The Covid symptom I wasn’t prepared for

Jane Siberry’s “It Can’t Rain All the Time” from The Crow

Actually, there were two of them.

The first is total loss of sense of time and place. I kinda remember when I first started feeling what might have been symptoms—to find out soon enough that they most certainly were. And I remember calling the doctor and getting tested and  going to the emergency room and then a quarantine hotel and then being sent to the hospital and not leaving my bed, even to go to the bathroom, for over a week before they finally discharged me on New Year’s Eve, thank god in time to hear Sandy Bernhard perform a brief concert solo from her living room.

But I do distinctly remember when I first wept openly—Friday the 18th. It was that day I was diagnosed at CityMD.

Trying to piece it all together now, I had gone to the gym the Sunday before (Dec. 13), then that night started experiencing chills, then fever, then aches and pains. I had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on other health issues for Wednesday, but by Tuesday I realized maybe I shouldn’t come in. I called and they said it was okay, but that maybe I should go to the emergency room as a precaution. I figured I’d be good for one night, and when I did come in the next day, they put me alone in an office to talk to the doc by computer. He sent me to pick up a couple over-the-counter things and said I should get tested.

I walked over to CityMD on 42nd Street (five blocks or so) Thursday afternoon—the day of the big snowstorm—and couldn’t get in. So I went back early Friday morning—it was in the fucking 20s—and had to stand there in line, miserable and freezing, for two hours, 14 people ahead of me. My toes and fingers were frozen, and when I finally did get in, I was shivering for half an hour while they tested me for Covid, flu and pneumonia. I figured the Covid was positive when the guy started asking me where I’d been.

A chest X-ray was clear, but the doctor was emphatic that I go straight to the emergency room—by ambulance. I told her I didn’t have that kind of money, but she was insistent, and made me feel like an asshole for not freaking out the way she was. I told her I could easily walk from 42nd to 60th—Mount Sinai West—but she couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t drop dead on the way.

I didn’t. They didn’t even keep me long, since my oxygen was fine. They said I should just quarantine and everything should be okay.

It wouldn’t be.

The next day I really must have started feeling it. In addition to the other symptoms, I started coughing pretty bad. I think maybe it was Monday that I got a follow-up call from the City, where they told me about the quarantine hotels. They said they’d send a car to pick me up and take me to one if I wanted, where I’d have a room and food and nursing care. Sounded perfect.

It would have been Tuesday night (the 22nd), then, when they brought me to LaGuardia Plaza across from the airport. I was admitted and got to my room probably around 11 p.m. They sent food up but I wasn’t hungry; I don’t think I’d eaten anything for a week, actually. Nauseous, and no appetite.

They came around every few hours to check on me, and in the morning a nurse started asking questions that I must not have answered very well, because she sent me to the hospital—but not before instructing me to leave my belongings—a few changes of underwear and t-shirts, toiletries, and unfortunately, my gym lock, scattered on the other bed in the room alongside the old but still usable black DAKINE gym duffle.

I did think it was an odd demand, especially since she also said I would not be returning and that they would send everything to me. But by now I was so confused I went along with it. I do thank the gods for leaving me enough sense to take my computer bag, which had my laptop and chargers and a few important papers. To this day I haven’t received the fucking gym duffle and its contents, and no one ever gets back to me when I call the hotel.

And now for an aside: As so often happens with personal articles like these, they can be written over a period of days, if not weeks, months and even years. As I write this now, it’s the midafternoon of Jan. 14. I’ve been trying—and failing–for three weeks to retrieve my gym bag and its contents, for as I’m sure you’ve guessed, they never did send them to me. In fact, two weeks ago when I called on Jan. 2, they told me that they never would have said not to take it with me! They also said they’d get back to me after they found them.

I waited a week before trying again. This time I got a very nice young woman, who assured me she’d look into it and get right back to me. And now today, a week later, I called her again: My name sounded familiar, she said, upon which I refilled her in. It all came back quickly. Of course she had dropped the ball, and I told her how very disappointed I was in her, for which she was most genuinely apologetic. She put me on hold, and when she returned, explained that she’d been on the phone with the “site manager” at the hotel and that I should call him now, that they had my belongings. I think I actually believed that, and if I did I must still be gravely ill.

