Excerpt from The Song Is Always an Instruction in How to Sing by Rachel Howard

“The Man I Love”



Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by brother Ira, written in 1924 for the musical Lady Be Good, cut from that show and two others, finally a hit via sheet music sales. Someday he’ll come along . . . the man I love . . . and he’ll be big and strong . . . the man I love . . . 


I must have simply spotted it in the lyrics books one night when I’d worked up the guts to leave the corner booth and sidle onto a stool at the piano, the better to gawp at the regulars’ nerve. The way they’d croon “La Vie en Rose” or belt “All of Me” like no one was watching! I’d sit tall for an ear-splitting high note, then relax into the pattering applause and the ring and scrape of the half-century old cash register as the barmaid rang up scotch and soda and shouted hello to a patron passing through the battered double doors that have hung at 3151 Grand Avenue Oakland since 1933.

Those were lonely nights, confused nights, and—as my habit of loitering solo at The Alley drew on—lip-biting, nerve-nauseated nights. Nights when the ruddy old man behind the keyboard rasped, “You got a song?”  And I pulled chin to chest every time the microphone made its way around the circle, saying “No way, not me.”

My heart pounding: You know you want to do this.

But I was not a singer. My ex-husband had told me so.


It had slipped out as a casual joke late in the marriage when I’d dragged Bill to church, having swung again from wanting us to be over already to praying we could make it. Couldn’t the morning’s reading from Revelation prove personally prophetic? Behold, I am making all things new. All things. True, two nights earlier I had secretly combed Craigslist, bravado withering when the only San Francisco listing within my means turned out to be a kitchen closet in a house with five roommates. Was that why, waiting for Bill to come home that night, I was freshly pierced by memories of him in moments of supplication? Was it mere desperation that caused me to tear up, remembering how Bill had once braced my shoulders and shouted, “It’s you! It’s you that I want!”

He could be that earnest, in moments we held between us like secrets. And then, in other moments, so teasing—or something darker.

That Sunday three years into our marriage, when Revelation claimed to make all things new, Bill rose tall next to me in his hand-tailored suit, bypassing the chance to shake the Very Reverend Dean’s hand. We strode out past the Cathedral’s bronze bas-relief doors and down the Great Steps as San Francisco’s grey towers arrayed themselves below, a kingdom we once fantasized would be ours.

“Good thing the acoustics in the place don’t carry,” Bill said, smirking. It was the same mischievous smirk that had drawn blood to my cheeks when we’d met, both of us damp with spring rain, over a library newspaper rack in Santa Barbara eight years before. Back when Bill was a worldly 30 and I a farmland escapee about to turn 23.

Here, on the cathedral steps, I prepared myself for a snarky tidbit of criticism that we’d both enjoy, maybe some crack about how the unfinished neo-gothic rafters muddied the strains of the Baroque anthem, or a snark about the preacher’s accent. Bill and I loved to judge things together; judging was our bond.

My husband looked me dead in the eye. “You do know, you’re a terrible singer.”


Someday he’ll come along . . . the man I love . . .

     Bill and I had been divorced two years by the time I started lurking at The Alley. Still, when I imagined my voice escaping my body and releasing itself into that shadowy, dusty-dank, whisky-sour-and-bad-bathroom-plumbing-scented bar, I knew the shame would kill me.

     I was thirty-two years old, those early nights at the piano. Clinging to some pride. Maybe I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore, maybe the memoir I’d published while married to Bill was already sinking into oblivion. But I was still the dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, damn it. That was still my byline in one of the country’s biggest papers, week after week, proclaiming superior judgment and aesthetic discernment.

Even Bill had been so proud when I’d started reviewing dance for the Chronicle—his wife, a newly published author and now a tastemaker. He’d taped my dance articles in the window of his dying business in the Marina, alongside the Chronicle review of my book. He preferred this one to the review in the New York Times because, after extolling how brave Rachel Howard had been to face the horror of her father’s murder, after praising how openly and honestly she’d written about it, it went on to note what Rachel Howard had dragged her future husband Bill through during the run-up to their engagement. So bitingly validating did Bill find this review that he loved to quote it to friends and family: “For her fiancé Bill,” he’d snicker, eyes narrowed, “she reserved a special hell.”


