Tuesday, December 27, 2011

And so begins the next song...

“If you put your guitar in a closet so you can spend limited time with some girl, you’ll put a shotgun to your head when you’re forty. If nothing else in life makes sense, then all you can do is follow your beating heart and that is where yours takes you. It’s the scary choice. But have you ever been scared of it? Or is it the safest place you’ve ever been? When you’re on the artistic side of the fence in this world, you go with inspiration. So, follow every lead your heart gives you and you’ll get there.”

“Do that whiskey like I told ya. And write some tunes while you’re at it.”

I no longer had anything to lose. That’s not to say I wasn’t in for a few months of pain. But also a kind of liberation that I’d never experienced before.

In the meantime, I shut down. Closed up shop. I saw Dad in a hospital bed and, the same night, I lost control of my car on an icy highway. I quietly thanked whichever entities are helping me stay alive. But I couldn’t feel any of it. Like I was watching life on TV instead of being there. I was similarly absent emotionally when my sister announced her engagement. I did cry that night, but only because someone asked where my girlfriend was and all I could say was, "I dunno."

I spent the winter trying to get my feelings to come back like somebody trying to get their dog out from under the couch with a piece of ham. Writing. Writing anything. Writing my life story. Songs. Trying to find where I was in the continuum of my own life. I got a little closer to some excellent people who were up for the challenge of unscrambling my brain, many of whom were - and continue to be - named Ruth.

I tried to change for her and she left. Fast. She taught me that it’s essential to have so much clarity about your goals that you truly don’t care what anyone else thinks about them because to not accept them is to not accept you. It’s your life and you have to carve your way, even if you’re carving it slowly with a piece of driftwood.

I fell like a bottomless well. Later, I thought she’d set the bar too high, but she put it where it should’ve been in the first place. She taught me to never accept less than what I really want.

We were at a restaurant and she was talking to a gentleman of indeterminate origin from her past who had a glimmer in his eye that suggested that he wanted more than her opinion of the side salad. She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. She showed me that I am able to trust.

I thought about the paradox of someone leaving your life, at least partly, because of your dedication to the things that made you attractive to them in the first place. Claire said, “She’s nesting. You’re flying.” But I’m glad I got to fly with her a little.

Back on the ground, I wasn’t happy per se, but I took good photos, played in a great rock band, and I wrote a song in which I dove into the nooks and crannies of post-love pain with a precision that makes the song almost uncomfortable to listen to. Like scooping up the change and grimy french fry fragments under your driver's seat. The Feel-Bad Hit Of The Winter! I was emotionally homeless that winter, but I warmed my bones by the fires of music and art.

Cut to March, and I’m wandering around New Hope with Righteous Jolly playing traditional Irish songs to people on the street and inside taverns and shops. Tourists are running up to us to put money in our bucket. Then we’re playing to a few hundred people in Southampton, then we’re playing Newtown to a receptive, drunken crowd, then another show with great energy at John & Peter’s in New Hope. I don’t know if Righteous knows this, but that was the first time I had FUN this year. Plus, how great is it to spend the whole day making music and go to bed with a few hundred bucks in your pocket? When Righteous Jolly calls you at 2 in the morning, just say “yes.”

Then it was April. The Month Of Greg. I'm in my favorite abandoned limestone quarry (well, I guess I only have one...) drunk on the face of the next beautiful stranger. In retrospect, it was like I was watching grass, clovers, and flowers bloom around me at 80x while I sat in the quarry filling a notebook with rhymes. Like I was watching winter turn to spring during the time it takes to finish a medium coffee.

I got home, filled up a wine glass, strummed G on my Grandpa's old Gibson for ten minutes, and there was "Future Tense." And an empty glass.

I also had a thrillingly spontaneous musical collaboration with my friend Erin. We sat on a hay bail, hit Record on my camera, and played a few songs she’d written that I barely knew. Later, she accompanied me to a Baseball Project show in Philadelphia at which I get to shake hands with two of my sound heroes, Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey.

