Nostalgia for the music-hearted

I used to write song lyrics on fancy stationary in my best, curliest handwriting and taped them to a wall in my bedroom. The other walls showcased writing on them too. Letters people wrote me. Letters I wrote myself. An entire wall of fortune cookie wisdom I had arranged into a giant flower.

There wasn’t a single space of white in my childhood room. Every inch of space was covered with words mostly written in glittery gel pen.

I played piano too. Not well, but well enough to complement whatever song I was singing, even if that meant a few chords. I spent hours in my room fiddling around with notes. The sheet music usually ended up on the floor, and I’d resolve to whatever sounded the best.

I liked the sound of my voice. Much more in song than in speech. In speech, I felt clunky and brash. I hated it on rewind. In song, I could make my words flower and melt.

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I firmly believe language is dead without music.

I’d spend all week creating and memorizing a song, and then I’d serenade my friends. They seemed to like it. They’d nod their heads, lean into it, ask for more.

I started a band with a few other restless types. We called it National Fishing Day. Some inside joke my friend and I came up with while we got high in the forest preserve. She was gangly and sweet, and she played drums. We found ourselves a bass player. This short, turtlish guy who smelled like cigarettes and rocked out to hair metal. We all really needed an outlet. Our weekends became jam sessions in the drummer’s basement somewhere in the woods of rural Illinois.

We were all just learning our crafts. No one was truly good at anything, but we didn’t care. We weren’t going anywhere except for right there, in the now. I wrote two songs. I forget their names. When we performed them together, we flew. There’s nothing better than fumbling around with sound in a basement. When we were all in sync, it was our version of perfect.

That wasn’t the only fumbling happening. My drummer and I started making out on her dingy basement couch. I thought we were just friends fooling around, but our intimacy kind of put a damper on things. She wanted more, and I didn’t want anything more than her friendship and the band. Our poor bassist. We were all devastated when National Fishing Day was no more.

Somewhere along the way I stopped singing all together. Mostly because I grew more self-conscious. My ears would burn, and my entire face would go numb whenever I sang in front of more than a few of my closest friends. This happened when I gave presentations too. It affected the sound of my voice. The older I got, the more it quaked.

Why does age rob us of our childhood loves? There is something wrong here.

I rationalized that I express myself in other ways, so I could let this one go. But why let any of them go?

This weekend I waddled over to this divey karaoke bar. I’ve been here once before. It’s not what you’d expect. This tiny thing with a few tables and musty carpeting. But it’s apparently the place to be. You can’t even move an elbow without bumping into someone. One of the few places in the suburbs that kind of feels like city, but with cheap drinks.

My go-to karaoke is Alanis Morissettte. Pretty basic. I mostly listen to indie music you wouldn’t find on karaoke, but my girl Alanis does just fine. Everyone remembers her. She was a lot of people’s angst filled teen years.

I wanted to sound like myself. So I sang my hardest. I belted it out. I hit all the nuances. Because I like to sing. I’ve always liked to sing. It felt amazing to dust off my favorite instrument.

The bar became a gray blur around me. I couldn’t pinpoint a single face, just the words on the screen. I knew those words well, in a colorful bedroom long ago. Such is the way of karaoke. Nostalgia for the music-hearted.

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What we saw of Regina from Chicago Theater’s ‘cheap seats’

Cheap seats or not,  what a soul-wrenching show I would like to rewind over and over.

I was an hour early in picking up Alexa, a big deal because I’m always bumbling into her life at least 10 minutes late. We petted her dog Bubba and had a drink with her boyfriend and his dad. They sat on benches on the porch, and I stood and paced until the beer kicked in. We talked about photography, social media uh-ohs, bumblebees, bee stings, and the shifty neighbors across the street. Alexa wore a choker and a long double necklace. She had a single braid in her hair. I was sporting a long skirt with suns and moons, sandals, and a jean jacket. We looked mighty fine this Friday evening. The boys, who were buzzing and enjoying the warm weather, asked if we were excited for our concert, and we shrugged.

