There are fourteen guitars in the room where I am writing this. Most of them are mounted on wooden rectangles, about two-and-a-half feet by five, upholstered with muted tweed shades of green, grey, and blue. They are hung, hopscotch-style, in an ascending stair-step pattern that wraps around three walls, and terminates at the cathedral-style ceiling, twelve feet off the ground.
Interspersed between the guitars are professionally framed and matted posters –with matching ticket stubs– from a dozen shows from around the Pacific Northwest: Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp at the Yakima Fairgrounds; Leonard Cohen at the Key Arena; Kasey Chambers at the Aladdin; John Prine in Missoula, and half a dozen others.
The instruments and framed posters –all beautifully and meticulously crafted– represent the treasured memories of life-long music fans, but they aren’t mine.
With one exception, I never attended any of the shows on the posters. And, although I wish I did, I do not play or own any of the guitars nestled on their swinging hooks. There is a passion for music that radiates from the memorabilia and paraphernalia so lovingly attached to these walls, but it isn’t mine. It is that of the long-time friends who have graciously taken me into their home.
This is their music room, and I’ve come here to die.
My friends have set it up generously and comfortably: It has a large flat-screened, plasma TV, a powered recliner, an adjustable bed, and is generally a luxurious place to pass the time. This is something for which I am grateful, because I spend an inordinate amount of my time in here. In fact, most days, I can barely leave at all.
As a result, I’ve spent hours staring up at the music accoutrements on the walls, and it has occurred to me that there may be some cosmic significance in my dying here –in the music room of friends that I only know because of music– because music has shaped every aspect of my life for most of the time I have been alive.
Without music I wouldn’t have met nearly any of the people with whom I have meaningful connections today. In fact, I wouldn’t have met the most important people in my life, nor had the most treasured experiences of my life.
Everything good that ever happened to me, happened because of music. It has defined my life and relationships, soundtracked my triumphs, softened my tragedies, and, even now, at the end, it is still a critical part of who I am, chronicling my last few laps around the sun and those who’ve enlisted in my little pirate crew, having dedicating themselves to giving me support, love, and music to soundtrack my exit. Maybe, if I’m lucky, there
The first song I remember hearing was Three Dog Night’s ‘Joy To the World’ in 1976, when I was three years old. It was pumping out of a tabletop stereo in the living room of our small house on Hickory Street, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
A year later, we were living in a wonderful, giant old farm house on Tram Road, outside of town. The tabletop stereo got replaced on Christmas Day of 1977 by a massive Zenith Allegro console model that is still the best Christmas present my dad ever gave my mom. The Zenith would become both a rare bit of stability in an ever-changing landscape (we moved it to over a dozen different houses in a ten year period, despite its massive size and enormous weight), as well as my primary method of experiencing music for most of my childhood.
It was in front of that gargantuan stereo that my Aunt Shirley taught me how to do The Bump and The Hustle, while spinning the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. From it, I first heard Willie Nelson and Don Williams and Bob Dylan. Every Saturday in 1980, I would slip on the massive beige headphones and tune it to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown, anxious to find out the chart position of my favorite songs. Every Christmas, my mom would decorate it with garland, colorful Christmas candles, and strings of lights. We’d listen to Bobby Vinton do ‘O Holy Night’, and every time he sang “Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices” I would get chills up my spine.
When I turned thirteen, my mom gave me her double-LP copies of The Beatles’ greatest hits from 1962-1970 (colloquially known as the Red [1962-’66] and Blue [1967-’70] albums).
Well, she gave me most of it…
You see, sometime in the late 1970’s, church became really important to her. Our church had convinced her that Satan was lurking in a lot of places, but nowhere more so than in music. He was supposed to have been Lucifer, the Angel of Music, in Heaven –before he led the angelic rebellion that got him tossed out on his ear. His mastery of melodies meant that he was particularly adept at spreading his messages and corrupting humanity through the musical art form.
Any music other than religious hymns was suspect, but no genre was more obviously and blatantly Satanic than rock ‘n’ roll. To listen to it was to –very literally– put one’s soul in deadly peril.
It was for this reason that my mom had burned the second platter of the Blue Album in a trash barrel behind our house. I’m not sure which track had offended her enough to send it back to the fiery depths from which it sprang, but she heard something she didn’t like enough that she barbecued ‘Let it Be’. I’d always thought it was George Harrison’s obviously demonic ‘My Sweet Lord’, with it’s “Hare Krishna” refrain, but it’s not even on the album. Whichever track got her goat, the result was that I got a half of a double album –never able to hear ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ or ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’— only able to read their lyrics on the liner notes.
Nevertheless, ,I treasured the set, missing record and all, and would come home every day after school and load them onto the spindle of the Allegro’s record player, soaking in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Yesterday’ like a flower needing rain. I spent hours sitting in front of the old cabinet’s wood-louvered speakers, absorbing the work of Lennon and McCartney, letting their music and lyrics wash over me.
That old stereo feels like a kind of a shrine or an altar, in my memory: a place of light and warmth where I’d make offerings, offer up prayers, and receive blessings. Thinking about it never fails to make me smile.
My mom still has it. It still works.
I suppose the first live music I ever saw was in church. I remember a sort of travelling Christian folk singer coming one Sunday night in 1977 or ’78. He wore a harmonica rack around his neck, and it fascinated me. I’d seen my dad play harmonica before –he had a Hohner Marine Band that he sometimes let me blow on– but I’d never seen someone play one with no hands, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the contraption that made it possible.
