Monday, July 30, 2012
A Short Story by Jude Joseph Lovell
He’s no Neil Peart, but the dude from Cinderella may have put it best when he observed – I think he was the first to do it – that “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” That guy hit on something. Because even though I’m turning 40 soon and I’m still alive, and I’ve got a nice family and we’re all healthy, back in 1987 I was sitting right on top of the world. The crazy thing is, like the man said, I didn’t know it. Now I do.
That guy, the Cinderella man, wasn’t the man, of course. I’ve known who that was for decades now, before I was even in high school. The very first time I heard Exit… Stage Left on my rockin’ big sister Charlotte’s record player sometime around 1983, I knew. But the story I want to tell starts well before that. To do this right, I have to go back to that Christmas present.
I think it was 1982. I was twelve. That was the year Signals came out, but I wasn’t tapped into that vein of utter rock gold yet. I had heard the single on the radio a few times, but all I knew was that it had a lot of keyboards and that weird computer voice in the chorus droning the word “Subdivisions.” I wasn’t hip to the fact that I was living inside the same world that song was denigrating.
A couple of years before that, Charlotte started letting me come into her room on weekdays after school to listen to some of her records. There was a ten-year age difference. She was in community college by then, but I still attended the grade school across the street. That gap explains why she was nothing but affectionate with me and never treated me like the pain in the ass that I surely was.
I was gawky, shy, and didn’t have any friends – the perfect Rush fan. Charlotte was tall, big-boned, with long brown hair, huge dark eyes, and freckles on her cheeks. She had a monstrously loud laugh and was friendly to virtually everyone. She convinced me that I didn’t care about any of my problems. She’d let me come in and sit there while she taught me about rock n’ roll, subverting the wishes of my hard-working, traditional father.
Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12 I said out loud that what I really wanted to do was get a hold of an instrument so I could play in a band. Whether I knew what I wanted is debatable, but what can’t be debated is that Charlotte prompted the remark by playing all those records. Also that my mother heard it. She started saving up loose change here and there, without stating her intentions.
Christmas wheeled around as it always does. The only present I remember is the only one that mattered. My parents flew in the face of precedent and bought me a brand-new Ibanez bass guitar from Rondo Music on Route 22. I say my parents, but it was really my mother. My father’s reaction to me opening the gift, which he probably didn’t even know about until that moment, was to tactlessly inquire: “What the hell are you giving him that for? You should have gotten him a pencil and pad to play, so he can apply himself to his goddamn grades.” My mom weathered it. Now I understand why it was worth it to her.
I remember that bass the way most people remember their prom date: fresh, virginal, in a swank outfit, and looking fine. And believe me when I say I wanted to score with that bass, twelve years old or not. Only problem was I didn’t know how to play. I don’t even know why my mother chose that particular instrument. Most likely she thought it was a guitar. I didn’t care. What mattered was that the bass was spectacular, and it was mine.
For about a year and a half I bragged about it. I showed it to anyone I could get to come in my room, which meant nobody female, aside from Charlotte, ever saw the thing. I spent hours just staring at it, propped up against something. That bass was nearly bigger than I was, and that seemed right. It was like a piece of sculpture, a great tower of power, a monolith that pulled me towards it like in The Lord of the Rings. It vexed me, though. I couldn’t get my head around how to take it on.
It was really a matter of the heart, not the head. I needed to connect with the bass. I needed it to get inside of me somehow.
That didn’t happen until one summer night in 1983 when Charlotte, my beautiful big sister – who died of cancer eleven years ago – hollered at me from her room, “Come in here, little man. I want you to hear this.”
I plopped onto the easy chair in her bedroom, which in my head still is like a rock-n-roll museum and shrine rolled into one, and heard this nasal, nerdy-sounding voice say, “This is the Spirit of Radio.” Followed by screaming fans. And that’s when I discovered I wanted to be Geddy Lee.
the guy said to me, you might be able to fight your way out of this, on your own, without having to turn to the court system. isnt it too late for that, i asked. its not too late, he said. but its gonna be a prolonged fight. youre going to have to work on it harder than youve ever worked on anything before. you have to reinvent yourself as someone who works harder, digs deeper, and wont accept the other alternative.
By the time we got to “YYZ,” the third song on that side of the record, I knew two things. They contradicted one another wonderfully. One was that no one else was as good at the bass as Geddy. I still don’t think there’s another bass player, living or dead, who is or was capable of playing the three solo fills in the middle of that song. I’ve tried it. It can’t be done. Yet this dude was going out there on stage and replicating them every damn night.
The second thing was that I really wanted to play the way Geddy did - even though the first thing I had learned was that nobody could.
It wasn’t too long after I first learned about Rush that they came out with Grace Under Pressure, in 1984. I rode my bike to the supermarket a couple of towns away and plunked down $5.99 immediately for the LP. This was back when they used to stock records and tapes at the Pathmark supermarket next to the toothpaste, inexplicably. I remember trying to get it home in a paper bag that was coming apart in the rain, trying to steer the bike while keeping the LP sleeve dry.
Somehow I got it home. I remember laying the record on my utter piece of shit player in our unfinished, cricket-infested basement and letting those first chords in the nuclear-era anthem “Distant Early Warning” blast through me like fried electrons. The rest was pure fallout. Alex Lifeson was never my favorite guy in Rush – I almost felt bad for him, having to compete with that lights-out bottom end every night – but his guitar on that record was muscular and bone-rattling.
