Boulder, CO – “My Stomach Aches for my Mama” – December 17, 1998

I’m feeling sick to my stomach.  Perhaps it’s because of the severe intestinal flu that sent me to the ER for an anti-nausea IV in the middle of the night on Monday.  More likely it’s from the confounding questions my new booking agent, Cassy Burbeck needs answers to before he can start booking a national tour for me.  Casey wants to know: What’s my budget? What’s on my rider? Who’s in my band? What is my stage plot (what even is a stage plot?) Will we be ready in time for the Lillith Fair?  Where do I see myself in 6 months?  A year?  A decade?  I can’t imagine where I’ll be in 6 days let alone 6 months.  But I need a booking agent.  Booking myself is just the pits!  Venues stiff me and won’t call back to confirm the show beforehand.  Having booked my shows for three months now, I know exactly how much I’d pay not to have to do this job anymore, and when Casey says the going rate for agents is 10% of all gigs, that seems more than fair to me.

But my stomach still hurts, even after reconciling with my choice to hire Casey and answer all his scary questions and when I ask my stomach to tell me what’s at the root of its dis-ease an image pops up in my mind of my mama.  Earlier in the week, she was driving in her car, just minding her own business and was delighted when one of her songs came on the radio.  As she retold the story to me later in the evening on the phone, I imagined her bopping along to “You’re so Vain,” or “Jesse” or “Coming Around Again” as she threaded her way home, over backroads lined with puckerbrush and winter white slush on Martha’s Vineyard. 

At the end of her song, the DJ took a random caller who said “I saw Carly Simon at the anti-impeachment rally the other day and she looked awful.  I tell ya, I used to dig her when she was hanging around with James Taylor but she’s gotten OLD man.”  My mama recounted the insouciant caller with a New York accent.

“Yeah, her skin’s all wrinkly.” agreed the DJ.

“I guess that’s what happens when ya get old.” the caller theorized, “Your skin starts fallin’ off the bone.” They both laughed.  My mama cried all day.  I would too.  “It’s not fair mama.” I told her, “You’re sooooo beautiful! You’re timeless. You’re so talented. You’re a legend!” and I thought ‘why am I going into this profession?!?!

As I hung up I just kept telling myself ‘It’ll be OK. The work I’ve done on myself will spare me the worst of my ego’s weaponry down the line.’  But more than anything, I worry about getting hijacked by the spotlight and imprisoned by the applause.  Here are some exercises I promise myself to do to avoid the consequences of my future successes and failures.

  1. I’ll make fun of myself.
  2. I’ll make a point of enjoying other’s successes.
  3. I’ll separate my self-worth from my music’s value to others.
  4. I’ll never be jealous or bitter.
  5. I’ll never do anything just because it’ll “look good,” or “boost my image.”
  6. I’ll believe in everyone I surround myself with.
  7. I’ll stay curious and humble and trust my decisions.
  8. I won’t trust anyone.

I hope it’s enough. I’m sorry mama. It’s not fair. My stomach aches for you.

Greenwood, CO – Fiddler’s Green with Dad – July 28, 1998

Dad was coming to town.  He called Thursday to say he was at the international airport in Denver and, would I be interested in playing “Sign of Rain” at his sold-out 18,000 Fidler’s Green Amphitheater show over the weekend.    

His call came in as I was packing up after a terrible, nerve-wracking gig opening for a local gal named Lee Nestor.  I clutched my new cell phone between my shoulder and my ear as I repeatedly stabbed my guitar into my trunk trying to tetris it between a mic stand and amplifier.   The night was cool. A low garland of clouds stood sentinel around the foot of the Flatiron lit by the moon. 

“What Dad?!?” 

“Do you want to play one of your songs at my gig at Fiddler’s this weekend?”

“Yes, Of course, I want to Dad!  God, thank you so much for asking.”

“Sure my Sal.  I really love that song.” I was terrified and thrilled. 

“Let’s meet up before the show and work out some parts.”

“Yeah, sure, of course,” I said absentmindedly, consumed by fear at the prospect. How was I going to play for 18,000 people when I’d just come from an audience of 20 shaking from head to toe?

Dad and I met up backstage at Fiddler’s Green on the day of the show in the Kraft services room which was peppered with processed meats, chips and sugar cookies.  I grazed nervously on pineapple slices skewered un-consentually with grapes on flimsy toothpicks.  Dad fisted handfuls of mixed nuts, tossing them around in his palm like a percussion instrument waiting to finish his last mouthful. It was great and relieving to see him.  We sat on red pleather couches and worked up some harmonies. He complimented my voice which made my confidence soar. 