We went to church three times a week (every Wednesday night and twice on Sundays), and there was always music involved. There was the worship service, special musical guests, children’s choir, adult choir, Sunday School sing-a-longs, as well as various plays and pageants.
I remember singing in my first school musical at the age of five, and the thrill I got when we stepped out on stage.
For years after, my kindergarten teacher would tell the story of how, just as we were about to file from behind the curtain, the boy beside me was beset by stage-fright. As the teacher tried to reassure and encourage him, I’d leaned over and said:
“Just relax and act like you know what you’re doing!”
I may or may not have a true memory of that interaction. I can recall it in my mind, but I’m not sure if it is because I was told the anecdote so often, or if it is because I have an actual memory of the event. One thing I’m certain I remember is the stage props.
In the middle of the stage, there was a box fan lying on its back, which blew red, orange, and yellow crepe paper streamers of ‘flame’ to simulate a sacrificial fire. The fan itself was blocked from the audience’s view by the cardboard ‘rocks’ of the altar, so the ‘fire’ seemed to spring up from the rocks. Seeing it made me feel like I was in on a magic trick –like I was part of an exclusive club that knew the behind-the-scenes secrets.
I felt very at home on the stage. I loved the microphones and monitors, the lights, and the shifted perspective of looking out at the audience instead of looking up at the stage. It all just felt so magical. Once I got up there, that is.
A couple of years before my kindergarten stage debut, I was supposed to be part of a children’s Christmas pageant during the Sunday night service. The plan was that we would sit in the audience with our parents until it was time for the show, and then they would call us up on stage. When the call came, I wasn’t having any. Nothing my mother said would convince me to get up from my seat. I lost my three year-old mind in the middle of the First Assemblies of God auditorium and began to throw a ten-dollar fit, right there in the pew. I wouldn’t stop. Finally, my mom dragged my out to the foyer by an arm –with me kicking and screaming the whole way– then proceeded to beat the holy blue hell out of me for daring to both defy and embarrass her in front of the whole congregation.
When we got home, she pulled the “Guess what your son just did…” routine on my dad, and that’s the first time I ever remember getting spanked by a belt.
Now, I won’t say that I got the stage-fright spanked out of me that night, but I guess I can’t say that I didn’t, either. All I know is that, after that night, I never missed another opportunity to take a stage.
In 2nd grade, I got the lead in a musical called, Come, Messiah, Come, about a group of orphans befriended by Jesus in the days leading up to his crucifixion. I don’t remember the name of the character I played (Nathaniel, maybe?), but I do recall getting lost in the role.
There’s a scene where my character gets informed that Jesus has been crucified and he runs from the stage, screaming. I remember playing that scene on opening night, running from the stage in the darkened auditorium, totally inhabiting that character. In that moment, I felt I was that little boy whose friend had just been killed. It felt like a sort of magic.
After that, I was hooked on performing.
A few years later, in the 5th grade, I joined a children’s choral group sponsored by the local community college. We traveled to shopping malls, nursing homes, and various competitions to put on shows consisting of old standards and re-arranged pop hits of the day. I loved being part of that group, but dropped out rather than hold the hand of my crush while singing Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.
Heather Greer was a stunning even as a girl. She would go on to be head cheerleader and prom queen in our high school years. The epitome of a statuesque blonde beauty, she was also smart and sweet and always kind and gracious to me. In our high school years, she never failed to say hello when we passed in the halls or if we saw each other at a party. We moved in completely different social circles and cliques (mine decidedly shadier than hers), but she never let that stop her from treating me with respect.
I recall one day, during our senior year, I held the door open for her when we both arrived at the cafeteria simultaneously.
“After you, Miss Greer!” I’d said with an exaggerated bow.
Adopting a faux accent and a comically haughty air, she’d replied, “Why thank you, Mister Holbrook!” and swept through the door like Gloria Swanson. I followed her through and we both cracked up.
It was a silly but warm moment of familiarity from someone who was so far above me socially that she might as well have been in orbit. I always appreciated how she always went out of her way to put me at ease and to treat me as an equal.
But that was later.
In the 5th grade, every time I got within three feet of her, I started to feel hot and sweaty. One day, during practice, the choir director had us hold hands while working through ‘Total Eclipse…’
Just the two of us. Holding hands.
I thought I was going to faint. I could barely breathe. I could feel myself blushing so furiously that I must have looked sun-roasted. I felt terrified and excited all at once.
Most of all I felt exposed.
I couldn’t imagine performance after performance, holding Heather’s hand, singing, “I really need you tonight!” in my figurative underwear. I barely made it through that first practice without throwing up on myself out of embarrassment.
Heather was gracious, and probably used to flustering boys, even at that age, but there was a look of recognition between the two of us; an unstated understanding as she quickly glanced away: she knew.
She knew I liked her, liked her.
I couldn’t bear the shame.
I left practice that night and never went back.
Not long after, puberty hit full-force and my voice began to change. I hated the way it sounded, so I quit singing altogether. I felt distressed about it at the time. Singing had been such a huge part of my identity, even at that age, that I felt lost without it.
Even if only subconsciously, I knew I needed another musical outlet, so, by the time I was fourteen, I had begun to pursue the guitar semi-seriously. I’d borrowed one of my dad’s guitars, along with his chord Bible and a couple of popular songbooks, and began working through the chord diagrams –straining my fingers into strange shapes, cutting painful grooves into the fingertips. I was following a family tradition that included cousins, uncles, grandparents, and (perhaps most importantly) my dad, whom I had been listening to since I was four years old.
