A week ago, I was 98% sure Orelia Benjamin was at least 82% straight. But after spending a few days in her class, I'm revising my opinion. Now I think she's closer to 71% heterosexual. And I'm only like 22% sure.
She has these little starfish hands that she's always twining in her hair, and her hair is the color of perfectly toasted toast (I can hear my ex-bandmate Chester needling me, going, Define perfect, fishie—Chester calls all lesbians fishie; it's like his term of endearment—so, fine, Chester, wheat toast, toasted to a perfect 3.5 on the dial, though it's better, IMHO, if you picture your own perfect toast.)
Anyway, Orelia does this thing where she'll lift her hair off her neck and loop it into a knot at the back of her head. A minute later, she'll shake the knot loose and gather all of that perfectly toasted hair back into her small starfish hands, and--
I'm done for, basically.
I tell Linus, one of the drummers in her class, Please god make me the kind of person she could love. (He says, Please god shut up about her already.)
But, seriously, I tell him, make me a boy. (I'm 22-98% sure Orelia would prefer a boy.) A tall, sensitive, probably skinny boy with Clark Kent glasses and, peeking out from under the sleeve of his Bikini Kill t-shirt, an upper arm tattoo of—get this-
An equation disputing entropy.
I briefly consider giving Orelia's dream boy a tattoo of, say, "S = k. log W" or "Boltzmann Lied." Ludwig Boltzmann was an Austrian physicist whose formula, S = k. log W, shows the relationship between entropy and any number of equally possible thermodynamic microstates. Also, Boltzmann has "S = k. log W" engraved on his tombstone, the ultimate tattoo.
Your throat literally closes, eyes stinging, and some wordless thought—maybe the memory of your guitar leaning where you left it—sucks all the oxygen out of your body. You get this feeling like, out of all possible realities—but then Geoff starts banging on the counter going, You're burning the milk!
Linus, who majors in math when he's not playing drums, says, Give it up, dude—no one disputes entropy. And I shut up because it's true: I don't have any idea what I'm talking about. I just googled "entropy" looking for a way to support my own argument. Never mind, I tell him, the tattoo doesn't matter. The point is, Orelia Benjamin's dream boy would refuse to believe—even in the face of incontrovertible proof—that his life was accelerating into a state of fatal randomness. No matter what the universe was doing.
Picture him in a park somewhere—say Italy; he'd be Italian—chewing his fingernails and reading poetry. And picture Orelia of the starfish hands sitting on an Italian bench across from this Italian boy, legs crossed under her long skirt, perfectly toasted hair swept forward over one shoulder, scribbling in her notebook: He has these long and slender fingers, skin like perfect toast…
At this point, Linus asks me, Are you high? But then Orelia floats into the studio with her dulcimer tucked under her arm, and I mouth at him, Starfish! Toast! while he rolls his eyes at me. She perches on her low stool, her long skirt spreading out all around her, and she launches into that amazing old Joni Mitchell song, A Case of You. When she's done, she says, "Tell me what's extraordinary about Joni Mitchell's lyrics: On the back of a cartoon coaster / In the blue TV screen light / I drew a map of Canada / With your face sketched on it twice?" That's why we're here, after all, to learn about songwriting from one of the greatest lyricists of the twenty-first century.
Orelia Benjamin has fronted the Flannery O'Connors since the band formed in the late 90's. She writes 45% of the music and 96% of the words. It's true, the O'Connors have never cracked the Billboard Hot 100, but that only gives them more credibility as far as we're concerned.
Orelia wrote this one song, a canticle really. It's only two minutes fourteen seconds long, nothing but a D chord, two perfect lines, sung in a round, with a descant that shatters me, utterly, every single time:
Let the war
go on without you
OK, I know. Not everyone gets it. To those who don't I say, enjoy the Billboard Hot 100.
Every summer the Flannerys play all of those European festivals. Glastonbury, Reading, Isle of Wight. Some years, they'll head down one of the American coasts and maybe do a week or two in a place like Australia or Russia or South Africa. The rest of the time, they write and work on their solo projects, which for Orelia includes teaching at the Folk Institute.
I signed up for "How to Write Lyrics That Don't Totally Suck" a year to the day after Chester (singer / lyricist) quit the band. When I forked over my tuition, I imagined him sneering, quoting Faulkner at me, being all like, the good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice, fishie. In retrospect, maybe I should've been offended by the whole fishie thing, but it was just Chester's way of being affectionate. Plus, if I'm being honest, I gave him a pass because he's a hottie. I loved being in a band with such an amazing, gorgeous boy. Standing next to him, I felt like—I don't know--a real girl.
I must radiate queer or something because boys never look at me. For example, I'll be steaming milk at my day job, Joe's Coffee over in East Atlanta, and some dude will walk in. His eyes will drift right through me, locking on the bootie of some cowgirl ordering a cappuccino. I'll watch his pupils practically tugging the frays of her cutoffs. Boys are hilarious. The way they adjust their messenger bags and dart their eyes away like it isn't completely obvious what they've been thinking. Sometimes I scorch their lattes, just to be an ass.
And it's not like I care or anything, but if anyone ever bothered to ask, I would say I'm 50% sure that I'm only 75% gay. Anything is possible. Not that Chester and I ever—I mean--weird, no. But, standing next to him, it was almost like I mattered. I loved sharing the nonchalance of his cigarettes, hanging out with him before shows, nodding to the girls—skinny jeans, wavy hair—who'd peek over at him and whisper to each other.
