Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

How weird is this: when Tom said he wanted to take me away for a romantic night (made possible by Katryna's birthday gift to him of taking our kids for the night), and further that he wanted to surprise me with the location, he chose Williamstown, MA. This wouldn't be weird if Tom knew how much I love that place; that it's most likely in my top five favorite places on the planet, and my first choice for a getaway in my own home state. That it's significant to me because my grandfather grew up there (his ancestors lived there for generations and are all buried in the Williams College cemetery); AND that it's the place where my band got its start almost exactly twenty years ago.

But Tom didn't know all this, really. He just thought Williamstown was a cool place, and he sort of wanted to hike Mt. Greylock. Add to the weirdness that it's Memorial Day, and that I've spent the last few months poring over my band's history in preparation for our big 20th Anniversary celebratory weekend Jam for the Fans (June 10-12) and thus have had Williamstown on the brain, and you get one of those situations writers love. I couldn't have written this into a novel. No one would have believed it.

We dropped the kids off at Katryna's mid day Sunday, and while they ate lunch and got acclimatized, Katryna brought out her scrapbook which she'd made during our first couple of intense years on the road--1996-1997, during which time we were home a total of 36 days in two years. No wonder we still have a bit of PTSD; those were heady days.
We were lauded across the board, by friends, fans, enemies, frenemies, industry and media as being the Next Big Thing: we had press everywhere we went; our CD was charting on Triple A radio (Adult Alternative Acoustic--or something like that); we had fans following us all over the country.
Meanwhile, we were living in our 15 passenger Doge Ram van and sleeping in Motel 6s where the towels were the size of placemats, and trying to stay somewhat healthy by eating salads with pretzels at Subways. If we were feeling flush, maybe we'd spring for TJIFridays. But then if the record company wanted us to do something, say a showcase for radio, we stayed at the very best Hyatt in town, with 20th floor views of the city and dinners at five star restaurants. Some gigs we sold out 800 seat theatres, and the next night we might be playing to forty people at a scungy rock club with female genitalia scrawled all over the dressing room walls. We were constantly in planning mode, like generals mulling over various battle plans. Our record company was like one general; our manager like another; Patty our friend, ally, booking agent-turned-road-manager-turned-manager had her own ideas, and so did we. So there were too many generals in the kitchen, to mix metaphors.

But the metaphor was pretty consistent, actually. "We totally killed!" we'd gloat after a great show, or after we outsold the other acts CD for CD at a Canadian festival. "You're going to make a killing," one indie record company president said to us and to his colleague, another president as he signed the papers, signing us over to that major label. That major label folded a year and a half later, taking with it--or so we thought--our entire back catalogue. A victim of the implosion of the music industry in the late 90s.

Tom let me talk as we drove to Williamstown, through Shelburne Falls and Savoy, up over Florida Mountain, past the hairpin turn. Katryna and I used to drive this road during those crazy touring years because our octagenarian aunt Sally still lived in Williamstown, and whenever we had a week off, we'd visit her. I tried to tell Tom the whole story, month by month. After a full day, I'd only brought him up to 1997. He is a patient sort; after all, he is a therapist and paid to listen to people's stories. It was fun to remember, and it was fun to listen to the mix of songs I'd put on my iPod--what is most likely going to be our set for the Iron Horse show on Saturday night.(I cannot divulge any song, because Katryna swore me to secrecy.)

Tom and I checked into our hotel, walked into town and all around campus. I showed him the little deli where we said we would pay for free when we first came to town and were pounding the pavements. (That's the one where only Anthony Edwards and Mike Morrissey watched us.
Some other friends came, but they sat upstairs in the deli. When we asked why, they said, "Oh, we could hear you fine from here.")

I showed him 66 Hoxsey Street.
I showed him my grandfather's house

and also his grave, which is across the street from his house.
We remembered it was Memorial Day.

