Onward Or Death

Onward Or Death – September 25th, 2001

I can’t believe what I’ve just seen
some instant nightmare on my t.v. screen
surreal — surreal
the way I don’t feel a thing
surreal — surreal
I hope that someone calls me

my city weeps and I am dry
too dumb to move, too numb to cry
watching the instinct to survive
play out live

too real — too real
I’m here — no one’s calling
too real — too real
that could’ve been me falling..

“911”

The Friday after This happened, I finally sat down to the piano and tried to get rid of the roiling, complicated emotions that ping-ponged around inside my head. For whatever reason, I latched on to the sad, inward-facing World Trade Center custodian on his day off, remote in hand, watching it go down live and wondering why his phone’s not ringing. You see, I thought I lacked empathy and compassion by not getting completely wrecked by This. Parked in front of the television on September 11th, letting CNN do its thing, smoking the occasional bowl and completely forgetting about the need to drink, eat, stand, stretch and piss for twenty straight hours. Locked-in, mouth hung-open, feeling the fear as conspiracy theories formulated, as different news bureaus introduced, then quickly buried, bulletins. The phone rang off the hook, but I answered for no-one, instead posting a note on a local message board to convey my “okay-ness” where I knew it would be seen. I guess you can say that I freaked in a quiet way. Paralyzed and puzzled, but not terribly sad. Numb, more like. I found myself thinking about those with no-one. The ones who are truly alone, bobbing in the wake of This. It took a few days to come around, when mourning gives rise to anger and indignancy, but instead of arcing into Apple Pie and Mom mode, the plateau of the Everyday split the difference and I went back to writing songs. Randy Kemp, a great bassist and good friend, is on the other end of the spectrum from me. “I used to think I was stronger,” he said a week after This happened. “But This has wrecked me.” Shaken foundations, that seems to be the general consensus. Life will never be the same, regardless and some people won’t ever recover, particularly those directly involved.. The next tier are those who are deeply impacted by This, those who already now struggle to carry on and attempt something that at least approaches status quo. Somewhere in between the heartless sociopaths who applauded This and these Erstwhile Engines of Earth lie the artists. Do they exist to create or create to exist? In a time like this, are they self-indulgent for pursuing their art or are they creating something for the people to hold onto? Let some folks tell it, getting up on-stage anywhere in America on the night that This happened would’ve been a lack of respect and a damnable offense.

September 12th, 2001
The Amy Steinberg Band, Blue Meridian and Byron Haze
House Of Blues — Downtown Disney

The impressive crowd that descended upon the HOB was obviously there to escape from the events still rapidly unfolding on t.v. screens and across the internet. Rockers Blue Meridian were taking the stage early before vanishing from the live scene for awhile to start work on their first album as a signed band, “Minerva.” Approaching the venue, it seemed that most families, couples and others were in good spirits as they made happy and looked for something to do. Amy Steinberg leaned wearily against one of the colorful wooden posts of the ticket shack out front and not-so-discreetly flashed a pile of tickets hopefully at me. We exchanged greetings and hugs and began talking about This whole thing. In the first full day afterwards, it was impossible not to bring it up in conversation right off the bat. Steinberg, with her inimitable charm and style, cut right to the chase. “We finally got a taste,” she said. “The rest of the world is saying, ‘it happens to us all the time, now you know what it feels like.'” Besides the added mind-scramble of having just spent a good chunk of the summer in New York City, (“I’ve got friends up there now”) Steinberg is contemplative about the breaking up of her group of two years. The Amy Steinberg Band would be making their final stand as a band this evening. Steinberg says that it’s “a good time to move on” while affirming that she’s gotten “cold shoulder-y” vibes from the rest of the guys; Barry Kerch, Gabe Williams, and Haui Balthaser. The trio has pledged to remain together, no band name as of yet.

Backstage in the upstairs green room, agonizing over her set-list (“I don’t really have any depressing songs”), Steinberg struggles with the concept of singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before the band’s set.

“I think you should,” I offer. “With the band off-stage.”

“No, they should be on-stage,” she says.

“What are they gonna do? Tapdance? It makes a statement, directionally,” I counter.

Steinberg’s dad, simply known to everyone as “Dad”, seconds the motion. He’s been sitting at the table, watching his daughter intently, offering support where ever necessary. Blue Meridian has begun their set and I find myself beckoned into the green room bathroom where Steinberg can sing without being rude to the performing band. Amy’s true talents lie in the realm of musical theater and you can’t get much more theatrical than the freakin’ national anthem. Her solid, powerful voice wraps around the anthem and the performance is assured, mature and soulful. I tell her it sounds beautiful. She nods to herself almost imperceptibly and then suddenly, her eyes get wide. “I can’t go out there singing about bombs bursting in air!” she cries. “I’m not even sure of all the words, what if I go out there and fuck up the “Star-Spangled Banner”?

“You’ll do fine,” I say. Dad’s cel phone rings as we walk back out to the green room. “It’s mom,” he says.
Steinberg takes the phone and begins to smile. I can see her beginning to charge up.

