Thursday, January 10, 2013


I live in Chicago now, as you may know. I lived here before for a number of years. It’s home just as Oklahoma is home.

I work sixteen miles from where I live. It takes me over an hour to get from one to the other. That’s a lot of time with my nose in a book and headphones in my ears.

My habit of plugging into my ipod as soon as I leave my apartment is a good one. It protects me from interactions with the many strangers I pass, it functions as a security gate that lets me permit or ban access. That’s something I learned in high school. Somehow my habit of wearing headphones renders me effectively invisible. People know I can’t hear them so they don’t speak to me. “I’m not participating,” is what I seem to be saying. And it’s true. I’m not participating in the life of the streets I walk. I’m barely playing a role on the trains and buses I ride.

But my use of headphones is more important than that. The constant presence of private music adds much needed texture to the absurdity of my travel.

I am a speck on the map of millions, you see.

I feel like a benign Travis Bickle. I rove around this place, weaving in and out of the grotesque parade of hideous people. I am hideous too. But we are not alike, we are not together. I have this shield of beauty buoying me toward my workplace and back to my apartment. I have a soundtrack that elevates me.

When I work a closing shift on a weeknight I have occasion to discover a couple of precious quiet streets in Chicago. This is a rare thing, indeed.

It’s strange that I moved back to a fairly crowded city. I love being alone. In spite of my love of persons, I have great distaste for people.

This is the best, though.

It’s late. It’s dark. It’s cold and wet. I am alone in this place that hours ago was pulsing and bristling with activity, with people and people and more people.

I am suddenly Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. I feel like I have the whole place to myself. Like I may never see another person again but that’s basically okay by me.

This happened last week. I was walking down 57th Street in Hyde Park. I was alone and Modest Mouse was shouting some atonal rant into my ears and I suddenly had the sensation that as I moved the pavement was moving because of my steps. I felt as though the very earth beneath me was at the will of my feet. The world had become a treadmill. If I walked faster the world would fall away behind me at the same pace. If I ran you all would have felt it; you would have been thrown from your beds where you tried to sleep or your couches where you sat to watch the pathetic also-rans of college football, stalled in your cars where you were driving west as I ran east, arrested and nauseated in your pursuits of a kiss or another drink.

I felt like I was boss of the world.

We're all lucky I wasn’t.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

66 of Your Human Years

Why is today- to my mind- like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and Easter all rolled into one fabulous package? What is special today?

How is this day different from all other days?

Today is the anniversary of the most important event in the history of rock and roll music.

Because on this day in 1947 a Starman, an immortal demigod of music and fashion, came unto us lowly humans. He shed a magical and mystical light upon a world that was otherwise dull and gray. He told stories in song. He gave us allegories that taught us the frail nature of our lives. His music offered us transcendence. He invented the mullet that is so popular among southern lesbians. He wore super-tight body suits and painted his face.

David Bowie is 66 today.

I love him so.

We’re lucky we have him.

He has a new album coming out soon, March supposedly. The title is The Next Day. And while we have to wait two more months for David Bowie to release his new album (and for my dad to BECOME AS OLD AS DAVID BOWIE) we don’t have to wait to listen.

So. Here. My gift to you. The full video for David Bowie’s first single in a decade: Where Are We Now?

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 8

I ran out of money in Chicago.

I had a reserve of eighty-something bucks through PayPal1 that I set to transfer to my bank account, knowing it would take three days. I left Chicago on Wednesday, the fifth day of September. I spent the day driving through Illinois and Missouri on my way to Kansas City to visit my best friend.

I mention the date because it is significant to me and to this series of essays I’ve been writing about travel.

This was the 55th anniversary of the publication of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I am unashamed to embrace my pretension on this point: I love On the Road. It was one of the three most formative reading experiences of my life.2 The books I’ve loved most have always been about travel, ever since I was a child.

On the Road, on the off chance you’ve never bothered to read it, is a semi-autobiographical story of a young man who craves newness, novelty. He craves meaning. Kerouac disguises himself in the character of Sal Paradise who makes the wild friendship of another young man, an artist and writer named Dean Moriarty (a thinly veiled version of Neal Cassady, a writer who died in Mexico after passing out drunk near train tracks... not with a bang but a whimper). They undertake an amphetamine-fueled trip cross-country and back. And back again.