Monday morning we had read and wrote in our journals as we had tea at the Tunnel Coffee bar and watched the parade, which lasted about a minute and a half.
I wanted to hug the old men in the convertibles. I wanted to hug the girl scouts throwing candy to the onlookers. Then we went for a walk through some farmland, into the woods. I was talked out.

Later, after we'd picked up the kids (who didn't want to come with us--they'd had such a good time with their cousins--) I cleaned up, preparing dinner. I heard story after story on NPR about families who had lost a son or a husband in a war, and my musings paled in comparison, seemed narcissistic and pathetic. What must that be like, to send your child off, your partner off, to wonder every day, is he OK? Will she make it home? What is it that propels someone to serve one's country like that? Politics aside, it's a brave choice, for everyone involved. What propels any of us to do something that might allow us to stick out, to get struck down? I took a breath and said a "thank you" for another day, a great Memorial Day, a great reminder of why we do what we do, every day.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nields History #2, September 1995-the Trio Becomes a Band.

The Compliet History of the Nields
(as of September 1995--Introduction to the Nields first Songbook)

Katryna and David and Nerissa started this band slowly. The conception took place at the Madeira School, in Northern VA in the summer of 1987. Inspired in no small part because of a story the Washington Post had just done on the burgeoning open mic scene in the area, the three of them--under various terrible band names such as Odd Man Out-- worked up four tunes; one of Nerissa's ("Tripping the Light Fantastic"), one of David's ("Fade to Black") and two covers ("For What it's Worth," "Oh, Sister" by Bob Dylan). Odd Man Out lasted for two week, and the three of them went their separate ways, to different cities to pursue various degrees and to learn to do something useful. But all three of them kept making music individually. David grooved on guitar and wrote gross songs about vampires; Nerissa started an unwieldy folk group called Tangled Up in Blue and wrote a bunch of songs for her first album, Map of the World, recorded on a Walkman and released on a tiny label that duplicated its tapes via a home tape-to-tape player and sold them for free. That left Katryna, who went to Nepal and barreled through four years at Trinity College, where she hung out with Dave Chalfant (AKA Guitar Dave) who hung out with Dave Hower, both of whom played in many Real bands separately and together. But that's getting ahead of our story. The point is, in 1991, after several graduations and useful degrees of various sorts and a marriage between Nerissa and David, the three pals whose last name was Nields moved in together in a house in Williamstown, semi-demonically addressed 66 Hoxsey Street. They met really cool actors who are now famous (Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cullum, Anthony Edwards). They got their first paying gig at the terrifying Williams Inn (what they now think of fondly as their Hamburg). After that intoxicating experience, they moved to Connecticut where David had a job at the Loomis Chaffee School. Wishing to make a better demo, they hit the studio (Wellspring, now in Concord but at the time in West Newton MA) and made what became their first album , sympathetically entitled 66 Hoxsey Street.
They infiltrated the burgeoning folk scene in the zydeco-loving town of of Hartford, winning over the kind folks at WWUH and WHCN.
They lurked in Boston and at the Bottom Line in New York City, where they almost became famous several times. They drove a lot and covered most of Northampton, MA with posters and Nields fans.
They sang and grew and wrote many songs and thought, just like Christopher Columbus you don't know what you've found.
Their audiences sang along, adding their hollers to the Nields second album, Live at the Iron Horse Music Hall.

They bought cool clothes, hoping to intimidate.
They ate really spicy food. They went to LA and their guitars were stolen in a very special episode of Melrose Place.
They heard their songs on the radio and shouted for joy. They asked Katryna's friend Dave Chalfant to join them because he made them chuckle and actually keep the beat.
Now a quartet, they sang and grew and pondered the fact that many fans wrote letters wishing for a new album. Nerissa, Katryna and David asked Dave Chalfant for some advice. Make a record, he said. You make a record, they said. Yer mother, he said. They made a record and named it after Katryna's friend Bob on the Ceiling, who used to hang out in the Barracuda with Nerissa and Katryna back in the seventies.
They wheedled with yet another Dave--Hower--to play the drums on it. And in a blinding fury of light and thunder, the Nields Became!

