A song is the complete acceptance of impermanence. It would not begin if it could not end.
Image of Webster Hall by Matt Waters
I consider myself a decent person even though I’ve daydreamed about ranting from stages like a theatrical fascist. In these fantasies the faceless audience is compliant. They need me to exist.
Are there many more like me? Disconnected in college. Sleeping in their driver-side seat between classes and believing transcendence to be the truest aim, only to wake up one day realizing those things that used to be grime have become armor. All the inconvenient details left out of overflowing coffee shop conversation now pertinent information. Knife through the dirt and dig. Find the buried self because being nobody means saying nothing. An intentional, interior disassociation couldn’t feel more futile in these times. There is nowhere to escape your face. And that seems to be the way we want it. Damn.
Little moments were telling me to try something different. I’d find myself drifting off on security guard duty one summer, thinking about what I’d put on the cover of my album while I was supposed to be making sure nobody kidnapped the kids. And titles. A lot of album titles. I hadn’t played one chord at that point.
I played a fourth capo G to start and couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like I was a part of the Alpha Omega orchestra.
I like my jeans skinny and my face hairy. I’ve had this paranoia like I’m being threatened for an explanation. I was confused during the first breach of the scene. Am I supposed to feel pride over nearly a decade of self-destructive behavior? Because that’s what’s real about me? I wanted to write about existential theory, swamps as metaphor for intergalactic isolation and sunbeams through windshields as acceptance. I find the intersection between my artistic life and practical life ironic. Like I’m part of the generation caught between the new questions and the old questions during the job interview, no matter the field. Yes applicant, we sense an identity. Now elaborate with hard data. Why are you, you?
My first ever set was on the Upper East Side. A flirty spam-bot had booked the gig for me. These flirty spam-bots all wrote their messages the exact same way but had names like the most fun girls at a Montauk beach house party—Kelli or Nikki—skipping over the pale sand while composing their pleasantly impersonal missives. A drunken record producer sidled up to me at the bar. He insinuated I had a sweet little hustle going keeping all the money to myself. I nodded my head even though I was baffled by what he said. His band was playing first and he seemed intrigued by my impending performance. It was going to be my first time playing more than two songs consecutively and having my name announced by the soundman from his booth. The big leagues! And this industry dude thought I was a steely guitar shark. The room was crowded for a charity event. There had to be like forty, fifty, or eight hundred people there looking at me. A girl in the crowd started doing the robot during my rhythmically repetitive centerpiece song. I couldn’t tell whether this was a genuine robot dance or a mocking robot dance. I guess nothing ever mattered less. Afterward I felt like I’d fulfilled my obligations in a blackmail plot. Continuing my live experimentations may not have made rational sense. But I had never heard my guitar filtered through a sound system. I played a fourth capo G to start and couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like I was a part of the Alpha Omega orchestra. That’s me? And there’s the score. My cut.
I played the same place again a couple of months later and felt I had made a substantial improvement. I wasn’t singing just to save the hostages that time. It was for me. I waved at the crowd after I finished because they seemed happy to have heard me. I was still on the stage and probably could have floated toward the bar. Fear and gravity were dead for a second.
I always figured it was my fault, a defect, these thoughts and the clarity of the wild energy. I heard acceptance for myself in music.
Four years later I was on a plane and tried listening to myself with objectivity. Its easy pretending to be someone else on a plane especially if the only person you are trying to convince is yourself. And if I were someone else and stumbled upon one of my recent recorded sets, how would I rate the material? Well, objective me wanted to change everything. I played without subtlety. I made compensations that were unnecessary. I could trust myself more. Why am I still trying to force the issue? There was a moment where I described one of my songs before performing, but more accurately, the writing process. It was a personal anecdote about how many of my melodic ideas seem to arise while walking my dog through our familiar neighborhood milieu. There are memories on every corner. Sometimes you notice the unchanging most of all, like the tint of the sidewalk cement in summer or the snow’s shade of gray under streetlights on a winter night. During this set and before this song, I’m trying to describe a small barbershop adjacent to a local park. How those barbers and customers speak a language I’d never unlock and lived lives I could not understand. There’s so much more than glass between us. What is it like to see people on a daily basis that you’ll probably never actually interact with? Maybe I was thinking I’d never get my haircut by those hands when the melody and lyrics arose. Either way, I tried and failed to convey these thoughts to the audience with any efficiency. And that was OK. That was not what bothered me. What bothered me was the tone of my voice. I imagined the person who belonged to that voice. His top hat and silver cane, his tap-dance shoes and a pinstriped suit. The monorail blueprints secured under his armpit. Man, why did I sound like such a salesman up there? Why did I sound like such a salesman when I was trying to speak from the heart?