The plot of On the Road isn’t what’s important- or really even all that interesting- about the book. On the Road is about a road trip in the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale. The plot is there to distract you from noticing that you’re learning about the way people act, the way people change.

I read On the Road in the summer between high school and college. I then spent the next few years3 thinking about leaving whatever thing I was doing and grabbing a crazy person to go on a long trip and take a lot of drugs.

I see myself in these characters. For good reasons and bad reasons, self-effacing and self-deprecating. I am much like the sharks that terrify me so. It would seem I need constant motion.

I commented recently to my dear friend Brad that travel is in all of my stories. I realized that the book I’m writing is a road story.4 I told Brad that when I think about it a lot of my songs are about travel. Brad wisely said, “That’s largely your personal narrative. You’re always moving somewhere.”

Brad’s right. He’s identified a pattern that I overlooked in my own life. I’m always coming from somewhere and on my way somewhere. The act of settling seems to be a burden to me.

Like Salvatore Paradise in On the Road, I am ever dissatisfied. And it isn’t mere restlessness. It is darker than that. When I arrive at whichever destination I discover that what I was looking for has moved on. My friends may still be there but they’re busy with lives that they’ve been building while I was away, burning through my options.

Before I left Chicago on Wednesday I cleaned the car of the empty water bottles and sunflower seed packages and other detritus attendant with a road trip. I was fortunate to discover a CD wedged beneath the driver’s seat. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West was a happily received Christmas gift from my wife several years ago. I blasted that music from Springfield to the Mississippi River. One song in particular fascinated me on this drive. “Runaway” describes a man who loves deeply but self-sabotages routinely. The song seems to come from the perfect median between id and superego, without the mitigation of the pesky ego.5

This song, and a surprising number of other songs by Kanye West, opens a window into my own behavior. The narrator in the song and I have in common the fear-based impulse to get out of a good situation early, hopefully before it goes bad- to get out before it is boring.
Boredom is the greatest sin.
There is no insult to life that is greater than finding it dull. That is the moral lesson of On the Road. The same goes for “Runaway”.
I crossed the famous river in the afternoon and couldn’t help myself. I left the highway to slow-roll through Hannibal, Missouri.
You must know the significance of Hannibal. This once was the home of a young man named Samuel Clemens. He moved there at the age of four. Hannibal was the role model for the town of St. Petersburg in the books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I’ve been to Hannibal a few times. I love it. Its Twain-iness in spots is exactly as charming and as opportunistic as you’d expect. They can’t have an ice cream shop, it has to be Becky Thatcher’s Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor or something to that effect. Huck’s Candy Shoppe. Indian Joe’s Olde Indian Emporium6.
On Hill Street in Hannibal is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. It is a house and Samuel Clemens lived in that house for nine years of his youth from age 9 to age 18 or so. The house is decorated with fascinating looking objects from the era of Clemens’ boyhood that DID NOT NECESSARILY BELONG TO TWAIN AND WE NEVER REALLY SAID THEY DID. For a small fee you may wander through the house not touching these objects that didn’t belong to the famous writer or his family.
A sign on the fence next to Mark Twain’s possible childhood home says something to the effect of: “Authentic Replica of Whitewashed Fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” And you may, if inclined, take pictures of yourself and your family in front of this real thing that is like a thing that ONLY EXISTS IN THE IMAGINATION. And they do not charge you for this privilege.
God, I love things like this.
Places like this are where metatext becomes ACTUAL TEXT. Awesome.
Mr. Clemens would love it, too, I’d bet. But he’d love it the way I love seeing commercials for Golden Corral. He’d revel in how heartily he shook his head, how aghast he could feel at the obviousness of it.