Well before that day the Rush haters had been letting me and everyone else know how bad they sucked. Geddy had been getting killed for his vocals from the very beginning. They said he was like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin only more annoying. He was anathema for being skinny and ugly and having a huge beak for a nose. None of that mattered. I didn’t give a shit what the guy looked like. Besides, had anyone ever looked at Plant?
Blasting guitars and keyboards, screeching vocals, quasi-profound lyrics – not to mention the Olympian thunder of Neil Peart’s legendary drumming – all of these could go by the wayside for me. All I heard when I put on a Rush record was the sublime subterranean layer of Geddy’s bass. It was a lot like he seemed: limber, sinewy, aggressive, fearless. It’s all over the place no matter what Rush song you put on, from any decade. His bass draws your ear down into the foundation of the song, where you can gawk at both the beauty and the functionality of the sonic architecture.
Moving Pictures, Exit…Stage Left, Signals, Grace Under Pressure ... these records made me want to crawl inside the hollowed-out part of my tobacco sunburst Ibanez, where they screw in the pickups, and live there like it was a studio apartment. All it took was Geddy to get me going. I seized my bass up like the sword from the stone and started working it over, day and night, with my soft, un-calloused fingertips. I played until I couldn’t see straight, or fell asleep with exhaustion.
I was almost fifteen. I believed my life was largely meaningless and wasn’t going anywhere worth going to. Yet those hours upon hours spent in my room, fully immersed in the exhaustive groundwork that is inherent to mastering any craft – repetition, mundanity, failing over and over again until the failure itself is hammered out – those were some of the most fulfilling times of my entire forty years. I would think about literally nothing else except trying to make that bass sound the way it sounded in my head - the way Geddy made it sound.
read the account of the prodigal son in the gospel of luke. the father gave his son all that he asked for in advance. the son went off and made a series of poor decisions. he had to get to a very low place before he could turn himself around. youre telling me im like that guy who ended up feeding pigs, i asked. im telling you where things stand, he replied. you asked me for help, and im going to provide it, but you have to start by acknowledging where you are. weve looked at all your numbers. i am saying you must return to the beginning and start over. it requires a purgation. and until you do it this is not something youll ever get out from under.
I was the one my parents put their hopes behind - not by design, but it’s just the way things turned out. Charlotte was never that interested in school, probably even less than I was. She mailed it in on a few community college courses, but never had designs for higher education. She had a wild streak, although she was good and generous and immensely responsible when it counted. But she still liked to go out with big groups of friends, stay out a long time, see indie rock bands in clubs in the city - that sort of thing.
She lived under my parents’ roof all through her 20s and never seemed to mind, although it got to my father after a while. He would pressure her to move out, but she just laughed and told him it would happen when the time was right. It wasn’t fair that she always felt that way, whereas whenever my Dad applied pressure to me I’d drape it around my shoulders like a lead suit jacket and hump it for years.
Her ambivalence towards the future rankled my old man. Yet she was right, because soon after she turned 30 she met Tom – a soft-spoken math teacher, a gentle giant-type at 6’6” whose temperament was the exact opposite of hers. He was the only man she ever dated who somehow made her seem small, since she was six feet tall herself, with a personality that crushed everything in its path by sheer inertia. Tom had a way of bringing her in check. She wanted to live huge and laugh and have a good time. Tom was quiet but driven, trying to put himself through a doctorate program at Rutgers University at night, a man whose ultimate goal was to teach math at Princeton. They seemed an odd match, but it worked.
They got married when Charlotte was 31. By that time I was living out in Ohio and inscribing my own entries in my parents’ ledger of disappointments. Charlotte was still Charlotte: bold, loud, and slightly crazy. She did still love her rock n’ roll, but I knew she really wanted to settle down and be there for her mathematician. They struggled with infertility for a couple of years. Then Charlotte was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time at 33.
She fought it off and on for the rest of her thirties, their family plans continually deferred. But she never did become pregnant, nor did she find her way to age 40, because it killed her at 39. I was 29 at the time, with my own child by then, and I could not get my head around her dying so young. I could have used her laughter and her snappy attitude and her love later. My problems were just beginning.
In 1986, though, I was sixteen and wildly unpopular. I was skinny, dismal at every sport, and at anything else that would have gotten me in with the popular crowd. But I had an ace up my sleeve, and I knew it. I was just waiting for the chance to throw it down.
Once I latched on to that Ibanez there was no stopping me. As far as I was concerned I had gotten into college already, and had muscled my way into the most requested course on campus - Professor Geddy Lee, instructor. I knew I needed to work on what I liked to call my “road gear” - even though I didn’t even play in a band, let alone go on the road. “Road gear” to me meant basically an amplifier and my bass, with a case to carry it around from gig to nonexistent gig. Surely the day was coming when I would need this stuff for when whatever band I was a part of started getting the word out and touring the house party/high school dance scene.
Through the school newspaper’s classified ads I found an old Gorilla amplifier that a senior named Chad “Butt” Buttersworth was selling for 50 bucks. That was a good chunk of change for me, but it wasn’t the $300 that a new amp would have cost at Rondo. If I ever got up on stage with that piece of shit, I knew, when other guys had Peaveys and Marshall stacks, I’d get laughed off of it before I even got to lay down any pipe. But I figured I’d deal with that if ever got into a gig situation.
I never knew until later that Butt had fleeced me on the 50 bucks I put down, which was half a week’s pay from my after-school job as a janitor. Apparently he had, because the speakers on the amp were blown. I didn’t know shit about sound equipment so I couldn’t tell. It was only when I got started in a band and made good friends with the guitarist, Greg Lyons – known as “Mikey” because he looked like the kid in the LIFE cereal commercial – that I learned the truth. As soon as I plugged in for our first rehearsal early the next school year Mikey said, ‘How much you pay for that again?”
