UK: Alone with the magic.

The HMV Forum is, from what I can tell, in absolutely-middle-of-nowhere London. This shabby little concert hall lives in an area called Kentish Town, which our tour manager later assured me it was a very posh neighborhood — to hear him tell it, so was most of London — but I didn't see it. People live there, sure; mostly, though, the area I saw was little more than a sad stretch of cracked pavement, bars and convenience stores that sell alcohol.

A few men stood on the sidewalk near the Tube station, mumbling on about the cheap tickets they had to that night's show — like it was against the law to speak clearly or audibly — and occasionally, a harried businessman weaved through the bar crowds, hefting a messenger bag, rushing to get home.
Otherwise, all the activity in the neighborhood centered on a pub called the Venue. Which was teeming with revelers decked out in vintage tees and skinny jeans — some things are universal. I went in, pushed my way through the crowd and ordered a glass of wine; the bartender poured the contents of a tiny plastic bottle into a glass and slid it across the bar. I counted out pound coins and change; I knew I was paying too much for something that wouldn't taste quite right.
Before I could put my wallet away, another bartender accidentally dipped his pinky into my glass while reaching used glasses on the bar. He looked me in the eye before wandering away to serve someone else.
I drank more than usual while I was away, and ate a lot less. The alcohol I could trust. The food, not so much. Though it was tempting to attempt to survive on Thai sweet chili crisps and Magnum ice cream bars.

Outside the bar, I stood mute on the sidewalk, watching other concertgoers spill onto the sidewalk together with their beer, chatting animatedly. This wasn't like the William Fitzsimmons concert I went to in Paris. There, I didn't mind being alone; I was grateful to sit in silence after several embarrassing attempts at conversation with Francophones. There, I watched with curiosity and felt like the brave American who'd ventured out on my own. Here, I was just another American tourist in London. I could understand what everyone was saying and was simply too afraid to walk up and start talking with them. I don't think the I'm-charmed-by-your-acccent phenomenon works both ways.
So I finished my awful wine, set the glass by the light pole, next to stacks of empty pint glasses, and wandered to the box office. A surly Goth girl rolled her eyes and handed me my ticket after yelling at me for my surname about five times. I just. Didn't. Understand. (Even after getting a lesson from the hotel doorman in Scotland on which name was, in fact, my surname.) Why can't you people just use the same words as the rest of us?!

I made this pilgrimage and forced down that Sauvignon swill because I'd managed to score tickets at the last minute to see Jónsi, Sigur Rós' lead singer, perform.
Sigur Rós' albums and Jónsi's new release, Go, are among the few I own where I can't understand a word of what's being sung; the lyrics, when there are any, are either in Icelandic; "Hopelandic," a made-up phonetic language Jónsi concocted; or garbled, woozy English. And I love them despite that. Possibly because of it. The music is magical, like pure joy and heartbreak translated into black dots and lines on a page.
I missed the opening act while I was drinking my terrible wine, and I saw few empty spaces as my eyes adjusted to the musty darkness of the auditorium. I climbed the steps to the general-admission, standing-room-only area and leaned against a tiny corner of the balcony. The temperature in the room rose with every step I took, with every new person who entered the room. With no iPhone to check, no more drink to sip, I was surrounded by strangers and prickled again with loneliness.
But eventually, the lights went down, plunging us all into darkness and leaving us suddenly alone with the music. Jónsi acknowledged the audience once, in trembling English, halfway through the concert.

No one sang along — no one knew the words.
The crowd swayed silently, wide-eyed, and roared with applause in adoration of the brave, slight man on stage at the end of each song.

How do you explain magic to someone who didn't see it firsthand?

For his encore, Jónsi emerged wearing a bright, feathered headdress. His last song, rambling and wailing, ended in a deafening storm of drums and feedback and beauty and desperation. He dropped the microphone and walked off stage, spent.
We knew the feeling. All together, we were alone with the music, a mass of little black lines and dots in the darkness that had diffused into pure joy and heartbreak.
And that room in middle-of-nowhere Kentish Town was, briefly, the center of the universe.

Die in a fire.

Deep breaths.
Deeeeeeep, cleansing breaths.

I do not watch American Idol.
If I wanted to watch a karaoke competition, I could do it live in Chicago. Hell, I could get wasted and participate in one some Saturday night.
But I don't.
The first few seasons had some real talent.
The audition episodes lasted a week, and the few terrible wannabes lampooned by the judges were half-sad, half-hilarious — and honestly didn't get it. Now, half the people who audition are there because they know they can be on Fox or become a YouTube sensation. Talent dilution.
No one booed when Simon Cowell so much as opened his mouth. Simon Cowell, who offers the only real critiques on the show.
Ellen DeGeneres didn't get to sit at the judges' table. Why is she even there? Go dance on your own show.
There were no celebrity "mentors" or product placement. Never before have non-country singers loved Ford vehicles so much.

