my boring musical history, part one

(This was originally written, while sick and doped up on cough syrup, in reply to an anonymous email that asked:

So where have you traveled? Tell me the story… And how on earth did you get such great shots of my favorite boys from Eire? [U2]

I’ve tried to cut the most boring parts and leave only the moderately boring parts. This is all background and doesn’t really get to the interesting stuff; that will come another day. Mostly I’m posting this to encourage myself to get writing again. Yes, I need to learn to stop apologizing for my writing. Even if it does suck.)


Started 16 May 01 3:20am
Boise Idaho
Edited 02 Sep 01 1:36pm

Be careful what you wish for…

Hello, anonymous reader. Such a nice note you wrote way back when but you’ve not told me your name. Here I am, out in the light for all to study, and I’ve got no idea who is out there in the dark. Well, so be it. Flattery will get you everywhere, even if it’s from out of the blue. I’ll make this all public someday anyway, a world of anonymous readers, so I might as well get used to it.

You asked me to tell a story. You asked about how I got good such good photos of a particular Irish band. Well, it’s late at night, I’ve got tons of work to do, and… I don’t care. I’m sick, I’ve been sick for weeks and I probably have the plague or something. (Is that still around?) No money for a doctor — a half lie; more than anything I’m stubborn and defiant — so who knows what ails me or if it’ll go away. But I’m doped up a bit on something inexpensive and purple from the all-night store and feeling chatty. And this is all stuff I want to write down anyway and have for a long time. So let me tell the story you asked for. Hope you got a while.

I read just the other day that passion is love plus hunger. Something clicked in me when I read that, and I don’t think it was just the plague ratcheting things up a notch. Hunger… duh. When I heard U2 was coming around this time, the question wasn’t should I go, but how many times can I go, what would it cost the rest of my life. Never once did not going cross my mind. A non-option. At the time I dismissed it: I’m crazy, I’m known for being crazy, I wouldn’t be me if I sat still. Hey, it’s U2! — as though that should explain it. But hunger… that makes sense. You breathe, you need water, shelter, safety. But why this hunger? Where did this musical need come from? And why in the hell did I start illicitly dragging a camera to shows? I’m curious. Let’s go there.


Genetics, environment, who knows what influences what. If you’re close your parents when you’re little I think the two get hopeless entangled; your world and your blood are both products of the two much taller beings moving around you. Quickly, let me dismiss the genetics side; I know little about it. On my dad’s side I think I’m sixth or seventh generation American and mom’s way-backs got off the boat as colonists; I was told once I was eligible for Sons of the American Revolution. I wonder if that was a make or break point for me: head for the high road and a good education and horseshit clubs you join to feel self-important, or… not. Two decades later, I’m not much of a class warrior, but I don’t belong to much of anything but that small but select group of people without health insurance who find they do their best writing while ill. I have no idea what sort of music members of SAR listen to, because I can’t see that lofty cloud from down here in the gutter, where we’ve got sex and drugs (or at least purple cough syrup taken for quite legitimate reasons) and rock ‘n’ roll. Hmm, the whole youth rebellion angle. Standard and generic; I’m almost twenty-nine and my hunger is not going away. Keep digging.

When you go back past the boats — where I was headed a couple hundred words ago, sorry — dad’s side is all German, which in the rock and roll era has not exactly set the musical world on fire. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if in the 1,000 CD’s behind my head, any of the artists are German. Huh. The place has produced some good photographers and I almost can’t imagine not driving a VW. (Okay, mine was built in Mexico. But it was designed by Germans.) I suspect (to steal a thought from “Amadeus”) that it’s the language: it’s not very pretty.

They do have a tendency, however, to really embrace the music of others. My dad did a lot of liner notes for obsessively complete box sets put out by a German company, and quite a few of the more interesting singles in my collection were printed in Germany, full of tracks not available in any other country. But beyond that, the first — and last — musical thing that comes to mind about Germany is that the Beatles paid their dues in Hamburg. Not playing in German, of course.

Mom’s side is almost all English, a country full of people who have trouble letting go, spiced with angry, fed-up musicians who studied the blues far better than most Americans ever will and sold it back to us in British Invasion after Invasion. There are lots of people who have watched the whole process a lot more closely than I have and written books about it, and I’ve probably bored you to sleep already. But for the most part, this cultural soup dishes out someone a little bit removed from the creation of music. I wish I could play, I wish I could play…

I’ve made half-attempts: A brief, frustrated clarinet fiasco in the third grade. A less brief, no less frustrated piano mutilation somewhere around there. A recent close examination of a guitar — the thing men make that sounds to me like how a god might speak — revealed my fingers don’t play well with a fretboard. But I have other talents that come a bit more naturally, and I suspect if I was meant to create music, I’d have discovered how already. Hell, I can’t even dance. That leaves me an outsider with a deep appreciation of someone else’s music, face up against the glass peering in at the party. At some point, that glass in front of my face became a camera lens. But back to that later…

The last little bit of me, a sixteenth representing someone in my past bored (I’m guessing) with being English doing someone they shouldn’t have, is Irish. For the moment, because it’s easy and maybe because it’s true, I’ll place the blame and the pride of taking my own roads, refusing to live a life of one day ten thousand times instead of ten thousand days one time, of trying to fight the good fight, on that Irish sliver in me. It’s the wrench in the works, I think, but I prefer to enjoy the ensuing chaos rather than try to beat the rebel tendencies out of me. Besides, if I don’t shave for a while (frequent; it’s boring, perhaps like being English) — and inexplicably, this has only happened in the year since I learned about my Irish percentage, but is so cool I don’t care — parts of my beard come in red.