I told him. “You better keep standing then,” he said, “because Butt pounded you straight up yours on that deal. You may not wanna sit down for a long time.”
Butt-pounded or not, I plugged into that thing for years because it was all I had. There was no way in hell I could afford anything better, a glimpse of the future. Even if I could have saved for it, my Dad wouldn’t have let me “waste” my money on a new amp when I had college to think about. In a way it worked to my advantage because even though it looked like a joke, and was basically regarded as a metaphor for having an insubstantial piece of a different sort of equipment, it gave me my own signature sound.
The amp held together, but Mikey was correct that the main speaker was blown to shit. Not only that, but if you were plugged into the thing for more than two hours at a time it would overheat. It would literally shoot tiny electric shocks through the metal strings into your fingertips. I only took these as encouragement from the gods to keep right on rocking. It was like that one Friday the 13th movie where Jason gets zapped by lightning: it only fires him up.
The best thing about this beleaguered piece of “stage” equipment, as I alluded to before, was that it made my bass sound different from any other bass in rock history. It sounded exactly like an insane, fifty-pound wasp, screaming in anguish while stapled to the blade of a running buzz saw, with the whole thing chucked under water.
It’s funny when I look back from where I sit today and remember how I thought life was hard for me then, when my biggest challenges were trying to keep my father off my back, avoiding the future, and, above all, figuring out how to infuse my fingers with more talent than they actually had. The plan was to learn the bass so well that someone put me in their band. From there I would springboard into popularity, a much-improved social calendar, possibly a hot girlfriend. What else was there? Dared I dream of anything beyond? A future in rock n’ roll? Was it possible that the older person’s expectations that I might live up to would be my sister’s and not my parents’?
For a while there it looked as though my life was headed straight towards that imagined destiny. But then I couldn’t avoid going to college, because Charlotte hadn’t gone – not seriously – and my parents were set on it. So I conceded. But if I was going to continue in school, I wanted to get away from the house.
I ended up attending Saints Peter and Paul College, a tiny private school outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was located in a little dead-end town with tree-lined streets, a Denny’s restaurant, and a big flea market where you could buy trinkets made out of wire and burlap sacks. No one tells you how boring the rest of Ohio really is outside of the one or two decent-sized cities there.
Anyway, I found college not particularly to my liking either. In the early going, though, it did get me into a couple of very shitty bar bands where I got to pound out the occasional Rush cover tune. My musical prospects and my academic aptitude and/or motivation dried up fast. Eventually I dropped out just like Charlotte. Then I made it worse, because I had finally landed myself a steady girlfriend whose parents I moved in with for a while, and because I didn’t have any real prospect for the future. I understand now why my parents were so angry with me for years following these shaky decisions - especially my old man.
I told them at the time that the only thing I knew I was going to do for sure was marry the girl. Sherry is her name, and we are still married today. This failed to mollify my mother and father for some reason. They made promise to wait at least two years, until I was almost 22, before taking such a drastic step. I owed them that, they argued, after they had sacrificed so much to send me to college.
Beyond being with Sherry, I didn’t worry much about the future back then. I actually believed I would find my way into some bands and maybe get in with one that would make a record and tour behind it. That never happened. What did happen was Sherry and I got married at 21 and 20 respectively, and moved into a tiny rat-hole of a one-bedroom place in Reynoldsburg. A year later we were pregnant with Billy, our son, who is now 17.
its not going to help you if im not completely honest. your fundamental insolvency is such that you are going to have to use every means at your disposal. every dollar you earn must be employed in the direct service of one thing only, which is to keep you afloat. the first thing we have to do is hammer out a budget based only on what you bring in the door. your days of spontaneity without thought to consequence are over forever. i call this place you are now entering proverbs territory. welcome to it.
It wasn’t until the early summer before my senior year that things finally began to start falling into place to establish my rock n’ roll future. Better late than never. My birthday is in early June, right around the time school ended. That year I got a Rush songbook specifically for bass – from Charlotte, of course – and aside from the instrument itself it was the greatest gift I ever received, because it had tablature, which shows you how to play a song if you cannot read music.
That songbook covered from their first album up through 1985’s Power Windows, and it laid out exactly the right notes to every song, so I didn’t have to learn them by ear listening on a Walkman. I had been using this method with only marginal success since I was about fourteen. It wore out my rewind button.
I worked that songbook backwards and forwards that summer. I tried every single tune over and over. My respect for Geddy only increased. How the hell did that man play some of the shit he played? It is hard to quantify how many times I attempted, without ever coming close, to bring off those two bass runs in “The Spirit of Radio” that I can only describe as something like sonic interpretations of someone falling down a set of stairs, only to recover their balance at the bottom and slip right back into a groovy swagger. Only Geddy Lee could do that.
I knew when I started playing bass that it was going to lead me in a natural progression towards glory. And it needed to, I thought, because my grades were pedestrian at best, and I hadn’t exactly smoked the SATs. As soon as my senior year started I was collared by Mikey Lyons, a junior, who said, “I heard you were a bassist. Is that true?”
“Hell yes,” I answered confidently. “Been playing since I was 12.” Slightly inaccurate.
“Shit man! Why the hell haven’t you said so? I got two buddies, Craig Epp and Jerry de Fazio, who want to form a band. Craig plays guitar, and so do I, and Jerry – well, actually, um, it’s his little brother Doug, he’s only a freshman, but – we need a bass player. You want to get together and jam?”
