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LUSH LIFE

by | May 1, 2024 | ComLine, Voices of Recovery

In college, I majored in Voice, but my studies took a backseat to a steady diet of cocktails and cigarettes. The school’s music program had a distinguished opera faculty that took the train from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie each week to give us lessons. I didn't care much for opera--all the fortissimo and vibrato lacked subtlety, and I could not understand the lyrics. Yet because I was a tenor with a good ear, the department placed me in a coveted studio with a baritone who held a dual appointment with a music conservatory.    

At our end-of-semester recital, I was up first, scheduled to sing a French art song followed by German lieder. My stomach cramped from anxiety as I walked toward the piano. I had practiced for this--maybe three or four hours a week, but I was still ill-prepared. It was terrible. Not tone-deaf or laughable, terrible, but terrible in the sense that I sounded like a Backstreet Boy attempting to sing opera. However, I made it through both songs without forgetting the words or having to stop. I was satisfied, happy even, with the performance.

Soon after the recital, I was unceremoniously dropped by the program. They gave the following reasons: lack of measurable progress followed by a lack of effort. I celebrated by smoking a pack of cigarettes and drinking a half-dozen tequila sunrises, after which, I sang into the bathroom toilet for a long night. 

Outside an occasional drunken karaoke night, I did not sing much after college. I subsequently moved to California to launch a nonprofit career and then, a few years later, on a whim, signed up for a one-week jazz music camp for adults. Each day of camp, there was a lottery for those who wanted to perform in an open mic, and on the first day, I won. The song I had prepared, "Lush Life," was melancholy, even by way of jazz standards, and tricky, requiring strategic phrasing and a keen ear to handle the chromatic scales. 

I suffered from major stage fright but managed to perform the song in front of the entire camp without stopping. The two minutes were a blur, and all I remember was the applause at the end. I was quite pleased with myself until I ran into the vocal director at the canteen. She was a large woman who walked with a cane and spoke with the huskiest smoker’s wheeze. “You did good, kid. That's a tough song.” She patted me on the back before chastising me for smiling during the performance. I blamed it on nerves, but she did not seem convinced and said, "You ruined such a sad song, and I wanted to kick you in the fucking face for it."  

Years later, a friend encouraged me to sing again, hoping it would alleviate a bout of depression. I signed up for voice lessons and found myself again drawn to sad ballads. My teacher and I worked on "I Can't Make You Love Me," a tear-jerker made famous by Bonnie Raitt. Once memorized, my teacher asked me to sing the song "undefended." I sang the first line, and she stopped me. "No, stop acting. Be vulnerable." I sang the first line again, which she said was better. We moved onto the second line, after which she stopped me five or six times. I did not know what I was doing differently except stripping the song of any adornment or vibrato. 

          I do not think I ever quite understood what an undefended performance looked like until I saw Patti Smith perform Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" at the Nobel Laureate ceremony in Stockholm. On camera, she looked like a scared little girl with a mop of long gray hair. Her voice, plain and deep with a patina of rasp that evoked a soulfulness, moved me. Two minutes into the performance, she forgot the lyrics, stopped singing, and apologized to the audience. When she finally gathered herself together and commenced, she began to relax and fall into the song, shutting her eyes to savor the lyrics. Seconds later, she stumbled on another word, though she continued on, moving deeper into her performance, leaving the room to enter her own world. The camera then panned onto the pale middle-aged faces of the audience decked out in formalwear. Everyone's eyes were transfixed on her, not because she had faltered twice, but because she was doing something special. She had eliminated all pretense from the gilded hall. She had reached deep into herself to give us something profoundly honest. After watching the performance on repeat, I lost all interest in public singing. I still enjoy crooning in the privacy of the shower, kind of how a lonely person monologues to his cat to fill the void. But to sing in front of people is an act of futility. I do not have anything to say to them. 

          I have often asked myself if I am ready to give up my mask in order to live an undefended life. My mask is an embodiment of a personal history, molded from a unique mixture of people-pleasing and a subconscious drive to assimilate—a failed effort to hide my Asian foreignness and effeminate queerness. 

          Every time I tell my therapist about a first date, he asks if I am willing to take off my mask and show this person my true self. I laugh and say, I cannot. The first date is like a job interview, and if I acted like my true self, I would never get a job. I would be permanently unemployed. My mask is critical to my survival. But what does it mean to survive, when I hardly know who I am with it on? Especially since I am not even aware that I am wearing it.

          I am forty-six now. I quit smoking long ago and am 18-months sober. I live alone, I have no children or pets. Some days, I love my life. On others, I am suffocated by it. I no longer want to be a pianist or singer—I am so tired of acting and performance. But I want more from this life, so I reach to take off my mask. It is stuck, it is always stuck, fused to my skin. It will have to be surgically removed. I am not afraid of blood or even the pain, just the scars it might leave or worse, the ones that are left exposed.

Tom P

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