Photos courtesy of Tift Merritt
THE WHOLE SHEBANG
By Tift Merritt
Amps & Raisins
“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress & its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, & the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”
“You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman or a mouse?)”—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Music is a mystery that does not want thinking. The act of doing anything with feel—writing, making love, playing freely—requires something beyond thinking and eclipses the need for even talking when done right. What I tell myself when I sing: Listen and Give. As far as I can tell, that’s the whole shebang. Annie Dillard is correct—my feelings about my work are pretty unimportant and beside the point; mosquitos to be slapped down.
Eudora Welty suggests more gently in On Short Stories that the time between telling stories is when we can and should reflect on telling stories. I picture her in a Ford Econoline van drinking beer after a show as the band makes entries into the Big Book of Bad Gigs and the Small Book of Good Gigs, laughing about what went wrong. Music, for being the whole shebang, can be a surprisingly small part of the bang; there is a lot of time between gigs. On tour, music is forty-five minutes to two hours every night. Making a record is two weeks every couple of years. In the time between, I practice and write, and that is by far the most important thing to do between gigs. But here, in these pages where I take you on tour with me and my kid, it seems like I really should tell you what the gig looks like to me. (Am I a woman or a mouse?) Ladies and gentleman, I give you mosquitos.
On the road, on arrival, Los Angeles: I ask the film crew to meet us in the borrowed house where our caravan of baby, me, and my pedal-steel player Heywood are staying and meeting our nanny tonight, but there are too many variables there, they fear. We have come like a country song from a gig in Phoenix, Arizona. Driving with Jean is a ritual of sleep prayers, repetitions of “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?” and pee-pie marathons. After six hours of clicking tongue tricks and nursing Jean while sitting on a Telecaster case, we load into a three-story building in downtown LA to film on a rooftop. A blue baby shoe drops en route from the car into an oil slick, a garbage-filled curbside puddle. I call it a loss and we move on, Jean’s toes dangling free.
Heywood and I tune guitars, and a plane flies over. Sirens whine below. My eyebrows jump close together.
“We’re in the LAX flight path,” someone in the crew says, laughing.
So much for variables, I think. I order my eyebrows to back down. “Hey, we carry our own mics,” I tell the soundman, asking if he would like to use them.
“Have you seen our work? It is very good.”
Stay down, eyebrows, I silently command.
Jean is climbing on my publicist and eating leaves from the rooftop’s potted plants. I don’t care; I’m so relieved she is out of her car seat.
“I mean we can try them if you want,” he shrugs. He is accompanied by a friendly, beautiful redhead in wide green pants who is waving to Jean.
I’ve been on the road long enough to know many engineers assume I do not understand microphones. And I don’t, honestly, except for how to use them when I sing. “Um, that’s a little further away than I usually do in terms of vocals. What do you think?”
“Connor Oberst used them when he came through,” he tells me. “It’s cool like that.”
He fiddles his gear without looking up. “What do you call this project, by the way?”
I practice internally saying the name of my project without sounding like an asshole: Tift Merritt! With a thumbs up! My project is called Tift Merritt, no emphasis, totally cool. My life is called Tift Merritt, eyes looking at the ground, almost like a question.
“I’m Tift,” I say, lightly as I can. If I strike him as cool enough he will Google me after we depart. But probably not.
We play six complete takes, each of which features overhead airplane traffic. Jean, up since 5:30 AM, begins to come apart, pointing at me and singing her song NumNumNumNumNumNum at fever pitch. The roof is cold. I explain to my publicist, our stand-in nanny, that we have to take Jean downstairs and she’s got to hold her while she cries so we can finish. Jean wails as I run back up the stairs; I can barely breathe my heart weighs so much.
“Twice through this time,” the director says.
“Let’s go,” I beg.
For the duration of those next takes, for the next seven minutes, the soundman talks in the redhead’s ear while we record. He is four feet away from me. She is charming, fantastically pale in a painful way, full of light. Frankly, I want someone to put their mouth to my ear and whisper too, about anything. This taping is not a big deal, I'm not a big deal, and whispering in someone's ear is actually what songs are about. But we drove from Phoenix, an airplane is flying over my head, my baby is screaming, and even the soundman isn’t interested; our chance of making music at this point pretty close to zero. I don’t remember what came out of my mouth as the song finished but the quick translation is this: I’m out.
I hate sticking up for myself; it feels like taking more than I need. I’m usually more comfortable toughing it out. But what Jean needs, no bones about it, I provide. I can’t waste time where she is concerned.
The road is really a deck of playing cards shuffling out a different hand every few minutes. Applause, mixed reviews, intense too-short catch-ups with loved ones, sleeping on couches, talking with strangers you won’t see again, doing your hair in a rearview mirror, stopping to promote records with low sales and shows with slow tickets, stuffing your face with a quick sushi roll—we rush all day to take a stage at night. I fall into bed with a nightcap and wonder—forgive me for asking—if any of this motion will add up to something more than just the good feeling of playing music. That’s just one day of touring. The highs and lows must be taken with caution and are dangerous. Sauced with exhaustion, they are flammable. Am I a stubborn perfectionist, a little too intense with a proclivity for sadness? Sure. But, on the whole, I’m pretty solid. The road is existentialism’s acid trip. I’ve met the physical limitations of my body as well as the edges of my emotional capacity on the road many times. Without a child in tow.
