Dave and I just came back from the Portland Honkfest and if that event doesn’t sizzle your tissues on a cellular level, you might be dead. The Honkfest is an all-day celebration of brass bands, none of them professional. These are people who got hooked on honking in school and once they’d graduated, and put away their trumpets and trombones and such, their lives took a slow downward trajectory into jobs and adulthood and tedium and failed love until they realized: Hey. We could still honk if we find someone to honk with. And so bands large and small have pulled together and bloomed like bright little galaxies in the dark of space. And they had space to stomp at the Honkfest.
Seriously, if you can listen to a brass band without marking yourself 50% happier than you had been just five minutes before, you are either a dog or a baby with an ear infection. Although I suspect the dogs were reacting to the flutists, whom nobody else could hear. I love it all. This is what I’m waiting for during a parade, the marching bands thundering down the street like an injection, propelled by a drum corps plunger.
And parades in our town feature one horse’s ass decked with flowers after another, a metaphor for politics if I ever saw one. You can have your floats and your princesses and your local lights in polished old convertibles: I want the brass bands. I can be subtle, but sometimes I just want my joy shoved right down my ears’ gullets. And they can do it. A good brass band can ream out your spinal stenosis, clear your sinuses, and relieve your brain of excess rumination.
Something about all that hardware going off at once pastes a smile on your face you can still feel hours later, if you’ve let your face get out of shape. I love the tubas and baritone saxes—all the saxophones really. Saxophones always seem like trumpets with a dangling cigarette and a sordid past. They’re naughtiness through a reed. The trombones amaze me. They’re clearly not real. They look unplayable; people probably take up trombone in order to clear out a little personal space for themselves in a marching band. But for my money, which in this case was a voluntary donation, the trumpet can’t be beat. I think I’ve always felt this way.
Because when Mom and Dad asked me if I wanted to learn an instrument other than piano—I was probably six, and all the kids took piano lessons—I said TRUMPET! so quickly and with such enthusiasm that it was clear I intended to shake up the place. In retrospect, I probably could’ve been talked into a clarinet, but I didn’t know about clarinets. I was unclear about the cello, too, because that’s what was (pointedly) suggested to me at the time, but I thought that was related to the bongo, and I wasn’t interested. Honey, I wanted to make some noise.
That wasn’t really my family’s style, though. We were modest folk. No one raised their voice, no one argued, and even scoldings rarely involved more than the dreaded raised eyebrow of correction. When my mom slipped and her ankle bone was poking right through her leg, she didn’t even make a peep. She was from North Dakota: it wasn’t done. The first time I went to a college friend’s home and everyone in her family yelled at each other the whole time, I was terrified. Until I realized that’s just how they talked. Anyway, in my family stringed instruments were preferred. And I can understand why. There’s a reason people talk about “heartstrings” and not “heartbrass.” One is romance. The other is cardiac arrest.
So picture my family as the pot of water put on to boil but never quite getting there. I was always that bubble just about to bloop to the surface. My oldest sister was the same. We were known to bloop together. My family was the pastorale section of the William Tell Overture and Margaret and I were the finale. But you know what? Nobody minded.
People need a little brass.
click for video: https://youtu.be/d7zXCs8HlT4