Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.


Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!


Summer and the Swing

…Death kept following, tracking us down
At least I heard your bluebird sing
Now somebody’s got to show their hand
Time is an enemy
I know you’re long gone; I guess it’s gonna be up to me.

-Dylan, 1974

There have been an unforgivable number of deaths this summer. Maybe it was all the deaths. Maybe it was the drought. Maybe it was the relentless drumbeat of Trumpism. But the cumulative effect for me was that when people ask me how my summer was, I have to force a smile and say, truthfully, “It had a good ending. How was yours?”

In many ways, my summer was great. It included what seemed a family smorgasbord of travel, violin, soccer, theatre camps, Adirondack hikes and a certain kid finally learning to swim competently, thanks to the ministrations of a family friend. Professionally, too, it was pretty sweet, with our two 25th anniversary concerts at the Iron Horse, which included performances by all four of our kids and our dear friends Ben Demerath and Kalliope Jones. Tom and I got to see Hamilton (with the original cast!) which was life-changing and inspiring. I had the privilege of running and participating in two fantastic retreats, one in the ADKs and one at home in Northampton, learning so much from my participants as I always do. And then in late July, Katryna and Dave Chalfant and I started work on the soundtrack to go along with my novel The Big Idea. With the help of our longtime drummer Dave Hower, Dave C breathed passion and life and youth into songs I’d written as long ago as 2002, as well as songs I wrote this past June. I now see a whole different aspect of the characters I’ve been living with for fifteen years. Dave found angles I’d never considered, brought the songs to life in full color animation. At summer’s end, Dar drove up with her daughter Taya and was my character Liv First, singing my new song “The Shame Wars” with her trademark generosity, love and vulnerability. The next day, all three of our daughters sang backgrounds on a new version of “As Cool As I Am” which will be released as part of her Return to Mortal City tour. Afterwards, we had dinner on my porch and watched the kids play soccer in the back yard, caught up and talked about her book on small towns and cities, community building and music, and I felt so deeply grateful for our long, sweet, sustaining friendship. These moments, like luminous pearls on a necklace, are the point. They are the Big Idea.

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But the deaths. The news. The grass turned to straw. I had to scratch and claw my way out of a dark place that had threatened to obliterate these moments, keeping me trapped in my head instead of enjoying my blessed, precious life. I find myself in this place often––I always assume it’s part of the package of being an artist––but it usually doesn’t last so long. This summer, it seemed so interminable I was considering setting up furniture inside the trap. At times like these, I experience others around me joking, bantering, enjoying each other, using words to make connections, and it as if I am in the audience watching a play. I know I am supposed to be up there on stage, but I have forgotten my lines.

Three things usually save me: prayer, honesty and music. For two of the three, I depend on other people. For all of them, I need some element of the Divine. But none appeared to be working by the time I got to the main stage at Falcon Ridge, where I was still in the trap, unable to connect to the music or my bandmates in the way I usually could. We played, my bandmates were incredible as usual, and we tore down, hugged each other, and this time packed up for our next show at the Workshop Stage, an hour plus with one of our favorite other bands, The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. On that stage, electrified by the energy of that wonderful band, and my own drummer, bass player, guitarist and sweet amazing sister, rocked by the rhythms and urgency of “For What It’s Worth,” buoyed by the audience, I came back. I remembered my lines.


It’s been better since then. I’ve been sleeping more, waking more slowly, being gentle with my creative process, savoring my kids. Up until this morning, I took a long summer break from my 5am writing sessions, trading inspiration and the hit of productivity for sleep. Perhaps I “discipline” over my feelings the way some people eat, drink, screw or shop over theirs. But I have committed to myself and a bunch of other people that I will finish this book, hoping to get the draft to my agent by December. In order to do that, I am going to have to go back to the disciplined lifestyle from which I’ve been blissfully vacationing.

I still haven’t figured out how to live as a creative artist with a family. It seems I’m either courting my muse, in which case my family is mad at me and I am stuck in the dark place, or I am refuting it, in which case I am in the play with my family, saying my lines. But something is missing, then. I don’t feel like myself if part of me is not lost in my head, spinning the scene, writing the song, planning the tour. I seem to go from one extreme of the pendulum to the other, and when I hit the extreme, I go “bonk, bonk” against whatever it is you hit when you go extreme. But now that school has started, and I am back in my routine, up at 5 (OK, 5:45. Let’s start easy…) I’m thinking it’s not so bad. What’s wrong with swinging? Tom says, “You know, I have known this about you since we met. You just have to let me get mad at you and keep doing your art.”

