Whenever Jon Rodgers plays guitar, I cry. Whenever Andrew Bird parts his lips, my heart breaks. They were playing Iron and Wine between sets. I don’t know how I made it through Sunday night alive.
I bring Jon a pumpkin to the show. Victoria asks me why. I’m not sure. We’re sitting on the steps of the Space. If I had said that 3 years ago, it would have meant the Wonderland Records practice space on Treadwell St. in Hamden, CT. Where I cut my teeth on the indie music scene in 1993. Where I fell in love with life, a blond boy and six strings.
Back then, the practice space was a converted warehouse — the home of the band Mighty Purple. The downstairs was filled with instruments. The upstairs was Wonderland Records, the label founded and run by Steve, Mighty Purple’s front man. There was no heat and little running water. Our lives revolved around the Space.
Now “The Space” is across the street, in its very own building. Except it’s not just for instrument storage and consumption of illicit substances anymore. The Space is an immaculate club Steve has nursed from the ground up into a fertile venue, record label, and thrift shop. They host open mic nights and band showcases, among a long list of other activites, all of which are performed for a full house. The kind of place that feels like your living room, but can book national acts like Andrew Bird. Like Sunday night.
Steve was untouchable to me in 1993 — on stage, singing, dancing, throwing flowers to the sold-out audience. When he left the Daily Cafe, I would touch his chair just because he had sat in it. Then one night my friend Amanda and I were walking through the streets of New Haven, and ran into Steve, and I kidnapped him and took him to Amanda’s cottage in the woods. He and I rowed out to the middle of the lake and talked until sunrise. He pulled tiny gold leaves from the water and gave them to me to commemorate the night. He told me he loved my innocence. He spent the next three years destroying it.
A decade later Victoria and I are sitting on the cement steps of the new and improved Space. It’s overwhelming to come back here, to feel out of place in an environment I called home for so many years. To see the kids who took our place, though they are a cleaned-up Christian version of the chaos and dysfunctional hellions we were.
Our Ultra Old School Friend Anthony arrives. Victoria, Anthony, my pumpkin and I are waiting for the doors to open. She chain smokes out of habit, I chain smoke because I’m having a nervous breakdown.
We see Steve working, running up and down stairs, directing the artists, manning the mic. Paying the employees. Making sure everything’s running smoothly. His wife is standing just inside the door, smiling a sin-less smile, encircling her six-month pregnant stomach with a delicate arm.
We are used to this state of affairs by now. It’s no longer weird to see. But standing there on the steps with Victoria and Anthony something suddenly snaps into perspective. Steve nods to us through the glass front doors of the club. Lighting another cigarette, I shake my head. Steve.
Me: I went to the prom with him.
Victoria: I lost my virginity to him.
Anthony: I think Vic wins that round.
Anthony: Though the prom is kind of a big deal.
Victoria: Yeah, but Steve wore my pants to her prom.
Me: Okay. You get that one.
I’ll confide in you. The reason I’m having the nervous breakdown is not the pumpkin or the pregnant wife or feeling out of place in my home base. It is the presence of Andrew Bird, who is presently digging his violin out of his van a dozen feet to my left. I am pale and shaking. Victoria exhales and nods toward me coolly. “You gonna be okay?” But she understands. She and Anthony continue catching up about some recent news, and I can’t hear a word they’re saying.
Andrew lilts past me, all air and distance, leaving a wake of feathers in his path.
I carried a pumpkin?
Jon Rodgers, Steve’s brother, is opening for Andrew Bird. He appears in the doorway for the first time, his glow filling the entire parking lot. I want to ladle the energy out of him and spackle it to my skin. He is radiant and frenetic, as always. He tells me excitedly about the quartet he’s writing, that he’s playing piano, learning violin. Jon’s been playing guitar since age seven. That’s all he’s been doing. Half the time he forgets to eat. He wakes up every morning and says, “Yay! I get to play today! What do I want to play with?”
The depth of my love for Jon is wordless. I love him infinitely in ways I cannot even explain. He has been a piece of me for ten years. He is a miracle and a genius, and just to be around him ignites my mind. I walk away bursting with creativity. I want to breathe him in and make him part of me. Sharing his air is never enough.
Jon and I are talking about some things that have been on both of our minds lately — connecting with people who you feel inside that you know, people you *get* — and how unfortunate it is when you can’t tell them. Because sometimes you see an artist you know you understand. You believe deeply that they could understand you as well, but you can’t rightly walk up to that person and say, “Hey listen, you don’t know me, but I get you. And you could get me.” There might be a restraining order invoked.
