Brown on guitar. Erika Oba on keys. Sarah Thompson backing me up with the vocals. For sure I was nervous about it coming together on short notice, but they’re all superb musicians, very responsive and present with what’s going on in the moment. Just as important, they’re all totally serious about making good music and not dicking around. We got everything together with about three weeks of hastily scheduled rehearsals. We came up with our band name, or rather I suggested four or five I’d had floating around in my head and they ranked them. Right now we’re Shareef Ali and the Radical Folksonomy, which basically speaks to my own obsession with categorizing/relating all that I encounter (see “Wikipedia Brown” as an example) and my belief in the right of common folk to reframe the world in drastic departure from tradition. Anyway, I think we all like the name pretty well, and I hope that some version of it sticks. We agreed to all wear button-downs and jeans, and I brought a supply of bandannas the day of the show so that they might better relate to my own presentation.

I am a fan of all of the groups I asked to play, and none of them disappointed: many thanks to Scotch and Bones, S.A. Bach (and Jonathan and Allie) and the Tenderloins for joining me on the bill last night. For my set, I was joined by the band on four songs: “World’s Oldest Profession”, “The State Of The Garden”, “Red Balloon” and “Broken Record”. It felt amazing to have all these other subtle musical elements woven throughout my songs, adding color, nuance and touches of each of the other players’ personalities. Simply put, the songs are sounding more like they were meant to than they ever have before. I was perhaps even a little distracted during the solo portion of my set because I kept thinking about how great whatever song I was playing was going to sound with everyone else doing their thing on it. As we were playing last night, I was feeling thrilled that we had pulled it off, and even more thrilled by the knowledge that if we could sound that good after just three weeks, how much we had to look forward to as a band. After our set ended, we had a big group hug onstage. I meant it, guys.

Also making my night totally special were all my wonderful friends who came out, not least of all two people who drove up from L.A. (not counting Sebastian and Co.); a buddy from middle school whom I still owe a drink; another friend who lives in SF but I stink at getting back to; and Cortnee Rose from the Starry Plough.

I had sensed earlier in the day that my throat had been feeling a little ticklish, and mid-set I knew that it was getting thin. But I powered through, and promptly afterwards I lost my voice. Today I’m alternating between honking and whispering. I should go to bed and really get serious about recovering, because we’re maybe going to have band practice on Saturday. But I’ve just given myself license to quote Conor Oberst:

You should never be embarrassed by your trouble with livin’; because it’s the ones with the sorest throats, Laura, who’ve done the most singing.

“The Rose” and the oft-attempted, rarely well-executed ‘message’ song

Lately I’ve been really into “The Rose”, penned by Amanda McBroom but made famous by Bette Midler. For a long time, this song carried an aura for me of something that was closely associated with childhood and at one time quite familiar but hadn’t been brought into my consciousness for over half a lifetime, like a lullaby or old family photos in storage. I was reminded of it last month at the Starry Plough open mic, when Cortnee Rose did a chilling version of it.

Some say love it is a river
that drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor
that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger
an endless aching need
I say love it is a flower
and you its only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken
who cannot seem to give
and the soul afraid of dying
that never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snows
lies the seed that with the sun’s love
in the spring becomes the rose

In thinking about what tags I will be using in this blog, I have the notion that it may come to resemble an amateurish taxonomy of songs. This song is definitely what I would call a ‘message’ song, a generic speaker urging a generic listener to embrace a particular lifestyle or belief that will ostensibly lead to a happier, more ethical, or more enlightened existence. I feel it’s safe to say that I think most message songs convey some pretty terribly contrived and dumbed-down ‘messages’ (e.g. “Let Love Rule” by Lenny Kravitz): the songwriter, entertaining no small degree of narcissism, wants to pen something that will be universally recognized as a beautiful rendition of a central truth in our human experience, but from fear that their own song won’t be celebrated similarly, makes certain that the gospel imparted is something that the listeners already know, or think they know. (Super important note: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is amazing, but not a message song by my criteria, despite its name).

One of the challenges about writing a message song that’s actually good, besides having to actually possess some wisdom about life, is that for the tone to be right, it almost requires that no personal experience, trial or struggle, whether first- or third-person, be related. In “The Rose”, the speaker only enters the song once (“I say love, it is a flower”), but this declaration could easily be that of a detached commentator; there’s no admission of vulnerability or of her own experience of heartbreak (female songwriter + female performer = feminine pronoun). Far more intimate and disarming is when the second-person enters the song in the third verse: “And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong”. By using the second-person, we are pulled into the song and made vulnerable: it is not Amanda’s or Bette’s but our faith that has been shaken.

There are a number of other elements here that makes this song deeply moving to me. I love the characterizations in the first verse of love as an amoral, unconcerned agent of nature (not unlike my own “Plant Food”, although somewhat less apocalyptic). Maybe even more effective to me is the repetition of “Some say love…” because it gives me a pretty tragic image, of dreary, jaded masses of a society brusquely rumoring about love, like it’s a mythical creature or a fugitive like Emmanuel Goldstein. I’m not sure if it’s known whether there are more of these types of people than the other kind, that is, those who have been drinking the kool-aid since at least adolescence (count me among their numbers). But by portraying a world populated mostly by the latter, the speaker creates an environment where her message is especially dire and perhaps even a bit radical (as opposed to the well-worn saw that it often is). And certainly when considering the scared, hurt soul of the third verse, who believes on some gut level that they are not worthy of loving and being loved (and there are many of these), the message does seem quite urgent.

Finally, the central metaphor of the song, love as a blossom, is quite beautiful, and not just because flowers are purdy. What she is saying, in essence, is that each of us is empowered to let beauty spring forth from ourselves, for our sake, for the sake of others, for its own sake. And while the song is quite gentle and kind to the damaged heart, there is to me a sort of an imperative call-to-action (“you, its only seed”). As if to say, ‘You must sacrifice and make yourself vulnerable so that beauty may flourish.’