Soundtracks and Indie Rockers
Everyone I know likes to think that there's a soundtrack to their lives. Maybe not as much as I do, but it seems like a pretty common wish. When your days mostly involve driving around, ferrying children from one appointment to another, running in place on a medieval-looking cardio machine at 24 Hour Fitness, or typing on a t-less computer in an otherwise silent home, you welcome something in the background. To me, the music you choose as undertow for your life can make or break a day.
This morning, I was driving between Brandeis Hillel Day School and the Pacifica 24-Hour Fitness. Instead of listening to my usual sportsradio, I chose track #4 from the Long Winters' new CD. Since I generally throw CDs into my player without reading the names of the songs, I have no idea what the song title is.
And I was sitting there in my metallic blue Volvo, driving up John Daly Boulevard, on my first trip to the gym in two weeks, listening to my old temping pal John Roderick sing about how someone's going to regret something or other.
Since this album just came out, I've been listening to it often. I've gotten past the point where I'm amazed that John can produce such good music, and now can forget, for several minutes, that I know the guy singing. That, Kathaleen once told me, is when you can tell that someone you know has produced something good. She said it after reading one of my many unpublished stories, so it was meant as a complement.
Several years have passed since I could really, honestly call John Roderick a friend of mine. We met in 1994, temping at Piper Jaffray in Seattle. We used to walk home from work, stop and have a few drinks, complain about our respective lots in life, discuss our shared love for plaid madras shirts and plan our respective futures, when the entire world of popular culture would bow down to our accomplishments. Sometimes he'd really tick me off, like the time he responded to me saying, "...if I ever lose my hair..." with a 120 decibal, outraged "IF?" but usually I just appreciated knowing a guy who seemed to be on board with the idea that someday the world would discover us, the misunderstood geniuses of the temping world, and whose skewed worldview matched mine.
It almost matched mine. One day I arrived at Piper Jaffray and he did not. "I was getting ready for work," he told me much later, "and I realized that I could keep doing this day after day, forever. So I just didn't show up." And with that, a little distance. He was someone who could do the things I only threatened to do.
And yet, put in an unusual situation -- my +1 at a party where he only slightly knew anyone -- he chose to sit and talk to the hosts' parents like a nice boy while the rest of us drank heavily and talked to each other.
Sandra Bullock was not a big fan. He was loud, boastful and could be abrasive, all things that do not fly in the world of S. Bullock. I, too, am those things, but also practical, and learned early on how to mete out those personality traits carefully and sporadically. And in the car, when nobody else was around to hear me.
John played in bands. In fact, i lent him my guitar, as that part of my life was long over. He was always asking me if I'd write about his band for The Stranger, the local weekly I wrote about music for. "Uh, sure," I'd say, hoping to buy time. All I knew was that the guy was loud, funny and seemingly as aimless as me. Lord only knew how that translated into music.
Also, his bands didn't last very long, and had ridiculous names. The Bun Family Players, for instance. And he didn't seem to be in "the scene." Yes, he did introduce me to Kat, from "Real World London" one day on the street, but she was with another guy I knew, so I may have been able to work that one out myself.
Several months after we'd both left Piper Jaffray, I ran into John at the local newsstand, Steve's Broadway News. He was working behind the counter. Unchecked reams of John knowledge spewed out onto customers at random times. I was a little wary, but then I'm a little wary of everything, and I kept getting sucked into the kinds of conversations you have when you're part of the world of under-employed, over-egoed 20-somethings like us, where you start out by saying, "Hey," and end up standing next to the cash register, talking about how evenually your genius will win out, occasionally interrupted as customers approach the counter to pay for their magazines.
Here was the plan: John would become a rock and roll star, and use his platform to finally expose the greater population to his ideas and dogma. I would write stories about the human condition, hopefully get them seen by people. "My dreams are getting smaller," I told him once, "I just want to be able to make a living and not have to wake up early." He boomed out a huge laugh and then continued on, something about also being a lawyer so he could roam the halls of power and change the structure from within. "Undercover."
For some reason, John loved babies. When the Jawa arrived, I'd stroll him down to Steve's Broadway News just to see the big tough indie rocker sprint out from behind his perch and start speaking baby talk to my infant son. Sandra Bullock liked that. It softened her opinion of him.
Around this time, I finally agreed to go see his band, now called the Western State Hurricanes. I'd changed publications and was now writing for the Seattle Weekly while teaching high school. The new music editor of The Stranger hated John, for reasons unexplained to this day.
So I went to see the band ... and was completely blown away. He wasn't just good, he was great. And he kept singing about broken relationships, which struck me as odd, since I'd never seen the guy with anyone, male or female. He was kind of a romantic loner.
Soon I did a little story on the band. They seemed to be on the verge or something, until they went on a short tour and imploded. Then John disappeared.
By this time, he was a peripheral character in my life, one of the few people I knew who were still living the slacker artist's dream while I played house with Sandra Bullock and my Jawa. The next time I saw him, he was dressed as some kind of Secret Service guy, standing on the edge of an agitated crowd at the WTO demonstrations, late 1999. He had a big moustache and wore mirrored sunglasses. I'd heard he'd been in Europe (I later learned that he'd walked across the continent, much as my great-grandfather did 100 years ago, but probably not on the run from the tsar), so I went up to ask him about it. "I can't talk now," he said, deadpan. "It isn't safe."
A few months later, we moved to San Francisco, and I became just another guy who listened to John's music. I'd never quite qualified for "hey, can my band crash at your place?" status, and wasn't even on the guest list. The new band, the Long Winters, had a CD, which was incredible, and I went to see them the first couple of times they came to San Francisco, showing off for my San Francisco friends, once catching up with John (who incongruently wore a purple Ralph Lauren Polo shirt for the gig, which I liked), once talking to a few other band people who remembered me from Seattle.
The last one was like a wake. After eight years in Seattle, marching up to the band and introducing myself because I was from The Stranger, or The Weekly, I was just another pathetic hanger-on, hoping to catch the lead singer's eye in hopes that he'd remember me and my friends would be impressed. I wasn't good enough friends with the guy to go out after the show and eat grilled cheese. I would not be appearing on any liner notes, under "Special thanks to:" I was just a balding guy who drove his car to the show, paid his $10 and stood with a couple of friends, talking about work and drinking a beer, singing along to the songs with all the other fans.
And that was it for me. My last link to the world of boy geniuses and rock and roll dreams was gone. Not a moment to soon, some would say. What good is street cred when you're over 40 and drive a Volvo? The last time I talked to John, he'd just finished blowing away a room full of people who hung on his every word. He was living in an apartment in Seattle with his mom. I just read a book by a woman who was married to Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers, for 25 years. They moved every six months until their kids were out of high school. Then he got famous and left. We make choices and we live with them. I leave the street cred question to the Jawa, who seems to be handling it fine.
But I still keep up, like any fan. I see that some filmmaker is putting together a documentary on the Long Winters, which I'm sure John loves. Like me, only minus the self-doubt, the guy loves an audience. Any chance to expound, he will take. And it still seems weird to me to be singing along to music from a guy who once asked me if he was being a jerk, because he hates it when he's being a jerk without even trying, and it sometimes happens to him.
It's really good music, though. Great soundtrack stuff. And I used to know the lead singer, way back when we were both standing in the starting gates, trying to figure out which way would lead to the finish line.