The technician swiftly swings onto the stage and abruptly enters my line of vision as I lay motionless on my back, staring at the ceiling.
“5 minutes to house!” she belts.
“Also. We have a couple of elderly folks coming up the elevator right now.”
“Right now? Oh okay. Do you want to give them the quick heads up, or should I?”
“I like it when you do it.”
I stand up and have one more quick glance around the stage. Water bottle logo facing away from the audience for good luck and possible anti-corporate reasons. Stool centre stage, the perfect model of symmetry. Chuck Taylor’s are double-knotted. Lips are artificially moist with medicated Blistex. Alright. All that’s left is the crazy dance.
I hear the ding of the elevator to my right – that’s stage right – and turn my head to see an elderly couple emerge. He is tall, frail and in a paperboy hat. She is bespectacled, wearing red lipstick and unseasonably warm clothes. My technician directs them as he steers her wheelchair – which doubles as a walker for him – to their pre-cleared destination in the front row.
“Hi there!” I half-yell.
“Thank you so much for coming.”
“Of course. We’re looking forward to it,” the woman beams.
“So, um,” I sit on the edge of the stage at their eye-level, “I’m just about to do my final bit of warm-up before we open the doors to let the house in, and I just wanted to let you know — it might be kind of strange to watch.”
“I just kind of do a dance. And convulse. And yell. And curse. And then laugh like a maniac and cry for a bit.”
“It’s a superstitious thing that I do for good luck before every show. But what’s going to make it look even more strange is that you won’t be able to hear the song that I’m moving to. It’ll just be three minutes of silence with me moving around like an unhinged lunatic – and I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”
“Oh no, don’t worry about us. It takes a lot to make us uncomfortable.”
“Okay great. It’ll be like an intimate behind-the-scenes look. Like from the DVD extras.”
I realize the term DVD extras might be lost in the generational gap between us as I slip on my headphones.
“Which song?” the woman asks.
“Which song do you listen to?”
I crack a smile. “You Ain’t Alone by Alabama Shakes. It’s my favourite song in the world.”
I remember the first time I heard it.
A friend of mine who writes music criticism for Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly responded to my Facebook status calling for music recommendations. As most of my friends responded with a glut of seemingly made-up alternative electro-pop bands, she typed simply, “Alabama Shakes (beginning and end of list)”.
I went on iTunes. I bought the EP. I put in the ear buds. I closed my eyes. And hit play.
“Hey. This is really good.”
Then track 4:
You ain’t alone, so why are you lonely?
Are you scared to tell somebody how you feel about somebody?
Are you scared what somebody’s gonna think?
Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?
Are you scared of me?
Cause I’m SCARED!
Are you too scared to dance for me?
Are you scared out on your own two feet?
We really ain’t that different, you and me.
Cause I’m SCARED!
Cry, if you gonna cry. Come on! Cry with me!
You. You ain’t alone.
Just let me be your ticket home….
Some songs hit us on a gut level. But then there’s other songs that hit us on a gut, face, heart and marrow level. This one was the latter. It just felt so goddamn relevant. It’s no secret that anxiety is something that I struggle with. The other thing I “struggle” with is the compulsion to speak intimately about my life onstage – something that I’m sure you can appreciate tends to be awkward and humiliating at times.
And fucking scary.
To talk about losing your virginity. To tell paying strangers about your battle with depression. About having your heart broken. To show people your hurt and your broken parts.
It’s the fucking scariest.
And immediately upon hearing this song, I was like, “Wait. This song is special. I need to protect this song. I need to use it only when I need it.”
This song is a gift. It has never lost its resonance to me. If anything, it’s grown more resonant over time. I listen to it in the moment before I go onstage EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It gives me the permission I need to open up and be vulnerable. It gives me permission to bring all the emotions I need to the surface. It gives me permission to be scared and the encouragement to NOT be. It brings out the best in me.
I hope I get to one day meet Brittany Howard to tell her what her song means to me. There have been days and situations where I don’t think I could’ve gone onstage without her song. Without her voice.
I wipe a tear from my face, breathlessly and smile sheepishly at the couple in the front row.
“Hopefully that wasn’t too bad to sit through.”
The man waves his hand dismissively, “No that was great. You’re a pretty terrific dancer.”
I laugh, “You think so? Well. It bodes well for me that you couldn’t hear how far off the beat I was.”
The technician stands and crosses in front of the lighting board, “Sam. Are you ready for the house?”
“Yeah. I’m ready.”