You see, Twain was a prophet. And I don’t mean that in the Delphic Oracle kind of way, I mean that in the Jeremiah of the Old Testament kind of way. He took a look at the behaviors and practices of the culture around him and he recognized the danger our habits created and he felt compelled to try to change the path. He tried to use classic satire to make cartoonish balloon animal shaped warning signs. Like Swift, he hoped that if he held up a garish mirror his contemporaries would see their mistakes and clean off the clown makeup before it was too late.
But he knew they wouldn’t.
In one of Twain’s last writings, The War Prayer, Twain describes a religious service. War is beginning. The minister prays to commission the patriotic soldiers of the land to go with god into battle and be victorious. A mysterious stranger takes the podium from the minister and explains to the people there that the Almighty has heard the prayer that was spoken but also the unspoken prayer. He says God has sent him to put that unspoken prayer into words. It is brutal.
Twain tried to publish the piece and it was rejected. He told his friend Dan Beard that he wouldn’t publish it. He said that he had told the whole truth in it and only dead men could speak a truth like that. That was in 1905. It was finally published in 1923, well after his death.
Twain had a way of looking at multiple sides of a problem. He had compassion for even those with whom he disagreed. But he was no sucker, no sissy.
That’s a commonality between the three artists I encountered on my drive that day. Jack Kerouac, Kanye West, and Mark Twain each display a passion for life. Each wanted to have it both ways, but knew better than to think they could. Now, these three men couldn’t be much different. One from the Southern Gentry, one from a working-class half-Quebecois Catholic family, one a poor black kid from Chicago. But each transcended those roots to become symbols to people looking for symbols. People like me. People who choose to believe there is deeper meaning in the messages that people send. Signal is more than sign, right?! It must be.
And yeah, I’m building Kanye up a lot here by putting him in this lineup, I know it. So what? You know who he is, don’t you? Yes. Everybody does, even people who have never voluntarily listened to a second of hip-hop. And that is his own doing. He’s a vital artist, even if he can be a douche-bag. And Twain and Kerouac burned bridges, too. Both of them were followed by controversy. The main difference being that Twain was charming. Kerouac and West stepped on toes and defended themselves by refusing to apologize.7
There are few artists who succeed. And fewer still who appear fearless in their attempts to create something new after they’ve achieved acclaim. Fewer still who shove the newness of their work brazenly into the maws of their critics. These three are among those elite, to my mind.
In On the Road Kerouac says “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who never say a commonplace thing.”
I believe that all three of these artists would sign on to that sentiment. And I believe that sentiment applies quite well to each of them. And I think they’d each agree with me about that.
I left the town of Twain’s childhood and the river that was his inspiration. I drove toward the sun for a few more hours. I was going to see the least commonplace person I know. She wasn’t going to do any drugs with me, nor would she leave behind her job and apartment and responsibilities to drive to the next ocean west of us. But she’d know exactly why I wanted to. And she’d buy me a tattoo instead. That’s good enough.

1 I’m not really sure why it takes 3 days for PayPal to transfer money to my bank account. I guess this fancy online payment service has to use terrestrial couriers to bring the cash from their online accounts to my brick and mortar bank location. Oddly, when somebody buys music from me online the money comes out of their account IMMEDIATELY. Not so with getting that money to my account. PayPal frequently has fourteen American dollars that belong to me tied up in super-important high-risk investments, I have to assume. Do I complain to PayPal? No. They have been known to temporarily suspend the account of whiners. By simple fiat. They have the temperament of a petulant child. As do I. But they have the power in this relationship. Who else would I use? They have my money, so they win this contest.
2 The other two are also stories of traveling. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Melville’s Moby Dick.
3 By “the next few years” I simply mean “all of the years since”.
4 This was unplanned. I had an idea for a story about a man and looking back over the almost finished story I see that each chapter has a different tale of traveling. Many things about this project have lined up by happy accident. It will make me seem so much smarter than I am.
5 Wouldn’t it be awesome if Freud and Kanye were contemporaries?! Oh, the possibilities!
6 Does not exist.
7 SUPER tempted to try to make a case for some weird linear reincarnation thing right here. Clemens died in 1910, Kerouac was born in 1922. Kerouac died in 1969, West was born in ’77. Each created prolifically and each was embraced and rejected by their fans. Each created a persona to shield them from their own creative work. I love each of them. There’s a lot at work here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 7

My Vacation as Parallax Pt. 7

All vacations develop into sadness.
I truly believe this.

