Archives for June 2015

Beach Song

9.Morocco

Morocco: Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love the ocean. The most musical of earth’s components, its pulse—rhythmic yet unpredictable—floods my soul with hope, quenches my desire for a wider perspective, and washes away the grit and grime of a landlocked life. In my fifty-seven years, I’ve spent time on beaches all over the world, not because I’m a Birkin-toting, stiletto-heeled jet setter with beach side chateaux in Malibu and St. Tropez, but because I’m the daughter of a musician, I’m married to a musician, and I’m a musician myself. Music, for most of my life, has provided me with prepaid tickets to the destinations of my dreams. Coastal concerts, harbor happenings, beach bashes, seaside shindigs—we’ve played for them all. Short of being the world’s oldest Baywatch lifeguard, I can’t think of any better way to finance my addiction to salt water and sand. Here are a few of my waterlogged memories.

 1966: Miami Beach

My father plays drums in a Dixieland band for a Teamster convention in Florida. He takes us along for a two week vacation. I eat frogs’ legs at an outdoor luau at the Americana Hotel, with a picture of Jimmy Hoffa projected (eight stories high!) on a wall of the hotel. My dad’s band wears red and white striped shirts and straw hats. I like the tuba player.

“Who is this Jimmy Hoffa?” I ask my dad.

“He’s the boss,” says my dad. “He’s the reason we’re here.”

I become a big Jimmy Hoffa fan. After all, he got me to Miami. Frogs’ legs, it turns out, really do taste like chicken.

During the day I hang out on the beach with my brother and sister. Because we spend so much time underwater, my mother dresses us in matching neon tank suits so she can see our pert behinds on the surface of the bright blue sea. After two days of this, even my eyeballs are sunburned, and I have to go to dinner in the fancy hotel wearing eye patches. Fearful of looking like a pirate, I place my mother’s big black sunglasses over the patches—a Jackie Kennedy meets Bluebeard look that I’m sure will pass for Miami Beach-chic. I am temporarily blind and cannot enjoy the 4th of July fireworks that night. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is getting back into the water the next day. My sister and I play a game at water’s edge. We hold hands as the waves break over us, determined to cling to each other no matter what. We roll back and forth, as sand scrapes our private parts and salt stings our eyes. We laugh and hold on tight. A lifeguard yells at us for pretending we are drowning. We’re perfecting our synchronized swimming skills. Some might call it synchronized drowning. We’re having fun.

My father catches a fish while we’re flipping over each other in the water and throws it at us. It tangles in my hair. I develop Fear of Fish and will spend the next few decades terrified of underwater critters.

1.Beach

1969: Conneaut Lake

My father books a summer job in a resort area a few hours away from home. We spend three months in a lakeside cottage next to Conneaut Lake, a dark blue body of water in Western Pennsylvania. Not an ocean, but it might as well be. I live on a sand-covered pier, swimming back and forth to a raft anchored twenty meters away. Too many speedboats churn the water and rock the raft. My sister and I smear ourselves with baby-oil and iodine so we can tan faster. By August, I resemble a rotisserie chicken with strong triceps. My hair turns silver. I hope that Davy Gallagher, the bronze lifeguard who looks like Ivy League Tarzan, will notice me. He does not. But a boy named Timmy Catcher catches me. We dance around each other and play splash games in the lake. Despite rumors of snapping turtles I learn to water ski and get pretty good at it, except for one instance when my hair gets caught in a tow rope and I almost drown.

I worry about those snapping turtles.

In the evenings, I brush pier sand out of my hair and string tiny love beads into necklaces that no one will ever wear. Timmy Catcher kisses me. Just once.

 1976-1983: Nantucket Island

I arrive on Nantucket Island with a dozen suitcases, packed mostly with books and bikinis. I plan to be a waitress, but, two weeks before Memorial Day I land a job playing the piano in a bar. What a thing! I can spend the summer on a New England beach and get paid to play the piano. During the day, I bask in the sun on beaches called Madaket or Dionis or Nobadeer. As far as I’m concerned, any beach named by Indians is the real deal. At night I put on a glittery tube top and a long skirt and play Carole King songs. I’m wave-tossed, sun-kissed, and boy crazy. A swain named Joe steals my heart and teaches me how to surf fish. I am the only female member of the Kamikaze Water Ski Club, a Nantucket Yacht Club sub-group founded by the stoned teenage children of various Titans of Industry. I worry about sharks and other fish with large teeth. This motivates me to avoid falling when I’m water skiing. I perfect a one-ski beach landing after I spot a sand shark swimming too close to shore.