Out front, Donovan Lyman and the boys were keeping the crowd energized. Tie-dye, head scarves, young minds looking for peace and promise — and piece and promises, an impressive rainbow of ages from teens to fortysomethings, covering the dance floor and spilling over into the sideflows. New bandmate, guitarist Mike Grier proved himself worthy of joining the fray that includes bassist Adam Sentz and drummer Kevin Kirkwood. They rocked out a particularly fun version of “Starlite” and one of their newest tunes, “So Sexy Avalon”, got a fired-up, fried green tomatoes intro that apparently is a little different with each show. Right-tasty improv, a hint of the experimental heart ticking within the band. It’ll be a while before we see it on-stage again.

When the curtains parted next, there was only Amy. And she did belt out one hell of a “Star Spangled Banner” to a silent, respectful and effected crowd. When the part came about the “rockets red glare/the bombs bursting in air”, the cheers and whistles began to well up out of the throng. Finishing with a bit of scat-work (a little over the edge), a noticeably shaken Steinberg walked to her keyboard, head down, while the rest of the band made their way onto the stage. It was a good night for the sassy songstress, who normally seems quite happy when at the Disney venue, though she came off as more Eeyore than Ariel as she morosely wandered the stage. “I apologize for my low energy tonight,” she said during a break in the music. “Feels wrong to have a good time — but let’s have a good time.” Her mood picked up as the band launched into “Summertime” from their first CD “Sky High”, prompting Balthaser to yelp “Hey! This isn’t on the list!” The bouncy, jazzy ode to a season fired up the crowd again and kept the bounce going till the end of the set.

Byron Haze seemed interesting from the one or two songs that I heard from the front of stage. But not interesting enough to keep me from following Steinberg backstage after she hung out post-show with adoring fans and newfound admirers. Once again ensconced upstairs, she and I were joined by Phurst Degree Records artist relations cat Aaron Wiederspahn and we ran rockets around religion, sex, marijuana and show tunes. Not a lot of industry-speak, which was surprising. Perhaps even more surprising to the HOB green room staff who patiently waited while highlights from “Les Miserables” were crooned by lolly-gagging artists. Another interesting night at da HOB for sure.

“Sittin’ here watching the walls turn colors
as CNN reports the latest outrage
but it ain’t news to me though
’cause it said so late this morning on the front page
staring at the shadows dancing to the endless rhythm of the gunfire
‘the world’s been crazier longer than it’s been sane’
says another town criar

the price we pay goes up today
we’ll show you after the break

“See You Next Wednesday”

September 19th, 2001
Open Mic Night
Lost & Found Nightclub

As Amy had discovered, some of her songs suddenly reflected brightly through lyrics on all of This. A few of mine did too and I decided to round them up and lay them out there for the first public performance since all This began. “See You Next Wednesday” was originally written about the Amadou Diallo situation up in New York City a couple of years ago. Scarier are lyrics from Mohave’s “Down To Earth” which has to do with the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas:

“Sooner or later it’s gonna all come down
sooner or later we’re gonna build it back up”

Prepared with these two songs, I headed out to Lost & Found. Continuing with our round-trip tour of open mic nights around the City Bee-yootiful, this particular showcase used to be hosted by Ben Shader but is apparently now the domain of Susie Cool, a.k.a. “Den Mother Of The Open Mic Scene.” Quite the litter of cubs showed up for an evening filled with bright, promising talent. Jessica Dye stands out as a performer to watch in the coming months and years (if she stays in town for that long.) When armed with only a guitar, she is a shy, stage-quiet girl with an airy wisp of a voice and a penchant for simple, drony riffs packed with ethereal melodies.
When she begins twisting knobs and changing pitches, there’s a whacked, drug-flavored mania that whispers under her angelic compositions. Some of the tunes, accessible at her MP3.com web site , are downright creepy at the same time that they’re catchy. Think “Twin Peaks” and you won’t be far off. Aside from that, Dye is a real down-to-earth personality and a true gem of a spirit. With just the right project, she’ll take off like a rocket.

From the left side of left field comes Palmer Schallon, a dyed-in-the-wool freakshow of a talent who dared to get up on-stage with an accordian and enact what can only be described as “Welcome To The Jungle” as performed by They Might Be Giants with a dead Perry Como singing straight from hell. As if the two-song set didn’t already border on performance art, Palmer, as he is billed, laid the disc “Accidental Music” on me. Here are twisted tunes featuring accordian, guitar, records, drum machines and enough angst and loathing to qualify as punk in spirit. Loping, lazy little tunes that make Vienna seem like the world through a fun-house mirror. This guy is for those who like their music like their comics: Andy Kaufman sproings into mind.

Just about everyone who performed did so for the first time since This whole thing went down. Most felt glad to get things back into a groove, I know I did. Musicians tend to give and receive at the same time while they play their music for others. From upon the stage, the artist feels the release and the grounding of performance — from in front of the stage, an audience can take delight and wonder in the creation of music. Or not, if the music’s not to their liking or if the artist is shell-shocked and knee-locked up there like a deer in the headlights, which happens sometimes. On the whole, I think artists serve as much purpose as factory workers, fast food employees or white-collar honchos in this Crazy New Age World of ours and it’s been long since time to get back to work. Music will change from here on out, for those with any sensitivity in them. Our words mean so much more when we don’t even realize it. The future is thattaway, though I’m not sure how much future I actually have left, who does?

Pa gjensyn,

“bfsig”

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