The title of this month’s column is a song lyric I’ve loved since the first time I heard it many years ago. It’s one of those lines that’s a simple truism. The things you take for granted are sometimes the same things that are most essential to your happiness, your well-being, your very survival. In the case of this song, the singer is mourning a breakup with a lover because of his own failure to value the relationship. Only afterward does he realize that his lover was as necessary to him as water.
These days, the sentiment can apply to lots and lots of things that people are missing. Near the top of the list for me is the opportunity to play music in a face-to-face live setting. It’s something I’ve been doing for something like 35 years. I’ve played gigs in front of thousands and I’ve played gigs singing to just the soundman and the bartender. In both cases I’ve had fun. For the soundman and the bartender, probably not so much.
But I’m coming to realize now that it was something much more than just fun for me. For good or for ill, somewhere along the line it had grown to become an essential part of my identity. Performing in front of a live audience made me feel more alive in return.
The joy of entertaining people in this way is pretty ancient—ask any of the old Greek dramatists whose plays filled great stone amphitheaters with spectators watching actors wearing masks. Shakespeare certainly knew it, and I find it sad but useful to remind myself that the Globe Theatre was forced to close during 1603 when an outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged London and claimed 33,000 lives in the city. With no money coming in, and not even the sound of applause for nourishment, actors found themselves in a very tough spot.
Of course, they didn’t have the luxury of posting videos of their work on the internet as so many performers are doing today. It’s a miracle of technology that we have that as an outlet. I’ve watched a good number of these and I’ve posted some of my own on my Facebook page and on the Steam Donkeys Facebook page. Our friend Joe Mattimore crafted a couple of really slick videos for the band, pieced together from phone footage sent to him. Those are cool. I also took part in a live-stream show organized by Bob James to raise money for veterans in need.
The live-stream is a decent enough replacement, but it certainly isn’t the same. Nowhere near it. Especially in the case of the live-stream, I found the experience kind of unnerving as a performer. At least when you’re playing to just the soundman in an empty club, you can still see the soundman. You can talk to him, and he can talk back. But performing in an empty room in your own home to observers you can’t see has a sort of dark sci-fi feel to it as far as I’m concerned. It feels almost backward, as if the actor is playing in a vacuum, and he can’t know the audience because they are the ones wearing the masks. (I know that’s not really the case, because I see so many people who are not willing to wear a mask for any reason on Earth.) And as much as I like my smart phone, it’s just not the same, emoting into a little camera lens.
I will keep trying to adapt, but only a flesh and blood audience can erupt into applause, or laugh out loud at a joke. It’s part of the aural and visual dynamic of a live performance. I even miss hecklers, for crying out loud! A seasoned performer can make good sport of a drunk and obnoxious heckler. All of that is gone for the foreseeable future, with good reason. As I write this, we’ve lost over 101,000 Americans in the past three months to an airborne virus for which we have no cure or vaccine.
So what have I been up to in the absence of mingling with a live audience? Why, mingling with the dead, naturally. I live a short walk from Forest Lawn Cemetery and I find it to be a peaceful retreat from all the white noise and insanity of the bleating news cycle.
The dead are very patient and most are starved for visitors, Mothers Day and Memorial Day being notable exceptions. During the Victorian Age, when many of the impressive monuments were made, death was always nearby. You can read for yourself the dates on many headstones.
Some who were born in the 18th century and didn’t live to even hear about the Civil War. A young husband whose time was up during the 1918 Flu epidemic, while his wife held on for forty more years, heartbroken. A little girl who didn’t make it to her fifth birthday. All the soldiers who gave their lives in furtherance of what they believed was a great country—or at least a good country, hopefully striving for greatness. All the victims of senseless murders. The wealthy and the poor. The powerful and the powerless. The assholes and the angels. Time on Earth expires for us all.
Despite this bleak observation, I somehow leave the cemetery feeling a little more grounded. I appreciate being alive more. The rest of my day feels more incredible and real, and I imagine what any one of those permanent residents of Forest Lawn would give to have just one more day to enjoy the breeze, the sunshine, the songs of birds, the smell of dinner cooking, the sound of rain on green leaves, the touch of a loved one.
Looking back, I know I will treasure this unexpected time I’m getting to spend with my wife and daughter—who just completed her sophomore year at New York University studying from home and continuing her work in the College of Global Public Health. I have the opportunity to learn from her now, and sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But I keep trying.
To wrap up my musings this month, I’d like to circle back around to the great song lyric I quoted to title this story. I first heard the song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” as performed by the Byrds on their album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” It wasn’t until later that I discovered the original version on Stax Records, written and performed by R&B artist William Bell in 1961, which I like even better.
When I listen to an honest song like that, I remain hopeful that there’s still a lost well somewhere hidden in the spirit of America that isn’t about to run dry. It’s a well that’s still gushing with the ideals this country was founded upon and the strength of a common will to recognize what is wrong, and to strive toward doing the right thing. There are hucksters all around these days, distracting us with various divining rods and telling us all where to dig for it.
I think it will be up to us all to rediscover it together and never take it for granted again.