Well, it sort of happened that way.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nields History June, 1991

Monday's post is at Singing in the Kitchen and it is worth reading. Elle declared Saturday, "The best today of my whole life." You will know why if you read it.

It was a full weekend. The kids got to watch TV on Saturday morning because Tom and I had to clear out the kitchen, which is being renovated this summer. Already we have a pit dug to the east of the kitchen where the extension will go, and on Friday the good men came and cut a hole in our dining room window and put in a door so we can go out and in from the side porch. There is a John Deere backhoe in our yard. Jay is in heaven. "I wike dat man," he said pointing at our contractor who was operating the backhoe, making it lift shovelsful of dirt out of the ground and carefully dropping them in a pile. "He's a good guy."

At the top of this post is a picture of the house Katryna and David and I first lived in when we were trying to be a rock band. OK, folk trio. The address was 66 Hoxsey Street in Williamstown, MA, and we later named our first CD after this address. We moved up to Williamstown the day after our first paid gig (Trinity College reunions on June 7, 1991) because David got a job as an intern at the celebrated Williamstown Theatre festival. I established a tiny office with my 1986 Mac (remember those? the ones that looked like a small vertical box.)

I tried hard to get us gigs and was extremely frustrated by the fact that in order to get gigs you had to have played some. I cold-called Charlie Hunter who managed Sweet Honey and the Rock and some guy named Chris Smither, and he told me to make a press kit, which discouraged me, as we had no press. So I wrote a bio (I claimed we had a cult following; I didn't say the cult consisted of four friends of mine from college) and a list of songs we covered, including the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Stephanie Says," The Roches "Hammond Song," King Missile's "I Am a Sensitive Artist," Trapezoid's "Wagoner's Lad" and of course Sinaed O'Connor's "Black Boys on Mopeds." We lived off of ramen noodles and microwave popcorn for a few weeks. We got invited to a cocktail party by one of the actors, and a young actress named Isabel Rose said, "You really have to hustle in this business. I mean, you won't get anywhere if all you do is sit around knitting sweaters." I immediately stopped knitting.

Another actor at the festival, John Bennett Perry (father of future Friends star Matthew Perry) had a lovely voice, and at the cocktail party, we all took out our guitars and played Hank Williams songs. John is from Williamstown and he knew the guy in charge of getting entertainment for the Williams Inn. John told the guy who booked us that we would bring in the actors.

The Williams Inn paid us $400 a week to play for four hours Sunday and Monday nights in their bar. We thought we had made it big. We spent our first paycheck on a sound system which we purchased in Brattleboro VT at Maple Leaf Music. Slowly we grew a following; the actors from the theatre festival did indeed to see us on these days--their days off. We performed to a seventeen year old Gwenyth Paltrow, who hung out at our table between sets, saying things like, "My parents really want me to go to college, but I want to be a movie star!" We said, "Now, Gwynnie; you really should go to college." She said, "But I hajust got my first movie! I'm in Hook! All I say is," here she gasped, "'Petah!'" in a British accent. "But it's something."

We also hung out with Kate Burton, daughter of Richard and an amazing actor in her own right; John Benjamin Hickey, and the guy from the Heinz gravy commercials who was rich and used to buy everyone in the bar a round or two of drinks.

We also started playing the Williamstown Theatre Post Show Caberet, which was more fun that anything we'd ever done at that point. Later, playing workshop stages at festivals came close.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

For My Favorite 10-Year-Old

For Amelia—What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Turned 10

1. When a boy is mean to you, it doesn’t mean he likes you. It means he is mean. Don’t hang around with mean people.

2. Listen and observe the rules the adults make, but be sure to keep a part of you wondering why they made these rules. Allow yourself the space to figure out for yourself if the rules are good. If you think they aren’t, you might (now or later) suggest (politely, or impolitely) that the rule could and should be changed.