Some of my earliest memories are of his old Epiphone guitar. He would let me help open the case, lined with a silky gold faux fur that I loved to run my hand across; embossed with the stylized ‘E’ that I would trace with my finger. He would play ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ and ‘I Wish I Was Your Teddy Bear’ and ‘Poison Ivy’, and my older sister and I would dance around the room –but it was the sad songs that I loved: ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’; ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘El Paso.’ I would beg him to play them, transfixed by the tragedy in the lyrics, luxuriating in the ache the minor chords caused in me. It was then that I realized my soul was tuned to a minor key, and that it would always be the sad songs during which I’d find myself enraptured.
Most years, at some time during the holidays, my Uncle Ray would come to town –first, up from Texas, then, later, down from Chicago. We’d all get together as a family, and he and my dad would play guitar and sing songs while the everyone sat around and listened. As a kid, it was my goal to learn to play guitar well enough that I could could sit in and trade songs with them.
I loved my Uncle Ray. He had given me my first guitar when I was five years old –a cheap 3/4-size acoustic, hand painted with hippie symbols and slogans, and missing a string or two. He was a great guitarist. He played an acoustic 12-string and loved ZZ Top. I wanted to be just like him. He would sing ‘Fire On The Mountain’ by Marshall Tucker, and ‘This Is Where The Cowboy Rides Away’ by George Strait. I remember when he came to visit in 1981, he brought me and my dad a head-to-head Coleco electric football game, and a boombox through which he introduced us to Jimmy Buffett.
By the time I was in 8th grade, my dad had given me his 12-string Ovation in tobacco sunburst, and his 6-string Alvarez acoustic in blonde. The Alvarez was beautiful, with a three-piece split back that had a figured mother-of-pearl trim. I liked the sound of the Ovation, but the double-courses of strings made it difficult for a beginner, so it was the Alvarez that got most of my attention. And it got a lot.
I played it as soon as I got home from school. I would play in front of the stereo in my bedroom for hours. I would drag the guitar into the living room and play along to MTV, and VH1, and CMT. I would play the guitar at the dinner table; while talking on the phone (something I still do); while watching television; while lying in bed.
I would play the guitar on the toilet.
Had it been waterproof, I would have played the guitar in the bathtub.
This was the era of the heavy metal shredder, but that never interested me. I was always a more natural rhythm guitarist –more interested in driving the story of the song forward than in adding ornamentation. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I wasn’t interested in doing note-for-note renditions of my favorite songs. To me, songs were mostly about the lyrics, anyway. I couldn’t find any inspiration or soulfulness in mimicry of the notes, so I didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over tablatures or working out perfect imitations of my favorite guitar lines.
I’d cue the song I wanted to learn up on the record player or tape deck, then grab my guitar and play along until I had figured out the broad chord changes. Once I had the bones of the tune committed to memory, I rarely went back to check my work against the original recording. As I continued to play the song more and more, while checking the reference recording less and less, it would gradually and naturally morph into something distinct from the original song; something more personal and connected to myself.
After a few years, around the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was inseparable from my guitar. I was now able to trade songs with my dad and Uncle Ray during the Thanksgiving get-togethers, and would play anywhere I wouldn’t get arrested for it: house parties; parking lots; car hoods; picnic benches; street corners.
I’d scored a cheap Gibson Les Paul copy for one of my birthdays, and I sunk a lot of hours into playing along with AC/DC, Aerosmith, Guns N Roses, Motorhead, and The Misfits. I fell in love with its bright, red-to-gold sunburst finish; its curvaceous cutouts; its chunky chrome-capped pickups which oozed warm, round tone. It seemed darker and fatter, tonally, than the Fender Stratocasters I’d been playing in the music store, and I preferred it. I also preferred the vaguely feminine shape of the body to the Stratocaster’s lopsided, alien angles and phallic-looking headstock. Playing an electric guitar was a completely different beast, technique-wise, but gradually I got used to it –though never great at it.
I’d begun to get used to my new voice too, first by singing along with the radio, then by singing along with my guitar. It was like re-learning an instrument, but I gradually began to gain confidence. By the time 1989 rolled around, I’d gained enough of that to be comfortable playing in front of a crowd.
I would leave the house on a Friday night, toss the guitar into the back-seat, drive to McDonald’s, then start playing on the hood of my car until I had a large enough crowd gathered around for a party. It usually didn’t take long. People would stop out of sheer curiosity, then they’d stay for a few songs. Eventually someone would produce a bottle (or a joint) and that would attract more people. Someone would mention a house party, or a bonfire kegger at the end of some lonely county road, and off we’d go.
I’d spend the night playing songs in some random bedroom, or on a log by a fire, taking requests and building a repertoire. But I was also making friends –something that had never come easily to me before. People began to recognize me and invite me to functions. I was learning that music was my key to the lock on popularity.
I was also learning songs. Songs by Bob Seger and The Band; by Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix; by Pink Floyd and Jim Croce. Until the age of fourteen, my musical intake had been strictly controlled by my parents and my church, but I began to defy their guidelines, searching out all the music I’d previously been denied, drinking it all in.
