The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.
Armed with my ax, I was about to enter a midtown studio to play some rock music, and maybe some emo. We were supposed to have met up the week before, but my friend Andy, the drummer of a fairly known indie band that had first gone to Portland and was now trying to make it in the Big Apple, called it off at the last minute. “The band needed to talk,” he later texted me. “Sobriety…you know how it is.” I did know, but those last few days really built up the anticipation.
I hadn’t played with anyone since I had received a mass invite to my band’s show six years earlier, my then singer’s cowardly way of letting me know I had been replaced. Grad school took over, though, and with a tight teaching schedule, I was not really cut out for all that glam. And now, as I was scrolling through my phone contacts to let Andy know I was at the door, my shivering yet clammy fingers reminded me of the many piano recitals I had dreaded as a child, eager, yet terrified of forgetting hours of scales and Czerny’s études, and of falling flat on my face right into the shameful spotlight. That whole week, my husband had been imagining how I would drop everything and go on tour. “But what about my classes?” – I kept asking. “This is New York. Tons of unemployed grad students. Someone will take over. But being a rockstar – now that’s a one-time opportunity. Don’t blow it.”
Andy’s other two band mates were working on some harmonies and didn’t seem to notice me at first, but I plugged in, tuned, and we started to play. It was something in the key of A, and it was good.
* * *
When I was eight, I wanted two things and two things only: a sheltie and a piano. My parents bought me a collie and a synthesizer which, my mom never failed to remind me, cost 500 dollars and was one of the first to have full-sized keys. It also had only four octaves; the keys were not touch-sensitive; and there was no pedal. We took it back to Ukraine when we left the US in December of ‘89, and it was only two decades later, after bringing it back to New York once again that I finally parted with the old plastic carcass, the unlikely Orpheus that enchanted me with its cheap prerecorded demo, a lambada-esque tune set to a disco beat with pots and pans for percussion. With the demo running, in this player-piano mode, I would raise my fingers and sway side to side like Stevie Wonder. Those home videos are still tucked away somewhere on my parents’ balcony, amid others of my brother strumming “Stand by Me” on a poorly-tuned Strat, or those of “Guitar Sisters,” the duo my best friend and I put together playing air-guitar on tennis rackets to Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly.” The old VHS tapes must have dried up and become unwatchable by now, or, at least, I secretly hope they have gone the same way as the rest of my childhood mementos, discarded following the Chernobyl meltdown.
My mother arranged for me to audition for a local music school in the fall of 1990. By Soviet standards, I was four years too old to take up the piano in any serious way, but since I did not aim to pursue a career in classical music, and my piano teacher would not let me do so given how little income and appreciation it would yield, I was accepted. Reluctantly, I believe, and despite the fact that I had far from perfect pitch, or as someone eloquently put it, an elephant had stepped on my ear. As in all other institutional interactions, this must have cost us a bottle of champagne, a box of chocolates, or at least a bouquet of asters.
Rather than professional musicianship, the goal was to help me grow and develop emotionally. (Apparently, in addition to my ear problem, I was also a rather rigid child.) The technical side of this was easier said than done: most pieces other than Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are composed for more than four octaves, and playing the fortepiano with any intonation or emotion requires careful sound control and the use of the sustain pedal. I had to transpose individual parts into a higher or lower register, as it were mechanically folding every piece, like an old-fashioned letter, only to unfold it later on a proper instrument. This was needless drudgework, but times were hard, and it had to be done.
With inflation rampant after the fall of the Soviet Union, my parents could not afford an upright piano. One day in 1991, all of their life’s savings were reduced to nothing. My brother was robbed more than once; he came home barefoot one New Year’s Eve. A thug tried to rip a gold chain off of my mother’s neck on the first floor of our own building. She had to sell the clothes she had bought in America to make some extra cash. Years passed before the first Colin’s and Benetton opened in Kyiv, and the former sold merchandise only marginally better than a knock-off, though several times as expensive. And it wasn’t just jeans. I remember waiting in long lines pretending to be my neighbor’s other daughter just to get another dozen of eggs or a larger jar of condensed milk. Liqueur was pricey, so teens bought cologne and drank it instead. Some winters the buses ran so poorly I had to rub one foot against the other to try to keep my toes warm and then, rather than being transported to a Technicolor wonderland, I would prepare to take the already packed bus by storm, and hope that this time I would not feel violated.
