16 May Late Nite Thinking
It’s 3 AM and I’m dictating into my phone. Sometimes at night, in this semi-dream state, I find myself observing somewhat fully formed projects or ideas. While lying in bed I fear that if I move, or focus too much attention on them, they will disappear like a deer in the forest so i kind of look at them out of the corner of my mind’s eye. It feels kind of similar to when you struggle to find reception for your phone and then you get a brilliant clear signal. You start to talk and then you move just a little bit and the call is dropped.
In the past I have tried to get out of bed and write down these thoughts, but the effort that it takes to concentrate on the physical act of writing often wakes me up enough to make the ideas slip away. Mumbling them into my phone allows me to capture some of it without fully waking, but the next day it’s often as difficult to decipher as my late night scribbles. The voice recognition isn’t all that great, and if I stop to read it, it has the same effect as writing; I end up losing the flow, so I just push forward. Still, I’m often glad to have some record of what I was thinking because by the morning it’s often gone back into the cloud, making it feel like I have dial up service as I try to access that stored information.
Tonight when I woke I had a vision of big sections of a book I have been pondering. Recently I started scanning old black and white images from my time in a band. Posting them to facebook elicited a lot of discussion, and the feedback re-ignited the idea of putting together a book about that time.
For the last couple of years this project has kept popping into my head. What I see is partly a photo book, but it has a written component as well. I think a lot of the writing will be mine, but as with my book “Scraps” (the video above combines images and spoken word from “Scraps” plus images from my unpublished book “lost” as well as many others) I want to have other points of view in it. Part of me has resisted this project because it feels too egocentric. The writing is the hard part. Perhaps because photos are observations, more than personal reflections, it feels less ego based. To be good, writing has to be naked, but being naked is fraught in so many ways.
Tonight, when I woke at 1 AM, a bunch of the chapters stumbled into my consciousness almost fully formed. At first I didn’t even think about getting out of bed because there were so many ideas there it seemed impossible to get them all down. I feared even moving, lest they slip away.
This happens to me a few times a year. I will think about a project for a while, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of years, before it starts to come together. More often than not I will wake up in the middle of the night and I will see the whole thing. If it’s a film, I can see the various scenes. If it’s a music video I see the images. However, it kind of hovers there like a paper-thin glass castle. I’m terrified of losing it so I try to calmly observe it, hoping that I can hold on to some of the details.
Sometimes, in my effort not to disturb the thought I stay so still that I fall completely back to sleep. If I’m lucky bits of it are left when I wake, but it’s invariably a cloudy mess. Tonight I stayed focused and pulled myself out of my stupor, got up, went into the dark living room, and started to dictate some of the thoughts into my phone. After about 40 minutes of talk-typing I had a few pages of notes. I checked them briefly. A lot of it was indecipherable, but I had captured the basics. I decided to go back to bed. However, I was a little wired and I started to think about this process and began to write this post in my head. I hesitated to get out of bed and take down these thoughts at first, but they were persistent. Sleep did not feel like a possibility so eventually I headed back to the living room.
Having ignored the impulse to capture the ideas at first I had lost my grip on a lot of the them by the time I reached the living room. After having talked through the nuts and bolts of the book I had been in bed thinking about the idea of ego, and its relationship to writing. A lot of writing is about burnishing one’s ego, and even writing that’s ostensibly about shedding it through honest reflection, can unconsciously be a form of self flattery. The ego is a tricky beast. I think that we all want to be loved and respected. I was pondering my own motivations and I could see this book as a kind of attempt to shed the skin of my old ego and move forward. I know that I am holding on to some parts of myself that I need to let go, especially unconscious doubt about my work.
By the time that I was in high school I knew on some level that I wanted to be an artist. I was a pretty good photographer, but I wasn’t sure how I might turn that into a way of life. It was especially difficult to plan for because I never wanted to do things the way that they were supposed to be done. The rational course of action would have been for me to go to art school, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that for a host of conflicting reasons. On one level I didn’t believe that I had enough special talent to warrant attendance, but I also believed that it was kind of like cheating. I had some foggy ideas about what it was to truly be an artist, and those notions didn’t include having someone teach you how to do it. That’s where the fear of cheating came in. I knew on some level that I had to discover it for myself. I ended up going to NYU where I joined the newspaper and photo magazine, and I took a photo class each year.
The first person I met when I got to school was my suite mate Peter, who was a junior in film school. He was also in a band, and handed me their first single. It just so happened that they were awesome. My next door neighbors, Gene and Tom, were obsessive record collectors. They started to take me to shows several nights a week, and after a while I started to bring my camera to photograph the bands. By my junior year I started one.
For my first two and half years of college going to shows and taking pictures at the was my the focus of all of my energy outside of class. By the end of my junior year being in a band became central to my sense of identity, and it remained that way for a decade. As a photographer I began to document that world that I was a part of. I started by shooting the bands I loved, and moved on to shooting the bands we played with. Then I started to shoot on tour. About five years into my life as a bass player I also started to make films, and those were about this world as well.
The first film, “Half-Cocked” was extremely romantic and immersive. We shot in black and white, aiming to have it look like the photos I was making at the time. Shortly after making that film I got a point and shoot T4 camera and started to shoot in color. By this time, I saw the world, and my life in a band with a little bit less of a romantic haze. The second film we made, “Radiation”, was shot in color like the photography I had moved on to. Despite the bright colors it was darker and less hopeful than the earlier film.
