This is Eileen. She was conceived on top of a piano in Hyannis Port.” That is how my friend and former employer Liz Carpenter — best known as Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary during the sixties — introduces me to her friends. I appreciate Liz’s wit, but this snappy one-liner conjures up images of my parents that I’d rather not entertain. Anyway, it’s wildly embellished. My parents did meet in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 1961. My father was the choral director that summer for the Cape Cod Melody Tent, where stock companies staged musicals, and also played cocktail-hour piano at the Yachtsman Hotel. Members of the press, including my mother, a young New York Daily News reporter, stayed there whenever President Kennedy made a weekend trip to his family’s compound. This, as noted, was 1961. I was born in 1965, four years later, having been conceived, my parents have assured me, in the privacy of their New York City apartment.
Liz is right about one thing, however: I’ve been connected to music since the day I was born — first as the child of a semi-celebrity (my dad was a pianist with various dance bands and occasionally sat in with Benny Goodman), then as a fan, and most recently as a “plus-one,” a concept familiar to anybody who has ever waited in line at the door of a concert and watched a steady stream of anonymous people be let in for free. A plus-one is the insignificant other who accompanies a well-known person to an event and is often placed on the guest list not under his own name but as two little characters: “+1.” (“Lyle Lovett +1,” for example, means that Lyle will be there with a friend or a date.) In Austin, where I live, I’m frequently a plus-one because my boyfriend is a musician and most of my friends are performers, band managers, and the like. I know quite a few other plus-ones, both men and women, as well. The city may be the Live Music Capital of the World, but it could just as easily bill itself as One Huge Guest List.
I guess you could say I was a plus-one-in-training when I accompanied my parents on their various gigs at a very early age. I was six months old, for instance, when my father took me to Carnegie Hall, where he was playing for Judy Garland. I was nine months old when my mother took me along to her interview with New York City mayoral candidate John Lindsay at the 21 Club (Lindsay was no musician, but there are plus-ones in politics too). Her baby-sitter had failed to show, so she did what any enterprising reporter would do: She put me in a portable seat, hailed a cab to 21, and left me with the hatcheck girl. When Lindsay realized what she had done, he promptly had me brought to the table. I don’t remember either event, of course, but I do remember vividly the summer of 1969, when my father was the assistant conductor of the St. Louis Municipal Opera. I was four years old and I got to go backstage and meet the cast of Snow White. The handsome young actor who played the prince gave me a kiss. I realized then and there that going backstage to meet performers could be great fun.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a groupie. I have, however, read the groupie bible, Pamela Des Barres’s I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, and I can tell you that plus-ones differ from groupies in many ways. For one thing, we’re not obsessed. Then there’s the fact that groupies generally look like Barbie dolls and have IQs to match. They mostly go after well-known and well-heeled celebrities, and they generally believe they are leading a glamorous life. What’s more, groupies have a reputation for doing questionable things, like going out with drummers. We plus-ones, on the other hand, seldom look like models and seldom have delusions of grandeur. (Although I admit my head has swelled a bit when I’ve been thanked or acknowledged on a CD booklet.)
Yet I too like to say “I’m with the band.” I’m not ashamed to admit I get a thrill from seeing my boyfriend onstage. I may appear cool, but inside I’m momentarily starstruck, like a teenybopper fan. And there’s something safe about standing in the shadows, living vicariously through the person in the limelight while retaining my own anonymity. Woe unto the plus-one who dares to step into the spotlight. The results can be disastrous. Yoko Ono? I rest my case.
For whatever reason — maybe because my father was a musician, maybe just because I love music — most of the men I’ve dated have been musicians. I find myself attracted to singers and guitar players, and even the occasional bass player. (I once made a valiant effort to date non-musician types, but found I cannot relate to a guy who has never heard of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.) In fact, when I moved to Texas from the East Coast, I was seeking out that kind of country, blues, and rock and roll I knew could only be found there.
I had discovered all three on the first night of my first trip to the state, in the summer of 1987, when I saw Omar and the Howlers. After a twenty-hour road trip, my friend and I pulled into Austin around midnight on a Saturday and headed straight to a packed Antone’s nightclub. Despite the crowd, everyone seemed carefree. It was like stepping back in time. The waitresses smiled and wore tight vintage cocktail dresses; the band wore cowboy boots and played their special brand of rootsy Texas blues. I was seduced by the warm night air, the cold beer, and Omar’s deep, Southern-accented voice. I knew I was where I belonged.
