I was a weird kid. We all were, I suppose. Like most of us, I spent my teenage years trying and failing to fit myself into different slots. I had some friends, but I didn’t really have a group. There wasn’t really a character in The Breakfast Club that I particularly identified with. I was into experimental electronica, chamber music, and science fiction. I did technical theatre, but really wanted to be a playwright. I worshiped Bowie as a god. I carried on me at all times a well-worn copy of The Communist Manifesto that I checked out from the school library and never returned. I liked the Grateful Dead but didn’t like smoking pot and thought their live recordings were interminable. I didn’t like talking about the fact that I was attracted to both boys and girls, so I just called myself straight because if you have a choice, why not pick the one that doesn’t get insults hurled at you? Shockingly, that didn’t stop me from being called a fag throughout highschool. Also college. And 3 weeks ago in Topeka. My nails were fabulous though.
I was around 16 the first time I went to an All Ages DIY Space. I liked punk rock, but it’s not like I was terribly knowledgeable about it. I distinctly remember having an argument with a friend of mine about whether punk was dead and I cited The Dead Kennedys as proof that it was still alive and well. They’d broken up some 13 years earlier. Wikipedia didn’t exist yet. My knowledge of underground music was from mix tapes, urban legends, and the small smattering of Geocities pages with woeful capitalization and dubious historical accuracy.
Suddenly, I was in a world of freaks and weirdos. Some of the kids had adopted the traditional punk rock uniform, enough to make me feel self-conscious in my corduroys and Grateful Dead T-shirt. But something strange happened: I wasn’t judged. Of course, there were the punker-than-thous, those kids for whom the greatest sin was “selling out,” and issued a new weekly Papal Bull on which bands were officially no longer cool to like. (I usually still liked them.) But it gave me a safe space to explore my identity, both as an artist, and just generally as a person.
Somehow, I managed to never play in a straight-up punk band, but my indie, folk, emo, emocore, post-punk, and new wave bands all existed in the DIY scene. Maybe we were an oddity. I certainly got a lot of “I usually don’t like this kind of music, but you guys are awesome!” Or my favorite: “so what kind of hardcore do you play?” But we were also welcome. I was welcome. I wasn’t weird in the exact same way as the other freaks and wierdos, but we were all freaks and weirdos together, and that was good enough. No. That was fucking awesome.
When I turned 21, and could finally play in bars, the All Ages DIY Space lost its appeal for a little while. I didn’t want to hang out with kids. I was a Man now. My brief dalliance with straightedge was interrupted by the allure of free beer for the band. Eventually, I came to cynically view the All Ages DIY Space more as just an opportunity to play for kids with disposable income. There’s a reason that music has been marketed to teenagers for the past 60 years: it works. It’s cynical and terrible and also true. For a little while, I gave into the temptation to exploit that fact. I think most DIY musicians have at one point or another, though that doesn’t mean we’re not assholes for doing it. I regret a lot about those years.
I started touring again as a solo artist when I was 26, and decided to return to the All Ages DIY Spaces that I’d shunned in my cool years. The prodigal punk. I found myself often the oldest person in the room, watching high school kids awkwardly go through the same patterns of experimentation. Developing an identity through trial and error. Learning about those same ideals of self-determination, co-operation, community, activism that I discovered through song lyrics and zines in these same spaces. I remember being there. I remember looking up to the older bands that came through our little space, obsessively decoding and living through their burned $5 CDs. And something clicked for me. Those of us who still travel in this community long past the age where the All Ages DIY Space is our only option for entertainment: we are the elder statesmen of the DIY scene.
As such, we have obligations far above and beyond being some band that plays in a bar. Whether deservedly or not, we’re role models, and the All Ages DIY Space is a sacred space. It’s up to us to show kids how to live an intentional life. It’s up to us to put the quasi-anarcho ideals they’re discovering into practice. We have to respect the fact that these kids are going to learn how to act in bands from us, and emulate our behavior. If we’re assholes who don’t respect the community, all we’re doing is raising a new generation of assholes who don’t respect the community. Who wants to live in that world?
I like to drink as much as the next ex-straightedge, but a dry space is a dry space, and it’s important to respect that. If you can’t play without drinking, you have no business performing in an All Ages DIY Space. I don’t mean that judgmentally either. For a lot of bands over 25 or so, playing music is less about a career trajectory than it is about hanging out with their friends, drinking a couple beers, and playing some songs on the weekend. That’s awesome, and totally legitimate. It also doesn’t belong in a DIY Space though.
A DIY space is about building community. As the bands that merely perform in the space (as opposed to the bands that rise up out of the community), we have to remember that this is someone’s house. To the 15 year old kid with the wrong kind of sneakers and the wrong band t-shirt, this is the one place where they feel safe and accepted. Being in this space, and watching these bands is the reward for having made it through another week of feeling isolated and confused. We have an obligation to act accordingly. We have to stay from the opening band through the headliner. It doesn’t matter how many mediocre bands playing the same 4 chords you’ve seen on this tour. Watching the other bands in a DIY space, even just part of their set, is about making yourself a part of the community for the night. Rock stars need not apply.
