Yesterday I and seven other dedicated members of the City of Trees Pipes & Drums hunkered down in the snow to play at a wedding. We do stuff like this to make money for the band. For this gig we earned $300. It involved the eight of us putting on the “kit”: off-white hose (except for Josh White, who wore snow white hose), red flash (the ribbons that get folded into the top of the hose), sgian doubh (black knife) inserted into the top of the right hose (in case one needs to slit the throat of one’s adversary or cut a piece of salami while waiting for the go signal), ghillie brogues (sort of a wing-tip shoe with long laces that get tied in a certain criss-crossy way in the front and back of the hose, with tassels that swagger about while marching), undershirt, white long-sleeve dress shirt, dark tie, kilt (for our band, we wear the Royal Stewart Black tartan – a 15 ounce, 8-yard wool kilt), kilt belt with large cast pewter buckle, kilt pin (mine was a lovely deer antler tip until I lost it – the second kilt pin I have lost in less than two years), sporran (the “purse” covering the crotch of the piper (drummers wear theirs on their sides so as not to interfere with the drum harness) – our band sporrans are made of skunk fur and are very soft and black; they provide a pocket for one’s car keys, wallet, cell phone, condoms, or whatever – the kilt has no pockets), Prince Charlie vest (mine is fine wool with three diamond-shaped buttons and made in Pakistan – a cheap version of the 5-button gabardine wool versions made in Scotland), and glengarry with red feather plume and clan crest (the boat-shaped wool felt hat). After dozens of gigs I now have the dressing routine dialed in at about 25 minutes. To remove everything and get changed back into normal duds after a gig takes about half that.
We arrive at the designated spot – today at the Stone House: a pub adjacent to the Greenbelt. This is our second or third wedding gig here in the past year. I drove our Eurovan because I knew it would be snowing and that we’d be waiting for a while and wanted to have a heated haven where some of us could hang out until we were signaled to line up and march in. Six of us managed to fit in the van, cozy and warm with the propane heater running. I snapped a couple shots with my iPhone, hoping to catch some “regimental” images of my kilted buddies, but – alas – the iPhone’s lack of a flash prevented any compromising photos. John McDade, our dedicated pipe major, and the band’s only bona fide Scot, upon thinking I had snapped a shot of his privates yelled, “It’s bloody cold – I’m claiming shrinkage!”
We finally got the go signal, and burst from the Eurovan into the falling flakes and lined up. Two drummers – Gene, the Drum Sergeant, and Rhonda, our unflagging bass drummer – followed the six pipers (John, Josh, me, Tim, “Junior” McKay) and Jayce – our next to be initiated band member and current gig gopher, whom – today – served as band photographer and official door opener. On P/M McDade’s command, we fired up outside and began with Mairi’s Wedding/42nd Highlanders and someone’s drones were dreadfully misfiring. As we played and marched toward the entrance to the Stone House Josh – in front of me – shut down all his drones, thinking the wounded rhino sound was coming from his pipes. I had a perversely satisfied feeling the offending sonic malady was emanating from my bass drone but managed to ignore it and revel in the horrific dissonance as we marched into the absolutely packed interior and continued playing to wild applause.
For me at least, and I suspect many of my colleagues in the band, the most exciting moment of any gig is when we enter the interior of the venue, full of people – in this and many other cases, unsuspecting – and we are rewarded with facial expressions of childlike exuberance and fascination, hoots, hollers, whistles, and all other types of boisterous expressions of approval and visceral pleasure.
It is this dynamic that makes it worth the 25 minutes it takes to get dressed, and however long it takes to drive to the gig, and however long we wait in the wings before we are unleashed like rabid rats on a rotting feral cat carcass. It is this moment when I feel the righteousness of strutting, when I feel the loss of self that historical actors from Nazi storm troopers to the starting players in the World Series must have felt. My uncooperative bass drone notwithstanding, this moment is indeed what the great French social theorist Roland Barthes referred to as “jouissance” – the proto-orgasmic loss of self in the cataclysmic moment of pure pleasure…
We finish the two tunes and the ceremony begins. We scurry to stand out of the way so the guests can see. I watch the bride and groom – two middle-aged people whom I think are starting over with great hope, and surrounded by an impressive assortment of people I hope feel the same way – and remember with great warmth my own wedding atop a mountain in central Idaho. The bride’s gaze upon her soon-to-be-betrothed is so angelic that I cannot stop staring at her and makes me think that this is really a special moment and I’m privileged to be a part of it.
After a decent amount of time and words the ceremony is over and we’re lining up to begin the march-out tune, which John calls out at the last second: Scotland the Brave. We play it through twice, marching elegiacally through the crowd of gleeful attendees, following the bride and groom, out the door into the falling snow. It sounded great. The bride and groom stood in the snow for a moment with us and expressed their gratitude. Gig over, we scurried to our vehicles and headed to our homes to remove the kit and get on with our separate lives, the weekend half completed, thoughts of what’s ahead and what’s due in the offing.