That was how I got into Bloodmonkey, garage band extraordinaire, denizens of the underground hard rock scene of the late 1980s. Our drummer, Doug, sucked. He had only received his drum kit a couple months before because his wealthy parents thought he would like it and didn’t mind the racket. He could barely knock two sticks together, let alone keep a beat. I had not found my Neil Peart in this pimply dimwit. But we needed him, because his basement was our practice facility.
I hit it off beautifully with the two guitarists, though. The first time we met was when Mikey made the comment about my amp. I made sure it was the last time he had misgivings. I knew by sheer instinct that if I ever got anywhere close to a band setup I was going to blast that amp as high as possible and make Professor Lee proud. The first song we ever played as a unit, before we were even Bloodmonkey yet, was “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. Ok, so that tune isn’t exactly a graduate thesis when it comes to the study of rock bass. But then again you have not heard my interpretation.
I whizzed my left middle finger down the length of the E string towards the tail end of the neck, producing a sound that was like a hotrod accelerating. I pounded the strings with the ball of my thumb. I threw in syncopated fills wherever I could find half a second’s pause.
Was I overplaying? Fuckin’ A! Rush’s entire catalogue consists of overplaying. You don’t make a band by showing up to an audition and fading into the wallpaper. You get up there and pound the shit out of the competition.
Besides, Geddy probably got his ass kicked all over the schoolyard before he strapped on a bass. He was skinny and unattractive and most likely about as popular as a rash. Story of my life! But once he got up on that stage, rockin’ that bass was like a flexing of heretofore unperceived muscles. He had power the naysayers knew not.
That was my entire approach. You want a bassist, Mikey, well now you got one. Step off and feel the thunder.
Bloodmonkey rocked hard almost every week for that whole year. We played for two or three hours, whenever we could. At that age and in that setup I could have gone on for four or five hours a night, easily.
We learned fast. Since our territory was anything on the heavier side, from flat-out metal to punkish stuff to progressive rock, we soon had a repertoire that included tunes from legendary bands like Deep Purple, The Clash, The Who, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and solo Ozzy, KISS, Judas Priest, Rainbow, AC/DC, and, needless to say, Rush.
We didn’t rein in our creativity, either. We wanted to write original material, so we did, tapping into a rich vein of collaborative gold to create all kinds of music, from rebellious rock anthems (“Problem Child”, “The Sun Don’t Shine on Those Who Rock”) to furious head-bangers (“Crack the Whip”, “Fire & Acid”) to thinking-man’s sagas (“Origin”, “Hysteria Forever”). Then there was “Maul,” the Bloodmonkey staple that stood in its own category, mainly because it was three chords and about eight lines about a guy utterly annihilating everything he came into contact with for no reason.
Good times. By Christmas of that year, Bloodmonkey was its own suburban nuke just waiting for DEFCON 1. We were living after midnight, wild in the streets, metal thrashing mad. The only thing we didn’t have yet was a place to ascend the stage, plug in, and deliver to the people what they were begging for.
Who would have guessed that six years later I’d be a college dropout, married, with a son on the way, in a mortal stand-off with my own parents after tossing away my education, working a meaningless job in eastern Ohio to put some money away for my domestic future?
I’m not saying my life lacked blessings. There was Billy, for one. He kept Sherry and me afloat during meager times for almost an entire decade. He always helped us regain our footing with one another when things got hard, and we loved him for it. The problem was that I held on to my rock dreams for too long, too deep into my twenties. By the time I figured out that I was not Geddy Lee, I had a dead sister, a second baby coming, a mortgage I could not afford, and a huge millstone of debt for a necklace.
I got a job working in the warehouse of Cub Foods, a massive wholesaler, at 25. It was supposed to be yet another stop-gap while holding on for something better. We lived in a four-room apartment just east of Newark for about 9 years, from when Billy was born in 1993 to 2002 just before we had our second. I started as a temp, then got hired for the second shift full-time while Billy was only a year old, which was hell on Sherry. Later on I got a permanent day shift with benefits. At least I was protecting my family, but the wages were paltry.
The only way I was going to make a decent salary was to bide my time and compete for a foreman’s position. Finally, at 40, I am next in line for one. I could have left for another job, but without a degree I couldn’t find better pay. It’s too late to go back now, because I have those real, grown-up responsibilities that tend to come along with age. Which is why they tell you to stay in school in the first place.
Just before the millennium year I went home alone for about three weeks, while Charlotte was dying. Afterwards, I seriously contemplated not going back. My parents had little to say to me. Sherry and Billy were at her mom’s. I got my Ibanez out of the trunk of my car, where I had stuffed it for some reason, and stared at it for three hours one night, wondering what to do.
Two years later we were pregnant with our second child. Interestingly enough there would be about the same age difference as there had been between Charlotte and me. Didn’t plan it that way, but there you have it.
The baby was born in 2003. A little girl.
hows the new budget going. i said it was tough to track it so that every single spare cent not accounted for by utter necessity elsewhere was being put back towards the debt. thats because you never really applied self-discipline before, he said. not the kind this demands. it gets easier. but what do you do in the case of key, one-time expenses, like you need to get a new pair of glasses, or lets say you want to sign your child up for something important that you think they really need. plan ahead for it, he said. save a little at a time until you have enough for that expense without missing any other payment. or if you have something you dont need, sell it and pay for it with that. or have the kid go without it.