Here’s the part where my vacation got sad:
On Tuesday I visited what I consider “my neighborhood”.

I lived in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood for several years. It’s the neighborhood in which I felt most comfortable. It’s the neighborhood I chose, you know?

Now. I left years ago. I left West Town, left Chicago, and left a life that was a struggle in which I reveled.
I have long held on to the childish, na├»ve, and ultimately self-damaging delusion that when I leave a place it will remain as it was until I return.
It will not.

West Town is different now, but not entirely, of course.

It’s good to see that Permanent Records is still thriving. It was pleasant to have still-excellent chilaquiles at Flo, served by the same attentive but beleaguered waitress as years ago. And I enjoyed a cup of coffee at Atomix, just as I did (at least) weekly since 2003 or so until the week I moved away.
But Vigilante Press 1 was closed. They’re supposed to open at noon. I passed by several times and they were still dark and gated. 2

I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture of things in West Town. The neighborhood isn’t dying. It’s quite healthy, in fact. The streets are busy. There are several new bars and restaurants on Chicago Avenue between Ashland and Damen (my old “main drag”) and quite a few more east of Ashland.
These new places have customers, too, lots of them. And that’s part of what’s so strange to me when I visit.

Who are these people? Since when is my neighborhood teeming with Iowa and Notre Dame 3 graduates?

One of the new businesses in the neighborhood is a bar that features “Quad-Cities-style” pizza; a thing I believe does not exist 4. But people sure go for it. On a weekend night the place is so crowded it looks like the old phone booth gag, various limbs and faces sticking out from the windows and doors.

Walking up and down Chicago Avenue and in and out of various shops a very dark and unsettled feeling came over me.
I hit upon something in my search that underscores the sadness of returning to any former “home”:

This is how it feels to be a ghost.

I move about in a space that used to be my own. It’s changed, but I identify what it once was. What it was is what I am looking for. Nobody sees me. No one will notice me unless I act out.

I went to Permanent Records, a favorite of mine. The couple who opened the place, Liz and Lance, have long since moved to Los Angeles and opened a second location. The kid working was busy at some random shop stuff and didn’t look up when I came in. A few minutes later the Billy-Corgan-looking owner of Atomix came in and they chatted amiably, never acknowledging me. I walked out without comment.
I believe I could have shoplifted a couple of CDs for my drive without notice, so
invisible was I.

I needed contact. I needed, not validation, but verification.

Somebody note that I exist, please.

Where else would I go but to Cleo’s? It was my neighborhood’s answer to Cheers. On the rare occasion that I knew none of the patrons when I came in, I’d certainly know some by the time I left and would see those there again. It was the most affordable place to go when I lived around the corner (apart from home, but who wants to go there?) simply because the staff and owners of the place liked me and felt somehow compelled to not charge me most of the time. For my last week as a neighbor I visited Cleo’s every day and was charged not a single time for any item.

But that was almost five years ago. Everything passes, yes? It was an opportunity for deep disappointment, going into this old familiar place in hopes of solace.

I went into Cleo’s. I was the only customer. The bartender was Lance. He’s one of the guys who bought the place just over a year ago, well after I decamped for Oklahoma. I met him one evening when I was in town last September.
As I sat down at the bar I said, “How’s it going?”
Lance said, “I remember you. Is it Marty?”


I exist. I am known.

I was at Cleo’s for a couple of hours, just chatting. We talked shop, talked food, and talked about the excellent music playing (heavy on British New Wave with occasional forays into old good punk like the Buzzcocks).

Somehow my old neighborhood, my “home”, had been again normalized. And by somebody I didn’t even know when I lived there.

This visit to West Town was a mirror I needed to see.
It was cracked, sure, but there I was looking back.
The neighborhood has changed, just like I have. There have been great new things and awful new things. There will be more of both.