Jon played with Bright Eyes awhile ago, spending time with Conor Obherst — the half-insane enigma boy. It was a similar experience for him. It’s unfortunate. Because I think artists need to hear that their work is affecting other artists so enormously. That they’re putting so much of themselves out there that their inherent nature becomes clear to someone else, someone they might not even know.
When you see someone you understand, and you know that you have something wise and wonderful to offer them as well… what do you do with that?
Jon left Robert A. Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land in New Orleans a few years ago when he knew I’d be passing through there during my travels. He wanted to share it with me. I understand Heinlein’s use of the word “grok” — to know, feel, understand and be one with another person all at the same time.
There are people in our lives that we know socially who we can confess such feelings to in a safe environment. Though even then it can be misconstrued and make social interactions uncomfortable. Especially when there’s a male/female dynamic involved. But I don’t say things to get people into bed. I say them because they’re true.
So we’re having this conversation excitedly on the steps of the Space, and I brandish the pumpkin. “Wow! You brought me a pumpkin!” Neither of us is sure why.
Later Jon confesses to giving the pumpkin to a couple of kids who were begging for it outside the club. They really, really wanted it, and he told them they couldn’t smash it. They said no — they wanted to take it home and carve it. It brought him such joy to give it to them. Maybe that’s the same reason why I gave it to him.
I assert the obvious and tell Jon that Andrew Bird is here and I don’t know what to do with myself. “Yeah, he’s really great, isn’t he?” But I’m not sure that he *gets* it.
Four thousand cigarettes later, Victoria and I stumble into the Space and claim the seats she has knocked over several good Christians for — front row center. I sit back and put my feet up against the stage. Jon wanders out under the amber lights, holding the neck of his Guild, brown bangs covering his right eye. He sits on his stool and his violinist tunes her instrument and they begin.
Jon is churning scales, movement, spinning chord changes… he is scampering fist and haunches toward some enormous wall, wailing up against it, shouldering to break free — scrambling tooth and nail to the top and rejoicing in that victory before reeling into vertigo from dancing on the ledge. He gives us thirty minutes of his brilliant mind and then humbly leaves the stage with a wide, child-like grin.
Then Andrew lands in his halo of light with golden lips and silver fingers.
With Victoria’s hard fought and won seating arrangement, he is standing ten feet from us. There is so much humanity to this guy I hail as godly — up close I can see him do such human things tonight, but he still never becomes ordinary. I saw him perform for the first time after years of long-distance love just a few weeks ago at the Middle East in Cambridge. There was a million people, voices, smoke and laughter between us. Here there was dead silence. Clean air. And very little space.
He plays the songs I know note for note. His stories are silly and non-sensical. He is weirdly funny. One of his songs that sounds so dark and painful he tells us is actually about a scientist who is trying to answer the question of why kids are so mean. In the end, he gets the answer from a Sesame Street episode, “disturbing as that may be.”
He finishes with, “No apocolypse in this song… even if there will be snacks.”
While he’s playing, he seems confused about which instrument he’s supposed to be picking up next. His guitar is slung across his back and his violin pressed to his chest as he sings, playing the xylophone. When he switches from one to the other, the top of the guitar smashes against the ceiling. He chuckles. “Whatever money I save by not having a band I compensate for by breaking instruments.”
I see all the human details that still never manage to bring him down for me: I can see him work his effects pedal between the monitors. I watch him remove his powder blue Adidas by stepping on the heels, exposing little black socks that are on slightly sideways. He stretches an arched foot toward the buttons to add delay, to loop his violin. He writes a symphony alone on stage. I see his ferociously delicate canine teeth as he sings and the freckles on his nose. I hear him screw up the song, stumble on the lyrics, and forget which instrument he has recorded on his effects processor. But whenever he opens his eyes and looks out from his world, they are unfocused, turned in on their own radiance. He is not seeing us.
His whole existence is ethereal and haunting.
I know after the show that I have to tell him all of these things — that I want to live in his wrought iron and velvet candle world, that I want to roll around in the magic of that sound. That I want to be a part of all that flight.
I have to tell him. I put my hand on his arm softly and he turns to me. “That was brilliant. You’re magical. I won’t be able to listen to anything else for days. Thank you for making such beautiful music.”
He listens to me carefully as I tell him this, my right hand pressed to my heart as I do when I’m overwhelmed. He listens to me like I’m talking about someone else, like he’s watching me from far away. There is no reaction, no recognition on his face. Just the look of white clouds in a blue sky. The corners of his beautiful mouth turned up in a faint smile.
After a minute I leave him, satisfied.
I explode out of the club into the cool night and Jon is running past me in the opposite direction, post-show blissed out, shining. I can’t speak. My hand is still pressed to my heart. Jon stops halfway down the stairs and turns back to me, saying with delight, “Andrew scares me!”
I smile, understanding.
We get him.