Written by Kim Mayo of Moonheart
When I was still new in the world was when I got my first taste of live music- my dad the performer, my crib-side his stage, and I his silent but adoring audience. There’s video of it- my dad not much older than I am now, still dressed in the day, putting me down for the night with one of our favorites- “Daddy’s Home” by Shep and the Limelites. He traveled a lot in those days, but came back always with…… a declaration of love (you’re my love, you’re my angel), a reassurance (I made it back here to you) and a promise kept (I’m gonna be here come what may), all this tucked lovingly in the lyrics and in the gesture. It doesn’t hurt that his voice is lovely, warm and bright at once and with the spoken quality that all of my favorite singers have- as if his speaking voice stood up in the light and sprouted wings.
My first vivid memory of a *show* show was when I was 8 and we lived in Detroit (by which I mean Troy, a suburb of Detroit that you probably haven’t heard of). Troy was racist like everywhere is racist but with a little extra *chef’s kiss* kick to it that began to sharpen little-me into a clairvoyant shiv who could see through everyone. If I could assign a word to this time, it would be “beige.” Everything was muted, most everyone was white save for our brown neighbors, and even the lawn in front of our house was reluctant to sprout grass (the grass knew). My parents may not have known we’d be there for just 8 months, but they acted like it. We went to every Tigers game (yawn), every Lions game (“what are the rules again?”) and every black concert that came through- vacations from the beige life every weekend to inject Detroit into our bloodstream.
The show was an outdoor Frankie Beverly concert. K-Ci and JoJo opened- one in an orange suit and one in a purple one- and the ocean of aunties and uncles on the lawn stepped and hustled in every color. I don’t remember much about the music, but what better way to pop your head above white water?
She’s So Lucky
I have a play-uncle, M-, who was Britney Spears’ bodyguard at one point, and he was always lookin’ out. He got us some wild-fancy tickets, and my dad took me and my best friend to see her on a school night when she came to Chicago, where we lived (by which I mean Lisle, a suburb of Chicago that you probably haven’t heard of). This was peak Britney era, and we were ready. We slathered ourselves in body glitter, got our lives at the show, and after went to go see the (Britney-less) tour bus. M- gave me an autographed photo of her with a personal note to me, and a little stuffed unicorn that was sitting on a shelf. I was worried she’d miss it, but I took it anyway. Even then I wasn’t really possessive of things- not out of some precocious spirituality or minimalism, but maybe just out of i’m-gonna-lose-this-anyway-so-
Glimmer Of God
I sang in church choir. I hated it. Everyone had been friends since they were three, and I felt so awkward and anxious that my voice choked up inside of me and I could barely even talk, let alone sing. I had already quit my school’s choir (I hated the teacher, Ms. B-, and walked out during a particularly soul-crushing class. Ms. B- chased after me yelling “You’ll regret this!”- the drama!!!), and was never in the mood to go to church on Wednesday nights for two hour rehearsals where we mostly got in trouble for talking the whole time (well, not me, but you know). Still, I went, because shoutout to my mom for making sure we were in black spaces as much as possible while living in another Beige Belt.
It was summer and it was Wednesday night, so it was revival. It was all of the youth choirs’ night to sing, and Teen Choir was as ready as we’d ever be. We were told to wear bright colors, and I wore an iridescent pink wrap blouse that I hated then but would probably love now. It was hot on the choir stand, and I settled into my seat prepared to be bored and untouched and feel guilty for not being overtaken by The Spirit like everyone around me seemed to be. I’d play games with myself to see how long I could pay attention to sermons. Five straight minutes without zoning out and I could eat one piece of candy. Ten straight minutes without zoning out and I could check out and sneak-read whatever book I was reading at the time inside of a bible until I got caught. A Model Christian Teen. This night was different, though- something welled up in me, took loving hold of my chest, and has yet to let go.
