medium hero

A Book Nerd at Parnassus.

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If the major theme of Thousand Springs is to record my songs in places special to me, then this song, “Book Nerd” had to be recorded here, at Parnassus Books in Nashville. 

Parnassus has only been around for a few years, but it’s become one of the most famous bookstores in the country, up there with City Lights in San Francisco, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, Square Books in Oxford, Strand in NYC…it doesn’t hurt that one of its co-founders is superstar author Ann Pachett. But Parnassus’ success is mostly due its staff: they’re real book people, in love with literature, self-anointed proselytizers of the written word, and plugged into the Nashville community like a quarter-inch jack.

I was there opening night. I remember it well because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I was underdressed, wearing a ripped army shirt I bought at a thrift store. Everyone else was in formal gowns and wool suits. And fifteen years older than me. I drank two glasses of wine and introduced myself to the co-founder Karen Hayes (Pachett’s partner) and then I got the hell out of there, back to the side of the river where I belong.

Garment-fouls aside, it was a fortuitous night. Karen and I have known each other for 7 years now. She let me do my initial reading for Medium Hero at Parnassus. And she played a critical, if unwitting role in my book being formally published late last year. 

This is the story I want to tell.

What happened was, I came to Parnassus on a hot Sunday in June to see genius folksinging weirdo Todd Snider do a reading/release for his own book of short stories, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. I was hoping he’d play some songs, but he showed up empty handed, approximately one minute before he was scheduled to read. He opened by announcing he was going camping in East Tennessee immediately after the reading, so if anyone had some weed would they be so kind as to kick down a little. That’s Todd. 

After the reading, I wandered around like I usually do, waiting for a book to jump off the shelf and land in my hand. Karen approached and pointed at a woman doing the same thing and said, “That’s Katie. She’s starting this writer’s collective. You guys should meet.” I said okay so Karen led me over and introduced us. A few days later, Katie emailed me and asked if we could get coffee. 

I sat across a table in a coffeeshop in Sylvan Park from Katie and her friend and business partner, Susannah. They had just started a writer’s collective called The Porch and wanted to know if I had any ideas for an event.

I did have an idea. Two of my favorite creative people in the world are named Tim O’Brien. One is a multi-instrumentalist bluegrass superstar, and the other is the National Book award-winning author of The Things They Carried, and several other great books. I’ve always assumed they at least know of each other, because if you google Tim O'brien, the author and musician are the first two results, respectively. And I've been curious: is each familiar with the other’s work? Are they annoyed they have the same name?

So, sipping a foamy macchiato at a crowded coffeeshop across from two near-strangers,  I wondered aloud: what if we had an event called A Tale of Two Tims? The musician would play and the writer read. People might like that.

I had no idea how we would pull that off, but Katie immediately responded that she knew Writer Tim. Not super well, but she had taken a seminar from him and had his email address. I knew the musician, having played music and tour-managed him a couple times. The next day, Katie called and said author Tim was in. I was pretty surprised. So I called music Tim, and he was in too. Just like that, it was on.

A Tale of Two Tims happened a few months later. Everyone came. It sold out and the venue was beautiful and we were all squeezed in tight with glasses of whiskey and wine in our hands. At Katie's request, I played a few songs to start things off. Then Tim played, and Tim read, and then Tim played again while Tim did some magic tricks. It was a great night. The world felt small and everyone left feeling like you're never too old to be surprised and delighted.

Afterwards, while people were folding up the chairs and dismantling the stage, a girl approached me, asking if it was true I had a book for sale. I pointed at the pile of self-published Medium Heros sitting next to Tim’s books and said yes I do. The girl said she was going to buy my book. She handed me a business card. I read the card. It said she was the acquisitions manager at this place called Turner Publishing. I didn’t think too much of it. But when I got an email a few weeks later, and then a contract, and then an advance, I was like, wow. This is pretty real. And it all happened because Karen introduced me to Katie at Parnassus Books.

So. How excited was I last Friday when Karen let me into the store an hour before opening? I had the whole place to myself. I spent a distracted 10 minutes rereading the first pages of The All of It, one of my favorite books of all time, and then I set the recording stuff up near the kids’ section by the little white pillars. I tuned, and spent about 20 minutes getting the tone right on the guitar. One thing about recording this way, a song at a time, each in a different place, is that every environment is different and emphasizes different frequencies, characteristics, flavors. Every time is a starting over. 

“Book Nerd” is about a girl I know who reads about as much as she breathes. The kind of girl who brings a book to a party. My kind of girl. The store opened while I was still recording. Everyone was politely quiet, tiptoeing around me and looking at the new releases and the classics and the coffee table books while I sang over and over:

She was a book nerd She had blonde hair With a paperback in her back pocket Where ever she was, she was right there She was a book nerd

***

I'm running out of time so this will have to be a story for another day. The story about me having dinner last week with Steve Wozniak. Steve is an evil genius and he taught me how to play a prank on anyone with an iPhone. I’ll show you sometime.

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Any Weirding Invention.

.IMG_6109.jpgIt was not early. Mid morning. He stood at the kitchen counter looking through the pane of glass above the sink. The scene beyond was unremarkable. Smoke colored sky. Tree like a broccoli crown. A bulky-house contest facing off across the street.

