Remembering Singer-Songwriter Sue

I came face to face with my younger self when a cleaning frenzy unearthed this photo from a poster advertising a performance from years ago. The photo, fading and streaked, was mounted on black cardboard that had been chewed by what appears to be a rat. But you can still read most of the white lettering: Friday, Oct. 15 (1982?) Sue Barnard, folk singer-guitarist. (Barnard, pronounced bar-NARD, was my first husband’s surname).

I remember that gig. San Francisco Press Club. I was so nervous I had diarrhea and a sore throat. I mean, the last singer they had was from Broadway. There I was in my homemade clothes singing “Today while the blossoms . . .” and strumming a nylon-stringed guitar. The performance itself is a blur. I do remember how relieved I felt when it was over.

I was about 30 years old, working as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I stare at the photo. I was pretty. No glasses, minimal makeup, longish hair parted on the side. Hands forming a C chord. I did not own a steel string guitar, couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I borrowed a friend’s guitar. I recorded my songs on a shoebox-sized cassette recorder.

I was so earnest back then, my songs so . . . well, I wrote about love, birds, rainbows, my dog. I had suffered through mild poverty and a divorce, but I didn’t know anything yet. So much more was to come. So much.

I miss that young woman. Not just the way I looked but the innocence, the lack of that constant underlying sadness I feel these days.

There was stuff. My stomach issues began in that era. The newspaper deadlines were so intense I often felt like weeping as I counted out headlines by hand and typed as fast as I could on that manual Royal typewriter. I had no money. My car never worked. In foggy Pacifica, we didn’t see the sun for months at a time. I was dating a guy who repeatedly broke my heart.

But I miss that singer-songwriter with the other name (I don’t miss that name) with her crocheted vest sitting on a rock overlooking the beach while her reporter friend Sandy Noack took her picture. I probably processed the film and developed the photo in the Tribune darkroom. I can still smell the chemicals. Using the quick and dirty method we employed for pictures that needed to last only until the paper came out, I didn’t think about “archival processing.” So the photo is fading.

I loved that job at the Tribune. I loved Jim, the hard-drinking photo guy, Tom the jaded police reporter, Mr. Drake the publisher with his bow tie and tweed blazer, Peggy the feature writer, Shirley the office manager who gave me advances on my paycheck, Cynthia the office cat. . . The building reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke and rotting paper. I’ll bet there were rats there, too. Cynthia spent most of her time curled on my lap as I wrote my stories.

I wrote a lot of songs back then. At least once, a song grabbed me during my lunch break and I was late getting back to work. I brought my guitar and played my new song for Paula, the editor. “This is why I was late,” I said. She probably just shook her head, muttering, “Barnard . . .”

I quit that job to sing with the Billy Vogue Country Singers, a Grand Ole Opry knockoff, Ryman set and all, that promised money and fame. We were supposed to spend a year touring the United States, but we went bust before we got out of California. Back to the newspaper biz. Do I regret leaving a job I loved to go sing? No. I had to try it. For as long as it lasted, the show was magical. We were good. I wish I had a video or audio recording, but it was 1983. I have a program, sheet music, and memories.

If I hadn’t gone off to sing and wound up unemployed and living at my parents’ house, I wouldn’t have met my late husband Fred, so it was clearly meant to be.

Fast forward 38 years. I don’t have that last name anymore, but I do have that guitar—and a lot more instruments. The old Fender guitar sounds better with age, and I play better, too.

Ah, time. Where did it go?

More to the point, is the rat that nibbled the poster the same rat I murdered last Christmas or is there another rat living in my house?

Thanks for sharing this trip down memory lane.  

Choir nightmares echo waking mishaps

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Valley Chorale back in the 1990s. I’m in the third row, far left.

You know those dreams where you find yourself walking into a class where somehow you have failed to show up for the whole semester and now it’s finals and you don’t know anything and the teacher doesn’t even know your name and you’re for sure going to fail because you never studied or did any homework? You know that dream, the oh-shit-I-forgot-to-go-to-school nightmare? I get those. My shrink says everybody does.