3. Think very very hard about getting a tattoo. They might be cool now, but in 2030 you might deeply regret it. And they might be totally out of fashion. (This was the case in 1980, when I was a teenager.)

4. Love your brother and your parents even when they are annoying.

5. Stretch! Try something you might be really bad at. You might surprise yourself. (And then go back to what you are good at.)

6. Read a lot, but observe the spirit of Rule #2: People who write books do not know everything.

7. Never ignore the smell of freshly mown grass

8. When you are sad, write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal where no one can find it. Better yet, keep writing great songs. (OH! Also, write some bad songs.)

9. Girls your age are going through a lot and might be really terribly afraid and therefore behave poorly or in ways that disappoint you. They also might be working really hard to not seem afraid, so you might not guess that that is what is going on. Don’t compare what they seem like on the outside with what you feel like on the inside.

10. Be yourself. Be yourself. Be yourself!!!!!! Keep being the best Amelia you can be!

11. One to grow on. Do not ever smoke a cigarette. You will thank me later.

Love, your aunt and godmother,


Friday, May 20, 2011

Countdown to Jam for the Fans, T- minus 21

This was during our This Town Is Wrong tour in 2004. We are playing with the CrackerJack Band at this place in the suburbs of Philly that reminded Katryna and me of the set of the TV show Friends. What was the name of this place? Amelia might have been in the dressing room with a babysitter. Katryna was just barely pregnant with William.

I have lugged my amp up from the basement (full disclosure: Tom did the lugging) and have taken the Les Paul out of its gorgeous pink case to show my children. They were suitably impressed; more by the pink than the guitar. I use "showing you the guitar" as a bribe to get Elle to finish her violin practice.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ten Words of Advice to Graduates

What I wish I'd known when I was 22:
1. All the terrible things that happen to you (and terrible things will happen to you) will turn out to be great stories, grist for the mill, food for your growth, opportunities for you to become bigger-hearted and stronger and more resilient, IF you can see them that way and not as pure tragedy.
2. Don't forget how to play.
3. Establish a spiritual practice, even if it as simple as taking time to connect with the natural world every day.
4. Drink 8 glasses of water per day
5. Move your body, be fully in your body, and don't think of your body as something you have. If you are "taking care of" your body, you're not really living in it. You're missing the point.
6. The more you give generously of yourself, your time, your resources, the more you get.
7. Everything you ingest becomes a part of you--so choose wisely, be it food, entertainment, friends, experiences.
8. Sleep a lot.
9. Compromise with your lovers and friends
10.Master the art of forgiveness.

Countdown to Jam for the Fans Day 2

So I finished the song for the finale, except now it's not for the finale. If we can arrange it in time, it will be somewhere else in the set. Katryna and Patty and I just met for lunch, looked at lots of old pictures, massaged the set list, planned the dinner menu for the folks who bought the entire weekend package. I think we are supposed to call them "package holders." So many people have requested songs on Facebook! I wish we could learn them all. I mean relearn them all.

As part of this blog-every-day project, I will also post an old photo a day. Here is today's: It's of me and Christine Lavin plotting to set Patty (our manager) up with Julie Gold. Don't we look like evil yentas? Sorry about the quality. (As far as I can tell, we weren't successful.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Countdown to Jam for the Fans #1

I am supposed to be writing a song for the Nields 20th anniversary/reunion finale at the Iron Horse. No pressure. It's just supposed to sum up the last 20 years, be upbeat, have a great chorus that the fans can sing along to, and top everything else that we play. I started to write it Monday. Or rather, I started to write something; but what I wrote, while good, is not an end-of-the-show kind of song. It's the kind of song that, in the days of the band when we all lived together and breathed in unison, we would have placed about fourth or fifth in the set. It grooves. It would have gotten everyone on their feet. But it never would have ended a show.