1 It’s hard to explain the significance of this comic shop. I like comics, but it hardly has to do with that. This shop opened well after I was established in the neighborhood. Sean and Lily, the owners, became dear friends to me. In fact, I spent my last night as a Chicago resident having dinner and drinks with them. We’ve sadly fallen out of contact. This happens.
2 I saw a post on Facebook the week before saying, “Help Save Our Shop!” It was a dark feeling indeed to see that gate closed all day. An update: I came back to the neighborhood a few days after writing this essay and found them open again. They worked out whatever problem they had. Please visit them and give support. Keep this vital little shop open, yeah?
3 Notre Dame grads- or “domers” as they disgustingly call themselves- are not the worst people in the world, but they are obvious “also-rans". They’ll try to trick you into buying that Notre Dame is an Ivy League school. Do not believe them.
4 I asked my friend Corey from Anty Shanty, a Quad Cities native, about this. His response: “That’s not a thing! What, does the pizza have meth sprinkled all over it or something?”

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 6

Rogers Park is the second neighborhood I lived in during my time in Chicago. It was
my first to visit on this vacation.

I lived in Rogers Park during one of the darkest times of my life 1. I lived in a two-
bedroom apartment on Colombia. My roommates were great people who essentially
just took me in when my life went haywire. And they tolerated me for several
months. I slept in the living room. On a couch. It was very glamorous.

These guys- Michael and Jeremy- were incredibly gracious. They quietly tolerated the
depths of my depression and all the attendant bad behaviors.

Now. I’m going to tell you something, dear reader. It is something unpopular and
The album that is most inextricably linked to that time in my mind is Parachutes by

Yeah. I’m embarrassed by what you just read.
See, I don’t like Coldplay.
In fact, I dislike boring music in general. And I’ve long held to the belief that if I wish
to listen to U2, I’ll just go ahead and listen to U2 instead of some pale surrogate.

But it was different then, different for that album. 2 It’s their best album. Strike that.
It’s the good album by Coldplay.

Are you buying my apology?


One of my roommates 3 had the Coldplay CD. It played a lot around the apartment.
I remember marveling at how the overarching tone and emotion of the album
matched my own hazy, inchoate dread and regret.
Michael said once, “I don’t know who or what made this guy so sad, but think of
how much action he’s getting now.” Because that’s how people talk in real life. And
Michael was right. Chris Martin married Gwynneth Paltrow 4.

Coldplay was certainly not the only music I was listening to at that time. And it
was far from the best. At The Drive In was popular at our place. And Mojave 3. And
lots of old punk stuff. I swear to god we weren’t sitting around in Polo shirts and
backwards baseball caps listening to Coldplay oh please believe me.

I should never have brought it up.

Maybe there’s a broader point to be made here. One about how music attaches to
you even when it’s not-so-good. Sometimes hearing a song often- whether by choice
or not- just works that song into your subconscious, and then your conscious, mind.
You think of a time in your past and you remember a tune even if it’s a tune you
I recall an ex-girlfriend being discovered by a mutual friend as she sat in the floor of
her bedroom sobbing while Shania Twain sang “Looks Like We Made It” on repeat 5.

When I lived in Rogers Park I wrote prodigiously. I sometimes worry that it was the
best writing I’ll ever get done. It’s all gone now, so I’ll never be able to review it.
I bet you, though, that those dumb Coldplay lyrics are liberally ripped off in my old
I’m glad those pages are gone now. I can’t spare any extra shame.

1 I have no real scale for darkness in my past. Honestly, dark is my go-to adjective when describing any isolated period in my adult life. Oops.
2 Am I trying to convince you or am I trying to convince myself? “No comment.”
3 Jeremy would want me to point out that it WAS NOT he.
4 She’s grown insufferable in motherhood, sure, but when they married she was pretty special business. I blame her for Coldplay’s subsequent awfulness. She’s Coldplay’s Yoko. Nobody writes good songs when they’re happy.
5 We did not make it, obviously.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 5

The real meat of this vacation, the longest and most potentially meaningful stretch
of it, began Friday evening.

The sign says “Chicago 30”, but that does not mean you will be in Chicago in half an
There is no good time to drive in or out of Chicago.
Every artery in and out is a seemingly endless construction project. And where are
all these cars going at all hours of the day and night?! Do people not work for a living
or have homes where they sleep?