It was bumper to bumper traffic to the city like always; good thing we had the extra time, I kept gloating to Alexa. We listened to a few Regina Spektor songs along the way as well as this one by Lorde that reminds me of our friendship. I couldn’t find the song with the one line about friends sleeping in the same bed, which reminds me of when Alexa and I had sleepovers on Friday nights at her house. I joked, “We weren’t kids; we were kind of young adults in college,” to which she said “Yeah, but we were making up for lost time.”

Sometimes I feel like I have to hide my unfiltered, gushing affection for Alexa. First, it tends to put her on the spot. It’s like I’m constantly pointing out that she has whiskers or elephant tusks on her face, and they’re indeed beautiful. That and it oftentimes comes off as alienating to others on the outside. But it’s a wee bit hard not to share this particular kind of love. The older people get, the less time we have for others, and the more scratchy layers we throw on, which can get in the way of enjoying a person. With us, we’ve been throwing off layers left and right. We could walk around in winter in tank tops if we had to. Our friendship has muddled past the deepest defenses and insecurities. I’m beyond blessed for this rarity, and I hope that others can find and work on a relationship like this because it looks good on everyone.

As we continued to inch forward in traffic, Alexa shared with me some of her comments on some writing I asked her to take a look at. She ran out of printer paper, so she printed out my story and poem on fancy stationary. The paper was thick and worn-looking and depicted a turtle wading in water between some reeds. She read her comments aloud. I was grateful for the suggestions she had for this story I’ve been sweating over. She wanted a little more reflection on the narrator’s walk home and thought I should add more detail about a particular prop by reusing it in another spot. It was a pretty thoughtful comment. She gets darn comfortable in a scene. A fellow writer and one of the best readers I know.

She had to pee and apologized about her bladder profusely, and I pounced on the first exit off the expressway. I told her to stop apologizing for something her body couldn’t control. We both apologize a lot for lame things. It was Alexa’s turn this week.

We parked in a garage on Kedzie. Only 12 dollars for the night (what a freaking snag). We walked the few blocks to the theater, using our phones’ GPS because we are two dopey deer that wandered a little too far from the suburbs.

Alexa and I joined the line wrapped around state street. It was a diverse crowd, and there were a lot more dudes than we both imagined. Everyone looked squeaky clean and dressed for the occasion. Two older women stood in front of us. They both wore comfortable shoes, short haircuts, and small silver hoops. They giggled and talked into each other’s shoulders. The woman directly in front of me had drooping blue eyes that hung onto every word coming out from the woman standing in front of Alexa. I was projecting when I said, “That’s us in the future,” but I didn’t care.

A man in a tattered flannel asked Alexa if she had any money to spare, and she rifled into her purse for a dollar to give to him. She said, “Who cares what he spends it on,” as if openly confronted.

It was colder than it was earlier, and I shivered in my jean jacket. A man carrying takeout and walking in the opposite direction of the line stopped next to me on the sidewalk. He asked me, “Excuse me, Miss, but do fries go with that shake?” I looked at the man closer, incredulously. He casually waited while I came up with an answer. I think I was most offended  about the polite commonplaceness of the comment. I mean if you’re going to harass someone, at least have some goddamn originality. I awkwardly pointed to the burger joint right behind the man, and said I bet they had some good shakes in there if he needed one. Alexa had a different take, probably the more accurate one. She said, “Excuse me, but you can’t talk to her like that.” After he scurried away, she told me I had to be more assertive, and I felt like I had failed her and all of womanhood. But if the shoe were on my foot, I would have bitched out the man as well, so I knew where she was coming from.

Finally it was time for Regina. Alexa and I found our seats in the balcony. On the stage was a single light resting on a glossy piano. We snapped photos and double fisted our drinks. One beer and a cocktail. Not the best idea for a show without an intermission. Alexa and I swapped drinks because her Jack and Coke was a little too strong. I couldn’t even taste the Jack, and insisted she take my margarita.