We felt that all Bloodmonkey needed was one shot to get up on a stage and prove to the people that if they were craving sonic sustenance, there was a new rock n’ roll burger stand in town serving it up hot. We got it the next spring. The school decided to organize its first ever Battle of the Bands. To compete, you had to put together a group of songs and perform them in front of a committee of “qualified” judges – members of the Student Council.
These clowns were only there to begin with because they were part of the “in crowd.” By definition, they didn’t know shit about the fuck-the-world quality that was essential for bands like Bloodmonkey to do what we did. No one knew that better than us. But we had to punch that ticket in order to get to the venue.
So we auditioned, and we got in easily. Then it hit me that I was going to have to stand up and play and sing in front of the entire student body.
Did I neglect to mention that I was also Bloodmonkey’s lead vocalist? Somebody had to do it. Mikey and Craig Epp couldn’t have carried a tune if you spotted them a hand cart. Early on we realized that we either had to handle it internally, or farm out the job to some other doofus we knew in our little crowd. It was hard to imagine anyone I considered a friend taking command of a stage as the lead singer of a rock band without getting laughed right off the other side.
We didn’t make it through the second rehearsal before I realized that I was the de facto answer. It made sense, because after all, my role model was Geddy. What rocker who aspired to be Geddy Lee could chicken out of takin’ the mike? That first time, I just stepped up to the only one we had - it was jerry-rigged to a music stand with black electrical tape - and belted out KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Night.” We never looked back.
Charlotte was a huge encouragement, as usual. She agreed that the matter was on me. “You were born for it,” she cried. “Get up there and own it.”
She was working a couple of retail jobs then, living at home but away often, either at one job or another or out with friends. When I could track her down I’d tell her the stuff we were rehearsing for the Battle. She would give her advice on song selection. We’d listen to records and discuss them at length. She was always tired because she worked all the time. But the more tired Charlotte got, the louder she would laugh and the sillier she would become. She was rarely moody or withdrawn. That just wasn’t her. She never even heard us play until the actual battle, but she said all along we would nail it.
That we did. By the time Bloodmonkey hit the makeshift stage in the high school gym in April, we knew we were ready. We played four cover songs and two of our hardest-rocking originals, “Problem Child” and “Ride of Your Life.” Our opener was “Shout it Out Loud,” also by KISS - a superb call by Mikey. I was absolutely petrified when the Secretary of the Student Council, one of the hottest chicks ever to grace the school hallways, announced our band that night while we stood behind her shrouded in darkness. That was as close as I ever came to that girl, by the way.
But as soon as the lights went up and I started playing, every misgiving and nervous fear in my body evaporated in the same instant. The biggest danger I had was over-shouting the vocals out of a pure heroin-like rush of energy. Not that I knew anything about a heroin rush.
In that one evening I came to know why every single rock star that ever existed does what they do. I don’t know what it feels like to be God, but after He finished creating everything and was standing up there on top of the world, looking down to see all the trees clapping their hands and the great seas bum-rushing the planetary stage, it had to have been a lot like what I felt at the end of Bloodmonkey’s first live set.
“Thank you very much from Bloodmonkey!!!” I screamed, sweaty and exhausted and drunk on adrenalin. “We’ll see you soon!” The crowd went nuts. After that, everybody suddenly realized I was cool.
Now, I’m that guy you can thank for the financial crisis that finally hit. I never meant for anyone else to suffer for my poor choices. We’d been renting a small place with one child for almost a decade when we bought our house, with a second child coming. Frankly, I thought I’d be able to secure the foreman’s position a lot sooner than it has panned out. We received one of those interest-only loans that later changed into an adjustable-rate mortgage. We were handed the keys to a house that we were never in the correct position to afford.
In the decade or so before we bought the house we had amassed a considerable amount of credit card debt. But about a year into life with two children in the new place, with no significant raise to speak of and me not getting the overtime I once counted on, we found ourselves relying more and more on plastic. We missed one or two payments, the interest rates shot up, and suddenly we were hemorrhaging. In 2009 it started to look as though the mortgage company would foreclose.
I didn’t know what to do. The stress level in our home was so elevated that I’m actually proud our marriage did not splinter. We passed through some dark territory in our relationship, and in our own heads. One time we ran completely out of diapers and wipes and didn’t have two dimes to rub together for four days, until I got paid. A handful of times we ran out of food. We couldn’t go out to restaurants or take our son to a movie.
Billy was old enough by then to understand that our family had no money and that it was the direct result of our inept stewardship. He was around 15 and 16 when it really started getting bad. He would hurl our failure in our faces during power struggles. He disclosed to me once he didn’t particularly enjoy admitting to his friends that his father was a loser.
Finally, far too late, we started seeing a counselor on the side who worked for what they call a financial ministry. I’m not always comfortable with the witnessing, but the man I meet with puts in his own time. He’s a straight shooter, too - a retired Marine who can still pack his shrapnel. He says we won’t lose our house if we work aggressively and pray about it.
The one I worry the most about is Charlotte, who is now almost seven. She was born just as this mess was flowering. She’s the one who had to listen to fight after fight at home while Sherry would be feeding her or carrying her on a hip. She’s the one who has had to go without so many things that I or even Billy got, everything from toys to baby classes at the Y to clothing. She’s the one with the brown hair and the big wet eyes that remind me of her namesake, the one who seems to require only my love to survive, who isn’t even aware of all that she is missing.
