Wednesday, October 31, 2007


In the last few years, when we were living a few blocks apart in Chicago, my musician brother and I had this habit of playing guitar and singing together when the two of us hung out. And periodically we’d figure out something cool to share with his crew at “open mic night.” This night was in the warehouse space he and his friends lived in and used as a concert venue for the music scene they were a part of. We would set up a stage in the living room cum concert hall and all our friends would get together and drink and play songs for each other all night. It was just performing for friends, but it was still a performance. He loved hosting those nights, being a ubiquitous presence on the stage, being a part of many of the acts. He’s an extremely nice guy, and can’t say no to anyone. Ever. But especially to anyone who wanted to play a song with him on those nights. And everyone wanted to play with him cuz he could play any instrument well enough to back you up while you tried to be a rockstar for 5 minutes. And maybe you got swept off the stage with the broom cuz you sucked but at least there was the rule that the sweeper had to get up next and rock harder than you. And usually my brother backed him up too, so at least none of us were fooling ourselves into believing we were actually better than anyone else, even the seth, really.

So, sometime last year we’re hanging out, not really thinking we would play anything at the open mic night that Friday, cuz its already Tuesday night, late, and we haven’t thought of anything to cover. But he and I and my roommate are on the couch chatting in the mostly darkness and seth grabs the guitar and starts playing the rhythm part of a slow song we both are in love with that season. I start to hum the melody as he half-sings the harmony, and our voices are really close in timbre and tone and its still and sad and beautiful. “lets do this one Friday night.” And my roommate, who has been listening with her eyes closed says “please, it was so pretty. Everyone will love it.” So, he shows me the chords and how to strum the rhythm and I bumble thru it a bit. “okay, so if you do that part, ill play slide over it in the solo sections and it’ll sound nice.” “show me again? I cant get the rhythm right.” “just listen to the cd, you’ll get it.” And I try, but Wednesday night I’m busy and Thursday I practice but it doesn’t sound right and I call him and he has rehearsal with someone else. And I worry cuz my hand isn’t really strong enough for bar chords and it doesn’t feel natural enough to perform yet. And then it’s Friday and before we set up I have him show me again but I don’t want to tire out my hands right before the performance, so I rig a couple lights while he sets up the sound and aaron puts up chairs and sean gets the keg. And then everything is ready and people are showing up, and we have drinks in our hands and I ask seth when he wants to go and he says “later, I dunno. I have to perform with like, 4 people tonight. Ill let you know.” So I sit back and it’s a full night and there are lots of newbies in the crowd and on stage and not all of them are very good, but we are a generous group when we’ve had a few beers, and since everyone gets up at some point we only sweep people off when they are being self-indulgent or really, almost purposefully bad. So, boy is up on stage quite a bit, doing solos, playing with his band members or friends, backing up a couple of girls who wanna sing covers. And later on there is this moment when his patience gets tried by this girl who is free-styling over his drumming and she never comes to an end, doesn’t think to finish up cuz she’s drunk and not paying attention to how bored her audience is and seth is drunk and annoyed and I can see the frustration climb up his face and I wish I could sweep her, but don’t have enough confidence in my own act to follow it up. And after that I ask him if we can go up soon, and I realize he’s forgotten about our song. And I almost tell him we don’t have to go but he feels bad and says “yeah, let’s go.” And we get up at this late point in the night when the audience feels like talking back and my fingers are a little dumb and he’s kinda sloppy and we do sibling banter as we set up and the audience quiets down cuz they love us as a duet, they think we are really cute and they know we usually do really quiet songs. And we start—I am supposed to start, which is unusual for our performances, and I cant find the strumming pattern, so I use this other one I know and he looks over at me with a question eyebrow and I shrug. And he tries to go with it. And im also supposed to start the melody but I forget the words so we stop and start again.

