Stateless Bird

Gyp made a late entrance that morning. Julie was on the phone in the living room, still in her robe, a patch of blue Pacific visible over her shoulder. It bothered him that she hadn’t dressed—it was after ten—even if he was still in his pajamas and robe, too. But these were often his working clothes; he’d stopped in his office on the way to the kitchen but had gotten distracted by something on Twitter, and an hour later he was hungry.

            Julie had squeezed some orange juice but left it on the counter, didn’t matter how many times he’d told her not to, and Gyp knew without touching the glass that it would be warm now. She had her back to her husband and was listening carefully, her phone pressed against one ear and her free hand covering the other. She looked like she was waiting for an explosion. Gyp grabbed the glass off the counter and placed it beneath the icemaker on the fridge. The grating sound filled the kitchen.

            “Icemaker, icemaker, make me some ice,” Gyp sang, to the tune of “Matchmaker,” which he thought was pretty good, and he half expected Julie to turn around and smile, or at least mouth something about who she was talking to. But instead she moved out onto the deck, letting car sounds and seagull cries in.

            Gyp was sipping his juice at counter when Julie walked back inside. “You’ll never believe who that was,” she said.

            “The suspense is killing me.” He wanted to say something about the warm juice but she cut him off.


            “You’re kidding?” Simon was his son from his last marriage, 25 or 26 now, and Gyp could count on one hand the number of times he’d called him. Or had called him when he didn’t need something. “What did he want?”

            “He said he was in town and he wanted to see you. Us.” She put the phone back in its cradle and faced her husband. She still put makeup on before she saw him in the morning, which Gyp appreciated.

            “Does he need a place to stay? I guess we can clear out the guest room.” That room was now filled with Gyp’s old analog equipment, useless now that you could do everything on your laptop, but it had cost too much to just get rid of it. “And why didn’t he talk to me?”

            “He had to go do a sound check,” she said. “They’re playing the Wiltern tonight.”

            “The Wiltern?” Gyp wondered who they were opening for; not that he would know them, or their music, but he didn’t like to appear out of it.

            “And they got an AirBnB or something,” Julie said. She was using a paper towel to clean Gyp’s spills off the counter.

            “You hear stories about those places,” said Gyp. He couldn’t remember the stories he’d heard but he knew they were bad. “So are they going to bring a hound dog on stage with them or something?”

            Simon played American roots music in a band called Stateless Bird, and the first time Gyp heard them he about spit out his seltzer. “He sounds like a hillbilly,” he shouted. They were playing one of their songs on NPR, something about drowning in a swimming hole filled with tears. When it was over, they interviewed Simon, who was quiet and humble and admitted he had grown up “mostly in New Jersey,” with no swimming hole. He thanked Bandcamp and Gyp thought it was some summer camp, one he’d probably paid for.

“When did all this happen?” Gyp said when the spot was over. He wanted to call Robin, Simon’s mother, to ask but didn’t think that would go well. They played another song by Stateless Bird, one with banjos and fiddles, at the end of the show and Gyp started doing a kind of hoedown shuffle, his arms akimbo as if being jerked by some giant marionette. He remembered Julie laughing.

 “He invited us over this afternoon,” Julie said. “And we have tickets to the show. I think that would be fun,” she said, but Gyp was at the icemaker again, crushing her voice.

Gyp wrote jingles, or had back when companies still used original songs for advertisements, and still called them jingles. He’d moved to California in the seventies to pursue his dream of being a singer-songwriter. He’d rented a studio apartment in Venice Beach, close enough to the ocean that he could hear the surf at night and would sometimes fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing. Until someone came in through the window while he was sleeping and stole his radio and guitar.

He started calling himself Gyp when he was in high school—“Think gypsy,” he’d tell girls, hoping it sounded romantic though he got the name from a song Bobby Darin wrote, “Gyp the Cat,” kind of a faded carbon copy of Bobby’s biggest hit, Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.”

That was the age of the singer-songwriter and Gyp liked to imagine himself on stage, like Jackson Browne, alone behind a piano wearing soft denim and loose shoes. He’d heard that Brian Wilson had built a sandbox around his piano to be in touch with the beach when he was composing, but when Gyp tried something similar his cat used it for a litter box.

He played his share of open mics, produced demos that made the rounds and got some good listens. The songs were sound structurally, his agent said, relaying the verdict, but people found Gyp’s voice weak. What he needed was some established artist to pick up one of his songs, like Judy had done with Joni, just to help him cross over. He tried writing songs that had a universal appeal, the kind that could be covered by a Motown artist or a Nashville star, and more than once, he considered moving to both of those places.

