I’m sitting with my girlfriend Ro at a jazz club. The band tonight is incredible. They tell us they drove directly to Cleveland from New Orleans, their home base. A 16-hour drive. But listening to them, you’d never know. If this is what rolling off the tour bus and phoning it in sounds like, I can’t imagine what their peak performance would be.
It’s a tiny venue, but they put on quite a show. Somehow managing to dance on the microscopic stage.
From the sound of it, they have at least one person who is hell of a good arranger. And better yet, they have that kind of wild energy that people who play together all the time have. Where at times it’s unpredictable, improvisational… but they nonetheless move in sync to the same sudden deviations.
Musicians Often Have Deep Connections With One Another, Even if They’re Hard to Explain
As I sip my drink and listen to the band get down, I can’t help but be transported back in the past to the days that I worked as a professional musician myself. It’s not difficult to go there since they’re playing a lot of funk, the bread and butter of a few of the bands I played with regularly.
A few of the musicians on stage even resemble folks I used to jam with. One is a dead ringer for a talented jazz guitarist who left Maine to do studio work in NYC and had several good years there before overdosing on heroin. Well, he looks like that guitarist if you mixed him in a Petri dish with my long-distance boyfriend who played sax in a ska band.
The bass player is a dead ringer for another… what would I call him? A friend? I guess. Labels are sometimes difficult. Anyway, he looks just like a bass player that I flirted extensively with, made out with a few times, and named a song I wrote for, since it had a kick ass bass line, one that I knew he’d like.
I had several “friends” like this. Where we would see one another a few times a month, perform in public. Meld our minds for a couple of hours via artistic collaboration. And even though playing on stage with one another didn’t require us to touch or even to talk too terribly much, those connections ran deep.
Playing gigs with folks regularly often entailed learning a lot about them. About the choices they made when they were forced to be spontaneous. About what they thought was beautiful, meaningful. And how they could collaborate with other people… or occasionally couldn’t (I didn’t book repeat engagements with folks like that, generally speaking; even for a large payout, it just wasn’t worth the stress).
The Musical Mind Meld Overshadowed Any Physical Contact
I honestly have a difficult time, looking back, remembering who I only played music with and who I played music and made out with. I almost never had sex with men in those days, so these casual encounters were mostly just kissing, cuddling, and maybe mutual masturbation and dirty-talking (but the latter was incredibly rare).
Not that I didn’t have sex with some of my bandmates. I did. Just not typically the male ones. My main group, the one I was the manager and band leader for, was mostly women. And my relationships with female collaborators were often even more complicated. I had crushes on all of them and while I had to tread more lightly for safety reasons (1990s rural Maine was a difficult place to be queer), I was always on the lookout for opportunities to deepen those relationships. There were a few situations where there was no opportunity whatsoever. They were straight. Although that didn’t always preclude romantic or sexual connections from developing. After all, in those days, the vast majority of my female lovers identified as straight. It really all depended on how much a person was open to being something else, even if for a single afternoon.
But the physical contact wasn’t really what cemented my lasting fondness of the musicians I knew. Kisses were nice and all, but it was the melding of the minds that really sticks with me now, all those years later. The way that we’d form a collective consciousness during a performance.
And as I sit in the jazz club with Ro, I can see the musicians are in that zone. The zone where they’re not really playing music per se — but playing each other’s minds.
Some People Think That Polyamory Is Always a Selfish Choice
When there’s a break in the music, Ro talks to me about a sticking point she keeps running into, what seems to be giving people hangups about polyamory. She says she last noticed it reading the comments on a large media article on polyamory run by The New York Times.
The anti-polyamory comments weren’t couched in religious objections or thou shalt nots. Understandable, Ro says, since the NYT isn’t exactly a super church-y publication. Instead, she tells me, the critics objected to polyamory on the grounds that it’s selfish.
I laugh involuntarily. “The irony there is that if you’re selfish, polyamory usually goes terribly, especially long term.”
I point out the polyamorous folks in our lives that we know who have had spectacular explosions and trouble finding partners after their first few large disasters, because they’re selfish. And I contrast that with those we know who have been extremely happy long term.
The folks that we personally know who are the most successful with polyamory long term are incredibly giving. They’re good at sharing. And they don’t have a fear of commitment; instead they’re multi-committed, meaning that they’re accountable to multiple people and follow-through on their promises.They’re honestly some of the least selfish people I’ve ever known.
She nods. “Well, you and I know this, but I don’t know how to explain this in a way that would resonate with anyone else.”
I nod. “It’s tricky. People hear what they want to hear.”
“Anyway,” she says. “I think it would be a good thing to write about.”
“I’ll think on it,” I say.
Why Is the Nuclear Family Framed as Being the Selfless Decision?
We move on to other implications. How people always assume that not having kids means that you’re selfish (when there are plenty of ways to behave selfishly as a parent, and plenty of ways to give back to the world without having kids, not to mention that it does reduce one’s carbon footprint). Why is it exactly that the nuclear family is framed as being the selfless decision? And deviations from that blueprint invariably framed as selfish — regardless of specific context?
Is this a bit of clever marketing by people who want to sell more things? Are people trying to justify their life choices and personal sacrifices post hoc? Especially in times when they don’t feel personally gratifying. And when they maybe feel cheated that non-monogamy or living child-free wasn’t presented as an option for them setting out (as one older relative confided to me in a time of candor).
The band starts to play again, and further conversation is shelved until after the show.
Musicians Who Prefer to Play in Groups Aren’t Considered Selfish, But Lovers Who Prefer Groups Are
As the band plays, I think about the notion that connecting with multiple other people is inherently selfish. Many people believe this when it comes to love. But applied to music, it’s a ridiculous concept.
A soloist isn’t considered any less selfish than a person who plays duets.
Being part of a large orchestra isn’t any more selfish than performing in a small chamber group.
In fact, if anything, in music, being part of a larger group is viewed as less flashy. Less self-serving.
Sure, there are selfish musicians. But it’s often more difficult for ones driven only by ego to find steady work. Usually, musicians have to learn to cooperate with others and to compromise, even if you’d never guess that judging by some larger than life stage personas.
It’s a funny thing, really, that musicians who prefer to play in groups aren’t considered selfish, but lovers who prefer groups are.
And it’s even stranger still that we expect love to be a far more selfish pursuit than art, when I think both are equally capable of showing us our better selves if we can turn away from fear and let them.
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