Besides playing shows and visiting the matchbook sites, I decided to seek out birthplaces or memorials or grave sites of people I’m interested in or admire. The drives would be long, lots of time to think about someone’s impact on me or the culture. Visiting sites also works as a way to propel myself forward. I’m afraid if I don’t have enough mile markers, I might wander too much around one city only to find myself suddenly driving 600 miles to make a gig. A few memorials or landmarks along the way’d keep me in line and on time.
So how does one find a gravesite or memorial of the famous or somewhat famous? Findagrave.com. Here’s one page:
After scanning through thousands of names, I noticed that every state seems to have a prominent Type of Occupation or Infamy. Some of these are obvious. Virginia has ‘Military’ types. New York, a lot of ‘Organized Crime’ members and ‘Stage Actors’. I found a lot of ‘Congressman’ or ‘Political Figure’ types in Pennsylvania and the Northeast with plenty of ‘Folk or Folklore Figures’. And what did New Jersey have a plethora of? ‘Famous Murder Victims’.
People, this is not an anecdote that will endear yourself to a New Jersey audience in Rahway. Not. At. All.
I tried to recover by telling the audience about graves I’m super excited to visit and then I immediately realized I gotta really work on the phrasing of this whole gravesite bit. ‘Hey there folks! I gotta say, I’m getting way jazzed about __________’. I could fill in any state or person or contagious disease and probably make it work. The tsetse fly! Schenectady! The Sans-belt Dress Pant! Whooping cough!
Grave sites? You lost damn near everyone (though it would be the only time all night the goth dude working the door would smile).
From the beginning, I shit this gig sideways. I knew it when I walked in the door and saw the high-ceilings, the long ass room, the no stage. I told myself ‘Play unplugged. You have to. You can do it’. But eeesh, unplugged is very scary territory for me and I chose to do what I always do: go through the PA. Loud always wins, right?
Gotta work on that gravesite bit. Memorials? Can I say ‘memorials’ instead? Can I get away with that? Behind me, the kitchen door opens. A waiter walks by. Man, those mozzarella sticks smell good. Wow, I am totally distracted. I am not present at all. I start another song and close my eyes, not because I’m in the moment but rather I can’t tune out the hockey game or the baseball game or the draft analysis or the other baseball game on the four HD flat screens behind the bar.
I finish the song and a thousand thoughts are going through my head. I feel like I’m trying to count stacks of one dollar bills at an auction. Unfocused, flailing, I rattle off some names and cities to the crowd, trying to get my footing again. ‘Stephen Crane and Ben E. King are buried in Hillside! How about that? Micki Harris of The Shirells is buried nearby in Passaic!’
This sounds so creepy dude. I play another song. When I finish, my mind is blank, the quiet uncomfortable.
‘Marvin Isley and Clyde McPhatter are just north in Paramus!’
This is the longest set of my life.
‘Is that a long A in Paramus? How do you pronounce that?’
A plate drops. The place goes silent for three seconds. There’s a slurp of sucked chicken winged fingers, the universal ‘okay sign’ for everybody to get back to ignoring the morbid jerk with the guitar. I keep on naming names like a conductor on The New Jersey Train of Death: ‘Dave Prater in Totowa, last stop Joey Ramone and William Carlos Williams in Lyndhurst’.
Toot, toot. All aboard.
I packed up my gear and thought about the show. I knew from the start what I was up against, the challenges: long and generously lit room, high ceiling, food, sports, no stage. I also had an inkling of a possible path to a more fulfilling show: go unplugged. But there isn’t much more that terrifies me than to open up myself with no band, no electricity, no distortion, just me and my vulnerabilities. It would’ve worked here in Rahway, though. I know it. I had the gut-instinct but not the guts.
Afterwards, I noticed a fella with a Last Chance Records Music Matters shirt. We talked for a while about Jersey and NYC and The Clash and The Replacements. I was glad not to talk or think about the set, for a few hours anyways.
It was late when I left Rahway. On the drive out I thought about all the midnight shows on Saturdays, amped up and excited, the band is cooking, the crowd is way deep into it. Those were situations where the music was the absolute center of attention. But this trip is about something else. Forget about the crowd and what they pay attention to. Can I get my music to the same place when it is not the focus? Can I ignore all the distractions to really get it there? Even more of a challenge: can I ignore while still having awareness or the sense of what also matters, the energy lurking out there somewhere between me and the music and the crowd and the pool tables and the ESPN and the chili fries?
I drove to the Linden Airport, parked the van in a lot and fell asleep.