When I hear bands complain about the money from the door, or merch sales at a DIY show; or on the other side, when I hear artists conspire about how playing DIY spaces is a great way to make money on the road, because the kids have disposable income, I die a little. Not because it isn’t true. Not because touring isn’t expensive, and keeping the car on the road and getting from venue to venue doesn’t require actual cash. (It turns out gas stations don’t accept vague concepts like “community” as payment. Weird.) But because if you’re operating in this world without respect for the fact that there is so much more going on in this space than getting $5 a head to play a bunch of songs, then someone set a shitty example for you somewhere along the way, and you’re just perpetuating it. And that sucks. That’s how venues die. That’s how scenes dry up.
There are a lot of examples around the country of scenes that have blossomed into vibrant communities because the people who run the spaces respected that the finances are the least important part of it. Communities in Indianapolis, Worcester, Norman, OK, and Johnson City all leap to mind. These venues aren’t run as businesses. They barely break even and run on the blood sweat and tears of the freaks and wierdos who run them. They run on the kids who come out every Friday and Saturday night to hear a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of before. They run on the bands that come through and maybe will never come through again. They are sacred spaces. And they rely on everyone who walks through the door doing their best to keep them sacred.
No-one can be perfect. We all have off nights. We all make mistakes. We all get distracted by old friends who want to catch up outside the venue where it’s quiet. But every time a kid comes up to me at one of my shows and tells me that since the last time I was in town, I’ve inspired them to make their own music, I remember myself at 17 nervously saying the same to the dude from Atom and His Package. That’s why we’re here. That’s why what we do matters. We’re here to let the freaks and weirdos know that it’s OK to be a weirdo. That they’re not alone. We’re here so that one day, they’ll pass that on to someone else. And so on. And so on. Until one day, we’re all cool with not fitting in together.Sep062014
Things I’ve learned in the last 48 hours:
1. A medium gauge D’Addario B string can hold up a car’s exhaust system for 15 miles, on average. Whereas, a G can hold up the exhaust system for about 30 miles.
2. If your exhaust system is being held up by a guitar string, it’s best to avoid dirt roads.
3. Love is really complicated and awful sometimes, but it’s a much better painkiller than both Tramadol and Morphine.
4. You will never experience anything more cathartic than smashing a guitar while it’s on fire.
5. If you’re ever feeling really sad, listen to Less Than Jake (from their late 90’s prime). If you like it, it’ll make you happy. If you hate it, you can have a good laugh at ska kids.
6. There’s nothing better than being able to recognize someone by their laugh.Jul152014
It’s no secret that I have some chronic lung problems. The short of it is that I have too much lung for my body. While this has been a boon to me as a singer in terms of dynamic range and breath support, it also means that sometimes my lungs collapse, which is obviously (and fittingly ironically) less than useful as a singer… It’s a little bit like being a Stan Lee character (a Hemingway character, if you’re classy…), except I’m a folk singer and my nemesis is uh…capitalism? Mediocre art? I’m not really sure. After years of life saving surgeries to fix this, my right lung in particular is now covered in scar tissue which gets inflamed periodically, putting me in indescribable pain. It doesn’t have the same risk of serious harm as when my lung is collapsed, but it feels very similar. As far as my doctors and I are able to tell, this is due to stress which causes me to breathe agitatedly thus irritating the lining of my lung which then, like the Dashboard-loving emo kid it is, proceeds to selfishly overreact without consideration for anything other than itself and make everything worse for no damn reason.
When I post my occasional status updates with self-deprecating observations about my regular hospital stays and periodic dependence on serious painkillers in order to do anything more complicated than lie in the fetal position, I am absolutely and unequivocally crying out for attention. (At this point, picture my lungs with a Vulcan haircut, gauged ears, and a t-shirt for a band whose name you can’t quite discern because of poor font choice.) I’m usually in the hospital alone, and even when the X-rays come back that my lung hasn’t collapsed and I’m not in any sort of mortal danger, the pain coming out of my chest says otherwise. So I post something as a way of saying “man this really sucks, and I’m alone and could really use someone to hold my hand right now. In lieu of that, I’ll take ‘likes’ on a Facebook post.” What comes back are very sweet messages of support, and more well-intentioned but totally counterproductive advice than I know what to do with. I’m pretty lucky, all things considered, to be surrounded by so many people who care.
Recent conversations with supportive friends, and with friends of mine with their own chronic medical conditions have made me realize that most people just don’t know what to do. So, I thought it’d be helpful (and self-serving!) to write this guide. It’s far from exhaustive, since everyone’s situation is different. Hell, mine is unique enough that my doctors can only really confirm what is happening, not why. But I hope this helps both the people suffering from chronic conditions and the people who care about them.
Offer support, not advice.
