I try to rage privately—alone in the Jeep, for example, as a car in front of me in the left lane drives the same slow speed as a car beside it in the right lane does.
Or when washing dishes I’ll mutter blasphemes if I think everyone’s upstairs out of hearing and I’m getting suds on my arm hair and I have suds on my hand so I can’t get the suds off my arm hair. Also, I lose it if I think no one’s home and I trip in the dark on the hollow rubber ball that is our dog’s prize possession because we put a biscuit into it for him twice a day, but because he’s a dog he leaves it in the middle of the hallway to be tripped on in the dark, except for the times he leaves it over near the hinge blocking the front doorraaahhh…
As a result of my mismanaged solo rage, my wife is used to hearing me let loose when I think I’m out of range of other people. As she approached the house one morning after dropping kids at science club before school, she could hear me yelling at the dog, even though I was supposed to have left for work.
“What did Jackson do?” she called up the stairs as soon as she came in, the keys jingling in the door. She was concerned. The dog must have really done it this time.
“Um,” I said, surprised there was someone else in the house. “Um, I’m practicing a song. I didn’t realize you’d be back so soon…”
So that’s how I sing. Like I’m yelling at the dog.
When we were doing our first living room recordings for our band, with a little four-track recorder, my friend John coached me to imagine I was John Mellencamp, and not try to “sing” like some Methodist choir member. He was basically trying to get me to Yell on Key. That advice and my admiration for mid-to-late-sixties Dylan are the main influences on the voice I use for my now perhaps-understandably-infrequent performances.
Demand appears to have ebbed over the years.
Still, you can’t be a singer-songwriter unless you try to be both sides of that hyphen.
One of the activities at a seminar I attended was an open stage, where all the seminar-goers could get up and perform if they wanted to. The seminar leader had reserved an evening at a sympathetic bar on the outskirts of Nashville, and we all showed up, some with family members or friends.
I arrived alone that night and signed up.
I’d gotten there early, to acclimate. The sign-up list was pretty blank. Thinking strategically, I put my name in the early middle, figuring the initial acts would warm up the room, but the audience wouldn’t be fidgety yet. I could go up, do my song (we each got one song, then if there was time we’d go around again), and stand down.
Then I’d relax and enjoy the rest of the singers.
Except! Lady Fate caused the line on the sign-up sheet just ahead of my name to be filled with the name Anne E. Dechant.
She’s from Cleveland.
If you’re reading this in Cleveland, I’ll bet you’ve heard of her.
She’s an Authentique Artiste. A star waiting for the night to arrive when she might deservedly ascend to the firmament. Anne E. Dechant is more than a singer. She’s a presence, a performer, the kind of person who can regularly reach into her heart in front of an audience and pull out something that, if it isn’t a real-time exploration of the pain and love she has only now discovered, certainly appears to be.
The club’s colored lights shone down, outlining her cheeks and nose in cyan and magenta and picking out stray hairs from her bangs. I had finished tuning my old black Washburn guitar with the handwritten control markers taped above the control panel (everyone else has really nice guitars down there) and was waiting, stunned, watching her silhouette.
It wasn’t just her voice, either—she was a skilled guitarist, playing chords that would hurt my wrist to even attempt. She established a mesmerizing but solid rhythm that was made of individual notes, not just ham-handed strumming. She was picking at the same professional level at which she was singing.
She closed her eyes and from her soul pulled emotion and from her lungs pushed powerful, climbing, room-filling melodies that never wavered from the pitch she was aiming at and occasionally fell hushed, then crescendoed with a touch of vibrato to a peak that took you with it to a high, sad place—she sang like someone you would pay seventy dollars to see.
I wouldn’t call the reaction I was having to Anne E. Dechant “Stage Fright.” Stage Fright is for important people like Stephen Fry or, if the Band song is autobiographical, Robbie Robertson.
I’m just a guy who made some odd decisions that led to his standing strapped to an unimpressive guitar in a room full of songwriters in a bar near Nashville.
Even so, I was getting lightheaded.
I had Stage Extreme Apprehension. It was going to be really hard to follow this.
No choice now. It would be a bigger embarrassment to back out at this point. As the song went on, and the inevitable moment arrived, my stomach shrunk. My palms moistened.
As I stood watching her profile, Anne E. Dechant brought the room through a sense of personal longing, to a feeling of self-awareness, to a moment of regret and, finally, acceptance. Her voice rang. She held her guitar out from her body, then pulled it back. She folded herself slightly at the end, but not in a diva-stagey way. It felt natural. It seemed sincere.
The room applauded, trying to make a sound louder than that number of people in that particular room could be expected to create.
Anne E. Dechant looked up gracefully and made a little transition from ravishingly possessed to gratefully modest. She left the stage.
Eventually the applause waned. The seminar leader was sitting way in back at the soundboard with a microphone. She looked down at her sheet to see who had signed up to go next and her voice came over the PA.
Anne E. Dechant’s applause lingered as I walked to the microphone. This poor audience was in for a hairpin turn. A radical shift in the evening’s paradigm. I was here to guide them from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Nothing for it. I skipped any little jokey jokes I might have normally tried to crack and just started in.
Chunk-a chunk-a chunk-a chunk-a chunk-a.
My limited guitar skills were the audience’s first clue.
And then, if you were standing outside the club by your car, you would probably have sworn that somebody inside there was yelling at a dog.