A few years ago, I got a nice note from a young man who wanted to let me know that, at least for a while, some songs I wrote meant something to him. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist. He concluded the letter with “If you ever wanted to fly in a warbird, I’m a pilot, and I fly vintage warbirds and I’d be happy to take you up.” Outside of Star Trek, I’d never heard the word warbird used, it had dangerous overtones and I’m not great with heights, so I politely declined. Then I thought about it: when is an offer like that going to come around again? I told him I’d reconsidered and, on a slightly stormy day at the end of a summer, I rode out there to a hangar that sure enough housed old combat planes. We went up a couple of times in different planes and I took a few videos, paranoid I’d drop my phone. We did one run with a mate of his, part of a team that flew formation drills—that means another plane sharing the sky with you almost close enough that you could jump from one wing to the other. Completely incomprehensible. I survived and managed to keep my diner breakfast down, and am forever grateful for the adventure.
This vid is made from some of that footage, along with a bunch of other video files that have lingered on various drives of mine for years. I enjoy tinkering with movie images, and I make no claim at being any good at it. What I find intriguing is being able to use these moving artifacts of my life as grist for the mill, and in that way, these little vids I have been making are much like the songs I write.
Early on, Stephen described what we did on stage in the US and Australia as “carving in the air”. We’d walk on to a silent stage, just the two of us, with no idea what we’re going to do, so his description of what followed is bang on. We still walk on to silent stages, and I’ve come to describe the current edition of NOGM -— which boasts 7 people on stage— as “sauntering on a tightrope.”
We are always on the tightrope on this tour, and any unbalanced movement feels like jeopardy. I suppose there is a pressure to “know things” on a tour like this. Then again, for most of the last decade I’ve been thinking there comes a time in life that one is invited to plant a flag in what they’ve become certain of, even if it seems dangerous —as it does these days —to know things. If you’ve been lucky enough to have lived a life that has brought you into contact with vulnerability (your own and that of others) then you might not screw this up.
Standing in what you know doesn’t look anything like power. Quite the opposite. It leads to more vulnerability. It can lead to a lot of “not knowing”. That’s why it’s not for the faint of heart.
Or politicians. Or celebrities.
I’m trying to learn to not be faint of heart. Useful in a war and all that.
Friends are forged on the dark road headed out of town, and so we head there again, beginning on June 4, 2019 in Portsmouth, UK.
A quick note from the factory floor here.
There are a lot of things that slay me about touring with Nights of Grief & Mystery, but few more so than what can land on the table when wrestling with language to properly describe the thing. We seem to be learning about “what this is” as we go along. In the beginning, we were happy to admit that we didn’t know and were more likely to be able to tell you a whole lot of “what it isn’t”. The more we travelled with The Nights, though, the more we understood that simply saying “what it isn’t” was, in fact, a cop-out. Follow?
So here’s our latest understanding:
We have an idea where the monsters are. That’s where we’re headed.
The tour will Take us to 28 cities in the UK and North America for 32…shows?Performances? Nights, is what I prefer to call them.
Or 32 chances to get it right. We know what “it” is.
That dark road thing?
That image is more than an image. That is what we do. That is our devotional act. And those monsters? Probably not what you expecting. That’s another thing that slays me about the Nights: mostly they are everything you wouldn’t expect.
I went to the Louvre once. It was 1987. I was 23. I was on a belated honeymoon trip. I ate french fries on the patio while playing Crazy Eights, mistakenly sat on a Louis the XIV chair and set off the alarm, and lined up to see the Mona Lisa only to bail on the lineup and take pictures of people looking at the Mona Lisa instead.
I’m not very good in museums. I become super self-conscious in crowds, and in art galleries I break into a sweat under the pressure of liking what I’m seeing, or the expectation of my having an intelligent opinion because, apparently, it is not enough to like a painting, to be intrigued or moved by it: you have to know why and be able to tell your mates…and anyone else in earshot…if you talk loud enough.
