I Sense That You Have Ballads to Write…Or Something…

Back when I was about 18 and just starting college, I came home for a dinner party kind of thing at my parents’ house.  In attendance was a couple, we’ll call them Bob and Debbie, that my parents had befriended during their EST days.  At that point in time, their relationship with my parents had faded to almost nothing, so I was surprised to see them there.  I hadn’t seen them in many years.

These people had been frequent characters in my childhood memory, not only because they were around relatively a lot, but also because I watched my parents’ lose adoration of them.  Bob and Debbie lost their luster, much like the New Age.  Of course, I should point out that I am remembering this through the eyes of at 5 year old, but my assessment is probably pretty correct.  In short, my parents abandoned EST when they found out that the movement, in general, was a crap shoot and they didn’t really have patience for Bob and Debbie when they realized that Bob and Debbie were also full of crap.

My parents raised me to be a critical thinker, especially when it came to people.  Never mistake my ability to put up with people’s crap as an inability to identify people’s crap.

That last part makes me sound like that scene in Jurassic Park when the one paleontologist goes digging through a giant pile of triceratops droppings, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not that graphic, ok (and I totally spared you the picture of triceratops crap that I found online).  I just mean that I’m fairly sure that one of my main sources of misery as a kid (and as an adult) was that I knew so many people who were full of it and refused to call them out on it.

Over the years, I heard a lot of mockery of Bob and Debbie.  As a little kid, I didn’t really get it.  I think what it came down to was that they behaved as though they were incredibly enlightened individuals, but in reality they were both a mess.  They were each facing years’ worth of unrequited dreams and trying to pay the mortgage and raise an emotionally troubled son just like every other jackass.  Of course, this is, to me, the New Age movement in a nutshell.  It has never seemed any better than any other religion to me.  You replace the word God with the word Universe.  You put your faith in it just the same.  Sure, there’s more of a focus on personal responsibility, self-control, all that.  But it still seemed to defer to doing all this in the hopes of receiving gold stars from the Universe when you successfully didn’t throw a chair across the room in a fit of anger.

Honestly, I grew up thinking sometimes that my parents were a little harsh when it came to Bob and Debbie.  I mean, they tried to do things that they wanted to do.  In the end, I think it was because they projected an air of superiority for the things they were interested in and instead of coming across as interesting, they just came across as pretentious.

So they disappeared for a while and when I was 18 I came to a party at my parents’ house and there they were.  They looked about the same.  They weren’t acting any differently.  It was almost as though no time had passed.  The only difference was that I was 18 instead of 8 and I had truly begun to come into my own as a person.  Suddenly I found myself forming my own opinions about these people based on my own personal experience with them and it was both depressing and hilarious.

I found myself in a conversation with Bob.  He asked me what I was doing in school.  I told him that I was studying chemistry and he says, “Oh.  OK.  Well, you know what you should do then?” “What, Bob?” “You should solve nuclear fusion.”

I looked at him and blinked a few times.  I will give him points for not asking me to make him some LSD or something.  That’s usually what people say when I tell them I’m a chemist.  He was kickin’ it Old School™ by saying a close equivalent to, “You say you’re a chemist, ey?  What say you and me go blow up Japan?”  Yes, yes.  I know.  Those were physicists, but most people don’t know the difference.  The nuclear fusion thing was a similar faux pas.

“Solve nuclear fusion?  Oh, well, let me go get a couple of cocktail napkins and I’ll jot down a few of my ideas for you!”  I figured giving in to his demands would be easy…if I had a genie or something.

“I’m just saying, that’s where it’s at.  If you could solve that, then the education would be worth it.”

“Well, Bob, that would be nuclear physics and I’m a first year chemistry student, so I’ll get back to you after I get acids and bases all figured out.”

The rest of the conversation was similar in that he would ask me about something I was interested in and then proceed to tell me what I should actually be interested in and doing.  It reminds me of the conversation between Fry and Leela in one of the greatest episodes of Futurama ever:

Fry – What have you always wanted to do more than anything else?
Leela – *sigh* To meet my real parents…
Fry – Whatever. The correct answer is “to be a super hero”.

At some point we got onto the subject of music.  I informed him that I play the guitar.  Now, at that point I had not written a song yet.  Well, I think I had written one but I didn’t really like it.  I had put a couple of Peter’s poems to music by then but was even more critical of my own words then than I am now.  So, I tell Bob that I like playing Neil Young songs and he says, “Ok.  Well, what you need to do right now is record an album.”

