Northern Lights

Birthdays in Europe.

I don’t know who I like more: the friends who read my writing or the friends who don’t. Both have their advantages. The former tend to know me better. The latter are easier to hang out with. Because my ruse is permitted to continue, uninterrupted by written revelation. Ruses have their advantages.

To you who took the time to read about Shay, thank you. I realize that was an exhausting post for all of us. In a way I’m surprised I wrote it, dark as the subject was. Then again, it is within the purview of the melancholic to occasionally swim away from the light. Which unpleasant as it is, sometimes brings its own illumination. Thanks for swimming with me.

I received so many responses from that post! Forgive me if I haven’t replied to yours yet. I’ve been getting to them when I can. Wow what feedback. Some of you shared stories with me that you haven't told anyone. Some wrote me poems or told me of their own losses. In that way, maybe some small good was served, allowing people a moment to reflect on the things they've loved or suffered. Giving a brief forum for that kind of sharing. One thing that was surprising was how much advice people had for me. How I should look at it, what I should do. I know it came from a desire to help. My purpose in writing that was mostly to make Shay realer than she was, to make her life count a little more than it did. To the extent that people think of her, I’m grateful. And my goal was accomplished. 

This week, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the window of a train, but it goes on forever so I’ve pulled myself away to say hello. Since the Shay post, a lot of things have happened. Here are some of them:

I played my first seated show in ten years. Seated because I forgot my guitar strap in Nashville and didn’t realize it until soundcheck. That was Chicago. I was nervous about it because it was the first 90 minute set I was obliged to play since my voice disappeared and returned gimpy. I had a few shows earlier this month in Nashville, short ones. My strategy there was to detune my guitar a half-step and sing only the gentle songs, which in my opinion is too much gentle. I have some bite people! Hear me! Anyway, 90 minutes of gentle would be a cruel boring experiment so for Chicago I ventured out and tried some of the slightly more aggressive songs. It didn’t really work, but somehow I was able to move around the tricky parts and deliver a satisfactory, if personally disappointing performance. 

Someone took my picture at the show and posted it on my Facebook page. Which helped me see how weird my hair was getting. So when I woke up in the morning I gave the thing a cut. The only tool I had were some safety scissors. Thankfully, curly hair forgives many a dull chop. I deposited a rodent-sized handful of clippings in the wastebasket and felt like a new man. 

Still in Chicago, I took the el downtown to something called Book Expo America. That's where the book industry gathers itself into a room big enough to assemble a blimp in. The whole universe is there, subdivided by publisher or distributor or I’m not sure what else. The experience was humbling. I wandered around like a lost insect and tried my best to make new friends or at least find another insect. I mostly passed the time eating little candies from the display booths of major publishers. The Scientologists had a big booth but I didn’t eat their candy.

After Chicago I drove to Madison and played a show at the High Noon Saloon with my friends Corey Mathew Hart and Paul Mitch. Super talented guys. I met them in New York a few years ago when we were both finalists at the New Song contest. Corey sings big and his songs stick. Paul plays everything, with intelligence and feeling. I asked them a few months ago if they would be interested in recording a song with me and they said yes. SO after the show we went to Paul’s house and recorded the guitar parts and bass for Northern Lights. One of my favorite new songs. I still seem not to be able to sing in a worthy recordable way so we contented ourselves with the instruments. By then it was late anyway and I had to drive to Minneapolis to play another show and to fly to Europe. 

I’ve been in Europe for more than a week now. Austria, Switzerland, now Germany. It’s funny: after the first few times coming over here you stop feeling compelled to take your picture in front of bridges or towers or churches. Don’t tell the Europeans, but to my Idaho eye, everything kind of looks the same. You can stare up at the gilded ceilings of, like, five churches before they all run together. 

I keep looking for something truly weird to capture the essence of traveling overseas. The best thing so far was a German vending machine that sold Turkish cigarettes. I looked at it for a long time. Is this it? It was outside and kind of beat up and had spray paint graffiti on it and little square plastic buttons with a picture of each brand. Nope, not weird enough. So I’m still looking.