But after sound check and vocal exercises and the last pineapple kabob, I began to get nervous in a way I’ve never before experienced.  I had to put a towel over my head and lie down on the couch in Dad’s dressing room.  I found myself choking on heartbeats stuck in my throat. 

When I told Dad how scared I was, he reassured me sweetly, “You know, I still get nervous going on stage too Sal.”  I was pretty sure this was untrue but his warm hand on my shoulder was gentle and calming and even when he left me in the shadow, stage left, to enter the blinding lights on stage, I could still feel his hand there, letting me know it’d be ok.

I don’t think I moved, let alone took a full breath between that moment and the time he introduced me.  But as he said into the mic “I’d like to introduce my own flesh and blood, Sally Taylor.” I pulled my spirit back into my belly with a full laugh and a toss of my giant hair. I leaned into every one of those knife-like nerves knowing they had enough voltage to electrocute me.  I didn’t squint into the light, I let it burn me alive and as I plucked the first 3 strings, I was connected to Source by 36,000 eyes.  This was AMAZING and miraculously, as I went into the chorus “Maybe it’s a sign of rain..” the heavens opened up and it started to rain a warm, relieving, summer rain on the crowd. I could hear an audible “ahh –“ and when I turned to look at Dad, his eyes were glowing like sapphires, full of pride.

My song.  MY song.  MY SONG!  Vibrating through all those hearts. 

And here is what I learned — The nervousness I felt, was my body’s reaction to resisting the love trying to come through me, meant for the audience.  It was so hard to hold all the love the universe had in store for that giant crowd.  I didn’t trust I could deliver it.  I felt like a congested pen desperate to deliver ink to a brilliant thought.   I realized that perhaps that is the job of the artist. Dancers, writers, painters, perfumers, singers, we strive, less to create than to remove obstacles that stand in the way of people receiving the love always meant for them.  We attempt to transcribe universal love into the language of the human heart.  We are conduits, vessels, and postmen. are pens, not the ink.

Thank you Dad.  What an amazing opportunity.  Thank you Fiddler’s Green.  Thank you Rain.

New York City – Donald Fagen is Producing My Song – July 12, 1998

I’m in the studio with one of my all-time favorite musicians, Donald Fagen (Of Steely Dan) and he’s about to produce my song.  How did I get here? 

My mom’s naughtiest running partner and oldest friend, Libby Titus, happens to be married to Donald and somehow my cheep little demo tape with my hedgehog, Fatty J’s scratchings on it, wound up in his cassette player and he had feedback about my song “When We’re Together.”

“The performance isn’t completely sure of itself and there are some pitchy notes,” I cringed as Mom and I hung on his every word, sharing the receiver between us.  “But overall, you’re a great singer and you have a really original thing going on.”  Oh phew, I thought! “I think you have two options,” he continued “#1 You let it be.  It’s a great song and you can leave it as is.  #2 You re-record it and you let me produce it.  I’m free tomorrow and Friday.”

What What What?!?!? How could I turn down that offer?!?!?  

But… I was terrified.  I didn’t know if I could sing the song any better and feared making a fool of myself in front of one of the great musical legends.  “I’m so honored Donald.  I mean, I can’t believe I’m saying this but I am not sure I can make it to New York that soon.”

“Don’t be a fool!” Libby grabbed the receiver giving away her position, “Go to New York tomorrow and let Donald produce this track.”  In a girlish teasing fun-loving way, Mom repeated all Libby’s sentiments ganging up on me  “You’re a fool to turn this down.” “What have you got to lose?” “Don’t you want Donald to do your track?” as my mom and Libby’s voices tangled into a dance around my heart I admitted my insecurities just to stop their love heckling. 

“You know, I am so completely flabbergasted” (yes, I said flabbergasted) “by the opportunity but honestly, I’m insecure about whether or not I can actually do it better.”  This statement only baited the girls into greater peer pressure:

“You CAN do it better.”  They insisted “You’re a fool.”  “You’ll regret this.”  “Come down to New York.” “Why don’t you want to do this?” and suddenly Pheobe Snow was on the phone too (where did she come from?!) joining in on the girl chorus with “It’s a great song, Sally.  You go girl.  Come record with Donald.”

And the matter was settled. 

I flew from Martha’s Vineyard to New York on Friday.  I did vocal exercises for an hour and then practiced the song over and over and over until the bass distorted the speakers. Finally, shaking like a leaf, I hailed a taxi to River Sound Studio on East 95th.  When I pulled up, the driver didn’t have change for my $20 so I ran into a Chinese laundromat where I was promptly turned away.  But miraculously, the driver told me not to worry about it!  Even when I insisted I pay him he drove away apologizing to ME for not having change. 