Enough of that deep background baloney; at best it’s deep blurry background in the painting that answers your question. I probably should just say “A Canon A2 and a lot of practice” is how and why I got the pictures. But, well, the purpley stuff has me feeling pretty good. On to just one step back: my parents. Or more specifically, just my dad. Mom’s relationship to music isn’t too deep; appreciation but no all-consuming passion. Not that I can relate to, anyway, or even see.

On some levels all-consuming musical passion would be asking a lot of any parent, at least any parent slightly too old to have had their world painted new colors by The Beatles or Elvis, and I’d probably just leave it out except: dad had it. In spades. He’s gone now and there were a billion and ten questions I never asked, not that there would have been plain answers; what drives us isn’t always expressible in words. So far at least, my passion is expressed in my pictures. He wrote about the music (in his case, country and western; the country mostly being his job and the western mostly being what got him there) but it was mostly scholarly writing, writing about the who and the where and the what, but not the why. That part is pretty much just assumed: it’s music; does there need to be an explanation beyond that? He lived it, he breathed it. We never talked about it, quiet Germanic father and sort of quiet half-Germanic son, but somewhere there was a passion.

When he died, his service was held on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry; he wrote one of their television shows and it was both home and family. I drop names now not because I know these people, but because it illustrates how seriously into music my father was: Garth Brooks sent flowers and was sorry he was on tour and couldn’t be there. Vince Gill sang. The president of the Opry talked about how the title on my father’s card simply said “Country Music” and nothing more. I spoke too long, but looking past the seats on the stage to the empty 4,000 seat auditorium in front of me, I understood that something he had, something that made this space feel like home, I had. At the end I put on his leather jacket, took the cigarettes out of the pocket and left them next to the memorial typewriter.

Less than six months earlier, I’d broken my leg into a lot of pieces on the front bumper and windshield of a car I rolled over like an obedient bowling pin letting someone pick up a spare. Dad came and got me from Toronto, taking me back to Nashville to rest and be cranky and get hooked on reruns of NYPD Blue. (A less effective but less addicting and expensive drug than the morphine the Canadians had me on, so I guess that’s an improvement.) On the drive back, we stopped in a Kinko’s in Detroit for him to write and fax a script; that night, in a motel in Dayton, we watched the host read his words of that morning. This struck the two of us as only mildly strange, but kinda cool. When I headed back out on the U2 PopMart tour still unable to put weight on my leg (It had been all of two and a half weeks) he said I was insane, but didn’t try to stop me. Deep down, somewhere, we spoke a similar language that just doesn’t translate well to this keyboard.

Some months later I wandered out to the dying west Texas oil town where he grew up, just six thousand now and ninety miles from a movie theater. I was looking for answers on a platter, which of course I couldn’t get. When dad was a kid the town had thirty thousand people supporting the wellheads pumping furiously amongst the scrub brush outside town. Not such a shock a kid from such a place would end up doing gas and oil law in New York City; it’s not even such a shock he’d end up doing it in nice suits and cowboy boots. He was damn good — at one point he wrote what was then the largest corporate merger in history, one giant oil company swallowing another — but nothing lasts forever: that same merger eventually lead to his ousting. Perhaps another reason I reject a standard boring career: you can be the best at what you do and office politics can still stab you in the back.

He loved music, he followed that to Nashville; years of struggle doing temp assignments finally paid off. In the end was that TV show and a syndicated column, preceded by another TV show, a radio show, lots of liner notes and magazine articles. He damn near got a Grammy nomination for some liner notes. That probably would have struck us as only mildly strange, but really cool. But what lead there? Most of the stories I gathered in that west Texas town were of his mother; it seems she taught half the town art at the high school level and made quite the impression. His dad would fix cars at the Chevy dealership, and every day he’d meet his wife at the Dairy Queen after work. But my dad? He was quiet, I kept hearing. He mostly kept to himself. There were sand dunes east of town; he spent a lot of time out there. But I heard no stories of how he connected to the music that so many years later would drive him on; I don’t know if it was nights watching the roughnecks playing music to wash off the day; or the magic of radio then, Wolfman Jack and Elvis and Hank Williams; or something out in those dunes. But: quiet, kept to himself. An outsider, looking in. Like father, like son. He, at least, not much but some, could dance.


This leads to me, more towards the story you were really looking for. But it’s 5:30 am, and I should probably see if I can wind down and sleep. I’ll send you this bit, and perhaps tomorrow, I’ll keep writing. If you like this, say so and I’ll send more. The next chapters will involve me, and actual music, and — gosh — a camera! So in many many words I might answer your question.

Or were you just looking for Canon A2, fast film, lots of bad photos first?


This was published on 02 Sep 2001.
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