Up Down Up Down Up Down

"I came upon my fallen master, his helm all dents and breast plate pierced. His eyes still moved, and they fell upon my saddened face. I saw the life fading from them, and reached into my saddle bag for the instruments. The crumhorn and sackbutt were rusted, but the lute still fair, so I withdrew it to serenade my knight as he passed from this world. I knelt beside him, and love for him flowed from my heart, through my fingers, and into the strings. I choked back tears and sang of braveness and honor. Then his hand grasped me, and he whispered with his last breath, 'Play not, young Leofric, for the sound you create is a foul stench upon my ears, and will drive the angels from my side and invite hell upon my soul.' He died in the bloody grass, and I opened his armor to ease the way for the buzzards." 

from "A Squire's Life" by Edgemont Puff

Band breakups aren't always bad. They often make sense: people move, creative tastes clash or change, and interest fades. I've heard it said often that a band is like a marriage, which sort of cheapens the idea of marriage in my opinion, but it is a complex relationship. I have been on both ends of the band break-up stick. Both ends are very sharp and splintery. Once I broke it off with some guys and it caused me strife for a longer period of time than the band had even existed to begin with. Everyone always thinks they're right and that the other party pulled the rotten move or caused the problems. Everything is a learning experience, and mostly I seem to learn this: I KNOW NOTHING.

I was kicked out of a band when I was 26. At that age, for me, my band was my gang and family, and I devoted everything I had to that union. Also, I loved them very much, and so when it ended I was wrecked. In hindsight, it should have been a relief, because there was a drastic musical chasm between them and me. Creatively, we were like conjoined twins, one a mall Santa and the other a Hasidic Jew. They were starting to veer from my very scripted songs and structure into a world of improvisation. To be clear,  I don't know any scales or theory, and when it was time to vamp out and soar into musical orbit, I just played one note over and over and felt like a jackass. This was the direction it was taking, and the pool barfed me out before I drowned. They were free of my musical dipshittery and I was free to write songs and follow my own path. The only problem was, I had no path, only pathos for my pathetic self. 

Megan lived in a group house that was kind of full. I had a futon, a van, and some visqueen. Guess whose backyard I moved into. Megan and her housemates gave me a corner of the back yard, and I made my visqueen tent between two trees and put my bed under it. In the mornings, I would wake up to the sound of squirrels dropping things on my roof, open my eyes, and see blurry nut shells suspended over my head through the clear plastic. It was on Division Street, before it was so madly developed. The mid-90's was a mellow time in southeast Portland, and I would lay back there strumming guitar and hear birds and wind and not much else. I floated in a cloud of summertime limbo. What I lacked in vision, I made up for in aimlessness. I had a part time job at a clay pot store and also a couple of bar tending shifts. These were not inspiring places to work. At the clay pot store, I was paid dirt to sell pots made of cooked dirt, and bags of dirt to put into them. The bar was a cans bar, and the stools were covered with elderly folks that would sit and sip cans of Hamms all day long. Every once in a while one of them would die. Both places had their perks though. I got to work outside a lot, and I really like old people. Then a thing happened that turned the pie on my face into the pie in the sky. (They're the same pie.)

One day Megan said, "Why don't you go record some of your songs with your friend?" My friend had a home studio, which was rarer then- half inch tape, 16 tracks, mixing board, ribbon microphone, the whole shebang. I always had some excuse though, my favorite one being, "What's the point?" That's not even an excuse, that's just a stupid thing to say. Then one day she basically just told me to go do it, and I did. And that was the prying loose of the boulder that rolled through the villages of five albums and several years of synergetic collaboration. I had a fresh mindset with which to attack this project with, and bandmates that shared my vision and liked my songs, and I loved the hell out of Portland and the clubs and bookers and other bands. It was a good time that came out of a bad time, and even though we shoveled a lot of manure together in that band, it was the overall happy backbone of my musical experience and output. 

"Everything is cyclical" may seem like a tired cliche, but it is always being thrown back into my face as the truth. If the ball doesn't compress into the pavement, it won't bounce back up. Whenever I'm in a low spot though, I seem to forget that this cycle exists. There must be some way to put signposts down there to remind oneself that things will get better. Is that why people, meditate, practice yoga, read inspiring books, or do other smart things that I never seem to do? It is kind of horrible to have that "it's all just for nothing" feeling, but I love that recurring thrill of discovery when you climb back up and realize how the chewed-up rancid puzzle pieces actually connect to the crisp unfaded new ones. Even though that other band had bailed on my scene, I had learned a ton from them. As much as I was resenting them and feeling pain at the time, I was also using the skills I had learned from them. As I'm finishing this up right now, I am even feeling some of that bottomed out blues over something music related. I just need to scroll up and reread, then roll up the sleeves and believe. Because the thing I'm bummed out about, a certain festival that is the prom of the musical high school that I keep sitting outside of, hearing the low-end pump through the wall…  See, I'm just sad sacking! It won't come to me. I haven't been doing the work and making the necessary connections. Instead of storming into Austin on Shadowfax with my long grey beard and cloak flapping in the wind, I've been sitting on a tricycle sticking my lip out. So I guess there are bigger and longer cycles that I'm in that I didn't recognize until just this second. Dear self: Keep your knobs all the way to the right and faders all the way forward. 

