I’m married to a gearhead. The Spouse of Voice spends most of his time in intricate journalistic relationships with digital entertainment tech. Two days before the Grammy Awards he joined a press posse backstage at the Staples Center to view the miles of audio cabling, multiple rear-projection screens, and other technological wizardry of the annual extravaganza.
Hubby-the-gearhead is also a gifted and tenacious schmoozer. After assuring his contacts that this behind-the-scenes tour would yield good coverage, he asked about getting tickets to the show. Out of the question, he was told. Too late by far.
Nevertheless, at noon on Awards day his cell phone rang: if we could get downtown by 3:30, appropriately gussied up, we were IN! Schmoozer gleefully dug out the tux he keeps for chamber music gigs, I draped myself in long-black-with-glitzy-jacket-and-walkable-boots, and off we went to the ball.
Staples Center was now surrounded by chaotic choreography of road blocks, security guards, and limousines of every color and size. We found parking on a secluded side street in the mixed Korean-Latino neighborhood and hoofed our hasty finery past garages, warehouses, and small shops, mostly closed. A young reporter for People magazine skittered along beside us, bemoaning the blocks to be traversed in her slippery spike heels.
At the blockaded street entry, our tickets were scrutinized and stamped by relaxed but watchful guards. Inside the perimeter, we dodged satellite-topped TV vans, eighteen-wheel staging trucks, and yet more limos. Event staff directed us to the inside, off-camera edge of the “red carpet” (which was actually green, matching the logo of a sponsoring beer company), and after brief gawking at the screaming fans-in-bleachers, in we went.
The Show Itself was a slick TV production with a stadium-sized studio audience: all the action was way-down-in-front. Watching from the far edge of the hall felt like planetary outer orbit.
First-time winners thanked God and family; experienced artists played odd-couple duets. Music and speeches paused frequently for commercial breaks, while paunchy-with-ponytail executives and harried bartenders slipped in and out of private sky-boxes and young girls in fancy dress snuck cigarettes in the ladies’ room. Staging wizards were the real stars, cramming artists into high-visual designs with whisk-on/off timing.
A group I’d known from folkmusic days got a lifetime award; otherwise it was like visiting a foreign country: interesting, disorienting, strange. Finally it was over and we walked back towards the car, past the still-rushed crews loading set-pieces and instrument cases back into their giant tour trucks.
The neighborhood was quiet. The parking-lot building next to ours was the only place still brightly lit. We peeked through its metal-grill doors and saw two middle aged men in work clothes keeping casual watch, one Latino with short grey hair, the other younger and (we assumed) Korean. On the dull steel desk between them sat a keyboard accordion.
The men saw our curious faces at the door and invited us in, offering me the one remaining chair. Incongruous in our dress-up, we tried to explain that we too were musicians and loved unusual instruments. The older man teased his co-worker to play something.
Shy and apologetic, speaking almost no English, the Korean man shook his head. Thirty years since he had touched it, his friend translated. We gestured reassurance. Please, my father played accordion. Play anything, we will like it!
He considered the situation for another long moment. Then he bowed, strapped the instrument on, unsnapped top and bottom to open the bellows, and closed his eyes. A slow melody with minor chords murmured to life under his fingers and the bare light of the garage.
The man’s intense concentration and love for music outshone his occasional fumbled notes. Never mind record sales, download royalties, and industry parties, I thought: this is REAL music! I was finally, truly, enjoying the night.
After several minutes the accordion player ended his tune, bowed slightly, and placed the instrument back on the battered desk. We applauded heartily. My sweet gearhead produced a “Thank you” in Korean (having once toured TV factories there). This elicited a more open grin, and we all bowed again. I offered up my souvenir Grammy T-shirt, still in its package, not sure that he understood it, but figuring that his children would explain.
As we drove home on quiet freeways towards surrealistically pillowed sleep, I couldn’t help but sing one more song: Joni Mitchell’s “Playing Real Good/ For Free.”
Originally published in Folkworks, May-June 2005