Sunday, December 2, 2007

what some people remember, others don't

(The following is a transcription of a phone conversation I had in early 2002 with my dad.)

“Hey Lyse, did you hear there was another Amtrak crash? That’s twice in two weeks.”
[sidenote: strangely enough, there was just an Amtrak crash right outside of Chicago yesterday.]
“That’s terrific Dad,” I say this sarcastically as I’m supposed to be taking a 20-hour train ride from Penn Station to Union Station—school to home—next week.
It’s Thursday night and I’m completing the role of a good daughter making my weekly call to Hoffman Estates, Illinois to inform my parents and younger sister of what’s been going on in my second semester at New York University.
“Well, Lyse, you know I wouldn’t be worried about it if I were you. This was just a fluke. Trains only crash every twenty years or so.”
“Yeah except we almost got killed by one last year.”
He sounds astonished—“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember after the Elton John and Billy Joel concert when we came within inches of being smashed by an oncoming train?” I ask in disbelief that he could possibly have forgotten this near-death experience.
“Oh no that never really happened—I imagined the train.”
“Um…what? No you didn’t”
“Yeah I did.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yeah I did.”
“Are you kidding me with this? Dad, how could I have just made that up?”
“Well what do you remember happening?”
I relayed my memory to him, careful to include as many details that I could see vividly as I watched the event replay in my head. It was a school night a few days before my senior prom. The concert was great, but I was exhausted, so when we got to the van afterwards I immediately laid across the back row of seats. My last conscious thought was that Mom always told me not to lay like that in case we got in an accident because “it’s a dangerous position to be in” and “the seat belt is working improperly.” But at the time I also made a conscious decision for the first time to ignore her warnings since sleeping was my ultimate priority. The next things I remember are really bright lights and a loud horn-like noise. I’m always disoriented when I first arrive back at an awake state of mind. Maybe it was the bright lights or what I thought was possibly a siren, but when my eyelashes first opened I thought an ambulance was driving perpendicular to the road. But then the train plowed past us, just as the van had crossed the tracks--tracks that we didn’t even know were there.
"It was like a scene out of Ghost, Dad! I swear it looked like that train literally passed through the back end of the van!"
I wanted to scream but I felt paralyzed and, not to sound dramatic, prepared to die. But there was no impact—no compressed vehicle, no flying body parts, nothing.
"You pulled over to the side of the road for a few minutes because you had a temporary emotional breakdown, choking on your words, saying 'I ALMOST JUST KILLED MY WHOLE FAMILY OH MY GOD!' And I think you kept saying how sorry you were, sorry that you almost killed us (even though it wasn’t your fault) because there were no barricades and no railroad crossing signs."
And then we all rode in silence the rest of the way home.
“Hmm.” He tries to take it all in. “Are you sure about this?”
“Well I remember seeing the train after we crossed in front of it but I felt ok once I looked in the rearview mirror and realized that train was stopped there.”
“It was not stopped! If it was stopped, why’d they have the light on and why would someone lay on the horn? And most of all—why would you have freaked out about ‘almost killing your whole family?’”
“I don’t remember saying that.”
“Well you did. Why don’t you ask the other two because at least one of us is wrong.”
“As a matter of fact the little one just walked in the door.”
“Where was she?”
“Ballet! Where else would she be on a Thursday night from 8:30-9:30?”

For a few minutes I listen to the conversation between my dad and sister. I picture her in her dance attire, her hair messily rubber-banded to the top of her head, gracing my dad with the look of utter bewilderment and defensiveness she always uses whenever he greets her with a question before she even gets a chance to kick off her shoes, before she can even drop her armload onto the foyer doormat, before she’s instructed, ‘Hey! Shut the door! What’d you grow up in a barn?’ My dad stands shirtless with thirty-year-old gym shorts on, sweating, drinking a tall glass of previously refrigerated water. He has just finished his bi-weekly, twenty-four minute hardcore Lifecycle exercise. He holds the kitchen phone between his left ear and his shoulder so he has one hand free to gesture with. The phone cord is almost pulled straight, stretched to its maximum distance. The plastic coating silently rips somewhere and a few wires show their colors.

