Driving and Playing Music

(This essay appeared originally in the September 2010 issue of The Scope Magazine in a slightly shorter version; it appears here with The Scope’s kind permission).

It was in my second or third year as a musician in New York City, around 1991, when I started getting sick of marijuana. Pot made me think too much and thinking seemed to screw things up or just make me bummed out.

Pot had seemed to work for me for a long time. I had smoked it already on the gigs I got in high school – weddings, parties and the like – and by now at age 20 it was a ritual. I had my regular gigs with different groups and usually I would smoke a joint for the last set – the first set I’d play straight. The idea was to put a different slant on everything – perhaps just when I was getting bored with my own playing or with the gig in general. Sometimes the pot really worked; sometimes I would come back to play the second set and everything became really interesting and I became captivated by the music – captivated, often, simply by the idea of music itself. Anyone who’s smoked pot knows what I mean more generally. Everything suddenly seems rich with possibility, even though in reality it has the same variables it had 20 minutes earlier before the joint was smoked.

In this sense, pot is really a mild hallucinogen, just like it’s described in the textbooks – it gives, initially at least, the same feeling of wonder and amazement at everyday reality that something like LSD does, to a lesser extent, and in a more passive, mellow way. I had had some great experiences with LSD in high school. I would often wind up at the piano when I was well into an acid trip – sort of this reflective, very intense part of a trip that takes place around 3 hours after you start – and I would just sit there and play a few notes. I couldn’t play music – it was just too much; it was too overwhelming. But I would play a C major triad and just get lost in it for an hour – the way it sounded, the way it felt sensually, but also its implications, what it meant, where it was coming from, what it could lead to, all that stuff. It took on this gravity, that C major chord, and held me there, locked.

Smoking pot was like that for me, albeit to a much lesser degree. I can’t speak about anyone else and would never say that people should or shouldn’t smoke pot when they make music, but here’s my take on it, from my own experience: If you’re playing music, it’s like you’re driving. You’re looking ahead at the road. You can glance to the side and take in the scenery for a moment, but you don’t want to get stuck looking too long – you’ll start driving slowly, or driving badly, you’ll drift from your lane, you’ll rear-end someone in front of you, or worse. Smoking pot often leads to driving slowly/badly, as anyone knows who has been stoned in the driver’s seat, or been a hapless passenger in that situation. There is a very distinct state of being known as pot-paranoia, and it kicks in during situations that normally would be stressful but manageable. When you’re stoned, they can suddenly turn sinister, and you become petrified with fear. You’re driving carefully, but too carefully – too slowly, not in the intuitive flow of traffic with the other drivers. You hesitate too much, and then plunge forward, nervously. It’s a big mess.

This used to happen to me all the time when I would drive from my parents house in West Hartford, Connecticut to Manhattan during my first few years living in the city – I just never learned. I would be in my parents’ station wagon and would smoke a joint around midway through the journey, always at the same point – a rest stop right after crossing into New York State from Connecticut, a big place with a parking lot and a sign that says, “Welcome to The Empire State”. Often, there were Boy Scouts there selling donuts and coffee to raise money for their troop – I never really understood why they chose that rest stop, but it was a great perk, because the donut and coffee duo was a wonderful accompaniment to the journey after the joint.

I’d get back into the station wagon with a fresh outlook, and driving a car suddenly was interesting – epic, downright Kerouacian. I was taken with the experience of traveling the great American landscape in my parent’s Chevy, enthralled with it all. I was quite stoned, though, and was chugging along slowly in the farthest right lane on the wide, uninteresting Interstate 684. That was fine until I got on the Saw Mill River Parkway for the last thirty or so miles of the trip. The Saw Mill is one of those older highways that were built in the 50’s, with thinner, slanted driving lanes, no breakdown lane, plenty of sharp turns, and exit and entrance ramps that are little more than the size of a small driveway and sometimes appear blindly around a turn. If there is heavy traffic, or even if there isn’t heavy traffic, those kinds of roads require some attention and skill.

I love these old highways. I love to drive on them just for pleasure, to take in the scenery and to feel the journey – roads like the Taconic State Parkway that starts just north of the Bronx in Westchester County and continues through the state of New York, along the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains; or the Palisades Parkway that hugs the border between New Jersey and New York, with its imposing cliffs along the Hudson River just minutes after coming off the George Washington Bridge from upper Manhattan. (I always have the feeling when I’m viewing those bare cliffs that I have traveled in time and am viewing the Hudson River the way it was hundreds of years ago, and imagine rowing a canoe across the river or just jumping in the water.) Or there is the mysterious, underrated Merritt Parkway – the link between privileged hamlets like Greenwich, Connecticut and New York City squalor.