A couple weeks ago, L & I were in Montreal and took in the Chagall exhibit at the Musee Des Beaux Arts. It was near the end of the exhibit’s run and the place was packed. People moved from room to room like sheep and I was a sweaty mess of nerves within a few minutes but I discovered something important: I enjoy seeing paintings when I can get up close…really up close. Like sitting in the Louis the XIV chair kind of close.
I found a painting that didn’t have a crowd gathered around it…a portrait Chagall had done of his father (he did a few, I think). With my nose a few inches away from it, I took my time looking at the canvas without the feeling of 50 pairs of eyes drilling into my back.
I saw ridges– the pressure exerted, all the places the painter decided to stop moving the brush, the exact moments his brain signaled the muscles in his arm, wrist, and fingers to ease up or bear down or change direction. Up close, the thing was a study in intention, force, and trust. Micro movements and decisions made on some sub-existent level. The place where what is invited and what actually appears seem to work it out for the greater good, all caught in oil and pigment a few inches from my nose. Looking at it like this allowed me to relate to the humanity of the painting, and of the painter. I appreciated how he painted those he loved, and that he painted himself, too.
I lasted longer than I thought in the gallery, but will confess we did spend a good portion of time in the Kids Chagall Colour Zone playing with puppets. Well, one puppet. A donkey puppet. I loved that puppet.
With my father hovering somewhere between worlds, I am firmly Vain but somewhere between Alone and not.
These were days infused with a kind of poetry that crushed us,
days burdened by an unbearable beauty…
that broke the heart a thousand times and reassembled it a thousand and one.
These were days when I was not much of a father to my children,
not much of a lover to my wife, not much of a friend to the few friends I have.
Only a son in service to his father.
In return, he told me with scathing honesty what he saw in me,
and located that nurturing part of me I’d thought long dead.
I’ve held on to this photo for a bit, unsure of it, not trusting its’ origins.
But in the life I have created for myself,
these kind of moments are all I have to weave into the work I do.
So, I wonder aloud here at what this man gave with his dying
to his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and his friends:
shattering the inane noise of the world for us with his ragged breath,
lubricating this arid desert of a place
with tears that leaked from his eyes in his final moments,
and finally binding us together with his absence…
This is the gift he gave us: how it could be when it is our time to die.
The poetry, the heartache, the laughter, the songs,
the courage, the fear, the healing,
the forgiveness, the goodbye, the wrenching loveliness of it all—
this is what we can give to our own sons and daughters, lovers and friends.
I was alone in the house when I self-consciously set up the phone to capture singing a song to him, a song we had crafted together. It was a song that came to be when he declared his pride in what I did for a living even though, as a father, it worried him to no end. He was firm in the pride he felt but asked if I couldn’t at least write something “light”— not my strong suit, to be sure. So, we spoke of his great love for my mother, and his growing love for the simple beauty he would see outside the window — the trees, the sky, the sun, the birds — that left him speechless and dumbfounded as to why the whole world seemed not to notice. A song was woven together over time.
On this night, I sang it to him as I had done dozens of times in the previous weeks (along with his favourite cowboy tunes and a few from the hit parade he used to sing to us as kids) but in a self-conscious way, too aware of the camera, wondering what kind of man would film himself like this? as I sang looking down on his unmoving body.
When I stumbled into the bridge,
and the line “Love comes for you”,
he surfaced and opened his eyes to me,
raising his arm slowly to rest his hand on my forearm.
I continued picking through the solo
and at the first line of the last chorus, “Mary, Mary, in the yard”
he chuckled, then slipped back to where he’d come from, gliding out on
“Through the trees the sunlight slips/
To steal a kiss from Mary’s lips.”
This photo, taken after I put the guitar down,
is less a record of my singing to him
and more that of a son who owed his father everything,
learning here how to say goodbye,
and deeper in debt
when all was said and done.
Would that it could be this way for everyone who reads this.