Trying on masks | Field notes from the Pacific Coast

It’s almost over! This is a series of posts I started in late May and have published daily for 35 days now. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

At my funeral I wanted them to play “The True Wheel” by Brian Eno. It’s terribly silly and self-important but really rocks, that’s what I wanted people to say about me. I have the record on my mantel: Anthony gave me a copy, and because it’s from 1974 without many pressings, it’s hard to find.

(From Wikipedia:)
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) is a loose concept album with topics ranging from espionage to the Chinese Communist revolution. The album’s music has an upbeat and bouncy sound but with dark lyrical themes. The album did not chart in the United Kingdom or United States, but received greater attention from the rock press.

Mom asked “who’s that woman on the mantel” and I said, mom! That’s Eno. On the cover, Eno’s got long, blonde hair he’s wearing in that early ’70s glam rock fashion, when men were trying to reclaim their rights to be pretty too, a trend that still leaves me uncomfortable, makes me think I could get beaten up in some parts of the world for having this record, for sporting it so proudly in my den.

Or was Eno just aping Bowie?—it doesn’t matter. My stepdad John often told stories about famous people, was often hard to tell how much was true but didn’t matter really, I wanted to believe him. Except for the time he had Eno to his mother’s place in England, and they were looking at recording gear or something like that, but Eno was rude to John’s mom: said something like, “can’t you ask her to stop interrupting us” (offering Eno tea), which put John off. And also sounds like Eno.

I made a practice of not knowing what my favorite musicians looked like, didn’t care. It was more fun not knowing, just relating to them through their music.

Growing up in the ’80s with MTV that was the emphasis, the look. I’d heard of artists who couldn’t make it through that time because of their looks (or lack of) like Christopher Cross (“Sailing…takes me away…to where I always heard it could be”)—and in that, MTV moved us more to the video than audio, I think. Same with authors, I didn’t care what they looked like. It was fun to find out after I’d known them so long through their writing. Or DJ’s too, I liked them for their voice, not their face.

And it was better to keep a distance between you and the artists: just because you think you know them doesn’t mean they need to be your friend, or can be trusted. How many times did I get burned going to a show with false expectations and come away disappointed, hurt? Like, because I put them on such an epic scale through their records they needed to be that on stage, too. It took time to get over. I’d have to take a break from their records but then slowly, I’d come back.

It happened with Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters, with Mark Smith from The Fall, with Bob Pollard from Guided by Voices: these were despicable people. Drunks, miscreants. Low-brow. And by that, they were also a version of me, amplified. Like who I could be in addition to being a drunk, a miscreant…I could be an artist on top of that, like them.

Dawn and I were watching a Philip Seymour Hoffman film The Master and Dawn blurted out in the theater, “Oh my god that’s Chris Welch!” It’s like she thought it but said it out loud so everyone could hear. There’s an important scene in the film where Hoffman gets challenged by another character, and that’s played by an actor Dawn knew in acting school, knew well.

Then Chris Welch died tragically, Dawn found out through Facebook, and there was a period of mourning from her old actor friend community. And a time to reflect on who he really was, for Dawn to talk about him with me. He had this extra special quality on stage, like he was channeling, Dawn said. But in real life, he was a mess—couldn’t pay his rent or manage his bills, drank a lot, creditors always after him. And what’s worse, Dawn’s best friend Erica is married to another Chris Welch, so they’d get calls at the house in search of Chris Welch, the actor.

We were at my mom’s house in Germany on the last night of a four-day wine festival that comes every two years when Dawn kind of broke down, thinking about Chris. We’d been drinking, which is unusual for Dawn, but that night we all let our hair down: there was an American boogie-woogie band in from Detroit, and the singer was really insane. We were instantly disappointed at the thought of an American band playing this traditional German wine festival in this adorable medieval village, but surprised when they got on stage the first night it really worked. And the Germans fucking loved it. And the singer grooved off that and killed it, on the piano. And the crazy pompadour as it came undone, and him drinking straight whiskey (like from the bottle) and beating that old piano, it was incredible. It’s like he was this non-person, this crazy, raw spirit—all of us wanted to be that person, on stage. And he sensed that, consumed us. And vice versa.