Hamilton, Ambition, Perfection

IMG_4976“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

If, on the night of June 2nd, you heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from a neighborhood in Northampton, that would have been me on learning that, for my birthday, my incredibly generous parents (via the urging of my hugely thoughtful and loving sister Katryna) had bought Tom and me tickets to go see Hamilton the Musical. On June 28. Two weeks before the Tony-awarded cast’s contracts were up. I was going to get to see the original Broadway cast. In person. I screamed for a full 10 seconds. More on that below, but first I have to say that I was going to post that picture of me surrounded by my new Hamiltome (a huge, beautiful libretto with photos, notes and essays on the production), my soundtrack and my copy of the Ron Chernow biography. But Katryna said, “You can’t tell people about this! They will kill you! Plus, it’s rude.” So I didn’t say anything until we actually went. That was still probably rude. But I could not keep quiet.

I am in the Adirondacks right now, writing with my retreatants at my parents’ house. Up on the wall of the kitchen is a snapshot that captures a moment of pure perfection, taken about 4 years ago, of my two kids when they were still in footie pajamas. They are sitting, side by side, at the foot of the stairs, waiting for their grandparents to come down. The morning light shines in on their brown heads, and they are both turned slightly to look at the photographer. One of them has an eager look on her face; she knows the glories that will come when her grandparents descend. The other is along for the ride, because he knows his sister usually has a good plan. They are alert, attentive, on the cusp, sitting up straight and tall, criss-cross-applesauce legs. They are snuggly and delicious, and when I see that picture, I melt. I want to scoop them up and hug them. I regret ever having done anything other than scoop them up and hug them, hold them to my chest and savor this rare period of time. Why, in the face of such wonderfulness, would a person do anything else? And yet I know that during that time, my mind wandered, just as it did (a very little bit) as I sat in the equally perfect production of Hamilton I was lucky enough to see.

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Like most folks who have heard the soundtrack more than once, I am a huge Hamilton fan. I love pretty much everything about it:
-the incredible songwriting (which I think is even better than Sondheim’s because it has so much heart and pathos)
-the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea from reading that big fat historical biography of Alexander Hamilton
-the amazing history lesson our kids are getting (mine are obsessed and know every word, ask me unanswerable questions about John Adams and Lafayette, are furious about Washington and Jefferson owning slaves)
-the politics (how much have things not changed???)
-the humor (King Louis’ head)
-the cast that looks more authentically like today’s America than any play I’ve seen
-the cast, the cast, the cast, oh my GOD, the cast!!!!
-the incredible study of ambition that we get in comparing Hamilton and Burr
-the awareness of privilege and class that we see as Alexander rises up from his origins in the West Indies
-the vast scope of the musical’s ambition
-The beautiful, inspiring love story
-the fact that it is the first musical I have been interested in since I was in high school
-the fact that it has made me fall in love with live theatre again
-the way in which L-MM composed the “mixtape” on Logic (what is Logic? How the heck can I learn it??? Can someone help me? please?)
-the references to the Beatles (of course)…

We arrived at the theatre at 3pm, and I was so nervous I was trembling. I was stuttering. I couldn’t believe I was at the Richard Rodgers theatre and that I was about to see my new musical heroes and heroines. I have listened to the soundtrack *nonstop* since my nephew William introduced me to it in April, and I have come to love the cast members the way I loved the Fab Four. I feel like I know them. I can’t imagine seeing Jefferson played by anyone other than Daveed Diggs. Or a different George Washington; who can possibly fill Chris Jackson’s shoes? So I was trying hard to pre-emptively lower my expectations on the experience, since there would surely be at least one understudy taking the place of one of my beloved leads. But when we got there, there were signs up everywhere warning the ticket holders that this production would be filmed.

And. Jonathan Groff, who had played the role of King George III onstage and on the soundtrack, and who had left the show in April, was coming back (*he’ll be back…*) for this performance.

