A Fan’s Notes, or, Why I Write

The Blank Page

The hardest part is the blank page.  With those seven words the page is no longer blank.  One hurdle down…

As long as I can remember there’s been something inside trying to be heard or read.  In my obsessive record collecting youth it was the former.  Records accompanied me home under my collegiate arm, usually well worn by their previous owners, but cheap.  The grooves in the vinyl contained the creative output of (almost always) men and they (almost always) were older than me.  Buried in the pleasure derived from placing the needle on the record and hearing the warm, if a bit poppy and scratchy, sounds was a hidden hope and desire that one day I would be one of the men making music that went on vinyl and that I would be the older person inspiring and making someone happy.

That was over twenty-five years ago.  During that time the dream was never realized. The closest it came involved semi-close brushes two or three times removed from a few folks who for a brief moment had it within their grasp. 

DJ’ing

Four years at public radio station, KCMU (now KEXP), provided a peripheral experience. At KCMU volunteers put together four-hour long stretches of musical collages, resulting in beautiful, rewarding mixes of songs from every genre you can think of. It provided a healthy, creative outlet for which I will always be thankful.  Most volunteer DJ’s weren’t making the music to be heard. Rather, they were the fans who played and exposed it to the listeners. In some cases they were both (see Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, Mark Arm of Mudhoney and other great bands, and Jon Poneman who went on to release music with his partner Bruce Pavitt on Sub Pop records). All were responsible for making it heard over the airwaves and blending the disco with the dissonant jazz with the industrial noise with the beautiful power pop from New Zealand with the enchanting sounds of Africa and more.  Only after leaving did I realize what a profoundly nourishing and creative experience those four years were. These days from time to time I’m able to help out with live DJ’ing at the Sunset Tavern which is always similar fun.

A few years later I enjoyed about a decade of playing bass in an all-improv group and experienced the joy being one of the people who makes the songs.  Sunday evenings in the hot summer of 1997 the music happened.  We had a practice space on Capitol Hill where we met around 7pm.  The chemistry of three or four guys and sometimes a drum machine clicked after two to four cans of cold Schmidt.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but it provided an outlet.  It was a release on the valve to get something out, to get something heard.  Never mind that rarely did anyone ever hear it – live shows happened infrequently – but being there in the present, letting my fingers put together some messed up riff that I never thought anyone would contemplate working with, and having others lay down music on top of it, then hearing it then in the here and now was a rush.  Each session ended with a buzz well beyond anything the beers offered. Today in our later middle-age lives we again gravitate to a practice space a couple times a year to plug in and play with no audience except ourselves and a few cans of Rainier, and for this I’m grateful.

From the improvised band I moved to one who played real songs and a recording actually happened, as did a few shows. However, like countless other bands, this one never rose above the occasional show and halfway decent demo before the flame went out. By the fourth year practice was a weekly boys’ night of beer and playing the same old songs in a dark room.  Sure it was fun, but the potential and fire slowly withered.  And unlike most other similar bands, we were not so young with members in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

Fast forward to now.  In the quarter-century since I started obsessively carrying home cheap used stacks of records, I became older than nearly all the musicians who I elevated to hero status were when they put out the records that moved me.  Pete Townshend, Ace Frehley, Joe Strummer, Keith Richards, Mark Arm (and several other musicians in my backyard).  I’m pushing 50.  Pete Townshend just turned 26 when Live at Leeds was released, Ace Frehley was 27 when my parents gave me his Kiss solo record for Christmas, Joe Strummer was around 27 when London Calling came out and is already dead by natural causes, and Keith Richards was about 38 when the Stones’ last decent record came out.

The musical urge, while not dead, is fading, along with those who inspired it.  Perhaps one day, like the prolifically creative aged men who I still adorn with hero status (Julian Cope, Jah Wobble, Mike Watt, Buzz Osborne, Lee Renaldo, Fred Cole), something I record will be played by a young kid.  And perhaps it will be an electronic, intangible file rather than a hefty chunk of vinyl.  Perhaps it’s as likely to happen as my 24 year old fantasy of chatting up King Buzzo in downtown Olympia and hearing him say, “Hey, the Melvins are replacing Joe Preston.  Do you know any good bass players?”

As that musical fantasy is beat down with each additional year of wisdom, it cross-fades with the urge to write.  Both are outlets, a way to get something out, to make something that didn’t exist before, hopefully with an audience.  And fortunately the writing urge requires only two investments:  a device (computer, check) and the will (uh, checked, then erased, then checked again in pencil just in case to avoid commitment, then erased, and now once again checked, though digitally so it seems permanent but can be deleted).

A good friend from high school is married to a writer, Sydney Salter.  I congratulated her the other day on accolades she received on a writers’ blog.  She responded saying the hardest part is the empty page.  She wrote, “My guess is that if you’re even thinking about writing, you’re meant to write”.  The voice deep inside me said, “Whoa, how did she know?” The voices on the surface, the ones that are always trying to get out, said perhaps, yes, I can commit to writing.  She also wrote, “Get some words down”.  Destroy the blank page.  Ok, she didn’t say that last sentence. I did.

Well, mission accomplished.  This page is no longer empty.  Some of the voices swirling inside searching for a way out are set free.  A creative outlet is tapped and, like the jamming in the late 90’s, even if it doesn’t receive an audience, it’s still a healthy release and feels really good.

postscript:

  • This post’s title is blatant homage to the Frederick Exley’s wonderful semi-fictional memoir of a man coming to terms with the fact that he will never be the professional football player he thought he could be, “A Fan’s Notes.” Read it.

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