An Open Heart

It was a warm afternoon in Knoxville, probably late May. I was driving around listening to some old music by Vigilantes of Love, when the song Brenda began to play. Before I knew it, I was crying. Real tears for someone I didn’t even know. Sure we’d talked to Bill after the show a time or two, (We’d been to four or five of them by now.) but come on, it’s not like we had a real friendship. But there I was, sitting in the bank parking lot, in my purple Scion, wondering how on earth this could have happened.


I had been a fan for years, ever since John introduced me to him in college. We had just started dating, and at first I really didn’t like the sound of Bill’s voice. You see, my parents had NOT raised me on Dylan -- and the only Springsteen songs I knew were the two played on the radio: Human Touch and Dancin’ in the Dark. Yeah, my musical tastes were not all that developed; I owned a Neil Diamond Christmas album for crying out loud! But, hey, when your Dad’s a Baptist preacher and you live in small town Arkansas, and the only rock music in your house is on mix tapes secretly smuggled from your friends, and the only concert you’ve ever seen is Sandi Patty -- there had really been no hope for me up to that point.

So like I said, this guy’s voice really turned me off. What did catch my attention was how John and his roommate Sam had these lengthy discussions about the lyrics. They were always trying to figure out what certain songs meant. Again, a new concept for me, music with more than one layer of meaning. So I started listening. I wanted to be part of the conversation. What I found was poetry. What I found were images so real they were there when I closed my eyes at bedtime. I was the one driving the nails, if you will. I saw myself struggling with the current, swimming in that great big river of love. And the skeletons, with their white boned arms and fist clenched hands, they would not stop banging on the inside of my closet door.

Then we went to see him in concert. We drove six hours to Dallas with a carload of people. We sat front and center at a round table in the Downstairs CafĂ©. We saw the long haired, overweight Native American who pounded his table the entire concert. We sang along to every song. We hung around afterward and shook Bill’s hand. We listened to Counting Crows cranked as loud as possible to keep us awake on the nauseating, I-30 roller coaster home. We relived the broken guitar strings and the way Bill turned the key in his own door made of air. We wished he would not have hit himself in the head so many times. We wanted to go back the next Friday.

John and I were married a year later, and he shyly introduced me to one of Bill’s most controversial songs, Love Cocoon. We continued to gobble up every new album. There were so many songs. Songs of love and commitment, of traveling and touring, songs about fathers, songs about children, song of disillusion, depression and freedom. Bill’s heart broke on every album as he tried and failed to find a more commercial type of success.

I only saw two shows during the six years we lived in Maryland. The first was with Over the Rhine at a college in PA and the second was a house show in Western Maryland, shortly before we moved to Tennessee. My teary eyes matched Bill’s that night when he sang Apple of your Eye, though I was barely aware of anyone’s sorrow but my own. I’m also pretty sure that was the night certain lyrics from With Any Luck at All wound their way into my subconscious and began to form the idea that soon turned into my first tattoo.


"Am I crazy?” I asked my brother, the only person I’d been able to reach by cell phone on a weekday afternoon.

“Maybe it’s just hormones,” I said after a few seconds of silence. But as I began explaining how so much of Bill’s music had been written to, for and about his (now) ex -wife, I realized, my tears were not only for the Mallonees. I recalled the road I’d recently walked with a friend who was in the middle of her own divorce. I remembered some of my own marital struggles from the past couple of years. I discovered I was crying for marriages and families in general, how we’re constantly under attack and how every person is vulnerable. My heart was breaking over loss and grief and children forced to deal with all too human parents.

A couple months later we were getting ready for another house concert, this time the locale was John’s parents’ house. My parents had recently moved in to their downstairs basement, a temporary solution for their unfortunate situation. John and I had moved out of said basement and into our new Tennessee home a month before. I was very newly pregnant and still very scared; we had not yet told anyone.

I had pretty much worked through all those feelings about Bill’s divorce. I’d read many of his comments about it, as well as some comments from fans. Some said they could no longer support him as an artist. I’d come to my own conclusion that he was trying to make the best of a tough situation. But there was the matter of his new wife that still didn’t sit well with me. I admit I had these juvenile, evil step mother thoughts of Ms. Muriah Rose. I was apprehensive about meeting her and seeing the show.