GAH!!!!!!!!! ON TOP OF EVERYTHING, THERE ARE DELICIOUS BEATLES REFERENCES!!! IN THE AFTERMATH OF BREXIT!!! (which I loathe, but anyway, it’s interesting…)

Speaking of the Beatles, I have to say that I haven’t been this blown away and deeply inspired since 1977 when my friend Leila Corcoran introduced me to the Fab Four. But this brings something else up.

As inspired as I am by Hamilton, I am also daunted by it. I am almost defeated by its perfection. I am obsessed by its genius pacing. How did he figure out which parts of that huge book/huge life to include in the 3 hour story, and which parts to cut? He brilliantly tells the first 19 years of AH’s life in a masterful opening number:

How can any songwriter ever lift her quill again in the face of this? How can I even begin to approach my 850 page novel The Big Idea when I have in my head the perfection I witnessed on Tuesday night? My book is not as good as Hamilton. So why bother.

I told my friend this the other day. OK, my therapist. She looked at me and shook her head, as she often does. “Whaaat? You must be out of your GODDAMNED MIND….” No, just kidding. She said, “Um, why are you comparing a novel to a musical? And what does your novel have to do with Hamilton? Who, besides you, would even make a comparison of you to Lin-Manuel Miranda?”

I don’t know. It’s arrogant (*bastard*) to compare oneself to the likes of L-MM; one doesn’t usually compare oneself to Shakespeare or Mozart or even Lennon/McCartney. One just sighs and knows that there are some who achieve a kind of immortality, while most artists, even wildly successful ones, are content to get paid and to bask in the contained era of their fame.

How was the show? I was on the edge of my seat for the full 3 hours. I trembled throughout the first act. I wept all through the second (except when I was laughing). And yet, there was a way in which getting EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED left me feeling a bit…off. I know that sounds horrible and ungrateful. But what I mean is that it’s a strange thing to be fully satisfied,just as I was fully satisfied when I was cuddling my small children in their footie pajamas. And this is itself one of the themes of the play. “You will never be satisfied,” sings Angelica to herself and to Hamilton. These two characters have almost everything in the moment when she sings these words: wealth, success, beauty, love, family (though Angelica is lacking something very particular, of course….) Still, it’s a very difficult thing, even in the very very best of times, to remain fully and completely present. Even in the face of perfection––and an absolutely perfect entertainment experience––my mind sometimes went somewhere outside the Richard Rodgers theatre. (To my novel. To my children. To my concern about driving home after the show in the rain.) Also, and I am deeply ashamed to admit this, a part of me was convinced that this incredible good fortune (of getting to see the show, of getting to see the entire original cast) would not go unnoticed by the gods, and surely I would be smote somehow. So what is that about?

I need to add here that, besides the price of the tickets, there was a pretty significant cost to my birthday night. I sort of smote myself. My bloodcurdling scream seriously wrecked my voice. At the retreat yesterday, I had intended to do way too many things. Among them were to record a demo of Liv First’s song “The Shame Wars” for my friend Dar Williams, who will be singing it for the soundtrack that will accompany The Big Idea. It’s been a month since I screamed that bloodcurdling scream, but I still don’t have the full range of my voice back. I can’t cleanly sing the D above middle C, which used to be an easy note for me. I warmed up and warmed up, but the note is still not there. And I have in the back of my mind, “Payback. For all your good fortune. For getting to see Hamilton.”

I ended up macguyvering my little Casio keyboard (the song is played on piano) to make it a half step lower, and then I was able to sing the song. I sent it off to Dar, and I sent other songs off to the band. The experience of seeing that beautiful work of art last Tuesday stays with me. The songs are in me, the images and the dances too. Certain gestures I got to witness feel intrinsic now to my whole life. Just as the experience of witnessing my two children grow from babies to footie-pajama’d youngsters to the mountain-climbing violin-playing soccer-ball-kicking infuriatingly rule-breaking wonders they are today is woven into my blood and bones. Just as Hamilton and Burr wove themselves into each others’ blood and bones, so that by the end of Hamilton’s life, he has a bit of Burr’s hesitancy and judiciousness, while Burr has some of Hamilton’s go-for-it ambition. Time will tell if I get my D back. I will go and warm up my voice again today and see. If not, I’m willing to *wait for it.*

What’s The Big Idea?