But more often I get choir nightmares. I have been involved in various singing groups since fourth grade. I sang in school choirs, glee clubs and madrigal groups from elementary school through college, followed by a serious of adult ensembles, including the Coastal Harmony Vocal Band, the Billy Vogue Country Singers, the Skillet Likkers (not the famous ones), the Lincoln Community Chorus, the Central Coast Chorale, and for 14 years, the Valley Chorale in Sunnyvale, California. I have sung in church choirs since 1989, joined the choir at Sacred Heart Church here in Newport in 1996 and have been accompanying and co-directing since 2003.

In my dreams, the church choir and the Valley Chorale stand out.

Directing the choir at a small-town church like ours means simultaneously singing, playing piano and leading the choir—which may be only two people at some Masses. It’s watching the priest and listening for cues. When he says the last Kyrie Eleison, I need to be ready to play the “Gloria.” When he raises the cup, I need to wrap up the Offertory song. These days, with our chant-happy priest, our Masses are almost constant singing. By the end of the 10:30 Mass on Sunday mornings, my throat is raw, and my brain is shorting out. I keep thinking about lunch and other non-religious subjects.

The anxiety plays out in dreams. I’m late, I find someone else sitting at the piano. I can’t find my music and the priest is already walking into the church. My hands don’t work, my voice quits, somebody moved the piano or unplugged it. I wake up with some song from church playing over and over in my head until I want to dig it out with a grapefruit spoon.

Although I have sung in many other choirs, The Valley Chorale is the one that keeps showing up in my dreams. The Chorale (not “choral,” not “corral”) is still going back in California. It was started by a group of friends with a strong religious component that has faded away over the years. I joined when I was only 23, newly married to my first husband. They called me “Little Susie.” Through the years of that marriage, the divorce that followed, and the second marriage to Fred, the chorale was my family. Under the direction of mother-daughter team Marian Gay and Cathy Beaupre, we rehearsed every Monday night, sang almost every weekend during our fall and spring concert seasons, went on a weekend bus tour twice a year, and gathered for parties and dinners, weddings and funerals.

The men wore black tuxedos. The women wore loose pastel gowns that we declared a good fit if we could get them on and they didn’t fall off. We perched on the risers in jeweled sandals at senior centers, mobile home parks, shopping centers, churches, retirement homes, and the occasional concert hall. We’d break into song in restaurants, on buses, or at people’s houses. We were not out to make money or get rich. We just loved to sing.

The concerts, billed as Bach to rock, always included some classics, some gospel tunes, some folk and pop, and a medley from a Broadway musical, complete with costumes. It was corny. Think Lawrence Welk Show, if you can remember back that far, but it was fun.

Illness forced me to quit in 1995. The following year, we moved to Oregon, where I joined new choirs, but I never dream about them. I dream about the Valley Chorale. In those dreams, I show up after years away. I don’t have the right gown or I don’t know the music. Sometimes I have changed so much they don’t know me. God knows I have changed. When I left, I was in my 40s with curly black hair and a much higher range. They have changed, too. Member have died or retired. New people have joined. They have learned new songs. But I keep going back to those dreams. I’m on the bus, I’m at the semi-annual “bash,” or we’re getting on the risers about to sing and there’s no place for me to stand.

Some of the dreams are based on reality. There’s always a moment of panic when you’re changing clothes between numbers and your zipper gets stuck or you can’t find your shoes and you’re terrified you’re not going to get back to the stage on time—but I always did. Yes, your music goes missing, you suddenly can’t remember the second verse, you trip coming down the aisle, the strap breaks on your sandal, or you start coughing and can’t stop. Stuff happens. You sing on.

This morning I had a different dream. I can’t call it a nightmare, and I can’t remember many details, but I do remember I was introducing a new, young singer to the Chorale, offering her the experience of this wonderful musical family.

That’s progress, I think. Valley Chorale, I miss you. I still have my jeweled sandals. Keep singing. And church choir, please show up for practice tomorrow night. Father P. is making us change the service music again.

What do you dream about? Do you have school nightmares? Choir dreams? Sports dreams? Dreams about your kids? Let’s talk about it in the comments.