“Wherever I can hang my star,” he told Becky, his first wife. She told him his new songs sounded like Barry Manilow, and left him for a horn player. Out of that pain he forged what became his best-known song, “Staying Ahead of the Hurt.” The idea came from some advice a friend had given him post-Becky, when he pulled Gyp out from behind a bottle and told him to go running on the beach.

“You got to stay ahead of the hurt, my friend,” his friend said. Gyp later found out he’d slept with Becky, too.

Gyp knew it was a hit. The big gospel chords that opened the chorus, the lift that came from hearing someone declare their freedom from pain—it sounded to Gyp like something Carole King might have done, and he could even imagine a country version, with steel guitar and strings.

“Then my agent called and said, ‘Don’t hate me!’” This was the punch line to the story Gyp told when he explained how he got into writing jingles: An artist is given a chance to sell out and reluctantly goes along with it, while in truth Gyp had been a few days away from being evicted, and was thrilled to learn that anyone wanted “Staying Ahead of the Hurt.” An agency pitched it to a drug company, which aggressively marketed a new pain reliever to the sound of Gyp’s song. In a perverse realization of his dreams, Gyp got to hear different versions of his song—a hoedown cover with clapping hands, a soul take featuring a yakkety sax—coming out of his television and radio for a couple of years. He bought a convertible Benz 450 SL, a house in Pacific Palisades, and married Robin, the kind of woman who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before the Benz. She was from Jersey, too, and couldn’t wait to get back. And once they were divorced it was, Wish granted!

They’d split when Simon was eight, and at first the boy had seemed fine with the new arrangement. He moved with his mother to New Jersey and came home at holidays to see Gyp, whose career was on a roll. He’d done songs for Avis and Purina (“Ciao meow,” was the kind of line that just stuck in people’s minds) and sometimes performed a medley of them in between his noncommercial songs, at clubs and private parties.

Gyp had been doing a showcase at his home in the Palisades when he lost his shit with Simon. The boy was there for the holidays, and must have been 13 or 14; suddenly everything Gyp did seemed to get on Simon’s nerves. He didn’t like Julie, or at least didn’t treat her with much respect, and suddenly he was sneering at everything his father said.

“It’s just the age,” Robin told him over the phone. “He’s like that with everyone now. I wouldn’t take it personally.”

Gyp was behind the piano, playing to a room full of friends and industry types. It was a casual concert, the kind of thing he had imagined himself doing in some intimate NY venue but whatever. He’d reached that point in his story when he sold his soul to the devil (“Don’t hate me!” cried the craven agent) when he noticed Simon in the back.

The boy wasn’t sneering but his expression was pained, and slightly shamed, as if he’d just discovered a rash in a sensitive place. Gyp launched into the medley anyway but flubbed a few lines, even though people actually applauded when they recognized the chorus to “Staying Ahead of the Hurt.” He had trouble concentrating the rest of the set, even though he couldn’t see his son in the crowd. He just knew he was out there somewhere, grimacing at his father’s labors.

At the end of the evening, after his friends had left and the caterer had hauled out the last bag of trash, Guy ran into Simon coming up the stairs.  “Everything okay there, buddy?” he said, a little too loudly. “You looked kind of put out when I was playing.”

Simon wouldn’t meet his father’s gaze but wore a version of the pained expression Gyp had seen before, as if he had successfully fought off nausea. “I’m all right,” he mumbled, trying to squeeze past his dad.

“Because if you don’t like what I do, if my music embarrasses you or something, you don’t have to be here.” Gyp tried to temper his tone and realized he’d had maybe one drink too many to be having this conversation.

“Jesus!” said Simon, and Gyp tried to grab his arm as he scooted away.

“I mean, if you’ve got something you’d like to contribute,” but Simon was gone and Julie was in the kitchen, calling to him anxiously: “Gyp?”

“Fine, I’ll go!” Simon yelled, though they both knew he had no way to get home without calling his mother, and it was three in the morning there. “Who died and made you king, anyway?”

Father and son separated like boxers coming out of a clinch, and they never did resolve the issue, whatever it was, or at least Simon never apologized, once, even on their silent ride to the airport a few days later. Gyp had called Robin to let her know their son was on his way back to Jersey, though he probably called him your son when he left the message. He mentioned the showcase and added, “I don’t know what his problem was but you might want to remind him that those jingles paid for his guitar lessons, and therapy and what all.” He got a beep in reply and a woman’s recorded voice: “If you are satisfied with your message, press one now.”

He thinks he sent the message, but they never spoke of it, and Simon’s visits became more intermittent. The new century brought some lean years; fewer agencies were using original compositions and instead played snatches of songs by obscure college bands.

