Playback: You Can’t Press Pause on Life

A musician’s life: laid off, livestreaming, and … giving birth?

by John Anderson

She stood on the top rung of a ladder, trying to wrangle a cat from the attic, when her water broke. Meanwhile, I’m way up and out, crammed amongst the roof’s narrow pitch, running speaker wire. I emerged, wide eyed, covered in sweat and pink fluff insulation, thinking, “Now? The baby’s not due for three weeks.”

Turns out you can’t press pause on life, because our son entered a pandemic-shocked planet 17 hours later.

Molly Ryan’s often my +1 at concerts and at the hospital I was hers. The baby’s early arrival proved fortuitous, since by the following week, medical centers cautious of COVID-19 weren’t allowing partners in for the birth. A good friend, who works in the concert industry (or did when a concert industry existed), found himself forced to stay home when his child was born.

We didn’t have a name for two days, then chose Quinn after the Bob Dylan song that goes: “Everybody’s in despair/ Every girl and boy/ But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here/ Everybody’s gonna jump for joy.”

When we returned home, most of our friends were fired, laid-off, furloughed, had their work reduced to part time, or had all their gigs canceled. Molly got shit-canned a few days after Quinn’s advent. That same week, my hours at the Chronicle became part time, following a month of paternity leave, which allowed me to claim “reduced hours” benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission.

Us new parents cracked up the day this actually got uttered in the house: “You hold the baby while I file for unemployment, then we’ll switch.”

Few things in this world occur as potently as a newborn baby clinging to your chest, looking up at you with a face that asks unspoken questions about the new life they’ve unwittingly enlisted in. Makes a body feel downright necessary. The quarantine proved a perfect time for an up-all-night musician and writer to adjust to fatherhood – an equally sleepless affair.

That relentless routine – wake up to crying, change diaper, get them cleaned, feed them, burp extensively, change diaper again, repeat – creates a traumatic slog. One night, Molly joked that Quinn might be Freddie Krueger: “He makes me afraid to go to sleep.” Another morning, I woke up, rolled over, and uttered, “I’ve had better night’s sleep on crystal meth.”

What’ve I Been Listening To?

Mostly an excruciatingly long MIDI version of Franz Schubert’s 1817 composition Die Forelle that my recently acquired washer and dryer play after every cycle. Considering we’re using cloth diapers, I hear it constantly and there’s no way to shut it off. If I ever make it to Vienna, my first stop will be to urinate on the early Romantic-era pianist’s grave.

Also, shitloads of new Austin albums coincide with the pandemic. Favorites: spiky, hook-laden power-pop off the Drakulas’ sophomore LP, Terminal Amusements, from Toronto’s Dine Alone Records; Boombaptist’s 11-song playlist of hip-hop instrumentals themed around the ludicrously playable Nineties video game NBA Jam, Boomshakalaka, which hits the Insect Records marketplace digitally on April 24 and soon after on a basketball design picture disc; the relentless, drum-machine post-punk of Altar of Eden’s April EP The Grotto Screams on the busy Sounds Grotesca label; and PR Newsman’s surprise album Private Lives, which boasts my reigning favorite song of 2020 in “Who Swept the Jungle?,” a song that sounds like both an urgent environmental commentary and sticky notes left between passive aggressive roommates.

Meanwhile, Austin’s song artisans helped me contextualize the pandemic’s impact on individuals. Bad Boy Croy, aka Corey Baum of Croy & the Boys, assailed coronavirus deniers with “Ain't Been Tested” on his impromptu full-length The Covid Tapes: A World in Croysis. Ben Ballinger honed in on the emotional cost of social distancing with a song called “Change the Embrace,” which opens with: “Realized today I haven’t had a hug in a month/ I never thought it’d be something to think of/ Makes me miss the people I love.”

One thing’s for damn sure, society being shut down caused musicians to crank up their recording productivity and now all of us stuck-at-homers benefit.

Walker Lukens, for instance, followed up last year’s Adult LP with the magnificent record-club-only release Teenager, funneling a greatest hits playlist through the sonic honesty of a Tascam 4-track with several crucial assists from quarantine partner McKenzie Griffin. The Teeta linked up with Chicago beatmaker Netherfriends to unload an exceptional full-length called The Quarantine, featuring the timely-as-hell track title “Tiger King,” my favorite release from the Austin rapper thus far.

Even sheltered at home, artists make art, because you can’t press pause on life.

Stream A Little Stream For Me

I never thought watching livestreams would become part of my day-to-day existence, but here I am setting alarms so I don’t miss my friends and favorites. The freewheeling charisma she wields makes Jackie Venson one of my favorite online channels, while the Black Pumas wowed in last Thursday’s professionally produced quartet appearance for MusicCares. I try not to miss a glimpse into the living room of the Graham-fam when Jon Dee and William Harries play, and I love watching Topaz and Rose McGarrigle of Golden Dawn Arkestra hustle virtual smudgings and personal blessings in broadcasting their DJ set from Sahara Lounge.

Here’s a funny little thing about the candidness of livestreams: When I log on, sometimes an artist will pause and say, “Hi Kevin,” which – thank God – never happens at actual shows.

At peak moments, livestreams carry that spark of live music. Other times, they’re awkward and sound bad. For better or worse, there’s nothing preventing anyone from going live. A livestream-decrying Facebook post from primo ATX punk guitarist Jason Kottwitz left me laughing for weeks: “Doomsday is worse than I ever expected it to be. Open mic has taken over my newsfeed.”

To me, it’s simply this: If concerts are like making love – and they are – then livestreams are porn: conventional stand-in.

When That Time Comes

The other day, on a mission to pick up food, I fired up the van for the first time in a month. I drove past the Lost Well – the last place I’d played a show, on the Saturday before every concert in the country got canceled – and wondered if I’d ever play there again. I thought about all clubs, bars, and halls where I’ve spent most nights over the last decade and tried to imagine them having the funds to float until crowds are reasonably able to attend shows again.

Before this, any venue operator would tell you that money brought in from South by Southwest floats them through the summer months. This year, there’s no SXSW and there may not be a summer either, but rent checks will likely still be due. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled this month that financial woes wrought by COVID-19 won’t trigger property tax exemptions.

So, I see body bags. They’re filled with corpses of a creative culture – bars, business, and bandmates that went broke waiting because you can’t press pause on life.

When it’s over, though… we’re going to shake hands, we’re going to attend music festivals, we’re going to have band practice, we’re gonna cheer drinks, bum smokes, have friends over and pass guitars around, buy records at record stores. If we see a cute dog on the street, we’ll fuckin’ pet it. And our parents – they’ll hug their grandson for the very first time.

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