The Saw Mill after a joint was menacing though. It was partially the road itself, but also the perceived or real aggressiveness from other drivers: Westchester County types, speeding along at 70 miles per hour, racing to their Wall Street gigs in their luxury cars. And there I was, petrified, trying to maintain 50 miles per hour – completely taken in by everything, too taken in, that is to say; that is what pot does: It magnifies the is-ness of everything, and all of that is-ness – all of that stuff that is always there before our view in everyday reality and often seems banal – shimmers with significance, with a feeling of consequence.

The exits alone on the Saw Mill, in that freshly baked state, were worthy of observation, reflection and wonder – exits to towns with imposing, British-sounding names like Hastings-on-Hudson or Hawthorne. They pointed to an intimidating, clubby world behind the woods that lined the parkway. I was an interloper here: The Volvos and BMWs that sped by me were from this world; this was their turf; I was a 20 year old doofus in a Chevy wagon, driving alone with my hands clenched on the wheel, earning their scorn when they looked briefly at me, passing by. As I rode, the stream-of-consciousness voice of pot paranoia would be at full throttle, making commentary:

An hour away maybe – what if there’s heavy traffic in the Bronx? – What bridge do I take to cross into Manhattan? – What if I go into the South Bronx like I did that one time? – I got stuck and drove around for an hour like an idiot – Fuck – I shouldn’t have smoked that joint – I can’t drive – Why is it so much harder for me to drive than everyone else? – Maybe cause you’re stoned fool – I have to pee – When I’m stoned I can’t pee if there’s someone standing next to me in the other urinal – Are there other people like that? – Why is that? – If I take one of these exits maybe I won’t find a bathroom anyway – That happened the last time and I drove around and wasted a half hour and still didn’t go – It’s just big old houses, not even a gas station – Won’t do that again – There was that cop there the last time in that town, following me in his stupid cruiser – Couldn’t even pull over and go in the woods because of that fucker – It’s like Rambo in First Blood when the cop follows him across the bridge – He drives him out of town – Rambo gets pissed, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, he wasn’t bothering anybody – The cop should have left him alone –

(Light a cigarette with some difficulty, recalling Rambo, fantasize that you are a Rambo-like figure entering a Westchester town for moment. Heart starts racing from mixture of nicotine and lucid Rambo fantasy. Try to calm down and look at road. Then resume thoughts:)

Who are these people driving? – Where do they all come from? – Lots of jazz musicians live around here – I heard that Michael Brecker lives here, and John Scofield - It must be that you grow out of living in the city and then you start a family and move to Westchester – cool – yeah I want that – Will I marry? – Will I have kids? – Freaks me out that idea – People with kids are kind of a drag – When they talk to you it’s like they’re tired – It’s like they’re sick of telling their kids what to do – They talk in that sing-song voice ho dee hum – I wish I was around for that jazz loft scene in the seventies and early eighties – Fred Hersch told me about that - All those guys like Richie Bierach and Dave Liebman playing Impressions all night in those lofts in SoHo – I bet they did lots of coke – I wish I had that Chick Corea record Three Quartets on cassette – Why didn’t I make a cassette of that? Brecker is so killing on that – That’s some of the best Brecker – Some people get snobby when they discover Joe Henderson and then they don’t like Brecker anymore – That’s so stupid – Like all those beboppers at that jam session last week – They were trying to say that Coltrane screwed up jazz – Just young guys trying to sound old – People try to say stuff like it’s a done deal like it’s finalized – Nothing’s ever final – Wanna tell them to stop talking – wanna tell them that they don’t matter – but then that’s just me trying to be final –

Why do you have to stop liking one thing just because you discover another thing – It’s like people who say you either like Brahms or you like Wagner but not both – But hmm that’s kind of true because the reason why I like Brahms is kind of the reason I don’t like Wagner – But Siegfried Idyll is so great, and parts of Tristan – andParsifal – just too fucking long is all – who wants to sit for four hours or more – not natural for the body – still would be cool to go to Bayreuth – weird how there’s a waiting list for like 5 years to get in there – would you really buy tickets for a concert 5 years in advance – What if you didn’t like Wagner in 5 years? – What if something came up? – You’d sell the tickets of course –