And after all that, I would walk over to my music school and sink my fingers eagerly into Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) or weep along with Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major. I continued to play those two pieces well into my teens and well after I had given up the piano for the bass, and classical music for alternative rock. I think I even played them at my entrance exam to LaGuardia, the magnet high school in Midtown West where I went on to study instrumental music. And I would always play them differently, con anima and con molto espressione, allowing myself to get carried away and forgetting, for a second or two, where, when, and even who I was, my clipped nails gliding mechanically up and down the keyboard and the bangs framing my face tickling my eyes as I moved to and fro, now like a concert pianist, now like a medieval hysteric, now like a praying Jew.
Once, during fifth-grade history, my teacher Elvira Pavlovna caught me rehearsing at my desk, hitting imaginary keys on the lined surface of my notebook. Startled and embarrassed, I obediently folded my hands in my lap and, to avoid her critical, even witchlike gaze, sat with my eyes lowered until the bell rang. If she is still alive, I doubt Elvira Pavlovna has any recollection of this episode twenty years and hundreds of pupils later, but if she does, I’d like to think she remembers it with a smile, for as disastrous as it seemed to me at the time, in retrospect, it really was one of those moments of absentmindedness that bring out the comic elements in life.
Both my parents grew up with a piano in their household. It may have actually been a large old black-and-white photo of my mom leaning over the piano keys that inspired me to take it up myself; dressed in a Soviet school uniform, with white ribbons in her hair and a white apron and matching lace cuffs worn only on festive days, she made it seem irresistible. Or it may have been my dad’s playing a three-chord rock-n-roll progression singing, jocosely, “Don’t go to school, kids! Drink Coca-Cola, kids!”—which rhymes in Russian but sounds equally ridiculous. Or, perhaps, it was his Beatles LP collection, bartered for god-knows-what at the same black market in Lviv, near the Polish border, where my mom got her Romanian clunky shoes and Yugoslavian mini dresses. I remember her telling me that she had traveled all the way to Moscow to buy for my brother, then a kid of four or five, an imported pair of rubber boots. I also remember hearing about the two of them waiting for hours in line to the Mausoleum, which was the primary goal of the trip. But somehow the two got mixed up in my mind.
Visiting my grandmother in my teens, I sat at her piano and sang a heart-wrenching ballad to my cousin about the woes of a man on the brink of a precipice, whose youth had been wasted on promiscuous women, his “golden curls turned grey” (the only two lines I can recall). I learned that inane tune while skipping school on account of some lingering respiratory infection and hanging out, in abandoned bomb shelters, with the local hooligans, who would amuse themselves by spitting and throwing cigarette butts at my dog. One day I drew a peace sign, with some white paint, on one of those concrete walls. Vitya, the oldest in the gang, scolded me for promoting the turn-the-other-cheek philosophy and, taking the brush, he began to alter the mark I had made: the “A” stands for “Anarchy,” he told me firmly; that was far more appropriate. It was time to end self-sacrifice for some illusory cause, whatever that cause might be.
Indeed, from that point on, it was all about anarchy, and a new life for the old “Punk’s Not Dead”; and Victor Tsoi, the half-Korean leader of Russian underground rock who died in a car accident at age 28; and Vyacheslav Butusov’s Nau, with its famous chorus “Goodbye, America!,” which would become the theme song of Brat 2, the sequel to the iconic movie Brother, and remains poignant to this day, as a bitter, ambivalent farewell anthem to frayed jeans not yet worn and forbidden fruit yet to be tasted.
In the so-called Tube, or Truba, the underpass below Khreschatyk, Kyiv’s central street, buskers would yell Nirvana’s “Rape Me,” and young guys with Mohawks would gather to exchange everything from jokes to joints. Today the Tube is packed with fast-food restaurants and rows of fancy shops, and the square above it, which no longer holds the statue of Lenin or the Komsomol, the exemplary Soviet youth group, bears the insignia of Ukrainian Independence alongside a McDonald’s and huge ads for Reebok, Minolta, and a handful of gas- and oil-enriched banks.