Here is my favorite excerpt from the play "Southern Gents" written by the great Ari Steinstien:

Confederate Soldier 1: My wounds are grievous. Play me a song? 

Confederate Soldier 2: I have been playing songs for the last hour, and jaunty ones at that!

Confederate Soldier 1: That is not a banjo, that is a long handled skillet. You have been eating from yonder mushroom patch, it has undone your brain.

Confederate Soldier 2: That is correct, brother. I'd be good company for a lonely potato, that is for certain. Don't worry, help is on the way. 

Confederate Soldier 1: My misery is boundless. 

Stu Sprill, Ketchup Grenades, and The Man

"Is the dreamer the cuckold, the adulterous wife the dream, and the hero the doer of the dream? I met a hero once, and my hand shrank into his as a challah crumb would into the pelican's edacious beak. I was the furrow of his brow and he was the ray of my sun, inspiring my dreamly skin with a bronze goodness, but ultimately offing its kilter."

-from Pony Sackheart's GHOULS OF ENRAGEMENT

I've been lucky enough to meet some of my heros. In the days of old, this would be difficult, especially being from Montana. I would've had to cut out magazine clippings, hang them by my mirror and then strike a like pose… wait a second, I used to do that. Now with the internet, it's easy to connect with people, but in my day, we had to tweet through the snow, uphill both ways. Anyways, here's some hero blab, and I may be outing myself as a silly fanboy, but I don't care. If it weren't for them, I'd be painting houses or something. Hang on, that's my job now… You know what? I don't care. Life should be a roller coaster, not a conveyer belt. And just to be clear, the term hero originates from the Greek word for warrior, protector, and defender, but is also a word for submarine sandwich. Even though, in the sandwich universe, a submarine sandwich might actually be a hero to a tribe of Ritz Bits, I am definitely not writing about that. Not until I run out of ideas. 

The Road To Spielberg  I was and always will be a film fanatic. In 1989 I went into extras casting for a production of a television movie called "Montana".  I wasn't cast, but was brought up to legendary producer and casting director Fred Roos's office to read for a part. I was 19 but looked 14, and I suddenly found myself reading for the lead in Black Beauty IV. Failure was a given, but here's why I failed supremely: They didn't have the script there. They had an old script for Back To The Future. Under normal circumstances, this would have been an advantage to me, because I knew that perfect movie inside and out. The reason it went horribly is because he called someone in to quickly read with me, and it was Lea Thompson, the female lead of Back To The Future. I had watched her VCR vision with moony eyes and pounding heart countless times, and when she came through that door, it was orange soda spilling into the keyboard of my laptop brain. You know those remote tribesmen that have never heard of movies or reading or writing and think planes are giant bird gods? Well one of them could have easily outdone me at that moment. I fell down the stairs of that script like Arbogast in Psyco, and wasted everybody's time and felt like a fool. However, when I make it big, bigger than any of them, they're going to tell this story with absolute wonder and glee. A few months later, a couple of buddies and I got cast as extras in Always. There was only one true goal here: Meet Spielberg, the man who directed my favorite movie growing up, Raiders of the Lost Ark. We drove up to Libby, MT. While there, we stayed at the local campground and ate canned beans over a campfire each night. It was fine to not have showers, because for our make-up in the movie we were smudged with soot so we would look like grizzled forest-fire fighters. Spielberg was amazing to watch work. His imagination was like a magical force that just made the movie come alive as it was filmed. "Hey, let's have the camera come through the wall of this log building…" and then guys were chainsawing out the wall and the camera was floating through the wall. You could almost hear the score playing the whole time we were there. Finally, the moment of truth came. My friends and I were standing all sooty and hardhatted, and here comes the man himself, on a little golf cart. We flagged him down and thanked him for the opportunity and all that. He asked us what we did and we said we were film students, and he signed things for us. I couldn't find a piece of paper, so I pulled out my wallet, and there was nothing in it at all, so he just signed my wallet, "Stu Sprill." Even though I was in reverent awe, I still had this horrible urge to say, "Thanks for Star Wars!" just to see his expression. Mr. Spielberg rolled off, and another golf cart came up to us. It was Richard Dreyfus. He had made it so we were in his way, even though there was an entire tarmac to drive on. He looked at us for a second and then barked in his most Dreyfussy voice, "Beep beep motherfuckers!"

