I SQUATTED DOWN, not to dance, but to see how the barbeque chicken was coming along. On the stovetop, five white eggs sat in a pan of boiling water. Bacon and egg muffins were cooling in the fridge. I poured some milk into the potatoes and worked the masher around. After that, I’d dice an onion and start a batch of my famous pan-tossed spaghetti.
For years I’d had the habit of singing in the kitchen, and, like most people, I quickly realized that I was tone-deaf. Rather than piping down, however, I adopted a singing voice which some have described as feline. The first time my wife heard it, she stuck her head into the kitchen looking very confused. “Did you hear a cat outside?” High and shrill in tone, a skillet might have carried a better tune, but alone in my kitchen I’d dream of performing to sold-out crowds. Because I was what music moguls called a “specialty singer,” my plan was to start small, singing backup for artists like Björk or Meredith Monk until being discovered. Usually this breakthrough would come after cornering the star in her dressing room, leaving her no choice but to sit and endure the full brunt of my talent.
I was engrossed in this fantasy when my wife came home from work. I opened the fridge and said “The next couple of days are all laid out for you.” Takayo doesn’t cook, so whenever I leave the country I like to whip up a small smorgasbord so she doesn’t have to eat take-out. This time I was heading to the Netherlands to cover a concert. Marlon Titre was headlining an ensemble put on by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. We were at a bar in Dusseldorf, and Marlon was telling another guitarist about the promo video, which included a Dutch woman in a bikini wielding a cocktail shaker. “I think they want to attract a younger audience,” he said. Why not? I thought. And suddenly it seemed like a good idea to ‘invite’ myself along.
“I’ll carry your guitar,” I told him. “Like a roadie.” Clearly, this wasn’t your typical request for a classically trained musician.
“Yes,” he said. “You can be my roadie, or something.”
“How should I dress for this shindig?”
“You don’t need anything apart from that typical Noah look.”
Marlon picked me up at my house after dinner. We arrived to his parent’s home outside Rotterdam at 12:47AM. Marlon’s father opened the door before we reached it. Inside, he offered us a plate of melon.
“I don’t want you telling people they don’t feed you in the Netherlands,” he told me. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. While some families favor the living room, this home revolved around the dining room table – pine, I think it was. I set down Marlon’s guitar and we all sat down. His father mentioned something about recording Marlon’s upcoming concert, referencing other recordings, microphone placement, and the benefit of using two cameras rather than one.
“I thought that recording from The Hague sounded good,” Marlon said.
His father crossed his arms over his chest. “No. I didn’t think so.” I’d known Marlon as an award-winning guitarist, and though I took a certain joy in watching him squirm in his chair, the criticism wasn’t without merit. “You could hear the audience coughing and turning pages in the program.”
When their conversation got too technical, I stared at the school photos mounted on the wall. These were 8×10’s, about thirty in all. The top row was Marlon, first as a youngster sporting a hi-top fade, progressing all the way up to a teenager with a mustache. Below this was a similar timeline of his younger brother, who, while taller, managed only peach fuzz. On the bottom row was their kid sister, documenting what appeared to be the evolution of a late-nineties pony tail.
There were, I recall, certain pictures my mother favored more than others. There was my first-grade photo, where I wore tiger-stripe suspenders and a blue oxford. But then there was seventh grade, when I grew my hair to my chin and wore gloomy flannel shirts. Zit faced with braces, this was not the photo my mother displayed on the mantle: this one was chucked in a shoebox . Hiding all evidence of these awkward years seemed perfectly normal, and I never thought otherwise until I saw how Marlon and his siblings had theirs on display. I wondered if his parents had put these pictures up each year, or if this was a recent project, perhaps brought about by the silence of an empty home.
By the time I’d zoned back in, Marlon’s father had reached a consensus. “If you want to take your recordings to the next level,” he said to Marlon, “you need a sound engineer—a professional. Be prepared to put your wallet on the table.”
Marlon’s father led me up a steep set of stairs to my room, which was the younger brother’s old room. It had a sink, which reminded me of my first dorm, as did the industrial grey carpet. While my freshman roommate was obsessed with Katie Holmes, Marlon’s brother had a thing for pop singers. There were old school posters of Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child, and, my favorite, Jennifer Lopez sporting a cargo-pocket bikini bottom. Marlon was staying in his sister’s old room one door down. Before turning in, he showed me a picture of her in a Dutch lifestyle magazine, but all I could make out was the headline reading “Up and Comers.” We were surrounded by posters of the Olsen Twins, N.E.R.D, and the lawn boy from Desperate Housewives.
