[TL;DR: This is a tribute to an instrument which changed my life and is now gone. Lots of good stuff came from this experience, which I try to encapsulate herein. The piece also helped me raise funds to help set up the new one, and I’m very, very grateful that it worked! Check out the page if you’re curious.]
In mourning the loss of my trusty club cello of the last 15 years, I’d like to share the origin story of our pairing. I never imagined I’d learn so much from — and come to love — a piece of wood quite like I did this mossy, broken-down, rough-and-tumble, squeaky old, hoarse, janky and forgotten cello when it came into my life completely uninvited one day in 2004.
In those days I had run out on my commitment to live as a musician, and been rewarded by getting run over by a truck. It’s a story for a different day, but what’s relevant is that shortly afterwards, a dude in London gave me his cello. He’d had it sitting in his garage for 15 years.
I guess his parents were bugging him about the storage space, tired of tripping over it.
“Keep it,” he said, “I ain’t using it.”
Starting then, and as chapters in my own life came-and-went, I slowly developed a bond with this instrument which rivaled many of my human relationships. Indeed one of us was seldom seen without the other.
A few years ago her name came to me in a flash, but for most of the miles we put in together her name was unknown to me. I just started calling her Goose one day, don’t know why. Naming instruments is not one of my fetishes.
Where Goose Came From
In January 2004 I was laid up after this truck accident and suddenly there was a cello in the corner. But I could’ve cared less because in 2003 I had totally quit music.
I mean it. Totally quit. Music. Because like a drug habit it had taken all of my money, most of my relationships, happiness and potentially healthier professional aspirations away. It had done things to my personality I wished could be undone, and I felt that the way to begin undoing them was to go clean.
In order to feel whole, a musician needs to make a true sound. But I’d made a lot of sounds, and nothing that ever felt true. I decided that it had all been a lark and I had better get with the program.
No more music. Go straight, whatever the hell that even means.
During this time, a guy named Adam was working on a film project. We’d been introduced and I got pitched (without my knowledge) to make the soundtrack. It seemed like fun but the gig was entirely on spec so I’d declined, sticking with my pledge to go straight.
I didn’t want to do it. I was moving forward.
But getting run over by a truck changed my circumstances. I was lucky to be alive, and with my right foot in plaster it was hard enough to do the dishes let alone work as a courier in London. I agreed to do Adam’s soundtrack because what else was I gonna do.
Then, from out of nowhere he goes: “Is it true you play cello?”
“Well I’ve got one at home. I used to play, but quit 15 years ago. It’s in the garage.”
He pronounced it like carriage.
“Shall I bring it over?” He said.
Shall I bring it over.
That was that. Next day he dropped her off.
In From The Cold
Adam’s cello was in absolute crap condition. A total joke of a cello. Of course I wish now that I had taken a “before” picture, but nobody in their right mind would have ever wanted to take a picture of this cello back then, and I had no indication of what was to come.
You wouldn’t believe how bad this cello looked in the beginning. Like literal garbage: an old plastic soft case had disintegrated into the varnish, leaving stuck-together rubber particles all over it from top to bottom. Scroll, fingerboard, tailpiece… all fuzzy from these bits of rubber. The strings had moss growing on them and there was a useless, threadbare bow in the nasty case. Ick.
Needless to say I felt zero hangups when I started whacking on the strings like a caveman.
It was a weird circumstance, I was in a weird relationship with a lot of the things I care about most, and physically injured on top of it all. So one day, to maintain sanity I sat down with it and just kind of started tapping around. “I’m still not a musician,” I told myself, “but that’s ok because this isn’t a real cello, either.”
And at some point, beating on this cello became a part of my healing process.
I made Adam’s tracks in kind of a daze, because life was tough outside of it. There was a lot of pain, I was having near-constant flashbacks of the accident and I still couldn’t walk. I was basically just worrying all day long, and through doing Adam’s project I found something to work on *while* worrying.
I know I know. We all just worry all the time now, I get it.
But this is exactly the moment in my life when I learned how important it is to worry less, if you can, whenever possible.