A few nights later I met a guitar player from West Texas. He was tall and skinny, wore black cowboy boots, and called me darlin’; he also had sense enough to like rock and roll, as proved by his well-worn Cramps T-shirt. We drove to San Antonio and he spoke of his admiration for the fabled Texas Rangers, his love of the West Texas mountains, and how he longed to live on a ranch outside Dallas one day. His pickup truck sensibilities so wooed this Yankee girl that I was ready to settle down on the spot and bear him three strapping boys with names like Travis, Anson, and Austin.
Not one to waste time, I promptly returned home, packed up a U-Haul, and like many others over the past three decades, moved to Austin permanently because of the music scene. Shortly after my return I found out the cowboy had been seeing some blonde with a goofy name like Rita DeVille. Even more devastating, I learned that this self-styled country boy didn’t know the words to a single Hank Williams song. It was just before our breakup. We were sitting on his front porch while he strummed a few tunes. “Play something by Hank Williams,” I requested. “I don’t know any Hank Williams,” he replied sheepishly. Later, this shortcoming helped me get over him quicker than you can say “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
The good thing about breaking up with a musician is that you may find you’re the inspiration for some new sad song. They never tell you, “Hey, I wrote this song about how I dumped you,” but you usually know, especially if the song mentions your name, your dog’s name, or some equally subtle clue. (No, “Come on Eileen” is not about me.) One singer-songwriter ex-boyfriend was fascinated with a pair of boots I had with tapered Cuban heels, a term he’d never heard before. After we broke up he wrote a song called “Cuban Heels”: “She wore her hair pulled back/ Her eyes were dark as night/And when she spoke these words/Her voice trembled and cracked/I only touch the heart I want to steal/And then she walked away/In boots with Cuban heels. . . .”* The Valentine’s Day following our breakup I received flowers. The card was signed “The Cuban Heel.”
Actually, it was never my boyfriends’ music that initially attracted me to them. When one former boyfriend first played some of his demos for me, I was surprised — even slightly offended — by the commercial nature of his songs. Fortunately, I didn’t tell him that, because they evidently served him well. He later recorded the same material for a major label in the studio of a big rock star — and I was invited to tag along. It was the first of many recording sessions I have been asked to “evaluate.” Am I qualified to do so? Of course not. But like any good plus-one, I can fake it. The best reply I’ve found is “It sounds good, but the bass is too loud” — unless, of course, you’re dating the bass player, in which case the bass isn’t loud enough.
Despite all my support and good advice, being a plus-one can be thankless. I love to go out and listen to music, and as I said, it’s fun to see my boyfriend onstage. But when, after I’ve been sitting patiently in some half-empty nightclub waiting for him to finish the gig, some young thing in a miniskirt literally falls into his lap — never mind that I’m sitting right next to him — I am not amused. By the time the club owner has finally settled up with him at three in the morning and he asks me to carry a guitar or some other piece of equipment, the thrill is completely gone.
But it always comes back. I often think of how my parents met — in a romantic Cape Cod setting during the early days of Camelot. I like to think that my present boyfriend and I had a similar storybook beginning. We met on a hot summer night at Austin’s Liberty Lunch during one of the final shows before the venerable rock club was demolished. I was standing backstage watching my ex-boyfriend and his band. To mark the closing of the club, they were playing a 24-hour version of Van Morrison’s rock anthem “Gloria”: Yeah, she comes around here/ Just about midnight/ She makes me feel so good/ She makes me feel all right. It was nearing the end of the “Gloriathon.” I’d had a couple of beers and was growing weary. Then I spotted a charming badass in a pair of baggy jeans. He was seated a few feet away from me, on top of an amplifier. As the band went into the final chorus, my mind began to wander.
And her name is G!
“Gee, he’s kind of cute.”
L! O! R! I-I-I-I-I-I-A! G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!**
“Thank God that song is over,” I said. “Mind if I sit down?”
I joined him on the amplifier, and that was that. What happened later is between us. But if we ever have a child, I know how we will introduce her — facetiously, of course: “This is our daughter. She was conceived on top of an amplifier in Austin.”
*Reprinted by permission of Senator Dog Music, ©1989. **Words and music by Van Morrison, © 1996 Unichappell Music, Inc., and Bernice Music, Inc. All rights administered by Unichappell Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Warner Bros. Publications, Miami, Florida, publishers of the Van Morrison Guitar Anthology and other fine musical products, available at www.sunhawk.com