Shower Singer Makes Good, Crarfs  I spent countless long showers in the 80's singing along to REM's Murmur which I would crank on a boom box I kept in the basement bathroom. This was before I ever played guitar or had seen a live rock band. I somehow was kind of good at singing all the parts though, and the album was a huge part of my psyche at the time. There was a deep undefinable meaning in the layers of sound, and singing the vocals and guitar parts in my steamy teenage cubicle was an important ritual. When I was first learning guitar, I had a couple of friends show me how to play a couple of dozen REM songs, and that is how I spent my first thousand hours on guitar. I read any article or book I could find on the band. 1996, Portland: I started Sunset Valley with two guys who had gone to the same high school as Peter Buck and had gone to college in Athens. Our first Seattle show was opening for The Dandy Warhols at the Crocodile. We had our first 7" with us, and imagine our delight when the first person to ever buy one was one Peter Buck. We kept eyeing him walking around holding it. This was crazy. We had a good show, and my main memory from the set was someone in the audience yelling at me that my t-shirt was too big. I also was impressed with the fact that Courtney Taylor and Eric Hedford practiced singing back stage before their show to get their vocal chords and harmonies all dialed in.  About a year later, we were playing a show there with Death Cab For Cutie and Pedro The Lion. We were with our friends who knew Peter very well, and we ended up going out to dinner with him. He graciously bought very fancy wine. I of course drank way too much, trying to look the pro. Then at the show, I had way too much beer. Then, after the show, we hung out with him in the back bar, long after it was closed. He was behind the bar pouring me tequilas, the glass an unwitting middle man to me becoming the drunkest I have ever been. Things are a little hazy after that, but I have two snippets. One: I was using ketchup bottles as hand grenades and smashing them on the walls. Two: I looked over at Mr. Buck walking down the sidewalk holding a payphone receiver with the metallic cord hanging from it and saying to me, "Check out my new cell phone!" Actually there is some debate over wether it might have been a complete desktop rotary dial phone. I got up early at the Moore Hotel, put on running shoes for a downtown jog, and then did not jog. The worst hangover of my life suddenly appeared. I spent the day simultaneously sobbing and throwing up, an activity known as "crarfing". It was definitely ketchup grenade clean-up karma. I didn't drink for a whole year after that, and refer to that hangover as "The Alamo". About to have one too many? Remember The Alamo, my friend, remember The Alamo. Anyway, Peter is one cool cat. When I told him I learned to play guitar from his records he replied, "Jeez, I hope you got better." 

Here Comes My Man  I have met the men who rocked my world the most. They are Frank Black and Joey Santiago. The work they did in The Pixies filled my ears and soul for many years. The first time it ever occurred to me that playing in a band was a thing to do was when I saw them from the front row in 1991 at the Gothic in Denver. It was the most powerful musical experience of my life. Kim Deal sweated on me, which is the only  sweat you can brag about. I could go on and on about my love affair with that band and also defend the current and criticized portion of their career, but I must stick with the hero blab. One fine day in 1998 I was in the bathtub and got the call to open for Frank Black at La Luna. I was much more nervous about possibly meeting him than about the show. There were three dressing rooms back stage there. One big one with a bathroom and a phone, and two tiny ones. I was sitting in my tiny room changing my strings before the show started when in barged my hero, Frank Black. He introduced himself and said my name like he knew me, and that my cd was on top of his TV. We talked for a while about random stuff, and he apologized that we were opening and not the middle act. Then he went back into his room. I thought, "Wow, I actually reached one of my goals. Now what?" But it got better. When it was time for them to play, I was standing between the stage door and his dressing room door. His and his band came out, all wearing suits. The band took the stage but Mr. Black hung back for a second and put his hand out to me. I took his hand and he shook it firmly without saying anything. Then he walked up onto the stage and started to play "Wave Of Mutilation."  This whole event put some permanent wind in my sails. Some time after that we opened for The Martinis at EJ's, Joey Santiago's band. I tried to get him to sign my strat but he only put a dot on it because he said, "We gotta be peers, man…" Those guys are cool and nice, and I still have great respect for them, even though snarky, shallow writers keep picking on them for continuing to tour. 

As I drop all these names in this blog thing, I'm realizing that I meet some pretty cool people and have had a lucky time with ye olde music career, even if I spend most of my waking hours with a paint brush in my hand. I've worked my ass off, studied the ways of the greats, and immersed myself in the world of it, but I know that doesn't always get people where they want. Not everyone I've looked up to has been so nice. Some have been complete dicks and brushed me off like Indiana Jones brushed those tarantulas off his back with his whip, but some have been truly great people. I should also add that once I started to play music back in '92, two important people that I looked up to and were local rock heros to me and many others were Jim Kehoe and Paul Rose. They helped me on my way to where ever I have gone, and long after I had left Bozeman I still felt their inspiration.

And now, here is a completely irrelevant Star Wars pun to end this entry:

Caesar Threepio: Et tu, Detoo?

wallet.jpeg
frankblack.jpg

Sleep Crapsule

"Travel is a trial but for trollops and trolls, the highway a bloody cummerbund about the belly of mother globe. During such drollish folly, dagger jabs and bastard stabs must we have at the ready."        

-from Dirk Somerset's THE COCK OF TIME

Initially this was going to be about bad places to sleep, and it still kind of is, but it morphed into a summary of a tour that was the death knell for my road life for a long while. Although a complete failure in many ways, there were some bright spots along the way and I will begrudgingly admit that I'm glad it all happened, even though I'm still slightly enraged with the booking agent. We played to many empty rooms and the routing was illogical. Right before we left, I was offered two shows opening for Stephen Malkmus and one for The Breeders, all on the west coast. I told our booking agent about the offers and he bawked. They would have conflicted with and caused the cancellation of his already booked shows in the south and east, and he insisted that we went on the tour he had labored over. Those shows that we didn't end up doing would have been for packed theaters and saved thousands of miles of driving. I heard my gut but didn't obey it. The agent in question is now one of the most successful in the country. He obeyed his gut. I wasted a great opportunity, but also came away with an irreplaceable experience with an irreplaceable friend, Ben, and my longtime cohort, Jonathan.