One summer evening in 2004 or ‘5, I ran into Vitya on the metro going from what is now called Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, to Obolon, where my parents now live, and we sat on a broken bench in someone else’s backyard until 4 or 5AM, drinking cheap beers and talking about music, John Keats, and Romantic poetry like the old friends we never were. All he had in his pocket was a pair of recent passport photos, so he tore one off and gave it to me as a kind of keepsake, to remember an encounter neither of us could have imagined fifteen years earlier.
After 1991, you could buy Polish gum, Turkish cookies, melon-flavored vodka, imported cigarettes, and lots of bootleg tapes of Western music in small metal kiosks, which started springing up in major squares like mushrooms after the rain (acid rain, most likely). There were few commercial laws, so the prices differed astronomically from one kiosk to another, but that was less important than the fact that foreign commodities had become available. My boyfriend at the time worked at one of the music stalls and made for me mixtapes of the latest releases, from R.E.M.’s Monster to the aggressive music of Swedish Clawfinger. Even before I had got my hands on the band’s album, I bought at one of the first rock-merchandise shops to open on Vorovsky Street a Clawfinger T-shirt, no doubt a cheap knock-off with an unseemly picture of a brain, which bled black ink all over my skin. I would often reminisce about that place, a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall, while wandering about the dingy spots on St. Mark’s after class, checking out the designs and buying patches to sew on my burgundy JanSport.
My brother is now in real estate and development. Twenty years ago, with his school buddies, he started one of Ukraine’s first thrash-metal bands; they all grew their hair out, boiled their T-shirts in chlorine, and ripped up their jeans. One of my parents’ colleagues called them on the phone after he had run into my brother in the city center, and asked, uncomfortably, whether we were having financial problems. But this was self-imposed poverty; this was the style. Old babushkas on the trolley bus frequently addressed him as “young lady.” The older professors at the institute where he took his college-entry courses refused to give him a passing grade on account of his looking like a hippie. Around the same time, Metallica was performing at the Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow, and surrounded by my little lyceum friends, I was quietly playing the intro to “Enter Sandman” on the piano in the short breaks between classes.
By ‘94, my brother was in a new band, now with his college friends, and I got to attend some of the new rock venues with Ukrainian youngsters mouthing lyrics now in broken English, imitating or outright ripping off their Western idols, now in Russian or Ukrainian. I also got to watch special-unit militia men, the black-clad OMON, with their rubber batons, beat the hell out of anyone who tried to approach the stage. Even now, I have trouble passing by a uniformed officer without wincing.
I was happy to return to the States at the age of fifteen. Had I stayed, I might have joined those of my classmates who stopped combing their hair, pierced their ears with safety pins, and showed up to school with glue stains all over their pants. Had I stayed, I could have been lying in the ground next to one of them who died of a heroin overdose. He sent me a demo tape a few years earlier, after I had already left for New York, and I wish I had given it a listen.
Kingsbridge, where I lived up until college, was much more mellow. Occasionally, cops would kindly ask us not to lie in the grass by the Bx-7 bus stop, and we’d slowly pack up our curly fries and move over. As a Music major, I got to play upright bass three periods a day at school, and whether it was Beethoven or the Overture to Oklahoma!, it felt amazing to be on stage, to ruffle through sheet music, and, just as before my piano recitals, to press my frozen, nervous fingers against the nape of my neck until they started to sweat.
As a high-school junior, I joined my first pop-punk band, and set out on an unforgettable journey through largely forgettable venues. I left that band a few weeks after 9/11, but not before sending a somewhat sentimental email to our fan list telling bin Laden to f**k off, because “music will conquer all.” Several months later, my new singer forgot to notify me that I had been replaced, and my music career was put on hold. And it took exactly six years of sterility for me to pick up my old synth and, with a husky voice and GarageBand by my side, write my own songs—without the drama, without begging my friends to come out to yet another show or buy a self-pressed 5-dollar CD, without having to solicit drink tickets at a half-empty bar, and without having to face the grim reality of never making it as a musician. It was enough that my neighbors had heard me. There was no need to bid this particular hideous progeny to go forth.