“I remember when musicians used to worry about selling out,” Gyp fumed to Julie as she did stretches on the deck. “Now these bands just can’t wait. Whatever happened to integrity?” Gyp got a gig writing ditties for a syndicated children’s show. It was one of those earnest animated shows in which animals sang about kids’ usual traumas, like going to the doctor or the dentist. The money was good but the work was stultifying. He got the sack when he tried to rhyme “molar” with “bipolar.”

“The last thing we want to be here is edgy,” the producer told him as a form of farewell.

“I think you’re safe there,” Gyp replied, but she had already hung up. That was his last steady gig, but between Social Security and some royalties, he was doing okay. Comfortable. Not flush enough to fly out to Jersey every time Simon got in trouble, which had seemed like all the time in high school. Things calmed down when he went off to college, and Gyp could stop thinking about him.

Simon’s AirBnB turned out to be a very plush apartment, right on the beach in Santa Monica. “Jesus!” said Gyp, looking past his son at the enormous redwood deck, built out like a ship’s prow. “How much does this place cost?”

            “Hey, Dad.” Simon ignored the question and gave his father a slightly limp handshake before embracing Julie in an awkward hug. He turned to look at the building with them and shrugged. “The record company’s paying for it.”

            “Which means you’re paying for it,” Gyp said. “I told you how this works.” He can’t remember when he told Simon about the perils of the music business, sometime after he’d heard about his band. Or maybe he just meant to tell him.

            “Anyway, it belongs to some songwriter,” Simon said, opening the tall green front door to welcome them inside. “You know Jack Hirschberg?”

            “Of course I know Jack Hirschberg,” Gyp said. Jack was hustling jingles back when Gyp first started, but now he was writing music for movies. “I didn’t know he was so hard up he had to rent his house out.”

            “I think it’s like an extra place,” said Simon. “It’s kind of a favor for the label. I guess he’s in Europe now?” He ended each sentence with an upward inflection, making it sound like a question.

            “Oh, he’s in Europe!” said Gyp, a little more loudly than he meant to. Julie touched his arm, which he supposed meant something.

            The nautical theme continued inside, with windows like portals and steep stairs, narrow going between floors. “Most of the house is underground,” Simon said. “There’s even a lap pool on the bottom floor.” He looked at his father uncertainly. Behind the bed-head hair and the scraggly beard, Gyp could discern the child he’d been, not that long ago. “Do you want to go see it?” he asked.

            “You boys go ahead,” Julie said. “I need to use the little girl’s room.”

            “We can wait,” said Gyp. Why was she trying to desert him when they’d just got here?

            “I don’t really need to see the pool,” Julie said, disappearing into a half-bath right by the front door. “And those stairs kind of scare me!”

            Gyp followed his son down the narrow steps, gripping the rail as he walked. “I feel like we’re going underwater,” he said. He felt slightly lightheaded, like maybe he really was going underwater, and then wondered if maybe he was coming down with something.

            “I think it has something to do with Neptune,” Simon said. “You know, the movie?”

            Of course, he knew the movie, everybody in the fucking world knew the movie, and half of them knew that Jack Hirschberg had done the music. Gyp watched his feet as they descended another flight. “So why didn’t he just build straight up, like normal people?” he asked his son.

            Simon shrugged below him. “I don’t know, like height restrictions or something? I’m guessing.”

            Right. Santa Monica wasn’t going to let you just come in and build anything taller than a few floors, so Jack had dug down. Gyp could hear the water before he saw the pool. It was huge, the length of the bottom floor, and there were black fish swimming the length of it.

            “What the hell are those?” Gyp said.

            “Koi?” said Simon. “I guess they help clean the pool so you don’t need chlorine, or something.”

            Gyp nodded and looked up and down the length of the pool. “So, if I jumped in, I’d be the goy with the koi, right?”

            Simon smiled weakly at his dad joke and the two of them watched the fish for a minute. “Exciting about your band,” Gyp finally said, a little too loudly.

            “Oh, thanks!” said Simon. He smiled for real this time. “Everything seems to be breaking the right way with this album.”

            “How many records have you done?”

            “This is our third,” said Simon. No question mark this time.

            “Oh, I’m sorry,” said Gyp. “How did I miss that?”

            Simon frowned and looked at the fish again. “I know you’re on the mailing list.” Gyp still got a ton of product in the mail, CDs and even LPs though most the music people wanted him to hear came with a link now, and instructions about a download.  

            “Third time’s the charm!” said Gyp. He was going to say something about second albums and sophomore slumps but his knowledge of the industry was outmoded, and he knew it. “So, what changed?”