For when I called, the guy didn’t seem to know who I was or why I was calling. And he wasn’t very happy when he found out. Then again, neither was I.

As I said, I had gotten to my room at the hotel around 11 p.m. I was not given a key as the door would remain unlocked, they explained, so they could come in periodically to check on me. Early the next morning the nurse sent me to the hospital in an ambulance. Up until then, I hadn’t once left the room, and without a key, had no means of knowing what my room number was, let alone what floor I was on. They’d just opened the door the night before and I went in and shut it.

The site manager found this unacceptable, that I didn’t know what room I was in or the floor. Things escalated pretty quickly to a near shouting match, as it was clear he didn’t know who I was or where my things were, and I couldn’t understand how it was possible that there was apparently no record of what room they admitted me into–let alone where my belongings, which I was told to leave, were. It peaked when he asked me if I had Covid when I was admitted—a question I thought was insane. Yes, I yelled. That’s why I was there! This quieted him down, since if I was admitted with Covid, he said, I had to be on one of floors 4 through 7. Complaining that he had a lot to do, he said he’d get to it and get back to me. I described the bag, and spent the rest of the day waiting for him to call.

I’m still waiting….

When they carried me out to the ambulance, they took me to a Mount Sinai hospital in Queens, good in that I’m under care of a Mt. Sinai cardiologist for severe heart failure—another story that I might go into here at some point as a companion to “Cancer Funnies” (“Heart Failure Follies,” maybe?). I got there and they carted me into a glass-doored room just off the nursing station, where they laid me out onto a wheeled bed and began a day full of tests including a chest X-ray, CAT scan (they wheeled me to another room for that one), blood and vitals. I had a TV with a handset that controlled the channels and had a little speaker in it, and a bathroom, which I used a number of times until late in the day when a nurse came in with an opaque plastic, angled pitcher-like object with a handle, which I thought was a fancy water bottle. It kind of was actually—except it was a handheld urinal that she not only explained to me how to use (in this case, standing up), but stood behind me, I guess to offer emotional support and encouragement while I gave it a go; I found the whole experience odd but again, didn’t ask any questions, as by now I was deep in the Twilight Zone.

But I hadn’t had any real conversation with any of the nurses and doctors the entire day until now, and now it was getting late in the evening. The nurse said they needed to find me a room, which I figured would be in the hospital I was in. Nope. A couple hours later—after midnight—another crew came in and wheeled me into another ambulance, and we were off to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai/St. Luke’s—or Morningside—at Columbia University, though I didn’t really know where I was. Lying in the ambulance and looking out the rear window I could see us turn into a major street with colorful Christmas decorations strung above. From the colors I guessed it was the 1-2-5 in Harlem, and sure enough when we turned off I could see that the first one said, “Welcome to 125th Street.”

It was around 2 AM, Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), when they wheeled me into what seemed to be a dead hospital. There were guards who let us through the entrance, but I didn’t see anyone in the empty halls as they pushed me through, finally turning me into a room and setting me up on the far side, next to another occupant who was asleep and separated by a curtain. I hadn’t spent the night in such a room in a general hospital since I spent a month in the psyche ward of Madison General back in Madison, Wis. 50 years ago.

So now it’s Christmas Eve Day—very early morning. When the night nurse got me out of my clothes and into a gown and made my bed and explained how it worked, I was on my back until New Year’s Eve. They didn’t even want me to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Rather, they gave me another plastic urinal (which I learned how to use in bed), and brought a portable, personal “commode” to the side of the bed. Jesus, I thought. I hadn’t sat on one of those, probably, since I was two-years-old.

The nurse also showed me how to use the TV—same as at the first hospital. A doctor came in and asked me what they should do worst case scenario. I didn’t really have a good answer, because he didn’t give me a lot of options. Obviously, I didn’t want to end up a fucking vegetable and I think I conveyed at least that much, for they never brought it up again. I did tell him that I’m an organ donor, but should have mentioned that if anything was left over they should just dump it all in Potter’s Field.