“Oh Sher,..” He draws out the “er” (pronounced “air”) so it almost sounds like two syllables.
“Oh Da-ad…” Sheri mimics him, a habit she adopted from watching her older sister all those years she lived at home.
In the most casual voice he asks her, “I was wondering…Do you happen to remember anything out of the ordinary that occurred that night of the John/Joel concert last year?”
“You mean when we like almost got hit by a train?”
“See?” I say into the mouthpiece.
“So you remember that too, huh?” he asks her.
“How could I forget that?” she responds. “I remember seeing a bright light and thinking it was God because there could be no possible way I wasn’t dead.”
I start laughing.
“Don’t you remember pulling off the road cause you were too scared to keep driving?” she continues.
“If you say so. That’s what Lysie said too.”
“That’s cause that’s what happened,” she says to his confused face from her place standing on the rug and I say into the phone at the same time. We have a knack for doing that.
“Yo!” Synchronized sentences always cause this exclamation from him. “Well I guess I’ll have to ask Mommy now—here talk to your sister.” I see him stick his fully extended arm out to her in one sudden, strong motion. He sees the open door. The air-conditioning isn’t running yet since it’s almost a month till Memorial Day, but for other unknown reasons this is wrong. “Hey! Shut the door! What’d you grow up in a barn?” Then he’s in the background.
“Oh Bon…” He draws out the “on.”
“Hello?” Sheri says to me in a somewhat ‘this talking long distance thing is an inconvenience’ tone of voice.
“How was dance?” I ask cheerfully just to piss her off cause we both know the answer—it’s the same answer we both give to everything.
She sighs. “Good.”

My dad locates my mom not too far away, probably in the family room on the couch crocheting a baby blanket for a co-worker’s daughter’s new arrival while the ten o’clock news anchor on NBC 5 nightly news looks at the camera straight on, looks straight into our family room and questions if maybe the upcoming month of May will bring an end to the “war on terrorism.”

I don’t say anything else to my sister, as I want to hear our parents go over the sequence a third time.
In the same nonchalant voice, but with an almost unnoticeable twinge of desperation, he asks my mom, “Do you happen to remember anything out of the ordinary that occurred the night of the Elton/Billy concert last year?”
“You mean when we almost got hit by a train?” She recalls the same sequence he’s just heard twice.
“Huh.” My dad surrenders. “Well if all three of you say it happened it must have happened…huh…unbelievable…”
Sheri and I chat for a few minutes (after laughing when our mom said almost the same sentences we said to him), reminiscing about that infamous night, verifying that we didn’t imagine the whole thing.
“I can’t believe he doesn’t remember that,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “It was like the scariest night of my life!”
“He probably has selective memory,” I add. “He doesn’t want to remember ‘almost killing his family’ so his brain has chosen to block the memory of what happened and create a new, safer one.”

I know at least I, at this present moment, am reliving the word, “Danger.” It sends a shiver through my body that I can’t quite compute as a specific feeling—energy, paranoia, adrenaline, horror—some kind of psychotic mix. Living dangerously is quite exhilarating when you can live to tell about it. After all, we escaped death; we took a rain check on God’s light; we weren’t brave, just lucky, just squeezing through the danger zone with power-locked doors and eight eyes staring.

Suddenly there is piano music.

My sister moves closer to the culprit—my dad—sitting on the bench, his back straight as a railroad track beside the window in the living room, facing the player piano. But I can tell by the sound that he is producing the music with his own fingers, not with a machine-propelled scroll. I have instant flashbacks of my grandparents’ old house when they owned the same piano and my eyes were the same height as the keys and I’d watch my grandma dance around to the same song, before gleefully joining in the fun by shrieking and spinning around in my own corner of the room.

“I don’t know what the heck possessed him to play that song all the sudden,” Sheri says to me.
I had forgotten she was there for a few moments.
“Yeah…well it’s 'The Entertainer,' one of the only six or so songs he’s had memorized since age eight.” I pause. “He’s probably just trying to prove to himself that he can still remember something.”

Saturday, December 1, 2007

it's still rock 'n' roll to me!

When my mom asked if I wanted see Billy Joel, my response was something along the lines of, "Hell yes!" Billy's been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. In fifth grade English class, Mrs. Frankel had us create our own version of The Jolly Postman, an interactive book of correspondence between fairy tale characters. Already heavily influenced by the music world at age 11, I centered my theme around musicians, one of the recipients being Mr. Joel.