I’ve played a lot of shows over here. One every day this week. It’s been a quiet journey. Quiet because I’ve had to keep my insecure feelings to myself. You can’t go on stage to people who have paid money to see you and say, “Well I’m gonna do the best I can, but the truth is, my voice isn’t what it used to be.” No. You go out there and kick ass, with whatever you’ve got. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve had to scratch the biggest loudest songs off the setlist because I simply cannot hit those notes. But everything else is doable with maybe a few moments I have to dance around. It’s been an interesting lesson in working with limits that didn’t used to be. I think on the whole I’ve delivered performances I don’t need to be ashamed of.

But it’s weird because I know what I can do, or what I used to be able to do, and there are a lot of feelings attached to that. Singing used to be effortless. Like, the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s why I chose the crazy life that is being a professional musician. Because the actual act of singing was the most natural thing in the world to me. Being on a stage was like, being home. I could be myself. I could be as emotional as I wanted, as loud or soft. I could be funny or serious. Some of those flavors are still there, but the feeling of being completely at home, isn’t. I have to work to sing. I have to think about it. The physical sensation of contracting muscles in my throat to get the notes to sound right, to be in tune. It’s not the same. In terms of how it feels, it’s not even close.

Will my voice come back? Am I supposed to just stop trying to do this? Is it a message from God to quit playing music and just start writing full time? I have to concede that this might be the case. I don’t know. I'm taking it a day at a time. What I do know is, I owe people a record. I set out to do this thing and I’m gonna do it. There’s not really an alternative!

So I’ve been watching what happens night to night. Is it getting better? I think the answer is yes. But it doesn’t happen incrementally. It’s more like one night will be slightly better, and the next night, no. Worse singing. My plan going forward: I will get through the next week and then a few more shows back in the states, and then I’m going to take about six weeks off.  No shows scheduled. Probably the best thing I can do. Even though it scares me because I’m wonder what I will do for money. But then I think, something will happen. I have faith.

Also I turned 40 two days ago. Huh. There are certain mile markers that bear a significance that can only be stammered at. How do you spend a birthday of that magnitude?

I played a show.


Craters of the Moon.

image3 After a week in the hometown it was time to camp. I didn't know I was going to do that when I left Nashville, so I had to buy stuff. Campstove, cooler, sunscreen, Oreo Thins, skillet, like that.

Know this: I don't like buying things. Two reasons - making decisions and spending money. How do I know if I'm going to want this a week from now? I don't. So most of the time, I leave it alone. But I really wanted to go camping - had to go would be the more accurate way to put it. So on my way out of Twin Falls, I stopped at that reliable outfitter, Target, and loaded up. I even bought a hatchet, which yes, Target sells.

It was a fine spring day. The Isuzu Trooper shot down an empty backroad with the sun roof open wide to the wind and the bright afternoon sky. I drank coffee and listened to a CD I bought for 25¢ at a garage sale the week before. Tina Turner's greatest hits. Simply the best, better than all the rest. She sang, and I sang too.

The car rolled into Craters of the Moon a little after four. I paid the fee by shoving some folded cash into an envelope (quaint!), picked out a campground and hastened to set up the recording gear. I've done this enough times now, I've got a system. Twelve minutes from parked car to working studio.

Craters of the Moon opened earlier than usual this year, because of you know what. Bits of dirty snow still hid in the shade like crouching sheep; otherwise it was warm and dry. The spot I picked was choice. I jumped out of the car and spent a few minutes walking around on a carpet of crushed lava rocks the color of dark chocolate, spongy like runner's track. All around me were unlikely rock formations I can only describe as Seussian. It was too early in the year for birdsong; but for the occasional passing car, the park was completely quiet.

I travel with a foldout table, but Craters lovingly provided a picnic table made from 100% recycled something, so I used that. Yesterday's song was called What Goes Up, the theme of which is I think almost typical to my current style of songwriting. Acknowledging the negative, staying positive anyway. I tried both guitars (the Martin, the Gibson) and about a dozen combinations of channel strip settings and compressors (I'm mostly tracking through either the Neve 1073 or the UA 610-B and the Teletronix or the 1176 compressor). I finally found something I liked and spent another hour getting the guitar and vocals down.