Drive, smoke. Resume:

Fred is the only guy I know who still has a loft in Soho now – Now it’s all models and Swiss guys with white teeth who wear their sweaters hanging over the back with the sleeves draped on the shoulders – Too expensive now – Remember when you saw Rick Ocasek on Spring Street with Paulina Porkovich or what’s her name that model – How does a guy like him get a girl like her – I wish I had a loft and a Steinway B like Fred – He’s got such a great thing going there – He played that Brahms for me so good last lesson – Want to hear Brahms now, maybe Piano Trio in B Major, that’s right here in the car – Where is it – No, shit, that’s a Dead bootleg – Why is that in here? – Hmm – Greek Theater, 1981, great Space into Dark Star on that one. – Dead now? No would rather hear Johnny Brahms – Brahms’ first Piano Trio, Opus 8, he came out stomping yo – He was like 20 when he wrote that – I’m that old now – Could I write something like that? – Nope – You can tell the guy who wrote the music for “Cinema Paradiso” loved that B Major Trio – What’s his name? – That’s such a sad/happy movie – The end with the music is so sad, maybe it’s too sad – Music can be sad but music in movies is sad and kind of clings to you – Maybe that isn’t good – There’s normal sad and there’s clingy sad – they’re different – Maybe we don’t have to feel sad just because it’s whoever’s feeling in their art – Maybe I don’t wanna take that on – maybe I’ve got enough of that feeling, like in reserve; don’t need more –

Shit! I’m driving too slowly again; that guy behind me is high-beaming me – Fuck – What’s that burning smell – Like chemicals – Shit the cigarette ash, again – That always happens – the wind – Blows out of the window and then right back in again – Suction – Physics – There’s a reason for that – There’s a reason for everything – Damn, I can’t find the ash – It’s burning the rug – What evil shit do they put in the rug to make it smell like that when it burns? – Can’t look for it and drive at the same time – What will happen – Would the car actually burn down – Would the engine explode? – What is it like burning to death – Probably the worst death – They say freezing to death is comfortable – After a while you don’t want to get saved – Your body creates like these opiates – It would be cool if they could synthesize that and you could get high on it, that feeling – but without dying –

It was always back and forth - wonderment and pleasure at anything and everything that would sort of spill over itself and turn into insecurity, paranoia, and downright ineptitude, or slide into random speculation. So being on a gig was the same kind of thing. Let’s say it was the jam session I had at the former West End Gate up near Columbia’s campus a year after I arrived in New York – one of my first gigs as a leader. I hired drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber. We’d play the first set just trio, we’d play one tune the second set, and then open it up for other players. Joe and I would often go outside and smoke a joint between the first and second set. We’d start the tune, freshly baked, and at first it was great…

Man Joe’s feel is so good – I love the sizzle on that ride cymbal– He’s been checking out some Art Taylor – and Billy Higgins – Fuck that feels good – Could stay grooving like this forever – I’m in it with him we’re locked up – Webber’s line – when he stays up high like that walking and then drops down all of the sudden – so swinging – Perfect notes – We’re locked – He hears the harmony I’m implying –

But then something would shift – it could be a small trifle, but it would set me off, and I couldn’t come back – for you once descend into pot paranoia, it’s often very hard to find your way back to calmness and ease.

Are they dragging? Why is Joe doing that Philly Joe Jones rimshot thing on the fourth beat of every bar? Is it because I’m not grooving hard enough? It feels like they’re dragging – but no – that means I’m rushing – Shit – This tempo is too slow – I can’t play tempos this slow – Why did I call this tune to play? – I sound corny – My feel is choppy – That lick sounded so stupid – I’m just playing this fake be-bop shit – I’m a phony – What the fuck am I doing up here – Everybody’s watching me – They know that I know that they know that it’s lame – I’m blushing – Fuck – I wish I could just get up and split –

Yikes…Even just remembering those kinds of nights gives me butterflies in my stomach all over again. Nope, I had had enough of that. I stopped the ritual of the joint between sets, and cut out the rest stop smoke breaks on my car rides to and from the city as well. I never looked back. I had learned that for myself, the place to be looking when I was driving in traffic with all those other cars whirring around me, and the place to focus on when I was on the bandstand making music with other people, was straight ahead, right in front of me.

© Brad Mehldau, September 2010
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