And I know Chester liked hanging out with me too. He'd get all shy sometimes, showing me his poems. My lips would move, reading them, and I'd say, We could try something like this. I'd play an Fmaj7 chord, dropping my middle finger off the G string, kind of hopeful, kind of sad. Chester's voice sounds a lot like Elliot Smith's. It has that vulnerability, you know? He'd stand on stage, half-singing, staring at his ratty Puma sneakers, his voice creaking toward a falsetto, and I'd watch him, waiting for my cue to change the chord. We all watched him: Darren the bass player, Joe the drummer, 37 star-struck college girls pressed against the footlights.
I should've never taught him to play guitar.
He fronts a sort of Coldplay rip-off band now, all soaring choruses. Chester strums his three chords while the band crescendos behind him, furious and beautiful. Sweat and surfer hair and steel strings, a few hundred star-struck college girls pressed against the footlights.
Chester practically burst through the door of Joe's one afternoon last spring going, Fishie, you're never going to believe this! WHITMAN is an earnest, literary five-piece from Seattle. We opened for them when they played The Earl a couple of years ago. They have their own van; Zildjian sponsors their drummer—that kind of thing. They asked Chester to be their lead singer because their original singer had some sort of nervous breakdown and moved back to Iowa to work on his dad's farm.
I can't freaking believe it, Chester kept saying over beers later. And I was all like punching him on the shoulder going, dude I am so freaking happy for you. And I really was, you know?
But also, have you ever been a barista? Maybe if you have, you know that feeling when you first open the shop, 6AM, big dark circles under your eyes because you've been up all night playing the same two chords over and over and over again. You flip the deadbolt, and Geoff the regular pushes through the door, shouldering past you in his socially awkward way. And you go, What's shaking, Geoff? But he never answers, and so you say, Large nonfat soy latte again? Or, Wanna to go wild and get 2%? And he gives you a single irritated headshake, like: You're stupid or Stop talking to me. So you grind the espresso and click, click it into the portafilter, tamp it down, fit the portafilter into the machine, punch the double shot button, and reach into the cooler under the counter for the milk. You pour the milk into the stainless pitcher; watch its silver surface break into an instant sweat. (A thermodynamic marvel!) You plunge the steam wand into the milk, flip the control switch, and the whole room EXPLODES LIKE A JET PLANE TAKING OFF RIGHT IN YOUR FREAKING EAR. Incredible noise. So loud, and so early in the morning, that you feel slapped across the face. And for a second, as the foam rises and Geoff paces, you think maybe you're going to lose it. Your throat literally closes, eyes stinging, and some wordless thought—maybe the memory of your guitar leaning where you left it—sucks all the oxygen out of your body. You get this feeling like, out of all possible realities—but then Geoff starts banging on the counter going, You're burning the milk! And you're like, Oh shit, man, sorry.
It's been a crappy year; I'm not going to lie. After Chester quit the band, Darren, Joe and I would meet up in the practice space every week and just sort of stare at each other. I'd play something. They'd join in, and—I don't know why—every single song sounded exactly the same. Chester used to say things like, Slow down, fishie. Let it breathe, and without him, really, there is almost no point in playing music at all. Last November, we gave our practice space keys back to the landlord and promised each other we'd regroup when we had some new material.
I'm 95% sure the band would've broken up eventually anyway.
I have a half-dozen half-songs. I play them all the time, alone in my apartment, waiting for the words. I drink a ton of coffee and I go on never-ending walks, one foot in front of the next, the sun or the moon on my face, fists stuffed in my pockets, the same two chords playing over and over and over in my head, drowning out the steamed-milk screeching that goes, Launch yourself into traffic, loser!
Then, one afternoon, exactly a year after Chester left for Seattle, I was walking home from my shift at Joe's, and I saw the flyer for Orelia's class stapled to a phone pole. One corner had come loose and was flapping like crazy in the rush of passing traffic. It was one of those decidedly un-Boltzmann-like moments, the exact opposite of entropy; do you know what I mean? I reached out and ripped the whole thing down. And it was just a cheap freaking flyer, but out of all possible realities, there I stood rooted, reading, while traffic blew by me in all directions.
Orelia wrote this one song, a canticle really. It's only two minutes fourteen seconds long, nothing but a D chord...
Now, Linus is asking Orelia, But how exactly do you think up something like a map of Canada? A cartoon coaster? She leans forward and twines her little starfish hands all through her perfectly toasted hair. You really want to know? She asks, and then she does this other thing she does sometimes, where she half-smiles and looks right at me, but then immediately away, as if she's a little scared I might hurt her, as if she's half-sure the whole lot of us will mutiny at any moment. She says, You have to be literally crazy to do this work. You have to be willing to stare at a page for hours, shifting the same two words around. I'm serious, she says, They lock people up for that kind of thing. And the work will never be good enough, never. You will sacrifice everything in service to the words. Your relationships will be heartbreaking. You'll hate yourself; you'll be completely convinced you're a hack. And maybe, after many years, if you're very lucky, you'll write a couple of sentences that don't make you want to die. And even then, they won't be your words; they'll come through you, but they'll never belong to you.
She lets her hands fall out of her hair like she's coming out of a trance, and I can hear that song of hers in my head, the canticle with the descant that shatters me every time. And I want more than anything I have ever wanted in my life to take her starfish hands and lead her out of the studio, into the sun. Take her to the bakery on the corner. Buy her a cinnamon roll. I'd put my hands between my knees and just watch her eat. Watch her pull the sticky dough apart, watch her licking her fingers—and somehow all the randomness in the universe would coalesce, against all odds, into a cardboard-y stack of paper napkins sitting on the table between us. Out of all possible realities, I'd push them toward her. Out of all possible realities, she'd accept them from me.
We'd help each other out.
Gerlinda Grimes is a queer, musical writer from Atlanta, Georgia.