In high school, I began to write lyrics and combine them with melodies, most of which were blatant rip-offs of Metallica songs. I eventually expanded to ripping off Tracy Chapman and Sinead O’Connor too, but by my senior year of high school, things were starting to click –it was like I could see the scaffolding underneath songs, and then use that knowledge to build songs of my own.
By the time I joined the Army in 1993 (as grunge was reaching its peak), I had built a catalog of a dozen solid originals that I had begun to play at local bars and house parties. Most of them were dark and introspective, a reflection both of my natural inclination and the amount of Pearl Jam and Nirvana I had been listening to over the previous couple of years.
During basic training, deprived of a guitar, I would sing my originals, acapella, in the shower, late at night. Soon, word got around the company that I could sing and write songs. Within a few weeks, a few of us were performing impromptu choral sets in the showers, on the busses, in the backs of the ‘cattle-trucks’, and in the barracks. We’d sing Motown and R&B and classic rock tunes; we’d sing cadences and hymns; we’d sing anything that we all knew the words to. It was a communal expression of much-needed normalcy in an environment that often felt grim and oppressive.
It was a way to seize back a little of our previous lives as well as a way to celebrate that place inside where you store the things that no one can take away, no matter how hard they try. Radios and music-playing devices might have been banned by the drill sergeants, but once you know a song, it’s always with you. You can call it up at any time. Singing was a way for us to escape; to transport ourselves beyond the gates and back into easier, happier times, if only for a few minutes.
When I landed in Korea in July of 1994, the first thing I did, upon reaching my unit (the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey), was find a music store in the local town of Dongducheon (called Tongduchon back then), and buy a guitar. It was a mahogany-burst split-back 12-string acoustic with ‘Montana’ on the headstock. It was made in Korea by Sammick guitars, and a damned fine instrument as it turned out. By that night I was playing it on Korean street-corners and in the barracks stair-wells.
Within a few months I was playing shows at Korean clubs, cranking out acoustic covers of Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails and Jimmy Buffett for drunk GI’s, looking for a taste of home. In the barracks, I took requests and sprinkled in originals of my own, eventually building a reputation that would draw people from other sections. People began to ask me what I was doing in the Army.
“Why aren’t you famous?” They’d say.
I was standing –barely– on a stage in Raleigh, North Carolina. The year was 1997, and I was stationed a couple hours to the south at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. My then-wife and a car-load of friends and co-workers had taken a road-trip with me to a popular open-mic event, and they were all expecting big things out of me.
Just like in Korea, I had become a barracks-favorite musician in the 82nd Airborne Division, after pulling out my guitar and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ on a picnic table my first week there. For the past three years, I had been encouraged to find a wider venue in which to showcase my talents. At the time, Raleigh was to Americana music what Seattle had been to grunge just a few years before. An open-mic there was a real opportunity.
But I got nervous. It had been years since I’d done a show from a bar stage, and there were at least a hundred people in attendance, so I started drinking. By the time my name was called to mount the stage, I was shit-hammered. I lurched up onto the stage and swayed my way through three or four originals (that not a soul in the joint, save my group, knew) before slicing open my thumb on a guitar string. I was eventually led off-stage by the manager, to a smattering of applause, while my thumb dripped blood like a leaky bathroom tap all over the stage and my guitar.
“I bled for you, Raleigh! I bled for you!” I remember yelling from the stage as they dragged me off.
My friends applauded and cheered, gamely, but it had been a disastrous showing. I was deeply embarrassed and discouraged. It would be seven years before I took the stage again.
Part of that was due to how badly I felt about the performance, but it was more reflective of how disconnected I was feeling from music. The death of grunge and the rise of nu metal had left me feeling like a musical orphan with no role models to emulate. I struggled to find a connection to what I heard coming out of the radio, and I wasn’t part of a music scene where I could get exposed to new and interesting things. I felt the creative spark less and less, as inspiration fled from me.
I also recall thinking –as ridiculous as it seems to me now– that I was far too old to pursue music; as though my best days were behind me. For the next few years, I never brought a guitar out of the case, and people stopped asking why I wasn’t famous.
In September of 2001, I mustered out of the Army and returned to the Tri-Cities, Washington (where my wife was from) as a newly-minted CompTIA A+ certified computer support technician. I had known for about eighteen months previously that my Army career was going to come to a premature end (my lung disease had began to manifest itself in the mid-90’s, and, by early 2000, it was apparent that I wouldn’t be able to physically continue as a paratrooper), so I had begun to study computers and computer networking, getting several industry certifications before the axe fell. I fully expected that the rest of my working life would be devoted to that field.
I rarely thought about music anymore, and, with a few exceptions, rarely even made it a point to listen to it.
One of those exceptions was the perennial live music show, Austin City Limits, which I would watch every Saturday night that I could. I had been a fan ever since seeing Willie Nelson do a set on my local PBS affiliate as a child. During those years that I wasn’t playing, writing, or really listening to much music, I was still deeply moved by performances I saw on the program. Sets by Coldplay, Ben Harper, and David Gray were standouts, but no ACL performance I saw in those years touched me like Steve Earle debuting ‘Fort Worth Blues’. It is a heart-rendingly gorgeous tribute to his near-life-long friend, Townes Van Zandt, that made me ache with both reverence and jealousy at the same time; I wanted to write a song that good –but I never felt inspired enough to pick up a pen and try.
In June of 2002, I was diagnosed with emphysema and given three-to-five years to live. Afterward, I struggled to find any reason to pick up the new guitar I had purchased the year before (but never played). It all seemed so pointless. Then, in early 2003, while listening to streaming internet radio on RealPlayer, I heard a song that stopped me dead and commanded that I pay attention.