It can take a long time, a lot of songs together, to learn the hidden stories behind the strangers you meet at The Alley. I’d appreciate that later, once I felt I had nothing to hide. But those early nights of lurking, I just sat near the piano with my ballet-trained posture like some kind of aspiring Gen X Grace Kelly, my hair in a French twist. I’d watch the silly bald guy with the big-toothed Louis Armstrong grin do “Whoop-De-Doo.” Marvel at the bosomy soft-spoken curly-haired girl with those upper notes that trembled like fall’s last leaf doing “Tenderly.” Smile at the salty senior fella who wore a fedora and always came in with his white-haired wife and grandstanded “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Then I’d slip out at midnight. Vow not to log onto OK Cupid when I got back to my empty apartment. Resolve to resist the compulsion to call Bill all the way in London—Didn’t I have to leave him? Didn’t I? I’d drive those five blocks along Lake Merritt, pulling into the garage and riding the elevator three floors, calling out to the little brown cat curled on the corner chaise and wishing the cat and the walls of books could be enough, that this dagger of loneliness would stop stabbing. Drifting to the kitchen window to smell the sulfur wafting off the geese-shit-soaked lake. Gazing over the carport and the olive tree branches up to the motionless black night and the all-seeing moon and . . . singing.

Someday he’ll come along . . . the man I love . . .

I must have fancied myself a Juliet up on her third-floor balcony, waiting to be heard by some Romeo in the carport below. But whenever footfalls echoed between the buildings I quickly silenced. Crouched below the windowsill, hot-faced and horrified. Dear God. Had somebody actually heard?

Despite the potential horror, I was singing a lot at that time, in the shower and at my window, though mostly pop songs, or “alternative,” or whatever you want to call it—M. Ward, Rufus Wainwright, Neko Case, some classic Leonard Cohen. I didn’t yet know the songs at The Alley. But then, few newcomers knew the songs at The Alley, because the songbook there contained mostly hits from the 20s and 30s and 40s and stopped at 1965. That was firm. Apparently Rodney Dibble, the ruddy old man behind the piano, had his principles. A little Sondheim, sure, “Send in the Clowns” he could tolerate, but no Billy Joel. And get the hell out if you were looking for eighties karaoke. It was all about Hoagy Carmichael here, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin; “The Nearness of You,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Blue Skies.” The old standards, the ruddy old man at the piano said, bracing both hands on the sounding board in a bulldog-ish stance. “You sing with me, you sing real songs.”

And when he comes my way . . . I’ll do my best to make him stay. I belted it alone in the shower as the steam rose.

Ridiculous. God, Bill was right.

And then: I was silent.

A monster of a cold, the kind that invades your lungs and then colonizes, flooding membranes with mucous until day and night you hear yourself wheeze, you apologize to people on the phone because you’re talking like the Godfather, you hack and you hock loogies and you think this can’t go on, but it does, the bacteria have built mucous-moat-fortified outposts in your bronchioles, and you step into the shower thinking this steam will do me good and you take a deep breath and aim for a note, thinking I’ll just try the first line of “The Man I Love,” and you imagine the note and the buzz of your chest and your face and that feeling you never knew you loved so much, that feeling of your own voice filling your body, your voice vibrating and warming and stretching wide like a cosmos and spilling from your tiny being into all of creation, and you open your mouth and out comes . . . a squawk.

For more than a week, I’d try to sing, and—nothing. I felt . . . disembodied. How strange, I thought, I’d never imagined I cared about singing. And now, sitting here mute, dripping wet in my towel on the edge of the bed, tepid water pooling between my feet and the floorboards, all I could think of were the regulars at The Alley.

In the past I’d found the place bizarre and silly—pathetic, even, when a voice was notably flat. I’d sat in the corner and taken naughty pleasure in my negative assessments. Yet lately, since I myself had crept towards the piano, I’d begun to feel, instead . . . humbled. Or maybe . . . jealous? Perhaps some self-examination was in order. Were my judgments correct? Was the singing of these strangers a spectacle of false confidence and pitiful self-delusion? Or were my own judgments the pitiful element here? These weird people who sang—they seemed . . . free.

Had I been missing the point?

Making judgments was, of course, my duty as a dance critic. Were her feet arched enough? His ballon high enough? Her epaulement subtle enough? Three or four nights a week, I’d get home from the theater at 11 p.m. and fire off my snap judgments and write until 2 a.m., until the inside of my brain felt like fuzz, until my eyes blurred and the letters scrambled like ants across the screen and I pushed “send.” But by the time I started seriously lurking at The Alley, the power of judgment was already losing luster.


That night, the night when everything changed, I’d gone to the ballet alone to see the second cast. No review due. After, I drove home across the Bay Bridge, free of deadline pressures, in the tin can of a Toyota Corolla that was my sole asset from the divorce, watching the black bay ripple below. I was thinking of that empty apartment waiting like a cell and dreading how the loneliness would break me, how I’d soon find myself at the computer sending “winks” to men I’d meet for coffee and then sleep with, too fast, or want to sleep with too fast anyway, handicapped now by the necessity of disclosing the fact that, months after my divorce, I’d contracted an STD.

