My sound is odd and scratchy. My frequency is fragile. Distant and lonely. Faraway and forlorn. It starts out strong and gets tinny as it travels. Like shouting in a well. A disappearance of sound. Transmissions in a nervous night. I wonder if I’m even ever heard at all.
I’m sitting in an empty bathtub at 2 a.m. trying to broadcast my blues through unseen wires, a shout out home to the South where crickets and bullfrogs rule the night. Things are different here. A jackhammer is booming just outside my window as workmen hammer endlessly at a sewer line. To block the sound I’ve put as many doors between me and the pounding as possible and donned a pair of wireless headphones.
I’m transmitting in a southern direction and simultaneously receiving the sounds of the Penguin from back South through the magic of the Internet. The Penguin is a sublime alternative radio station in Wilmington, N.C. that broadcasts John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Broken Bells and exquisite coolness in general.
“It’s too late to change your mind. You let loss be your guide,” the Broken Bells are chanting to me. I think they are talking to me, but I always think everything is talking to me. A bum crossing the Brooklyn Bridge ranting to everyone is talking specifically to me during his rant. A song on a radio heard in an empty bathtub at 2 a.m. is talking to me. Everything is talking to me. Maybe I am listening too hard for signs and should accept that only when people are actually talking to me is anyone talking to me.
Kim is the regular radio host at the Penguin. She is an alternative host with an alternative voice that perfectly fits an alternative radio station. When you hear her voice, you think wait, who let that person on the radio?
Hold on a second. “There’s a fat man in the bathtub with the blues. I hear him moan,” Little Feat is telling me. This is so not fair. I’ve lost weight. I’m down to 171 pounds. Close to my proper body mass index. Shut up, Little Feat! Who are you to judge me?
Kim the DJ has blonde hair, and used to be a substance abuse counselor before she became an alternative radio voice. I met her at the Mellow Mushroom back in Wilmington where one day everyone at my table ate pizza and won tickets to concerts by playing a unique form of Bingo using alternative bands instead of numbers. Kim gave me a kiss at a Todd Snider concert once. It wasn’t like that. I had just ordered the very last chicken sandwich the concession stand had to sell. I took the sandwich, happy to have it. Kim was just behind me in line jonesing hard for a chicken sandwich. She pouted loudly. I gave her half of my sandwich. See, that’s how it was. A spontaneous expression of gratitude and nothing more.
Todd Snider is a strange and scruffy Oregon product who was almost very successful before he took a hard and tragic fall from a lot of unnecessary self medication. He is now making a decent living being semi-successful from what I can tell. He writes witty and wonderful songs, and there is nothing like him in the world. When he emerges on stage, he is barefoot and blue jeaned, wearing a little porkpie hat, and he looks as if he has spent the night in an underpass drinking cheap wine from a paper bag. I blink a bit. Is this all that’s left of Todd Snider? But it turns out there is plenty left of Todd Snider.
At the end of the night, he throws his guitar pick into the crowd. There is a brief tussle among us in the front row. I don’t know why I want it so feverishly. But I end up with it. He touched it, so some of his magic must be left on it. I keep it in my wallet where it bestows no special musical abilities upon me as I had hoped it might. I guess my point here is this: If you are going to be kissed by a blonde alternative radio DJ, there is no better place to be kissed than at a Todd Snider concert.
Back in my bathtub, Trombone Shorty pipes up with “Backatown.” This is an ecstatic piece of crazy cool music. It reminds me of my trombone days back in junior high band, sad days spent trying to coax music out of an ungainly stork of an instrument I loathed. Once I was trying to give my trombone a bath, which you are supposed to do on some regular basis. I left it there overnight. “Are you trying to drown your trombone?” my mom asked after seeing it gleaming underwater. “No. It’s useless,” I said. “My trombone hates me too much to die.”
My point is that I’m going to keep calling home in the dark of night from the North and keep an ear out for signs and signals from the South.
“We’re sailing in a strange boat. Heading for a strange shore,” sing the Waterboys. Yep. Perfect music for sitting in an empty bathtub in a chilly climate with a pounding hammer going way past midnight.