There wasn’t much to the posting. “We’re looking for a female vocalist who can play the ukulele. Here’s our website, drop us a line if you want to know more.” Something like that, I don’t remember the exact words.
I answered in as non-committal a way as I could muster. “I don’t know if I want to join a band, or if I’m good enough, even. But if you don’t mind squandering an evening of your time, I’d love to come hang out and see how it goes.” I drove in to a neighborhood I did not know and crashed through some songs I did not know how to play. I did not totally embarrass myself but I wouldn’t say I exhibited a glowing display of musical prowess.
“See you next week,” the guys said.
“Uh, wait a minute! Don’t you want to talk about it first? Don’t you have to, you know, deconstruct or something? Plus, I have serious commitment anxiety, I have to think about it too.”
“Well, okay. We’ll call you? I guess? Is that okay?”
They called. I went to one more practice, or maybe two, and then I went away to music camp, and they didn’t replace me while I was gone, though I kept sending email saying things like, “Really, it’s cool. If you decide I’m not a good fit, I’ll wonder what took you so long.” Then, I came back from music camp and I fell in to music. It was like walking into the ocean in the morning in Waikiki. You feel the change, but it’s fine and you just keep going. The surf lifts you up and you get goosebumps and your nose fills with salt but then, all of a sudden, you’re used to it and come on in, the water’s fine!
It is tempting to present this comical third act as a sort of midlife crisis, but it’s actually been a long time coming. It’s not like there was no foreshadowing. I picked up my first uke nearly ten years ago and while I’ve had very little in the way of formal training, I haven’t put the thing down, either. It’s with me almost everywhere I go. I took the uke to Antarctica, and Vietnam, and to that writer’s conference, and to that other writer’s conference where I played Rocket Man, outside in the California moonlight while a bunch of writers sang along. And I played open mic at the ukulele club, early on, my first year in, I think, and I said yes to playing at that party, and the next party, and the next.
I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Oh, you know what I forgot to do? I forgot to be in a band!” Rather, I played my uke, with a club, with some friends, sometimes by myself. Then, there was this band, and I showed up and showed up again, and we performed, twice and the rooms were full. They were packed with happy people who came to see us play. I made mistakes and I missed some chords and I laughed, I laughed hard because everything was funny, the guys in the band, the music, the way we played it. I sweated through my clothes — it turns out it’s hard work to play two sets of rock and roll, and after the second performance, I lay in bed and my heart wouldn’t slow down, the adrenaline was racing through my blood. On the scale of great musical performances, getting through two hours of music on a ukulele in a suburban coffee house is not exactly the stuff rock operas are made of, but my heart didn’t know that, it would not ease, I could not sleep.
“How’s the music stuff going?” people ask me, old friends ask me, my clients ask me. “Oh. My. God.” I say. “I Fucking Love It!” With initial caps and exclamation points and profanity, just like that. “I! Fucking! Love! It!” I struggle to think of last time I did something this absurdly fun. Maybe that winter trip to Berguen, Switzerland, where the sled runs were miles and miles long and I screamed with delight as we flew down the winding slopes, clinging to that tiny sled, landing in a pile of other sledders at each bend. Maybe that year that I rode the Seattle to Portland bicycle ride, the fittest I’ve ever been in my adult life, and crossed the finish line only to fall apart in a heap of laughter, so surprised by the ease of my success. Maybe that party the year I was still selling art supplies, that one where everything came together and everyone was gorgeous and talented and okay, a bit drunk, but not so drunk that it wasn’t fun anymore, just drunk enough so you could feel like you were a little in love with every single person in the room. “What’s it like being in a band?” people ask me. It’s like all of those things, all at once, I think. “I fucking love it,” I say.
I am probably not the oldest person to find out first hand that making music with other people is a freaking riot, but I’m far from the youngest. I don’t have that “Oh, shit, I should have started when I was twenty!” feeling because that would imply that I wish I hadn’t dragged myself across the Himalayas or spent all that time trying to make decent paintings in that studio I had in Pioneer Square or carved my writing career out of nothing but a keyboard and willfulness. If I’d done music earlier, if I’d done anything other than exactly what I’ve been doing, well, there’s a whole timeline thing that gets messy, right? If that alternate me had, instead, decided to skip the trip to Hawaii, how would I have found the sweet melodic sound of the ukulele? I needed to be utterly charmed by the voice of the islands, it was an essential first step in the path that led me here, to a place where I’m ruining the timing on the 12 bar blues but laughing, laughing all the way through it. I know I’m getting it wrong, I care that I’m doing it wrong, I want to do it right, but with all of that, I am crazy with the fun of it.
For about three years now, my dad’s mental state has been deteriorating; it’s been especially bad over the last six months to a year. When I saw my dad last, he didn’t know who I was. When I tried to talk to him on the phone recently, he was barely responsive. But before he fell into this memory hole, we’d talk and I’d ask him what he’d been up to. He’d been attending a day program for adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia. He was never particularly thrilled about the activities, but he always lit up when there had been something, anything going on to do with music. I’ve read various studies that say that music challenges your brain like nothing else, making music, especially. If that’s true, it makes sense that sparks would leap between the fraying connections in his gray matter when he’s exposed to music. My brother told me that he sat my dad down in front of the computer and played some of the videos I’ve posted of myself playing the uke. My dad sang along. Badly, apparently, and with lots of mistakes, but he sang nonetheless and was happy.
I loved the years I spent struggling to be a painter, and sometimes, I miss that. I miss the sticky smell of oil paint and the color and the mess. Sometimes I miss making art that I know is good. I lie in bed looking at my own paintings and I think, oh, you should get back to that some day, you did all right. And I love the time I spend writing, I love stringing words together and I love talking to other people who love to write, and when I write something good, I love that too, that feeling of knowing that these words are right together. Building a good story is not an easy task, no more than making a good painting, and there is tremendous satisfaction in doing it well.
But music. It’s there and it’s gone. I don’t know anything about the science of it, of the technique, not like I do for art, or for writing. I’m just barely starting to learn the rules, I can’t read music, I don’t understand time beyond what I can feel and hear. There’s this noise and it’s right or it’s wrong and then, it’s gone, it’s an impossibly transitory moment. Right now, I want to be in that moment over and over and over again. I don’t care that I’m failing because eventually, I will stop failing and in the meantime, I get to do it again, over and over. While I’m in it, my brain is blowing open new synapses and it feels like spring.
“You can come back,” the guys in the band said. So I did.
What do we do, you ask? Well, we’re kind of rock and roll meets vaudeville. It’s funny and we totally shred. We have a spring of gigs coming up — I’d love it if you’d come see us play. We’re on Facebook — if you “like” us you’ll be notified when we add new shows.