There is a Jon Brion-esque musical genius from Olympia with whom I walked The Tree recently. It’s weird that he’s still here, and nice for me, because this is a town that kills good music and drives the people who make it mad, bad or away.
This local prodigy is one of three people who called to tell me they were considering suicide since the winter solstice. I like when people tell me they are facing this particular abyss, so I can laugh and welcome them to the realm of serious people. It’s the only serious question, so said Albert Camus, and I know that on the other side of it is life. Not just breathing and thinking and eating and shitting, but life as a powerful choice.
I first met the genius in question when he was a precocious kid attending The City Limits/Anti-Folk Summit at The Capitol Theater in March of ’99 which I organized with my then wife Heidi Love. This event was designed to share the skills necessary for crafting your own indie music career. We had forums on tour booking, recording, self-promotion, and other tools of the trade. Attendees were encouraged to bring and share their demos. His was rough but still my favorite of the bunch.
Since then we’ve become friends and worked together on some of my favorite and most obscure pop projects. In 2003, when my marriage ended, we were collaborating on one of the best of these: a tribute to the band that would have been if Paul McCartney had joined The Attractions to present the songs that he and Elvis Costello wrote together in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The group was called My Brave Face. I played Elvis. He played Paul. We only did three or four shows but they were legendary for those few pop fans that got to witness them. I can only imagine how much fun the project would have been for me if I wasn’t dying inside the whole time from my divorce. As it was, it probably kept me alive during the worst of it.
He was his own kind of punk-ass mess at the time: drunk and high and broke and smoking cigarettes all the time. A talented and aimless wastrel who could barely be counted on to make it to gigs or rehearsals; he frustrated and annoyed as many people as he entertained. Then he met a good a woman. The relationship transformed him and for the last eight years it’s been a joy to watch him get his shit together in the stability this container provided him. So, when he told me a couple of weeks ago that she had broken up with him and asked him to move out of the house they shared I was optimistically concerned. If he could weather the heartbreak and uncertainty, I was pretty sure he was on the verge of an explosion of growth, and when a person of his talent explodes and grows it makes a difference for everyone within earshot.
On December 30th, after several days of unanswered and increasingly urgent calls and e-mails from me, he finally got back in touch. The kid, now a man in his 30’s, was deep in the dark and blues, listening to heartbreaking Willie Nelson demos recorded in Vancouver, Washington in the 50’s, and wondering if it was time to join “that stupid club.” I told him that I was going to come and pick him up and we were going to walk The Tree. Before doing so, I ran it myself and felt filled with a profound sense of purpose. All my work had led me to this moment. I knew I wasn’t just going to pull my friend back from the ledge; I was going to set him on a course which would serve multitudes, myself included. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. This was an incredible feeling and I wish everyone could experience it; faith and power and love and destiny. Tribal warrior shit!
After I picked him up we went back to my place. I gave him the last of my pot to smoke and showed him a diagram of The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, while he filled me in on the details of his misery. The night was wicked cold but we bundled up and walked The Tree. If I had any fear that he wouldn’t respond to the magick, it was unfounded. Not only did he recognize and resonate with the structure but, as a kid who grew up in Olympia, he shared a lot of similar memories to mine. Everyone else who I’ve shared The Tree with is from someplace else or has only lived in Olympia as an adult. Hearing his recollections and visions of the landmarks that comprise The Tree as we walked, I was deeply moved. Like me, he ran around it as a child with his father and, even as I felt our elderhood descending, I had the sensation of being boys at play in the park of our childhood dreams.
At The Chokmah Mound, where inspiration had filled me earlier in the evening, I looked my friend in the eyes and told him, without pretense or doubt, that his destiny demanded that he go through whatever initiation of death and rebirth his current situation was demanding of him, and stand up as a man, as an artist, and as a future elder of this magickal town. I told him not to take this as a compliment but as a command, and a responsibility that I would accept no shrinking from. Not only was I able to deliver this intense communication but he was able to receive it. It felt like we were tapping into the energies of men of a more honorable time.
Years ago I had a best friend, my last best friend. His name was Josh Clayton-Felt. We went to high school together on the east coast and both moved out to LA in the late 80’s. Together we formed a band called The Boon. I intend to write extensively about this in the future but the short story is that the band broke up and I lost Josh, first to indie rock fame, and then to an untimely death from cancer at the age of 33. Last year my Olympian collaborator and I recorded one of Josh’s unreleased demos called “Time” for a tribute album which never came to fruition. I’ve been feeling Josh’s spirit with me very intensely since November and, standing there on the Chokmah Mound with Olympia’s homegrown genius struggling through his dark night of the soul at my side, I knew that, whether by memory or spirit, Josh was present and I was glad to have him here as a part of all of this.
After the walk I took my still-depressed and suicidal friend home and left him to percolate on the experience. The next day I felt exhausted and almost sick. I’ve known lots of healer types and they always talk about the tremendous energy it takes to hold space for another person’s healing. While I haven’t doubted them, I’ve never experienced it, nor did I think I’d ever have to. I’m not a healer after all, I’m an artist, but I’m finding that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits; in fact, one may lead to the other as a natural progression.
So tonight I was at the open mike at Hannah’s, for which I prepared a cover of Jon Brion’s “Knock Yourself Out,” and my friend was there. He told me he’d found a new place and was moving in on Friday. Not only that but he had made peace with the woman who had been so good to him for so long and he seemed genuinely happy and inspired about it. He told me that our walk had been the turning point for him and that he felt “like a man for the first time in my life.” It took every ounce of cool I possessed to keep the tears of joy and gratitude in my heart from flooding the bar and making the moment about me. Instead I just beamed at him and knew what my next post here would be about.
There is one more exquisite synchronicity I must relate before closing. During a smoke break, outside and around the corner, which I joined but did not participate in, one of the local musicians, out of the blue, brought up my old best friend Josh. He said that he was getting really into Josh’s music of late, and that one of his guitar students had recently covered Josh’s song “Euphoria” at a recital. It’s a pretty obscure song from what is now a pretty obscure pop recording by his band School Of Fish from the early 90’s. Not at all the kind of thing that punk rock Olympia supports. Nonetheless, my old friend’s muse found purchase in my hometown and here I was standing on the sidewalk outside of a neighborhood bar, surrounded by old musicians, getting the synchronistic news on this auspicious night of unexpected blessings. Overwhelmed by the moment, all I could do was look up into the waxing moon, shrouded in mist, and know that, despite all evidence to the contrary, everything was perfect and getting better all the time.