One time about six months ago, after we had been visiting with the counselor for a while and everything we earned, it seemed, was going to pay the credit card companies, Sherry and I got into a humongous argument. It morphed into this profoundly depressing evening of near-despair and, later, dwindled into pathetic attempts to buck the other spouse up after flattening one another. It all started over Sherry bringing up for the nineteenth time how badly Charlotte wanted to sign up for soccer in the Fall. It would do wonders for her self-confidence, Sherry argued. I hardly disagreed. But the class cost 75 bucks, and we had to explain to Charlotte that we just didn’t have the money. She nodded her head glumly and eventually seemed to forget about it.
The next morning I got out of bed around 5 a.m., without having slept much, and went downstairs. While I drank coffee, listening to our house creaking and groaning through its private agonies, it suddenly came back to me that I used to keep a journal, before we had Charlotte, where I would record my thoughts and fears on early mornings. It seemed to help at the time, but I’d forgotten about it. I was pretty sure I had put it in a box or a crate somewhere in the storage room of our basement, so I went down to look.
The small cinderblock room was an unholy mess. The air was damp and smelled vaguely of mildew. I could swear I heard a cricket or a roach clicking away in a corner somewhere. A single naked bulb fizzled overhead in a fixture that was never installed properly. It dangled on blue and yellow wires. There were cardboard boxes stacked on one another, only the heavier ones had been carelessly hurled on top of lighter ones, so that the bottom boxes were buckling. The result was cardboard pillars leaning this way and that like bad teeth.
Wherever there was no box, there was something else of little use. The only common denominator was decrepitude. A chipped headboard we’d found at HomeGoods for a great price, only to learn that no available bed frame in the world would attach to it, leaned against the stone wall. There was a busted fan with three metal blades upside down on top of the suitcase I got when I went to camp at age 13 - still the only one I’ve ever owned. A wicker basket filled with CDs was splitting along one side and leaking out 80s rock like a punctured roadkill on the side of the highway. The hot water heater was barricaded off by plastic bins full of baby clothes stained with pureed food and vomit. One of them had fallen off the top and crashed to the hard stone floor where it had shattered like glass.
My eyes lapped over the clutter. I was looking for a filing carton filled with journals I’d kept for years. Instead I spotted something else. It was jutting up between a bicycle missing the front tire and one of those circular things you stuff a baby into so it can jump up and down for hours. A slender, black case. The monolith. The tower of power.
I yanked it out, twisted the crooked light bulb, grabbed an old shirt draped over a box, and sat on the steps in the shadows. Laying the case at my feet, I opened it up, wiped the instrument off lovingly with the shirt, and basked for a while in that warm tobacco sunburst. As long as I had owned the bass, more than 25 years, it was still in great shape, for unlike everything else I had always cared for it, ministered to it, treated it like, well, one of my own children…..
Suddenly I understood what I had come down for. Why my eyes had been drawn to this bass, this object that once catapulted me to a place where I felt a fury and a confidence beyond anything I ever imagined.
I sat there in the brooding dark, placed the bass on my knee, and started playing “Limelight” from memory. I sang quietly, turning myself into Geddy one last time:
Living in the limelight, the universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation, the underlying theme….
Then I shut the case, trudged upstairs, sat down at the computer, and posted my old bass on Craig’s List. Eight days later a guy paid me 85 bucks for it.
As soon as I had the money, I dialed the number to ask about Fall soccer registration. The lady said there were two slots left, she would be glad to give Charlotte one of them.
Friday, July 06, 2012
Some thoughts on Vincent Van Gogh and the trials of the artist
WHAT IS IT with me and these “struggling artist” types? After spending more than two years of my life reading books by and about Herman Melville, and writing a book of my own about him, now I am chest-deep in an exhaustive, and exhausting, biography of Vincent Van Gogh. I’m not going to write my own book about this artist, but being about halfway through the biography, with all of its extensive detail, I want to reflect on and ponder the mystery of this great painter’s lifelong struggle to fulfill his ambitions.
Last year, while I was finishing up the manuscript mentioned above about Melville, I read another biography of a different artist who also struggled for most of his lifetime, Franz Kafka (see #9 on my Best Books of 2011 list). The year before that, I had plowed through two biographies on the author of Moby-Dick, one of which was fairly exhaustive as well (Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant). Like Van Gogh, both of those artists received far more accolades and appreciation after they were dead. Van Gogh: The Life, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, was published near the end of 2011. When I saw it at a bookstore, a massive hardcover of over 900 pages, I sensed immediately that it would be worth owning, even though I normally don’t buy hardcover books. I asked for it for Christmas, and my wife came through.
Melville, as is well documented, achieved popular success with the first novel he ever wrote, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. He enjoyed a brief stint as a literary celebrity, but his star quickly fizzled. In 1851, his great sixth novel, Moby-Dick, was a commercial flop. He was largely forgotten by the public and manhandled by most critics for the rest of his life, which lasted another four decades. He died in obscurity and relative poverty. Kafka experienced a moderate degree of commercial and critical success while living, particularly for his famous short works “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist.” But he didn’t make a lot of money, was burdened with terrible bronchial illness for most of his short life, and battled with anxiety and difficult family relationships. Even those who know very little about Franz Kafka understand that he was a guy with issues. If you’ve ever read his novel The Trial you can figure that out without digging much further.
I am fascinated by these artists. Why is that? Is it an ego thing - meaning I somehow imagine a future world, beyond my presence in it, where others lavish similar acclaim on whatever I leave behind? That seems absurd, and I hope it’s not what this boils down to, but I’m not discounting it either, because I want to be honest. No doubt my attraction to the stories of artists like this has a lot to do with my own experience so far with trying to engage on the competitive battlefield of the arts. Since I have been writing creatively for more than twenty years, with minimal success, it seems natural that I would draw something from those who worked so long and hard on their craft, and only later became renowned around the world for that work.
