Everything’s in Color

I’m just six, wearing a tee and baggy shorts, hand-me-downs from my older brother. He’s smart and funny and eight inches taller than me. My hair is cut short, no frills, and a year from now, I’ll come home crying because someone at school called me a boy. When I look back at pictures from that time, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that pixie with a toothy grin and sparkling blue eyes was anything but a girl.

Though I haven’t dressed up, I know this night is special. My brother and I are going to a big party with Dad. People fill the house. Kids are packed together on the floor and couches, clustered around a TV set, with the grownups standing in all the space that’s left on the first floor. It’s a special night, worthy of a party, because the Wizard of Oz is going to be shown on TV for its annual broadcast. I’ve seen the Wizard before, but this is the first time I’ll watch it in someone else’s living room with so many other people.

The movie starts, and there’s Dorothy in her house in Kansas. Then there’s that terrible storm. And then the magic part begins, the part where Dorothy is with all the munchkins and they all love her and help her. But something is different. When she comes out into the munchkin world, everything is in color!

I watch in excitement and confusion. Even as the story unfolds, fresh and new with the bright emerald green city, I struggle to grasp how I’d seen before only a dim black and white vision—and understood only a few of the many references—of this multi-hued world. Tonight I finally understand what the witch means when she talks about Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Her shoes are actually shiny bright red!

Back then, our family had a small black and white set, just like my grandma did at her house. Until that night, I didn’t realize you could watch things in color. What was even more confusing, the movie starts in black and white. Why did everything change when she left home?

Years later, in a film history class, I’ll learn that the B&W frame was a cinematic plot device to accommodate the emergence mid-production of Technicolor 4 film. But when I was six, all I knew was that the world we kids wanted to be in, the world of excitement and magic, was the world of brilliant, vivid color, of yellow brick roads and blue skies and orange lollipops. And that night, children and grownups alike were sharing the excitement of it together.

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Nowadays, I don’t have to wait for an annual broadcast or a special party. I can watch the Wizard of Oz around the world whenever I want. With instant access to shows via Netflix or Hulu, I can see practically everything, all the time, anywhere I get the Internet or have access to a DVD player, which is now everywhere. I can watch it on my phone or on my laptop, in my room, in a café, on a bus, or on the street with other people nearby. I could wear earbuds, those itty bitty devices you can carry in a pocket that have replaced bulky headphones. These earbuds connect to my phone, which, of course, has been freed from its connection to a wall. Instead, it fits in my pocket and travels with me.

I’ve never actually watched a movie on my phone, preferring to watch on a larger screen. But I know I can, and I’ve seen you do it. You listen to your music or movies on your portable device, and no one else is bothered, like they used to be when people had much larger devices called boom boxes because the music boomed as they walked by. That was the whole idea, to make the world listen to what you wanted, at high volume. But now that you’ve left the boom box in the attic, and you walk down the street with your ears attached to cords, and you don’t make eye contact, you aren’t being thoughtful of others, but rather you don’t want to be bothered by them. You’ve tuned them out, so you don’t have to talk to them, don’t have to share your music or your thoughts.  If others talk to you, you won’t even hear them, because you are plugged directly into the thing you’ve chosen to put in your head, and it has pushed everyone and everything else out. You now have the tools to shut out the noise of other people for just a little while, or maybe for life.

Which makes me wish I could return to a simpler time.

I want to hear “Over the Rainbow” again, to think about the charm of the movie, the sweetness of Dorothy, and the beauty of her singing. I want to be in that living room full of people and remember seeing the green emerald city for the first time. So I youtube it, because it’s the quickest way to get to the song. But instead of finding Judy Garland, with her voice of a young girl-woman, my search reveals Israel KamakawiwoOle’s version. That’s because his is far more popular than Judy Garland’s. So I listen to him instead, and am transported, as he’s done for so many millions of others, that is, 44,134,920 for this particular video on this day, with 228,643 likes. And his song takes me away, and I close my eyes, and I think I am going back to Kansas.

But I’m wrong, because it’s really not Garland’s version. KamakawiwoOle has blended “Over the Rainbow” into a medley with “What a Wonderful World,” but the lyrical shift isn’t the only difference. When he asks “Why, oh why, can’t I?” his voice is no less moving, but it isn’t that of a young girl on a farm. It’s the voice of someone who will die of a heart attack at age thirty-eight because, despite being all laid back and Hawaiian and playing a uke, he’s also a grownup, and his enormous girth suggests that he didn’t embrace moderation as he grew, and maybe everything didn’t go all that great for him. He’s singing that he can’t fly somewhere over the rainbow, and I believe him. Because we can’t. None of us can fly. And even if we could, we can’t fly over a rainbow.

And I think to myself, not what a wonderful world it is, but why, as a child, I didn’t hear Garland ask that same question: why oh why can’t I. Why did her song sound so full of hope, and his sound so uncertain, when the lyrics were the same? Was it them, or was it me?

Maybe it’s because she’s singing in black and white. She doesn’t get to appear in color until she reaches Munchkinland.

As I sit and listen again to KamakawiwoOle’s vision, I realize that I can’t figure out the shades of color in the world we now inhabit. Sometimes it feels like Munchkinland, as I look around me in wonder at all the crazy mix of styles, the wondrous magical devices, the inexplicable people. It’s a raucous splash of life, but it’s also colored by the undertone of our limits.