With both films we started with a script but constantly re-wrote as we were working with non-actors. It wasn’t written into the script but at the end of “Radiation” the main character walks into the ocean and disappears. About a year after shooting the film I left my band. Sometimes we tell ourselves things about our lives in our art that we only understand later.
In the past year I’ve done a lot of meditating. I haven’t really known what I was doing but I’ve been trying to create space to trust myself. I have become considerably calmer and it feels like, without being fully conscious of it, that I have also been in the process of getting ready to start this book project.
Last night my friend Jessica was in town for a reading of her new book of rock criticism. I met Jessica shortly after I had stopped playing music. I was working at a music web site and trying to figure out what to do next. Her reading, and talking with her, made me think a lot about that in between time when I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or be.
I quit my band Sleepyhead while we were recording our last record. The break had been coming for a long time, but it’s not easy to break up a 10-year marriage. The other two band members were a couple. Our ability to find common ground creatively, as well as functionally, had reached its nadir. At the same time that I quit I was also working with another band, Laptop, that I had formed with a guy whose band I had been hired to play bass in.
Before heading off to make “Radiation”, I found that when he put together the artwork for our first single he had given himself sole song writing credit. I told him to have a nice life and went off to make the film. When I got back he apologized and told me that he realized how much I had contributed to the process (forgetting that the whole idea of the band, the name, and the artwork concepts had been mine) and agreed to share song writing credits more equally in the future. Foolishly I started working with him again.
The single that he had taken credit for had gotten a lot of attention in England and in Norway and we put out several more singles with the songwriting credit going to Laptop. The next summer we did a tour of Spain and Norway. We performed as his old band, Sammy, mixing in some of the new songs. By the time I quit Sleepyhead we had gotten a big deal manager and we were playing dog and pony shows for big labels. On one level the whole process was completely counter to my instincts and beliefs. On another, the whole thing was a performance, and having the opportunity to think of it as such was creatively inspiring. Being in a band that took what we were doing, as seriously as we did was hard. There was a lot of pressure. Since this meant much less to me, and had much less to do with how I thought of myself it was freeing.
In some sense the success of that band, and the increased time commitments, kind of forced me to make the decision to leave my band. However, it wasn’t the real reason, it just gave me nudge that I needed. A lot of my old friends till hold a grudge against me for leaving my band, believing that I had somehow betrayed them.
Once we had started to work together again my partner and I had come up with a lot of new songs, but tensions, and ego problems quickly rose to the surface when success began to come. As soon as there was a deal on the table I was told by fax that I would be a hired musician at poverty wages, and that I would get something like 6% of the songwriting credit (he had broken it down song by song). I quit.
It was incredibly painful but I just walked away from the whole thing. In the end, he recorded something but the project fell apart. I don’t think the label even released it. My wife and I finished “Radiation” and we found a lot of festival success with it. After it premiered at Sundance we were able to travel all over the world with it. That took some of the sting off of the situation. It was great to have the film embraced on that level, but it never found any distribution outside of the festival circuit.
In the spring of 2000 I wasn’t in a band, I was winding down from the festival tour for “Radiation” and I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have any film projects lined up. I did occasional Production Assistance work and a little bit of photography so I was happy to take a job working as a consultant to a web start up music site. After a few months I accepted a fulltime position because my wife and I were trying to buy a house and I had to have a job to get a loan. I’d never held a real full time job and it was interesting at first but it quickly became a grind. Within a year and a half the site was running out of money and they laid everyone off. I think they kept me on at first but I left shortly the purge. This is where I had met Jessica Hopper, in my post musician music life.
On the way home from her reading she asked me if I missed playing music. I rambled on some long answer about yes and no, but I didn’t really have a solid answer to the question. I’ve been asked it a lot over the years, and I do, but in many ways I was mostly in a band because it was an art project, and I had started making films full time, so I had plenty of art projects to focus on. Still, I did miss music, However, I had also kind of cut myself off from it because there was a lot of pain and discomfort there that I didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to, deal with. I guess that the question had really gotten under my skin, partly because I have been spending so much time with my old work. At 1am I woke up with a somewhat fully formed idea of what my book would look like. After rambling into my phone for a while I realized that this question about my relationship to music had prompted it all.
I miss music a lot. I miss the sense of purpose and community. I miss the connection. I am nostalgic for it. However, I never really saw myself as a “musician” but instead, I saw myself as someone who wanted to be an artist, and being in a band was part of being an artist. I also took photos, painted, drew, and thought a lot about what it meant to be in a band, and part of a community of bands.
A couple of weeks ago when I visited my old band mates in Boston. Our band relationship ended there about 15 years ago while we were recording our last record. I have not seen them very much since then. I had a shoot in Boston so I arranged to stay with them before I left town. They had continued to play sporadically and spent about 12 years recording their next record. It came out this fall.
On my way to see them I found out that our old friend Pete, a guitarist who had played on a few of the songs on our last record together, had died of liver failure. Coincidentally, I had plugged in my phone in my rental car to charge it, and it accessed my itunes. One of the songs, Box for Blue started to play. It was good to see my old band mates, and time had smoothed things out.
When I got home I started to look for some images I had made of Pete. That led to a lot of scanning which led to a lot of posting, which led to a lot of thinking. Jessica made me realize that I had avoided really dealing with the complexity of my feelings about music. I had pretty much just put it aside. Maybe I need to start a band.