The house concert was an early birthday present for John, and we had invited a few friends from church. We made some snacks and cleaned the house, arranged the living room and waited. When Bill and Muriah arrived, no one else had shown up yet. The concert had been posted on Bill’s website and John had received a few e-mails from fans in the area who said they were coming. I felt a bit sorry that it might be just the two of us, but also thought how cool a private concert would be.

Something rather strange happened while the musicians unloaded their run down car. We noticed a tiny hummingbird trapped in the garage. We saw it struggling to get out. It was so tiny and delicate. Muriah had been the first to notice it and she was visibly disturbed by its distress. My heart softened a bit. I believe it was my Mom who finally figured out how to get the bird out. She gave John a long handled duster and he gently coaxed it down the narrow space of wall between the two garage doors. When it was close enough to reach, John cradled the bird in his hands. It was a rather long process and we all waited and watched his quiet work. We whispered about how rare it was to see this creature. We wondered what in the world had brought it to our door. After he’d caught the humming bird, John walked out to the driveway and lifted his top hand. We were all standing in a circle around him, now thinking perhaps the poor thing was dead, it lay so still in his hand. Suddenly, the bird took flight. And what a flight it was. The bird shot straight in the air way past the tallest oak trees in the back yard. Then she was gone.

It was another long while before the instruments were set up and Bill was ready to start the show. By now it was apparent that no one else would be coming. We went down and invited my Mom and Dad to come up for awhile. I opened the front door and wandered outside, just in case. The sun was just beginning to set and a warm shuffle of air passed over the grass on the front lawn. That’s when I heard it: Muriah’s soft strokes on the keyboard, to a song I was barely familiar with.

They started mid-chorus, and much slower than the track I knew. It was just a warm-up, but for me it’s when the show started. Bill sang just this little bit:

Holy mother Mary when the wine gives out
and the land is parched, stricken with drought;
I’ve never seen it look quite like this before.
Yes and ask your Son cause I heard He's strong
He's got a real good heart and loves everyone.
An open heart is always an open door.

By the end of the concert, Muriah was my new best friend. I guess it was when we started helping them pack up, maybe it was during one of their breaks, but we got to talking. Muriah opened up about how she and Bill were doing as newlyweds. I told her about some stuff we’d been going through recently. We were both kinda new in town, although they were in Atlanta and we were in Knoxville. John and Bill got along well, but they’d conversed on more than one occasion the past eight or nine years. I remember when they left for the hotel that night we talked about getting together for breakfast or lunch before they left town the next day. At one point, I almost told her we were pregnant again. Crazy. Like I said, we hadn’t told anyone yet. Ultimately, I enjoyed keeping my little secret to myself, but it was the quick comradery and feeling of closeness that took me by surprise and left a lasting smile on my face at the end of the night.

In the morning, John and I felt less sure of our kinship and decided not to call when we didn’t hear from them. I thought I might e-mail Muriah later and tell her how much we enjoyed the show. I was gonna offer to write a real review and send it their way. I worried about crossing that fan/stalker line. I ended up doing nothing. Just wishing them well via my thoughts and prayers and moving on to try and make friends here in K-ville.

So why am I relating this story now? Well, we’ve booked another House Show for Sunday night. This time we’ll be at the Hockett’s house, a family in our Life Group. In fact we invited the whole group and one other small group from church. We really hope to have a full house this time. I’ve just been remembering what a strange intersection of lives we had that night nearly two years ago. My Mom and Dad, wounded and reeling, my husband and me, on the cusp of a new journey, our older two kids sleeping upstairs, and Bill and Muriah, toting their magic in a beat up, rusty car, playing more for themselves than anyone else in the room, just glad to make music together.

It was a bit of heaven I must say. Tomorrow night promises to be quite different, but I’m looking forward to it just the same. This time I’ll try not to wait two years before I share. Wish you could all be there!


jeanetta said...

you always tell the best stories

Capt. Flipout said...

Very nice. It was the discovery of a love of VOL (and Mark Heard) that let me know that I could hang with your sweet husband.

You truly do tell a story in the most profound way. Keep posting!

Janna Y. Barber said...

Aw, shucks. t'anks guys!