I drove away from San Francisco and through the Treasure Island tunnel and onto the second span of the bridge, thinking of those men and thinking, I don’t want to be like that anymore. Thinking, God, I miss singing, and removing one hand from the wheel to ill-advisedly hit buttons on my iPod instead of keeping eyes on the road, and scrolling to Billie Holiday, to the Billie Holiday hits album I’d just bought, bought because lurking with that ruddy old piano player and those odd singers at The Alley had made me curious about these old songs. Hitting “play.” Billie, that tantalizing half-beat behind the music, crooning “Lover Man.” “Body and Soul.” And then:

Someday he’ll come along . . .

     Against my will—or against my terrified effort to suppress my own true will—my body gathered energy and pushed breath through lungs and up chest and past lips.

. . . The man I love, Billie Holiday went on, and the energy in me wanted to join her, the vocal cords trembled, the breath surged . . .

And he’ll be big and strong . . .

     My voice!

Like a spell, mad desire possessed me.

I sped to the 580 East, took the usual exit back to my apartment. Only I kept driving. Around the rim of that geese-shit-soaked lake. Past the Grand Lake Theater with its sky-high exploding marquee, past the vacuum store, past the shoe repair shop soon to become a gentrifier-magnet wood-fired pizza joint, past the Kosher bakery. Towards the neon sign topped by a startled black cat, the banner below: Entertainment Nightly with Rod Dibble.

Parking space right in front. Oh my God, I was going to do this. Pushing open the banged-up wooden doors. Hurrying past the bar lined with Mardi Gras beads and yellowing newspaper articles and dusty hula girls and a sign that says, Of all my relations, I like sex the best. Rushing to the corner of the piano, where a stool sat empty right next to Linda, Rod Dibble’s tiny wife, who was just then finishing a Minnie Mouse-soprano rendition of “All the Things You Are” or “Orange Colored Sky,” I’d be lying if I said I could remember which exactly. What I do remember: It wasn’t more than a minute before the mike came to me. Not enough time to rethink this compulsion, let fear repulse desire.

The ruddy old man with the spiky hair and the squinty eyes was already squinting at me.

His sweet little mouse of a wife was smiling at me.

“You got a song?” the red-faced man was rasping, and I was saying, “I want to do ‘The Man I Love’.”

Four-bar intro—oh God, my moment was coming—and then—

Someday he’ll come along . . .

I was singing.

Wasn’t I?

But the ruddy old man, Rod Dibble, was looking at me with his mouth puckered and his squinting eyes nearly closed. Like he was . . . pissed? My voice . . . it wasn’t coming out right. Not the way I’d expected. It was too low, for one thing. And all those friendly faces around the piano were staring at me wide-eyed, chins lifting, as though to say “You can do it, come on . . . ”

The man I love . . .

     The old man crooked his head, he was like a snarling dog now, while his sweet wife just stared, mouth open, without malice, as though she wanted to reach out, grab my hand and pull me back from a chasm of eternal mortification.

And he’ll be big and strong . . .

     My voice was blaring from the speakers into every corner of the bar, the people in the booths were watching now, too, looking at me with less kindness than the people at the piano. While my voice did this strange thing. Weren’t those the notes? But then why did it sound so awful? Like slushing mud. And yet if I tried to lift it—who knew what would come out? But dear God I had to do something, the song was going on and this ruddy old man just looked like he could ring my neck and everyone was staring . . .

The man I love . . .

     And then I felt it.

I felt it before I heard it. The way the breath rose from deep inside, the way my whole body summoned itself to a singular point of focus, the way the air coursed from my chest and became sound and rang out from my face. I heard it, ringing.

The strangers at the piano all stared as though I’d just done something shocking, turned a backflip or lit up with neon. And behind the piano, his fingers flying over those keys, ruddy old Rod Dibble . . . smiled.

And when he comes my way, I’ll do my best . . . to make . . . him . . . stay . . .

     The song was driving through me now, I was drawing each note out, the air around my face had changed and every molecule in the bar vibrated and spun. The second verse: We’ll build a little home . . . just made for two. From which I’ll never roam . . . Who would, would you? And then the bridge, it was right there, like I’d sung it a dozen times before, Maybe I will meet him Sunday, maybe Monday, maybe not.

     Rod Dibble smiling, his fingers sprightly on the keys, and his tiny wide-eyed wife next to me smiling, too.

And then it was over and ruddy old Rod was picking the rusty cowbell up from the piano top and ringing it. “The virgin bell,” he called it when someone made a debut, as opposed to the larger, deeper bell, he rang for a personal best. The virgin bell was high and bright, and he was ringing it and rasping to all assembled, “We’ve got a soprano!”