The danger to my great interest in and attraction to these stories is the proximity it brings me to the artists’ own intimacy with tragedy and darkness. These writers all suffered loss, loneliness and despair on the way to achieving what they did, and the great misfortune is that they each experienced far more of those than they did of success or joy. According to this huge biography of Van Gogh, it seems he suffered even more than Melville and Kafka did - maybe more than any other artist I’ve ever read about. One of the great questions that arises while reading about a life like Van Gogh’s is whether his suffering and continual failures were somehow essential ingredients to the work. In other words, if he had experienced even a little success from his early painting and drawing, would he have produced the great work he went on to create?
Nobody knows. But he did not have that experience. Vincent Van Gogh didn’t sell a single painting during his time walking this earth (less than forty years). Yet his pictures have impacted almost every educated person in Western society for over 130 years.
There’s a fascinating line on a recent rock n’ roll album that comes to my mind. It seems to relate to the same essential question. And I think it connects to my own obsessions as well. In 2010 a band called Arcade Fire released a critically and commercially successful record called The Suburbs that drew upon the members’ childhoods growing up in Canadian upper-middle class neighborhoods. It wryly examined the stifling boredom and lack of drive fostered by this kind of Americanized landscape. Even though I’m not from Canada, I am from the American suburbs, and I can identify with the boredom and suppressed passions that are explored on this album, particularly in songs like the title track, “Ready to Start,” “Empty Room,” and “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.”
The whole record is extremely interesting. But the line I am thinking of from comes from that last tune mentioned above, “Sprawl II.” Sometime-lead vocalist Regine Chassagne sings in the chorus:
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, won’t you please cut the lights
There’s something about the candor of that last part that I recognize, both within myself and in the work and life stories of the artists I am writing about. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a frightening one, but I also don’t want to know - at least, not right now. Either way, it seems to be the truth.
What does it mean when an artist seems to be saying, either directly or through their work, “I NEED the darkness?” If you consider almost any of Franz Kafka’s best known works, classic stories like “In the Penal Colony” and “The Judgment,” could you really say that he did not cleave to something dark within? How about Herman Melville’s entire novel Pierre, which is a total immersion into the black sub-strata of a failed artist’s heart; or the magisterial but deeply troubled monologues of Captain Ahab, who “spit his last breath” from “hell’s heart” into the jaw of his nemesis, the White Whale?
How much does it cost to go to those places? And is the result worth it?
There are numerous stories about artists who toiled for years, sometimes decades, for little to no gain in terms of worldly success or recognition. Kafka and Melville are certainly among the more famous examples. But compared to the story I am working my way through in Van Gogh: The Life, even those artists’ lives seemed like triumphant cakewalks. This massive biography of the man best known for legendary images like Starry Night and Wheatfield with Crows, and for the bizarre tale of how he tried to cut off his own ear because of unrequited love, is literally jammed with bleakness, paranoia, and heartbreak. At over 900 pages, too, it is a very long journey on which to travel through such treacherous terrain.
So why take the trip? This question hound me as I pass the halfway point in the book, following weeks of reading. After that much time it almost starts to feel like a continual bashing over the head with all of those negative forces described in the paragraph above. At first it feels like mental fatigue, like reading the book leaves you exhausted, drained of energy. Over time, though, part of me wonders if the continual bleakness will have any further, cumulative effect.
Yet I, for reasons I am still wondering about, have a far higher threshold for this stuff than most. One reason for it seems obvious. I am, or at least I am trying to be, an artist myself, and thus I am interested in other people who are doing or have done the same job. I’m not comparing myself to Van Gogh, but I am saying I want to do great work.
It runs deeper than that, though. There are times, especially in the case of Van Gogh, when I force myself to pause and say, “How much more of this do I need to put up with?” But then I return in my mind to the work he left us. What rises above almost every other consideration for me is how extraordinary that work really is. We’ve all seen Van Gogh’s pictures, because many of them have become permanent fixtures in our culture. If that were not the case, something like this movie poster for Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris would never work. But it does, because most of us have seen the image, even if we didn’t know who painted it.
How does one accomplish work of this quality? That is the fundamental question that I feel knocking around in my head when I pick up books like this biography. What does it require to achieve greatness? And is there any way to do memorable work without leading the sort of existence that Melville or Kafka did, let alone the kind of life Van Gogh endured? After reading over half of Naifeh and Smith’s book, I have to say that I am amazed the man lived as long as he did.
I only knew the basic stuff about Vincent Van Gogh going into this book. I knew he was eccentric; that he had a long and sometime contentious relationship with his younger brother, Theo; I knew that he had once tried to cut off his own ear over a romantic entanglement; and I know that he killed himself, or so it is believed. I wasn’t even sure of the exact period of time in which he had lived. I knew it was not in the twentieth century.
The only other things I knew before I began reading his story was what I had taken in through my own eyes. For even though I haven’t had many chances to travel, I was fortunate enough, several years ago, to make two business trips to Holland. Both times I was able to experience a little of the city of Amsterdam, and on one of the trips I went to the Van Gogh Museum, located in that city. There I saw many of his most renowned works. More on this a bit later.