At this point I realize I have this piece of gum in my mouth but I don’t really have time to spit it out, and swallowing it makes me gag, so instead I just tuck it away in the back of my mouth. And we start over and he kinda shakes his head like things aren’t really coming together musically and my fingers fumble and he tries to cover it and I realize how desperately unprepared I am for this performance. And it makes my hands shake a little bit and I look over at him and hes not really in performance condition, not for a slow, quiet song that takes concentration cuz you can hear every mistake. and im making quite a few. And then I realize id never practiced playing and singing this one before and I cant remember the lyrics and play the right chords simultaneously. So by now we have restarted 3 times and the audience who loves us is getting bored. They wont sweep us, but it’s a bit embarrassing by now. But I tell myself its okay, its late and no one is at the top of their game. So I buck up, and open my mouth to start over one more time knowing ill get it right this time and we will get thru the song somehow and itll be okay even with so many false starts and seth will not feel like he had to carry me thru the performance like he did with so many other people that night. And my jaw lifts, bringing the gum with it and somehow it snaps right into the mic . and it carries thru the room as I start the first note of the song. And he stops playing and turns to me sharply. I look over at him and he says, on mic, “did you just snap your gum?” in the most offended tone and before I can say “yeah, sorry” he has turned to the audience , which is dead silent, and says straight into the mic “did she just snap her gum?” there is ascent coming from the room and he goes on, indignant “I cant believe she just snapped her gum. How unprofessional” and I hear the facetiousness in his voice, but he is still pointedly making fun. not that hes actually upset, but its still all at my expense on stage in front of the whole crew. And yet, im thinking ‘thank god he’s given up trying to flounder thru the song. This is my chance to exit without getting swept or making people suffer thru another performance of a dumb girl trying to be a musician. And there he is, railing about how unprofessional I am and how all he asks for is a little respect—“am I right or am I right?” he asks the audience. And im up out of my seat, swinging my guitar off my shoulder cuz its my turn to act indignant and offended. I say “that’s it. I cant work with him.. I give up.” And everyone reacts strongly to this. They aren’t used to this kind of confrontation. I realize im overcompensating for my embarrassment with mock rage that people are taking more seriously than I meant them to, but its too late to back down cuz tim is up out of his seat trying to diffuse the situation, trying to get us to play another song with him, but ive decided to go with the strong choice ive made and act the part. So I hand tim my guitar and say “you deal with him, I refuse.” And I storm off stage. Seth is now telling tim how he is right to be upset with me and in the back of the room someone calls “siblings and alcohol don’t mix” and I flip him the bird before sitting down. He is still harping on my gum and tim is trying to get a new song started when I realize how much fun seth his having with this scene. And I refuse to let him have all the fun. So I make another strong acting choice to escalate things to high drama—I walk back up to him on stage as he mentions my gum I take it out of my mouth and stick it to the center of his forehead with my thumb. the room makes a groaning noise, a combination of enjoyment and dread and I storm away and sit. And try to not burst out laughing. That whole thing was so fun. I have no anger left, I don’t care that my brother just shot down any pretentions I had of being a serious musician in a room of musicians, cuz im not. And i know it. I am, however, an actor and felt that my performance was stellar. Now seth and a couple friends are in the middle of a very sloppy rendition of something and my roommate is fretting about the state of my relationship with my brother and whether we will be able to reconcile and I am just highly amused. he might not even remember this moment tomorrow and I had a lot of fun getting so upset and blowing up at him and having him yell at me and then be completely done a minute later. That’s why we get along. We are family and work the same way and don’t have to worry. We can call each other out and blow up and boil over and be frustrated and mean, but never really try to hurt each other. And we both know that. And hes just enjoying being mean for once in his life and im enjoying watching him be over the top.

And it gets better. A couple of songs later when its clear to everyone that seth has just had way too much to drink and is being sort of categorically an asshole for once in his super-nice-boy life, I laugh with glee when he refuses to be swept and yells into the mic at the person trying to coax him off stage “MY PARTY!” I have to keep myself from applauding. He has one-upped me as usual—taken the performance to new heights. Or depths, if you prefer. He wins once again. “MY PARTY” he insists in a 4 year-old kind of drunkenness, insistent and convinced of the truth of the statement. “am I right or am I right?” he asks. And we really cant deny him. He is right, tho it was somewhat bad taste to point this out to all those who had tried for a few minutes of fame even if he was necessary in the background to make it happen.


I left town the next morning for a couple days and then had a lot of work to catch up on so when I saw him for the first time after that night it had been a whole week. We are at Sunday dinner at mom and dad’s and I start right into a conversation with him. I pause, confused by his sheepishness, until he says “I’m sorry about Friday night.” I start, taking a second to get what he’s referring to. “oh, god, don’t worry about it, id almost forgotten.” id already told a friend the whole story to make him laugh and knew then that I had no hard feelings. “you’re not mad?” “no, why would I be. I let it go that night.” “everyone told me you had been really mad. I guess I offended Margaret later and she wouldn’t talk to me most of the week.” “oh, no worries, I’ve just been busy. Besides, I was the one who stuck gum on your forehead.” “really? I don’t remember that.” “damn, that was my favorite part.” He can see I take it all as a big joke and I think he feels a little put out. “I’m sorry if you were made to think I was angry. And I’m sorry I didn’t call you this week to let you know I wasn’t I honestly didn’t think about it.” I feel bad for a minute and then think that’s what he gets for being drunk enough to have to rely on other people’s interpretation of events. “no one can hold a grudge when they know you are never like that. It’s not like you will be an asshole like that again for at least a year.” “yeah. I just don’t know if I will be able to live that display down. Everyone keeps using my phrase back at me.” He sounds a little harassed, and maybe he deserves it. “which one? ‘my party’?” “no. god, I barely remember that. I cant believe I said that.” A chagrined chuckle emerges from him as I grin from ear to ear and tell him: “well, you weren’t wrong, bro. they just hate to admit it. I mean, am I right or am I right?”

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