11 August, 2005

where they make the majik (or why i hate TV but being on it is fun)

i am still high! i am still reeling! someone sent me a clip of my recent appearance on the conan o'brien show, and i cant stop watching it. usually, it is torture to see my animated self on the screen. a special kind of pain we reserve for our innermost insecurities. however, i am hooked, watching myself superimposed onto a set and next to people i have seen only on TV but seen hundreds of times. like i went into one of those booths at an amusement park and they put me in front of a green screen with my guitar and said, "which late night program would you like to be on?" and i said, "well, i hate TV and believe it to be an obsolete piece of technology, what with the internet and all. but if you twist my arm, ow, i suppose i would want to be on conan, because he is wierd and smart, although he's so tall i dont want him to come shake my hand." then you stop pretending, step out of the booth and get the video to take home. but wait, it really happened. yes, it really happened...

conan is filmed in the NBC builing at rockefeller center (or as i like to say ROCK-AH-FELL-AH CENT-AH) in NYC... my band went over at 10.30am to set up, i didnt have to go til 2pm because i am a "star", but in actuality, i just wasnt needed... arriving at 2, we got ushered into a nice dressing room with way too many sandwiches. but my name was definitely on the door! not just printed on paper, but on plastic attached to the door. and not just with tape or sticky tack, because we tried and tried to pry it off... around 2.15 we went into the studio for a sound check and a camera run-through. everything they say about TV studios is true. they are always very very small, very cold, and painted wierd colors that somehow look better on camera. i think this is why real people often look so bad on TV, its because everything is set up to make gross colors look good. you could be the picture of health, but if your face isnt covered in wierd orange makeup you look like death warmed over.

why i hate TV reason no.1: nothing real looks good, only unreal things. this is bewildering and sad.

we had been expecting to have to play the song at least 8 times, which we had prepared for by coming up with all kinds of extra musical bits to keep us amused and sane. however, these guys were tops! only 4 times- by the end of which, you still think you have written a good song, and you still know what it is about! the sound in the studio was great, better than any TV sound i have had... very loud, and very real, although what you see when you are playing can be a bit strange at first. conan has audience seats, about 200 or so, but they are up high. right in front of you is a very shallow area where the cameras (which are HUGE) are all on wheels and buzz and spin around. at conan, the band is tucked below the seats, so they are actually facing you on the music stage. there are a few monitors around, for play back, but in my experience, watching them while you play is a bad idea. a) you just get depressed by how you look and b) it makes your eyes go at a funny angle, so all the camera sees is the whites of them. SCARY!

after soundcheck, we were free for a couple hours, but i think everybody was too nervous to leave the dressing room. instead we picked at the sandwiches and watched conan do his run-though on the TV in our room. he sat at his desk with his acoustic guitar and proceeded to noodle while he improved jokes, organised skits, and generally gave shape to the show. let me say this, this man is the real thing. actively engaged in his program, very very smart, and very efficient at figuring out what was funny and what wasnt. it was easy to see why he's as successful as he has been.

why i hate TV reason no.2: things have to fit in specific time slots, leaving no room for spontineity. the handcuffs of commercial breaks! the prison of strict schedules!

around 4.30, someone came in and gave us the final show shedule, a complicated mix of numbers and letters on a pleasant pink piece of paper. i was able to decipher it to see that our segment would last exactly 3minutes... oh no, said someone, the song is only 2.38 seconds! could we add another section? extend one of the musical breaks? use up more of the precious time alotted? unfortunately this kind of thinking has no place in TV. while we played "to the stars" 4 times, the director was scripting the camera moves and lighting down to the word and second. literally. so if we decided to take our full 3minutes, well, all hell would break loose. and they would use one of the run throughs from earlier in the day- where we all looked like death warmed over (see above).

the other guests on the show were donnie, oops i mean, mark wahlberg and bob saget. strange to say the least. no one got a glimpse of them or conan backstage before the show. they keep the musicians sequestered in a far corner of the backstage hallway, i think to keep us from bothering the other guests. although i swear i saw bob sagets elbow for second when i went around the corner to investigate the giant 3 foot nose parked in the middle of the hallway. the show tapes at 5.30, and works live until 6.30. occasionally they insert something pre-taped, but really, the pink sheet is law. marky mark didnt show up until the minute before he was due on and he left the minute he was done. i suppose this is all boring to him. but we werent going to let his bad attitude ruin our day. around 5.45, they took each of us into make-up. sam and neil just got some powder, i needed more. i have done enough TV and photo shoots to navigate safely through the world of professional make-up artists. "very natural, very light, a little gloss and i'll do my own eyes." is my mantra. i have learned to say it sweetly but with the force of a cruise ship.

