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Basement music

Basement music

The morning’s gray sky dripped with humidity and the promise of rain. I could not wait for the rest of my day to get started. The members of the band I used to be in were coming to my house to play music. For several years, I had dreamed of the ReCremains reuniting and playing music on my lawn with Higgins Lake as the background. Mother Nature laughed at this plan. After 1.5 inches of rain fell, I stared at the large green sponge that used to be my lawn. This was no place for electrical equipment. We would have to rock in the basement instead.

One of my former students, Christi, arrived first. Bandmates Lori and Kirker arrived soon afterwards and began unloading equipment from their car. Their amps, guitars, cables, and percussion instruments were added into the mix of my guitars, amps, piano, and keyboard. After figuring out a plan for setting everything up, we warmed up our fingers and voices by playing a few songs. Our friends, Peggy and John, arrived to watch the band perform. We chatted in between songs and awaited the arrival of Mike, Bill, and their families. We needed our piano man and our bass player.

Even though I was among friends and at my own house, I had performance anxiety. I had not practiced with the band for over a year. When I retired from Saginaw Valley State University in 2010, and my husband and I moved to Higgins Lake in 2011, the commute to SVSU became problematic. When my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) tried to take over my life, I wasn’t even sure if I could play guitar again.

There is something to be said for both a runner’s high and the way one’s brain works on music. When I was recovering from brain surgery, I soon realized that I always felt better when I ran every day and listened to music. I finally attempted to play guitar. Again. I started writing songs. Again. I read and reread books such as This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I soon discovered that although I could not remember things that happened six months prior, I could remember the words to practically any song I had ever heard whether it was Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music was the fix I needed; it was stronger than any medicine could ever possibly be.

After everyone else arrived, plus our neighbors from next door and my mother-in-law, Mike sat down at the piano, Bill fired up his bass guitar, and we began to play. I wished for our former drummer Frank, but he now lives in Virginia. I don’t remember what song we played first, but between songs, I spoke into my microphone: “I am so happy.” I repeated this many times throughout the afternoon and evening.

We ran through a bunch of our original songs, and when we played “Radio,” a song I had written years ago for the band, my fingers flew across my guitar, and my voice felt strong. We continued playing original songs we had written over the years: “Monkey Groove,” “Cream City,” “Carnival Clown,” “Swamp in My Heart,” “A Happenin’ Place (If You Happen To Be Dead),” “Highway Michigan,” “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat,” and so on. Occasionally we sang a cover song by the Stones or the Beatles. Christi sang Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” At some point, Peggy picked up a cowbell and joined us as we made merry music. We played “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for Peggy since she had requested it. We also received requests for an Elvis song, and Bill broke out some major bass moves while singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill’s granddaughter Alara requested “The Alphabet Song” and “Wheels on the Bus.” We gladly obliged. She sang along and danced. Similar to a runner’s high, playing music had kicked my mind into happiness overdrive.

Eventually we knew it was time to stop. We were all exhausted. Although we had taken a break to eat dinner, we had been playing music for close to four hours. Or was it longer? My legs felt as if they might break. My voice was hoarse from singing and yakking into the microphone between songs. My neighbor, Jessica, suggested stand-up comedy might be in my future. I may seriously consider that. Not!

When I went to bed that night, even though I was exhausted, it took a long time for me to fall asleep as I relived the night’s musical madness. The next morning, I went down to the basement and looked around. The room that had been alive with music and mayhem seemed different now. Better. I had rocked in this basement with friends.

When I still taught at SVSU, author Ken Follett came to campus one year. My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to the meet-and-greet. Instead of talking about writing, we ended up having a short conversation about playing guitar. He said that playing in a band made him a much better player. I realized this was true. The more I played music with Mike, Frank, Bill, Kirker, and Lori, the better I wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter. When Brei and Danielle, two SVSU students at the time, sang with us for a short while, I wanted to be a better singer, although I knew my alto voice could never compete with their vibrant sopranos. Despite this, I began to feel more confident.

Although Mike still encourages me to play lead guitar licks during songs, I still freeze up the moment he motions towards me. I am happy playing rhythm guitar and singing. I know I am the worst musician in the band, but they put up with me. They also seem to like the crazy songs I write, and with guidance from members of the band, those songs have become better than when I penned them as I sat alone with my guitar.

I am already planning on next year’s event: August 2015, on the lawn, under the light of a bright full moon. I am thinking of songs we could cover: “Moondance,” “Werewolves of London,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” But it is the ReCremains original songs that really highlight the heart and soul of this group of musicians. Our poetry. Our brains on music.

Cremains circa 2010

Cremains circa 2010

I’ve Got the Music in Me

Friends David Hayes, Pam Presta Miller, and Cari Johnson Pelava were all members of my wedding party in 1978. When I moved from Dodge City, Kansas, to Hermosa Beach, California, in 1976, they were some of the new friends I made soon after I arrived. Cari and David were former Michiganders and are directly responsible for me meeting Jim—the love of my life. David recently moved back to Michigan, Pam lives in Ohio, and Cari lives in Minnesota. We put our collective heads together and figured out some days towards the end of September when we could spend some time at my house. It was time for a reconnection, since Jim and I had not seen Cari in thirty-four years and Pam in ten. We spent our days laughing, sharing old pictures, making fun of each other, and catching up on each other’s lives. There, however, seemed to be a constant as we enjoyed each other’s company: music.