It is possible to be natural on a stage. All you have to do is practice. Then you can get really good at having them think you aren’t someone else while they see you.
The first time I performed unaccompanied was at an open mic in the Village. I waited for three hours to get on the stage. One guy sang a song that included the timely lament ‘occupy my cock.’ There was the folkie couple pointedly speaking over the host even though he was announcing their show for later in the week. I handed my phone to a tourist while I approached the stage because I wanted evidence of such a significant moment; he happily obliged. Guess I fit in even though I was convinced that I did not. Unfortunately I couldn’t lower the mic for the crowd to hear my guitar. A couple of guys had to come up and help me out. These were the inconveniences. Feeling mortified in front of a group of strangers or mispronouncing Rimbaud in verse a couple weeks earlier. Nothing like invoking the ghost of a poet I had barely read. I cut my song that night short. It was because I felt this magnetism. The pull was coming from the audience. It felt like looking down an elevator shaft while balancing solely on your toes. I was powerful and graceful. Remember being a child and whispering in the ear of a friend? Maybe they had not been paying enough attention. And you needed that moment where you were sure that they were listening. The secret usually did not matter; it was the possibility of a secret that made them listen. Testing illusion. Experimenting with magic. I had their attention that night. All my new friends, convinced I had something important to tell them. Who the hell was this guy croaking out lyrics like an inebriated bullfrog and putting together rhyme schemes like a rapper on acid while playing guitar like he has bricks for both hands? These things were not intentional. They were just the results.
I’ve felt certain performances delivered with enough precision that my identity completely dissolved and I became the song.
The immediate thought I remember having was oh my God all I need to do is just keep doing what I’ve been doing and I’m everything I wanted to be. It is right here and now. And that was the problem. I was not expecting the comfort. Maybe a part of me possessed awareness of the consequences. What does it mean to find calmness in these strange circumstances? When you can remember being a child struggling to control his bodily movements in the classroom while the other kids seemed so easy about their stillness? Am I smiling? Why did I just smile? I need to keep smiling now. Look down. Cover your face. I’m just going to explode so let me out. I always figured it was my fault, a defect, these thoughts and the clarity of the wild energy. I heard acceptance for myself in music. And I was feeling acceptance from the crowd. It was going perfectly, that was the truth. The first time’s not supposed to be perfect. I didn’t stop because I was scared to make a mistake. I stopped because there was not going to be a mistake. It was probably one of the best moments of my life and I could not deal with it. The purity of a journey’s beginning: I never felt that again. The magnetic pull. I’ve never had them like I did that night, the company beyond my closed eyelids.
There was the time I jumped outside my body and caught a wider scope of the audience along with myself singing. It was not disturbing. It was like stealing a glimpse from a perspective nobody is allowed to own. I conferred with my guitar teacher and he had experienced similar frequencies. Out of body. Fleeting. Can happen deep in the groove or like an accident, the almighty celestial thumb randomly flipping the dial on your radio tuning. I’ve felt certain performances delivered with enough precision that my identity completely dissolved and I became the song. What does it mean to be a song? It is the complete acceptance of impermanence. A song would not begin if it could not end. In that sense they are a celebration of reality. To love a song is to love inevitability. When the song ends I return to myself like shaking off a dream. Is there a job to do? Expressing the universal? I’ve tried communicating to certain people that I love them. But how can they know I’m singing especially for them? It’d probably be better to keep that to conversation, but moments of honesty are not easy to conjure. They are something said by someone. One thing nobody can say is that the truth is not what it used to be. It is and we know. The songs always prove it.
Matt Waters is a writer originally from Whitestone, New York. He received a MFA degree from the New School in May 2014.