As inspiring as my birthday 2010 trip to Nashville had been to me as a musician and music fan, Auntie Donna’s journey with me to Delaware Water Gap for birthday 2011 was an equally amazing immersion into a gigantic expanse of preserved nature. Mountaintop views for miles. Vast forests. No people, save for two college girls in bikinis walking a dog by a pristine lake. Plus, we met a hitchhiker. (Hey, Max!)

Once we reached a section with huge abandoned farm houses and street signs with bullet holes through them, I was in photography heaven! One of the photos found its way to my first CD.

The first CD. Receiving the box in the mail was a highlight of my life. Not only was it my first chance to hear what I actually sounded like in a studio, and not only did I do most of the artwork myself, write all the songs, and play electric, acoustic, and bass guitars, but the select few who got a copy of the first pressing loved it, including, most excitingly, complete strangers. People in office buildings that I’ve never met grooving to some line I wrote while walking home from high school in 2000. A mindfuck of the highest quality. What made it even sweeter was that I knew I already had about thirty-five more strong songs waiting in the wings.

We expanded our band. Two older, experienced musicians rounding out the original band, a woman and two manly-but-sensitive men. Like... we eat beef, but we talk about our feelings while doing so. We worked our asses off. I drove upwards of two hours to New Brunswick and back nearly every week. Brought in new songs, worked on songs from the other guys. Played killer shows in Manhattan and elsewhere.

A great band when actually on a stage, but there was so much time between shows, so many weeks of canceled rehearsals, and very little creativity and brainstorming happening when we weren’t in the same room. I finally gave myself permission to focus my life on music, and I was barely in motion. I got Restless Greg Syndrome.

Songs allow you to freeze memories like insects in amber. The intangible things that you can’t capture in a photograph. You can drop them into a song. They're like emotional scrapbooks. Paradoxically, doing so helps you unglue yourself from the past and arrive in the present day. Plus, you don’t have to name names, so the songs keep morphing once completed. And you get to share all of this with other people!

I wandered around New Hope with a little notebook, writing a few lines, then moving to another bench to see if I could find another burst of inspiration there. At the end of the day, my blood sugar was low, I was dehydrated, I had a queue of unanswered texts, but I accomplished not just the feat of writing a good song, but the bigger feat of writing a song that FELT like the moments I was writing about. It’s always worth as much time as it takes because you get to keep them forever.

"Do you remember trying to explain what it meant? Something about meeting who you'd wanted to invent? Remember loving a world where we both exist? And crossing off things from other people's bucket lists?"

Because I knocked over a bag of coffee while in line at Starbucks, I became reacquainted with a grade school friend named Jenny. And because we connected on social media, she became a huge fan of my photography. And because she works somewhere that has an art gallery, I was eventually offered a one-man show of my photography! Life showed me that I’m a photographer. Just like music, one of the things I did to hide from the stress of real life was slowly starting to become real life.

Pam got married to a guy I liked so much that I was willing to be in a band with him. Fate picked the location. They were scoping out Churchville Nature Center and the three of us met in the parking lot without planning to do so. The ceremony was beautiful, packed with friends and family, worlds colliding without any collisions. Even the most volatile family members were on their best behavior and added to the positive environment. I even took my first stab at trying to dance with another person (as opposed to the air or a guitar) - I was rated a generous 8/10.

The weekend of the wedding, I walked around Bristol and told Grandpa about my latest goings-on in music and visual art. He told me, “if I had it all to do again, I’d chase my passions even if I had to starve.”

I hung on tight and rode out some storms that came through. Most metaphorical, one real - Hurricane Irene picked up a huge tree from my neighbor’s yard and dropped it into my property like somebody pushing over a Statue Of Liberty pencil sharpener. I stayed up ‘til 5 AM, scared out of my mind, drinking whiskey, hoping Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz’s bowtie would somehow calm me down.

I went out and snapped a photo at 3 in the morning and got it broadcast on TV. Morning sun revealed that we got REAL lucky and only suffered a little damage. Dramatic sight that it was, though, people drove by with their jaws dropped for days, as if Jesus was back and his manger was in our yard.

More storms. My favorite band and my favorite dog were gone. Phil Everly announced he will never perform again. John Frusciante was free-range. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were getting a divorce. Life was starting to make significantly less sense. But I used all this stuff as a reminder: be in the moment. Be there. I didn’t know that Sonic Youth in 2009, The Every Brothers in 2001, Neil Young with Ben Keith in 2008, and R.E.M. in 2008 were my last chance. I was just there because I loved the beauty and inspiration they added to my life. I eventually realized that these evenings were my heroes at their best and I can't ask for more than that.

Everybody thinks they have the best dog. Only MY family was right. Pappy was the best walking companion I’ve ever had. He couldn’t walk well by the end of his life, but we had a few occasions to drive around listening to loud music. He loved that as much as I do. I decided to deal with his death on my own terms: he didn’t WANT to go anywhere, it’s just that his body couldn’t make it any further. I made a t-shirt of him smiling in my back seat during one of our last drives. His body isn’t here, but he isn’t going anywhere.

My band ran its course. I surprised myself a little by leaving, especially since I’d co-founded it, named it, and wrote most of its songs. Many musicians would give at least one leg to be in a band that good, but it wasn’t the right good band for me and I knew it. To jump ship and not know exactly where I was headed was a little frightening, but Cat said to follow my instinct, so I did.

Someone showed up the day after I left the band. We both needed someone to hang onto for a while. I serenaded her. She was a vivid reminder that is a big world with a lot of beauty.

I think the previous winter gave me a lot of strength not only because I was forced to learn about myself and my life’s path, but also because I simply lived through it and never considered giving up. If I could get through THAT, I knew I could shake up the snow globe of my life a little more and the snow would eventually find its way back down to the ground.

It was the first time I hadn’t been in a band for five years and I used it as an opportunity to figure out who Greg McGarvey is and what he sounds like. I dove into the McGarchive and reviewed every show I’ve ever played, every demo I’ve mumbled onto an ancient cell phone, twelve years of avant garde recordings, and each of the 100+ band rehearsals I’d recorded, scooping out highlights and deleting everything else. I learned much.

We drove to Manhattan and played rock songs we made up for total strangers and then ran around using the city as one big prop for band photos. We played guitar solos on stripper pole platforms.

We played opening night at a horrible bowling alley, so loud that a ceiling tile fell on the stage and covered it in white powder not unlike the white powder the bass player had been enjoying earlier that night.

We played a gig in Brooklyn and scoured the AM dial on the way home until we finally found a station that told us Obama had won the election.

I wrote a lot of songs about girls I dated and even more about girls I didn’t.

We played a hysterical live cable access show in Princeton and improvised a song over the credits.

I developed a synergy with Nick The Drummer that was noticeable even to non-musicians.

We were paid $40 for a drum solo.

We played a gig as TrueDAT just because we liked the name, and then immediately broke up the band.

We played a show outside the playhouse in New Hope on a beautiful summer day with tourists watching from the walking bridge and only stopped when a police officer shut us down for playing without a noise permit and disrupting a play.

I didn’t get paid... but I got good. From being a non-writer with absolutely nothing but a broken Les Paul, Dean Ween’s old candle wax-covered amp, and a lot of crazy energy to burn, to being a confident performer with a few records’ worth of songs.

I asked my friend Olivia to check out “something I did in my shed yesterday.” I played a demo of “Future Tense” and she didn’t comment, not because she didn’t like it, but because she was sure it was from a finished CD and not the shed session. Score. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling like Greg-minus-band.

“I'm covered in sweat, I'm wearing a butthole surfers shirt, I'm walking in manhattan alone drunk off my ass having just played a triumphant and absolutely crazy rock show and it's summer preview weather with wind rolling off the hudson and im leaning against a tree. I feel like i am free.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Few Moments - Age Eleven Through Age Twenty-Four

I remember, during the smeared-ink days of youth, thinking in rare uppercase letters: “I’m only gonna do this if I can do it my way.”

I’d get freaked out looking at myself in the mirror and realizing that I’m looking at the human whose actions I control. After this happened the 2,000th time, I told myself, "I'm directing the movie of that guy's life and trying to make it real and beautiful."

I was twelve, sitting in a little uniform in a little desk in an extremely white Catholic school with toxic waste buried behind it. I read this inside a NIRVANA CD: "At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us -- leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."

A bubble burst. I thought about how casually my peers and I would use the word "fag" or use "gay" as slang for "lame." I thought about the way the Christian teachers had been telling us gay people are "evil."

"Oh, my GOD - the ADULTS don’t have this place figured out?!"

Thanks, Kurt.

It was around that time that I realized that I morphed depending on who was in the room - teacher, cute girl, sister, Dad, Mom - and I decided I was only interested in being the real me. I saw many peers rushing to brand themselves with the names of corporate chain stores. Attempting to align and define themselves with a corporate-sponsored identity. There was even a store that specialized in black-tinted OPPOSITION to branding (via other brands). Is living in opposition living? How long can you block out the light before you try to find the switch? Isn’t it better to figure out what’s real and true and lasting?

I remember finding it. I was playing one of a series of $100 guitars I owned. Tom Scoz was on my couch or my bed (it was the same thing) and the stereo was playing a Neil Young show with lots of long songs. I was about five years into playing and I had figured out the basic ground rules of rock & roll. I couldn’t do much, but I could do it well.

At some point, I realized I didn’t have to stay on the ground. I discovered and explored the side roads that one finds on the NIRVANA Highway and the R.E.M. Freeway. Patti Smith was on the side of the road and I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about or why she sounded the way she did, but I kept stopping back to learn more. All roads led to Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth and, within twenty minutes of arriving at either band, you find validation of what you might’ve already suspected: there are no rules. You don’t have to use the colors they told you to use. You can even make new colors. And it might be beautiful even if it’s ugly.

I had a suspicion that most of my peers might have not been on a parallel trip. I felt like I was alone already, so it was OK. I lived in sound. Thank God I was poor and thank God smartphones didn't exist. I didn’t want to hide - I wanted to transcend, and I spent lot of time creating an escape hatch.

First I learned how to find the songs. Then I learned how to leave the songs.

I taught myself to play very slowly, but along the way, I learned the emotions of each tone, the way each note would marry, stab, confuse, or mimic each note added to it. Then I found you could bend them into one another, you could throw echo on them and drag the notes behind you like a trail of stardust or a big orchestra coming out of your callused fingertips, you could throw reverb on them and it would either sound like a cathedral or a guitar exploding like a huge wave, notes crashing down and struggling to break through to the surface.

I didn’t get the sense that anyone expected anything in particular from me. I don’t remember hearing the word “college” until a few weeks before I graduated high school. No one mentioned it, so I assumed we can’t afford it. So I did what came naturally - I picked up the guitar that had the most strings at the time and wrote a soundtrack for the night sky.

I spent my days pretending to be a high school student and I spent my nights hanging with drunk and/or stoned peers, some friends, some opportunists. It was a good use of my time to go to my front porch or a field or a forest and collapse into humor and music with a bunch of weirdos.

One day, something snapped. Maybe I was worried that I wasn’t growing. It was time for a journey inward. But all the time alone started to weigh on me. I fell further and further into myself. I drifted from friends. I felt like some sort of protective layer slowly peel off my brain. Like I lived in a little bubble during my youth and it was time to burst it.

I was caught skipping school one day. I hated the feeling of being perceived with a sense of distrust. An incident with the police was some sort of wake-up call.

One day, I shaved my hair off. As if to shock myself into realizing that I’m alive and I’m steering the ship and I need to make sure I am always making my way toward whatever unidentified shore I’m headed toward.

Not necessarily full speed ahead. The stresses of growing up in a fragmented family and living in an increasingly painful body were as soul-crushing as my journeys into sound - and, sometimes words and vision - were elating. In my imagination, I saw endless possibility and in the world around me, I saw brick walls. When I consider all the drugs that were around me during this time, I feel it’s safe to say that music saved my life. I needed to leave the ground, but I didn’t need drugs; I had an alternate route. And not everyone who went the drug route made it to their twenties.