Because I awoke to the fact that trying to be “a cellist” rather than just play music will train you to chronically worry, if you let it. And let it I had: in all kinds of ways and about all kinds of dumb needles. Playing the cello is awesome, but trying to “be a cellist” can fill your head with nonsense.
With Goose it was different, because I literally didn’t have to care about her at all. Nobody was gonna hear us anyway.
I didn’t know yet, but Goose was going to give me all kinds of things that the cello world had not.
Goose may have been used to cut a couple of dusty string parts for Adam’s soundtrack, but otherwise she sat taking up space in the corner, stinking up the place. To smack her around at the end of a long day of worrying felt a little cathartic, so I got into it from that angle: Like “f**get it, it’s already a piece of crap anyway and I already quit music anyway so f**get it.”
While I was feeling low, and as my broken foot slowly came back together, I just kept tapping away on those strings. Definitely not practicing Bach or scales or anything. Just percussing and bassing around with no plan, breathing along with it, and then singing a few long tones. There was no “music” being made, I was just trying to stay sane with a bit of sound while life tested my resolve.
That’s where we started, Goose and I. Birds of a feather, both of us lucky to be alive and learning to live on borrowed time.
As I progressed towards finishing Adam’s tracks, I spent more time with the cello. Since the last time I’d picked up a cello I’d programmed lots of drums and dome some mixing for TV, so my ears had kind of exploded in terms of what they could hear. I started to hear the cello in stereo and use my fingers to mix it in the air.
And since Goose moved the air in weird ways, I started to have fun finding weirder and weirder ways to play. I made grooves and futzed around with lyrics.
Upon delivery of Adam’s finished tracks, the cello became mine. No money, just the cello. A pretty good deal in retrospect, but I was happy to be done. I had still quit music, and I could walk again.
I decided that those tracks would be the last musical thing I ever did.
Goose’s Second Act
As soon as I could walk I headed out the door looking for jobs, but it was pretty slim out there. I spent parts of these otherwise frustrating days picking out sounds on this cello.
What a total beater, I thought. But it was starting to feel fun so I kept going.
For the 2 months I was in a cast, I’d had to keep my mind off the pain. My rule for playing on Goose was very simple: ONLY make sounds that generate at least as much pleasure as the effort required to play them. I would only make easy, fun sounds, something to bring me more in touch with the moment.
If I started to feel at all tense, I’d stop.
Who is a cello for, anyway?
I’ve taken care of a few cellos in my time, and Goose was about as far from the professional standard as one could get without totally falling apart. I didn’t care though, I’d never had much rapport with the normies of the classical world.
How do I begin to talk about my feelings around “professional grade instruments”? It’s a hidden landscape, rife with injustice. And why is this relevant?
It’s relevant because the best sounds one can hear are usually the ones which carry the most love. It turns out that love, when transmitted through sound creates happy music customers. And professionals want happy customers, so we make it our job to maintain and preserve our sound. Because that’s where the love lives.
But for musicians, our love of music comes from a deeper place. It’s a protective love. A responsible love. A love which propels us through successively more intense layers and difficult tests, all in the interests of the music, in the hopes that you — the listener on the outside — may someday hear *something like* what we hear on the inside. That you might feel something as beautiful.
The path of a musician can feel like a series of discoveries when the career is going ok, but at other times it might suck. Music practitioners must be able to emotionally disconnect ourselves from core ingredients of the product (like love feelings) in order to navigate the profession and its pitfalls.
So, you might ask: once your dreams get dashed and your ego shredded (essential milestones to be celebrated in retrospect, if not while they are occurring), what gets us through the sucky parts?
It’s the sound of the instrument that gets us through the sucky parts.
More specifically, it’s the health of our connection to that sound.
Once you’re in touch with that, you’re in.
The rest is just politics.
Goose was starting to shine, but only for me. So during that injured winter of 2004 I did a ton of yoga to recover my stride, and worked out my fingers on Goose: Open strings, simple grooves. Long breaths, long tones. The Elements. Totally disconnected from any musical agenda.
I just wanted to touch the sound for the sake of my health and nothing else.
Every day, as the cast came off and I took some tentative, ache-y walks around town.
Every day in gratitude for my life, every day in pain and every day finding a new sound to express it.