When I found out he was playing the Sears Center in my hometown of Hoffman Estates, IL, I was less than thrilled. I swore I would never go back there after my experience at the Dylan concert last year (read account here: dylan) But I put my differences aside, braved an ice storm (i.e. a normally 25-minute drive turned into a 2+ hour drive) out to the suburbs and accompanied my mom in row H on the floor of the arena.

The show was scheduled to begin at 8:00. Around 8:15 or so the lights went dark and suddenly Billy appeared at the piano surrounded by his fellow band members. He went right into "Angry Young Man." There was a screen hanging on either side of the stage, so everyone could see the musician in action. I have never seen anyone's fingers move like that! I felt like I was suddenly privy to a magician's secret. From the first few notes, I was hooked. I had seen him live one other time my senior of high school during his Dueling Pianos tour with Sir Elton John--still to date one of the best concerts I've ever attended. But we saw them at Allstate (then, Rosemont Horizon) where we sat in the worst seats possible and there were no screens to aide our view of the iconic men and their magic. Oh, and my whole family almost died on the drive home (you can read about that here)

For his second song, he faded into "My Life" by playing a few measures of "Jingle Bells." I thought, "Oh come on, Billy! Hanukkah starts in three days!" I immediately forgot, though, as soon as "My Life" began and jumped to my feet singing along at the top of my lungs--"Go ahead with your own life, leave me alooooone". My mom joined me and I told her, "This is what happens when you get floor seats--they turn into standing seats," as everyone rose to their feet and the only way to see anything was to rise ourselves and stand our tippy toes.

"Hey Chicago!" Billy said, with an exaggerated Shi-cah-go accent. "I'm Billy's dad. Billy couldn't make it tonight...he's probably out drinking somewhere. Thanks for coming out on a night like this. I know you in "Shi-cah-go" are used to this weather. People over here," he motioned behind himself, "are only getting the back of me. Just remember--it's not how bald you get, it's how much head you get." "Hi to those in Milwaukee," he directed towards the only people paying less than $97 for tickets all the way in back on the highest balcony. "Thanks for buying those seats. I need all the money I can get--for my car insurance."
"If you can get this job, I highly recommend it," he shared and then sprayed both his throat and armpits with some concoction he said Madonna made famous, before a rousing rendition of "The Entertainer." Afterwards he introduced his keyboardist, Dave Rosenthal, from New Jersey. Dave played two keyboards at once, one hand on each. Pret-ty impressive if you ask me.
Billy left the 5th song up to the applause of the audience.
1) Summer Highland Falls
2) She's Right On Time ("a Christmas song," he added)
3) Vienna

I hadn't heard of any of the choices, but I've always wanted to go to Vienna, so I cheered along with the majority. Number three won. I ended up really liking the song; it's beautiful and the lyrics reminded me of one of my favorite movies: Before Sunrise. "When will you realize...Vienna waits for you..."

"Choo choo" the train whistle sounded, prefacing "Allentown."
He introduced guitarist, Tommy Burns, from Long Island, then said, "That's all for the special effects--this isn't a Justin Timberlake concert." And thank goodness for that. (Ok, fine, I like JT, but nowhere near as much as this guy)
Next up: "Zanzibar"featuring Carl Fisher (also from L.I.) on the trumpet and frugal horn. Then slowing it down a bit with "New York State of Mind," I sat down and got nostalgic about the good times I spent living in NYC, Brooklyn-based sax player, Mark Rivera, bringing me back to those carefree college years wandering the streets NY, inspired and in love.

"Chicago's a good town," Billy said, everyone cheered, and I snapped out of the past and thought--yeah, you're right. "If you're somewhere like Alcatuna, the band looks at me like 'Alcatuna sucks.' But Chicago's a good town."
Nice intro to "My Kind of Town," which ended up being a tease, as he claimed he didn't know any of Sinatra's lyrics past the first verse. My mom thinks he was fibbing. He introduced "Root Beer Rag" by saying that it's difficult to get all the notes right but, "What you'll hear is an authentic rock'n'roll screw up." Again I became transfixed with the wild but calculated moves of his fingers. My mom leaned over and shared similar sentiments, "I just can't get over his fingers!"I will also mention here that, despite my mom having an injured leg, she was up dancing the entire two hours. And I wonder where I get it from...
He introduced his drummer from NYC, Chuck Burgi, after "Movin' Out."

