There is a framed photo of me singing “Helpless” on the wall of my kitchen. It’s a black and white print, and in it, I am sandwiched between Aaron Lee Tasjan and Jim Boggia. Our mouths are wide open, but our eyes are closed. This expressive, fleeting moment caught by a knowing eye and captured by the blink of a camera’s shutter is a lovingly matted and framed impression that reminds me not only of who I am but also of who I want to be
Moments before that image was made, I had been standing towards the middle of the room…or maybe it was the back. In all likelihood, I was probably somewhere near the bar absorbing the music at a benefit concert that was arranged to raise money for the kids of my friend Lu. She had recently committed suicide. Jesse Malin had just played a set, and then he invited all the other performers on stage to pay their respects together in song. I watched as everyone else climbed up, but I dug my own feet firmly into that barroom floor. My friends pushed me forward and told me to, “Get up there!”
“He didn’t mean me,” I resolved in an all-too-familiar sheepish and sad tone.
I had performed that night. I wanted to pay my respects to my friend and her kids in a way that meant something to me about our relationships. We were friends–close friends, for sure, but we also defined ourselves as music aficionados. Before she died, I had been trying to get over my stage fright. I wanted to be a musician and a singer-songwriter too. So I put some of my ideas into music. Then I frequented the open mic scene and any other venues that allowed me an opportunity to face my fears and challenge my insecurities. In those days, Lu wasn’t just a friend or concert comrade, She was also a supporter who came out to see me sing and play. She would often even request her favorite songs.
In some ways, even though I was a novice, I was determined to just get out there and play and sing. It seemed a stubborn form of fearlessness–or maybe that’s just bravery, because I still struggled with the butterflies in my stomach, shaking hands, knocking knees, and a quivering, uncertain voice. This was still the case at the benefit concert. I fumbled clumsily yet determined through my performance to pay my respects to this person who had been so many things in my life. Afterward, I rescinded back into the crowd where I was a comfortable fan watching and listening to the other performers.
So when Jesse invited the others to join him on stage, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not included. I was neither a real singer nor a good musician, in my mind. Deep in my subconscious, I probably clung to the idea that I was at least a songwriter, albeit a novice one, but the invite was obviously intended for performers. When I pushed back against that supportive shove, I also halted some of the oncoming stage traffic traveling up from behind. Some of them swerved around me, but Jim and some others pulled over as if offering to help me change a flat tire:
“Come on, Mystie.”
“That means you.”
“you’re a performer.”
Their kind words and firm hands guided me towards the stage even as I shook my head and stammered my excuses.
Aaron was on stage, and as Jim pulled me in between the two of them, Aaron took off his hat and placed it atop my head like a scene in a movie when the father is about to tell his child some hard-learned advice about how to deal with life’s bad blows. Jim put his arm around me, and all the fear and embarrassment and shame melted under the stage light as we began to sing, “Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless….”