My Musical Career

I wore opposing stripes. She wore a Tina Turner wig. Osgood glued my hair to his chest.

I bought this Stevie Wonder album, a greatest hits, for a couple bucks off the street. “All I Do”, and “Stay Gold”. Nothing better. A short, nervous woman was looking over her shoulder for the cops as she took the cash. I put it on later that day. The second track on disc 2 is, no surprise, “Ebony and Ivory.”

I haven't heard it in years. Thank God. But I didn't skip the track, because it brings back a good memory: I was in college, living in the Brick dormitory, winter of 93, sophomore year. Marion Gray, the RA, came to the door. She asked my roommate and I if we'd perform in the dorm talent show. We had a histrionic reputation.

Marion is Black; I'm White; that contrast matters to this story. She smoked and was majoring in English. I think I had a crush on her. I find today that I can't remember all my crushes.

She came in, ignored the 7 foot tall, red-velvet brocaded puppet theater I'd brought from home, and sat on the edge of a bunk bed. We strategized. We should do a song, we decided. Marion and I will sing a duet. My roommate, Osgood, would back us on his recorder. But what song? Cyndi Lauper? Laibach? Uri Geller's “Come on and Love”? Then Marion arrives at it. “Ebony and Ivory,” she says. Side by side on my pyah-no keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?

I went to the lyrics server - this was pre-Web, before copyright lawyers knew about the Internet - and FTPed the lyrics onto my VAX account. We found a copy of the song at the college radio station, a song too bad for even the larcenous college radio DJs to steal. We borrowed the album and did a few rehearsals with it in Marion's room. Not too many; there wasn't much point, as neither she nor I could sing, though Osgood wasn't bad on his recorder.

The night arrived. We prepared. I cut off all my hair with scissors, leaving it different lengths and put on a horizontally striped shirt, vertically striped pants, and a vest with a pair of glasses. “L” was written in White-Out over the left eye of the glasses and “R” over the right eye. I put on a brown wig with a fun 60's woman's cut.

Osgood took my fallen hair and glued it to his bare chest, then put on a black leather jacket which he left unzipped. He also wore a wig with 3 feet of long black hair, what we called “physics pants” (clingy, synthetic, odd-fitting), and knee boots.

Marion entered, beautiful in a ankle-length gold dress and Tina Turner wig and long gold-silk gloves up to her elbows.

There was an audience of 20 in the Brick lounge, including the first girl who broke my heart, and her boyfriend, who had been one of my best friends. And friends, and strangers.

Marion and I stood facing one another, Osgood behind. He started us off, improvising an intro on his recorder. A few bars in, I put my hand on her shoulder and our eyes met, hers large and brown and warm, mine colder, blue. “Ebony,” I sang.

Just as we'd rehearsed, she looked up at me - I was almost a foot taller, but her 4-inch heels mitigated that - and sang a brassy, “and Ivory.” As Osgood played a counter-melody, she and I joined hands and sang “live together in perfect harmony.” And so on through the song, until we crescendoed at the end, arms around our shoulders, encouraging the audience to sing with us - all white, I think - “Ebony, ivory, living in perfect harmony. Ebony, ivory, living in perfect harmony....” Of course no one sang along.

Then it was over; the last recorder note faded. There was a confused applause by all but a few, who cheered enthusiastically. We three bowed hand in hand and left the fluorescent spotlight of the lounge to let someone else do their own bit. I think we won third prize of of 5.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

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Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

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