Van Gogh was the oldest of six - although technically he wasn’t the oldest at all. Theodorus Van Gogh and his wife Anna actually had seven children. The first was a son named Vincent, but he was not the Vincent Van Gogh we know today. This child was stillborn, and there’s a burial stone you can find even today marked with “Vincent Van Gogh” on it, which was present all the while when the artist we know of was growing up. Whether this fact about his name and his birth order had any kind of ingrown psychological effect on the “second” Vincent would be impossible to say. But it would be at least somewhat unaccountable to a young man to know all while coming up into the world that he was not even the first person in his own family to bear his name.
It seems from the moment Vincent Van Gogh was born he had trouble relating with other people and to the world. He seemed continually engaged in an undeclared war against practically everybody. His mother and father were very strict Protestant Christians; in fact, Theodorus (“Dorus”) Van Gogh was the local pastor in the small village of Zundert in Holland where Vincent grew up. But they were also extremely class-conscious, and seemed to regard social standing and reputation as of paramount importance. They wanted nothing more than for Vincent to achieve a high rank in the social strata, find work in an acceptable and dignified occupation, and elevate the family’s station. But Vincent had no regard for these kinds of worldly ambitions. This put him into immediate and continuous conflict with his parents, and that never changed throughout his lifetime.
He was socially awkward and an introvert as a young child, with a cantankerous, brooding disposition. Apparently this was something his mother and father could neither change nor tolerate. As soon as they could they shipped him off to a distant boarding school, where he was even less able to fit in both socially or academically, and was eventually expelled - the first in a long line of firings and retreats that would continue throughout his life. Wherever he went, from that point forward, he rebelled against conventional expectations. He approached everything with his own singular vision of how things ought to be done. It was a way of living that frequently brought him to loggerheads with authority figures of every stripe, so that it became nearly impossible for him to attend school, participate in apprenticeships, or maintain employment.
Ironically enough, all he ever seemed to want was his parents’ approval and admiration. But this was the one thing he was never able to secure. For many years, even as an adult, he lived under their roof, desperately seeking their blessing of his drawing and painting, even while becoming engaged in increasingly bitter and acrimonious disputes with them over how he lived his life and how he spent his time. They seemed alternately baffled and frustrated by him at almost every turn. While he was living at home in the 1880s, his father collapsed and died one day after visiting members of his flock, leaving a lifetime of discord and dispute with his artist son unresolved. His mother, for her part, continued to consider Vincent’s art “ridiculous” even after her son had already lost his own life and finally gained a broad and strong reputation for his work.
I feel both fascinated and befuddled as I make my way through this, one of the densest and most troubling biographies of a genuine artistic genius that I have ever come across. Vincent Van Gogh was overwhelmed with darkness and anxiety, anger and lust, and he could barely contain any of these rumbling monsters doing battle within him. He fought with just about everybody he ever knew; he visited prostitutes routinely; he starved himself; he maimed himself; he dressed in rags; he abused his brother’s love and tremendous forbearance; he refused to be properly educated; he even discarded and ridiculed the advice of other artists who wanted him to succeed. He was not an amoral person: he felt great solidarity with the poor and the disadvantaged, and he had many periods of spirited religious fervor. He knew the Bible backwards and forwards, and he admired the work of great Christian thinkers like Thomas a Kempis. Yet at other times in his life he denounced God entirely, especially in rebuke of his preacher father.
How does one get their head around a person like this? I aspire to produce great art myself. But I do not want to descend into mania and mental illness in order to unleash my best creative work. Sometimes, in my darker moments, it feels like that is the direction I am moving in. But those moments, luckily, are rare. What I feel more often, and thank God for it, is the joy in actually doing the work - writing, in my case. When I am fully engaged in it is when I feel the most happy and the most alive. One can only hope that Vincent Van Gogh - and the sickly Franz Kafka, and the bruised and defeated Herman Melville - experienced great rushes of the same feeling at times while they worked. Because God knows, if their hard working and talented biographers are correct, they didn’t feel a whole lot of that at any other times.
Just under ten years ago now, on a bright and sunny Spring day in the amazing city of Amsterdam, I was lucky enough to get an hour or two to explore the Van Gogh museum. I saw a lot of famous images, like Bedroom in Arles, Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, and especially Wheatfield With Crows, one of my all-time favorites. I remember being amazed at the humble size and scope of that last painting, which can be seen in this photograph. These, and so many others, are truly breathtaking images, and seeing them up close and in person makes a tremendous difference.
Another great blessing I had on that day, I remember so well, was encountering this image, which I did not know about at the time I visited the museum. This memory is a special one to me, because I was an expectant father at the time, awaiting the birth of my first child, my eldest daughter, who today is nine years old. I have four children now, and am a long way from those initial paternal stirrings, but I remember the rush of mysterious and powerful emotion I felt upon making the discovery. I will hold on to that moment for the rest of my life.
But the thing I remember more than anything else from that day was how I spent the whole time in the museum hunting high and low for the one picture that I was most interested in seeing. That picture was Starry Night, referenced earlier here. I didn’t want to consult the guide booklet - I just wanted to discover it on my own. But after nearly two hours, I still could not locate it. So finally I approached a uniformed staff member in the middle of a bustling crowd. “Where would I find Starry Night?” I asked him.
The man smiled and replied, “San Diego.”
Turns out the picture was on tour. After coming all that way to Holland, I was denied seeing the one picture I was most excited to experience? It couldn’t be! I remember the stinging disappointment - but then, afterwards, resolve. I was a writer, after all. I had learned many times already that the best things in life never come as easily as you hope or expect them to. But I also knew, even then, what Vincent Van Gogh never quite understood - that if I could just hang in there for long enough, my moment, one day, would come.