Most of my earliest memories involve my mother reading to me. Many of those memories are of my favorite childhood book, "There's A Monster at The End of This Book!", which I would read with my mother to great delight every night before bedtime.
At the beginning of the book, Grover tells you there's a monster at the end of the book and asks you to please not turn any pages, as to not get to the end of the book and, hence, the monster. Obviously, my mother would turn the pages to my great delight, and to Grover's dismay.
By the end, Grover is exhausted from his increasingly powerful but ultimately futile efforts to keep the pages from being turned, and gives up, only to find (SPOILER ALERT!!!) that the monster had been Grover the whole time! (Grover, it appears, is the Tyler Durden of the toddler set). Silly Grover! It was you the whole time!
Cut to now. I am 44.
I first heard The Asshole at a concert here in New York at Merkin Hall. I was playing the Messiaen Quartet for The End of Time on the second half of a program with my favorite players on the planet: Xak Bjerken, my regular pianist/partner; X, virtuoso violinist of the first order (Xiao-Dong Wang, but everyone calls him X); and Zvi Plesser, an effortlessly wise and beautiful cellist. I made the rookie mistake of sitting out for the first half, a Shostakovich piano trio. To get to the green room from the audience, you have to go out through the lobby - this was where I made my error. My wife was speaking to a local guy who repairs and sells string instruments and bows. I came over to say hi briefly and then warm up for the second half - we had a rather long dress rehearsal earlier, so I wasn't interested in blowing my face off, as Messiaen would take care of that shortly. As I shook violin guy's hand, he goes, "hey, I just heard the Lincoln Center Chamber Players do this last week, and I'm looking to see how you guys stack up!"
Ok, first of all, never do that.
Secondly, I got the hell out of there with a quickness, and then went downstairs to the green room, where I kicked the page-turner out and then had a real temper tantrum. I mean, a real old-school, Bob Knight style, peel the paint off the walls verbal explosion that would have made George Carlin proud. The whole time, I was thinking "fuck you, man! I gotta actually go DO this now!". After that, I collected myself, opened the door, and warmed myself up. It didn't do the usual good. The violin guy had gotten into my head. As I walked up the hallway and to the side of the stage to go out, I knew I had a problem. I had about one minute to get my head together.
We went out. I spoke briefly, as I do. I don't remember at all what I said. I was still not quite in the game. The first movement goes by. It must have been at least ok, because it's a pretty dangerous movement rhythmically, and a slight bobble from anyone can put a pretty good wrench into things, and that didn't happen. Here's that movement from my very first NYC show, same players except for the cellist:
Tricky, that. Anyway, it went. Second movement, I have a little flourishy stuff at the start and then sit for about three minutes or so. It was during this time that I realized things were going by pretty quickly and that wasn't good. The third movement was approaching fast, and that movement is just clarinet alone - me sitting on stage, three other musicians sitting there silently, playing very long phrases by myself. My normal strategy is to take very long, deep breaths during my little break, so I fell back into that and it helped. Things slowed down and I was pretty much myself when the time came to play it. This is that movement, this performance from my record:
At the very beginning, there's a very naked moment where you go over the break. In the performance, it wasn't quite perfect, but it was ok, and it's then that I first heard The Asshole:
What the hell? It seemed like every time something would not be perfect, I could hear a slight noise, a muttering of some sort. Nonetheless, I'm pretty good at that movement on the whole, so there wasn't a real laundry list to complain about - still, I was aware of these little things, and it seemed The Asshole was too. I played through, finished the concert, and then just went home. I felt I had dropped the ball on my mental game, and I wasn't happy about it.
The next night, we played the same program in Pennsylvania. Guess what? I heard it again. WTF!?!? Had this guy traveled from the city to heckle me? It wasn't possible. Ok, it WAS possible, but it was improbable. It was highly improbable.
I kept hearing The Asshole at all my shows. The slightest bobble.
In North Carolina.
But I was playing well, really. Well-prepared, really thinking and looking for all the details. What was it, then? Who was this guy? Bit by bit, it became obvious that The Asshole had been me all along. It wasn't violin guy who'd gotten to me, it was ME. I was the monster at the end of the book. I had gotten so far up my own ass about the stupid details of clarinet-playing that I had literally given voice to that stuff in my own head.
So fuck that guy. He's not invited to any of my shows anymore, and so far he hasn't shown up. Unlike my toddler self, I have no interest in reading that particular book again any time soon.
But I'm definitely reading "There's A Monster at The End of This Book" to Saul tonight.