Donald was walking up the street as I was walking into his studio.  I kissed his cheek in a knee-jerk nervous reaction and he laughed.  He introduced me to Phil, his engineer, and showed me around his phenomenal space filled with Asian rugs and gold records and a punching bag called “Slam-Man” who I deduced was used to de-stress between difficult takes.  As Donald and Phil set up I admitted to them I was nervous.

“Aw, don’t be,” said Donald “I spent years in this studio creating badly pitched tracks.”  It was kind of him to say but did little to alleviate my shaking.

It took 12 takes.  The whole song.  Only 12 takes.  “From that, we have enough to create the perfect track,” said Donald.  He complimented me a lot, probably because he knew how worried I was about the whole thing.   “I love your voice,” he said, and “Man, this song is really a winner,” he said, and “You’ve got great pitch” and “I think you’re going about making this CD the right and smart way.”  And then he said “You can’t pay me for this session.  I really enjoyed doing this for you.”

And when the night was wrung dry, and the perfect track had been mixed, Donald held his breath for a moment, turned to me, and said “There’s just one thing missing.”  There in the wee hours of New York City morning, Donald Fagen donned a pair of headphones, entered the sound booth, and lay down a track of wind chimes.  “Now it’s complete.”

“Do you mind if I call in my partner Walter Becker in to give it a listen with fresh ears?” asked Donald. Are you kidding? Of course I was ok with that! Steely Dan’s other half walked in with blue and white corner store coffee in hand. He gave me a little hug and a smile and then turned his attention to the song.

“Is this your song?” Walter asked

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It’s really great,” he said. 

Together, Steely Dan punched and mixed and replayed my song over and over like it was a piece of molten gold that needed to be washed of impurities. When the song was done we walked down the 5 flights of stairs. We said our goodbyes as the night bled into a new day. Donald ceremoniously handed me our track on a tiny cassette and Walter, as he walked away called over his shoulder “Call me when it goes gold.”

Genius!  Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Libby.  Thank you, mama.  Thank you, Donald.

Boulder, CO – Leggo My Ego – May 29, 1998

Things have been crazy and now I HATE my album.  I never want to hear any of these songs ever again after this damn thing is over.

I’ve been singing out of tune for DAYS!  It’s driving me crazy and I drove home tonight listening to music I couldn’t bear to sing along with least I’d have to hear my own voice.

Sometimes I have a shitty day. I haven’t slept well or eaten enough or I’ve eaten too much or not exercised. These are the days I worried about to Fausta back in her hippy therapy shack on Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s these days when my soul feels rubbed raw and every voice in my head is yelling “What do you think you’re doing? You are SHIT at this! Your songs suck. Your voice sucks. You can’t play guitar for shit and you look like ass.” During these self-abusive sessions, I look to anything that will drown the voices out.   Sometimes a drink puts the fire out. Sometimes I just have to go to bed.  But when I can’t sleep, I turn to applause to repair the cuts and bruises I inflict on myself. The battery is relentless and can go on for days.  

Sleep is the healthiest of my crutches but it doesn’t always work.  Last night, for instance, I woke up with the fullest brain of assholes I’ve ever experienced.  “You can’t be a musician.” They said, “You suck and your songs suck.” “You can’t perform.”   “What were you thinking recording a demo?” 

Sometimes I feel so small that if my body were just a 1/2 a pound lighter I’d fall through the cracks in the sidewalk.  In these moments I say to myself “I’m nothing. I am nothing.  I am a housewife.  I am Betty Crocker and where’s my little tiny cooking set?”

And then I feel sudden bouts of relief.  The sort that alo vera brings to burns, the sort that tingles like mint jelly on lamb chops, the sort that nibbles like patient waves at the crust of a shoreline.  But then the dis-ease begins again and I want to scream and fill canyons with echos. Instead, I silently cry and scratch my face until the pain subsides.

I had to wake Kipp and beg him to hold me “Just talk me down.” I begged, my breathless tears nearly strangling me as he rocked me back to sleep. 

Booze and applause are decidedly the more detrimental of my crutches.  And, while alcoholism runs in my family and is a risky rod to bait, an addiction to applause would surely take me down quicker than a career in booze.  Drinking applause when you need it is different from accepting it as an unnecessary gift.  It wakes my roaring ego, that dangerous and skilled villain, who speaks to me in my own voice and locks me out of my own soul.

