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.