One quick look at my music career and you'd think that I'm afraid of heights; observe... One barometer of how far you are or aren't on your quest to "make it" is where you sleep. There are a few different levels of sleep locations. At the top is the tour bus. It means you have a serious budget and are making enough money at shows to rent a bus and the driver that comes with it. After the show, you get into the bus after a little partying, and a driver drives you to the next town while you sleep in a bunk. You wake up and do it again, well rested and not sore from shlepping gear and not fried from staring at the road trying to keep everyone alive. Next is the hotel, then the motel, then the notel, ie: crashing at the house of the other band or some fans or your label rep. Included below are three of the worst sleeping situations of my limited touring career. They might have sounded romantic to a 21 year old me, but on the final Sunset Valley tour it was a definite omen that some evaluation was to be done. 

Coloradon't Springs, CO The first stop of the east coast Ice Pond tour was a glamourous strip-mall gig. It was actually a pretty nice coffee shop that had beer, sandwiches, and a stage. It was all ages, and I mean ALL. That night the place was full of either people that could of been my kids or my parents, and no-one in-between. Even a baby was there. Hi, baby, were just going to bang on these super loud instruments while we drink and yell.. enjoy. We had no plan of where to stay, but a young lady that tour-bassist-Ben befriended said that we could crash at their place. We agreed to this, and were happy to save the hotel money. She and her friend led us back to her place, and we trooped in, trying not to ding the door trim with our clunky gear. She said, "Shhh… don't wake my dad up." Okay, this was kind of weird to begin with, but now the situation had left my comfort zone in the dust. Jonathan and I immediately volunteered to sleep in the back yard, thereby eliminating the awkwardness at least a little for us. Ben, the most charming of the three of us, set up shop in the living room with the girl and her friend. We could see them sitting on the couches and talking through the sliding glass doors. J and I found spots in the yard, which was surrounded by a six foot fence. It was very dark, but we could see that there were big pretty white flowers planted everywhere, and they were glowing in the starlight. We were so tired, and tried to get snuggly in our bags after such a long day, but it was awfully lumpy. It was like serving a hungry person mashed potatoes with raw bits in it. To distract us from the lumps was the howling wind and Ben's inability to whisper inside those sliding doors... Morning somehow arrived, and we sat up from our shallow graves and looked around. The beautiful flowers that were all over the yard? Those weren't flowers. It was trash. Fast food wrappers, diapers, newspaper, plastic bags, and other items commonly found in garbage cans. Either wind patterns and a nearby landfill caused this phenomenon, or the people who lived here were absolutely insane. Or maybe they were totally sane and the rest of society is insane for wasting all that time not littering. Either way, we had to get to Austin and had no time to waste, so we scooped up the still awake and chattering Ben, bid the lass's father farewell, and were on our way. 

Somewhere in Florida, FL If this trip was a tired old string of Christmas lights then Texas was one of the few working bulbs. We had a blast in Austin, a great show at Emo's, and wandered the streets full of people. Sixth street was paved with paper plates from all the pizza slices people eat there at night. We hung out with some hilarious guys in Denton who we met at Rubber Gloves. Rudyards in Houston was fantastic. We played with the incredible Minders, who were friends of ours. I think the last time I played pool in a bar with guys was with Ben and Minders drummer Joel. Both are gone from this world now. That night will always be stuck in my head. The bar was smokey, and I went outside to get some fresh air, but the smog there was so bad that I just went back inside. We were obsessed with the Jon Wayne record "Texas Funeral", and they have a song called "Apple Schnapps". That bar served this mystical product, and we enjoyed the hell out of it. I don't drink now, so I guess I would have a dilemma if one of those guys suddenly appeared and offered me a shot of it. I would have to point out something interesting and pour it into a potted plant while they looked away. Nah, I'd probably make an exception.… After Texas we made our way to Florida where we played a couple of dates with Mike Watt. SV opened for Watt many times over the 90's, and every time I see him, he lists every instance to me by date and venue. I could never impress him with my knowledge of all fifty state capitols. The biggest smile I ever saw on Ben was at the Mike Watt show in Orlando. The guitarist taught me how he played "Chinese Firedrill". The most mind-blowing performance I saw on that trip was from supporting band Burning Brides...   It was getting dark when we got to Florida, and we procrastinated getting a room for too long. How about here? No, let's go one more town. Here? One more. The next thing we knew we were just plain done. We pulled the minivan into a rest area, reclined the seats as much as we could, and slipped into the poisonous tentacles of morpheus. I woke up with the first morning light. My back felt like a new catcher's mitt, and my head felt like a petrified dinosaur dropping. As my eyes began to relay images to my brain, I could see Jonathan at the wheel, sleeping away. I looked over at Ben. He was shirtless. My neck was too sore to look away and look back for double takes, so I just did a bunch of them without moving my head. You gotta hand it to that guy, he just did his thing. I respect that. My fellow sardines began to wake a while later. Nobody really moved, we just sat in sore silence, staring at the fogged windshield. As the light increased, you could make out palm trees through the glass. Shirtless Ben broke the silence with his raspy voice: "We're in Nam!" That is one of the greatest moments of my life.