I had been listening to news of the (then-just-happening) Iraq invasion on a computer in my den while I worked on building a computer network in my adjacent office. I was on my back, under a desk, wiring things up when the news ended and music began. Rather than crawl from under the desk, I just let it play. Some time later, a singer’s voice penetrated my consciousness, the lyrics pulling my attention from the computer cables in my hand.
“I am the one who will never die young
I am a martyr, and I cannot hide
But I’m not a winner, I’m just brilliantly bitter
I’m sealed by my skin but broken inside”
Her voice was so hauntingly beautiful and sad, as if it were on the verge of breaking with every line. As I listened, I understood that the song was about someone dying young, told from the vantage point of someone they’d left behind, and all the pain it had caused.
I was struggling with feelings of guilt and loss at the thought of leaving my two young children, and what life without a father would mean for them. My daughter was only a few months old at the time of my diagnosis, my son not even two years old. If I lived the expected five years, that would put them in kindergarten and 1st grade as I was on my way out. That seemed so impossibly cruel. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d talk to them about it, let alone put them through it, and it was something that weighed constantly on my mind.
I was also feeling increasingly bitter about everything I was being cheated out of in a future I would never see. I became envious of people’s future plans, present relationships, and their physical abilities. My view of the world was becoming tainted by my prognosis, and it left me feeling angry and impotent, isolated, alone, and broken.
To say that the song hit home for me would be an understatement. After hearing the chorus for the first time, I dropped what I was working on in my office and bolted out to the computer on my desk in the den. It felt like I had been struck by lightning. I had to know who this was! I looked up the song and and its writer: ‘Never Die Young’ by Lori McKenna.
I found out that she was an independent musician in Massachusetts; a housewife and mother of four who recorded music and played shows in her spare time. The song was about her mother, who had passed away from cancer when she was a young girl. I became an immediate and passionate fan who spent the rest of my day working through every song of hers I could find. By that evening, I had taken my guitar down from the wall where it had been hanging, and began to write music again.
It just came pouring out.
A few years later, Lori was discovered by Faith Hill, went on the Oprah show, and saw her career explode overnight. Today she’s one of the most successful country songwriters in America –in fact, you’ve probably sang along to a few of her songs without knowing she’s the one who wrote them. I’m so glad that mainstream America got the gift of her, and I’m so glad she’s getting the recognition and rewards she deserves, but my love and gratitude toward her would be just as real and deep if she were still schlepping to club gigs in a minivan.
I literally owe her my life.
Had I not heard ‘Never Die Young’ I might never have started writing songs again, and writing songs changed my life. Writing songs has been vital to me. It has allowed me to express the most pure, most distilled version of who I am, as well as what I’ve seen and how I’ve felt about it all. It has allowed me to create a record of my life, through art, that will outlive me; that will persist on the internet, on physical media, and –most importantly– in people’s memories, if not their hearts.
Had I not heard it, I might have never had my passion for music reignited, or discovered so many of the artists that have soundtracked the most meaningful moments of my life ever since. I wouldn’t have the anthems that pumped from car speakers on long road trips when her laugh was easy and intoxicating, and her eyes never quit sparkling; I wouldn’t have the jukebox dirges that I couldn’t stop playing at the Uptown on the day that he died; I wouldn’t have the life preserver to which I clung after my life exploded –the sad, slow strains of the heartbroken balladeers. I wouldn’t have the glue that has held together the scenes of my daily life for the last nineteen years and which continues to sustain me daily.
That’s a powerful and wonderful thing to give someone, and Lori McKenna gave it to me.
To her, I will be always and forever be grateful.
In 2005, about the time Lori McKenna was being introduced to daytime TV audiences, I was putting the finishing touches on my first album, A Thousand Miles Long. It was a deeply personal collection of songs that I’d written over the previous fifteen years, as well as a couple of cover tunes (an Americana-folk cover of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and a cover of the Parchman prison work-gang song, ‘Berta, Berta.’).
While a few of the originals from my high school and Army years made the cut, most of the songs had been written after my diagnosis in 2002, during the twilight years of my failing marriage. The result was a sort of fatalistic melancholy that ran through many of the tunes. From the album art design, to the arrangements, to the production, the word that best describes the disc is ‘stark.’ That said, I’m very proud of that album. As I write this, it has been sixteen years since I officially released ATML, and people still send me complimentary messages when they discover (or re-discover) some track that touches them. People have contacted me to tell me about special memories of theirs that it has soundtracked. People tag me on social media with regularity, linking me to some track from that album that is helping them through some hard time.
It was the product of the most intensely creative period of my life, and may well represent the best of my work, so I’m so glad it’s still out there, offering a sort of refuge, helping people, and giving people joy.
As much as it was a product of creative impulse, the album was also the result of something deeper: I’d felt compelled to get part of myself and my art recorded for posterity; to leave something behind that would live on after I was gone.
After my diagnosis, I had lasted a year-and-a-half working at my job as a mobile computer technician. Not long after my Road-to-Damascus moment with Lori McKenna, I quit –deciding that if I had such a limited amount of time left, I wanted to follow a few dreams. My wife had went back to work and I’d enrolled in a local college, keeping a few corporate clients on the side to supplement our income. I began to fill my free time with music: listening to it; practicing it; writing it; discussing it online.
