Thursday, August 7, 2008

The kind that you knew before you knew what it was

One plans a New Monastic Workshop so a small core of men can share core texts, discuss them with intensity, begin to frame out a new canon of what we're all supposed to know.

Then folks show up, and it's more like a party than a mystical experience. Drinks, chatter. Touches of the usual social postures and defenses. More dudes than monks.

So, you fix it in the blog. This is what I had wanted to say, in The Monastic Smokehouse, about Dina Dean, one of the core artists on the mixtape I brought for the Open DJ Spins.

Like so many artistic discoveries, this one begins in loneliness.

I had ended up in New York, where I had good journalism jobs, but no band. Or, rather, I had a band, but it was scattered from Chicago to Nashville to L.A. It wasn't in New York, like I was.

I wasn't a kid, anymore. I was married. I wasn't in a band scene, or any arts scene. I wasn't in St. Louis, where things always come together for me, creatively. I was a little lonely. So I looked around.

I found a little music scene in the East Village. It wasn't the old basement at Cicero's in St. Louis, but it was more like that than I would have expected. The venues were small, dark, intimate. The players were inward, often awkward. Nora Jones would eventually slink out of this scene onto Starbucks endcaps everywhere, but that hadn't quite happened yet.

Nora may have been a small, shy presence in the shadows on one of those East Village nights, when I was a nobody in a corner. I don't know. But I can't forget the first time I saw Dina Dean.

It was a small, dark room, with a small, bare stage. It was really just a spot on the floor that had been kept free of clutter. She, too, was shy, but her physical gift is such she can't help but strut. God gave her the arms, the legs, I'd like to say "the ass," that, when she moves, it's a strut, regardless of her intention.

I adore African female beauty. I'm the guy who stares for hours at the carvings on the foundation posts in the West African wings of museums. You know, the sculptures of the tall, strong sisters (the mothers) with babies on their backs and knives on their heads. Michelle Obama, okay?

Or, Dina Dean. If Jimi Hendrix were a dark-skinned girl ...

But, then, she played, and it wasn't Jimi Hendrix. It wasn't Nina Simone. It wasn't even Phoebe Snow. It was Bob Dylan! She played story songs, with vivid lyrics and subtle hooks. Her voice cracked. Her left hand strummed, and picked, primitively. Between verses - a revelation, for a black girl in a dark bar to do this! - she crooked her neck, fitted her lips to the harmonica, and picked out a rugged little melody.

I always think of a Duke Ellington song, when a new kind of being appears before my eyes for the first time: "I didn't know about you."

I wasn't in St. Louis, where things come together for me. I didn't have a recording studio at my disposal, as I did in St. Louis, or Nashville, or Los Angeles. I was lonely and off my game.

But I simply had to approach her, after her set. I tried to tell her how wonderful she was and how the whole world should know about her. I tried to express my bursting hopes for her without coming off as the horny, creepy older guy.

I'm convinced I came off as the horny, creepy older guy. Judging by the comments on her MySpace page, I see she still gets a lot of that.

I thought of my buddy Lij, who makes records in Nashville. I wanted her to work with Lij. I wanted Lij to hear her songs.

She said she had never recorded any of her songs. I begged her to do so, even on a jambox. She did so - on a jambox. These were her first recordings, and I still have my copy. It was the source of the track I played at the Open DJ Spin, "Some Kind of Love," about the kind of love she was always looking for: "the kind that you knew before you knew what it was."

I don't remember if Lij was too busy at the time, or if nobody could come up with the money to fly her to Nashville, or if I came across as the creepy older guy and ruined it that way, but we never got Dina Dean down to Nashville to make a record. I'm happy to see she stuck with it, without our help - even stuck with the same songs. Now she's nearing her 15,000th spin on her MySpace jukebox. Cool.

I even got to see her play music again, last night. I was sitting at a kitchen table in Fort Bragg, not in a nightclub in the East Village. I was peering at the screen on a laptop, not a spot on the floor, where a young black girl was strutting (without intending to strut) to the mic.

You fix it in the blog.

No comments: