This Phantom Limb

I used to scribble a skewed, antenna-wearing smiley face on all of my set lists to remind me to smile during performances.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing rock shows. Of course I do. It’s just that I’m so busy remembering chords, and lyrics, and gestures, and eye contact that I forget to smile. I’m so busy worrying about the sound, and the lights, and the tempo, and whether the audience is paying attention, and why the bartender is shaking a martini, and whether anyone new is walking through the door, and whether…

Blah, blah, blah.

I didn’t scribble a skewed, antenna-wearing smiley face on tonight’s CMJ set list. Still, I smiled exactly three times. First, when I spotted my buddy Dan Guttman singing “Dear Elizabeth” full-throttle. Second, when the full band kicked into “Go Let It Out.” And third, when I caught a flash of recognition in Abbi’s eyes that our encore was her favorite song, “I’ll Be Waiting.”

Though the show was part of the CMJ Music Marathon, it didn’t feel particularly different than any other rock show I’ve played in the last twenty years (yes, gasp, I’ve been playing rock shows for twenty years). The sound man was late. The set was short. The monitors were shoddy.

Still, I think Chris, Jason, Ryan and I sounded good, like a band. We shared plenty of knowing glances (knowing, that is, that we were kicking ass), and plenty of beers afterwards.

But let me back up.

I sent the following email a few weeks ago:

This is one of just a few more chances to see us play before I retire, take the helm at Def Jam, speak at the UN, tour Africa, and unleash my comeback record. I hope to see you then…

It’s a reference to Jay-Z, and isn’t terribly funny. It was primarily intended to create an extra bit of excitement around the show, to motivate my friends, fans and colleages to come out and see the show. I mean, I’ve only performed five times this year, and only three of ’em (including tonight) were full-band rock shows. By way of perspective, I performed thirty-two times in 2004, and 24 times in 2005. Not exactly on par with, say, The Decemberists, but still. You’d think that by suggesting to folks that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to playing shows forever’ (not to mention, ‘Hey, I’m probably not playing CMJ again’), they might come out and see the show, right?

Not really my point, sorry. My point is, you know that I’m flirting with retiring. Not, like, never ever playing a show again. But playing less and less. I already know what I’m going to call my next album, and how I want the last song to end, all by way of (as I told Abbi Tuesday night), “bookending my so-called career.” It’s just too heartbreaking to spend all this time and energy pulling my shit together to play for thirty people. And it’s too heartbreaking prostrating myself before the booking alter of some 20-year-old who’s gonna’ give me a Tuesday night at eleven o’clock. And who would blame him? Only thirty people are going to come anyway.

But here’s the rub. There’s something about performing that is absolutely vital to me. I’m not sure what it is: the challenge, the community, the catharsis. Whatever it is, people notive. And at least three of whom spoke directy to it tonight. “Don’t retire,” they said. “You’re getting better with every show.” The commenter that resonated the most, oddly enough, was my mother. Irony of ironies, she’s where I got my voice (both literally and figuratively), but she’s also the one who warned me that, if I was going to pursue rock ‘n roll, I had to be ready to starve, and thus vehemently urged me to have a fallback position. That fallback position? Journalism. My day job? Journalism. Her fault? Of course not. At the end of the day (or, as it were, in my early twenties), I didn’t have the confidence nor the infrastructure nor, arguably, the talent to starve for it. So here I am.

So, I don’t really know what to tell you. Or what I’m even trying to say. We played a good rock show, maybe even a great one. The band is great: really nice guys who play really well. And a few dozen people saw the show, and, I think, were moved by it. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that, had the room been sold out and filled with record executives, I would be writing you anything different. It just is what it is: a night job, a sideline, an also ran, or a phantom limb: tingling and twitching and wishing itself into and out of being in equal turns.

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