If we ever had to subsist on the money I’ve made as a musician, we wouldn’t be living in a pretty little jewel box of an apartment in Downtown Jersey City. We wouldn’t be in an apartment at all. We’d be dodging raindrops in an alley behind the Pathmark. This does not distinguish me. Musicians with a far higher profile than mine don’t manage to make money from it, either. Music is a delightful pursuit but a brutal business. Technically, I have been professional since the nineties: you’ve often had to pay some money if you want to see me play. But if you really want a song from me, all you have to do is tap me on the shoulder.
Not so long ago, we were planning to make my shoulders available for those taps. We had an album ready, and we were talking about all the topics and logistics that accompany the release of new music: tours, practices, videos, umbrella concepts that might make songs that aren’t, to be frank, earmarked for the Top of the Pops a little more accessible for listeners. Mostly, we imagined concerts. How we could make them a thrilling experience for those ensnared in my web of words and sound? Over the years, I’ve recorded quite a lot of songs. Some of them came out on my own albums, some of them are preserved on projects helmed by my friends, and some of them I thought twice about, and will never release. Every one of them was meant for the stage. No matter how silly a song of mine is, you can be certain that I fantasized about singing it to a crowded house. In the fantasy, that house was always Maxwell’s, and, sadly, and unimaginatively, that’s remained true, even as Maxwell’s is no longer around to rock.
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if the long period of my life organized around applause is over, too. It’s hard to imagine standing on the floor of a packed club in the future; honestly, it’s hard to imagine returning to a club at all. I have no interest in performing on the Internet — to me, that’s as empty as being on TV. Social-media likes and digital hearts and virtual hugs leave me cold. Only a real connection with a real audience will do.
This summer, creative people are going to attempt solutions. They’ll launch drive-in festivals, and social-distanced concerts on rooftops, and Zoomapaloozas. Bless them: they’ll be doing what they can to keep a flame burning that has kept us warm for all the decades of our lives. I’ve written many times that I believe that music is what human beings do best, and I’ve always tried to make my small daily contribution to the ongoing story that justifies the existence of our species better than anything else does. I will always love music, and live music in particular. I just don’t see myself as a participant, or even an observer, any time in the foreseeable future.
This is hard for me to write. Many of the greatest thrills I’ve ever experienced have come from making music with my friends. Sometimes, that’s happened onstage in front of an appreciative audience, and sometimes, it’s happened in living rooms and stuffy rehearsal spaces and cramped Williamsburg basements. Playing music is an intimate act: you’re sharing waves, and ideas, and melodies and rhythms, and you’re most certainly sharing air. Models of coronavirus transmission weigh risks differently, but they’re unanimous in their condemnation of the sort of behavior that happens in the concert hall, or at band practice. Everybody heard the terrible story about the collective infection of the Mount Vernon church choir. Whatever they did, I’m sure it was nothing compared to the microbe-swapping stuff that we normally get up to at a pop concert.
Most of the people we know are, in one way or another, show people. Steven manages bands and runs festivals, and he’s been booking a new room on the Lower East Side. Early in 2020, that was all going nicely. Today it’s on ice. Brad was forced to scrap the summertime activities at the theater he runs in Upstate New York; he was pretty blue about that. With theaters closed in the city, neither he nor Megan have been performing or directing. I haven’t been able to sing, or slam a piano, or do goofy Cars covers with George, or Sarah, or Matt, in months. We could record at home, and post the mixes to a website, or make remixes, or scrap together a music video from old footage and share it with friends. But without the promise of a show, and the specific interaction with a live audience that music occasions, it’s tough to find the motivation.
It’s likely that this post is premature. We aren’t even through the worst of the crisis yet. I should be thinking about the welfare of my family, not the next time I’m going to express myself with my organ. Yet I know that show business in New York and New Jersey will be altered by the crisis, maybe irrevocably, and I can’t help but wonder if there’ll be a place for me, or any of the people whose projects are important to me, once the ground has stopped shaking. I know: get there first, and then worry about the specifics later. I could always turn on the electric piano and run some scales. That might even soothe my nerves, and ready me for re-entry, in whatever shape it takes.