I found MSNBC on the TV and since they didn’t have TCM or MeTV and I didn’t want to mess around with it, it stayed there for the next week. This indeed posed a problem: Between Christmas and New Year’s, MSNBC is a wasteland. All you get are all-night reruns of their documentaries and tabloid crime investigations, but very little fresh news programming, even during the day. Worse, is you really see how awful the commercials are—over and over and over again. I’m talking about drugs for ancients like me, of course, but also cars, insurance, both cars and insurance (CarShield), charities…and Satan dating? WTF!

Yes, I, too, marveled at that oven that uses light and heats your dinner in, what, half a second? But did I have to see it every fucking five minutes? I’ll admit, though, that even the meat dishes started to look good for this hospitalized vegan. At least I said I was vegan, but that only brought me a carton of milk with every meal, and as often as not, a chicken dish. Otherwise it was all veggie burgers–cold veggie burgers. By the end of the second day all I could think of was the chocolate cake that never came.

I should mention that they provided little cans of Shasta ginger ale. Shasta! I hadn’t had that probably since the psyche ward. Impressed they were still around.

Of course, I had my laptop, and I’d brought along a lot of work that I’d figured I’d be well enough to do at the quarantine hotel. But lying in bed for a week, I suffered from extreme malaise. Every couple hours I’d check emails and news sites, Twitter and Facebook, and that was about it, that is, until I remembered that Amazon Prime was showing the final 10 episodes of Vikings, but that wasn’t until Dec. 30—though I was able to watch the first four before discharge.

There was always Trump/election news, of course, and the one huge story: the Nashville bombing. But like with all such events, there was very little news that could be gleaned quickly other than casualty count and damage estimate. But I started my career in Nashville in the late 1970s, covering country music. I haven’t been there in years, but I know the downtown very well, and was horrified.

I have a friend who was likewise horrified. I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to exaggerate—overexaggerate—my artist friends, name-dropping them frequently in vain effort to maintain the mirage of my longlost visibility and viability in music journalism. But I won’t identify this friend other than to say that he in fact is quite noteworthy, but he was emailing me because he apparently thought he’d emailed me earlier by mistake in trying to reach a mutual Nashville friend.

I’d purposefully kept my illness and hospitalization pretty quiet. I mean, I was kind of embarrassed: How could I have gotten it? I wear a mask all the time, keep my social distance, wash my hands. God knows I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anyone in 10 months–like all of us–though I’d worked the entire early voting poll period and didn’t get it then.

But also, I didn’t know how this thing was going to end. I mean, we were already at 3,000 Covid deaths a day, and I came in at 68 with severe heart failure. Perhaps Potter’s Field, located in the northeastern Bronx on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, was really just around the corner. I sure didn’t want anyone freaking out, then freaking me out even more. My sister and brother knew, and my best friends—some of whom are also quite well known and will remain anonymous here.

I did have my cell phone, but I had a charger that only worked intermittently, so I used it sparingly, mainly to respond to texts or see if I had any calls. Besides, I had intense coughing fits: One time I actually fainted and when I came to, freaked the fuck out when I couldn’t find my laptop. I finally looked down and there it was on the fucking floor! I’d knocked it over, but thank god, it was okay! Nothing broke (so glad it has Gorilla Glass!), and I went back to doing next to nothing with it.

They were giving me cough medicine, of course, and five or six pills including Torsemide—for high blood pressure. It’s a diuretic and makes you piss like there’s no tomorrow, since I retain water in my swollen, discolored elephantine legs and feet—my initial symptoms three years ago, when an older doctor at my poor people’s clinic (she hated me), was experienced enough to detect the subtle sound of aortic regurgitation that the younger docs, probably in their short-term first jobs, had missed.

That’s what I have: severe aortic regurgitation, where the heart pumps blood into the aorta, and in my weird case, the aorta pumps it back into the heart. I believe there’s an aneurysm in there somewhere as well. Only a matter of time, I gather.

