I was four years old when I first recall hearing the wheeze. Hot and cold with fever and chills, a bubbling rumble of fluid through my frail little chest. Dad carried me across the street into the basement office of the doctor whose family lived upstairs in the narrow brick house that sat on the corner. I was soon back in my own bed, covered from neck to waist in Vicks VapoRub. For a special treat, mom placed a box of Smith Brothers cherry cough drops on the table. Chicken noodle soup and cups of Lipton's tea were carried up the steps endlessly, and I would sip slowly as I laid beneath my Roy Rogers bedspread decorated with cowboy iconography. This was to become a ritualistic event. A marker at the turn of each season.
When your lungs close tight, there is a tension that builds, as you force away the panic and contemplate the possibility that you won't have the strength to take another breath. Modern science medicates but can't eradicate my sorry little lungs, and when the attack comes on suddenly -- as it did a few weeks ago -- I surrender, retreat, lay low, drift in, drift out, sit still, lay awake, watch films, listen to music, and write words. The only small outings in the recent bout were to see my physician, plus a trip to my local hospital, the pharmacy, and the corner market.
On Tuesday morning, Lucinda Williams' husband Tom sent me a message asking how far I was from Tarrytown. I punched out "10 minutes," although it's probably closer to 20, and hit the send button. She was playing at the old theater there on Saturday night, and up until the day before, I held out hope that I could arise and attend, but it couldn't happen. I sent my apologies on Friday afternoon and said "Another time, for sure."
Last June I watched her perform on a cool and stormy night at an outdoor venue covered in canvas. The wind whipped across the stage, sending her lyric sheets flying a few times, and there were edge-of-my-seat moments when I thought that she might be blown away. There were some in the audience who suspected that she may have lost her way -- stopping the band, restarting a song. She cursed the weather, she threw a bottle, she gave a shit. This was the line ... the division between popular entertainment and artistic integrity. She writes the songs, she makes the rules, and she delivered one of the most spellbinding sets I've ever seen. And I've never bothered to write about it because it was indescribably personal. She moved my needle. Always has.
Breathing and tension. If I was held to describe the music and poetry of Lucinda Williams' work, those would be the two words I'd use. She walks on a wire, forces away the panic, takes that next step. She has a new album out, and this is the one that gets me at every listen.
On the day you fly away, far beyond the blue
When you're done, and your run is finally through
I'm forced to let go, there'll be no greater sorrow
On that day you fly away, far beyond the blue
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Photo by Annie Liebovitz/Austin Texas 2001