Goose became the greatest cello teacher I ever had. The one all the others prepared me for. I started to feel like a musician again.
I started to work on that nasty varnish too. And some songs.
Within a year, I’d made an album and started playing my first shows, which were nerve-racking. I mean, who does that? Performing my own songs has always felt awkward, but Goose made it bearable. And then she made it fun.
We toured, we took buses, trains and planes together.
I always threw her in the hold and she always came back more or less in one piece. It was my first year “on the road”, hitting the boards with a cello and slapping it around.
I’d arrived, in my own way.
Sometime that year someone took this video at a show and it got over 110k views:
Later that same year I got invited to my grandparents’ 60th Wedding anniversary in San Diego.
Snap! The Neck-Off
I assumed Goose would fly again, so I said “let’s go play for Grandma and Grandpa while they’re still with us.”
I asked if I could gate-check Goose to San Diego and the smiling ticket agent said Yes, for $100. In went Goose.
But later at baggage claim? No cello. I asked at the desk and the lady asked “Did you gate-check it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, it looks like it may have been left off of the plane. We’re sorry, but we’ll deliver it to your destination as soon as we can. Looks like that’ll be two days from now.”
She assured me that my precious cello would be delivered to my uncle Tyler’s house where I was staying, as soon as they could get it there.
Every time I go to California, I get a weird feeling. I love the place and I have family all up and down the West Coast. But I also have a creeping anxiety which manifests itself in weird ways. On this trip I got laid up with food poisoning for three days, unable to move without puking, thanks to a diseased tomato in some bar salsa.
Jet Blue kept their word: two days later a knock came at the door. There was a truck, a delivery man and my cello case, hanging open at the hinges with several pieces of ex-cello rattling around inside. Maybe it’d fallen off one of those wagons and then gotten run over… whatever. The neck was snapped in two, there were cracks up and down the front.
I went numb.
See, until this moment I didn’t think of this cello as much of anything. It was a toy, a placeholder. Something I could bang around on until I got my hands on a “real” cello. I liked bopping around with a beater cello, checked as baggage without caring how she came back. But here she was, busted worse than usual and it didn’t look like she’d come back from this. I wasn’t ready.
I looked at this broken cello with its neck snapped off, soundpost rattling around inside. Gashes and cracks all over the front… I hadn’t thought it would end this quickly, just as things were getting interesting.
Grief takes a while to surface — I’ll stay numb for a while before getting sad. But here I was, all gut-busted from the crap salsa … somewhere in the constant nausea fog I decided to burn the damn cello.
It had all been kind of a joke up until now anyway, dragging it out of some guy’s garage for some TV tracks….
Writing some weird songs on it and making a record….
I’d decided to take a final crack at becoming a real musician mostly because of the weird chances I’d gotten to take with this instrument.
Now here she was in pieces and I could only think… Gotta burn her.
Thankfully, all I could do was keep puking, the salsa-poisoning was relentless. But in the back of my head I knew that as soon as I could stand up I’d build a little pyre in Tyler’s yard and burn my weird orphan cello — which had been living on borrowed time from day one — for good.
Before I could do that, my uncle took me aside. He knew what I was going through and talked me down. Showed me his “traveler” acoustic guitar with two screws in the fingerboard that come out so he can detach the neck and stick the whole thing in a suitcase.
“I bet you can rig something up like this. At least give it a shot.”
A light turned on: I knew who to talk to.
Goose wouldn’t burn just yet. I dragged the parts of my broken cello back to NYC and straight to the shop of David Gage in lower Manhattan. David is the philosopher-king of string instrument repair, a source of innovative travel and rig solutions for real-world working bass players of all stripes. Weirdo-cellists like myself have found friendlier quarter among our low-end brothers and sisters at the Gage shop than we get from the snooty violin shops uptown.
Gage’s line of products includes a neck-off travel bass, and I asked him if he could patch Goose back together and rig up something similar on my cello. He looked at it, maybe saw an opportunity for experimentation and gave me an estimate for the work.
After some wrangling, Jet Blue conceded a bit of money in a damage claim, so I was able to meet Gage’s quote.