Listening for the traffic report is fruitless. I swear, the lady who reports traffic for
WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR station) must know and despise me, for she leaves out travel
time for whichever highway I am on. Without fail.

The frustration of driving 1 on the outskirts of Chicago did not faze me. I was coming

I lived in Chicago for the better part of a decade. I didn’t grow up here, but here is
where I became a grown up 2.

To my mind Chicago is a series of neighborhoods, each describing a slightly different
synecdoche of the city.
Some of the neighborhoods show me much of what I love about Chicago; some show
the things I do not. There is great creativity there, and great work for justice. There
is also darkness, great injustice.

It’s a complicated business, this walking around with eyes opened.

During my time in Chicago I lived in seven different neighborhoods. I did a lot of
wandering, a lot of floating.

I’m hoping to do some work while I’m in town.
You see, I’m writing a book and album- companion pieces- about losing something
important. A lot of references to Chicago come in during the book. The thing I’m
writing about losing I really started losing in Chicago.
I’m not here to find it again. I’m not interested in having it back, frankly.
What interests me is the trip I took when it disappeared.

I’m going to visit each of my old neighborhoods while I’m in town.
I’m going to visit the shops, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops I used to frequent.

I’m going to visit a couple of my old workplaces and lots of old friends.

I plan to treat these visits as mirrors of my loss and shame and damage. I doubt I’ll
improve greatly through the process, but I assume I’ll get some good songs out of it.

Apparently that’s all that really matters to me.

1 Sitting still.
2 This is most certainly dependant on who you ask. MANY people in Chicago have known me for being quite childish, indeed.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 4

the River Monks
The third day of my vacation was spent largely in the car, mostly driving through Iowa.

Say what you will of Iowa. I love it. I have nothing but happy memories associated with Iowa.

I used to have many friends in Decorah and I would go visit them twice a year. We always had a lot of music and a lot of outdoors. It was a magical time.
One of my favorite bands is namelessnumberheadman. 1 All three members have deep roots in Shawnee. Their previous iteration, the Fauves, recorded in Decorah. Their album reminds me still of my early college days. I wish I’d had that CD for my drive through Iowa.

Another musical association I have with Iowa is the brilliant Des Moines band the River Monks. In April they stopped through Shawnee to play at sips Downtown Kafe’
. It was beautiful music played by sweet, gracious people. I convinced them to stick around after the shop closed and we hung out for a couple of hours. I quickly learned that I didn’t just enjoy their music, I genuinely liked the people playing it. The next night I had my first post-break-up solo show in Norman. They came to hear me since they were playing down the street later that night. It might have meant little to them, but I found their presence at my set really touching. I believe I’ll always think of them when I pass through Des Moines.

What else about Iowa?
Should I write about the Day the Music Died? There is a pretty touching memorial at the crash site, I hear. The family who owns the land there is gracious enough to allow American-music pilgrims free access to it.

That’s what I think is classical Iowan-ness.

Let me play the role of Counting Crows for a moment as I generalize a large population based on where they live:
Iowans are good, nice people. They are, by and large, friendly and intelligent and earnest.
Okay, the ones I’ve met are.
But it must be broadly so. How else could their politics be so moderately populist and sensible?

Take Richard Waack as an example. He was born just a couple of miles from the earlier mentioned crash site. He was my art teacher. I learned more from him than any teacher I’ve ever had.
He talked about music in almost every lesson. (He introduced me to Bob Dylan 2.) He taught me that the real key to getting good at making art is to produce. “Make lots of art and your art gets better.”

And Corey Gingerich, another Iowan I like a lot.
He owns Anty Shanty on Main Street in Norman, OK#. He hosts concerts at his shop often, mostly during Norman’s 2nd Friday Art Walk. He’s invited me to play at his shop a few times, and I’ve loved playing there each time. Corey loves music and has spent many years in music promotion. His encouragement and embracing of my music and my performances has increased my confidence significantly.

Where do all these people learn to be so kind? Does farm and dairy work instill some sort of native bonhomme? It’s not been my experience.

No, seriously. How do they get this way? I’m asking you. I have no theories.
1 Full disclosure: They’re very long-time friends of mine, so I may be biased- but I truly love their music.
2 Not literally.