why i hate TV reason no.3 (but really the most important): just good enough is good enough.

at about 6.20 we got taken into the studio, the show was on a commercial break, and the band was playing. let me tell you, that band is LOUD. they told us 4 times, dont play along with them. i suppose thats a real problem. not for us, because we dont know how to play TV show swing. only rock and roll, motherfucker. on TV it is important to be over-confident because the camera sucks away your self-esteem. so we all warmed up by telling eachother how fabulous we looked. before i knew it, i looked over and there was conan, holding up a vinyl copy of BIRDS and bob saget looking over pleasantly. and then...

we were on! i cant really describe how much fun it is to play knowing that so many people are watching. its a real head-trip. and when you look back at the tape, and see me smile gooffily during the song, thats what i am thinking. also, before the first chorus you can see me steal a glimpse off to my right. i wanted to see what max weinberg was doing. was he watching? no, he was standing up, like a wax museum version of himself. perfectly still, looking down. i thought that was very very funny... but as we swung into the first chorus, i saw him come to life. we made wax meinberg move! after that it all became a blur. let me also say one thing, i think we played pretty well, but i wouldnt have known that until we watched it back, and then it didnt matter anyway. i think playing on TV is the hardest environment to be musical in. its ridiculously hard to blow your own mind musically in that situation. people that do hold my eternal admiration. and like i said it doesnt matter. on TV, if you dont mess up, thats good enough. sad but true.

after we played, conan came over to shake my hand, which was surreal. but he was incredibly nice. as soon as they went to commercial, he came back over and we talked about my guitar. he has a similar one, a gretsch and we mooned over how amazing gretsches are to play... then to my surprise, he said, he come over to the couch... so i took the guitar back from him, put it down and ran over and plopped down between conan and bob saget. conan and i continued our discussions of gretsches and rockabilly (his favorite) until suddenly we were back on the air... he was so complementary about my music, and i couldnt believe i was sitting there, that all i could do was grin. after he said good bye, i asked him about the show, about which parts got cut and why. bob saget joined in and we all talked about how hard it must be to make a new show everyday. "its as if i told you to write a song everyday," was how conan put it... and then we were done. i talked for a second to bob saget, who was very very nice and real, and told me it was HIS pleasure to meet ME, which couldnt have been true. i mean, full house, anyone? i love that he is proud of that show and that he has also moved on. later i gave him a CD and we promised to stay in touch...

you mustnt think that my dry wit means i am not grateful for the opportunity to go on TV, and i know it is rare and there are plenty of others who really really want to do this too. however, i do think we all watch too much TV and, yes, i do think we are capable of re-drawing what TV can be. TV is still thematically no different than what it was when it started. advertising and more advertising with some content squeezed in. the difference now is we have more channels. but, here's my point, once a tv camera gets turned on you and the lights come up, something happens to you. you want to connect with america, you want them to like you. you smile bigger, you laugh louder, it's incredibly fun and then it's done. you go back to being your little, small, drab normal colored self. and you know what, THATS me and i am happy with that.

thanks for tuning in and goodnight, everybody... bah dah dum dah dum! bah dah dum dah dum! swee bop bop fiddledy do wah! do wah!

05 August, 2005

from the cradle to the seat of power

last night the TRiO played in chapel hill NC and now we're on our way to greenville SC. i am in the van, as usual. it seems right now that i am truly on tour, and what i mean by that is that i have reduced my life down to the barest essentials: sleep, a little work, no friends, and a lot of driving and playing music. this usually happens about 6 weeks in, and this summer is no different than the past 8 (!) in that regard. and yet, something new is forming, something i have barely had time to notice. everyday is so completely new that it's hard to have time to look past the newness to see its deeper effect on yourself.

in the last month, i have played with my band, in a duo, and solo to audiences ranging from 3 people (really!) to 5 thousand. i have opened for my heros and had openers i just met that day. i have introduced new songs and re-vived some that are more than 10 years old. yet all these extremes seem to make more sense to me than at any other point in my career. this is just what i do and how it happens. i am letting things roll off my back that in the past would have sent me in a spiral, and i am fighting for things i never cared about before. is this what growing up is?

i think part of my new-found peace of mind has come from some extra-musical experiences i have had lately. in mid july, i had been on tour opening for ani difranco (an unbelievable experience in its own right- another day another blog). i left that tour for a couple of my own shows in canada and in philadelphia. at the show in philly, an outdoor festival, i was watching the indigo girls play from the side of the stage when amy ray invited me to come out and sing "closer to fine" with them. i actually looked behind me, because i was sure she was motioning to someone else. by the time i realized it was me, the first verse had gone by, and i raced up for the chorus. the roar from the audience was something i will never forget. the ladies asked me to sing the third verse, and even though i have been singing that song forever, i couldnt remember it. i had to ask emily how it started... once i got going it was easy, but for a second, i truly thought i was done... here's a picture of emily leaning over to tell me how the verse begins. you would NEVER know i am terrified, would you?