Torsemide. Where do they come up with these drug names? Someone must be making a shitload of money spending their days dreaming up the stupidest drug names, same with conceiving the dumbest commercials to promote them (starting with Ozempic’s “Magic”). I must say, though, that my legs and feet contracted to normal for the first time in years, but my guess is that it’s because I was lying in bed the whole time: It only took a couple days back home before my feet swelled up so bad I could only get into a pair of sneakers so old they’re barely held together.

They also must have had me on antibiotics. I had an IV in my arm that when a nurse changed bled all over the bed. They took blood at least once a day to where my arms and hands were black-and-blue, and they tested blood pressure and temperature at least four times a day. They also gave me a blood thinner shot each morning.

I had to sip water and Shasta very carefully since I was always supine (though I could and did mechanically raise my back more upright when I needed to eat or check the computer), so as not to spark a coughing fit by trickling down the wrong pipe. And because of the Torsemide I had to urinate every 10 minutes or so. It got to the point where a nurse would walk in and I’d be lying there with my dick in the urinal and neither of us thought anything of it, though in retrospect, I’m glad it was opaque.

And by chance, if I’d made a “Number Two,” I’d point to the potty, like I was an embarrassed toddler, and would only nod my head when the nurse asked, “Number Two?” By this point I probably had regressed to being an embarrassed toddler.

But back to the few emails and phone calls from friends, and finally, that second Covid symptom I mentioned at the top that they don’t tell you about, that I couldn’t identify at the outset.

It was Friday the 18th again, the day I was first diagnosed. I was okay that night at home, and was excited to tune in online to Betty in Concert—Stuck at Home for the Holidays.

If you don’t know who Betty is, you most certainly should: Three most wonderful female musicians (Amy Ziff, cello; sister Elizabeth Ziff, guitar; Alyson Palmer, bass) who write and sing often uproarious songs—–many topical, many satirical, all falling under the “SoConPop” (socially conscious pop) rubric.

They’re also feminist/political activists, whose organization The Betty Effect fosters self-advocacy to advance social change, with an emphasis on helping women and girls, the LGBTQ community, and arts activists, worldwide.

I’ve gone to Betty’s holiday shows for years, and they’re always a joy. They also always star special guest Gloria Steinem, who is gloriously brought out at the end to deliver a “Top 10” list relating in some way to the state of our disunion. I’ve always remembered one year, probably right before the 2016 election, when she concluded with, “Remember: Adolf Hitler came to power in a democratic election with low voter turnout.”

I’ve been a Betty fan a long time, and if I remember correctly, they were guests at a Jane Siberry show when I first saw them. At Betty’s Stuck at Home for the Holidays show, Jane was one of their special guests, appearing from home to join them in singing her best-known song, “Calling All Angels.”

Jumping ahead for a moment, now that I’m out of the hospital two weeks, I’m a lot better—though I still have a bad cough if I’m talking on the phone. And I’m still slower and weaker than I’d like, but picking up speed, at least, when I do go outside. Today, actually, was the first day I managed to climb all four flights of steps to my top-floor walk-up without stopping, though I was panting heavily when I got to the top.

When the ambulance brought me home New Year’s Eve, the driver insisted upon accompanying me to my floor. I tried to wave him off, certain it would be no prob. I hadn’t taken under consideration the fact that I hadn’t been out of bed for over a week until that afternoon. I’m glad he stayed with me, because when I got to the first floor I thought I was going to die. I had to sit down for five minutes before I caught my breath, then repeated the rest stop after each flight until I made it to my door—then took 10 minutes on the steps to the roof before having enough strength to open my door.

There was a box outside my door, from the city. It had a thermometer, package of masks, bottle of hand sanitizer, and a “pulse oximeter”—one of those finger gadgets that tell you what your oxygen is. Took me a while to figure it out, since I’m long past too old to read the tiny print on the instructions. Turns out I put the batteries in wrong! I had to download an app for my phone so I could enter in all kinds of stuff that a Mt. Sinai physical therapist monitors daily, i.e., oxygen level, temperature, ease of breathing, etc. He Zooms me every Wednesday to make sure I’m okay.