I didn’t feel that I had anything to say, so I refused to write songs. Nick Harris told me I had some great songs inside myself if I ever decided to go looking for them. But I felt like the music that came out of me when I turned off my brain WAS worthwhile. I would try to record those moments. Sometimes, it sounded like an after-hours Jimi Hendrix jam, sometimes it sounded like the instrument destruction at the end of a NIRVANA concert, sometimes it sounded like a Pink Floyd space jam, sometimes it sounded like Crazy Horse, sometimes it sounded like layers of guitar feedback merging discordantly with rhythm-less drums behind them. The thing about music is: when you’re really THERE, there are no barriers. No walls. Certainly none made out of brick.

One day, I started shifting some loose sound insulation panels around, made echoing microphone feedback into a Gorilla amp somebody left at my house, played some Christmas carols and other melodies on bass, rang my Liberty Bell pencil sharpener, shook some faux decorative plants that had beads in them, blended it together (some parts backwards), and called it "12-06-1999" because that's what day it was. I found another part of myself that day and it was thrilling.

I continued my undefined spiritual journey. I didn’t learn proper meditation, but I experimented with deep immersion into music. Lights out, no distractions, trying to learn how to just listen and not think. To see how deep I could go. I found that it was as limitless as I wanted. I would listen to music I thought I already knew and hear details I’d missed on the first 100 listens. I learned how to crack open a notebook and just write. To write without judgment. To write without getting in my own way. To write just to get to know myself. Sometimes without any form at all.

College seemed like a good idea for a few weeks, but I quickly felt like I was trapped in yet another office, like I did at my job selling newspapers like the Ottumwa Courier and Fayetteville Observer over the phone. It was suggested that I don't pursue music as my “real” job, but I also knew that my creative vision was wide. I also STRONGLY suspected that the advisers suggesting I not pursue music weren't very passionate about their own jobs. I decided that my charge was to find a way to afford at least a modest lifestyle in a life that had music as its central focus. My intuition told me that I needed to either nurture the gifts I was given and have a chance of a great life or stay on the safe route that’s been suggested to me and quietly watch myself downgrade my creative goals until there was nothing left except a dusty, five-string guitar in the closet. I knew that would feel like death.

I bumbled around college for a while, mostly enjoying the adjacent state park, the cafeteria, the brains (but not assignments) of the most interesting professors, and the parade of impressive female beauty. I didn’t have the nerve to try to connect with one, but I did remember one of the redheaded photography students when I later started writing songs. Thanks, Stranger.

Somewhere between girl-watching, forest wandering, listening to eclectic albums on shuffle while watching little blue flowers replace patches of frost, I cooled out. I no longer had any doubt that a beautiful life was available to me if I was smart enough to avoid the potholes and to know where to turn and when. It was the beginning of car metaphors, so it was time I finally started driving.

If I was driving, I no longer had an excuse to not be in a band. Rory led to Hankins led to Matt McDevitt. I was with equals. And I was challenged. And I was with someone bold enough to walk onto a stage. So I followed him there. I thought it was magic when Matt would sit down and sing a song that didn’t exist a minute ago.

A driver's license meant it was also time to catch up with dating. A lovely German/Irish-American girl got me up to speed. We shared a little bit of heaven, a little bit of pizza, a little bit of Tropical Dots. I moved away from home for the first time. The freedom was exhilarating. It changed me. I went to an office all week to afford it. 

I had two best friends during high school. One finished college and got a desk job. One got hooked on heroin and stole my only electric guitar. It was a shock. She helped me forget about it.

I found Nick The Drummer on Craigslist. He loved Neil Young as much as I did and Sonic Youth even more. I knew he was the guy. We found a synergy right away, then we experimented with a merger of the Matt/Greg and Nick/Greg projects. We quickly found ourselves on-stage in front of a rapturous audience, one member of whom made t-shirts for us. Not bad for the first show. I sat in a diner with my girlfriend afterwards and I could feel something shift in my psyche. The shift you feel when you’ve seen a fragmentary glimpse of your life’s goals coming into focus for the first time.