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For our culture, what does 'back to normal' mean?

Apr 8, 2020
Originally published on April 14, 2020 7:10 pm

Imagine you're driving in a car through the mountains, and up ahead is a tunnel. You enter the tunnel, and immediately the sunlight disappears. You don't know how long the tunnel is, how long the darkness will last, or what you'll see when you come out on the other side.

That's where we are now.

Last week was a tough one for musicians. Pianist Ellis Marsalis, father of the Marsalis Jazz Dynasty, died of coronavirus. Age 85. As did Wallace Roney, a jazz trumpet star who played the Rochester International Jazz Festival a couple of years. Age 59. And Grammy-winning country singer Joe Diffie. Age 61. I recall interviewing Diffie in 2003. He talked about how he'd spent nine years working in a factory -- punching holes in sheet metal and staring into the orange heat of an industrial furnace -- before he could finally make a living off his music.

Coronavirus also got Grammy and Emmy winner Adam Schlesinger. Age 52. His band was Fountains of Wayne, which wrote great pop, including the song that was the faux hit for the one-hit wonder band featured in the Tom Hanks film, "That Thing You Do!" As sometimes happens, fantasy became reality, and "That Thing You Do!" actually did become a hit.

I talked to Schlesinger waaaay back in 1997, a couple of days before his band opened for The Smashing Pumpkins at a sold-out show at the War Memorial. I appreciated his self-deprecating view of Fountains of Wayne as chum tossed to a shark-frenzy audience that was there for The Pumpkins. 

"We've got all of the clichés down -- 'Come on, people on the left, the people on the right are making you look bad.' " Schlesinger said. "And concepts like it doesn't matter how badly you play, if you end the song on a big note, you'll get a big cheer."

I suppose we'd all like to end on a big note. But that's not how this plague works. It shuts you down, it's shutting everything down. President Trump met with the commissioners of most major sports last week, and urged them to get their athletes up and running as quickly as possible. But a story in The New York Times this week says the commissioners are privately taking a more cautious, responsible approach. The danger presented in assembling large crowds persists. And it will for a while.

No sports. ESPN's viewership is dropping dramatically.

And no concerts. No gathering with friends for live music.

So I spent the weekend doing laundry, watching TV, reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and looking out the window, watching neighbors walking their dogs. I have never seen so many of the neighborhood dogs getting walks. It's like coronavirus is a dog holiday.

And I drifted in and out of the Rochester Livestream Music Festival. Three internet days of musicians I know, musicians I don't know, and musicians playing out of the context of their bands that I know.

It opened with Brian MacDonald from the Honey Smugglers playing mandolin in his kitchen. Many of the musicians were live from their living rooms, often sitting in front of the fireplace, which didn't have a fire, but maybe a few twinkling tree lights. Don Christiano and Rita Coulter began their half-hour set with what must be the coronavirus anthem, Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance." I watched Corey Owens cook a simple but good-looking chicken stir-fry dish, and when he finished early with some time to kill, he sang.

Another story in The New York Times this week is "The Virus Changed the Way We Internet." Internet is now a verb, I didn't notice when that happened. Grammar aside, the story notes that there has been a drop in smartphone use. We're now using our big screens, amusing ourselves with Netflix, YouTube and Facebook. Video chats are surging.

(While typing this, I was interrupted by a call from a couple of Facechat friends. The call was an accident. A Facechat butt call. I guess that's a thing now.)

And now we internet. Getting an intimate look at our musicians through the Rochester Livestream Music Festival. Brian Sheridan's dog -- at least, I assume it's his dog -- snoozed on the couch while Sheridan played guitar. And at one point the dog (I believe his name is Barry) hopped off the couch, walked in front of the camera, and briefly chased his tail. A few kids made cameo appearances; Sarah Eide's daughter said "Hi" to mom, who promised she'd be done in 10 minutes. 

Alan Murphy credited his early interest in Randy Newman as the influence behind his original, "Baby Doesn't Like Me Anymore Because I'm Wearing Glasses." Oh, how fragile our personal relationships can be, as both men likely know, seeing as they both wear eyeglasses.

Overhand Sam Snyder of Maybird played guitar before an audience of weird cartoon creatures who applauded and crowd-surfed between songs. Seth Faergolzia sang and howled and played guitar over looped tracks, sometimes pausing to add a few strokes to an abstract painting.

This is how we're going to have to do it for a while. I keep hearing people say, "When things get back to normal…"

What will normal look like, when we try to retrieve our culture from the ruins of this coronavirus tragedy? A museum virtual tour? How many of your favorite restaurants and music venues won't make it through the economic shutdown? The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival is checking around for available dates in October for its postponed event. Will you feel like celebrating in the streets if what the White House now predicts does come true, that 100,000 to 240,000 citizens of this country will have died of coronavirus?

Does that look like normal?

When we begin to see that light at the end of the tunnel, and come out on the other side of the mountain, we can be assured the landscape will look very different. It'll look better, if we've learned from this bad trip. It'll be worse if we don't.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.