Before I went to the hospital, my cardiologist had me taking Torsemide and a couple other pills, but my discharge papers showed that they’d reduced the Torsemide dosage and cut out the other stuff. In addition to prescribing the lower Torsemide, they prescribed two days of steroids. What they didn’t do was check to make sure the pharmacy was open New Year’s Day, which it wasn’t. Oh, well….

I thought maybe I should call the cardiologist on Monday (Jan. 4) and make sure he knew about the new medication. I don’t think he did, and I don’t think he knew I’d been hospitalized. He wasn’t happy about either, and instead of waiting for me to come in at the end of the month as planned (three months after my last appointment), he rushed me in on Thursday, when, looking at my hospital records, he told me something they didn’t tell me at the hospital: I’d had double Covid pneumonia. This explained the couple instances of coughing up blood.

As you can imagine, cardio was now even less happy, and ordered me to see a pulmonary guy to make sure there wasn’t additional lung damage (before Covid, the heart condition was already putting pressure on them). But first I had to see a hematologist.

I’d seen hematologists off and on for maybe 15 years depending on whether I had insurance. It was a borderline, “Come back in three months” low platelet situation. When I went in last week, the doc explained that—as usual—mine was an unusual case: Usually when there’s a blood disorder, all three blood cells—red, white and platelet—are affected, I guess because they all come from the same place (bone marrow). With me, only the platelets were low, a cause for concern in that the platelets are involved in blood clotting: As my cardiologist has suggested–maybe not in this way—if he decides to cut me open, he doesn’t want me to bleed out on the table.

So my platelet count, which fluctuates, was actually fine last week, so it was “Come back in three months.” But the intake doctor was remarkably thorough in interviewing me, especially in light of my Covid situation. When she was done, I felt compelled to address one symptom she didn’t ask about—that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere.

“I don’t know if this is worth noting,” I said, slowly and softly, “but I’ll say that I’m really a very cold person. I don’t give a shit about anyone or anything. But for some reason, when I came down with Covid, I became ridiculously sentimental and emotional and started crying uncontrollably, usually over nothing.” Male menopause, maybe? No, I’m way too old.

Well, maybe not over nothing. And cold as I am, I will say that I always cry at movies (if I’m with someone I try hard to hide it), and I always cry when I hear certain female vocalists, including Jane Siberry, Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee, Maria Callas. And speaking of Callas, I always cry during opera curtain calls: Something about having experienced the performances of people who have devoted their entire lives to the ultimate performance art, and given us in the audience every ounce of what they have for three-plus hours.

So returning to the Betty holiday show, when they started bringing on the night’s special guests, and began introducing the first one as someone they all dearly loved, who had always been so kind and supportive in promoting them and including them in her own shows. I knew immediately that it was Jane—and I will say that not only am I a huge, huge Jane fan, but I’ve written liner notes on at least four of her albums (including her own incredible Christmas album), can be heard in a phone conversation she included on another one, and am thanked next to John Lennon on her biggest-selling album (I’m pretty sure), When I Was a Boy, on which is her most famous song “Calling All Angels.”

I must add, though, that Jane is also known to martial artists, for the heartbreaking song “It Can’t Rain All the Time,” which plays during the end-credits of The Crow—the Brandon Lee movie in which he tragically died accidentally.

“Calling All Angels,” which on When I Was a Boy is sung with Jane’s fellow Canadian great k.d. lang and somewhat famously appeared prominently in the movie Pay It Forward, opens with Jane invoking saints including Santa Maria and Santa Teresa, then calls on all angels to come help us. For this performance, however, Jane changed the opening saints to include the contemporary likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and frontline health workers. But even as soon as she appeared on camera I began weeping, overcome with emotion.

I emailed her immediately after: “Not sure why I’m so emotional all of a sudden but it’s probably illness related: diagnosed with COVID today. Looks like I’ll get through it ok, though the doc sent me immediately to the emergency room, and was afraid I might drop dead on the way.”

She responded, just as quickly: “How can one know if one can get through it ok? Your heart is broke open. And you remembered when you were watching us–your long-time friends–that you love life. And this has been a good one, difficult as it has been.”

Earlier, I mentioned the email from my unidentified friend. There were some others who are likely household names, depending of course on the house you live in. But he offered a similar explanation for my sudden Covid crying jags: “To be so overwhelmed by emotion is to be expected. You have truly been delivered back to your life and to your friends.”

Like I said, my cardiologist wasn’t happy. Besides ordering me to see the pulmonary doctor and hematologist, he now wanted to see me right away rather than wait a couple weeks to when I was scheduled to see him again, having done well enough on a heart stress echocardiogram test (an ultrasound examination of heart function during and following a brief treadmill workout) three months earlier.

I saw him on Jan. 7, when he scheduled a transthoracic echo test (a standard, no-stress echo, at rest) for two weeks after. Walking back from his office on W. 59th, I stopped at the High School of Environmental Studies on W. 56, one of two places where I go out to pick up free food every day—something I hadn’t done since getting sick three weeks ago.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened,” I said to the nice, very concerned woman who knows my diet and filled my empty shopping bag, one I picked up at Toy Fair a year ago.

I didn’t.

Not that it makes any difference, but she’s Black, maybe half my age. Kindness knows no color or calendar–though it does often come where you least expect it.

I turned the corner on to 10th Ave., my dilapidated Toy Fair bag scraping the sidewalk, since she’d filled it up with enough food to last a week. I then turned into CVS to pick up some cough medicine, tears streaming down my face.

Crying like a baby: Women’s March NYC, 1-21-2017

I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.

I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.

Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.

And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.

I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.

The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.

Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.

It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.

I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.

A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.

“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”

“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.

But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.

The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”

Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.


And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”

I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”

I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”

Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”

When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

Tales of Bessman: Volunteers of America

Paul Kantner’s death last week made me think of marching.

Marching past the dorms on the University of Wisconsin campus in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” blasting out of the windows along with “Street Fightin’ Man.”

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution

Co-written by Kantner and Marty Balin, “Volunteers” was the 1969 titletrack single that closed the band’s 1969 album, whose lead track was its B-side “We Can Be Together,” which was written by Kantner and inspired by the Black Panther Party’s use of the phrase “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” which appears in the chorus. Hence it was an uncommonly political two-sided single, and came out at a time when I was coming home at night reeking of tear gas that would drip down my long hair and into my eyes again when I showered.

Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution, got to revolution

I was a senior in high school, Class of ‘70. Kent State was May 4. My best guess was it was those demonstrations when a can of pepper gas or CS gas blew up in my face and I made it to a first aid station at the Hillel Foundation on Langdon Street to get treated. Maybe it was an earlier one.

One time we marched up State Street to the foot of Bascom Hill, where the National Guard was waiting. They fired a volley of tear gas canisters and I ran up the ground level ramp of the parking lot on the corner, only to find at the top that there were no stairs at that end—so I had to turn around and run all the way back down into the clouds of gas. I didn’t get caught, but I never felt so stupid.

Another time I was hiding from National Guard in the bushes along the shore of Lake Mendota, a helicopter above shining a searchlight down on us from above. That Saturday they gave free seats in the end zone to the Guard, who sat there in uniform and looked pretty harmless. But I was scared shit in the bushes.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want your fucking war!”

“Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh! NLF is gonna win!”

I never did it, but it’s true that there were kids who threw rocks and smashed windows in the shops on State Street. One of them was a clothing store owned by a Concentration Camp survivor, who likened it to Nazi Germany. I felt sorry for him, for having his store trashed, and for being an idiot.

Ironically, the right wingers in town–mostly Republican legislators from Northern Wisconsin, blamed “outside agitators” who invariably came from New York—code then, and now, for Jews. Just ask Ted Cruz.

The day after Kent State I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School with 100 others—we were called “The Memorial 101”—for protesting. I showered the gas out again that night when I got home.

This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey, now it’s time for you and me

One of the first records I bought was “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” Lesley Gore’s hit from 1963, when I was 11. She had just turned 17 when she recorded it. She always said, “You gotta make your 16-year-old self proud.”