And most of all, there were no "hometown parades" screwing up my morning Starbucks run.

Lee DeWyze, one of the final three contestants — apparently — is from Mount Prospect, a neighboring suburb to where I work.
Each of the lucky three gets to return to their respective roots before the finals and lavished with cheering "Maybe if I get close enough, I can be on TV!!!" adoration from hometown fans.
So, of course, we got a memo (faxed to us, no less) from the local police department saying our lives were going to be flipped, turned upside-down today. Lee DeWyze, after throwing out the first pitch at this afternoon's Cubs game, will ride in a motorcade out to Mount Prospect, visit the schools he attended then perform for a sold-out crowd of 30,000 at…Arlington Park Race Track.
Which I can see from here. Palinesque.

I drove to work this morning because I knew the spray-tanned, bedazzled suburban crowds at the train station later would be too much for my fragile urban sensibilities to handle. I left the house at 6:45 to avoid highway traffic and was bottlenecked even worse than usual.
I blame Lee.
When I exited the highway and pulled in at Starbucks for my badly needed morning drink, the hum of pop-devotee energy nearly interrupted my bad '80s–radio frequency. And the Starbucks drive-through line wrapped around the corner.
Did American Idol completely take over the world and make it Monday?

A timeline of the morning:
7:12 a.m. Wait for state police officer to park his cruiser; it takes three tries
7:13 a.m. Walk inside, inhale fumes of Jessica Simpson's signature fragrance
7:15 a.m. Stand in line
7:17 a.m. Write the angriest tweet ever
7:20 a.m. Order my drink. From the barista who still doesn't know my drink. Because she's the worst barista ever.
7:21:45 Stand at the other end of the counter with four Oompa Loompas who very much need their Mocha Frappuccinos
7:23 a.m. Receive my drink. Which is wrong. Because worst barista ever also doesn't know how to mark cups.
7:23:30 a.m. Start to say something about how it's made wrong. Decide to cut less-bad baristas a break and walk out with my wrong drink
7:25 a.m. Storm out
7:34 a.m. Stuff my face with three Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins.
7:34:52 a.m. (Two with SPRINKLES.)
7:36 a.m. Change my outlook on life

Oh, Lee DeWyze. If not for those doughnuts, you'd have had another thing coming. As if I needed another reason to hate the suburbs.
The good news: I plan to be out of this place and on my way back to civilization before he picks up a microphone this afternoon.
But you, American Idol?
You've ruined music. Made everyone think they know what a good vocalist sounds like. Made everyone think they can sing, actually, think they can get their 15 minutes. You've turned America into a bunch of fame-seeking karaoke trolls. For that? Die in a fire.

Edit, 11:28 a.m. Well. It's hard to be snarky and hateful when management has just notified us that the office will close three hours early so we can get the hell out before the DeWyze-acres take over the world.

Fallout Girl.

I can't heeeeeeeear you…

Last March, when I met the Knight, I had a problem.
Well, I had a few. Too many to list here, actually. It was a dark time.
But I'm ashamed even to admit my biggest one.

It was…a Fall Out Boy problem.
Not the kind most people have — the understandable kind, the moral and ethical problem with listening to such music — but the kind where I couldn't stop listening.
It was the only thing I could play on my iPod to get my energy up when I was in a bad mood or exhausted after a long day. I ran to it, I cleaned to it, I walked to work with "America's Suitehearts" blasting into my eardrums. It was like musical Viagra.
I started listening to it because it reminded me of someone, but even after he was no longer a factor, the song remained the same. So to speak.

The effects of that little blue Pete Wentz pill lasted longer than four hours. Thank God a professional stepped in.
The night I met the Knight, our guitar class set out to play "Hotel California" all the way through. And I'd never even heard it.
Now that I have heard it, I realize my life had been no worse pre-Eagles, but…well, it's testament to how little I knew then.
I thought I was pretty hot shit where music was concerned. People came to me for music recommendations. I'd seen more concerts than I could count. I'd taken piano for more than five years…I had been singing since third grade. I enrolled in a class my senior year of college called History of Rock 'n' Roll, for God's sake!
But lord, what a child I was. Consider it The Miseducation of Paige Worthy.

