Mr. Oliver and his pivotal role in the watershed of my creative life begins in South Beach, Miami, Florida in August 1992
I, the shadow artist, am on my annual pilgrimage to South Florida to visit one of my most beloved friends, Richard. It had become my custom to head down there a few days before he returned to Boca Raton from his annual trip to Philadelphia to visit his family. I'd spend those days visiting other Miami friends. In 1992, my friend Janice accompanied me on that first leg.
One afternoon, Janice told me that a friend of hers was also in Miami and said she'd like to visit him. He was the boyfriend of a mutual friend in New Orleans and I'm not sure why he happened to be hanging out solo in South Beach at that time, not that it matters.
We met David at a coffee shop and through conversational twists and turns that I don't recall, we landed on the fact that he and I had both just written short stories about girls named Heather. He gave me his chapbook called The Zuzu Wagon Review wherein his Heather story could be read along with his alter ego's poetry and the poems of a few others as well. His Heather sounded like my Heather after about 10 more years of life experience. A later edition of the Zuzu Wagon began with my Heather story and ended with his. Very appropriate.
Anyway, David told us about a spot nearby where he had been sitting in on guitar with another guy who was playing. All I remember was that they were doing some Dylan song, I think, and it needed harmony. The rest is a blur. I'm sure I was singing the harmony to myself as I sat and listened. I do this kind of thing all the time, even if the song wasn't written with harmonies. I can't remember if I actually got up and sung with them. I think I did. Or did I just talk about it. It probably started with that, but at some point, I joined the two musicians and sang harmony.
David sitting-in, South Beach, August 1992.
At some point that afternoon, David suggested we get together once back in New Orleans. He wanted to check out some of the things I'd written and thought it would be fun to play around with some music. The first time we got together, I guess he noticed how inhibited I was when it came to singing, even in the privacy of my own home. He said he knew what to do. And he did. But how
did he know?
The next time he came over, he showed up with an amp and microphone. "Try this," he said, as he set it up for me to sing through. There was something about hearing my voice come out of this speaker more so than from my own body that made me feel more comfortable with the idea of singing around him. Maybe the speaker is like a proxy and makes it feel less intimate for me.
It's really hard to explain why I feel so uncomfortable when I sing out loud in front of others. I think about this a lot. I know I have my old baggage from the singer in my brother's band and that is perhaps a small part. But I think the larger part comes from my dad and his admonishments about showing off. I have been struggling for a long time to find words to express the core feeling that fuels my inhibitions and what I'm about to say may sound strange, but I think I may have found the way to say it. I think some part of me thinks that it's pretentious to have this voice I have. And that if I sing "for real" it will seem that way. Those are Daddy's words I'm still hearing, I guess. I feel embarrassed when I sing in an intimate situation (no mics, amps and speakers) unless I'm in the company of certain close friends and family. I'll hold back, way back. But put me on a stage with all the proxy equipment and put me on the spot and I will not hold back at all. This is not to say that I am not a wreck inside. Renard still laughs about a jazz gig he attended where I didn't take the stage until after the band did a few instrumentals and I told him I thought I was going to drop dead before my turn came up.
Scrutiny, judgment, and all the things they produce do a real number on me. But David knew how to take me slowly through the process of becoming more comfortable. And, as Renard reminds me, something inside me had to have wanted to perform in order to have followed where David led me. And eventually that road led to gigs at a bar in Hammond, Louisiana (David was teaching at the university located there) and at the Maple Leaf, a live music venue here in New Orleans.
The show was called The Zuzu Wagon Review. (I don't feel like explaining the meaning of the zuzu wagon right now but maybe David will share the meaning of this colloquialism as a comment.) It was a combination of poetry and fiction readings (our own and those of a variety of guests) and music. We'd do our music and literary readings and then invite the audience to participate in an open mic session afterwards. It was a very non-threatening environment for me and I felt comfortable enough to stretch out into things I wouldn't ordinarily do.
For example, I'd always wanted to do the Beatles' Taxman
with this skanky funk-groove I liked to play on the drums. So, we did it. I played the drums and David sang it. I'd play guitar some of the time, keyboards some of the time and I think I even played bass (or tried to) on something. I'd been writing some music and we played some of those songs, sometimes to accompany the readings. David played guitar when I read or triggered some of the songs I'd recorded to Midi on my synth that were written specifically for parts of a story. We did songs I wrote as sort of a joke. (One was called "Bardo State" — from the Tibetan Book of the Dead —and I think David references it in one of his blog entries.) We did whatever we wanted to and people seemed to like it. We had people coming back to see us week after week. It was amazing. It was a blast. It was the most liberating creative playground imaginable for me and I was so free to play with whatever I wanted to, however I wanted to. I enjoyed those days so much.
I don't remember why we stopped.
Singing with the Zuzu Wagon.
Zuzu Wagon Review, 1992. I'm playing electric guitar, David is on acoustic and I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember our bass player's name, but he was a good player and a swell guy.
Robinson Mills played drums with us most of the time. My then current, now former-husband, funk drummer extraordinaire Mean Willie Green, played drums with us once or twice. (I'll put a link up on him at some point.)
Reading in the photo above is my friend, South African poet and actor Wonga Matanda, who was exiled in the U.S. for a while. I wish I knew his current whereabouts and how he is doing. He is an extraordinary man and I miss him.
My experiences with the Zuzu Wagon had tremendous impact on my self-concept as a musician. I'll never be able to thank David enough for knowing just what to do, when to push, and with exactly how much force to move me comfortably into what had been forbidden territory in my mind.
At the Dragon's Den with Unit One (Photo by Ray Fisk)
I owe another debt of gratitude to my dear friend Tim Green,
one of the most gifted sax players on this planet and the person who took up where David left off by offering unparalleled support and encouragement. Tim is directly responsible for almost every musical performance I was involved in from 1993 through 2000, not to mention a recording session and some other management work he sent my way.
And finally, I want to acknowledge my love, Renard Poché
for supplying so many of the resources I've needed to create a working project studio in my home and for buying me a bass for my 40th birthday. Oh, how I love playing it!
Because of the luxury of these resources, I've written and recorded a couple dozen songs in a wide variety of genres over the last couple of years. My little set-up allows me to be spontaneous and let whatever wants to come out, come out— whenever it wants to.
I'm still working on having my songs in a form where I am OK with letting people hear them and I suspect the first things I'll make available are the jazz pieces I've written. Guess what? No vocals. I'm still battling the demons that make me hold back anything with vocals and sometimes I hide my head in my shirt when I do play songs where I'm singing, even though I've never gotten bad feedback on them. Most of the time, people are surprised that it's me singing, having had no idea that I've been living this secret life as a musician. It's been comfortable for me to keep it that way, but things like this essay have been part of the recommended therapy for getting over it.
So, Mr.Oliver, thank you. Thank you. Were it not for you, I'm sure my life would be very different. You pried opened a part of me that I was afraid to expose, despite the unacknowledged desire to let that part out to breathe in fresh air and bask in the sunlight. I can't say that I've done anything really remarkable yet, but I do think I have some good stuff to offer and I hope to share some of it with you soon. And I hope this story makes you smile, because I'm quite sure you had no idea what you really did for me.
With gratitude always,