Mobile Sleep Capsule, USA After Florida, we continued up the east coast. Atlanta and D.C. were complete disasters. In Atlanta someone actually yelled "You suck!" which is something that you don't think really happens. When you hear it yelled at you, your heart doesn't just sink, it shoves it's way rudely through the crowd of other organs, leans it's back against the wall, crosses it's arms, and slides down the wall into a sulking ball. Years later, we found out that the guy who yelled it was an old classmate of Jonathan's who was trying to be funny and/or trying to turn social awkwardness into an olympic sport. In D.C. we played to the sound guy and an old classmate of mine. He had seen smoke from the Pentagon from his window at work just a few weeks earlier. We went to see the hole in the building and saw the photos and flags people had left. There was a checkered floor at that club, and when I closed my eyes to block out the sight of the empty room, I just saw more checkerboard pattern against my eyelids. I was so distracted by this black hole in the trip that I forgot Jonathan's birthday. If there had been some magic hole I could have jumped through and end up at home, I would have dived in head first. The hipster crowd was so rude to us in Chapel Hill, that toward the end of our set, Ben just threw his bass down and left. We all should have. Respect. Ben stayed in Philadelphia to visit his family and Eric flew out to resume bass duties. NYC and Boston were alright… In New York, we walked from the Mercury Lounge down to Ground Zero and saw the pile of debris and the grizzly parade of trucks hauling it away. It was pretty grim. In Boston we stayed with another school chum who was care-taking a crazy old castle of a house in the middle of an enormous cemetery. Eric flew home, and Jonathan and I drove back to Bozeman in one sitting. It was 36 hours that we did in shifts. I think we listened to the band Lambchop the whole way. During my sleep shifts, on two bucket seats that were pressed together, the sounds of Lambchop gave me wild Tim Burtonesque dreams that still haunt my regular dreams. There was a short in the reverse lights, and they flickered constantly, so we got pulled over a lot and asked about it. 

I don't think there's a less effective way to promote a record than what we did. I have bitten the hook of the tour lure a few times since, but ultimately it hasn't been for me. I still think it'll happen again though… Like Admiral Adama says: "Sometimes you've gotta roll the hard six."

Check out Ben's band, The Touchers. He was one of the most prolific songwriters I ever knew. 

Jonathan, Ben, and Joel at Rudyards in Houston.

Jonathan, Ben, and Joel at Rudyards in Houston.

Ben with Mike Watt on stage in the background.

Ben with Mike Watt on stage in the background.

Jack and the Brain Stalker

stage fright noun : nervousness felt at appearing before an audience   (Merriam-Webster)

stage fright noun : that good old green room pants shitting feeling      (Hermiam-Jolbster)

    Shakespeare said "All the world's a stage," and FDR said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Based on that, I always assumed that there would never be a comfortable spot on a stage or anywhere else for me. While performing, I get cotton mouth and shaky hands. I forget lyrics. I ruin songs that I practice perfectly. I go down that awful rabbit hole to the dripping caves of doubt, and my self esteem gets so low that it wears a hat made of whale dung. I have learned to put on a good face and not show what's often happening inside the old noggin. I am going to run through some early examples of this problem and examine the source of my solution. 

    You know those little angels and devils that sit on shoulders? Well instead of those, I have a grumpy old farmer in the back of my cranium who just yells discouraging things at me. This personification of my stage fright has stubble, smells like wet barn wood, and breathes loudly and cynically through his nose. His name is Klaus. Right when I would think things were going well, Klaus would wander into my field of confidence with his hands in his pockets, look around disapprovingly and spit. "Zis is crap."  "Vy don't you stop singing and sew me a dress."  "You sound like a depressed hyena." Whoever does my autopsy is going to have a bad and confusing day when they find him. "Vy are you cutting him like zat? You cut like a tiny child vielding a butterknife"

    The first time I sang in public was in front of my sixth grade class in Alaska, my first and final role in a musical. I was the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz, and I can still remember uttering the first words "When a man's an empty kettle…" All I remember after that was my heart pounding loudly and not in time with the music, not like in Huey Lewis's "Heart of Rock and Roll". I got through it, but it was my first meeting with Klaus, silhouetted in the distance, shaking his head. He was probably not allowed within 1000 yards of a school, but he made his presence clear.  