I'd only scratched the surface.
The Knight cured me of my Fall Out Boy problem and knocked me down a few notches on the hot-shit totem at the same time. Then he helped me climb back up. At the start of our courtship, when words weren't enough to satisfy our curiosities about each other (they still aren't, actually), we started e-mailing MP3s to each other.
Before I left for Paris — before we were really even together — he was sending me some serious music. With some serious messages.
Millie Jackson's "Hurts So Good."
Lucinda Williams' "Essence."
Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" by Al Green.
Soul and R&B. Girl groups. Songs I knew I should have heard by then but never had. Songs I couldn't believe I hadn't heard until then. Fast new favorites. The whole world opened before me.
Then he started with the rock.
The trashy stuff by bands I'd never heard of, the trashy stuff by Springsteen. Alice Cooper. Songs that made me feel like I'd walked into a dirty trailer, kicking empty PBR cans out of my way as I walked to the fridge for a full one.
He sent stories with each song for a long time, which I loved. He wrote about the associations each song held in his mind.

And then?
The Rolling Stones.
Bob Dylan.
And, dear God: Led Zeppelin.

My new Fall Out Boy — not a guilty pleasure, no shame involved. But absolutely my new musical Viagra.
I'd heard much of it before: My dad had every one of their albums on vinyl and exposed me to some of it early on. But I had never really heard it.
I don't mind that it makes me sound like an old man saying this: They just don't make music like this anymore. It's epic. Legendary. I could Barney Stinson all over it for days.
There are songs that, when I listen to them as I walk somewhere, completely transform my step. I become a sex goddess, a terror on the sidewalk in three-inch platforms — even when I'm wearing flats. Robert Plant's howling vocals, the guitar, John Bonham's…well, John Bonham. Jesus. I understand now why everyone was so devastated when he died.
Their debut album, the extent of my pre-Knight Zeppelin knowledge, still gives me goosebumps.
Physical Graffiti, from the oozing sex of "Custard Pie" through "The Wanton Song," which makes me want to scream every time I hear it. Learning how deliberate the ebb and flow was when the record was created, the way the album builds from side to side — even though it's all packed into one tiny white box now — changes the way I listen to it completely.
Let's ignore the fact that I heard "Kashmir" first as a sample in Puff Daddy's song "Come With Me" on the Godzilla soundtrack in 1998. Shall we?

I joke with the Knight that if we ever split up, I'd never be able to listen to music again, period. Every song, every note, every lyric reminds me of him; music is woven into the fiber of our relationship, and it would take more than a stitch ripper — more than deleting a few songs from my iPod — to separate the two in my mind.
So I guess we'd better stay together. Because I can't go back to Fall Out Boy now.

Four-eyed ghost.

28957Third Eye Blind released their first album just before I finished middle school. That summer, I met the boy who can be best described — in silly, clichéd terms, anyway — as my high school sweetheart. We were best friends, I guess, who held hands in the hallway and dropped notes through the slats in each other's lockers, for three months at a time. Three times. And listened to music and watched Billy Madison about 473 times regardless of our relationship status. "Semi-Charmed Life" was (and still is) my favorite song from that Third Eye Blind album. ("Jumper" is a close second, if you must know.) But I could not, for the life of me, get the words right to one particular part of the song. I was convinced the line was, "the four-eyed ghost can make me cry." When really, the lyrics actually make sense: "The four right chords can make me cry." And for the same reasons I'll never forget the word that knocked me out of the district spelling bee in seventh grade (diffraction), those lyrics have stuck with me.

Of course, the line is true for me, too; music can reduce me to tears on any old day. Music is practically a religion to me. The way some people talk about God? That's how I feel about music, especially lyrics. The slow, sweet piano that floats into the end of Sufjan Stevens' Michigan album. The haunting electric guitar riff throughout Guster's "Demons." The intro to Frightened Rabbit's "Old Old Fashioned." I can also associate almost any song with a person or a memory, which makes the tears even easier. The song doesn't have to be sad; I just cry sometimes. (Men love that. Try it.)

tumblr_mc53itajBw1r6citqo1_500But today, as I drank in the week's first sunshine just beyond my cubicle hell, my iPod shuffled to a Death Cab for Cutie song that's always struck me lyrically but never gotten to me as it did today. "Diamond and a Tether" is written from the perspective of a guy who just can't commit, singing to the woman he's about to crush. "Pity. Take pity on me," he says. "'Cause I'm not half the man that I should be." Just before the last time through the chorus, there are these two chords. And they're nowhere else in the song but at this moment. Wrapped in these two chords? Heartbreak — his and hers. Faces falling. Her desperation and pleading eyes. His resignation and the instinctual twitch just to walk away, before the tears come. The crumbling of her last bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, she could change him.