For breakfast we had pancakes and the leftover melon. The sun was shining through the window, and I could see lines of townhouses along a brick road. Late model Toyotas were parked in the driveway. An old man rode a bike, his hair sticking up like a clump of straw. I carried the guitar out to Marlon’s car. We made it to Rotterdam by 11:00. The concert would be held in the port district. We crossed a bridge shaped like an enormous wishbone, and then made a right at a sleek, twinkling building which looked to me like the control panel in a UFO. Most buildings in the area had futuristic elements of some sort, including the one I carried Marlon’s guitar into.
As Marlon and the others rehearsed onstage, I went out to take some pictures. I had passed the bridge and was walking along the quays when I noticed a burned out boat. “A Pleasure Craft,” the captain might have called it. The fire appeared to have started in the cabin where the bar should have been. Someone had thrown all of the deck chairs into a heap under a charred HEINEKEN sign. It was like a ghost ship, but the smell of the creosote blowing over the water reminded me of my own experience with fire. In college, a faulty air handler in the downstairs bathroom of my apartment ignited late one night. When I got up to use the bathroom, I smelled smoke. I woke up my roommates, which just seemed like common courtesy. I didn’t think much of it until the next day when a reporter tracked me down for an interview. “Local Hero Alerts Housemates to Fire,” the headline read. It wasn’t front page news, but still. I handed the newspaper clipping to Takayo shortly after we met, the subtext being See, I’m someone that performs well under pressure.
In hindsight, I could see how she might have interpreted this as Oh dear God, this could happen to me!
The group did an entire run through of the show, complete with lighting and projector screens. I was backstage, eating spice-tainted cheese sandwiches provided for the musicians. Then I went to Marlon’s dressing room and drank beer, trying to keep loose. I didn’t know about him, but the suspense leading up to the show was making me anxious.
“Are you nervous?” I asked Marlon.
He said not really, but you could tell that that wasn’t the case closer to show time. He changed into a grey dress shirt with white French cuffs, black vest and slacks. After that, he stuck his head under the showerhead.
The stage manager stepped into the room and said something in Dutch before rushing off. Marlon sat with his guitar on his knee, not concentrating on the music so much as letting his fingers find the groove. The song seemed to be tattooed on his mind, which brought up a question I’d been wrestling with for as long as I could remember.
“Do you ever get a song stuck in your head? What I mean is, I’ve had this song stuck in my head for a couple days and it was driving me nuts, so I changed the pitch a little and made my own version of it.”
“Yea?” He took his hand off the strings. “Let’s hear it.”
“It’s not much,” I said. “Just something I’d sing while cooking.”
He raised his head expectantly, as if waiting for a cue from the conductor. I averted my gaze to the wall, trying to imagine myself back home in the kitchen. I sashayed my hands from side to side and mumbled the hook: naa na na na naa
I tightened my throat and sang: Gotta know how to pony. Like Bony Maronie.
Then I swiveled on my heel: Mash potato. Do the alligator.
Put your hand on your hips. Let your backbone slip.
Do the Watusi. Like my little Lucy.
There are, in my book, few things funnier than a terrifically bad singer with illusions of grandeur. Had I gone into my performance with any false impressions, Marlon’s laughter might have been very painful indeed.
“That was hilarious!” he said. “Do the mashed potatoes part again!”
The dressing room was abuzz with other musicians—the bass player from the Rotterdam Philharmonic, percussionist from Mexico and all over Holland—polishing shoes, ironing shirts and spritzing cologne. The stage manager popped in and said something that got everyone to their feet. I put on my tweed jacket and went to join the audience. As I took my seat amongst the sold out crowd, the lights went down and I clapped louder than anyone when Marlon took the stage.
The ensemble consisted only of string and percussion instruments, and, as the show progressed, it seemed obvious that what they lacked was a singer. Between each song, I clapped a little quieter, not because the music wasn’t fantastic, but because I didn’t want to miss it when Marlon called me up to join him. It was normal to have fantasies of being discovered, so whenever he finally did call my name, I’d rise up from my seat and try to act surprised. Joining my fellow artists onstage, beneath the colored lights, I’d step up to the microphone, a sold out crowd shifting to the edges of their seats, so anxious to pin down this man with the curious, high voice.