photo by alex lowy

the next day, ani, the indigo girls, actor james cromwell, and several nuclear and native american rights activists were descending on capitol hill for a lobby day. ani's tour manager, susan alzner, had organized the whole thing, and she invited me to come along and participate as much as i felt comfortable. rep. dennis kucinich was our host for the day. and as he led us around capital hill, i was struck by the rarity of the occasion- and also the irony. shouldnt it be easier to come to the seat of power and participate in YOUR government? and yet for many of us that day, as well as most people, it was the first and perhaps only time we would get this close to where decisions affecting our lives would be made. we began with a briefing in a room on the hill called HC-5. usually this room is controlled by the speaker of the house, right now dennis hastert, a republican not sympathetic to our side of many things. the briefing was causing so much interest, however, that the sheer size of it demanded we use HC-5. a coup! ani, the indigo girls, james, and several others all gave two minute statements on the causes for the day: our opposition to the coming energy bill and a proposal to dump 44K tons of nuclear waste on native land in skull valley UT.

as i sat in the back of the room, taking it all in, i looked around and realized that 80percent of the people in the room were my age. late 20's interns and aides to the more wellknown movers and shakers. it is people just like myself, the kids i grew up with, that are filtering information that comes into the senators' and representatives' offices. it was actually inspiring because it made the walls seem less impenetrable, although i also recognized that peculiar brand of late 20's arrogance which can often keep you from admitting you dont know something or are wrong. cough. cough.

after the briefing, we split up into 2 teams and went to meetings with individual senate staffs. the office buildings were generally pretty swank- two are even connected by a little railway, but it was interesting to see each senator's individual tastes come through. hillary clinton's office looked like a movie set of what a senator's office should be, while harry reid's looked like it got a lot more use and bought a lot more office supplies. dick durbin's was claustrophobic, yet we had our most spirited meeting there. most of the time the staff would listen to our specific requests, taking notes (what were they writing down?) and then suggest that they couldnt speak for the senator. both the energy bill and the waste dump were politically hot issues, which made the staffers extra polite and extra evasive. i understand their game, the system is set up in such a way that only at the very last minute will anyone take a stand or take responsibility for an issue... this last minute was approaching fast for the upcoming energy bill vote. we were on the hill on monday and the vote was to be pushed through before friday. so we heard a lot about back room deals, extra provisions, riders coming and going by the hour, literally. unbelievably, no one had read the full text of the bill and probably wouldnt before it got voted on. still in the midst of this frustration, i was blown away by the positivity of everyone in our group. people stood their ground, asked pointed questions, stated glaring omissions and falsehoods.

after an extrememly long day (briefing at 11am and meetings til 7pm) we all went out to dinner together. dennis joined us again and ralph nader showed up too, but i camped out at the end of the very long table with emily from the indigo girls, tyler littman (ani's lighting tech), rebecca lichtenfeld (who works with the organization Witness) and todd sickafoose (ani's bass player). the 5 of us drank a lot of wine and tried to put into perspective all the things we'd seen and heard that day. emily and rebecca have a lot of experience in these situations, and they felt like the day was a sucess on many levels. meanwhile, i was still trying to unstick my tongue.

while i was invited to speak as much as i wanted, i spent alot of the day listening. and listening hard. i wanted those most educated on these issues to take center stage, and i felt truly like an apprentice, watching how artists i admire carried themselves in a politcal situation. i was given a gift that day, a chance to see how to talk in a politcally useful fashion about radical issues. how to present your passions in an articulate and open manner. musicians and celebrities are often criticized for taking stances on issues outside their chosen fields. i have always thought that an unfair and dangerous line of thought. who better than an artist (whose job it is to communicate) to take the lead on issues affecting all of us, to speak for those who dont often have the opportunity or the agency.

as a coda, we went 1 for 2 with our lobbying efforts. the state of UT is now on the side of the skull valley native americans, hiring a top end washington lobby firm to take up the cause of stopping this dumping. however, this monday W will sign the energy bill we were fighting against. many of the senators we visited (including clinton, mccain, and reid) voted against the bill, yet some of the most promising visits (durbin, dorgan) voted for it. still, the simple act of getting to capital hill and shaking things up with our presence was progress in itself. everyone is now turning their efforts to the congressional elections of 2006, a chance to shift the balance of power in congress.