Music played in the background whether we were in the car or in the house. One day when we were traveling, as I rode in the backseat between Pam and Cari, I started singing  “Stuck in the Middle with You.” One morning, as people were waking up and wandering into the kitchen for their first shot of coffee, someone mentioned having a weird dream. Naturally, since we all lived in California during Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album explosion, I started singing “Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?” from the song “Dreams.” The more I fell into this pattern of singing instead of talking, the more difficult it became for me to stop myself. It was as if I had lost sight of language unless it was attached to a song. At one point David asked me how I could remember lyrics for just about any song even though I had trouble remembering things from the past year or two. His question made me stop and wonder: How was it possible that I could remember songs and lyrics? Was I reconnecting to the past through music or because of music?

On September 5th, 2011, I began reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks.  He examines how music and the brain function together. As I always do, I wrote comments in my journal and made notations in the periphery of the pages of the book. As I recently reread my comments while working on this essay, I discovered a chilling comment I had written after reading about “motion parallax (the shifting appearance of the visual world as we move through it)” (155). My journal comment: “How I feel before a migraine.”

I had been having unusually severe headaches during the summer of 2011, particularly when the barometric pressure rose upward as if a needle on an old stereo, as it finally reached the end of a song. Motion parallax also seemed to happen when the barometric pressure spiraled downward.  Everything synthesized on October 29th, 2011, when I suffered a Grand Mal seizure and discovered I had a brain tumor. Now that I look back, it’s almost as if reading Musicophilia during this time frame in my life was meant to be. The warning signs were there, but I failed, or perhaps refused, to heed them.

As I continued examining my journal notes from my initial reading of Musicophilia, I noted my fascination with the passage Sacks wrote about a session with one of his patients the poet W.H. Auden attended and said the session “reminded him of an aphorism of the German Romantic writer Novalis: ‘Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution’” (274). Why do I feel so moved by that insight into the human psyche? Why has music played such an important role in my life? Maybe I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I know I am not alone. I know that music affects my friends as well.

One night Jim, David, Cari, and I sat on our deck watching the moon rise over the lake with our conversation further illuminated by several candles burning on a small table. Most of the lights in the house had been turned off. The Eurythmics “Would I Lie to You?” blared from the stereo inside with Annie Lennox’s voice fueling the driving drumbeats while Dave Stewart worked his guitar magic. We noticed Pam, inside, dancing and singing as if no one else existed. It was as if those of us on the deck had disappeared, and Pam had been overtaken by synesthesia—a “fusion of the senses” (Sacks 192). I understood how this could happen, because when I listen to this song on my iPod, it makes me want to run or walk faster as if I could spin myself into the future.

I also remember moments of Pretzel Tour road trips with Micki Holladay, Rachael Livingston, and Jeanne Beilke where conversation ceased. Micki would slip one of her CDs into the car stereo, and as an old familiar song began to play, we would sing along while our bodies gently moved, even though we were strapped in by seatbelts. What role does music have in the synesthesia of friendship? And as we sing and remember, are we returning to a time in our past when life was much simpler? To a time when we were young and the future seemed to be a long promise in front of us?

I also remember when I taught at Saginaw Valley State University, and I played guitar and sang with the Cremains of the 10th Circle. We practiced once a week in the Cave, multiple times a week if we were going to perform somewhere, and I practiced at home every night for hours at a time. I felt sorry for my husband and dog. Although my dog would place himself next to me on the floor, away from the amps, he would stick with me until practice was over. Jim stayed in the living room or ventured outside while his wife rocked the neighborhood. It was quite important to me to memorize the lyrics of the songs I practiced and not use a cheat sheet during a live performance. This isn’t to suggest I was perfect: I screwed up lyrics quite a few times. The band was loaded with talented people, and I wanted to try and keep up, perhaps convince them I was worthy to be in the band.

I wonder now if I could perform live without a cheat sheet. Could I nail the lyrics? When I practice, my fingers seemingly fly across the guitar with abandon, but what about the lyrics—the language of the song? Sometimes I practice with my eyes closed, hoping I won’t have to open them to look at the typed or written words on my cheat sheet. These songs should be as embedded in my brain as much as songs I wrote while I lived in California or songs I survived on during my high school years. If I can answer a question with lines from a song, there has to be a reason. I know that music is the solution to my problem—and I am working my way back into the way my life was before everything suddenly changed if that is possible. Maybe music is my solution because music is how I connected with so many people.

Reconnecting with friends and relatives over the past year has reminded me how lucky I am to have such amazing people in my life. I have only mentioned a few of those people in this essay. They are the mirror to my past, present, and future. If Novalis was correct when he wrote “every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution,” then I am ready for the cure. When I sing some of my original songs such as “Radio” and “Highway Michigan,” my own moment of synesthia forms, and the people in my life, the memories, and the sheer joy I find in the sounds, the images, and language connect and reconnect me to everything that matters.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia, New York: Vintage Books, 2007, 2008. Print