playing to nobody
it’s been a long time since i just sat down and wrote a blog to you.
it’s a thing that happens; when i tour.
i get busy, i get tired, i get empty.
and the last thing i have the energy to do is to peel myself off the floor and hang myself up on the laundry line for all to see. usually i really love that. i love it now. i’m doing it now. i’m saying it now. i’m saying it so. i’m making it so. the comments remind me. there you are, out there, listening. i don’t forget.
last night a girl came up to me and told me that my blogs were what used to get her through her difficult life.
i’m on a plane home from puerto rico. i played there last night, a show that reminded me of the old days…with a crazed, small crowd in a packed bar, i didn’t go on until after midnight, playing a rental keyboard that sounded like an acid house trip to the 90s, the bar at the back drunk and talking. having to fight, fighting and winning.
i’ve been doing this, playing my songs and touring, for almost 13 years, it still hurts my feelings when people at the bar are talking during my set, especially during the quiet songs.
neil came with me. it was a last-minute decision. he hadn’t planned to come, but it’s been hard lately. we’ve been trying to be married, i’ve been going through hard things. a few days before the trip it occurred to me that he could come, that i didn’t have to go alone. i asked him and his eyes lit up. marriage is weird. i still feel like a single person in marriage drag. every day it gets a little easier and every day the doubt deepens and i look in the mirror asking myself: “who the fuck were you to think that you could make a marriage work? you’re too demanding. you’re too fast. you’re too childish. you’re too careless. you’re too selfish.” then we get on a plane and it takes off and we have an extra seat between us and he falls asleep in my lap because he’s had a single tequila and i stroke his hair and kiss his face every few seconds, looking at the way he smiles in his sleep when he gets a little bit of love. i whisper to him that i love him. i figure he’s just as bad as me, and we’re just two freaks figuring it out.
the air is different up here, it seems to demand higher feelings and thoughts.
i remember once shocking myself when i cried at a “harry potter” movie. then someone told me that when you fly, and you’re at a higher altitude, you feel more.
maybe we should all live in planes.
anyway, neil got up and read last night at my gig. there were a lot of people talking while he read a chapter from his new (unpublished) novel. he’s been reading it bit by bit for different crowds, mostly when he’s with me and i ask him to hop up on stage and do something. he’s brave. i sat behind a curtain, all alone on the side of the stage, feeling so many feelings, because i knew what must be going on in his head (something along the lines of “i’m neil gaiman and i’m reading my new novel and nobody’s listening why the fuck did i tell my damn rock star wife i’d read something in bar, all i want to do is hide and i am never doing this again” and other variations of “Nobody Cares Never Again”).
he was very punk rock last night, mr. gaiman. he read his chapter over and above the drunk bar people, and the people who were listening loved him, which is always hard to remember, and when, during my set, his microphone crapped out, and then the back-up microphone crapped out, he came over to my piano and simply sang into my mic. he’s gotten braver, even though i think he was always brave and just needed to be reminded, or given permission, or whatever. i think it’s part of why he likes me.
i also watched him do something wise. he’d been planning to read a short poem and a novel excerpt, a long one, about a twenty minute read. when he realized how loud the crowd was.
he literally started reading the chapter excerpt and then double-backed, pausing, and saying “…i’m actually going to read you different chapter.” and he flipped, and he read them a short, powerful chapter about a worm coming out of a foot, which delightfully grossed out the audience. and this is how you be a live performer. you figure it out. you do what needs to be done in the moment.
he’s been watching me, but he knew this all before he knew me. rock is rock. bars are bars. i’ve gotten used to fighting the noise. all the noises. the noises on the internet and the noises in the room when you’re trying to just pay music for people. sometimes the noise is silent.
i have a lot of war stories about that. two stand out.
the very first time was the worst.
it was a dolls show, i was about 25. we’d agreed to open up for a band called papermoon in providence, rhode island. we had no idea what the gig would be like, and we had no fanbase in providence. we were a teeny little band and we were playing to a few hundred people in boston and a few dozen in new york. it was the very beginning. we’d probably, at the time, played about 15 or 20 shows.
the club was empty. and i’m not exaggerating. there was nobody. literally. the place could have probably fit 300 people. and it was just the bartender.
the room was bare when the doors opened and nobody walked in. the girlfriends of papermoon showed up and when it was time for us to hit stage, there were exactly eight people in the audience: the members of the headlining band and their girlfriends.
brian (the drummer of the dresden dolls, my steadily rocking touring partner for years and years to come) always had the correct attitude: “fuck everything, fuck everyone, let’s rock.” he’d driven down to providence with me in my shitty volvo, he’d set his drum kit up, and he was ready to pound those drums and play as hard as he could no matter what the circumstances.
i wasn’t that strong. i didn’t have a touring history like brian. he’d been touring for years and years playing in local punk bands and he knew about playing to empty rooms for the joy of it.
we started. the headlining band and their girlfriends lined up against the back wall of the club, 40 feet away, observing us.
