Some might frown on a seven- and five-year old being in a bar, but it wasn’t like that. It was our special night out with our mom and her friends. She didn’t drink; she was just there for the music, and we got to be her little companions just this once. We were allowed to have sodas and were to remain sitting at our table in the dim basement of McKenna’s Pub on a Sunday, a school night. (Though it has long since been closed, I cannot drive by that corner in Colorado Springs, on the occasions that I am forced to leave the solace of Denver for a visit, without seeing that bar in my mind, a black and white English cottage of a building, always so out of place next to a KFC and a gas station)
My mom did not get out much. She was single and in nursing school, and she worked full time to make ends meet, too. In retrospect, she probably barely had the time to think straight, even without a social life. We understood in a way that this outing meant a lot to her, but now, as a working mom who pines for my bi-monthly book (or more aptly wine) club, I can see that it must have been such a treat. It shocks me to think that she was only about 29 then, when as a new mom at 36, I still feel like such an amateur.
We were good kids. When your mom is young and single and completely used up just trying to pay the bills, you have to be good, otherwise it all goes to hell. And we never wanted it to go to hell. Courtney and I sat at the table in the corner with our sodas, while our mom, a round woman with a huge smile, beautiful amber eyes, and a wit that would catch you off guard, carried her Diet Pepsi around laughing her great laugh with her nursing school friends and singing along with the folk duo, Phil and Frank.
Phil was the brother to Barb, my mom’s lab partner in nursing school. They were apparently alphabetically paired, their last names both starting with the same three letters. Barb’s brother was starting to book quite a few gigs around the local music scene in the Springs, and it became a natural hangout for the Beth-el School of Nursing crowd. They were all having a great time.
I focused on the music, wanting to be seen as a seven-year old prodigy who tapped her toe in perfect time. My sister colored. We both felt very special being there, the only kids in a grown-up place, on our best behavior, listening to live music with other grownups who all checked in on us as they mingled by, asking how school was or if we were being good to our mom. Without a husband or nearby family, my mom had only these other nursing students as her support, though most of them were still so young and single that the idea of raising two children alone must have baffled them.
After that one night at the bar, I was obsessed with Phil and Frank and their voices and acoustic guitars. I thought they were lyrical geniuses and, though I did not understand many of songs’ words, I pretended to be a party to the deep meaning. I begged my mom to take me back to the bar, but she never did, saying that it was a special one-time thing. Kids did not belong in bars on school nights, and she knew that. I continued to ask about the music though.
My mom attended another of their performances, one that they played with a woman named Cindy, whose voice was sultry like velvet and smoke. I know this, because at this gig, my mom asked if she could place a tape recorder on Phil’s music stand to record the set. This was back before people were freaks about contracts and copyrights and pirating. It was just all about the love of the music. So Phil agreed.
So I guess this is the story of how my mom made me my first bootleg. I listened to it constantly. I made a copy of the copy to play on my little stereo in my room, and my mom kept the one she made in the car, where we listened to it every day on the way to and from school. The harmonies were crisp and beautiful, the guitars were alternately tinny and fast or melty and slow, and the back and forth chatting and laughing and key-finding of the musicians between songs was my favorite part. The lyrics were deep and grown up and spoke of real life and the seriousness and humor involved in the business of being an adult. (In college, someone played Paul Simon’s Duncan, and it was the first time I realized that someone else actually wrote that song, that is was not a creation of Phil and Frank. It was also the first time that I understood that “the couple in the next room, bound to win a prize; they’ve been going at it nearly all night long” meant they were having sex, not arguing as I had deducted as a young child of divorced parents.)
In my mind, this cassette was a number one album. In fourth grade, my teacher asked the class what kind of music we liked. People said Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and Prince, and I liked them, too, but I raised my hand and announced that Phil and Frank were my favorite band. And I did not understand why no one knew what the hell I was talking about.
Eventually I learned that it was not that cool for an almost teenager to listen to folk music constantly, and though I have always been an equal-opportunity music junkie, I focused the rest of my formative years on liking and listening to what everyone else was liking and listening to. From Debbie Gibson through Nirvana, I followed the mainstream, the cassette recording of Phil and Frank, gathering dust in some hidden box, never to be seen again. Along the way I learned to love singing and would randomly surprise my hippie choir director, when I could belt out all the lyrics to a James Taylor song he’d selected before he’d even handed out the sheet music. Phil and Frank had still left their impression on this Pearl Jam fan.
In April of this year, I had my first child, a baby boy named Daniel. His giant blue eyes twinkle with the piece of my mom that I see in him every single day, and I wish that she had lived to meet him.
I somehow forgot to sing to my baby the first few weeks of his life. I was so focused on doing everything right and making sure that I was a good mom, that I forgot to use my own little instrument to soothe him let him get to know me. I forgot I had the skill. And then one night, he cried, hard and long, back arched away from me, the wails flowing right into my ear causing me a physical pain that I now recognize as the pain of loving someone more than you love yourself. I bounced and swayed and shushed. I rubbed gentle circles on his back and placed tiny kisses on his head. I tried his vibrating bouncy chair and breastfeeding and anything else that I thought might work. And then, in a moment of clarity and desperation, it occurred to me that I should sing. And instantly and randomly from my mouth came two verses and the chorus of a song I could not place:
He was just some young white kid, trying to sound tough and black
With gravel and spit in his voice
He’d laugh at the things we’d do; the radio laughed, too
I held up my arms in rejoice
Singing rooty-toot-toot for the moon
It’s the biggest star I’ve ever seen
It’s a pearl of wisdom
A slice of green cheese
Burning just like kerosene
Burning just like kerosene
So God bless motorcycles and far-out, heavy trifles
You know you can’t memorize them
Hang your hat on your nose, don’t hide in your clothes
Smile as one begins to begin.
As I sang, Daniel relaxed into my neck and fell asleep. I felt proud of myself in remembering that I had a secret talent that could charm babies and like I might just make it through this after all. And, then I sat and wondered where I had gotten that song. After years in choir through junior high and high school and spending my whole life listening to every kind of music I could get my hands on, I still could not place the lyrics and the tune. And I could not understand why it made me so emotional. Then it hit me. It had come from a bootlegged-with-permission cassette tape, and it had been stored in my brain, collecting dust and memories, for the better part of 25 years, and then it came out of my mouth like I had just listened to it yesterday.
Knowing that Phil and Frank did many covers and many original songs, I immediately set about Googling the lyrics. They turned out to be written by Michael Johnson, a musician from Colorado, who sang with John Denver, one of my all-time favorites. But I had never even heard of this guy. I immediately downloaded the song, as well as another one from my beloved cassette that had been Michael Johnson’s, too.
I sang the song again, and I cried. I cried because she wasn’t there to see me become a mom and because I couldn’t ask her if I was doing this right, and because I was robbed of the option of being able to call her in the middle of the night to ask questions for grandma or baby-nurse answers. I also cried because I was a post-partum mess of hormones and sleeplessness, of milk stains and laundry piles, of stomach muscles that would never return.
I have written about music a lot, but every so often I am shocked at how much a part of me it is, how it runs through my veins and colors every memory. I hope it ends up being the same for little Daniel. I hope he gets the same joy from something so readily available and so pure.
Smile as one begins to begin.
Note: I fell asleep last night thinking that, if I could go to iTunes right now and download a copy of that worn-out cassette tape, no price would be too much; I would truly spend thousands to get it back. Someone should tell Phil and Frank. 🙂 However, that thought prompted some further research, and it looks like Phil is still playing regularly in the Colorado Springs area. Go see him if you can. I’m definitely going to.