Men came today in a big red dump truck and hacked away at our back porch until it was gone. I thought this would be terribly depressing; after all, I loved that back porch. I wrote chunks of my books sitting on an Adirondack chair on that porch, and I (and others) sat on the floor, guitar in lap, and wrote songs. In fact, the song I mention above was started there. I kept spacing out as I was writing it, gazing at the beautiful flowery backyard, moping about the fact that I would never sit here again, never gaze at that view again. Then I remembered the whole point of the renovation is to create a ROOM in that very spot so that I can sit and gaze and write songs--from my new kitchen.

Two great surprises came from the porch demolition. The best one was that the men located Jay's small Hess motorcycle guy (actually William's--Jay stole it.) Motorcycle guy has been AWOL for over a year. He had been buried under the porch. Jay is apoplectic.

The other is the light. The light! Our kitchen is light! The porch had been blocking the light! Now I have a tangible, experienced vision to meditate upon when I lose heart for this project, as I will sometime in June when I wish for more than a trickle of water to wash my greens, or when one of my kids reminds me why it's a really good thing to have a bathroom on the first floor (the bathroom is being gutted, too.)

Katryna said I could re-write an existing song for the finale. I actually had just done that.

For five generations now, our family has spent parts of our summers at a place in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks called Putnam Camp. This rustic place, nestled at the foot of Giant Mountain, hosted Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung along with William James while the two psychoanalysts made their first and only trip together to the United States. Cabins have names if not running water, and after each family style meal, guests climb the base of the mountain to have tea and dessert in a wall-less cabin affectionately known as The Stoop. This is also where folks pull out guitars, banjos, the occasional hand-made upright bass, and sing songs passed down from family to family for generations.

Putnam Camp has some traditions which require music, too; notoriously a song guests sing to latecomers to dinner called "Little Popsie Wopsie." (Our mother lived in fear of being "Popsie wopsied," and thus we girls were never once late.) But our favorite song is the one guests sing to the departing visitors. At the end of a stay (typically a week), remaining guests line up and hold hands and do a kind of modified can-can while singing this song to the car loaded with the departing guests as it drives down the mountain out to Route 73.

We’ll dance like a fairy
and sing like a bird
Sing like a bird, sing like a bird
We’ll dance like a fairy
and sing like a bird
And wile the hours away

In our family, we have taken this tradition and applied it at every possible opportunity to bid farewell to any guest at all. My kids would sing it to the postwoman if they could. My parents often sing it to us as we drive away from their house, the two of them holding hands and kicking their feet gamely back and forth, waving with their outside arms as our car follows the bend in the driveway.

Last Sunday, our friend Kris departed after spending a lovely day with us. "Dance wike a faiwy!" Jay shouted as she closed her car door, and so Elle and Jay and I sang and danced and waved as Kris made her way back home. As we turned to go back in the house, it occurred to me that the song needed some new verses. Probably this occurred to me because my son wouldn't let me stop singing the one existing verse, and I was getting bored. Boredom is the doorway to creativity, says our friend Holly Near.

We’ll dance like a fairy and sing like a bird
Sing like a bird, sing like a bird
We’ll dance like a fairy and sing like a bird
And wile the hours away

We hope that your travels bring you safely home
You safely home, you safely home
We hope that your travels bring you safely home
And show you some fun on the way

We’ll hold these good times we had close to our hearts
Close to our hearts, close to our hearts
We’ll hold these good times we had close to our hearts
Until we’re together to stay.

We’ll wile all our hours away while you’re gone
Away wile you’re gone, away while you’re gone
We’ll while all our hours away while you’re gone
And then we will go out and play.

Don't you think this would make an excellent finale to Jam for the Fans?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Your House Is Strong-Happy Mother's Day!

Here is the video we made in conjunction with MotherWoman. The shot of the woman holding the sign "..and wise" gets me every single time I watch it. And those kids...