The song was hard. It has this pull-off riff thing throughout and its fast and has some quick words and big notes. It will sound great when I get the rest of the band in on it, and I think I sang well. I still haven't comped the vocal so I might be deluding myself.

I worked and I ate a few Oreo Thins and I had the whole park to myself until the last half hour, when a trailer pulled up into the campsite next to mine. I was annoyed because there were 40 campsites to choose from, so, what's up people. While they were setting up, I had to sing this one line over and over which made me feel self-conscious because it was a loud note where I have to flip up into head voice and then right back down and I kept messing it up. It didn't help that whenever I looked over at them they were watching me.

Finally I was done recording for the day. I started packing up the studio. The sun was going down and I was excited to get to dinner. Not because I was hungry, but because I wanted to try out the camp stove.

While I was putting the gear back in the Isuzu, the guy from next door came over.

I have a long history of bothering roommates with my efforts at music, and also I'm deferential by nature, so before he said anything I said, "Oh, hey, sorry if I was bugging you. I know you left home to probably get away from loud noises."

"Actually I was going to complain that we couldn't quite make out what you were saying," said the guy. "It sounded good though."

"Oh," I said. Then I couldn't think of anything else. So I added, "Thanks."

Then there was a moment where nothing happened. I wasn't sure what I was expected to do, plus I had my hands full, holding a wooden crate full of headphones and mic cables.

Finally he said, "Anyway, we're cooking salmon over there. We got plenty. You wanna come over for dinner?"

I thought about my own prospective dinner. Jimmy Dean sausage and scrambled eggs. I guess I might as well save it for the meal it was intended for.

At this point his wife (I assumed) had joined him, standing to his left and slightly behind. She smiled and it was an open smile. She echoed his original statement, that I sounded good. We talked for a second about something I can't remember. They were both very nice, and I'm not just saying that because at some point they will read this. They made it easy, which is something I love in people, when it happens.

So I said okay. They walked back to their camp and I finished putting away all the gear. Then I got out the tarp I bought at Target. The Tarpget. No that's dumb. I got the tarp and the Thermarest I borrowed from my friend in Denver and I inflated that and laid it down on the tarp. I didn't set up the tent because it wasn't supposed to  rain. Also laziness was involved.

Then I walked over to Steve and Laura's campsite. Steve and Laura from Pocatello. I brought my package of Oreo Thins with me. By way of housewarming. They seemed pleased. We had a nice meal and I was glad for the conversation because I have been spending a lot of time by myself. Then it seemed like I should play a few songs, so I went back and got my guitar and brought it over. I played Northern Lights, which Steve thought was AMAZING, and then I played Hurts Me So and If I Prove False, which he liked also but not as much. Laura recorded one of the songs on her cellphone. So there's probably an interesting captured moment out there somewhere.

Then it was getting dark. Time to go back to my home twenty feet away. Laura insisted on buying a CD, so I tossed a free Medium Hero into the deal, because they both had books on the table they were working through (Revenant, the one that inspired the movie, and something about an Atheist's questions to God). We traded info so I will probably stay at their house sometime down the road. That's how that works.

I returned to my camp as night fell and sat back in the camp chair I bought at Target and proceeded to enjoy the most peaceful two hours I've had this year. For one, no cell service. For two, my campsite, 51, was situated on a small plateau the southern face of which drops into a valley of scattered jagged lava boulders and juniper bushes. At night they are invisible, but the sky is not. The sky was electric, was showing off. I sat and sipped some of the bourbon I brought with me from Nashville. The stars lay before me, reckless and inviolate.

I looked for and found the constellations I knew, which are the same constellations everyone knows, and then I found the ones I half knew - Cassiopeia, Draco. It was like all the stars had been invited and there was nothing you couldn't see. Even the ghostly ribbon of the Milky Way was there. I watched for a long time. My problems seemed far away. I felt a feeling I haven't felt in a long time, that there was something right in the world. Plus I was by myself and I had all the time in the world to pick out satellites and wait for falling stars (I saw 7) and I didn't have to think of a single thing to say to anyone.

