It was an early attempt at spring and that attempt was failing miserably as I stood on a freezing Chicago street corner singing a song about how my lover had left me for a thumbtack .Due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control, I had recently and reluctantly joined a band of about 30 local musicians who had been hired to promote the opening of Staples new chain of Chicago superstores .We sang songs about office supplies while playing instruments made out of office supplies and privately we referred to ourselves as The Staples Street Singers. Every morning when I got up I donned what some stylist had deemed appropriate office attire, a lavender corduroy blazer from H&M and khaki pants from the Gap.
My first day on the job the temperature hovered around 16 degrees and my voice cracked as I shivered uncontrollably. We had been asked not to don outerwear. The execs that had dreamed up this project probably lived in Atlanta or South Carolina .No one who had ever spent significant time in Chi town would ever presume tolerable weather in mid march .
“I could write you a letter but you stole all my pens”
I could tape up your broken heart but it wouldn’t make amends “
My voice was carried away by the wind.
We were down 3 singers by the third day so the ad people relented and let us wear coats .I don’t think that I was coming across as a convincing office worker anyway. My hair bore streaks of color not commonly found in hair and the only office buildings I ever set foot in were helmed by receptionista’s rocking leopard spotted blond crew cuts.
Grateful for the comfort of the hip hop inspired parka that had been a Christmas present from my old record company I tried not to dwell on better days as I glanced over at my guitarist, Stone, who was attempting to play a guitar made out of a wooden in box .It had a slide rule neck and nylon strings attached to makeshift tuning pegs .His pretty blue eyes were bleary from lack of sleep and his blond curls were partially obscured by a bright red knit cap that proclaimed STAPLES ! in capitol letters. He looked cold and bored as Sorin,the team manager, came over with a clipboard to plug in some equipment before rushing off again with a distracted air.
“I could fix our love with staples try to get it back on track but it wouldn’t make no difference cause you left me for a thumb tack ” I sang as Stone struck a muffled chord.
Initially I had turned down the job. When the music supervisor called she casually mentioned the possibility of marching in a south side St Patrick’s Day parade while wearing a makeshift office desk. Her air of vague uncertainty left no room for doubt .The parade was a definite .I envisioned my yoga teachers look of surprise as I explained to him that I’d thrown my back out while marching around wearing a piece of furniture and made up an instant lie about a schedule conflict
I changed my mind as soon as I heard the dial tone however. I couldn’t bring myself to turn down 5 grand for what amounted to little more than a weeks part time work
Besides I was broke
There was scattered applause when I finished my song about the duplicitous thumbtack and I didn’t know what was more depressing, standing on a street corner singing about office supplies or the fact that people thought I was singing real songs with a real band. As the applause died down, our drummer Kevin wiped the condensation from his black plastic army issue glasses and pushed his heavy dark hair off his face before picking up his drumsticks to count off a song about a paper jam.
“Bob was in a fix.
His meeting was at 6.
His staff was on the fly
His ink was running dry”.
Bob was a lucky man. All he had to do was hit his easy button and all his problems would be solved.
His meeting would run well and on time. His superiors would praise him. I had an easy button too, right there on my makeshift office desk along with the little telephone that made beeping noises when I pressed it’s buttons and percussion instruments made out of plastic pen holders full of paper clips.
Occasionally I would hit my easy button but it never made anything any easier .I wanted my old life back .The one where I pretty much made my living by skipping down the stairs to greet the fed ex man. The fed ex man would ring the doorbell, bearing thin red white and blue envelopes that contained fat checks. Checks from the record company that were earmarked for tour support and publishing. Checks that meant I could spend significant amounts of time dreaming up songs in the garden with a guitar.
Now I was spending significant amounts of time standing around on street corners in a red hat.
And standing around in the cold for hours on end causes you to lose all motivation. You cease to care about anything but caffeine sugar and getting out of the wind. How I longed for the close confines of a cluttered backstage dressing room or the womb like atmosphere of a recording studio control room with a ubiquitous black leather couch that I could throw myself down upon
“It’s Staples” I sang” Staples”. I hit the hateful easy button hard with a drumstick My voice was carried away by the wind.
The man who approached me from Michigan Avenue during the middle of the last song had long matted dreads and a filthy down coat that looked like it had probably been green at one point .He was carrying big black plastic garbage bags. He smiled and nodded and whispered to himself as I continued to hit the little buttons .He even did a little impromptu dance
“Beep boop beep boop”. went my little keyboard telephone. I refused to meet his gaze
“I was the one who developed that technology” he said approaching me at the songs end as I was removing my headset microphone and thinking longingly of the corner Star-bucks .I glanced back over my shoulder but Stone and Kevin were already gone .I sighed. Musicians make terrible white knights .