“Um…well, I would if I had any songs that I have written.”

“Well, write some!  Now!  Before it’s too late!”

“I’m fairly certain I’m not going to die in the next couple of days. Look, Bob, I’m not going to write anything if I have nothing to say.  Songs written by people who have nothing of consequence to say make for terrible albums.”

“So what?” he said. “You’ve got to record.  NOW.”

“But whatever I would record NOW would be horrifically mediocre.”


“Why would I want recorded evidence of my extreme mediocrity?”

“You might DIE!”

“I WILL in fact die.  Why would I want my legacy to be a string of mediocre ballads about being a teenager or something?”

It went on like this until I found out that he had recently recorded an album.  He brought copies for everyone and made us listen to it.  When the first track started, his wife said, “Oh god.  Again, Bob?”

The album was, as I expected, completely mediocre and uninspiring.  After they left I thought about this a lot.  On one hand, it was hilarious.  On the other hand, it was so very sad because I know that this guy paid out the ass to produce this thing that no one cared about.  To him it was this thing that he did before he died and to everyone else it was boring noise.  Could I fault him for fulfilling a dream of his?  Of course not.  But I am left wondering why it was such a dream of his when he had absolutely nothing of exciting to offer the public.

I was reminded of all this recently as I sat in the attic of Peter’s lovely house recording one of 90 little takes that comprised my electric guitar part for one of our newer songs.  Peter and I have been writing and playing together for 4-5 years (officially) and as we continue on this huge project of recording our first real, fully tracked, studio album I see that we have achieved something brilliant.  We are far from mediocre.  It took me a long while to realize this.  Much like a kid who is short for most of hir formative years who suddenly gets a growth spurt, never quite understanding that zie’s not short anymore, Peter and I used to be quite mediocre musically.  Our friends supported us because they were our friends…and often I feared we were subjecting them to our music, rather than entertaining them.  I still have a hard time understanding that this isn’t the case anymore.  Sure, most of our fan base are our friends, but I think they actually like to come listen to us play.  I think they actually find us entertaining and really worth listening to.  Our friends know the words to our older songs.

At a rehearsal recently, I found myself somehow distanced from the rest of the band.  I was listening to everyone but myself and I found myself thinking, “Wow, this band is awesome.”  I spoke to myself as though I wasn’t part of it.  It was a moment of slight objectiveness wherein I could hear how great a band Arcati Crisis is and then I remembered that I get to front it often.  I looked over at Peter and thought about how we’ve known each other for 17 years and have managed to get here.  No, we aren’t making any money and we don’t have a lot of notoriety, but it is a legacy that I am proud to have etched on my past and present.  I think about that conversation with Bob and I am happy to say that I didn’t just write some songs to say that I had done it.  I wrote some songs because I had songs to write.  If I were die suddenly, I would at least have those songs to leave behind and by listening to them you would get a pretty wonderful idea of who I am.

There’s often discussion about how atheists are depressing, defeatist misanthropes who just want to crap on everyone else’s good time.  People equate saying that there is no God, nor is there magic in the world with “Nothing is beautiful and nothing moves me”.  Well, I wholeheartedly disagree.  I am struck so often by the beauty that is life and that I can appreciate it for its beauty, nothing more nothing less.  When you have one life to live, when you are simply living for yourself and the people you love, simple things like recording truly high quality music with your best friend is really all you need.

So, in the end, Bob was kind of right.  You’ve got to do what you love before it’s too late.  Sure, Bob is kind of an idiot and rather abrasive in that he tells everyone what they should be doing all the time (and thinks that nuclear fusion is just one of those things you think about and figure out), but he did something he had always wanted to do.  Many people can’t say that and go to their grave never having accomplished even a mediocre version of their biggest dreams.  I mocked him back them.  Heck, I mocked him here right now, but ultimately he played a pretty big part in inspiring me to keep at it once I did, in fact, have a song to write.

Don’t get me wrong.  He’s still pretty full of crap.  But we can often find one undigested kernel of truth in even the biggest piles of crap if we don’t mind getting our hands dirty.

Wow.  I really just wrote that.  That might be the worst version of “every cloud has a silver lining” that I could have possibly come up with.  And yet, I’m somehow not deleting it.  Well, I guess with all this talk of legacies, I gotta do what I gotta do.  I yam what I yam.

Close up on a partially opened can of spinach.