I was 17 in 1970 at the time of Kent State. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, there was a big protest March in Manhattan, on a very cold day. I met up at Grand Central with my friends Suri Gopalan, an Indian who owned a small chain of South Asian music and video stores based in New Jersey, and Jane Sibery, the renowned Canadian singer-songwriter, who happened to be in town. We marched somewhere on the East Side. I can’t remember where the destination was—it must have been the U.N.–but the turnout was so big we never got anywhere near.

I think I got close to it toward the end, when it started thinning out and Suri and Jane had left. I do remember that I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that 33 years after Kent State, I hadn’t changed—at least where it really counted. I’m not much of a crier, usually, but I did start crying. I had made my 16-year-old self proud.

I met Paul Kantner a few times, first a few years after I came to New York. It was 1986, and he was in town promoting the album KBC Band, KBC Band being Kantner, Balin and their Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. They were on Arista Records, and I was in their publicist’s office. Paul pulled out a joint, lit it up, took a hit and passed it to me. Of course I did the same, never thinking twice. The publicist did, though, and still rags me for it.

A few years later I was at a meet-and-greet after a Jefferson Airplane show at Radio City, and told Grace Slick how we used to march to “Volunteers.” She laughed–but she didn’t laugh it off.

My favorite couplet from “Volunteers”:

One generation got old
One generation got soul.

Jean Béliveau and Jane Siberry

For baseball there’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and, of course, “Centefield.” It’s Loudon Wainwright III’s “The Back Nine” for golf, and being from Milwaukee I think of “On Wisconsin” when it comes to football.

And for hockey, there’s Jane Siberry’s “Hockey,” as great a sports song as there ever was, though it’s about more than just sports—and newsworthy now in light of the death Tuesday night of Jean Béliveau, the legendary Montreal Canadiens captain who helped lead the team to an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups during the 1950s and ‘60s, and 10 total in his career.

“Like millions of hockey fans who followed the life and the career of Jean Béliveau, the Canadiens today mourn the passing of a man whose contribution to the development of our sport and our society was unmeasurable,”team owner Geoff Molson said in a statement. “Jean Béliveau was a great leader, a gentleman and arguably the greatest ambassador our game has ever known.”

Indeed, Béliveau was so beloved that he almost became Canada’s Governor General in 1994.

But he’s immortalized in “Hockey,” in one of popular music’s truly great lyrics: “This stick was signed by Jean Béliveau/So don’t fucking tell me where to fucking go.”

The voice is that of a young kid playing hockey on a frozen river in Canada (“You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank/That’s how you stop/And you get your sweater from the catalog/You use your rubber boots for goal posts”).

Also invoked is Béliveau’s teammate Maurice “Rocket” Richard: “They rioted in the streets of Montreal when they benched Rocket Richard.”

Richard was suspended in 1955 following a violent altercation, touching off the Richard Riot in Montreal resulting in some $100,000 in property damage, 37 injuries, and 100 arrests. But the pro hockey references, indeed, even hockey itself, aren’t so much the heart of “Hockey” as Siberry’s magical conjuring of childhood (“Someone’s dog just took the puck/He buried it, it’s in the snowbank…Someone else just got called for dinner”) and its inevitable end.

The sun is fading on the frozen river
The wind is dying down
Don’t let those Sunday afternoons
Get away get away get away get away.

Concert Highlights: Jane Siberry, 11/18/14


No, Jane. I didn’t mean, when I said it was like seeing you for the first time—30-plus years ago—that you aren’t any different now. What I meant is that your new band show is as spellbinding as the first one in terms of presentation—and music, of course.

At least, I think that’s what I meant, now that I think about it: That incredible show at The Bottom Line, when you came out with a band and the two female backup singers, and the three of you had those microphones that you wear around your head so you can move around. To this day it was one of the most memorable shows I ever saw.

Anyway, I told this to Jane Siberry in the Green Room after her hour-long show at the East Side apartment of prominent, if not notorious, New York criminal defense attorney Gerald Shargel. Said Green Room was really an office/study lined with incredible photos of Che Guevara, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Joan and Martin Luther King, and the like. Also framed on one end of the room was the famous Milton Glaser psychedelic poster that was included in the 1967 Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits album, which I used to have tacked up in my bedroom, you know, the one with the multi-colored hair on the black silhouette.

