In Concert

Went with Chris to see The Bad Plus concert at Ithaca's Hanger Theater. We went early so I could pick up my integrated amplifier from the shop. The guys there were unable to get it to misbehave as it had for me. They ran it on the test bench for weeks. Nothing. Decent folks, they didn't charge for all that. I thanked them and hefted the thing out to the car. It's an old amp, so I kind of expect these things. I have my own mysterious maladies, but like the amplifier, most of the time I work just fine.

We drove over near The Commons and stopped into an Irish pub for good beer and not so good for me Irish chips. I should have known better. We walked to the bookstore on The Commons. I was feeling lousy, my throat and stomach burning. We descended to the basement record shop where the guy behind the counter was playing the worst noise music. I've actually heard good noise music. This sounded worse than I felt. And I felt bad.

Flipping through records, I grabbed Face Value by Phil Collins and the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Jazz Impressions Of The U.S.A. I asked Chris, "could I be any whiter?" I passed up albums by the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and The Brady Bunch . Chris grabbed Duke and the Peter Gabriel album with the melting face. I found a little-known Andy Summers and Robert Fripp album called I Advance Masked. Sweet.

We paid for our records and went up out of the terrible noise music. Chris looked at photography books. I wandered to science fiction and found a rotting copy of Seetee Ship/Seetee Shock by Jack Williamson. Not the edition I had as a kid but the same book and I read the first six pages. I was still burning inside, but the book felt good. It's pretty terrible writing, but things I liked as a kid, much as I might understand their faults now, I still like some because I'm growing more fond of that kid I was.

I joined Chris at the register where he was buying a book. He pointed out tags on the shelves: art on one, photography on the other. The injustice of that dichotomy pisses him right off. I'll bet he writes about it soon.

Back at the pub, we had whiskey which calmed my stomach and throat go figure. We ate corned beef and cabbage with mashed potatoes and carrots. We talked like two people who have known one another fifty years. All discomfort dissipated.

For some reason, patrons, most of them old, kept coming in, ordering pints of beer and then downing them in about one gulp. It was like they were pledging an old folks home. I don't do shots or understand people who do. I sure as hell don't shotgun beer. Other people leave me confused.

We drove from the pub to the show after stopping for coffee. Seven-fifteen on a weeknight and I was ready for a nap.

At the theater, a young woman sat behind a table on which were piled CD and vinyl copies of the new Bad Plus album. I offered my credit card. "Cash only," she said. I thought, this is the twenty-first century, the phone in her hand could have run a Square Reader. Disappointment. Barriers. A problem I couldn't solve then and there.

A local jazz trio opened the show. I gave them a real listen and decided they didn't do anything for me. What, I wondered, makes one band good and another not? Probably the drummer. And the guitarist too. The bassist I liked, but a one-legged tri-pod falls down. It confused me though, what exactly didn't work and whether or not I could possibly know. Who was I to judge these things and wasn't I probably wrong?

Then The Bad Plus came and I knew I wasn't wrong. The difference between the local trio and The Bad Plus was more than just swapping piano for guitar. It was the difference between making sounds and making art. No shelf tags needed. There was genius at work. And grace. It was all about grace and even I can feel that.

A guy in the audience was stumbling drunk. Though mostly subdued, he annoyed me. I thought, "you're missing this," then realized that I was missing it too in thinking about the drunk. How many beers had he taken in one gulp? Why was I drinking him in? I went back to the music, closing my eyes to fall deeper.

At a show I listen to music and watch it being made. When I'm not distracted by a drunk, I'm all the way there. Some fools make the mistake of recording video. Rude. To musician, audience, and self. My phone was powered down. I was glad to be rid of it for the show. I was glad to be immersed in music, in art, in grace.

Now, a day later, I'm typing this while listening to Andy Summers and Robert Fripp play from the turntable through the amp and over the speakers. Mostly I'm writing, letting the music wash over me. Every so often I stop to really listen. I appreciate the amplifier, the record, the richness of signal and noise.

On the drive home last night, Chris talked of someone who posts online drivel about the day without much of a point. Why, he wondered, did that writer have so much of a following? There's nothing there.

All through typing this, I've thought about that person writing drivel. I worry that I'm that person. I always worry that I'm that person. I wonder if I'm the opening act rather than The Bad Plus, fret that I'm making terrible noise instead of music, that my writing will turn out, even to me, years later to have been foolish and impossible to really defend, that the albums I'm picking out aren't cool, that I've affixed the wrong labels to my shelves, and that whatever's wrong with me, despite weeks on the test bench, remains so mysterious that the service people can't diagnose let alone fix it.

I drove fast through the dark, winding road above Tully, under stars I couldn't see, away from a concert where grace washed over me. As we rounded one turn, the carcass of a huge deer lay shattered and splashed just over the white line. The result of that animal's hesitation in the headlights or the terrible timing of its last jump. The deer was long past caring about such things, but I imagined the driver, what he must have been thinking and how much I was sure he looked just like me.