It seemed like a good idea at the time.
When my buddy, former Dough and current Buckeye front man, singer/songwriter Chris Abad, announced his engagement to longtime girlfriend Megan Watkins, I responded with cool enthusiasm by raising my post-rehearsal forty ouncer and toasting them both. When he told me he wanted me to perform at the wedding, I responded with equally cool enthusiasm. “You bet, dude. Just tell me where you want me.”
If you’d asked me to play your wedding ten years ago, I might have balked. Sure, I had my own well-chronicled issues with the institution. But more importantly, it just didn’t seem like the kind of thing Frank Black or Michael Stipe would do.
Fortunately, time passes. I’ve worked out some of my reticence and gained confidence in the concept. Moreover, my rock star heroes, too, have grown up. Precious few have remained rock stars. The rest have run for Congress, published tells alls, . Invariably, though, all of them pass through the same rituals as mere mortals: love, marriage, domestication, inevitable irrelevance, and death.
When Chris asked, then, I was honored. So much so that I didn’t pause to consider the pressure of playing a friend’s wedding. And by “playing” I mean a short set of original songs as ushers seat guests, followed by two songs for the processionals, and one during the ceremony itself. In fact, until I turned to groomsman (former Dough guitarist and producer of “The Rivington Sessions”) Guy Benny at twenty to six last night and said, “Well, I guess I’ll go do this,” I don’t think I knew how nervous I really was. Blow a lyric at Arlene Grocery and no one notices. Blow a lyric as the bride’s walking down the aisle and…
The Harvard Club is a stately granite edifice straddling a fair portion of Commonwealth Avenue roughly halfway between Fenway and The Common. Inside, the soaring ceilings, rich red carpeting, finely detailed woodwork all reflected the history, grandeur and exclusivity of its namesake. Chris and Meg chose it as the perfect location for a minor revolution. Their wedding plan called for no stuffy procedure, no antiquated, inherently sexist traditions, and no religious interference. Megan’s cousin, a gay justice of the peace, would preside. Chris’ little brother, Gabe, a precocious thirteen-year-old, would read from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” And, with an assist from Chris’ sister, Tiffany, I would provide the music. (Future wife and in-laws: take note.)
Friday’s rehearsal was frenetic, but fun. Tiff and I ran our song, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” (written, it should be noted, by local suburban Philadelphia songwriter and former Hooter, Eric Bazilian) twice. Later, I spent a few extra minutes practicing in the great, empty room. At roughly one hundred feet long, thirty feet wide, and forty feet high, the cavernous space was a natural amplifier. Chris and Meg, though distracted, seemed pleased.
Friday night’s rehearsal dinner revealed me to be in an odd but enviable position: I was neither in the wedding party, nor on the guest list. The role suited me just fine. No fan of the great social experiment of weddings (or any high pressure social situation, really), I always prefer being on stage to being in the audience.
The evening also revealed another oddity: over three years of performing with Chris, I had met much of his family and many of his friends. Under the post-performance influence of adrenaline, anxiety, and alcohol (my least favorite but most-consumed cocktail), though, I’d forgotten many of their names. I tendered more than one apology to that end.
I took a series of long, deep breaths as I ascended the wide staircase from the groomsman’s perch towards the great room. A few of the 225 guests were milling about, and taking their seats. I winked at ushers Romeo and Jason, crossed my hands before me (as if in church), and walked towards my riser, and strapped on my guitar. Those assembled looked at me quizzically wondering, ‘Who is he? And what is he doing here?’
The pre-show, as I came to call it, was only roughly choreographed. Chris and I had carefully vetted a short set of my most contextually relevant songs. Of course, I don’t have a ton of contextually relevant songs, being that I tend to write about heartbreak, not, well, whatever one calls its converse (love?). I was supposed to play until the Greg (Megan’s cousin, the gay justice of the peace) gave me the high sign to transition to the processional music.
In an effort to gain some composure, I decided to arpegiate a few wordless chords in a rough verse/chorus combination for a few minutes. I stood, rocking on my heels, surveying the room, winking a friends and generally attempting catch my breath and still my heartbeat. I performed a subdued version of “Milk & Honey,” an arpegiated, jazzy version of “Better Than That” (if you can imagine), a loose, slow version of “The Rest Of My Life” (carefully slurring the lyric “alcohol and nicotine”), and, perhaps the most appropriate, “Promise.” Later, one of Chris’ colleagues said, “I kept waiting for you to screw up, but you didn’t!” Apparently, my performance surprised more than myself.
Still, there was no sign of Greg by the conclusion of “Promise.” If I were on live television, the stage manager would have silently signaled me to “stretch.” Instead, I began playing an instrumental version of the processional, Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Only Living Boy In New York,” watching the door like a hawk. With each shadowy figure that passed the threshold, though, came disappointment. Soon, I was in my fourth repetition of the bridge. The audience was growing quiet. I was grinning nervously. Finally, Greg poked his head from the other room, smiled, and waved.
The moment Chris — freshly-scrubbed and well-coiffed in his black tux — entered my line of sight, I began singing, “Tom, get your plane right on time / I know your part will go fine.” In rehearsal, the song fit the duration it took for all six groomsman and bridesmaids to reach the alter. Now, though, as I focused on the chords and the words and the notes and the audience and the groomsman and bridesmaids, it seemed to take forever. Time crawled. And the wedding party just kept comin’! I thought to myself, ‘How many of them are there!?!” Chris’ best man, Jason, and Meg’s bridesmaid, Peggy, stepped to the alter as I refrained the title a fourth and final time.
The doors closed. The room hushed. I strummed a C chord, then a D chord. Then I strummed another C chord, then another D chord. The doors opened. The guests rose. And Meg, stunning in a strapless, ivory satin gown, entered the room. “This year’s love had better last,” I sang. “Heaven knows it’s high time.”
Greg welcomed the guests, set the stage, then introduced Gabe. With one hand on the mic stand, and the other on a sheet of white, loose-leaf paper, Gabe proceeded to knock his reading out of the park.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Moments later, I celebrated my realest moment with the bride and groom. Tiffany and were nearing the conclusion of “Time After Time” unscathed. In fifteen rehearsals of the song, we’d only nailed it once. Miraculously, though, in front of two hundred guests and a very emotionally involved brother, we got it. And so, as I strummed through eight measure of solo, I leaned back to gain and eye line with the bridge and groom, and smiled. When we finished, the guests surprised us with warm applause.
And then it was done. My friends were married.
* * *
The adrenaline, anxiety, and alcohol are long faded now. The weekend is slipping towards instant nostalgia: jogging on the Charles, lunch on The Common, a view clear to Nantucket. What will stay with me forever, though, is the memory of the one instant when I leaned back: the light in Chris’ eyes, and the smile on Megan’s face. It was one heck of a way to end a rock show.