    As a senior in high school we were all giving speeches in senior english, and mine had some attempts at being funny in it. I was so pleased at how it was going. Everyone was laughing, and it was a real rush. I didn't know it could be so easy. Afterwords, a girl who I had a crush on leaned toward me and pointed at my crotch. I was thinking how awesome all that was when I glanced down after her repeated pointing and saw my open fly. This was the only day in high school that I didn't wear button fly 501's, and had worn some dress pants for my speech. As I looked at the patch of tighty-whities that shone through, a film of tears formed over my eyes and distorted my vision, and what appeared over the exposed undies was the laughing face of Klaus. "Zis is vhat you get!" he kept repeating, and it echoed in my mind for the rest of the year. 

    I didn't try singing again until I got the courage to try an open mic when I was 22. There was one every Monday at The Haufbrau in Bozeman which was part of the Barmuda Triangle, which I think every college town has. I wrote four songs just for the occasion and rehearsed them several times per day for weeks. I was sitting at the table in the Hauf, feeling so courageous, smoking and and running my pick through the grooves of the carved names that filled the wooden tables. Then the guy before me got up to the stage. He was about 6'5'' and wore a giant cowboy hat. He ended his set with "Friends In Low Places" by Garth Brooks, and he did it with such spirit and so heroically that the whole place just exploded. It was a moment in time that is like a shiny jewel in the crown of memory for everyone who was there. For me, it is a shameful dog pile in the closet of my mind, left there by a frightened animal who didn't know how to ask to be let out into the yard. I was so scared to play after that guy. I did my songs but it was not fun at all. Direction: As the barkeep cleans up and yanks the little pull-chains to turn off the neon lights, the camera slowly tilts down to the table top to reveal a carving in the table: "KLAUS VAS HERE"

    I kept doing open mics, twice a week, for months. I would play through a Peavey Bandit that I nestled in a tire and I'd kick at it to make that crazy reverb thundering sound when I was really jamming out. It led to my first band, American Furnace. Our first gig ever was opening for Flop at an old log community center on the edge of town. I was so nervous that I barfed right before we played, but the show went well, even with my stomach acid voice screaming away. I have a board mix cassette of this show hidden away with other embarrassing cassettes in an eschew-box somewhere. Rusty from Flop was the coolest, and we played some chess the next morning at the coffee shop. I ended up re-meeting him in 2009 in Seattle and he is still the coolest. I was finally getting over the fear. I didn't see my old farmy nemesis that night- I think I left him in a puddle behind a spruce tree.

    Then, in 2000, we had a reunion. Sunset Valley had opened for Tenacious D a couple of times and I got booked to open for them at The Showbox in Seattle. Bands are cool because even in the face of danger, you can look at your buddies and all scream, "To our deaths!!!!" and charge the orcs with no fear. This was booked as a solo gig though, and I was indeed terrified to do this. If you have no exposure to Tenacious D, look them up. Then picture me peering out the stage door at the eleven hundred frothing frat guys all stomping their feet and chanting, "We want the D! We want the D!" This is how they were greeting me, the opener. Now I was a huge D fan. A bunch of us had gone to see Beck the year before in Las Vegas, and they were the openers. They are amazing, musically and lyrically. Their humor may be attractive to a certain beer soaked college crowd, but I feel that it is genius on many deeper levels and I'll defend them artistically any day. I'm not going to go into specifics, but after that mind blowing concert, one may have found me swimming in the Tropicana's fountain in my underwear, tighty-whities again. What a great trip. 

    I gulped so loud I could hear it over the chanting, closed the green room door, and slunk back to the couch to tune my guitar. Jack Black, Tenaceous D's singer, was sitting on the other couch across from me.  Megan was sitting next to him making suspenders out of duct tape because he had forgotten his belt. He was holding his guitar and casually strumming and humming a Radiohead song. He could see I was going into a mental tail spin. This was before his movie star career, but he was still a wise wizard. He told me not to worry about them, to think of them as idiots and it would be okay. I thought that if I was about to get stoned (biblically), I wouldn't much care if the stoners (biblical) were idiots or not. I was too pale and shaky to talk. Klaus was strapped to my back for the kind of tandem skydive where you pull the rip cord and instead of a parachute, a bunch of middle fingers fly out.  A guy in a Showbox t-shirt poked his head in and pointed at me: "You're on!" I stood up, and as I was walking through the stage door to my stoney death, Jack pushed me aside and said, "Hang on dude." He walked out onto the stage and the crowd became silent. "Everybody listen up! This next guy has shared the stage with us before. He is the Korn to our Limp Bizkit. Put your hands together for… " Whaaaa? He introduced me? He didn't have to do that. That never, ever happens. I cannot think of that happening at any concert I've seen or played- the headliner coming out to introduce the opener. I did my set, calmly, and looked over a few times and saw Megan and Jack watching from the side of the stage, and was still blown away. I still am so grateful for that. Jack Black is the baddest ass on the planet, one of the great human beings. A certain negative person who lived in my head died that night.