What’s the Big Idea?

What happens when your family of origin is too happy?

How does one leave one’s family if there is no good reason to?

What if there is nothing to rebel against?


The Big Idea is band from the 90s that almost made it, and this novel is a family tragicomedy-cum-odyssey that covers the career of this five-piece rock band, the ups and downs of the music business, and the ways in which they fall in and out of love with each other, and with their ideas of what it means to succeed. All across a backdrop of 1990s America.


Meet the Band


Peter Becket: Oldest child, visionary, on a mission to achieve eternal life through his pursuit of his ambition, which is nothing short of changing the face of pop culture, like his heroes, the Beatles and Phillip Petit.

Rhodie Becket: Middle child, introverted, introspective, deeply connected to her family, secretly a virgin at the age of 22, she’s the best songwriter in the band, and like any songwriter, is constantly looking for the right metaphor, the hook, the meaning of things. She adores her brother and is furious when he falls in love and begins to edge toward a life independent of the family.

Zhsanna Becket: lead singer and youngest sibling, wild and undisciplined with a heart as big as Texas and a voice that transports its listeners to another time and place.


Meet the In-Laws and Out-Laws

Olivia (“Liv”) First is a disciplined Yale-educated third-wave feminist and sometime anorexic struggling with her desire to be loved, to fit in with the Beckets and somehow be adopted by them, she falls in love with Peter and the band when she sees them play as a trio at the Daily Caffe in New Haven. She sees how easy it would be for them to get famous if they only made a few good decisions, and she attempts to manage them. But they are a bit ungovernable.


Jack Slade. Seven years older than Peter, Jack is the best bass player in Jintucket. Getting him in the band would be a huge coup for the nascent Big Idea, and a little daunting for Peter who was kicked out of a Jack-led band (Notorious Ingrid) in the recent past. Jack is married to Susie, a recovering heroin addict, and the father of Millie, their young child.

Mose Healey. Raised by a single mother in Somerville, and also by a couple of Jesuit brothers from Worcester, Mose wears a Trust bracelet and is flirting with a future as a priest. But he loves music, and he is intrigued by the band’s invitation to join them. He is an easy, lovable dude who reminds Rhodie of Hephaestus. When his band Tourniquet breaks up, he inherits their van, which becomes the de facto home of the Big Idea for much of the span of the novel.

Meet the Parents

Rita Puccino Becket. Daughter of Italian immigrants, she fell in love with Harry when they were in a Gypsy-inspired production of Kiss Me Kate. She homeschooled her three children, teaches yoga, modern dance and drama, and dreams of traveling the world.

Harry Becket. Son of old money, he dabbled in various careers, and his basement displays the relics of various paths not taken—law school, massage school, carpentry––before he settle on writing a series of chapter books for young readers that featured a character named Julius Collie and his trusty sidekick Rude Cat.


Told through multiple voices, the novel follows the band members as they come of age and struggle with their own human limitations, trying to balance the drive to succeed as a unified group with their own personal lives. This is a book about the tension between the power of the communal versus the real needs of the individual; the power of engagement over isolation; the lure of heights that fame offers versus the grounding of a “normal” domestic life.


There is an accompanying 11-song soundtrack for the book, produced by Dave Chalfant. The Big Idea’s songs are performed by The Nields (Nerissa and Katryna Nields, Dave Hower and Dave Chalfant.) Liv First’s songs are performed by Dar Williams.


Short excerpt from The Big Idea

 (from the work-in-progress The Big Idea. The book is told from multiple points of view. Here is a piece from Peter Becket, oldest brother, guitarist, songwriter, visionary, pain in the ass.)