My favorite bikini is white.

I will return to Nantucket every summer for many years. The romance with Joe fades, but my love affair with the island hangs tight. The rhythm of the waves seems like an external heartbeat, nature’s metronome, an urgent throb that counterpoints human instinct.

By the end of my first summer, the subtle pulse of the waves syncs with my own rhythm. I am hooked. The sand shark never gets me.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Sligo, Ireland: Photo by Julia Goldsby

1983: Haiti

I travel now and then to Haiti where I play the piano for upscale visitors to a fancy-pants hotel—I’m the featured entertainment in a Third World cocktail lounge. Baby Doc is still in office and the atmosphere feels tense, the resort air smug and sticky. When I’m lucky, I get a lift to Ibo Beach. The  road to Ibo is lined with potholes, rocks, scrambling chickens, and artists attempting to sell colorful paintings for a dollar or two. It makes me sad.

After an hour-long dusty ride in an old Cadillac, I take an African Queen boat to Ibo Island—a slice of sun-drenched wonder in a ravaged country, a place where I can stare at the sea and imagine I live in a fair world.

A jellyfish stings me and a Haitian woman treats the sting with vinegar and shaving cream. It burns, but not for long.

I eat too many mangoes.

Muscat, Oman Photo by Julia Goldsby

Muscat, Oman
Photo by Julia Goldsby

1984: Cat Cay, The Bahamas

I fly from my Third World gig to a private island populated by rich Republicans and wild turkeys. Between piano sessions at Bloody Mary brunches and Happy Happy Happy Hour whiskey tastings, I walk pristine beaches, stare at sparkling water and try to figure out who I am. I belong on a beach, but maybe not this one.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Photo by Julia Goldsby

1991: Princeville, Kauai

After being fired from my seven-year piano engagement at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan (and replaced by a tuxedo-clad mannequin at a player piano), I fly to Hawaii with my husband, John. Kauai seems a little distant, but my sister has offered us a place to stay. I cash in my American Airlines frequent flyer miles (all those trips to Haiti) so we can fly for free.

The Kauai beaches, manicured but still rough around the edges, remind me of everything I’ve been missing. My husband and I slide down a steep hillside to visit Secret Beach, where huge boulders interrupt long stretches of white sand. We do secret things on Secret Beach. Then we almost kill ourselves climbing back up the hill.

I attempt to overcome my fear of snorkeling when I watch small children and old people frolic in shallow water, chattering about the colorful varmints swimming among us. I hate knowing there are living things in the water with me, but it’s time to overcome Fear of Fish and get with the program. I don a mask and flippers and force myself to enjoy the lovely residents of the sea as they glide past me.

I hate this. I do. Oh look. Electric blue, bright yellow, there’s one with stripes. Isn’t this fun? What if I see a stingray? Or a shark? Or, God forbid, an eel?

Something that looks like Karl Lagerfeld with gills drifts under my right hand.

Very nice. God, I hate this. Look there—a group of tiny orange fish with spikes. Are they following me? Do they bite? Are there Piranha in Hawaii?

While my rigid body tries to enjoy the underwater fin fashion show, a huge dog—I will find out later it’s a Great Dane named Junior—jumps into the surf and begins swimming towards me. When Junior swims into my line of vision, I panic, lose all sense of reason, and imagine I am being attacked by a Kauai Monster Dog Fish. I take one look at his large choppers and churning paws, and I’m sure I’m about to die one of those long, slow, Jaws kind of deaths, where my body flies into the air, the ocean’s froth turns bright red from carnage, and everybody screams and vomits. I forget how to swim and try to run out of the water on my flippers. Junior continues to have fun.

My husband and sister laugh for hours. I swear I will never snorkel again.

My sister makes a bra out of coconut shells and does a dance we call the “Big Butt Hula.”

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Tel Aviv: Photo by Ruben Bauer

1993: Montauk

John plays for an upscale summer party in Montauk, Long Island. We use his salary to finance a few days in a seedy hotel on the beach and hang out with our nine-month old baby, Curtis. Perched on a blanket, we encourage him to play in the sand. He hates sand. He throws it and cries and stays on the blanket. The only thing that soothes him is his father’s baritone version of “Blue Skies,” accompanied by me doing a stupid dance. We have buckets and shovels, but he’s not interested in toys. None of this sandcastle stuff for him. In an effort to get away from the beach, he learns to walk. One step, then two. Not running towards the water, but away from it. Clearly he does not take after my side of the family. Or maybe he already has Fear of Fish.