He went to town on my cello, and a few weeks later handed me a much better instrument than I’d ever known I possessed.
And a new appraisal too. Goose definitely got insurance after that.
Coming out of Gage’s shop, Goose became something truly extraordinary for what I was trying to accomplish. With a bunch of gluing, internal cleats, a new bridge and an amazing bolt-on neck David got Goose up and running with some real spunk. And if I wanted to fly with her again, I’d be able to make it work.
She was beautiful, and honking.
We got her a box to fly in and it was off to the races with my strange android-cello. Back to the open mic scene, back to recording sessions, back into pickup gigs at restaurants and back, gamely if reluctantly, onto airplanes.
We had dozens of perfect flights. One time she came back with a busted fingerboard, but that’s why we like insurance.
My career moved too. I started playing band shows under my own name, toured as an artist. My beat-up rescue cello and I even got feature slots at the New Directions Cello Festival.
Friends asked me to play for their weddings, and later I met small children who’d been conceived while their parents were listening to my record. Really.
Goose and I joined Steve and John Kimock for a year-long tour which included shows at the Fillmore in SF and about 40 amazing festivals and club shows, and I got to play a solo atrium set on Jam Cruise 8. Then came a 2-piece band with John and we played about a hundred more dates, collaborating with Dana Colley of Morphine, Bernie Worrell and selling out the occasional movie theater.
I got to headline at jazz clubs like the Velvet Note in Atlanta. Legendary author James McBride asked me to join his amazing band as we toured our way to his winning the National Book Award. I got to tour with a big theater piece called Basetrack for six months and we headlined the BAM Next Wave Festival, getting mentioned in the New York Times…
Almost 15 years of gigs.
About five years ago I was feeling the pull to get a “real” instrument and convinced about 160 of my fans to help buy it.
Upon adding a second cello to the family, a cello which took center stage (I’ve done about 50 weddings and a slew of recording sessions on it), Goose’s stature in the household subtly morphed into something new: Matriarch.
We’d grown up together. Other sounds and other types of gigs and opportunities were coming into my life. I’d left the road but was working and playing more than ever, making music that felt true to myself and also fit my circumstances. I was becoming more and more whole, a process which had begun in 2004 under a cement truck in London and had taken me all around the world ever since.
All of it had come through Goose, because of the unique way in which I was able to play THAT particular cello at the particular places we visited: at 4:30 am in a strange country, in the open air, at churches, sports bars and wherever else I felt like it. My fingers could only really dance on that cello, I don’t know how else to say it.
Someday soon they will again, but it’ll be a chunk of work to get there. That level of familiarity is rare to manifest.
Goose was crushed by American Airlines on October 25th, 2018, again on the way to California. At first it seemed like a minor crack, but attention from a local luthier in Palm Springs revealed the internal damage to be much more substantial. The body could not sustain tension. I finished the tour on borrowed instruments, thanks to the generosity of fellow cellists on the West coast.
The experts back at the Gage shop examined my cello from the inside. It’s not irreparable, but the cost to fix it far exceeds the insured value. Goose is totaled.
We are making arrangements to replace her with an instrument of comparable quality, thanks to Clarion Instrument Insurance for working with me so dependably through all these years.
A career will always have ups and downs, but thanks to Goose I got to do what I love the most: play music in my own style, in a variety of places and for people who mostly dig where I’m coming from. I’ll figure out how to keep doing that.
As I write this, there’s a potential replacement cello sitting across the room. One with its own story, I think he might be named Grandpa. Grandpa is over 110 years old, sounds interesting and has been itching to get played for years.
But I’m looking over at Grandpa and saying out loud, “I’ll help you ONLY if you help me.” Because a cello has to earn the space you give it.
Something else I learned from Goose.
Goose gave me a true sound, for the first time enabling me to feel musically whole.
Goose was a trooper on the road and in many ways, Goose saved my life.
I’ll always be grateful for our time together.
R.I.P. Goose. I will miss you.
Thanks for reading about Goose. If you can relate, I’d love to hear from you in comments.
If you’d like to stay in touch with my music and hear new songs, then please support me on Patreon for as little as $3. There’s music there which will be found nowhere else, including some of Goose’s final recordings.