His name was Cadillac Kolstad, though I didn’t believe that was his real name. They were all staying right up the road from my mom above the venue where they played, and with Americans so nearby after being gone from the States so long, I wanted to make friends. I saw Cadillac in the café one day and he was corpselike, his eyes: his teeth were bad, too. I introduced myself, and he said “I’m Cadillac.” I wanted him to know me as a writer, so I wrote down the name of my blog and gave it to him; I’d written a post about the show, I said. The next day Dawn and I went to our German class (we were trying to learn the language) and our teacher Katrin said you’re quite a writer. Cadillac had linked to my post through Facebook, which had gone back to Detroit and worked its way around to our German village through a group of mutual friends in Detroit and Besigheim. You had to be careful what you put on the internet, it made me glad I refrained from snark.

The last night of the festival after the show Dawn and I took a late-night, drunken walk around the village, the old wall they used to keep people out, to protect the town. You could lean on that and look over the valley to the distant motorways, the twinkling lights along the hills. It was really late, the town finally quiet, and Dawn was crying, thinking about Chris. Something about that singer Cadillac reminded her of him. That crazy raw, artist energy: she missed that in Chris, missed it in herself, lost that now. Dawn had a dream to act too, she acted on it in fact: but she couldn’t make it, couldn’t stand the business in NYC. Kind of flipped out and did a 180, took a job as a naturalist guide on a small cruise boat in Alaska. Worked long shifts talking to people about glaciers, eagles, bears: then ended the night with a hot B&B with friends from the staff, got in her cabin for bed.

I said I understand, but you have to be that person, you can again. It’s maybe why we go to shows, to the cinema: so we can imagine ourselves someone else for a couple hours. And how refreshing it is, like traveling. Reimagine the world for a time, step outside of yourself. It’s where we get ‘pathos’ from, the Greeks. You had to identify with the actor to feel their tragedy, for it to seem real.

I invited Cadillac down to my mom’s house for a home-cooked meal. I figured that would be nice, we could get to know each other a bit. We had lots in common and I was a good cook, would make a gumbo. He didn’t come, and I’m glad now he didn’t.

Was there some universal spirit these artists had in common, that allowed them to be themselves by becoming this imagined non-person, this anyone-person, like some hollowed out space the wind courses through? And how could they have room for all of us, unless they themselves were empty inside?



Categories: identity, Memoir, music

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. I remember the post about the band and Cadillac you did way back when. I like how this one comes back to that with more story, kind of weaves in and out of that one. Very cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Super. Makes me happy. You writing man? You go brother! My friend Loren is visiting and it’s the fall of the Roman Empire so to speak. Peace to you and yours: the Cornell wrap-up is two posts out now (the end) so hope you can read it. I think Monday will be the end. Will be glad to take a break. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know about that last question, because I don’t think I’m sold on the idea that they do it for us. That might be us talking, accepting how messed up some of these artists are since we get their art out of it. Hmmm.

    I was watching an old interview of Frank Zappa’s the other day, where he was saying (in 1991) that you have to be cute to make it in music anymore. Used to be you could be homely, or at least not cute. Now you have to be cute, but you don’t need to have any real talent. Things are getting weird out there.


    • You’re right, they’re not doing it for us. Some might…I don’t know. Can of worms. Weird concept though for me, I’m trying to work out. And hey, as I wind this down I need to tell you how grateful I am for reading and commenting on every stinking post I’ve put up here now. Thank you, means a lot to me Kevin. Bro hug. — Bill


  3. This one speaks to where things rumble around inside my head and heart after dark.

    Will have to think about the non-person part though. Maybe Chris, Cadillac, Kurt even, have a stage jacket covered with tiny mirrors; we see fragments of ourselves, our massed high energy selves, swirling dancing tapping into that boisterous life energy we’re not quite bold enough to claim.
    Underneath the snazzy threads, the totem person still hurts, cries, bleeds. Not empty, then, but human. Maybe scared.


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