Thus far, I’ve felt really good about Jean seeing me in action, doing my best to make things happen out in the world. But there is a doubting, a hard questioning, a mosquito that lands after a confrontation like the LAX flight-path rooftop, usually when I am alone in a hotel room with a minute to myself. What am I doing carrying this kid all over creation? Who cares about my work? This is crazy.
That night, the little question mark grew into a big mosquito that bit not in a hotel room but right onstage.
From the rooftop to sound check, the lost shoe far behind us, we shuffle our nightly gear brigade into a small LA rock club. I think like a tour manager now: Have we all eaten? Is the guest list turned in? Are the guitars tuned? Do the pedals have batteries? Where do we load out? Is the van parked? Where is the stroller? Who is selling the merch? Do we need fives for change? What is the plan if Jean freaks out? Is her food here? Do you need my credit card? Can I borrow some paper for a set list? Jesus Christ, my hair looks like shit. Is my dress on inside out?
Jean, miraculously, is out cold on the sofa in the Astroturf dressing room. She already has history in this little den; her first tour with Hiss Golden Messenger began right here when she was six months old. MC Taylor showed her how to navigate amp knobs while I wrung my hands that she would cry the whole show or swallow a beer cap. Now—her little white dress inching up above her stomach, her knee socks falling down, brown boots no more than three inches long—she is a tour veteran taking most everything in stride, my best bandmate. I rub her gummy cheek wondering if she would rather be sleeping elsewhere; if she will tell her friends when she is older that she was part of a small traveling circus; if she will hate Vietnamese take-out because that is all we ever eat in dressing rooms; if she will remember the drive from Phoenix to LA, the lost shoe, crying on the roof, the color of hotel rooms as lonely.
But the doors to the club have opened, and the pre-show parade of people arriving begins. Good friends, musicians I’ve played with, music industry folks, and some people whose names I can’t find pass through the darkened dressing room for a peak at sleeping Jean. I clutch people I long to talk to at length and have not seen recently enough. I make small talk as necessary. I run out anyone who forgets to whisper! Suddenly, like a bell sounding, it is time to play. As I step into the stage lights, I realize with horror that the spark within is not in my pocket. It is in the puddle with the shoe, or worse. The best of me, for today, is already spent away.
Behind the mic, a breath reveals the absence further. The fire, the center—it isn’t on hand. That thing that puts all these moving pieces together, makes them necessary, propels the travel, requires the noise—nowhere to be found. I search my body as the song counts off, travels verses, arrives at a bridge. The mix is nothing like sound check and throws me off. I don’t see the monitor engineer in the room to signal for help. What I do see, when I look into the audience, is the soundman from the rooftop taping. The crowd is one hundred and fifty of him, watching unimpressed and thinking, I have more Instagram followers than this project. I try harder, clench my fists, block everything out. But that never works with music; it just tramples the feel. My voice cracks, blown out and froggy already, only into the third song. My vocal cords cannot compete with the amps, and I cannot touch the mystery at all.
Climbing over cables and between guitar stands on the small stage, I swim to the keyboard as if it were a life vest. But it rings like tin and does not float. The band isn’t hearing each other, or maybe I can’t hear them. A total miss. Right in front of LA, where I have recorded four albums, where I really want to have a good show. Where I’ve slept on floors to take meetings, where my second label dropped me, where my dreams have been to a lot of great parties. Why do I break when it matters? Wait, this doesn’t matter. I’m just completely mediocre. I lean into the guitar strum, try the keyboard delicately, but the instruments treat me like a stranger. I stomp my foot, but the beat won’t listen. I look into the faces in front of me, and I do not know what to give them. Everyone has a band these days. It’s totally arrogant to think I should have these people’s attention. The callous things record executives have said to me begin to spin in mind: You’re a fluke. If you’d shown your body you might have sold more records. I don’t hear a hit. You’re good but you’re not great. Another commercial failure.
Come on, Tift, I tell myself. Smile! Get out of the way. But there is nothing inside me but this worst-case tape looping in my head: I wonder how much money this tour is losing. It was thirty grand last time, but that was with a full band. But more people showed than tonight. I should just admit it. My ex-husband came to me in a dream and told me I was washed up, that everyone knew it but me. My breath gets hard and shallow; I am a disconnected motion. I cannot remember the words to the song and gibberish exits my mouth. This never would have happened to Linda Ronstadt. Never. I come off stage amped, sweating with disappointment in myself for having lost this gig to a wrestling match with an anxiety dream in front of a live audience.
Performing is not about thinking. This mosquito belongs in the Big Book of Self-Inflicted Bad Gigs.
Jean sleeps through it all, though, her pudgy face smushed up, her hot breath out of time with the house music kicking through the wall. I sit with her alone backstage and drink a beer.