“Thats nice” I said edging away .
“No really” the man with the dreads looked affronted that I was not acknowledging his accomplishment.
“If it wasn’t for me musicians would not be able to play music on telephones. You wouldn’t even be here” he said pointedly.
That didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I looked around for the support staff .I could see Sorin out of the corner of my eye chatting up a pretty girl .I wanted to walk away but I didn’t want to leave all the equipment alone, a lot of the musical sounds supposedly coming from those office supply instruments were really coming from an expensive computer that couldn’t be left unattended.
“Coffee” I mouthed silently, trying to catch Sorin’s eye.He pretended he didn’t see me.
” I’m responsible” the dreadlocked man continued to insist. I developed that technology when I was with the AACM ” .
I looked at him, startled. The AACM was the acronym for The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; a legendary jazz collective formed in Chicago the 1960s.
“You were with the AACM “? I asked trying to keep the disbelief out of my voice
“Me and Phil Cohran we were like that” the dreadlocked man said proudly holding up two entwined fingers as he made reference to the group’s founder.
He leaned in a little closer glancing furtively to the left and right before dropping his voice to a whisper .I recoiled slightly at the smell of his matted hair but I couldn’t look away.
” I was with the Arkestra too” he whispered
The Arkestra , Sun RA .I’d seen them perform and I remembered the fingers of one of the alto players as nothing but a pale blur on the neck of his golden horn.
I stared nervously at the dreadlocked man. The Arkestra had always insisted rather emphatically that space was the place and that Saturn was their true home .The dreadlocked man had just appeared out of nowhere. I glanced at his hands, which were partially covered by tattered fingerless gloves. No telling what years and the street could do. He could have been one of those players. He chattered on happily about Sun Ra and Phil Cohran, Lester Bowie and Anthony Braxton, names that your average street person simply would not know to drop. Some of what he was saying had to be true. I wondered what had greased his slide from playing with legendary jazzman to wandering the streets in filthy clothes.
“I never had any truck with heroin” he said suddenly as if he could read my thoughts .My mood plummeted. I wondered if the Staples Street Singers was just a pit stop on my own way down to wandering the streets with trash bags full of X-Girl and Daryl K, name checking Trent Reznor and Dave McKean to anyone whom I could trap into listening.
I turned away. I could see Kevin returning in the distance and I suddenly felt like I would die if I didn’t get a cup of coffee .I shook the dreadlocked mans hand.
“I have to go now” I said ” but thank you very much for developing this technology .I really do appreciate it”.
“You’re welcome!” he called as I walked away.
He was gone when I got back.
“Did you talk to that guy?” I asked Kevin
“That jazz dude with the dreads. Did you talk to him”?
“I didn’t see anyone” Kevin shrugged
The next day dawned sunny and clear. We were grateful for the slight break from the cold though it wasn’t warm by any stretch of the imagination. Stone and Kevin and I were assigned to play the early morning shift in front of the Thompson Center, a downtown hub encircled by a tall black iron fence. Men and women in boring clothes hurried by on their way to boring jobs, barely glancing at us as Stone pulled a Rat distortion pedal out of his bag.
“Check this out “he said
“I’ve been practicing, I took the inbox guitar home last night”.
He plugged the pedal into a tiny amplifier and his little wooden contraption began to emit a lovely fuzzy roar
“Wow that actually sounds kind of cool ” I said absentmindedly tapping on the buttons of my phone. It had been shorting out lately. Someone powered up some of the equipment as I continued my to do so and suddenly the phone started to distort.
Stone and I looked at each other .I tapped it again hitting the buttons twice in quick succession before lifting my fingers off entirely. Instead of that obnoxious little new wave beep I got a lovely pastel wash of sound .I stared at the little telephone. It had 12 buttons, twelve notes. I let my finger run over them lightly as I started to stitch together melodies. Stone was right behind me. Our instruments drifted and mingled. I forgot about commuters and cold and humiliation. Kevin left his little percussion desk after listening for a few minutes and began to use his drumsticks on the fence. Around and around he ran adding metallic percussion to keyboard phone and in box guitar
. Our swirl of sound spiraled upward into the cold spring sky . Sun Ra was right. Space was indeed the place .The purpose of playing music was to try and get off the planet .At least for a little while.