    When ever I am nervous now, I think of that night and the rise of Jack and the fall of Klaus. Sometimes I hear a stirring in his grave, but all I have to do is think of that strong, no-bullshit voice introducing me, and it's like a magic trick that makes my nerves become cool and steady. Jack recognized the dragon and slayed it for me. I know that some level of stage fright will always be there… Some people say that it's good to be nervous, and if you aren't at least a little on edge, your act will suffer. That's true, I guess, but being so scared that it's messing with your organs and pulling the rug out from under all the fun is not good either, and I am glad I have found some ways around it. It's not foolproof, and I recently found myself in the middle of a song at a show having one of those mini-breakdowns, so perhaps bringing this up here is a good reminder for me of how scary a show can be and that at least nobody is chanting. 

jbshowbox.jpeg

Reenter The Stratosphere

I have owned many guitars. One in particular changed my life. This is the tale of the Strat behind Behind The Strat. It's a tale I don't fully understand, but I am trying to get there.  

    I was never a complete atheist. I have never believed in God, but have instead this mental image of a golden trophy top lady, kind of a cross between the Oscar and the Metropolis robot, that I conjure up in my mind if I feel like I'm getting a cold. I would do it as a kid in bed at night, and see her standing on a pyramid, raising her arms until they were pointing straight up, and rays would shoot out of her hands, and the rays would envelop me. Then I wouldn't get sick. It still works, if I remember to do it. I'm not going to say that there is a god, like in the bible, or that there is anything like real fate, but I will now fully admit that I believe that SOMETHING IS UP. What follows is the event that has changed my belief system, and fueled my new suspicion that cosmic forces are real indeed.

    In 1992, after living in my parents' basement for a couple of months, I finally got it together enough to move into an apartment above Main Street in Bozeman. The basement wasn't bad… I wrote one of my main songs there, Red Thai Sunday. I was grateful for the landing pad while I was between places. The apartment I moved into was above the only music store in town, Music Villa. One day my friend called me from the store and said, "Hey man, there is a cool old Strat down here and it's $400." I needed a solid new guitar. The one I had been using was a lefty that was strung righty and the knobs would scrape on my hand because they were above the strings. I ran down there and laid my eyes on that beautiful guitar for the first time, an antigua finish hardtail 1978 Fender Stratocaster. Some trades and a little cash and she was mine.

    Cut to a montage of me spending 15 years fronting four bands in three states with that wonderful guitar. It never let me down. I did start to get obsessively worried about it though. At clubs I'd always think people were going to steal it. When I left town, I'd take it with me or hide it in weird places or leave it with my parents. It began to haunt me. That coupled with a need for money caused me to go crazy one day and sell it. I was living in Seattle, and I sold it to my hometown guitar store in Bozeman. That was that. I started playing an Esquire Tele and tried to forget about the old girl. For the next five years, whenever I was playing a show and having fun, I would look down at whatever replacement guitar I was using and think, "Man, my Strat would be loving this". It really felt like I was cheating on her. 

    A friend in Bozeman would occasionally text me photos of her. She was hanging in a framed case, up high in the row of not-for-sale guitars that all cool guitar stores have. I was glad she was at least safe. One day in 2012, he said to me, "Why don't you try to buy it back? It can't hurt to ask." So, I wrote the owner, made my offer, got turned down, and you know what? It can hurt to ask. Now I had to put it out of my mind again. Dream squelched. Why did I ever sell that stupid beautiful thing?

    Then, one day in Portland in 2013, I was in need of guitar strings. I used to go into guitar stores almost daily. It was a hobby or passion or just who I was I guess, but for the last several years I've rarely set foot in one unless I really need something. I was running other errands, and was parked so that when I got in my car I could see Old Town Music. I thought, "Ah. Strings." I jumped out and ran a couple of blocks over to the shop. They have this cool little room with electric guitars hanging on the wall and cool old amps on the floor under them. I walked into the room and checked out the amps. Nothing I really needed, just looking… cool… not seeing the score of a deal jump out at me. Okay, to the counter then. Bought a 3-pack of XL 10s and went to the door. As I opened it to leave the guitar store that I hadn't been to in years and would probably not go back into for more years, I turned my head and said "Bye" to the guy, and then my eye caught the distinctive look of the antigua finish on a guitar hanging in that room I had just been browsing in. "Oh, wait a sec, how did I miss that? Can I pull that down and play it? I used to have one just like it." 

    I walked back into the room and pulled down the guitar, put my foot on a stool, and stood there strumming it for a minute. I was amazed at how much it played like my old one, and how the wear patterns in the finish and on the finger board were so similar. I thought, "I could buy this, but it wouldn't be the SAME guitar, just one of it's relatives." As I was hanging it back on the wall, my eyes were drawn to a mark on the headstock. A brown smudge, but in the shape of a Star of David. When I saw that smudge, my eyes darted back to the wear patterns that were so specific to my playing style. My mouth got dry and my hands shook. My jaw broke through the floor and my heart rate went through the roof. I had a Star of David sticker on the headstock of my beloved guitar when I sold it. 

    I of course immediately bought the guitar and wowed the people at the store with the story. It turns out they had rolled through Bozeman with cash and picked up a bunch of old guitars from the store, mine one of them. When I think about the variables for this instrument to cross my path, my mind boggles. 

1. A store in my city out of hundreds of cities in the country had to buy the guitar.

2. A store I had to go into out of a dozen stores in my area had to have the guitar.

3. The guitar had to be for sale in the store the one time I went in there out of many months and years.

4. I had to notice that the guitar was there, which I barely did. If I had walked out without seeing it, that would have been that.