God, it caught me. I rewound. Played it again. And again. And again. My throat tightened with each replay until the chords delivered their final blow. My iced coffee was half empty before I sighed and walked back inside, blinking back tears from behind my Jackie O sunglasses. The coffee would have been half full at any other moment. The tears just come sometimes.

Despite the semi-charmed life I find I'm living lately, the four right chords can still make me cry.

Paris: Because there's no Yelp here.

DSC_0176 copy

I've been eating like a poor, fat (happy) kid since I got to Paris.Lots of low-priced brasserie food; a croque monsieur here, a Nutella-banana crepe there.

DSC_0176My favorite "meal" may have been on the Ile Saint-Louis; I'd originally planned to have dinner at Le Tastevin, which a coworker had recommended. But it was my second day in France, and I still wasn't quite on board with the fact that dinner service doesn't start at most real restaurants until 7 p.m. (Also known as 19h; French signs always, always, always make me feel like an idiot — I much prefer 7h le soir; work with me, Paris.) So when I walked in, famished, at 5:30 and asked for a table, I was laughed back out the door and je vous en prie'd to come back in two hours. Right. Not happening. Excuse me, I'm a fat American and need food now. So I took a deep, brave breath and plunged into the fromagerie I'd passed walking down the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile. Glass cases lined with cheeses I'd never heard of, all of which I was dying to try. And I was totally incapable of communicating it. I left with a massive wedge of brie (3,50 €) then wandered down the street and bought a baguette (less than 1,50 €), biting the top corner off the loaf — with conviction! — as I walked out of the shop. Christ, I'm so French. And that baguette was so good.

I took my new acquisitions — sans assiette, sans serviette, sans souci — and sat on the curb at the edge of the bridge leading back to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. I listened to the jazz band in residence on the bridge and ate myself toute bête. Washed down with a coupe de champagne from a nearby brasserie overlooking the Seine (yes, now I'm just showing off), I was about as satisfied as I could have been at that moment.

Il Vino But now I have seen that there is more to French dining than these bargain-basement delights. And having seen this more, there is less to my bank account. Much less. When we left our heroine, she was in another blog entry, fleeing Pierre-Olivier eastward on the Champs-Élysées. But my growling stomach was propelling me as much as anything: I was on a mission for haute cuisine at a restaurant in Les Invalides called Il Vino, which a Yelper with a highly refined palate had recommended when he found out I'd be in Paris.

I circled the restaurant's spot on my map and wrote the address directly in my guide book, determined not to get lost as I have so many other times. I wasn't about to eat at — oh, shit, is that Petrossian?! — if I couldn't find Il Vino. Well, I found it. And as I turned onto the Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg, it started to rain. It was pouring by the time I reached Il Vino, but when I peered through the meticulously Windexed windows, I thought the restaurant might be closed. No one inside but a well-dressed man absentmindedly fingering the edges of a napkin on one of the beautifully clothed tables. But a sign outside said "déjeuner 7/7 midi at 14h30." That means OPEN! So I pulled on the door. And pulled. Remember that scene in Beauty and the Beast when Lumière and Cogsworth rouse the rusty, grouchy kitchen staff to make Belle a glorious feast when she arrives at the chateau? Same thing. "WEHAVEAGUEST?!"