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

*****

We move to Europe in 1994. Our kids each learn to swim at an early age and, in spite of our son’s dislike of sand, we take occasional seaside holidays whenever we can afford it, or whenever someone pays us to go. We scald our feet traversing the dunes of Grand Canaria, and teach the kids how to body surf in the freezing North Sea on the Belgian coast. We encourage them not to stare at topless sunbathers on the Cote D’Azur, and to wear sturdy swim shoes when navigating the rocky shores of Cornwall. Carrying on with the Goldsby-Rawsthorne-Meloy tradition of “singing for our supper,” the kids have visited some of the world’s most impressive beaches while taking part in educational trips, volunteer opportunities, or music exchange groups. They’ve walked on beaches I’ve never seen, beaches that belong in their memories, not mine.

Slathered in sunscreen and decades past my best bikini years, I remember sitting on the sand and watching my kids when they were little, holding hands and leaping through the surf into deeper and deeper water. I remember the game I once played with my sister. Never let go, no matter what.

Respect the water, dive under the waves, and when you’re older, wiser, and more tired than you want to be, remember there’s magic at the beach. Fall in love a few times. Get a suntan. Feel the salt in your eyes. Encounter a Dog Fish. You might avoid the frogs’ legs buffet, but by all means, do secret things on a stretch of sand where the roar of the water is louder than your own voice.

“Get to the beach,” I tell them. “As often as you can.”

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Mykonos: Photo by Stacey Papaioannou and Julia Goldsby

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Nantucket Sound

Nantucket

The summer of 1976 will be long and warm and full of surprises. My work is cut out for me. I stash my big crate of music next to the piano and start playing songs that I like and songs that I hate, thumbing my way through fake books, trying to find tunes that are a good match for my musical limitations.

This is good. This will work. This sounds hideous. This one, that one. I’ll try anything. Sit up straight, curve my fingers, keep the thirds out of my left hand, don’t rush.

On my very first night on the job, about eight minutes into the first set, a customer offers to buy me a drink. My knowledge of alcohol is limited to the time I drank half a fifth of vodka at a high school party and allowed my football-player boyfriend to take off my bra, after which I spent the next three days throwing up. But the first night at the Club Car, wanting to be hip and sophisticated and above all polite, I accept the offer of a drink from the first sunburnt man in a yachting cap to offer one. He’s drinking a dreadful concoction called a Godfather—scotch and amaretto on the rocks. I place the full glass, brimming over with ice cubes, on the top of the piano, and watch it overflow as the ice melts. An hour later there are six drinks there, lined up like ducks swimming in a little lake. Men keep sending drinks and I keep not drinking them.

In my second week of work, I discover the tip jar. I stick a big brandy snifter on top of the piano, with a decoy dollar in it. When someone offers a drink, I smile, say I’m too young to drink legally, and glance longingly at the tip jar, which I call my College Tuition Fund. Works like a charm. Some nights I collect more money in tips than I do in salary.

It’s easier to sing and play at the same time. I’m not a great singer, but I’m not a great player either, so one thing cancels out the other. Each day I walk through the foggy Nantucket mornings to the bar, practice for two hours, eat lunch, go to the beach, go for a boat ride, or play tennis. Then I slink back to Mrs. Dunham’s house, scrounge around for food in the community refrigerator, take a bath, and coordinate my wardrobe for the evening. My female roommates are very helpful in this area. Most nights I arrive at the Club Car looking like beach-blanket Barbie.

Maybe it’s my wardrobe, maybe it’s the amount of alcohol being consumed by the Club Car customers, or maybe it’s my enthusiasm for my job—but for whatever reason, they like me. The restaurant itself is spacious and quaint in a “yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” nautical style, but the bar area where I play is an actual railroad car. It’s long and narrow, as railroad cars tend to be. When the bar fills up with customers, I must squeeze between the tables to get to the piano, which is stuffed in the back of the railroad car, next to the restroom. The Club Car bar is no place for chubby people. But this is good. Lino will never be able to get back here to fire me.