“Jean, did you have a good day today?” I say. “Jean, I don’t know about this whole road musician thing.” I dream momentarily of moving her to Montana to a cabin where we are unfettered by show business and unaware of the superficial pages of this life, where we live by the sun and moon, where we are the elements themselves. But even exhausted, I know that the strong thing I want for her doesn’t hide out in Montana; strength comes from within.
“Am I a woman or a mouse, Jean? I think I need some sleep.”
To San Francisco, the following day: As we gas up at an arid filling station, I discuss the night before with Jean. “Sometimes, Jean, your job is just to stop thinking. Just make the leap of faith. Don’t doubt. Don’t question.” I give her four Cheerios from a sippy cup. “Sometimes, don’t think is the answer.” One Cheerio makes her mouth. The rest fall into the car seat abyss. “I know it is confusing because it is always good to try harder, to take responsibility. But what I didn't do in LA was smack the mosquito. I let the mosquito bite me. You can think between gigs, like Eudora Welty says, Jean. But I forgot the difference last night.” Another handful of Cheerios falls from my hand to hers. “Jean, just listen and give. That might be the whole shebang.”
She points at a dog in the back of a pick-up truck. “NumNumNumNumNum!” She is not much interested in my analysis. We laugh at the dog and blow him kisses. Don’t take more than you need. Just listen and give. No more thinking. Performing is not about thinking.
“Phoenix, LA, SF. Two down, three more to go,” I tell her. She pulls at the Cheerio cup. We both know I’ve been talking to myself.
At the venue: nanny, Heywood, Jean and me, all tired enough to cry. Jean lays down on the hardwood floor as Heywood files in gear piece by piece. He asks two or three people in the club for help with the load, but each recounts a recent injury requiring surgery which disallows lifting so he gives up. The house engineer bickers with a monitor whose buzz he cannot tame. Jean and I sit on the floor of the dressing room; there are no chairs. I bite grapes in half for her, change her diaper on the floor. Jean hears the checkcheckbuzzbuzz of sound check’s early, broken noises and, still undressed save her diaper, runs for the stage. Dancing in time on the hardwood planks, she clicks her boots and delights at the echo through the room. Soon, the bartenders, the recently injured crew, the promoter—the whole place—file in to laugh and dance with her. We are giddy with happy exhaustion. For no apparent reason, everything is better than alright.
The club is not full that night, but it is flush, and people pull close to the little stage in the big wooden room. Every note coming out of my mouth is a bird rushing up my throat for the sky. I hardly try. The piano loves my fingers; in time and tone, we are deep, old friends. Sound billows off stage like a wave of color. With each song, the warm pall reaches further, slowly, over all of us. Heywood steals a glance at me; Did you hear that? Don’t scare it away. The magic is in the room and I can’t say why. Do not think, bitch, I tell myself. Just listen and give. My heart opens wider, like a clamp gently stretching me. The music spreads through my body and my body moves without me knowing it: pulse, motion, torso, unlocking rooms I did not know I contained. I am beyond word and thought. I am drunk, I am sober. For a brief moment, I can feel the love in the room. The crowd shares the loving cup. Turned on, turned up, laid out bare, my voice moves up and down just as I want it. The beat is easily handed from one to another. The strings of our instruments hold us up like trapeze wires. By the end of the set, everything is washed clean. For no apparent reason, everything is wonderful.
The only feeling I know akin to the fullness of a show in the Book of Great Gigs like that one is scooping a healthy helping of love onto my kid. How much love can I give her each day? There is an endlessness to it. If there is no end to life’s mosquitos, she brings none of them to me. She will find mosquitoes, in time, in her own life. I wonder when she will need me most because it is not now, blazing down a hotel hallway with her arms thrown back insisting that every creature on God’s good earth says WOOF. When she is forty-two, I wonder what feelings of ambiguity she will harbor. It hurts me to dream them now: environmental change, financial pressure, flimsy relationships put to the test. Could I save her all of that by pouring love onto her now, like chocolate sauce, like sunlight, like melody? No, I can’t protect her from life—no more than I can myself. Nor do I want to. I see her more clearly than I see myself: half-naked with skinned knees singing NumNumNumNumNum. I see that out of nowhere, everything will turn out alright, and even better. She is perfect how she is no matter what. All she has to do is feel the love that is in the room. If she can hold onto that with her tiny might, she has everything she needs for her travels.
A hotel in Portland: I turn off the news, I unpack our bags, and sort our laundry. All I really want to be these days is a nice person—a quiet, solid person. I have pretty regular hopes for stability, pretty normal questions of self-worth—mosquitoes no matter what my gig. Life grows more complicated and gathers water. For now, I lean into my ambiguity in Astroturf dressing rooms. Maybe perspective on my own life is something of a lost cause. I tuck Jean into bed with a well-traveled pink bunny.
“Are you a woman or are you a mouse?” I ask myself, here at day’s end. It depends on the day.
I recite it to Jean as she sleeps, as it pertains to her: Jean, listen and give. That’s the whole shebang. Don’t take more than you need. Hold onto the love in the room, look past the mosquitoes. You’re a woman, not a mouse, and nobody doubts that—even at fifteen months. Get a good night’s sleep when you can. Your mother loves you like wildfire.
“Amps & Raisins” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.