How I’ll stay away from ego:

  1. I’ll make fun of myself.
  2. I’ll make a point of enjoying other success.
  3. I’ll love myself regardless of whether others enjoy my music.
  4. I’ll never be jealous or bitter.  I’ll never do anything just because it might “look good” or “boost my image” but I will believe in everyone I surround myself with and I will believe in all my decisions.

I feel 8 months pregnant with this record.  It’s too late to turn back now and yet I’m scared as shit to give birth to it and set it free into the world.  How will it be received? Who will love it?  Does it matter?

I just want perform to my very best, sing with all my might, and do it to an absorbent crowd.  

Martha’s Vineyard, MA – Fausta’s Shack – July 12, 1997

“So, you do or don’t think it’s crazy for me to consider a music career?” I ask my barefoot, hippie, moth-eaten sweater-wearing, therapist.  We’re in the shack we meet in weekly.  There are lace doily-like curtains in a single pane window and otherwise, no light in the damp hut.   I can’t believe I’m speaking these words out loud, let alone considering the possibility I might follow in my parent’s footsteps.  But I was recently in a plane accident in Peru flying in a small plane over the “Nazca Lines” where an oil tank unceremoniously flew off my side of the plane.  Before I could even wonder what happened, the propellers on either wing clamped still like a bear trap. 

The cabin went completely silent. I remember the acrid smell of stale cigarette smoke on a fellow passenger’s breath and thinking, with curiosity bated, “I wonder what happens next?” I watched the pilot, whose seat I sat directly behind, slowly stitch his shoulders to his ears.  There they dangled like frozen icebergs. Past him through the windshield, I saw what I thought must be a runway, a good sign I thought, until I noticed cars driving on it.  We would be forced to make an emergency landing on The Pan-American Highway. The angle at which we hit the blacktop was steep and made the plane jump and stumble like a drunk at a traffic stop.   As we slowed, our left wing hit a car.

Miraculously, no one was hurt, and a shaman who said he’d intuited the whole affair, climbed out from the back seat and rubbed blessing oil on each of us before helping us push the plane out of the road. Confronted with mortality, we hitched a ride back to the airport.   Two things were overwhelmingly clear in my mind. 

Before I leave the planet:

 1. I want to have a child.

 2. I want the songs I’ve written organized on a CD.

At sixteen I started waking up with lyrics and melodies in my head. Each morning throughout high school and into college I’d diligently retrieve them upon waking, weeding through the shrapnel of dreams and dusting off half-bent choruses and meandering verses.  I kept a sandwich-sized cassette recorder by my bedside and hit record immediately after hitting my alarm.  I would sing into it what I could groggily remember before teetering off to the rec hall for eggs and oatmeal.

My mom bought me a D-1 Martin guitar at “Manny’s” in Times Square in New York on a snowy weekend home from Brown during my freshman year. Overhearing some of my morning songwriting sessions she insisted I have a way to accompany myself.  Soon after I began performing some of my songs, securing a weekly local gig at “Z-Bar,” a smoke-filled sports bar on Providence RI’s legendary Wickenden Street.

As my life and death flashed before my eyes on that tiny plane in Peru, I imagined all those songs I’d written, those sweet little gifts from the depths of my unguarded night-time heartbeats, strewn across miles of cassette tape never to be finished or polished or probably ever heard from again and I wanted to finish them in a way I felt honored them.  But at what price?  It was pure madness to consider following in my famous parents’ musical footsteps.  Wasn’t it?

My therapist, her face cradled in a nest of wiry graying hair (1/2 of which I’m sure I put there), crooked her head in consideration.  Her eyes fix on the ceiling as though there were something other than a field of white up there and responded:

“No, not so crazy.” 

However she agreed that I should put some parameters in place to protect me from any potential success or failure.  Together we imagined some preliminary measures if I, in fact, ever decided a life in music was the right path for me…

  1. I shouldn’t be tempted to take the same path my parents had.  I should probably not sign a record deal (if one is ever an option for me) and instead get my hands dirty.  I should teach myself the ins and outs and the nitty-gritty of running a label myself before delegating roles to others.
  2. I should never read reviews.  This was my dad’s advice “If you believe the good reviews, you’ll believe the bad reviews when they come.  Best not to read them at all.”
  3. If at any time your ego gets in the driver’s seat don’t be afraid to “Jump Ship!”

But as I left my Fausta’s hut and walked barefoot back through the woods to my house I discounted my urge to record my own music.  I was happy enough playing with my disco band “The Boogies,” every Thursday night.  I didn’t need to put myself out there for the sake of some songs on a sandwich-sized tape recorder.  Or did I?