AND THEN THERE WAS MORNING (*to listen to Luke read this essay, check it out here)
I worked through the first and second verses of the second band’s first song to get the bartender to notice me and finally had a beer and found my way to the L in the bar and leaned into it. The singer spiked a tambourine onto the stage on the final beat of the song and mouthed thank you to the thirty or forty clapping in the audience.
The crowd filled the room evenly around standing tables and sitting ones that lined the stage left wall, and a few others grouped in front with their iPhones held up in the air. The singer bent for a Nalgene bottle as the drummer nodded to the bassist and clicked the four-piece band into the next song, one that continued to build and drop and build and drop until it finally stopped and the singer addressed the crowd.
Hello Nashville, he said and asked how everyone was doing but yelled the band into the next song before any of us could answer.
I felt old and okay and okay about feeling old in this new bar in East Nashville. It was a Tuesday night, the record release show for a friend, Paul Davidson of a band called MYYRA. Paul’s EP Erase. Rewind. Restart. is a project he started writing well before we’d met him, my wife and I, before we’d moved from Brooklyn to Nashville. He’d started working on the synthy, modern dirge songs before he met his now-wife and soon after learned they were pregnant, and soon after married. MYYRA was up next, headlining its first live show after over a year of writing and recording and crowd funding to mix and master the six-song EP.
It’s usually better to play last. The audience has had a chance to get all the thinking out of its system and can just listen while you sing and play.
Paul paced the bar. He fiddled with the in-ears monitors that hung around his neck. He checked the volume on the monitor’s battery pack. He stood tall above his young and pregnant wife to the right of the stage and looked around the room. She smiled at him and touched her stomach and he did too before lapping the bar again to make sure he’d said hello to everyone who had come to see him.
The singer picked up sleigh bells and bobbed them in and out of time to a Killers-type song that was well-constructed and professionally-played, but the band looked too healthy to be honest. They were uniformly in black and even though it was one hundred degrees outside the singer wore tall zip-up style boots and a tight, long-sleeved Henley unbuttoned to the bottom.
My wife, Tori, and I had come in with a group we met before the show at a different bar where we sat around outside in the heat and slowly drank a single round and joked politely about the difficulties of being married to another person. How strange Pentecostalism is, someone said. Remember those days? We all did. We’d all grown up in the church and married young and wandered in our ways. We talked about the serious and sweaty pastor that gets mad when you don’t speak in tongues in the first five minutes, and then, for a while, we watched Dubsmash karaoke-type videos on each other’s iPhones. I didn’t understand the videos and felt badly about not enjoying them as much as everyone else. Then, the question of kids came up. Tori and I have been married longest but don’t have any yet. Tori looked at me. She was sitting up straight and calm, her auburn hair down. I was trying to tie mine up somehow, it was still so hot. I looked around the table. At least one of the women there was pregnant. I’m terrible at meeting new people. I didn’t know what to say, and there’s nothing easy about being the hardest drinker in a group of friends. I wanted another beer but it would have been more awkward to leave and come back with another drink than to just sit there awkwardly.
Now in the club and split off from the group, I got another beer, this time faster, and was doing better still, leaning into the bar. It was good to stand in an air-conditioned room with a full bar and loud music and nice-looking people clapping and trying to talk to each other between songs. Everyone seemed to know each other.
I like music a lot more now that I don’t play it. I hadn’t had to load an amp or drum kit into the venue and onto the stage or argue with the soundguy about my guitar. And I didn’t have to try to find and talk to the promoter or remember the soundguy’s name or the bartender’s, though that’s never a bad idea. We were there for Paul and to get out of the house. Since moving to Music City, we’d spent most of our time looking for work, working, and trying to populate a bigger house with enough furniture so it stopped feeling like a dorm.
During the next song the singer clipped and unclipped his microphone. He dangled the empty stand over the empty dance floor and threw it back on the stage between the drumkit and keyboard stand when the chorus hit. I didn’t know why I didn’t trust him or why him being well put together and sober should matter. He really was trying and it didn’t sound bad.
He tugged at his shirt and pounded his chest in time with the toms. The band looked up into the lights and down into the floor as the song climbed to the bridge and the drums cut to half-time. The singer crouched to the stage to hit the highest note. All I was feeling, the more I watched, was embarrassed. If The Strokes’ level of engagement or attentiveness to performance and audience is on one end of the spectrum and Bono is the other, maybe some place in the middle is best. I didn’t want to think about what he was trying to do or that my response, our feedback, should matter. It shouldn’t mean nothing exactly, but maybe something close to it probably.
The room was still filling in with what I guessed were other musicians, friends of the band, artists. Nashville can be a little Los Angeles if you sub actors for musicians, or in this case, guys acting and dressing like musicians for musicians. It can feel like LA or New York, or even Austin, but with nicer people, cheaper drinks, and whiter teeth everyone is always using all the time.
