Just after 10 last night when the band finished breaking down, rolling up all the chords, packing away the guitars and pedals and lyric sheets, and humping it all down to the parking lot in the weekly coda of wrapping up another session. Cool night, with a breeze coming in from the west ahead of some rain.
We finished with a raunchy version of Hard Times, Stephen Foster's 19th century lament on economic diminishing, forever in vogue on a cyclical basis and currently making a big-time comeback in the covers file of musical units ranging from the E Street Band to our modest five-piece, which gathers in a studio upstairs from a suburban auto body shop to knock through a growing lineup of original rock numbers.
The band is a conceit, really. It's an escape from deadlines and the economy and responsibility, yes. But there's also a sense that we are, despite our retreating hairlines, putting together something of artistic value in the oeuvre of our youth. The material - if we do say so ourselves - is pretty decent, filled with hooks and power chords and stories about women and loss, war and angry protest. We work on the lead-ins and fills, and really toil on the shape of each song; we have a waltz and a blues number, several sprightly power pop tunes, a piano ballad and the Irish bar band cover that Brendan leads of Ed McCurdy's anti-war folk standard Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.
"At 40-something, recommuning with the muse," goes the line in Jason's song about an old band from the early 80s, barely remembered on the post-millennial charts, "singing Folsom Prison, and James Alley Blues." In other words, finding their way back home to the very tribal roots that made them pick up guitars or drumsticks in the first place. Every member of our as-yet unnamed band is 25 or 30 years down the road from senior year in high school, when somebody was always rehearsing a Stones cover in some other kid's basement. Yet we've worked these last months on more than a dozen originals and two or three re-imagined standards with the enthusiasm of much younger players.
We're not quite Clint Eastwood's Hank Williams character from his underrated 1982 film Honky Tonk Man, fighting off failing lungs to sing one last song in Nashville, but that far-off horizon is very much part of the motivation. Last night we joked about covering the lame-ass "Viva Viagra" number from those omnipresent boner drug ads and the irony wasn't in the obvious humor over the pharmaceutical assistance of stubborn organs, but in the fact that we're playing live rock and roll with no intention of trying to impress the fairer sex. Sure, it might be a surprisingly welcome development, but this is about the songs - and the equipment we're obsessed with comes from the Musician's Friend catalogue or the back aisles of eBay. In truth, we're all packing better circuitry these days, with name-brand Fenders and Keeley-modded distortion pedals. Some of us (and I won't name names) are total tone freaks and gear heads, while others favor a more Gleasonesque notion of ploughing through the music in rough fashion, over-rehearsing be damned.
Nonetheless, the work is paying off - so when Mark drops a brisk drumroll intro, nine times out of ten the rest of us fall into he right place. And we're in touch with our own roots; some of us have toured the world in search of that muse, some have played clubs and backyard barbecues and holiday parties. Yet it does become a unit, even one that looks back an awful lot. On Back Again, the mournful Coldplay-like number that Steve wrote, the wistful narrator remembers his original love: "When we were kids you looked at me - and promised things that never could be."
There's this folky waltz I wrote called 1919 about my grandfather returning home to New York from the First World War. It's about soldiers and the gauzy ancient notion of a war to end all wars. But it's also got a romance in the margins. Sort of like the band.
Last night as we packed the gear into the car outside the auto body shop, Jason lit a smoke and we both looked over at the strip mall across the street. There in the second story window, behind a neon sign advertising dance lessons, a couple moved in silent motion as the cars and trucks rumbled by on the two-lane blacktop.
They weren't youngsters these two, but they were younger than us by at least a decade and half. She was thin, with her light brown hair up in a bouncing ponytail. Her left hand rested on his right shoulder. He was wide and taller, but no giant. Curly dark hair and a light beard. White teeth that shone across Route 9A like one of those old-fashioned streetlights.
The unheard music stopped. The woman smiled widely, slapped his shoulder, and planted a light kiss on his lips. His head titled back with delight.
"They're getting married," said I. "Practicing for their first dance."
"Maybe. But it's beautiful," said Jason. "Just beautiful."
"Like a song."
"Yeah, Waltzing's for Dreamers," said Jason.
Which is an evocative, folky waltz written by Richard Thompson back in the 80s - a song that starts like this:
I'm sad as a proud man can be sad tonight
Just let me dream on, oh just let me sway
While the sweet violins and the saxophones play
And play on, we will. With no expectations, but lots of reverb and enthusiasm. So let the sweet violins and the saxophones play.
UPDATE: Like the Dolls, but with less glam and hair.