A-, a girl in choir who was funny and cute, and who always tried to include me in things despite my commitment to being, sang a solo on something slow and meditative whose name I wish I remembered. She wasn’t a particularly great singer, but she was beloved, and there was something in the air in the room when she sang- she was so confident, and a sponge for all of the love and affirmation that the congregation rained down on her. She drank it in and delivered it back to us, arms open wide and chin to the heavens. I came in with the altos after, drunk on the buzz of the room and on A-’s light and aunties and grandmas and dads and moms and uncles and grandaddies and even kids screaming hallelujah and people crying and the band was so good and Pastor M- looking at us in the loving way he did that meant “wow, y’all finally got it together,” and my spirit rose up from where it hid (I did so much hiding then) and took me over. My eyes welled up and my smile stretched wide as I sang and I could feel all of the blood my heart was pumping (“out of pure love of me”) down to the very cell. I was alive and I didn’t feel awkward or bad or depressed or hot or bored anymore (melodies from heaven, rain down on me).
That night I told my mom it was the first time I’d felt God in me (whatever she or they or it is- still figuring this out). The next week I didn’t want to go to church or choir rehearsal again (finding God didn’t make me a joiner, no) but something was new in me and I found it in music. I floated on the feeling then and it’s air still keeps me lifted.
At 15 I was a musical theater head but not like, toooo much of one because I couldn’t hang with all the touching and personal-space-invasion that was involved in being friends with the true theater kids. My resume consisted of “Jewish Man #7” in Fiddler On The Roof, “Chef” and “Florinda” in Cinderella, “Angel” in Anything Goes and “Some Guy, I Dunno” in The Music Man. I was lucky, and my town’s schools had really good arts programs. In winter we went as a theater department to this fancy all-state theater festival at U of I- it was a big deal. I don’t even remember what I performed or auditioned for or did outside of this: there was an all-star cast of all the best theater kids in the state that put on a production of Ragtime, and I still think about the girl who played Sarah and her performance of “Your Daddy’s Son.” She couldn’t have been older than 17, but had the command of her body and her instrument of someone so much older- one that I wished so much to have. “You are your daddy’s son,” she sang, and the orchestra sped up, and my heart sped up, and my eyes welled up. “Couldn’t hear no music, Couldn’t see no light,” louder now, her mix just perfect, and I could see the light, and I felt enveloped in all of it reflecting from her skill and precision and presence.
I hope she’s rolling in musical theater money now.
R- was half of the reason I found so much of the music that shaped me. The first of us to read ~cool~ music blogs, the first to have a laptop that she downloaded music onto and made libraries out of, the first to make me mixes with handmade covers. We laid on her bed and listened and searched forever and I fell fully in love and haven’t cared about hunting for music or listening to it or going to see it ever again as much as I did during this time.
For her birthday I got her tickets to see Architecture in Helsinki at Logan Square Auditorium, the first concert tickets I bought with my own money thanks to my job at Quizno’s (remind me to tell you about how funny this job was later). By this time, we’d both escaped the hell of our public high school (er, hell for me, I think R- was fine). I went to the arts school in the city that couldn’t have been more different than where I’d come from- it was so much more black and brown and queer and my teen angst was still on blast and the damp cloth of depression was still weighing me down always but still, I felt so much more at home with myself here. R was in school in the city too, so it wasn’t a big deal for us to be there alone, but something about going to this show that I paid for to see a band that both of us were obsessed with felt Grown™. We were still too nervous to dance at shows but we were freer than ever and Architecture slayed us. They hung around after but we weren’t the type to go say hi. I think R-’s mom picked us up after.
J- was the other half of the reason. This would ramble on (I know, it already has) if I detailed all the ways in which I grew because he loved me, but trust me when I tell-not-show-you that I did, and that it was transformative.