The celestial reprieve was short lived. Two drams and it was time for bed.

Carefully, I walked in the dark from the picnic table to the place where my Tarpget lay and then I walked back to the Isuzu to get the sleeping bag. It was already cold, so getting out of my shoes was unpleasant. But the sleeping bag was a four-season job and once I was inside, everything was fine. Except my nose was cold.

I lay on my back. I couldn't stop thinking about my cold nose. I thought maybe I should get the tent out. But it was too late and besides the stars were watching over me. So I sat still and watched and eventually I drifted off to a fitful sleep.

I woke up an hour later, needing to pee. But first I spent about 30 minutes trying to convince myself I didn't. During that conversation I kept stumbling upon the idea of wild animals, even though the only animal I had seen that day was a squirrel the size of a walnut. But I had read there are mountain lions at Craters of the Moon and they are active at night, and I kept thinking about what it would be like if a mountain lion bit my soft chewy face.

So by the time I extracted myself from the nylon cocoon I was both dancing from bladder discomfort and suddenly irrationally afraid of the great silent sleeping world around me.  I peed. And then I walked over to the Isuzu. And though I am ashamed to say it, I opened the door and I tilted the driver's seat back and climbed inside. I pressed the power lock button, I guess in case mountain lions can open car doors.

A blanket covering me, I spent the next hour trying to convince myself I was warm enough to sleep. I wasn't. Finally I decided to fetch the sleeping bag I had for some reason left back on the Tarpget (sorry it's too late to stop now). I sat up and pulled the lock up in the door panel.

Instantly the hyper-vigilant Trooper leapt to DEFCON 1 - headlights flashing, car horn honking, alarm screaming murder out across the desert. The sound was piercing. My embarrassment was total. The people who had fed me were asleep in their little trailer not 20 feet away.

Animated with a crazed panic, I pushed whatever buttons lay before me on the dashboard before remembering Isuzu requires the insertion of the key into the ignition before it agrees that you are not an intruder.

Where were the keys?

I started throwing whatever was around me up into the air, listening for the sound of jingling metal. The alarm went on and on, and on. Finally in a snap of neural heroism, I remembered I left them on the picnic table. I jerked the door open and blindly ran across the campsite in the direction of the table, forgetting the minefield of lava rocks strewn around the car.

I met the first rock with an unprepared ankle and went down hard. Amazingly I didn't knock any teeth out. I lay there for a moment, taking stock. My ankle throbbed in tandem with the car horn. I looked up. Cassiopeia was there, etched in her membrane of stars, shrinking and swelling in time with the pulsing ankle.

"Help! Help!" the car shrieked.

I pulled myself back up, dimly making out the white rectangle of the picnic table. Testing my balance and finding it intact, I hopped my way across the minefield of anklebreakers like a wild animal.

I snatched up the keys. No heard me shout a triumphant, "Ha!" because the car was hogging all the attention for ten miles around.

Keys in hand, I performed the same choreographed hop-and-tumble back to the car, which in spite of the sonic exertion showed no signs of fatigue whatsoever. I grabbed the handle, threw open the door and jammed the key into the ignition. World War III was finally over.

I realized I was panting. My expanding ankle made its presence known. Then I started laughing. Then I stopped. I was still freezing. I remembered the whole point was to get the sleeping bag. So out once more and a hop back over to the original sleep site.

I gathered it up from the Thermarest and came back to the car and shut the door and climbed inside the slippery bag (gingerly inserting the left leg). Suddenly, but for the limb, it was like nothing happened. The Trooper was asleep. The silent dark world returned, undiminished.

I felt my breathing calm. I turned on my side to face the window, warm at last. The glass framed the sky in a portrait of infinite indifference, and I lay with my eyes open and watched for I didn't know what. Time passed. The familiar constellations got bored and left and were replaced by strangers. A timid fingernail moon rose up over the horizon. It was still there when the rising sun swallowed the rest of the sky in a lazy soft blue twilight. I fired up the campstove and made a cup of instant coffee.