Regina took the stage, and Alexa and I perked up in our seats. From where we sat, she looked like a tiny mime in her lacy black top, black flats, and black skinny jeans with holes exposing her knees. Undone wavy hair sat along her neckline. Her black clothes blended into the black stage, but her small, white face glowed under all the lights. She introduced herself to Chicago in a mousey voice then got comfortable in a large leather chair at the piano. What came soaring out of the piano and her mouth was the opposite of the initial perceived smallness.

Regina started off a little rushed. Her first two songs were effortless, but some of their usual longer notes blended together. By the third song though, she sank her hands into the bellowing elongated notes. Her voice clung to the rollercoaster chords. She has a signature playfulness that feels like you’re watching someone walk across a tightrope or you’re on a beach batting around an inflatable ball. I felt like a ball bouncing around in my seat between Alexa and this other woman. At one point, I told this woman that the current performance was “my version of football,” and she laughed.

Then Regina played some of her more moving, stomach-churners. She sang an entire power ballad in Russian, which she dedicated to an elderly friend of hers who used to visit her backstage every time she came to Chicago. This friend recently passed away. Regina is an artist who is completely engrained in her homeland. You feel her ebbing and longing when she speaks in her native language. I felt myself leaning into an understanding without a translation that Regina herself said we could “Google” if wanted. No translation necessary for me, thanks. I believe you.

She also sang Après Moi, which is in English and Russian. And it’s one of my favorites. I like militancy of the song and the way she seems to toggle back and forth between voices. It’s as if there are two people singing in this song, answering each other, building each other up. “I must go on standing,” is a takeaway line of this song, and you feel the full force of it.

Regina also said a few things that really stuck with me, as I’m sure others. Two of my favorite lines were: “This theater is so fancy. I feel like I want to swear in it … Fuck fuck fucking fuck.” And then there was the speech she made right before her more politically charged songs. She discussed what it was like to come to America as a refugee and her beginning journey as “a hungry, dirty artist sleeping on people’s couches.” She mourned our current political situation, but ended hopefully by saying, “Here’s to better days and better people to represent us.” Her song “Trapper and the Furrier” was menacing and relevant. Regina hunched over the piano all creature-like and banged on the keys, “What a strange world we live in,” she said. “Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given more, more, more, more.” MORE was the emphasis here. “More” was the word that hit the listener in the stomach like a dead-on punch. Perfect targeting.

A drummer and cellist also played on stage. They were equally moving, graceful, and effective, but complemented Regina in a way that reminded everyone that she is an ethereal one woman circus.

Regina kept giving, and the crowd extended its arms and ate her up, as they tend to do in the face of pure musical love and talent. Some people screamed, “We love you,” and she acknowledged each and every clear interruption. I payed attention to Alexa’s reactions. She wiped a tear away during the deeply sorrowful song “Blue Lips,” which explains that “blue is the most human color.” I choked back tears during two of her new babies, “Bleeding Heart” and “Tornadoland.” Lately, I have felt myself in a whirlwind of internal criticism and rejection. My thoughts have been racing so much faster than my words, and I feel like a slave trying to keep up. Excuse my analogy, but sometimes it feels like artistic constipation. So much force, with so little output. All anyone wants to be is heard in the form they’re most comfortable with. Regina established this with eloquence.

“Bleeding Heart” was a saving song, a reminder to be yourself. The light show soared around the crowd, singling people out. Lights moved around in tune with the song and landed on individuals who laughed and blushed at the song’s important reminder.

She was so damn charming. At one point, she forgot the words to one of her songs, and someone had to shout them to her. She stood up a few times and swayed like her body was a Styrofoam noodle. Alexa appreciated that she was an “awkward mover,” and I agreed.

The encore was long, but her show was far from over. We clapped until our hands stung. Finally, she skipped back onto stage. She sang four more songs after the encore. Her voice hit her self-made spectrum of light, torpedoing notes and heavy, low, bellowing notes. At some points, I just couldn’t believe her humanity, and at others, I felt like she knew me on a soul to soul basis.

When Regina said, “I really do believe in friendship, love, and art…” I looked at Alexa and said, “Huh. So do we.”