And so it began. Silk napkin in lap, still water poured, champagne ordered and brought to the table. After a short glance at the menu, I spotted what I'd planned to order all along in the top corner, dégustation à l'aveugle (blind man's tasting menu). The general idea: I agreed to give them money. They looked at me and decided what I should eat and drink. No safe bets here; I was hungry putty in the chef's hands. Soit gentil. The server, who was essentially my date for the afternoon and whose halting English made the experience even more enjoyable, brought a warm amuse bouche to start, a perfect warm-up after getting caught in that unexpected rain shower. It was…before I started taking notes (Yelper) but I remember there being carrots involved. I wanted to get a big mug of it to go (American). While my bouche was occupée, I amused the rest of myself just taking in my surroundings: A Diana Krall concert recording was looping on the stereo, and the room was absolutely stunning. And calm. A curving bar backed with alternating glass shelves of clear and black steamware, deep violet velvet banquettes, white tablecloths, mahogany-stained wood, single black calla lilies in shallow, wide-mouthed vases. I could have stayed all afternoon. But that boisterous candlestick and those singing, dancing plates demanded my attention. My first course, paired with a wonderful white wine from Argentina, was a white fish tartare with pink peppercorns and roasted chestnuts from Piemonte, Italy. (Let me note how wonderful it was not to hear anyone going on about "local" this or "organic" that. They don't care here; it's more impressive to fly ingredients in. How glorious.) Garnished with a citron caviar (there's my 70 € worth) and an apple gelée, that graceful start had me delirious with anticipation. My next wine came in a black glass, because apparently it's a game to guess what kind of wine you're getting next — because apparently people who actually know wine go to Il Vino — and find out how close you were when they come back to present the bottle. Well, I got as far as "red" and was pretty proud to be correct. This red wine, a Burgundy, went with a duck breast served with a red wine reduction. I don't eat duck. Well, I haven't really eaten duck. But this was so wonderful: tender, flavorful, perfectly suited to the wine. (But that's the idea, right?) It came with some sort of red cabbage that I wasn't wild about, but…well, I ate it. And then there was dessert. Starting with a sparkling muscat — WHICH I GUESSED; WHAT'S MY PRIZE?! — that tasted like the airiest angel food cake. Followed by a delicate cannoli, lightly scented with orange and served on a little pillow of diced mango and papaya. Good god. Is it greedy seeming or rude to clean one's plate when dining in Paris? If so, I am beyond gauche. I was this close to licking the dishes. Sheer gluttony. When my poor server returned to my table, I was pretty blissed out and…also completely drunk. I'm pretty sure he only inferred the latter. I blame the language barrier. I told him that muscat had been "the best ever" (implied OMG: out, out, damn sorority spot!) then tried to play it cool, languorously sipping my espresso and finishing the article I'd started reading when I came in. Visa paid my bill and I floated out the door (pull) into the steady rainfall, along the Seine and back through the Place de la Concorde to my hotel. No longer caring that my hair was a mess, ignoring the fact that the dress of my dreams was getting soaked. Dancing to my Fall Out Boy as I traversed the nearly empty square next to the golden obelisk. This is what amazing food does to me. Actually, it does this to me anywhere (and, truthfully, the food doesn't have to be exquisite), but in Paris? Meals like this are what I'd dreamed for this trip.

Archived: Frightened Rabbit.

In writing the entry published just a few minutes ago, I wanted to dig up what I had written after the Frightened Rabbit concert at the Empty Bottle this past winter, originally published Jan. 25, 2009.
Barely three months ago, and it feels like another life altogether.

I need company, I need human heat.
Standing in a bar full of strangers, a sea of people separated me from my very recent ex. Someone I had thought, fleetingly, I could spend a good long time with. While I listened to a band pour their hearts out in songs from an album all about a breakup.
Before the show started, we locked eyes.
I know he saw me. (He'd gotten a haircut.)
Assuming he'd read the e-mail I sent, suggesting a temporary truce from the electronic evisceration of the past 48 hours — I, for one, was tired of being a child 85 percent of the time — I elbowed him to say hello as he began to pass me…and he set his shoulders and fixed that clouded-over, stony gaze on a point across the room.
Our coats hung on the same hook.

Still, somehow, I found myself thinking about someone else for the entire set.
And the time rewinds to the end of May / I wish we'd never met then met today

I can't imagine a better venue for this concert.
The odd angle of the stage brought everyone in closer; the temperature of the room easily went up 20 degrees as the crowd inched toward the stage before Frightened Rabbit emerged from what I can only imagine was the shabbiest green room ever.
The floors bounced with every beat. We danced; we drank; we yelled the lyrics along with the band. But I still felt at times like I was the only person there with the music.

After the second song in the set, the lead singer pulled out a capo and snapped it to the neck of his guitar, strumming one chord to test the key, and I knew. Hearing "Old Old Fashioned" performed live — the singer's raw, quavering voice through the mic, feedback vibrating my whole body — after so many plays through those tired white earbuds, was glorious.
I'd like to think the whole band was wearing plaid, the hipster uniform, though their shirts may have been missing the mother-of-pearl buttons.
But I can't be sure. I was fixated on the singer, the way his lips formed the words and his face contorted when he hit a high note. His accent when he told us what a special crowd we were, that only in Chicago could the band play two shows in one night. He called himself a cheeseball. The sleeves of his shirt (definitely plaid) were rolled up tightly at his elbows and plastered to his upper arms with sweat; it poured down his face and slicked his hair across his forehead.
He took the stage for an encore holding nothing but an acoustic guitar. He stood on a speaker 10 feet away from me to play "Poke," which I'd never really listened to before, and the crowd fell silent but to sing along. Captivated.
Music can be so powerful, it takes my breath away. I needed that concert, that night, as much as I need human heat.