The Shoot (Part Nine)

“Maybe we should just call it a day,” Mike says.

“No,” Miranda says flatly. “We need more material.”

“It’s too dark to shoot now,” Mike says, raising a hand to the sky. “The sun’s been setting for the past hour.”

“It isn’t setting,” Miranda says as if she can reverse time through sheer tyranny of will. “It’s rising. We’ll run these shots at the beginning of the video and say it’s early in the morning.”

Mike has papers to grade. Amanda wants to be an artist again. Natalie and Drago are still up for anything despite the cold and the setting sun. They all look to me, and I point to a worn-out baseball I’ve been eyeing since we reached the bottom of the hill.

“What if we play some baseball?” I say, flipping my guitar over and swinging it like a bat. “Natalie throws the ball. I knock it into the outfield. It lands at Mike’s feet. Mike picks it up, and we all become friends.”

“Perfect!” Miranda says in shades of Ed Wood. “Marc, you stand in the batting place. Drago, you get behind him, and Natalie, you take the ball to the pitching thing and get ready to throw it.”

“Mound,” I say.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

I’m not really trying to hit the ball with my guitar. Miranda will just try to perpetrate the illusion that I’ve hit the ball when she edits the video together. At least, that’s the plan as Drago and I take our places in a muddy batter’s box.

“There’s a big puddle here,” Drago says. “So don’t throw the ball directly at us. Try to throw it over that way.”

“Got it,” Natalie says, winding up for the pitch.

Then she throws it directly at us, hitting the center of the puddle with astounding accuracy.

“Can we do that again?” Miranda asks as Drago and I wipe the mud from our faces. “I wasn’t shooting.”

The second, Natalie doesn’t splash us with mud. I swing the guitar, and Drago tosses the ball into the outfield as if I’ve just hit it. When Mike picks up the ball, we all gather around him and start slapping him on the back.

With that, I imagine we’re done – and not a second too soon. It’s starting to get dark, and though it’s only in my imagination, the people who live across the street from the park are peering at us through half-parted curtains as they reach for their phones to call the police.

“Great work, guys,” I say. “I think we can call it a day!”

“Not quite.”

Curiously, it isn’t Miranda who wants to keep shooting this time around. It’s Mike. And though my instinct is remind him of the papers he has to grade, I keep my mouth shut and hear him out.

“See that tree over there?” Mike points in the direction of a fallen tree on the edge of the outfield. “It’s the perfect backdrop.”

He’s right. The branches arc up and over to form a small cave or a primitive shelter from the elements. It’s easy to imagine prehistoric hunter-gatherers finding it and setting up camp for the night – or breaking camp at dawn, however you want to look at it. In any case, if Mike’s on board, then so am I.

“Okay, team,” I say. “Let’s do it!”

But they’re already ahead of me, trudging through snow, slush, and mud to take their places in beneath the skeletal remains of the fallen tree. When I take place next to them, Miranda tells us all to start dancing. We’re having a great time, she says by way of direction before commanding each of us to strut toward the camera and look into it with our very best diva pouts.

“Keep dancing,” Miranda shouts when we’ve all finished with our close-ups. “And don’t forget—you’re all rock stars.”

In that moment, with the cars whizzing by in the distance and the good people of Henry Avenue watching us from the comfort of their homes beneath the blinking red lights of the radio towers above, I believe her. This is my band, and as the sun sets pink and orange over Roxborough, Miranda’s camera turns us all into rock stars.

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Billy Joel Was Right!

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 12.14.15 PM.pngI’m not sure how old I was when I heard Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” for the first time, but I distinctly remember taking note of the part where he sings that it took him years to write his latest song and that although they were the best years of his life, the song ran too long, so they cut the running time down to three minutes and five seconds. At the time, my instinct was to call BS on the idea that it took the guy “years” to write a three-minute pop song, but I was probably only about ten or eleven years old at the time, so what did I know? Not much, it turns out.

My latest recording, “Never Talk Back,” actually took me almost a quarter of a century to write and record. I probably wrote the earliest version somewhere around 1996, tried recording it a few different ways on my Tascam Porta 03 multitrack cassette recorder and then decided to go to graduate school for English. Though I’d play the song on my acoustic guitar once in a while, it mainly lay dormant in the back of my mind for the next decade or so until I started getting back into playing and recording music again.

But even then, I kept experimenting with different ways of arranging and recording the song — different styles, different keys, different melodies — without ever hitting on a version that I liked. Back when I was recording under the Android Invasion name some time ago, I think I may have put out a jazzy instrumental version of the song called “Hotrod,” but I’d have to look into that. I also played a hip-hop-flavored electronic version in a show with my robot friends at Old Haverford Friends Meeting House a couple of years back. And I tried to record a Burt Bacharach-esque version on Thank You for Holding last year, but it just wasn’t working.

This time around, I tried to keep the song as simple as possible. I started with a basic piano riff (that I eventually dropped) and asked my friend Tim Simmons to play drums along with the piano part that I’d written. Then I added a bass and two guitar parts, and that was pretty much it for the backing track, though I did also edit the song down from something like six-and-a-half minutes to just over four, so props to Billy Joel for calling that aspect of the song-writing process, too.

It took me a little while to get a vocal take that I liked, and I decided to sing the song in a fairly low register so I could avoid having to tweak the track to make it sound like I can hit high notes. Also, I’ve been playing out a little more lately, and I realized that it’s a whole lot easier on my voice to sing like Leonard Cohen than John Lennon or even Tom Petty. Not that I ever sounded like either of them, but you get the picture.

All of this is to say that Billy Joel was not bullshitting me when I was ten or eleven years old — that a song can, in fact, take many years to write, and that sometimes it’s in the best interest of a song to cut it down to three-oh-five (or, in my case, four-oh-one). But I’m still kind of mad at him for writing a song about Bethlehem, PA, and calling it “Allentown.” Now that, my friends, is BS.

 

“Lead” Poisoning: An Open Letter to Pat Meehan

Dear Pat,

I generally don’t discuss politics on my blog, and I’m not about to start now. At the same time, however, I have to take issue with a recent mailer in which the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania asks me to vote for you based on your record of fighting to strengthen campus safety throughout the United States through your support of the Clery Act. My problem isn’t with your record; as a faculty member at Montgomery County Community College, I appreciate the value of a safe campus. As a member of the English Department, however, I must point out a glaring typographical error on the part of whoever composed the mailer in question.

Touting your record in relation to such an important facet of higher education as campus safety, the mailer reads, “Pat Meehan lead the fight to strengthen campus safety and protect students.” As you may know, the past tense of “lead” is “led.” As you may also know, the word “lead” can also refer to the chemical element listed as Pb on the periodic table. “Lead,” however, is not used as the past tense of “lead.” That the flyer in question draws the reader’s attention to the misspelled word by both underlining and highlighting it in red makes the mistake difficult to ignore. What’s more, the fact that this mailer ostensibly focuses on higher education renders the error especially egregious.

Although I’m rarely one to offer advice to those in the political realm, my recommendation to your friends in the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania is identical to the recommendation I make to all of my students before they submit their work: proofread. More to the point, if you’re going to pander to educators — especially those who teach writing — you might want to make sure that you don’t go out of your way to draw attention to your spelling errors.

Warmest Regards,

Marc Schuster

PS: I think you’ll like my latest novel, The Grievers. You may even find a typo or two in it.

Exhibit A