            Simon frowned again and Gyp could see him as a grown up now, complete with the widow’s peak they shared.

            “I think our sound kind of gelled,” he said, “or maybe radio got used to it. Suddenly Spotify was pushing it, too. And the Subaru ad didn’t hurt.”

            “You wrote a song for Subaru?”

            “No, but they picked up this one song, ‘Pool of Tears’—you can hear like ten seconds of it during this ad they showed during the Superbowl.” Simon looked at his dad’s face and added, “It’s just the luck of the draw with stuff like that.”

            Gyp nodded, though he never felt such choices—which song was chosen, which artist promoted—had anything to do with luck. “It’s all about talent!” he said to his son, though he also wondered if money had changed hands.

            Simon allowed himself a smile. “Yeah, maybe, though having 90 million people hear it helped.”

            “I don’t know how I missed it,” said Gyp, though he knew exactly how. He always recorded the game and started watching about 30 minutes after kickoff so he could fast-froward through the commercials. He’d stopped watching them a few years ago. “Was that the one about the swimming hole?”

            Simon smiled. “The swimming hole is kind of a metaphor,” he said, and Gyp felt annoyed.

            “You were thinking of Ray Charles,” he said declaratively. “’Drown in My Own Tears.’”

            “Actually, I was thinking of Alice in Wonderland,” said Simon. “That was the book that made me want to read.”

            “I don’t remember reading that to you,” said Gyp.

            “Mom used to read it to me,” said Simon, matter-of-factly. “She got tired of reading it to me and said that if I wanted to keep hearing about Alice, I’d need to learn to read myself.”

            How had Gyp forgotten that? Because reading to Simon was not one of his responsibilities; that was something Robin handled. He didn’t remember any of those books but he’d been riding high then, and just plain high much of the time, too. Suddenly he recalled their last fight: Simon had graduated high school, barely, and wanted to go to some music program. The two had hardly spoken through his teen years, with Simon’s mother playing go-between when their son needed to communicate something to his father. But this was a big ask—thousands of dollars, as Gyp recalled—and Robin had probably told Simon he’d need to do it himself.

            Gyp replayed the conversation now. He knew right away that he couldn’t afford it, it was Berklee for Christ’s sake, and there was room and board involved, but he heard his son out. Simon had clearly spent a lot of time working on his pitch. Gyp had been not one second into turning him down when Simon burst out crying.

            “But why?” he’d shouted over the phone. “You can’t afford it? You’ve got that place on the beach, and another place in Hawaii—”

            “We’re not exactly on the beach here,” Gyp had said. “And Maui’s a timeshare.”

            “What happened?” Simon had been inconsolable, and only after did Gyp think that this was about more than the music program. “What happened?!”

            “Reversal of fortune, kiddo,” Gyp tried to explain. “No one wants what your old man’s selling these days.”

            He remembered Simon sniffling and muttering something about his mother and school and money and Gyp had gotten mad. “If this is some story about the harm that I’ve done your mother, why don’t you ask yourself where the money comes from, huh?”

            “I’m not talking about the harm you did Mom,” Simon said.

            “Well, how the hell could I have harmed you,” Gyp had shouted, “when I wasn’t even there?” But then Simon was gone.

            Now father and son stood watching the big fish swim to the end of the lap pool only to turn around before they hit the wall and swim back to the other end. Over and over again.  

            They meandered upstairs where Julie was waiting. They had drinks on the deck, a great view of the Shutters where Gyp used to take meetings, when people still wanted to meet with him. A few of the other band members had shown up, all young and impossibly skinny with the same unkempt hair as Simon. Then there were calls coming, and talk of a soundcheck and they left, promising to go see them that night.

            Gyp tried to back out. As the hour approached, he began to complain. There’ll be nowhere to park, he said. Julie said they could take an Uber. They’d be the oldest people there, Gyp parried.

            “People will think you are their manager,” she said. When Gyp frowned, she pushed him, something she seldom did. “Can’t you see that he’s trying to reach out to you?”

            State Bird wasn’t the opening act but the whole show. When they climbed out of the Uber and looked up at the marquee, Gyp had a feeling of déjà vu, like he was living someone else’s life.

            “This place is sold out!” Julie said after the usher led them to their seats: aisle, row G.

            “It only holds 1800 people,” Gyp said.

            The lights went down right at eight, and Stateless Bird took the stage to a long, friendly round of applause. Simon shared vocals with one of the guys they’d met earlier, and then some woman joined them for a while. The audience knew every song, applauding at the instrumental opening of several. The one about the swimming hole was especially well received, even after Simon said something about the things you do to pay the rent.