Playground meditations and the wild bells of Franklin Park

by Lucas Wetzel

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
— From “In Memoriam [Ring out, wild bells]” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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 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 spackled blue kit set up in an unfinished basement space the previous house owner had used as a dark room. 

We almost always played alone, cheered on by the audience we expected might one day materialize when we went on to form bands in college. Now, at nearly 40, even that imaginary audience was gone. That fact could have easily been pathetic or depressing, but it didn’t feel that way. 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 running or video clips to mark the occasion. 

Todd was in town for three weeks with his wife, their first visit to his family since the pandemic swept through New York City and then through the rest of the nation, where it continues to spread. Cut off from his massage therapy practice, musical engagements, and private tutoring, 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 depending on who was up and who was down, a back-and-forth that has stretched across two and a half decades. 

We got together to play music again on a lark, but 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 at distorted levels. I played notes and patterns up and down the scale but never really broke out of the key of E, falling into the same stale two-chord vamps we’d always played. Our groove quickly turned into a rut. 

Afterwards Matt came over, 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. His Mom died a few years ago and his Dad sold the house and moved shortly after. Now Matt ran the family business, a health and comfort shoe store in suburban Kansas. 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 tonight’s news was grim. Ruth Bader Ginsberg had just died, and all of us knew without discussing it what the next few weeks would be like. The news felt especially cruel tonight, a rare weekend reunion of old friends on the beginning of the Jewish new year. As the sky grew darker, our moods and conversation turned solemn. It was clear that we had to get out and do something, even if restaurants and bars were either closed or not safe. Even if the rest of our friends had all grown up and moved away.

Todd said he had wanted to do some sound recording at the park, so we decided to it was the perfect time for that—too late for kids to be up playing but not late enough to draw suspicion. Before we left, we rolled a few small joints from a bag of weed purloined from a family member, 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 would 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. It’s doubtful we looked like anyone they needed to worry about, our shaggy hair, baseball caps, and aimless strolls still fundamentally adolescent. A number of them, mostly the girls, waved and said hi. We waved back. Maybe in the darkness I could pass for one of them. Not likely, but possible.

At the park, we cut through the softball field and headed toward the playground, much more sophisticated, expansive, and colorful than the slides and swings we’d grown up with. We walked until we found the musical equipment—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 strike yielded a satisfying response. Each note sounded like the correct one, the modal tuning of the playground vibes specifically designed to create a scale in which children could play no wrong notes. We quickly 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 become musicians in the first place. 

Like Debussy at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, enchanted by a chance encounter with an exotic musical form, we conducted 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 phrases 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 high school boys in the nearby 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, veering 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, just focused on the music. The sounds embodied our emotions, fears, and other things we couldn’t have brought ourselves to talk about. The resonant tones swelled into pools that contained our worries and reflected reassurance. Each note played was a tear we didn’t cry. 

I set down my mallet to walk around and get a drink of water, while Todd continued playing solo, backed up by the hissing, overlapping rhythms of the crickets. Without the ringing in my ears I could hear just how loud they were. Providing a shuffling percussion to our playground sonata, 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 have the right names for things. I just know how the night sounds when summer is ending and school is about to begin, a change of seasons even in the middle of an otherwise canceled calendar.

After we were finished, we walked back home to sit around the pool. It was far too cold to swim. I jumped in anyway, darting out of the shadows to ambush my friends with a splash. For a while we talked about throwing our phones in the pool. I seriously considered it for a moment, seven seconds of tasting the wild flashes of freedom, the excitement of starting life anew. Then I decided I didn’t want to risk losing all the un-backed-up pictures of my children, voice memos, notes, and who knows what else. 

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, contorting like shirtless sculptures beside the overgrown shed. Matt took a picture of me taking a picture of Todd taking a picture of the moon. We weren’t celebrating, and we weren’t mourning, but we were doing both. RIP, RBG. WTF, USA, all of us sliding toward a violence and chaos we felt powerless to stop. This at least felt like something ancient and natural, 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 even if you can go home again, you will have to reinvent it.

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