Framed on the other end were the somewhat famous—if you’re a New Yorker–New York Post front pages of secretly taped John Gotti quotes railing against his defense attorneys, of which Gerry—and I hope it’s okay to call him Gerry, since we’re all Friends of Jane–was one. Presumably, Gerry never turned the Teflon Don on to Jane.

But Gerry had previously turned on a number of his friends to Jane and other highest quality music acts by holding these “salon” concerts at his home. This was Jane’s second appearance, and she remembered one of the 25 listeners in the living room from her first one a couple years ago, and that legendary New York columnist Jimmy Breslin had been there as well.

She came out with longtime collaborator/bandleader/pianist/composer Peter Kiesewalter, cellist Kevin Fox, and backup singers Ali Hughes—who met Jane in her native Australia when Jane did a salon there—and Rebecca Jenkins, like everyone else, a Canadian—whom I saw with Jane that first time at the Bottom Line.

There! That’s what I meant about how it was like seeing you for the first time! Even though all the music was different—but just as great!

Gerry introduced Jane by noting that her biggest album, When I Was a Boy, which includes her most famous song “Calling All Angels,” was one of his Desert Island Discs. I told him later that I’m thanked on that album next to John Lennon. I also told him that I always say how when you think of John Lennon, of course, you immediately think of Jim Bessman, but in all honesty, I’ve never said that to May Pang.

Jane started by saying how her job was to make us all forget, the best we could, what we were thinking about for 60 minutes. She began with “All we like sheep have gone astray” from Handel’s Messiah, this salon being a preview of her upcoming Holiday Hoes and Hosers tour—though Jane explained that it’s really simply about garden tools. She also pointed out that in Handel’s case, the entire Messiah was written two weeks prior to its first performance in a pub—with people likely calling out for beer by the time they got to the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

“That’s the way I like things to be—real,” she said, and real it was in Gerry’s living room, where Christmas came early. Other seasonal songs included “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which she released on her 2003 album Shushan the Palace (Hymns of Earth), and a personal favorite, “Hockey,” from 1989’s Bound by the Beauty, in which Jenkins jingled a tambourine, and Hughes hit a block to the lyric “You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank–that’s how you stop.”

“People from Canada and cold climates really fly into it,” Jane said of the song. I’m from Wisconsin.

She also sang When I Was a Boy’s ethereal “Love is Everything,” so beautiful with Kiesewalter’s piano backing, and a few songs from her upcoming album Consider the Lilies, a single-CD summary of her three-album trilogy Dragon Dreams (2008), With What Shall I Keep Warm? (2009) and Meshach Dreams Back (2011), mixing music and spoken word in songs like “When We Are Queen” and “Then We Heard a Shout.”

“It’s about questioning how we keep ourselves warm–if we let go of everything,” she explained, noting that the title derives from the Gospel of Matthew’s instruction in regard to material provisions.

“Is there anyone who is Jewish who’s offended by ‘Savior’ songs?” she asked Gerry, who assured her no, to which she added, “They offend me, and I’m a Christian!” But she loves the “beautiful old Christmas songs, with beautiful melodies and images of donkeys and stars” that have long since been banned from public schools because of religious content.

“I wrote a song that I hoped was neutral that kids could learn—that’s been done by choruses,” she said, leading into and closing with her very beautiful and “neutral” “Are You Burning, Little Candle?,” from Child: Music for the Holidays (1997).

She encored, of course, with “Calling All Angels,” after relating that when she recorded it with k.d. lang in separate vocal booths, both realized at the same time that they needed to come out and sing together next to each other, despite the producer’s preference to keep them apart and stanch any audio bleeding.

“There’s so much more you can get when you’re singing and playing music in close proximity,” she said.

“Calling All Angels” over, I suddenly remembered what it was I was thinking about 60 minutes earlier.

Just like the first time, Jane.

Trust me: Don’t miss any of her Holiday Hoes and Hosers shows.