Peter Becket: In the Beginning

In the beginning, the Big Idea had just been that: an idea in Peter Becket’s head. Having a band like the Beatles was the Biggest Idea he could think of when he was nine; and honestly, it was still the biggest idea he could think of. The dream of dreams. Music had filled every orifice of 72 Columbus. Harry played a nylon string guitar and had sung Odetta songs when Peter’s sisters were in the cradle; he could only assume he’d been sung to like this also. Harry also played Beethoven string quartets with his regular crew of “old guys”—lumpy middle-aged grown-ups who showed up once in a while in the Beckets’ living room and filled the house with Beethoven’s late-era music; music composed by a deaf man, they’d told the amazed Peter. Peter would sit on the top steps after bedtime, transfixed by his father’s saw-like motions on his viola, his arm movements so passionate Peter figured the instrument should be cleaved in two. Observing this strange music, partly fascinated, partly depressed by it, he wanted his father to pick up the nylon string again and sing with his voice, not that mournful viola. When he finally heard the Beatles on their Aunt Alizia’s old victrola, it was like the parting of the sea. In the treble sounds of “Hello Goodbye,” a rich green and yellow garden, swirling colors filled Peter’s young imagination: a window into a different time. He had been able to see the music as well as hear it. Where his father’s folk music, and even the string quartets, had been a straight line, the Beatles were multidimensional.

Peter and Rhodie had acquired their first Beatles LP with the money they earned from doing the chores. Rhodie’s jobs included walking the dogs and updating the monumental volumes of scrapbooks, although she did a terrible job and was eventually fired in favor of the more artistically inclined Zhsanna. Peter’s job was to weed Rita’s garden. After two weeks of savings, they counted up their quarters and pennies: $7.99—the cost of a double LP.

They bought the greatest hits compilation that had a photo of the late ‘60’s Beatles on the front cover and the early ‘60’s Beatles on the back. Peter showed Rhodie which Beatle was which, even when he wasn’t always sure himself. Peter was John, Rhodie Paul, which Peter thought made sense. He was the visionary, she the talent. They learned all the parts to all the Beatle harmonies, teaching Zhsanna, barely five years old to sing melody, because that was the easiest part. Zhsanna banged along on an overturned pot with a wooden spoon.

Peter had no stomach for his parents’ folk music. It was endlessly earnest, sung by aging hippies in embarrassingly colorful third world garb, their brows furrowed as they sang their obvious lyrics about peace, love, injustice and global warming. It was the equivalent of painting only in primary colors. In their music, there were only two emotions: hope, and self-righteous anger. The lyrics were full of finger-pointing and the kind of humor that old people found funny. The music was limited to the same three-chord tunes, with the occasional annoying visit to the minor third—as if by going there they were showing off their musical diversity. The tunes were all predictable, and if you called them on this lack of sophistication (as Peter often did—to Harry, no less), they defended themselves by invoking Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, as if they were the two pillars of all things good and righteous; as if they were Peter’s grandfathers.

“Woody could create a whole song playing just one chord!” Harry had bellowed at Peter, once when they’d played “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” and Peter had thrown in some jazzy sevenths. Harry had acted as though Peter had desecrated some shrine. Well, this was the shrine for Harry and Rita. Atheists though they were, they worshipped at the local Unitarian church on Saturday night, when they volunteered at the folk concert series.

This was not the music Peter wanted to make, and it was the one source of friction in his relationship with his parents, who otherwise seemed to think he walked on water. He wanted to make a music that was supple, emotive. Where the music told the story as much as the words did. Folk music relied heavily on words, whereas the music that grabbed Peter by the collar and took him out of his body, out of time, was nuanced—it was music, goddamn it, not a speech! Not some creed set to music! That wasn’t music, people! That was journalism! In the music he loved—electric Dylan, the Band, the Beatles, the Stones––the lyrics, if they mattered, were a kind of music, too. They told a story through sound, innuendo, feel. What do the words make you feel? He would say to Rita.

“Well, in the case of Dylan, angry and sick to my stomach!” she would shout. “But Tom Paxton—now there’s an artist.” And she sang, in her sandpapery voice, “What did you learn at school today, sweet little son of mine,” all about how horrible and corrupt the academic system was.

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned at school. [By Tom Paxton, © Chrysalis One Music, Bmg Rights Management Us, Llc.]

Peter’s eyes hurt from all the rolling they did that day.