For me, the latter happened mostly on a fan-ran discussion board devoted to Americana musician, Ryan Adams. Think of it as a social network that existed before Facebook, populated by a diverse cross-section of global music lovers, all posting updates -about life, music, politics, art, love, film, literature, poetry, food, religion, philosophy– every few minutes. The only thing off-limits was porn. Everything else was fair game to say or to share. Within a few weeks it was a huge part of my daily life. Every free minute I was checking back in for updates and new content. I would spend hours every day reading and commenting on the posts, while listening to the music I was reading about. People were recommending new music every few minutes, it seemed like. I found so many artists that I couldn’t keep up with everything. It was a musical education.
It was also very often an education, education. Many highly intelligent people posted very thoughtfully written critiques or discussions on every imaginable topic. I’d spend hours researching things I’d read posted to the site. After a few months lurking, I began to interact with the community.
I was often arrogant, stubborn, and just plain wrong while expressing my opinions there. Despite that, I developed some deep and lasting personal friendships, with people I have never met, but which have survived nearly two decades, and have been among the warmest, deepest, and truest connections I have ever made. I often receive personal messages of support, encouragement, and even real-life gifts and care packages from the fine folks I’ve ‘met’ there. The friendships have served as a both an artistic sounding board and a literal life-support system, and the friends I made there continue to support me through my darkest times with love, respect, and grace. I am blessed to have found them.
Beyond that, the community was –for me– a breeding ground of inspiration. The title track of A Thousand Miles Long was inspired by a comment thread; the track ‘Wake Up In Ruins’, from my album Brown Bottle Flu, referenced a direct quote of something Ryan himself had written on the board. My track ‘Crusader’ was inspired by some of the online-sparring and drama that also came along with the forums. ‘The Thief, The Maid, and The Magician’s title characters had been lifted from a dream one of the site-members had, that I then had co-opted for my own purposes. Fully half the tracks on both A Thousand Miles Long and Brown Bottle Flu have some connection that message board.
The board was my link to a wider musical world, one that expanded my horizons in so many ways, but there is only so much you can experience by reading about it. Soon, the same vaguely fatalistic hedonism that had led me to quit my job and enroll in college, had driven me to return to playing live music –to try and live as much of my dream as I could before the disease got me. I began to play live shows at wineries, restaurants, coffee shops and bars, wanting to use my voice while I still had it.
When I first met Tom Gnoza, I wasn’t all that impressed. I had recently begun to explore Tom Waits’ catalog, and he had struck me as a guy who badly wanted to be Tom Waits.
He looked like Tom Waits, dressed like Tom Waits, sang like Tom Waits, and even seemed to possess some of his manic sort of idiosyncrasies. It was July of 2006, and he was hosting an open-mic night at the Parkade Bar and Grill in Kennewick, Washington. I wanted to make connections and sell some copies of my newly-pressed album, so when I heard about a new open-mic in my area, I had decided to show up and introduce myself. We were the only two performers there when I arrived, so I watched his set, then he watched mine.
I wasn’t a very polished public performer yet –I was still sitting in a chair, playing the guitar on my knee, reading the lyrics off a music stand in front of me– and if I was unimpressed by Gnoza trying to be Waits, he thought little more (he would later tell me) of me trying hard to be Bob Dylan.
As the night progressed, we got several opportunities to talk, and I began to warm up to him. He was a much better harmonica player than I was, and he gave me tips on a new harmonica rack (mine had kept falling down during my short set). He was funny, bright, irreverent, witty, and irrepressible. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music, and a decades-long resumé of attending and performing shows. I envied the number of times he had seen Dylan live (nearly two dozen), because Tom was right: I absolutely wanted to be him. At the end of the night, we had parted promising to meet up at his next show, in a few days. I gave him a copy of my CD and he promised to listen to it.
At the next show he was fronting his band, Uncle Dirt Nap, and it was a completely different experience to seeing him in a small solo acoustic show. He was a great stage performer –frenetic, animated, genuine, enthusiastic, infectious, outrageous, charismatic, and magnetic– and I realized that I had (not for the last time) underestimated him.
We talked more that night, about music and other important things in life, and over the next couple of years, I became not just a regular at his shows, but also his friend, and a sort of protégé to his mentor. From him, I was forever learning new songs, stories, performance tips, and stagecraft. I remember, early on, he’d called me up on stage with him to duet on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’. He was horrified when I told him I didn’t know all the lyrics, only the chorus.
“How can you not know ‘Pancho and Lefty’, man? That’s a classic! That’s in everybody’s bag!”
I went home and learned it. Played it nearly every show afterward.
By 2008 we lived not far from one another, frequented the same bars and venues, and saw each other several times a week. As it turned out, we had a lot in common and saw the world in similar ways. We loved a lot of the same movies and were both habitual and verbose quoters of The Big Lebowski. We had become close friends, and many evenings ended with us together, closing down the Uptown Bar and Grill with a small group of regulars, then retiring to some house party to smoke weed. Over the course of a few hundred blurry nights, I pieced together his story.
He had spent the better part of the late 90’s and early 2000’s in Seattle, thoroughly entrenched in the local music scene. He was shockingly ginger, and so lanky, pale, and rail-thin, that –stripped down to one of his favored white wife-beaters– he looked like a concentration camp survivor. For this reason, the most successful band he fronted in the Emerald City was called Red Skeleton. He had found modest success within the scene there, but heroin, whiskey, and love had all taken their toll. By the time I was recording that first album, he had been back in the Tri-Cities for a few years, nursing his wounds and trying to build enough of a local music career to keep him in whisky and cigarettes.