I have mixed feelings about what happened next. I'll let Billy introduce the new song himself (turn up the volume, the recording's not very loud).

He then introduced his "younger voice," Cass Dillon to sing his not-yet-released song, "Christmas In Fallujah."
Watch and cringe. Or sing along if you prefer because the lyrics were close-captioned on the big screen.

Ok, Billy, obviously I appreciated the anti-war message and that the proceeds from itunes sales are going to an organization called Homes For Our Troops, which builds homes for severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, I think "They say Osama's in the mountains/deep in a cave near Pakistan/But there's a sea of blood in Baghdad/a sea of oil in the sand" points out the stupidity behind this drawn-out war. And I think the presence of the the uniformed military personnel chanting "Hu Ha" (or is it "Oo Ra"?) interspersed with the singers singing "Hallelujah" was pretty powerful.
I understand the pride you must feel hearing someone else perform your lyrics and I appreciate that you decided to debut them in my hometown, but do you really, really need someone who looks and sounds like the lead singer of Creed, one of the worst bands on the planet, to butcher what you've created?

There may have been a collective sigh of relief when Dillon left the stage and Billy reclaimed the spotlight with the lighthearted "Keeping the Faith."
He then left the piano and stood center-stage behind a microphone stand and belted out the beginning of "Stand By Me," one of my favorite songs by good ol' Ben E. King. Cameras flashed from all directions, which reminded me of my grudge against this place. I hate when I don't have my camera.
"I didn't write that one," Billy admitted after the first verse. "But I wish I had."
He then returned to the piano and sang "An Innocent Man," interpretive dancing and intermittently snapping his fingers while seated on the piano bench when his hands were free. I snapped along with him and learned that my mom can't snap her fingers. (Later, in the parking lot I also learned she can't whistle.) I didn't catch the bassist's name, but I did hear that he's Australian, which is pretty cool.
"Uno.Dos.Unodostresquatro," a Spanish countdown to "Don't Ask Me Why." Good one.
At its completion, I noticed we were already at song #15, so I turned to my mom and said, "He better sing 'It's Still Rock'n'Roll To me'." Then he played the opposite--"She's Always a Woman To Me." I laughed out loud as I watched the swaying, swooning middle-aged women on the big screen, mouthing the words along with the man of the hour.
The next song-"River of Dreams"-used to play through my mind before I fell asleep at night when I was younger. Made me think of "Where The Wild Things Are." I had forgotten that this number belonged to his repertoire, so it was a nice, upbeat surprise.
He introduced the final member of the band, Crystal, from good ol' Gary, Indiana. "On percussion, vocals, harmonica, sax and everything else on stage..."
I'm not sure if this would be considered a trait of a trained ear or a music addict, but I frequently have the ability to detect a song by the first note or two. "We didn't start the fire!" I cheered. My mom looked at me and said, "You're way better at that than I am." I sang along to the few lyrics I knew. My mom questioned how Joel remembered all the words to that song, and I said, "Well if I can memorize the lyrics to any song I've ever heard, don't you think he'd be able remember his own?"

Based on the sound quality, I kept expecting to see the young rocker from the cover of Glass Houses up on stage and then there's a gray-haired 58-year-old wearing a backwards Chicago Cubs red baseball cap singing "Big Shot," strumming his guitar at a mic stand.

(John Records Landecker, checking out my "oldies jeans" at "bring-your-dog-and-get-free-ice-cream" day at the local DQ, summer '01)

There are some older musicians who still try and act like it's their Glory Days, but not Billy. He's the real thing. There's the badass I came to see! I thought, as he played a teasing intro to my favorite, "It's Still Rock'n'Roll To Me" and used the mic stand both as a baton and to air-guitar.
That song has been an ongoing anthem in my life. First of all, they're the first song lyrics I remember deliberately memorizing. Second of all, it's the song that made me want to be a drummer at age 10. And thirdly, I felt like Billy and I were on the same unapologetic wavelength.