back in those days we always opened up with “good day” and went into “missed me”. i think it was during “half jack” that i started crying.
all i could see was those bored figures at the back of the room, who were (in my head) just waiting us to finish.
i couldn’t stand it. it was too personal, too bare, too dumb. i felt too stupid, too embarrassed.
and i felt even worse, crying. i could feel brian’s strength, pounding out the supportive rhythms to the songs that i had written. i felt so selfish – i was supposed to be leading this damn show, and i was falling apart, a sad little pile of ego unable to prop itself up behind the piano.
i really remember thinking, over and over, like a mantra in my head: Nobody Cares and Never Again.
i quit this shit.
it’s as absurd as that feeling you get when you’re hungover, lying there in bed with the train of doom ramming against your forehead, and you have that “i’ll never have another drink” moment. as the thought passes through your head, you know the absurdist nature of it all. you don’t believe it. but another voice in there whispers: it’s a free country. you really could do whatever you want. believe it. you could stop and prevent any future pain. and you have to stop, you feel you have to stop….because nobody’s listening.
i have another story. i’ve talked about it a little bit in the past, but not much. this one is even more absurd.
it was maybe a year after that. we’d started touring. we were still dragging our gear in my shitty volvo around the country, with brian’s drums and my keyboard crammed into the back, taking turns driving, thought truth be told, it was usually brian driving and me navigating, which is the perfect metaphor for our band.
we were in st. louis. we hd a tour stop planned because brian’s aunt-and-uncle lived there and we had a great house to crash in. we had a gig set up at frederick’s music lounge and a day off. an old friend of brian’s long-lost cousin, who was into the local music scene, suggested that we play a show on our off day, she was sure she could find us a gig. “fuck yes,” we said, “we’ll play anywhere.” it was true in those days. we were playing sports bars and pizza parlors and clubs and galleries and we figured that a gig, even a shitty one, was better than a night off in st. louis. (how things have changed. and they haven’t.)
anyway, she got us the mystery gig. this was pre-mad-interent, pre-twitter, pre-everything, it was 2002 for christ’s sake, we had no way of telling our fans we had this extra gig. we just showed up and hoped it would be cool and that people would like us. it would be worthwhile. everything was.
it was a teeny sports bar called The Blue Lagoon.
it was the world series.
we didn’t follow baseball.
we pulled the shitty volvo up to the side door of the bar and we wandered in.
we had no friends there, no audience. even brian’s long-lost cousin’s friend wound up not even being able to make the gig.
so it was us and the dudes in the sports bar. my heart sank. i thought this was going to be a cool little indie spot, an open mic at worst, with a bunch of hippies singing songs about love and hitchhiking to california.
instead, there were 14 scruffy men at a bar and some tables, watching the world series. and we were supposed to play music.
i told brian i didn’t want to bring the piano and drums in. guitar only. 4 songs only. then let’s get the fuck out of here. he was down with this plan. just guitar and vocal. go.
we set up on the makeshift stage, which was located right under the bed-sized television screen.
we were about 6 feet below the baseball game. it was humiliating.
when i look back at this story, i’m so amazed we kept going. i think we just had this kind of naive perseverance. as if it was out moral obligation, to the guys at the bar, to the bar owner, to the god of rock, to brian’s long-lost cousin’s friend, to EVERYBODY, to fulfill our duty and play those four songs. in reality, nobody would have given a SINGLE fuck if we’d just gotten back into my volvo, gone back to brian’s aunt-and-uncles’s house and watched “braveheart” on DVD curled up on her couch. i only see this with the helpful perspective of time.
we played four songs. i cried a little during the second and third songs, but not a ton. i wanted to simply be sad and mournful, since Nobody Cared About Our Art, and to me, This Was Deep. but also, i sort of enjoyed the dramatic masochism of crying in front of a bunch of dudes. it felt Big.
for the fourth song, we played “Two Headed Boy”. we only had about three or four acoustic songs in our repertoire back then, and that was one of our favorite covers.
i cried for the entire song. i poured my heart out to the dudes in the bar, thinking I DON’ CARE IF YOU NEEVR KNOW THE BEAUTY OF THIS SONG, I WILL SING IT TO YOU ANYWAY. JESUS WILL KNOW. and other variations of these themes, running through my crazed head, all mixed up. and i wasn’t even drinking.
and then, a miracle happened.
we hit the end of the song, my voice waning and brian’s acoustic guitar strumming the last, beautiful, sacred-neutral-milk-hotel chord.
and every dude at the bar stood up, leapt to his feet, and starting cheering. madly.
our heart’s soared. we had done it. we came, we saw, we conquered. we managed to win over the hearts of the most complacent, beer-oriented, baseball dudes, and convert then to the beauty of neutral milk hotel, music, love, and joy. i had never felt more pride and accomplishment of musicianship. we’d done it. to THESE guys. anything was possible. music was invincible.
as they screamed and applauded, we turned around and saw the screen.
someone had just hit a home run.