Using the tip of his finger to work a bit of sleep from the corner of his eye, he turned his attention to the machine before him. Now the mug sitting beside the machine. He leaned against the counter and bent his torso until he could see inside the empty mug without touching it. It appeared to be clean. He straightened, grasped the handle and placed the cold mug on the perforated plastic platform created for this moment. 

Beside the machine was a metal carousel of small plastic cups, each sealed with a colorful label denoting the contents inside. He withdrew one called Donut Shop. With his other hand he lifted the plastic handle that opened wide the machine's black throat. There was a distinctive pop as the hinged worked against itself. He lowered the lever. The throat closed. He opened it again, slowly, closed it, opened it once more and placed the small plastic cup inside the throat. He lowered the lever and the machine swallowed. 

He scowled. How was it possible that a Keurig could make him feel lonely?

He pushed a button and a green light appeared. He pushed a bigger button. A loud buzz filled the room like an airplane propeller. He placed his hand on the lever and felt the vibration. He wondered what was going on, exactly, inside the machine. He wondered why he wondered. The machine stopped buzzing. There was a click like a washing machine and then a sharp hiss. He watched a faint wisp of steam draw away from the thin brown liquid now shooting into the cup. A new sound, a gurgle, joined the hiss. He watched the black line of rising coffee climb the white cup’s wall. The phrase Keurig piss entered his head. He scowled again. He was hoping for something wittier.

While he sipped his coffee which was delicious and convenient he thought about what it was he should write. He felt he was in a difficult spot. Three weeks abroad in the train parade of European travel, through countries German and British. This demanded an accounting, or at least a summary, of sights seen and feelings felt. But while the items worth discussing were several, he couldn’t discuss them all, and choosing which, felt impossible.

There was the fact of his having just turned forty, the nip of which he felt acutely, because he was still in show business where oldness and obsolescence are almost synonyms. For another, his newly lame voice, which he was sick of talking about, was probably at this point permanently altered, and in his mind, not for the better. Notes had dearly departed and never returned, in their absence an exhilarating feeling akin to what might be called paralyzing fear had materialized, wherewith he was sorting out a number of possible alternatives to his current form of employment. Then there was the problem of the music album currently under construction, the existence of which was pre-paid by a fairly large handful of friends and well-wishers. He was under an obligation to produce said album.

In short he felt that the sweater of his life was unravelling around him, and while in polite company he was perfectly capable of maintaining a cadence of positivity and even a kind of high-tenored élan, his nights and alone times were in the exclusive possession of a grave uncertainty.

Also there was the difficulty of his girlfriend ex girlfriend future wife arch nemesis who had generously flown out to meet him on tour, among the cafes and cathedrals of the Old World. In his hour of urgent need, she had come. Even after everything he said, wrote. The simple gratitude he felt toward her. The ensuing complicated feelings. 

But wait. That didn’t have to be brought up, did it? A personal matter. He was under no obligation to disclose his stuttering love life to an online coterie of friends and strangers. Furthermore, writing is always a process of selection, of separation (wheat from chafe, bud from stem): why not narrow its scope to the merely musical, or culinary, or peripatetic?

He already knew there would be no narrowing. Not in that sense. This project was about singing, playing, telling the truth as best he could. He was no longer interested in playacting at art or music or life. No, that wasn’t quite the way to put it. He had never been interested in playacting. It was just that, now, he was taking a sharper tool to himself, actively seeking to uproot the weeds of vanity and insincerity wherever he found them. At whatever cost. Here he was, a man who by any economic standard was, shall we say, languishing, but he still had the two things he valued most. Namely a ruthless approach to self-inquiry and a healthy loathing of bullshit.

While he waited for the machine to produce a second cup of coffee which was also delicious and convenient, a cat appeared, long-furred and calico, leaping onto the counter and sniffing casually at the unwashed plates lying in the sink. He thought of his own cat at home. He thought of his own ridiculous fascination with all things feline. He thought of his annoying tendency to return to subjects already covered in full. He shooed the cat down from the counter. The cat looked up at him from the floor, swishing its bushy tail. Why do you have to make everything so difficult? It said.

Good question, cat. He peered into the empty coffee cup of his mind and saw no answers worth sipping.

For years he had been plagued with a nagging feeling that he may in fact be a bad artist, or worse, a mediocre one. It was one of the unwelcome guests that kept him awake at night. Much noisy chatter.

But lately he had been revisiting the idea of his creative worth, and decided it didn’t matter. No, it mattered. Of course it mattered. But the world didn’t get to decide how good he was or wasn't.

True, the terms of his financial freedom or lack thereof were inseparable from a participation in the capitalistic culture of which he was apart, where fans were won or not, and a numerical value could be (and inevitably was) assigned. But art has no number. Any weirding invention fulfills its own purpose, is complete unto itself. The sincere creative act is about risk and by necessity includes at least the possibility of growth, and so, even if he was tanking his own career by letting everyone have a good long look at the unshaven armpits of his life, he yet gained in the balance.

Armpits of his life. Way better than Keurig piss. His mood improved slightly.

The second cup of coffee gone, he looked around for his laptop. He realized it was still in the car. He had only an hour to write before his recording session began. He had better get started.