I came across a bunch of old photos while looking for envelopes the other day. There were photos of when I was ten or so catching a catfish in Florida with my brother-in-law. There were a few from the summer after my freshman year of college in 1994, home for my mother’s birthday party. In several of them my father is holding a microphone up to my face as I sit at this guy’s electronic piano. I’m sure I’m playing and singing Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It must have been weird for me to be singing, “My libido” at eighteen years old with my Dad holding the mic and in general.
Oh I just wanted to emote so bad. And emote I did. But my intense naiveté I’m sure came off as a great big “fuck you” to the crowd. Who sings Nirvana for her mother’s birthday? At least I wasn’t playing Morrissey’s “There Is a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” on which I also liked to accompany myself on piano.
I remember at another family party I sang “Ave Maria” because my mother wanted me to. I told her I could only remember half the Latin words but she felt that she would rather hear me do some of it than not at all. So, against my better judgment, I got up and did half of it. I was about sixteen years old. I was berated so heartily by a jazz/easy listening composer friend of the family that it put me off Latin for awhile. But it also made me not want to share much of my inner self through creative expression even though I couldn’t help myself but to share. The age-old conflict of aching and resistance bites again.
“You are a cute girl and talented and you can get away with a lot but not that,” the composer said. He was in my face. “You must never get up and do a song without knowing it front to back. Being professional is the most important thing.”
He didn’t give me a chance to retort. His wife was also a vocalist and his reaction made me understand why — as I had heard — she might write all of her scatting before singing it. There was no winging it with these two. The tidbit about the vocalist’s prewritten scats was something I always thought was hilarious because scatting is supposed to be improvised: the human voice playing a solo, if you will, as one would another musical instrument. As an aside, I don’t scat because it, like yodeling, is impressive but borders on show-off and really only pleases the person doing it and a certain kind of academic listener more interested in a wad being blown than euphony. Also “scat” means shit. I guess I’m still bitter about a man yelling into the face of a well-meaning teenaged girl trying to do something nice for her mother.
The songwriter is dead now, as is my mother, which doesn’t really lend much to this story other than the fact that I don’t regret singing half that song, having that moment with my mother, and even having my face yelled into by a professional musician who cared about music and the importance of taking yourself seriously when you are an artist. When I remember him I think of his very strong work ethic as an artist and that he would show up late for parties if he had to because he was working on a song. Other people would complain that he was late but I always felt like saying “Good for him. Fight the good fight, man.” Whenever a friend is pissed because I don’t pick up the phone or meet for a drink because I’m writing or working on music I think of Billy passing up cocktail hour to follow his muse by showing up, doing the work, and not stopping until it was done. I can hold both memories as valuable truths. And he wasn’t wrong about being professional. Show up knowing your shit.
“Jesus, man,” he would say, eyes glinting remembering a great musical performance. “Jesus, man. It was beautiful.” His eyes would roll with the pleasure of song.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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