Cheers. Applause. The post-song banter couldn’t have gone on long—the next person was already taking the mike. But I remember apologizing to Rod for the awful start. I remember Rod Dibble waving me off as though he hadn’t been staring like a pissed executioner just moments before. I remember saying something to the effect of, “I don’t know how I made that jump in the middle there, that was scary,” and Rod responding, “Singing’s work!”

And thinking, He’s right, but what does that really mean? ‘Singing’s work.’

Which is to say I didn’t completely change in that moment. Or maybe I did. Maybe it was like that first time I took communion at the cathedral. I don’t believe in transubstantiation, I suppose I should admit, at the risk of dragging us into doctrinal debates over what it means to say Christ is physically present in the sacrament—I don’t think I’m ingesting literal flesh and blood. I just know that when I came up to that altar to take the bread and the wine, something transpired. Or began to, anyway. Something with the power to reorganize my life—but not really, not fully, until The Alley brought it to fruition.

The change happened over dozens of songs. Hundreds of songs. In capsule: I started singing with Rod Dibble, sometimes five nights a week, at that old Baldwin grand. All hopped up on adrenaline to see his septuagenarian body hobble in and slide behind the ivories with his pre-shift Peet’s coffee at 9 p.m. Oh, I’ll just stay til 10 or 11, I’d tell myself, I’ve got a respectable life to lead. Through heartbreaks and new loves, through daily deadlines and open-ended dreams, through riots in the streets of Oakland and glimpses of a more just society I sat at that piano, and listened, and sang, song after song, only to dribble out with the last of the regulars onto a deserted Grand Avenue at two in the morning. Because somehow time had stopped.

Except of course it hadn’t, even though it seemed that way for those of us who sat at that piano two or three or five nights a week, beneath the rafters plastered with yellowed business cards, under the poster of Frank Sinatra and the weird painting of two hands climbing out of a toilet, below the giant unmoving clock, that set of rusty jumper cables and a bouquet of dried roses draped over the clock’s immobile hands. That clock above the piano remained stopped, but time went on.

An amoral man no one ever thought could become President lost the popular vote but took over our country.

And then, the following December, Rodney Merritt Dibble died.

Piano player at The Alley from 1960 to 2017, with his repertoire of 4,000 songs known by heart, instantly adjusted to any singer’s key. He died, and all of us regulars—thousands of us, some who’d been going to The Alley for five years, some for thirty, some who hadn’t gone for half a century but will still said the place changed their lives—we all reached for each other through sundry WiFi networks and glowing, addictive screens; we called, we texted, we confessed we were sobbing and shocked and struck dumb by grief.


Back in 2007 when I first moved to Oakland, when I’d gone to The Alley all of twice and sat in the corner and criticized voices and laughed, I saw him one day, walking the shores of that geese-shit-soaked lake. He walked as many as 10 miles a day, I would later learn, or did until his final years, until the triple-bypass and the falls. I recognized his hunched body and his belly and his spiky grey hair and his red ruddy nose, and I called out, “Hey, you’re Rod Dibble!” Laughing with what I thought was benevolent amusement. “The guy from the piano bar!”

I was a church-goer then. Still am, but I’m a different person now, and not just because I’m remarried, not just because I’m a mother. At twenty-four I’d been baptized as an Episcopalian at Grace Cathedral and I attended regularly, even as I had a hard time shaking the thought that religion in general and Christianity in particular was awfully strange. I was still hung up on the whole metaphor vs. literalism problem. Stirred by the readings, the prayers, but also stumped by the language. Something in me recoiled when people talked about having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Maybe it was the phrasing: Like Jesus was your boyfriend. Still weirds me out, that language, if you want to know the truth.

But when Rod Dibble died, and his wife Linda called me, I found myself talking about the disciples. About how they must have felt. About how the spirit of this person who had transformed their lives—this spirit couldn’t leave the world. It had to carry on. We had to carry it on. But how?

The other Alley regulars, it turned out, were saying the same kind of thing. Half in worried mourning. Half in hopeful conviction.

It’s a conviction I still can’t shake. I know it must sound absurd. Sacrilege. But by what measure does the secular become sacred? What do we lose if we fail to see that religions are dying, and are born, all the time?

The University of Chicago sociologist Joachim Wach defined “religious experience” thus: A response of the whole person to what is perceived as ultimate. It is characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issues in appropriate action.

The whole person: Your mind, your emotions, and your body.

Peculiar intensity: You know this experience is real.

Appropriate action: It makes you change your life.

I didn’t know that definition when Rod Dibble died. I only knew that if what this rasping old man taught us ended, true life as I’d finally found it was over.
Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and a memoir, The Lost Night, published by Dutton. Shorter work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Waxwing (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), and elsewhere. She graduated from the Warren Wilson College MFA program in 2009 and currently lives in Nevada City, CA.