My audience consists of two distinct groups of men. Drunken sailors and artistic gay guys. I’m accepted by both groups, although I prefer the gay men, who show up on Thursday nights. The gay guys come to hear my Bette Midler tunes and give me fashion tips; the drunken sailors come to look at my cleavage and see if my tube-top falls off.

I call my Dad for advice. “Should I go around and listen to other piano players to get ideas about what to play?” I ask. There are more than a dozen piano players working in various restaurants and bars on the island.

“No,” he says. “Play what you want to play, then you won’t sound like everyone else.” This is great advice for several reasons: First, I can’t sound like anyone else even if I want to. I’m not good enough and I know it. Second, it’s more fun to play the music I want to hear.

“If you like what you’re playing, the audience will like it, too,” says Dad.

People jabber and laugh and drink and smoke like chimneys. They scream insults at each other across the bar, trade dirty jokes, eat heaping plates of calamari, seem to pay no attention to the music whatsoever, and still manage to absorb just a little of what I play. They clap, they don’t clap. They give me tips, they send me drinks. They make requests, they don’t.

I feel powerful. I watch every evening unfold, knowing that the songs I sing and play might guide the night in any possible direction.

I take little American flags with me to the gig. It is, after all, the bicentennial year. I pass the flags around, and we have tremendous fun singing the “Marine’s Hymn” and “Anchors Aweigh.” On Thursdays the Kate Smith impersonators show up, so we always finish the evening with “God Bless America.” There’s nothing better than a large group of gay men marching in place, waving flags, and singing “God Bless America” at the top of their lungs. Pure heaven.

Then there’s my serious side. When you’re eighteen, you’ve got to have a serious side. I learn as many Carole King songs as possible. Carole is my idea of a serious artist. About a month into the gig, I have most of the Tapestry album memorized. I fool around with some standards I like—“Skylark,” “Laura,” “Old Cape Cod”—and begin writing my own material. I go in a dozen different directions and have fun with all of them. I hit lots of wrong notes and forget lyrics halfway through songs, but no one notices. Or if they do, they’re drunk and polite enough to let me slide.

I narrow the field of eligible young waiters down to one guy. His name is Joe and he’s a business major from the University of Pennsylvania. He’s from a Philadelphia Main Line old-money family. I’ve got the honor of being the first girl he dates who is not in the social register. Joe has been going out with debutantes. I lure him to me by singing a Keith Carradine song called “I’m Easy” while he’s picking up his order of Singapore Slings at the bar. I look him right in the eye, sing the song, and it’s a done deal. I don’t have a Blue Book listing or a pedigree name, but I’ve got the blond hair, the pretty dress, and my secret weapon: the piano. Aha! My ability to play the piano, once a source of embarrassment in my early teenage years, can help me get the things I want, even if I’m not a debutante. Joe’s parents are aghast as they watch the heir to the family fortune fall for a scantily-clad bar pianist with a following of flag-waving homosexuals, but they try to be nice to me, really they do. I put up with their condescending smiles because I’m nuts about their son. It only bugs a little me when they insist on introducing me to their upscale, lockjawed friends as Robin Meloy Rawsthorne, of the Pittsburgh Rawsthornes, a trained concert pianist.

Yeah. My ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower.

Mrs. Dunham, who really wants to believe she’s running a chastity training center, goes into Code Red Alert when she realizes I have a steady boyfriend. I sneak Joe in and out of Mrs. Dunham’s windows several times, but then I start to feel guilty about tarnishing her sterling reputation. So Joe and I spend most of our days and nights at his parents’ home, a lovely shingled house up on the cliff overlooking Nantucket Sound. There are eighty-three wooden steps that take me down the cliff to the water. On the roof of the house is a widow’s walk with a view of Nantucket Sound that goes on forever. From here you can see everything, and nothing. In the evenings the sky turns shades of purple and orange, and I think about music even when my fantasies are full of teenage love and dreams and desires.

I play and play and play. I’ve grabbed hold of the opportunity presented to me by Lino Tambellino, and I’m not letting go. I started the summer—three short months ago—as a girl, but I’m more grown-up these days. The piano has smoothed the rough edges of this transition, and continues to guide me through the labyrinth of adult choices I need to make. My music, influenced by the rhythmic slapping of the waves and the sensation of the coarse Nantucket sand as it passes through my fingers, seems a flawed—but somehow perfect—soundtrack for my journey, which is just beginning.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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