He’d kicked heroin in the early 2000’s, but he almost always drank his lunch, if not his breakfast. He drank every day and preferred Jack Daniel’s straight, though he’d drink whatever you had on hand, as long as it wasn’t beer. He could be an ugly, vicious drunk, and he was perpetually repairing relationships, both personal and professional, that had been damaged by his often outlandish or abusive behavior.
For all of that, he was also incredibly caring and gracious; generous both as a person and an artist. He had a heart for the underdog, and loved playing an annual show for developmentally different children. He loved interacting with the kids and looked forward to the show all year. He once told me how deeply it touched him when the kids would dance and sing along. He claimed they were his favorite audience, and there is a photo of him, beaming, sitting in a chair surrounded by the kids who are reaching out to touch him. It was one of two activities for which I knew him to be sure to be strictly sober. (The other being fishing, for which he would rise early, and which he took very seriously.)
People were often horrified when he’d refer to me as “dyin’ Brian,” or when he’d joke about stealing a certain Bostic Celtics hoodie from my stuff after I died. But he always treated me with care and respect, never once lashing out at me in one of his drunken rages, and often visiting me when I was hospitalized. He’d send late-night voicemails and text messages, singing some song or quoting some movie or just telling a joke. He was a caring friend who often felt more like a brother. In fact, people used to mistake us for brothers –when they weren’t mistaking us for one another.
By 2009, he and I had been playing a lot of the same venues. We played a similar style of music, played guitars that (to non-guitar-players) resembled one another, dressed alike, and even and had similar facial hair and hats. It wasn’t intentional, we were just drawing inspiration from the same wells. Most guys in the scene dressed in a similar fashion: lots of flat caps, fedoras and narrow-brimmed pork-pies; suit-vests over t-shirts and Chuck Taylor’s on our feet. I guess it was natural that people would start to confuse us.
The first time it happened to me, I was busking on a street corner when a guy walked up and tossed a single in my case.
“I love ‘Fat Girls and Weed’, man!” He said, referencing a song that Tom was locally famous for. Many people around town thought Tom had written it (a notion he rarely disabused them of), though it was actually written by a small country band from Missouri called Renegade Rail. Tom had heard it from our mutual friend, Dana. I was going to tell the man all of this, but before I could finish the song I was singing and correct him, he’d walked off down the street.
Not long after, during a set-break at a show of mine, I was approached by a man and his wife.
“Hey, man, I just wanted to tell you we love your stuff! You sound great! We saw you with your band the other night at Jacksons, that ‘Fat Girls and Weed’ song is hilarious! Do you think you could do that ‘train’ song you did? ‘Downward Train’ or ‘Southbound Train’ or something like that? It had a train in it.”
“Or ‘Bananas and Blow’?” His wife chimed in.
I told them that they had mistaken me for my friend Tom.
“No,” the man said. “I’m pretty sure it was you!”
Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him that I wasn’t the man that he’d seen.
“Pretty sure it was you!” He kept saying.
Eventually Tom began to report the same phenomenon –people would approach him at shows asking him to play songs that I did. He found requests to do my cover of ‘In the Air Tonight’ particularly galling, as he wasn’t a fan of the tune, but there seemed to be no help for the misidentification, so it just became a sort of running joke between the two of us.
In 2009, he uploaded a blurry black and white photo of himself to Facebook, but tagged it as me. Before long, casual friends and distant relations were commenting on the photo.
“Looking good, Brian!” They’d write.
By the end of that year, I’d had enough. For Halloween I went and bought a huge, red and white, ‘Hello, My Name Is _______’ nametag costume. In the white rectangle blank meant for the name, I wrote, (in massive black, Sharpie letters) “NOT Tom Gnoza!”
I wore it to several bars where we were both regulars, even coming close to winning best costume at one of them, but the confusion didn’t stop. For six more years people continued to mix us up, mistaking one for the other.
The last time it sort of happened was at his memorial service. I had told the story of the Halloween costume to the assembled crowd and drawn an appreciative chuckle. After the ceremony, Tom’s mom approached me.
“You know, when I walked in, I saw you standing there in that hat with the sun behind you, and you looked so much like him that I had to catch my breath.”
It had happened the last week of March, 2015. He had been scheduled to play a solo acoustic show and host an open-mic at the grand opening of a bar owned by his bandmate and best friend, Brian Paxton. Most of the people from our circle of friends had been in attendance and he had been promoting the show heavily, but whenever I got there with my girlfriend, Brian was distressed. Tom wasn’t there and he couldn’t get ahold of him on the phone.
We waited until half an hour past show time, expecting him to roll up drunk and apologetic, but when that didn’t happen, I grabbed a guitar from my car and went on in his place. I played until the bar closed, then Brian took off to try and locate Tom, and I went home. I was concerned about my friend, but he’d been in a downward spiral for a while, and I fully expected that he was just passed out somewhere, and that he would show up eventually, shame-faced and looking to make amends.
The call came the next morning. My best friend, Ruben, (also a musician and a close friend of Tom’s) called me before 10 A.M. I needed to meet him, he said. He had something he needed to tell me. Fifteen minutes later, I met him in the parking lot of the Uptown. He approached me as I got out of my car, obviously distressed. I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t at work.