What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing? I had an eclectic wardrobe in my teenager years (including "a bright orange pair of pants", which has toned down over the years, but I still have crazy-clothes tendencies.

What's the matter with the car I'm driving? In high school I drove a 1989 two-door Nissan Sentra (affectionately named Red Ninja) with slashed seats and a radio/tape deck that would only play if you banged the side of it with your fist. A good majority of the school drove fancy sports cars or luxury mobiles. I got a kick out of blasting this song in the parking lot, pissing off the glorified Vikings with my proudly displayed bumper sticker that read, "If dance were any easier, it would be called football."

What's the matter with the crowd I'm seeing? Don't you know that they're out of touch/Should I try to be a straight-A student? If you are than you think too much. Growing up I was always a part of guinea pig programs and classrooms full of the "smart kids." In later years when math and science didn't come so naturally to me anymore, I found solace in Billy's lyrics and probably rebelled by quoting him to my parents.

And, of course: "Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound, funny, but it's still rock'n'roll to me." Self-explanatory.

(me and the oldies van at "bring-your-dog-and-get-free-ice-cream" day at the local DQ, summer '01)

He finished out the set with my other favorite, "You May Be Right." In college I made callers sit through the chorus if they reached my cellular voicemail soapbox--I'm gonna do what I wanna do and love who I wanna love (don't worry, I didn't actually say that...I let Billy speak for me).

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just might be a lunatic you're looking for

"Thank you, Chicago!" Billy said with a wave before the stage went dark. The concept of the encore has always been humorous to me. Obviously the artist is going to return, yet we all stand around cheering our brains out like he might actually leave if we don't strain our vocal chords. Nevertheless, I joined in because it's hard not to get caught up in such a brilliant performance. People started waving their glowing cell phones in the air. I heard the guy behind me say to his friend, "Yeah, cause that's the new lighter." Gross.

Billy played a quick Christmas song intro before transitioning into "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," a song that made me laugh, reminding me of my friend Cooper singing karaoke at Piece [a pizza, bar, live music joint in my Wicker Park neighborhood].
"Thank you, Chicago!" he said again.
Then a quick "Joy to the World" (not 3 Dog Night, Christmas) intro before "Only the Good Die Young." My mom and I danced next to each other, I wearing my grandmother's shoes, I noted. Three generations (in theory) dancing to a song about defying the confines of church and religion..."They say there's a heaven for those who will wait/Some say it's better but I say it ain't/I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun..."

As he was playing "Silent Night," I saw him pick up his harmonica. That's right, Billy. You can't leave without playing "Piano Man" or it'll make front-page news: "Piano Man strays from 'Piano Man.'"
"It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday..." Ow! Ow! Crazy cheering for Saturday reference--we can relate to that because it is, in fact, Saturday!
This song reminds me of two things, aside from singing along to it in the car with my parents.
1) I remember bringing my harmonica to my art class senior year of high school and figuring out how to play those parts of the song.
2) Dancing, and I mean full-out ballet moves at three weddings, leaping around and weaving in and out of slow-moving couples, not letting my single-status keep me from enjoying the dance floor, where I am truly in my element.

For the final chorus, he let the audience sing without him. And we actually didn't sound half-bad.
"Thank you, Chicago! Goodnight. Happy holidays. Don't take any shit from anybody."

As we were filing out of our row, my mom said, "Oh! We should invite him over for a drink, we live so close!"
"A drink??" My mom does not drink. Although, when I questioned her, she informed me that she had two bloody marys at my dad's office party last night.
"Well--Diet Coke," she said with a laugh.

Outside in the frigid parking lot, I danced my way to the car, ignoring the black ice beneath my feet. It took us over 20 minutes just to get out and onto Route 59, so I turned on the ipod and played Billy Joel songs, which he did not sing. And for good measure, an encore of my favorite: "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" and drummed the steering wheel in time with the beats. I commented that Billy is one of those musicians who actually sounds better live than he does recorded, which is rare and much appreciated.
We went through the drive-thru of McDonald's and each got a small Coke. Myself, regular and hers, Diet. Cheers to you, Mr. Joel--we love you just the way you are.