    I have two theories, and luck isn't one of them. Luck that specific and in that quantity can't possibly exist. This was rigged. It would be like getting on an elevator with ten people all with the same birthday, which actually would be a shorter and less exciting story.  Theory #1: The guitar is alive, smart, and found me, like Woody in Toy Story. Theory #2: There is some kind of controlling string puller, not a bible style god, but something else… and I think it may be the golden trophy top lady who is still in my life and all throughout the universe. 

    This great intersection of lines happened to me when I was questioning everything about music and life. The more I pushed away from playing music and writing songs, the more I felt like I was drifting out to sea and losing track of where the land was. Finding my way back to music was losing importance but somehow unbeknownst to me, gaining importance at the same time. I know some people who make their entire living from it, which can be inspiring but also confounding. Trying to be okay with where I fit in with all that was really beating me down, and I was starting to ignore my true self. Of course the day job is very important, but finding a balance with art should be a top shelf priority. When the guitar came back to me, I felt a jolt of lightning pass through me, like I was in all places at all times for a split second, like someone smashed down the button on the infinite improbability drive in Hitchhiker's Guide… I am choosing to alter the direction of my personal line because of this. Thanks for finding me, Woody.

strat.jpg

The Tucson Show

    In 2001, Sunset Valley was touring in support of our Barsuk release "Ice Pond". We were excited to play Tucson and had heard great things about the place. (I actually love Tucson, just so you know. It's on my short list of places I would like to live.) We rolled into the cool district, near Hotel Congress. There were many great shows going on that night. We found our venue- it was called Skrappy's and was in an alley off the main drag. We were to play with some local bands, and we even got a somewhat insulting review in the Tucson Weekly.

     As it got dark out, droves of music fans flooded the clubs on the main street, but our little Skrappy's lived up to it's name. It was a mostly empty big room with slouchy couches a few kids milling about. Actually, before child labor laws, there were probably a lot more kids milling about. Finally it was our turn to play.

    On tour, before smart phones and laptops and internet, you just kind of watched your life get sucked down the waterless urinal of time. If you were into getting drunk, well, that could mask it a little, or if there was a pool table or a way to jog or something…   Or reading. I can't seem to get to my reading very well. My attention span is a piece of… Hey, I didn't know they had coffee here. I have started many books and never gotten to double digit chapter numbers, and in some cases not even double digit page numbers. I still don't know what the catcher In the rye catches. I blame my eyes, because I rarely hold books in front of them. Anyway, there was one good part of touring for me...

    The actual playing of music part. Finally I got to plug in all that heavy gear and forget about losing time and money, missing my better half... I stopped wondering why I didn't pick a more useful major. Actually, my major was useful, it was me that wasn't useful. You just sink into the ether of rock, and once you're in it, open your eyes and look around at all the decibels and chords and harmonics and beats, all swimming around like schools of fish. The sun is shining through the surface up there, but that's just some reality trying to get at you. You are safe for about 45 minutes. 

    This place we were in had really tall ceilings. If you were on stage and looked up you couldn't see the top, just blackness and some cobwebbed light rigging. We came to the end of a song during the set, and it was kind of quiet. As in completely quiet. The 10 or so kids were just probably thinking about other stuff, like non-clapping kinds of things. And then, from way above the stage, a cricket started to chirp. I looked over to my bandmates and they were looking up at the sound, jaws held up only by incredulous smiles. It was too perfect in every way. If one was writing this as fiction, it would seem too obvious to include. That night the cricket seemed to be our biggest fan. (A deleted sentence about a cricket groupie was here.)

    After we played, we went to man our merch table. We had cd's and t-shirts for sale. Now I have seen some amazing things happen at merch tables. At La Luna I have signed peoples tickets after opening for Ween and The Cardigans. I have seen John Roderick charm and chat and take pictures and make everyones' day. I have seen Neutral Milk Hotel turn the merch table at Satiricon into a genuine mob scene. I have seen BJM, DCFC, GBV, and other acronymic bands sell insane dollar amounts in a night. All great things to be a part of or witness. 

    That night we sold one cd. One scratchable, breakable, meltable, skippable cd that is hard to unwrap.  A sweet and shy teenage girl came up to the table and bought the copy of Ice Pond, and looked at us and asked in all earnestness: "Are the crickets on the cd?" (Studio audience: Awwwwwww)

    After the show, there was about $35 to split between 4 bands. I think the locals let us have it for gas money. Some other band or the booker asked if we needed a place to stay, but we had to drive all night to our next stop in Santa Cruz. Fantastic tour routing, courtesy of a booking agent who is now incredibly successful but pretty much tried to kill my band in 2001 with 20 hour drives and unbelievably selfish decisions. Oh, I didn't mean to get negative there, or in the top paragraph. That's just how the dice roll in the music business. Actually, I think they are not dice, but strings. Invisible strings pulled by a cosmic puppeteer hand. That last bit is cheesy, but I am leaving it in because I think it's true. A certain recent event has made me believe that these forces are very real.