It was fall and we went to the Beat Kitchen with his friends to see Rosie Thomas. It’s one of the sweetest, cutest, most interesting live shows I’ve seen. She did these stand-up comedy bits between sogs, where she’d come out as Sheila Saputo, an earnest sweetie-geek who wore coke bottle glasses and a neck brace, and delivered lines like “Phrases to live by: hug ‘em if you’ve got ‘em- hug anything” in Rosie Thomas’s beautifully cartoonish, high-pitched speaking voice. She had the whole room laughing (she had the whole room). Then she’d go off, take off her Sheila costume, and sit down as Rosie to sing us something so sincere in her pretty mezzo that you wouldn’t believe is hers after hearing her speak (a smile on his face cuz he’s in love). It wasn’t jarring or confusing or tonally disjointed like I’d have thought it might be if you just told me about it (I have much farther to go). She gave us so much of herself and nothing about it was self-conscious, or self-edited, and maybe that’s part of the reason I held that show so near- because I was those things, and any example of people who weren’t was a lifeboat of possibility for me- maybe someday I could get some of whatever they had.
It was spring and senior recital szn at the music conservatory I went to for college. I was nearing the end of my first year in the jazz program there, and feeling weird about what had been a year full of not really making any music I cared about, trying to write songs and hating them all, feeling stupid for being bad at theory, feeling guilty and embarrassed for finding most modern jazz soulless and unlistenable, and realizing I wasn’t as good as I thought I was going in. I’d learned quickly to shrink-wrap my femininity and any bit of sexuality to hide for later. I was one of two non-dudes in our program, and I cared so much about what they thought, making them my friends, making sure they wouldn’t want to fuck me, and making them respect me as a Serious Musician™, as if I could make them do any of these things. Although all (9) of us black kids stuck together there, we were surrounded by the white fuckery of Boston, of our institution, and of plenty of our classmates. It was A Time, and all that I’d shrank away from and buried somewhere deep in me started to reach up around my neck when it had nowhere else to burrow into. My throat started hurting and didn’t stop for months, and I was sure I wouldn’t sing again. For a couple months I didn’t, and tried not to talk, and poured myself into my homework and into listening to more and more music and trying not to fall apart.
I think I maybe already knew then that I didn’t want to be making Jazz™ but was too scared to admit it to myself or anyone around me- I was already there, and I didn’t quit on shit (besides choir) and the thought of figuring something else out was more daunting than the thought of staying. Also, despite all that was making me sad around this time, I loved the friends I was making, and I was learning so much, and my ears were more open than ever, and some wiser part of me or some ancestor inside of me let me know it wouldn’t always feel like this.
I went to Amy Carstensen’s recital excited- I was already so in love with her voice and the fact that she wrote songs and didn’t really sing jazz and didn’t seem to care about what people thought about that or have any hangups about it. She played her songs and some standards (beautifully), and then she sat at the piano to play Rufus Wainwright’s “Poses.” The performance never left me. Her voice has that spoken quality my dad’s has, so warm and effortless but with all the dexterity of someone who’s worked hard on it for years. She didn’t arrange the cover much differently from Wainwright’s version, but she didn’t have to to make it hers- it just was. The gift she gave me was all of the care that she poured into her songs and into her singing, and the permission to just do what the fuck I wanted to do. I got to tell her what it meant to me a couple weeks ago. I’ve been feeling an urgency the past year or so about letting people know more often what they mean to me and what it is about them that I appreciate (years of hiding will make you so tired you might start bursting with the truth). So far so good.
One shining glimmer of god is getting to connect to what’s truest about yourself and your surroundings by being there in the room when music you love is happening, and letting yourself be taken by it.
You can learn to dance in public, in the dark and then in the light, without worrying about the way you look. You can learn to tell the truth more often, and to tell it with your chest. You can learn to cry in public and have less shame about it. You can learn that it’s ok to not have a friend with you if you wanna go somewhere (you can learn that you’re enough for you). You can meet new friends, or pop your head above white water. You can give yourself new rules, new things to care about, new things to stick your middle finger up at. You can simply feel in awe, which is also like being suspended in heaven for a moment.