I remember my excitement when I first noticed color as a child. But when did I start longing for that simple time when I heard only hope in Garland’s black and white song?

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Nashville Lights

“I know who I fucked to get into this business,” she said, “But I don’t know who I have to fuck to get out of it.” We all laughed. This was Nashville, after all, and everybody ends up feeling screwed one way or another. There are so many people pursuing their dreams, and so few slots that need filling. If you want to see the intersection of ruthless capitalism and luck, Nashville is a good place to witness that train wreck.

Our main business for three days was to attend the Nashville Songwriter’s Festival. We were scheduled to play three short sets of three songs each. We’d been practicing our nine songs, planning out what to say and when to play which song. We’d been playing gigs together for seven years, but this was special. This was Nashville.

I had no idea who might be listening. I looked at the photos from past festivals and counted the people in the audience. I planned for us to get four or five folks while hoping for more. I tried on outfits, picked out jewelry, and applied bronzer to my legs. I made rough cuts of our latest CD, just in case. What was I imagining? That maybe some agent hidden in the audience would be impressed and we’d need something to give him.

Two days driving, and finally we were there. It was five pm, 100 degrees, and we managed to find shade so the instruments wouldn’t fry in the car. Step one was to see if there was some place to store them when we weren’t performing.

Two women were manning the outdoor registration table. They looked worn, like hookers gone straight after a couple decades of hard use. The first one, with faded red hair like winter grass, spoke like someone drunk, though I think she was straight. She couldn’t answer our questions, making me wonder why she was at a table marked “information.” I found out later that many of the volunteers lived on the streets. One of them sold us the local homeless paper for a dollar. The lead article mentioned him, a songwriter who’d been drawn to Nashville to make a name for himself. He was still writing music from his tent, still hoping.

On the first day, we performed on a large outdoor stage set up under a big tent. We listened to those before us. Almost everyone played with a simple guitar accompaniment. I was the only bass player at the festival, and no wonder. There was no easy way to lug that thing around and no place to store it.

The first songwriter spoke too loudly into the mic about her sweaty armpits and the heat. I checked off the mental list: be careful with onstage banter.

Finally it was our turn. There was an orange warning tape across the front of the stage, for what I’m not sure, but it made a jaunty appearance between us and the crowd.

The person doing sound didn’t seem to know her way around the board, for she couldn’t fix the feedback problems that interrupted people’s conversations as we sang. We might get through a phrase or verse, but then hssss, there was the cross between a screech and a squawk that seemed better suited to an eagle after its prey. All that fuss over the subtleties of the instrumental breaks, over making sure our harmonies were matched perfectly, over getting new strings on the guitar so that it would produce peak sound for the performance—all that was gone thanks to our sound man.

We tried to stay upbeat and keep our wits about us, joking a bit with the crowd and pointedly ignoring the dampness on our faces and instruments, the way pros are supposed to do. A few people were even listening, though most appeared engaged in what looked like self-promotion. And so ended our first performance in the big city.

We were determined to do better the next day, so I did some advance scouting to see the location and to chat with the sound man. You could smell the desperation of the musicians, who were trying so hard to do their best during their big debut, hoping someone in the crowd would listen, would appreciate their original songs, and would offer them something—a contract, a promise, an intro to a conversation, anything to start a music career and realize the dream.

The girls had given a lot of thought to their costumes, hair, and presentation of body parts. Clearly they were trying to work more than their vocal chords. They seemed especially easy prey for guys who must feel their yearning, their hope, their fear–guys who, with little effort, could find a way to offer these girls something vague, something potentially ego-boosting, in exchange for something far more immediate and physical. All I know is, there were more faux leopard prints and pointy leather boots than seemed natural.

Our set went well, though. People were actually listening, a couple of them wanted CDs, and we generally felt like pros on stage. There’s some chemical difference between getting up there, feeling like you’re winging it, and performing like it’s part of you. The audience feels it too. We’d crossed that line, and it made the sounds deeper and the stage patter more comfortable.

Our last set was scheduled for Sunday night at 9:00, the final night of the festival, and we prepared ourselves for the worst. Surely no one would be there. We entered the lounge of the hotel slated for the performance, and the smell of decay struck full force. I wondered how a hotel lounge could smell moldy and stale. Who stayed there?

I listened to two other musicians as they chatted about a different songwriter’s festival in Nashville a month earlier, one where famous (paid) singer-songwriters performed. Okay, another reminder that we weren’t invited to that festival to play. Instead of being compensated, we were being pressured to pay for agents, or recordings, or whatever else someone could squeeze out of us. As people desperately tried climbing the ladder, the glimmering top rung seemed farther and farther away.

We were also warned that instead of agents lurking in the audience searching for talent, some people came to find song lyrics to steal.

I was having trouble finding the pleasure in the moment.

But then we got onstage, and everyone was listening. One person wanted to buy a CD, another wanted to give our contact info to Alison Krauss, a Nashville bluegrass favorite. He said he was a recording engineer and a co-organizer of the festival, which I could only hope was true. And so we gave him the rough mix of our second CD, did a little schmoozing, and left with a bigger spring in our step.  

It’s been a month, and no word from Alison. But we had a good ride home listening to music in the car. And what a pleasure it was, watching the neon lights of Nashville fade from view behind us.

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