It was apparent that art was being made in a room with an audience. The band, the singer in particular, was asking something from the audience though he seemed to pretend he didn’t know any of us. Most of the crowd cheered and many of us Instagrammed even though it was a room of friends first and fans second or third. I imagined the band practiced and wondered what that was, when they were alone in a barn, say, working on the songs unaffected, acting both as artists and audience. Was that it? If it was something other, what was this?
I ordered another beer and found my wife and put my arms around her waist. She and I have been together exactly one half of my life and music has always been there for us. From Warped Tours as kids, to Wilco at the Mountain View Winery as adults, to sitting in line forever to see Radiohead play the fogged over Greek Theater in Berkeley or flying to Los Angeles and back in a day to see Thom Yorke when he first played The Eraser, that first solo album of his. We’ve stood in crowded venues and festivals together maybe more than we’ve done anything else, though it was happening with less and less frequency now that we were older. We looked at the stage and both knew the other knew that this band didn’t kill but who cares.
A twenty-year-old redhead parted the crowd carrying a half dozen drinks to a table catty corner to the stage. She was so perfect and steady. She was profoundly unaware, wearing a black and white striped shirt and heels and high-waisted jeans. The band kept on but it’s difficult to remember. The redhead pulled back through the crowd for another round, again unaware and oblivious, she could take or leave anything.
I thought about being younger and touring and the many girls in bars I’d asked for drinks but never really met, never talked to beyond joking about the guy ahead of me who ordered a chardonnay or that it was really hot in the south, even for July. I’m from California, was usually next. I remembered the cute cross-eyed bartender in St. Louis who didn’t know what I meant when I asked if she wanted a crew or v-neck t-shirt. I didn’t wish to be back in that time, but I considered it and tried not to stare too much at the redhead laughing at a table with her friends.
The set slowed to a guitar only ballad. You could hear people talking and ordering drinks over the song.
I think with many of our favorite singers and artists, making music or painting is unavoidable and it’s the artist’s need for her art that first attracts others to it. In one of his later journals, William S. Burroughs wrote, “The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.” I think the idea is that it’s more compulsion than desire. It’s baser. It’s not about strategy or intent, even, so much as, and I hate to say it, survival. Regardless, it seemed true that if a song wasn’t helping the singer it wasn’t helping the listener with any more than backing half-priced beer on a boring Tuesday night.
I eventually lost the redhead. She’d gone for a cigarette or to talk to the doorguy and come back to look at the band awhile and then she was gone. I forgot about her completely and only remembered later when I looked at a note I’d taken on my phone. It was that part about taking or leaving anything. And it was true. She was young and gorgeous, the same age as Paul’s wife, probably, who was center stage on the crowded dance floor with a camera to her face, taking a picture she would show their kid, their little girl who was three months away. This was your daddy’s first show, she might say.
MYYRA had taken the stage quickly and started with Kid A reminiscent drums and a wake of synth chords and drones, guitar and bass, and three background singers. There was an overall incredible, nervous energy that was mostly grounded by Paul’s slow, practiced baritone. The room was full and everyone was settled in and the set rolled on under blue and green lights until just before the last song. Paul thanked the crowd and I believe talked about making the record. He smiled and seemed satisfied.
The final eight-plus minute song unwound slow around an Album Leaf blend of Rhodes and bleepy 808. Paul sang about the many ways we can be terrible and sad with a refrain that asked, “Isn’t that just human nature?”
But it was the next line.
“Isn’t that the way God made you? I don’t know.”
Maybe forget we weren’t made at all and only happened to be here. Pretend there is a God, and maybe he doesn’t know either. Maybe he forgot how he made us or what he was trying to do. Maybe he liked not knowing as much as the next guy. Maybe that’s what creation is, accepting instability to allow for a faith moment, for that cliché notion of a gap to be bridged. Art and music critic Greil Marcus said in a commencement speech a few years back, “What art does… is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t.”
I don’t know. Remember Genesis?
At first, the earth was completely empty. There was nothing on the earth. Darkness covered the ocean, and God’s Spirit moved over the water. Then God said, “Let there be light!” And light began to shine. He saw the light, and he knew that it was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God named the light “day,” and he named the darkness “night.” There was evening, and then there was morning. This was the first day.
There was nothing to move over or darken or light so God made something.
“Isn’t that human nature? / Isn’t that the way God made you?”
I don’t know. Maybe all of this, the world, us, this whole thing, is an entire world away from what he imagined. Maybe even God understood an eternity without surprises and delayed gratification wasn’t worth living, if that’s what you call it when what you do is exist and it’s outside of time. Maybe we were made because God knew he had to let out a little bit of slack. He had to pretend what it was like to wonder.
Bells and drones looped. The backup singers swayed in black dresses at the back of the stage. The lights lit the band and washed out over the people. Paul had finally disappeared. It was only the song there and it had built up fully without trying and had everyone singing along and clapping their hands.
*For show dates, music, and contact you can find MYYRA at www.myyramusic.com.