music by Proud Creature, notes by LW
On a Friday night this past September, I went to Todd’s parents’ house in the Kansas City suburbs to play music in the basement. This had been our ritual almost every weekend in 1996, before we had driver’s licenses and my mom drove me around, waiting patiently in my friend’s driveways while I unloaded my amp, guitar, and the precious wah-wah pedal I’d bought at the Tune Shop for $100 after a long summer of mowing lawns.
Today Todd (musical alias, Proud Creature) is a pianist and electronic music artist in New York City, where he occasionally plays live jazz or collaborates with other musicians. Or did until lockdown. But during our basement jams he always played drums, a blue spackle-painted kit set up in an unfinished basement space the house’s previous owner had used as a dark room.
Todd and I almost always played alone, cheered on by the audience we expected might one day materialize when we got older. Now, at nearly 40, even that imaginary audience was gone, though that didn’t feel as depressing as it could have. Nothing about the summer of 2020 felt like the linear progression of anything before, or to follow. This jam would remain in the vault, off the record, no tapes or video clips to mark the occasion.
It was Todd and his wife’s first visit to his parents since the pandemic swept through New York City and then the rest of the nation. Cut off from his musical engagements, tutoring, and massage therapy practice, Todd embraced his nocturnal habits, alternately playing video games and volunteering as a crisis counselor where depressed and distressed people could converse with trained volunteers by text. It probably wasn’t so different from our own late-night exchanges, each of us doing our best to build up and encourage the other, a back-and-forth of bad jokes and encouragement that has stretched across two and a half decades.
Before we started playing, I secretly hoped the years would impart a new refinement and maturity to our sound. From the first notes, I could tell I was mistaken. My amp was not loud enough and could only be heard when distorted. As often happens, I never really broke out of the key of E, falling into the same stale two-chord vamps. It didn’t take long for our groove to turn into a rut.
Afterwards our friend Matt came over, and we ate takeout on the back patio, driving across State Line from his place in Missouri rather than walking down from the street from the house where his parents used to live. We still got together on weekend nights in back yards like this one, and sometimes if we were a bit faded it was hard to remember if we were at someone’s parents’ house or if we had become the parents.
On most nights we would be content to just sit around, drink wine, smoke, and visit, but we’d just found out through our phones that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had just died, and all of us knew without saying anything what the next few weeks would be like. The news felt especially cruel tonight, a rare weekend reunion of old friends, the start of the Jewish new year. Our moods grew darker with the sky. It was clear that we had to get out and do something, even if bars were either closed or unsafe. Even if our other friends had all grown up or moved away.
Todd said he had wanted to record some sounds at the park, so we decided to it was the perfect time — too late for small kids to be up playing, but not late enough to look too suspect. Before we left, we rolled a few small joints from a bag of weed purloined from a friend, the same routine now as back then, and smoked on the patio.
On the winding street to the park we saw a large group of teenagers walking toward us on the opposite sidewalk, a buzz of conversation moving in our direction. “Are those trick-or-treaters?” Todd asked. “Or is this a riot?” Matt whispered, mocking the conspiratorial tones of cable news.
What do these kids think of us? I wondered. Three dudes not quite old enough to be their parents’ age, walking casually toward the same park they had just come from. I doubt we looked like anyone they needed to worry about, our shaggy hair, baseball caps, and aimless strolls still fundamentally adolescent. Some the girls waved and said hi. We waved back. Maybe in the darkness we could pass for half our age. Unlikely.
At the park, we cut through the softball field and headed toward the playground, much more sophisticated than the slides and swings we’d grown up with. In the center of the playscape, we found two xylophones and three metal stands shaped like shamrocks, each leaf yielding a different tone. Matt took a seat at the picnic table while Todd and I set up the microphone and began to play.
We began with a few test tones and trills, the hard-plastic mallets a comfortable fit. Each note sounded like the correct one, the modal tuning specifically arranged in a scale in which children could play no wrong notes. We soon fell into a melody, the ease of improvisation almost the exact opposite of our forced guitar/drums jam. We listened to each other with one ear and to our own playing with the other, the tones overlapping, no separation between sound and movement. I channeled the thumb piano arpeggios of Francis Bebe, the meditative repetition of Javanese percussion, and the melodic patterns of the Tortoise records that inspired us to play music in the first place.
Like Debussy at the 1889 World’s Fair, enchanted by a chance encounter with Javanese music in Paris, we conjured our own unique Midwestern Gamelan. Instead of progressions, we played in circles and cyclical phrases. There were no songs, only passages and tones, the night rich with sustain and decay. Between passages we turned to each other and bowed. In his dark cloth face mask, Todd looked like a ceremonial attendant from a culture I couldn’t quite place.
What would a passerby make of this ritual? There was no one near enough to ask, just some teenage boys in the parking lot standing around in the bed of a pickup truck. At one point, a car pulled up and dropped off two girls, an irritated dad shouting out the window that he’d be back in exactly one hour, and not to leave the park in the meantime. As the ladies arrived, the boys jumped out of the pickup truck with studied nonchalance, and they all set out on a walk around the playground. They veered in a wide circle around our performance, either suspicious or disinterested.
As we continued to play, I realized how long it had been since I felt anything close to this level of relief. From what, exactly? I didn’t analyze it. The sounds embodied our emotions, fears, and everything else we weren’t sure how to talk about. The resonant tones swelled into pools that reflected reassurance and swallowed our worries. Each note played was a tear we didn’t cry.
I set down my mallet to get a drink of water, while Todd continued playing solo, backed up by the hissing rhythms of the crickets. Without the ringing in my ears, I could hear just how loud the insects were. They provided a shuffling percussion to our playground sonata. Like the trees, they were unaffected by the tumultuous events of the day and the year. Crickets, or maybe they were cicadas. I’ve lived in Kansas most of my life and still don’t know the proper names for things. I just know how the night sounds when summer is ending and school is about to begin. You could feel a change of seasons even in the middle of a largely canceled calendar.
After we finished, we walked back home to sit around the pool. It was too cold to swim, but I jumped in anyway, darting out of the shadows to ambush my friends with a splash. For a few minutes we talked about throwing our phones in the pool. I seriously considered it for a moment, tasting a sudden, wild flash of freedom before I reconsidered. There was too much data on that thing I didn’t want to lose, even though the phone eventually broke and I lost it all anyway.
Todd set up his camera on a tripod and we took pictures of our shadows — against the plants, blowing clouds of smoke in the pool lights and flower beds, contorted like sculpture beside the vine-covered shed.
RIP, RBG. WTF, USA, all of us sliding toward a violence and chaos we felt powerless to stop. Tonight at least felt like something ancient and familiar, a suburban Dionysian dance, the spirit of youth, for old time’s sake, scandalizing and confusing the neighbors, who at this hour almost certainly were sleeping.
After Todd got back to New York, he sent me the recording of our performance in the park. It wasn’t polished or professional, but it sounded better than I expected. You could actually hear what we were getting at. Over the next few weeks, he composed an entire suite of music using our playground percussion as the melodic source and the cicadas as the rhythm.
Each time I reflect on that night — and on 2020 as a whole — I do so with a mixture of sadness and appreciation. By now this feeling is familiar, a measuring of where we actually are against where we expected to be. There’s a sweetness to this grieving. A softness between the bitter notes. A need to set aside disappointments and just pick up the mallets and play. A reminder that once you do go home, you will have to reinvent it.
(Proud Creature’s music can be found on Spotify, Source poem from the title can be read here, LW is Lucas Wetzel, a founding Kawsmouth editor)