“Tom’s gone, brother. He’s dead.” He said, then broke apart as we fell into each other’s arms.
I was stunned and numb. I wasn’t in denial. I accepted it. I knew it had to be true. It made sense. Of course it had happened. But I couldn’t make myself feel it. I didn’t even cry for hours. Ruben and I sat in the sidewalk patio of the Uptown, where we had seen Tom just the Saturday before. We began drinking and telling stories, trying to keep him alive through the power of memory. As the morning progressed, other members of our friend group showed up, armed with with more memories. We monopolized the jukebox, playing songs that reminded us of him, drinking one round after another. Through it all, I remained dry-eyed. It wasn’t until my girlfriend arrived and wrapped her arms around me that I came unglued. Then it seemed as if I couldn’t stop crying for a week.
It was heroin that got him.
He’d had a pretty major surgery the year before and they’d prescribed him opiates to help with the post-op pain. That was enough to arouse his old demons, and when the pills ran out he’d climbed back on the horse. I’d seen him at a bar one morning, a few months before he died. He looked terrible and was still drunk and high from the night before. We had a few drinks and he broke down crying, telling me for the first time that he’d relapsed and that he’d overdosed a couple of times recently.
“One of these times I’m not gonna be able to come back. It’s gonna get me and there’s nothing I can do about it.” He said. He told me he was having dreams about being dead. He felt he was seeing his future.
He was so distraught that other patrons were looking at him uncomfortably. I talked him into leaving the bar, and drove him home. He made me promise to go get some weed then come right back, but when I returned he’d already passed out. I only saw him a couple more times after that. When I’d ran into him serendipitously the Saturday before he died, he’d looked better, but we didn’t talk much. He was eighty-sixed from the Uptown by then (the result of one too many drunken tirades), so he couldn’t join me and the rest of our friends for a drink on the patio. He’d stopped long enough to say hello and pose for a photograph. In it, he is on my left, clad in his trademark black leather and denim, Ruben is on my right looking at the camera. Tom and I are half-turned toward one another, in a conversation –I forget about what– that has us both laughing. It’s one of my favorite photos.
After the snapshot, we hugged before we parted.
“Call me sometime, brother.” He said. “We never get to hang out!”
Those were the last words I’d ever hear my friend Tom speak, and they hung around my head like a ghost. A few days after he died I sat down and incorporated them in a song I wrote about him called ‘Too Soon’. It was raw and real and sad, and I could barely record it without sobbing. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.
In the weeks following his death, it was music that got me through. I listened to songs that he used to do or that he loved –John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone’, Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’, The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down’, Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’, and a dozen more. They were like a salve for my wound.
I went back through all the songs that he’d written, bitterly sad and guilty-feeling that I couldn’t tell him just how great I thought some of them were. I’d respected Tom as a musician and performer, but had been a little dismissive of his songwriting –a product of the arrogance that polluted my world-view for far too long. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t been a more attentive listener to his original stuff while he was alive –that I had failed him as a friend and fellow artist. That feeling dogged me for a while, then one night I was talking to Brian Paxton, who had cleaned out his room after his death. I told him how I felt, and he had told me I shouldn’t feel bad.
“He didn’t listen to your stuff, either.” He said. “I found your CD in his room, still wrapped in the plastic.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
A few weeks after his death, the local music community put on a memorial show at a venue where he’d hosted a weekly open-mic for a few years. Hundreds of friends and acquaintances showed up to celebrate his life and music, and I was honored to perform, though I barely made it through. It became an annual tradition for a while, benefiting the local Special Olympics, and –like living life without him in it– performing became easier every year.
The last year that we had the show, I had told the story of Tom upbraiding me for not knowing the lyrics to ‘Pancho and Lefty’, by way of introducing the song before I played it. I finished the story by saying, “and I never forgot the lyrics again,” then I launched into the tune and promptly forgot every word. I just stood there, gawping at the audience, strumming the opening chords, over and over, drawing a total blank. It went on long enough that the audience of a few hundred people began to get embarrassed on my behalf and were soon studying their shoelaces with intense interest. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember a single word and had to abandon the song completely and move on to the next tune on my set-list. I played that song half-a-dozen times a week for years on end, but in that moment, cruel irony took a hand and tossed the whole thing into a black hole in my memory.
I like to think Tom would have gotten a kick out of that.
Back when I could still walk and go outside, I’d visit his grave. I’d sit next to his small headstone, inlaid in the manicured lawn, and have a drink and smoke a joint. I’d play songs on my phone or talk to him as if he could hear me, telling stories we both knew. The last time I was there, I was reminded of the last Halloween we spent together.
We were sitting next to each other at the bar of the Uptown –in regular street clothes, not costumes– shooting the shit, when a group of costumed college-aged guys came through the door a few feet away. The group was a little boisterous, and we both turned to check them out. The first of the group through the door stopped dead, looking at us, then held out an outstretched arm, bringing his compatriots up short.
“Heisenbergs!” He shouted, mistaking our clothes, hats, and real goatees for costumes of the popular Breaking Bad character.
“HEISENBERGS!” His friends yelled.
They crowded next to us at the bar and bought us a round.
“I love that show!” The first guy said.
We came clean and admitted that we weren’t in costume, that this was just how we looked all the time.
“Really?” Said the kid. “Then, are you guys, like, brothers?”
“No.” I said. “But we get that all the time.”
I was wrong, though.
That’s exactly what we were.
–END OF PART 1–