Unless proceeded by the phrase “my friend had the exact same thing, and it really helped them,” you should never use the phrase “have you tried…” Odds are good that if the person has been dealing with their condition for a while, they’ve tried a lot of things, and discussed a lot of options with their team of doctors. Your well-intentioned advice only serves to stress out someone who is already dealing with as much as they can handle. Unless they’ve explicitly solicited advice, the message it communicates is more judgmental than supportive.
Keep them company.
The hardest part about any chronic condition is the way it isolates you. Most of the time, the key to recovery is rest, which is pretty solitary, and pretty boring. That isolation can turn into loneliness and then into depression, which just slows down the recovery process. Both the simplest and the most supportive thing you can do for someone dealing with a chronic condition is to come over, keep them company, and watch movies or play games together. If they’ve been dealing with their condition for a while, they’ve probably already seen everything worth seeing and have long ago begun to dig into the 9th Circle of Hell known as the Direct-to-Netflix market. There’s nothing sadder than watching a bad movie alone. There are few things more fun than making fun of a bad movie with a friend.
Let them lead, and respect that they know their limits.
Recovery is never a straight line. It’s full of advances, oversteps, and retreats. Your friend will feel great one day and worse than ever the next. They’ll try to do something ambitious and it’ll set them back a week. But that’s an important part of recovery: testing boundaries. Your body recovers by getting stronger, and it gets stronger by being active. Unless you see your friend doing something clearly self-destructive, it’s important to simply stand back and encourage their optimism and ambition, rather than discourage it out of fear that it might hurt them. The phrase “are you sure you should do that?” is inherently discouraging and may prevent your friend from taking a necessary step forward.
Offer help, then let them do it themselves
This is a tricky one. You know what sucks? Feeling like an invalid. Even if, by all measures you sort of are one. As of this moment, I haven’t been out of bed for about 16 hours because as long as I don’t move, I actually feel OK. Nonetheless, I’m about to get up and make myself lunch, even though I know it’s going to hurt like hell. This is my own personal theory, but it’s borne out by a lot of anecdotal evidence. Being treated like they’re weak makes a person feel weak. Being treated like they’re strong makes them feel strong, and thus helps them recover faster. So, by all means, offer to make your friend a sandwich, or help them clean, or clone dinosaur eggs with frog DNA, but if they say “no, I’d rather do it myself,” let them. Feeling like they’re capable of doing normal every day things helps a person recover.
Be respectful of your own limits.
People with chronic conditions often need assistance that they won’t be able to reciprocate in the near future, if ever. Usually, these are little things, but they’ll add up. And that’s going to feel really unfair. It’s important that you know your own limits, and don’t offer to do something that you’ll resent the person for down the line. Simply not offering to help is actually more helpful in the long run than helping someone and then holding it against them. It’s important to protect yourself and respect your own boundaries and not let yourself get to a place where you feel taken advantage of. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling like you’ve given as much as you can give. That doesn’t make you a bad person. You shouldn’t feel guilty about what you can’t do. You can do only the things you can do. And that’s OK. Unless your friend is a total jerk (in which case, why are you friends with them?) they won’t hold that against you, and will in fact be grateful.
A special note to employers:
There was a theatre company I worked with for a number of years, which has recently become rather successful. 3 days before having invasive and risky surgery on my lung, I had a long conference call with the producers. In it, they wanted to know what my recovery process would be like, and wanted me to assure them that it wouldn’t impact their show. Because there was a small risk of death from the surgery, and the doctors quoted a recovery time with a pretty wide range, I couldn’t give them the definite time frame they were after. So, despite laying out a few possible scenarios which would ensure that my work on their show not drop in quality regardless of the recovery time, they fired me the next day. (Or, more accurately from a legal standpoint, they opted not to hire me for this stage of the project to which I was already attached in a significant creative role.)
While I respect that employers have money on the line, and in the case of a small company, often don’t have someone else to step in and take over if someone is sick, firing someone because of their health, if not illegal, is at minimum shady and basically evil. If you find yourself in a position where an employee guarantees that their health won’t effect the ultimate quality of their work, even if it means a less than ideal time frame, the human thing to do is to figure out a way to accommodate them. You probably see it as unfair to your bottom line, or less than ideal, but I assure you that your employee sees their health as less than ideal and unfair to their bottom line too. In an ideal world, they’d probably quit and just focus on their recovery, but the reality is, being sick is expensive. A major difference between being an employer and being a slave holder (among other more obvious things…) is that as an employer, you are required to accommodate your employees basic human needs even when it’s inconvenient. Employers are in a privileged position of power, and thus it’s incumbent upon them to work with employees with medical problems to find a way to help them perform their job to the best of their abilities. While, legally, there are all sorts of loopholes and technicalities, morally, it’s the right thing to do.
I hope that’s helpful. If anyone has suggestions for other things to add, I’d love to hear them.
And now, because that was super depressing, here’s a Beastie Boys song.Jul152014
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