Besides, professional music is too flaky. My college pals Seth and Erik left a then-unknown garage-rock band only to see it explode a year later. They never really talk about that. The owner of Luna Lounge, where the said band had started out while the venue was still on the LES, loved the singer/songwriter with whom I was performing at the time, and told me repeatedly that we, too, would go places. I’ve heard the story before; after all, we were going to be signed with DreamWorks at one point. So I nodded and chugged my cold Yuengling, since I knew that, eventually, I would exchange an audience of drunken Gen-Y’ers, screaming out for a cover of “Stairway to Heaven,” for one of bleary-eyed Internet kids, clad in tight pants, neon-rimmed sunglasses, and possibly a CBGB-OMFUG T-shirt, though they were clearly too young to have partied there before it shut down in 2005. My first band played at CBs a couple of times, and we got to hang backstage and take silly snapshots with the original wall scribbles by legendary NY musicians. And like Seth and Erik, I never really tell anyone that that was the only time I was hit on by a girl and felt as close as I had ever to being a rockstar. Nor do I tell anyone that we could only get gigs on Monday (audition night), and were never called back for a “real” show.
A handful of my most talented high-school friends did go on to Julliard and Manhattan School of Music. The first violin in Orchestra 8, the top classical instrumental group at LaGuardia, became a successful investment banker, though she still plays once in a while for pleasure. A few give private lessons or travel the world playing at weddings and special events. My buddy Mitch was recently hired to play sax in Central Park while someone proposed. Others are still waiting tables while waiting for their big break. Many have set up small home-studios, equipped with ProTools, Logic, or whatever happens to be the latest audio software on the market, and they are creating incredible music. I wish I had their courage, but I find myself, like the lead in the final scenes of SLC Punk, an unresentful adult, and all I can do now is live vicariously through others.
* * *
The summer after my jam with Andy’s band, I was streaming an ABC-Family drama on Hulu, as a guilty mind-numbing break from writing. The main love interest walked into the ballroom, Cinderella-like, with her estranged boyfriend, and the two began to waltz, their smiling faces drowning in shimmering lights, trying to convince the viewers that fairytales do come true, particularly when the network is deciding whether to sign the show for another season. At that moment, for about a half a minute, Andy’s hit song came on. It was so emo. I may have even gotten something in my eye.
I paused, rewound, and watched the video several times more. I then emailed the link to my husband, who had introduced me to Andy; the two had originally met over burritos, which Andy rolled with incredible precision having spent half a decade behind the counter of a Portland Tex-Mex restaurant, while his band was still gigging at small joints for two and a half people one of whom was the bartender. At this point I already knew that the record company, which provided Andy’s band with free unlimited access to the studio, also dictated whom to hire and whom not to; what I had thought was an audition and my ticket to stardom had been just a plain jam session. The record company told them they didn’t need a bass player. It would add extra cost and spill needless legal ink. Besides, in the ensuing months, the frontman was arrested for incurring his third DUI; the drummer went back to the West Coast to get clean, take care of his sick parents, and work on his own music.
Perhaps I am a bit resentful. But the life of an academic is, by and large, not so different from that of a musician. You get to write creatively on material of your choice; a few times a week, you get to perform this very material; once in a while, you may even get away with a pair of stilettos, leopard-print pleather tights, and press-on eyelashes. In a graduate symposium, you can hold intellectual debate over wine. If you publish something worthwhile and sellable, you get to go on tour, a book tour, that is, and if you’re lucky, you even gather a storm of groupies; and just as a professional musician, you then find yourself at the mercy of the big bad publishing house which claims most of the revenue and dictates which obscure painting or catchy slogan to place on the front cover. And once you’re tenured, or reach stardom, then pretty much anything goes. And you get the same glam, the same manic depression, the same broken families, the same lost battles with alcoholism, and, occasionally, the same tragic suicides, since, as with rockstars, the world is, sometimes, too much with us, too.
The episode was now over; I poured myself a cup of green tea, and opened the file I had abandoned an hour earlier. And I continued to write, settling down with my pumpkin of a carriage while my Prince Charming toiled away at his not so magical job. Later that evening, we took out our acoustic guitar and mandolin and belched Andy’s tune. It was consistently flat. My fingers kept stumbling over the D-minor chord, as I brushed past the dissonant lower E. We made up silly lyrics when we couldn’t think of the right ones. I don’t even think we were in the right key, but we were laughing so hard that it didn’t really matter. It was exactly what we needed, and it was good.
*Names of specific people mentioned in this piece were changed to preserve their anonymity.