There was no one in the Becket house who supported his vision, his music, so he educated himself, studying Greil Marcus and Jann Wenner, locking himself in the bathroom with the latest edition of Creem Magazine, taking in each turn in the music road—from disco to punk to New wave to reggae and back to the classics– as though he were a gigantic funnel. His sister Rhodie had taken the narrow end and gotten the best of it, he sometimes thought. He’d done all the leg work and presented her with the goods at the end of the day. But where Peter had the drive, the focus and the ideas, Rhodie had the talent. She had the ability to take three chords and write the kinds of songs that Peter felt must have always existed. When he tried to write like that, he sounded like a rip-off artist. When Rhodie wrote a song, it sounded like a classic. Peter had been envious of this, and at first he tried to pretend she didn’t exist; that her talent didn’t exist. Sister? What sister? But one day––he could still remember the day because it had been the same day the Berlin wall had fallen, Nov. 9 1989––she played him “When I’m Here,” and he knew the song would get beyond the walls of the Beckets’ house on Columbus Street. It had the inevitability of a sunrise, he thought. (No, cliché. Not a sunrise. Rats. What metaphor would Rhodie have used?) In any event, he could see her onstage singing that song, and he knew she would instantly have a following. So was it generous when he finally caved to all her whining and pleading and formed a band with her? Probably not. If she was going to be a songwriter, he wanted her to be his songwriter. So he started making suggestions about what she might write, giving her lines to start her off. He kept writing, too, but mostly the songs were hers. Still, all songs were credited to “P. Becket & R. Becket,” ©Beckettunes. ASCAP, All Rights Reserved. Like Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan.

During their squash racquet/pots and pans Beatles phase, Harry brought all three children to the music school, conveniently located on South Street, right around the corner from 72 Columbus. Miss Hazel, a bug-eyed wonder with bad breath masked by spearmint gum, taught Suzuki violin, and Peter was her prized student, speeding through the first five books in the repertoire by age eleven. Rhodie slogged through, taking three years to master her Twinkles (though she had started younger than her brother). Zhsanna picked it up through the water and was soon making up her own tunes, even before Hazel could give her a box violin and a chopstick bow. But Peter quit after the the second part of the Bach Double, which coincided with his first rock concert (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band on their Born in the USA tour), and from that day on systematically taught himself how to play the guitar, mostly by listening to Beatles, Stones, the Police and (his guilty pleasure) Queen. In those days, he was Rhodie’s teacher, always remembering his protégé, even as he marched swiftly forward, so eager to master the next lick. Because in ditching the violin, Peter finally found his milieu. No one liked him when he was a violin player. He talked too much in group class. He always had the right answer. He got in other kids’ faces with his Bohm “Perpetual Motion” and his Vivaldi concertos. In orchestra he moved his first violinist chair a little out front. He didn’t know how to play with others. But seeing Bruce, and later studying the perfect symmetry of the Police had changed all that. From Bruce he got the possibilities–the full range—of what a rock and roll singer songwriter could be and do. And from the Police he got the importance of the three-legged stool. (Musically that is. And let the record show, as he would tell you, that Sting’s solo career was pure drivel and dreck.)

This was the era in which his life changed. He went from being the violin prodigy to local humble hero. It was at this time that he moved from his tiny bedroom across from his sisters’ to the attic on the third floor. Here, he stayed, rarely coming down except for “school”—Rita’s increasingly vague lessons focused mostly on the four Beckets sitting around the living room reading fat Russian novels––and meals, which he wolfed down, returning to his attic den to get back to his portable record player with its stereo speakers. He played along, ear against the speaker, to all the new records he would get at Real Tunes: Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, the Band, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello…each week there would be a new discovery in the used LP bin. In the fall when he’d turned seventeen, he auditioned for his first band and got in: Notorious Ingrid, led by none other than Jack Slade, legendary bass player who went on to co-found Sassafrass the Younger. Peter played with them for the first time at New Year’s. As he stood on the big stage, his Fender almost as long as he was, he saw Rhodie in the audience, with Zhsanna and their parents. His body felt like it was made of extremely thin electric wire, and he imagined his guitar as a sail that he could hold up, and it would carry him all the way across the stage, and perhaps over the heads of all in the audience. The drummer behind him clicked his sticks, four sharp quick clicks, and Peter’s arm took over, smashing down on the first power chord of “Pump it Up,” leaping across the stage in black and white checkered pin-legged jeans, his guitar held triumphantly high. After, he saw Rhodie again, but she could not get to him for the wall of girls her age and older, five deep, surrounding him.