Posted on December 22, 2010
I’m up in the mountains. High up. There is snow lying a foot and a half deep on the ground. It weighs down the boughs of the pine trees and sits on the steeply-gabled rooftops. Cloud fronts creep in and creep out, seeping around the bare, jagged peaks, and although the world up there in the rocks looks cold and ragged, I am impressed again and again as I crunch through the snow by the quiet. It is so quiet here. There is, of course, the creek. You can hear that for a ways as what little water thaws on the slopes makes its way down the river to the valley far below me. And there is also the occasional whoosh as some heavy bank of snow slips off the branch it has piled up on and whumps to the ground below. It is a sound that seems magnified in the stillness, like the sound of a girl pulling her heavy hair away from her sweatered shoulders and letting it fall back again. It is a beautiful sound, and I am the only one to hear it. It is so easy to take sound for granted. Indeed, most of the time in the city we have to let sound wash over us. Here it is so cold that sound travels far and freely, and yet there is so little of it. A woodpecker flies along just in front of me, cheeping at me and pecking resonantly at the trunks along my path. I’ve been told that there are mountain lions here. Their prints have been seen in the snow. If I encounter one, my only chance is to make myself look “big and healthy.” I think of what I’d want to eat if I was a mountain lion, and I wonder at the wisdom of this advice. Still, it is so quiet that I doubt even a mountain lion could sneak up on me unawares as I walk.
I slept last night for a long time, the first long time in a long time.
Please forgive my long absence. I’ve been knocked sideways and things came to a screeching halt for a while there. What flooded into this silence are memories and it occurs to me that some of what I’ve been writing in this series can be useful, but some of it should also be proof that some of the best moments come unexpectedly.
I was on my first tour on a tour bus, opening for Joan Baez. We were in Italy, it was summertime, and we were heading south. About nine in the morning something in the air conditioning broke down. Buses are fickle, fragile things and stuff is always breaking down. Buses are also large, metallic cylinders, essentially rolling heat-conductors. They are also closed environments, that, not unlike submarines, are closed environments that depend on circulated air for the comfort of the people inside. Shut off the supply of circulated air and things get freaky freakily fast.
Everyone was asleep when the AC gave its final wheeze and not long after that I woke up, blazing hot, sweating and crazed as a rabid horse. I shot my head out of the curtains in my bunk and saw Crook, Joan’s tour manager, sticking his head out of his bunk, no less crazed than I was. Within a very few minutes everyone was up and down the stairs (most European tour buses are double deckers, making the heat even more pronounced) and trying open a window. The bus pulled over to the side of the road not long after, and everyone piled groggily out onto the road. Southern Italy in the summertime is hot and the heat rose in shimmers despite the early hour. There were vineyards on both sides of the road, and craggy olive trees with rusty-looking trunks. The driver was out from behind the wheel and while not exactly scratching his head, was certainly looking more than a little put out. Joan came out of the bus and tilted her head down the road as she caught my eye. “Come on.”
When Joan Baez tells you to come on, you come on. The road we were on was a narrow two-lane blacktop with steep ditches to either side to catch the rain, as if when the rains came they came hard and fast. I noticed that people left beautiful playing cards in the ditches alongside the vineyards. Perhaps it was ritual. The cars flew by us as we walked, as if everyone was practicing for the Italian Grand Prix. The red sign of a gas station came wavering into view. We kept walking and about ten minutes later pushed through the doorway into the frigid calm of the little place. I can’t remember which of us it was that got the idea to drink a beer, but I remember that beer very well. It was a large silver drum of some light Italian variety and we bought two from the man at the counter and went back outside to sit on the curb and sip and wait for the bus to come and find us. When you’re on tour with Joan Baez you can be sure that as long as you stay near her no one is leaving without you. So we sat there sipping and talking in the sunlight and it was about as great a moment as you could imagine it would be. Something about it, perhaps it was Italy, perhaps it was the unexpected stop or the even more unexpected beer, seemed festive; a moment in need of celebrating. Over the years since then I’ve grown to realize that moments like those are the real reason for touring. You can never tell when they’re going to come along. Often they occur as a result of something breaking down, be it plans or machinery. When something goes wrong, the things that are going right become all the more obvious and important. Plans change all the time on the road. Things break. The only thing to do on a regular basis is to adapt and make the unexpected moments count for something. Use them. Joan, in tilting her head down the road and taking me for an early morning beer was teaching me to make the most of the unexpected moments. It’s a lesson I owe to her and one that I’ve never forgotten. What happened next, though, made the moment indelible.
Another tour bus, not ours, came wheezing off the road and onto the concrete slab of the gas station. The driver, heavy and Italian, jumped out, exasperated and gesticulating as you’d hope an Italian bus driver would. It was clear that something was wrong with his bus as well, and a few seconds later a troupe of stunningly gorgeous women came piling loudly out. I’ve never known who these women were, but they were anything but wilting violets. These were loud, brash fire-eating Italian women of the first water. They swept by us as we sat on the curb, and I must have been slack jawed because when I looked over at Joan she laughed, as if this sort of thing happened all the time to her. “I don’t know why you’re still sitting here,” she said. “Get on in there.” I laughed and stood with my beer, then turned and quietly stuck my head back in the door of the mini mart. Inside, the rows of snack food were being ransacked by the voracious women. Potato chip bags crinkled, pop tops popped, fruit was being torn into by rows of white teeth. It was as if the Italian Renaissance had exploded in the tiny confines of this roadside store. The man behind the counter looked dazed. I pulled my head back out. Joan laughed again. “Josh, that is the sorriest entrance I’ve ever seen.” She stood up and, jutting her chin artistocratically at a forty-five degree angle, put an arm straight out in front of her and plowed through the door. She stood there silently a moment as every head snapped up to take her in. She met their gazes for an instant, then turned and walked back out, smiling at me. “That’s how you make an entrance,” she said.
Not much later our bus pulled in and picked us up and we left the women of the Italian Rennaissance to mill gorgeously around the parking lot until their own half shell was fixed. I don’t remember the show that night, but I will always remember that morning.
The best stuff about living a life in music is the stuff that comes to you unexpectedly. Nothing about your life can be planned so well that the best stuff won’t find its way in and change everything. The sound system will break and you’ll be forced to play without amplification. There will be a storm and you’ll have no electricity. You’ll mess up your place in the song and a whole new way to play it will suddenly come to you. Something in your life will change and you’ll realize just how important the other parts are.
That moment, which Joan may or may not remember, only happened because something unexpected occurred and she knew what to do with that time in order to make it special. If there’s any one lesson to continually put into practice as we make a life in music, it is that. Realize the unlikely moments and make them special.