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I never did heroin, there was something in the way. And it might have been Kurt Cobain. I first heard Nirvana in Jeff’s room. Jeff was Adam’s brother, about five years older than us, enough of a gap to possess a wisdom of sports, girls, and music that kept us captivated whenever he gave us the time of day. His first-floor window would become a perfect escape portal for clandestine late-night campaigns, toilet papering or playing ding-dong-ditch. We’d often make our way into his lair to stare at the stacks of cassettes from bands we’d never heard but knew were cool because Jeff had them. The walls were covered with a collage of magazine cutouts, athletes and musicians from the 90s. Just under 10 years old, we were spellbound by the crown jewel of Jeff’s ceiling, a magazine cover mosaic of every attractive woman who graced Rolling Stone, Spin, or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Our eyes were confoundingly compelled by the siren song of Jeff’s salacious ceiling.
When I heard the opening bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” my eyes shot over to the black boombox speakers. The thin, jagged power chords pulled me in; the booming drum rolls pumped my heart full of adrenaline; and then the full-bodied, distorted guitar joined with bass surged through me.
“What is this?” My mouth hung open.
“You like Nirvana?” Jeff smiled and handed me the cassette case.
My mouth closed as I took in the naked baby chasing a dollar bill underwater. Puzzling. No greater clarity emerged as the first verse settled in with indiscernible lyrics over a pulsing bassline, occasionally accompanied by shrill notes from the guitar. I just listened. No words understood in the verse, no words for what I was experiencing. The chorus ripped open. The return of full, heavy guitar and the screams. Kurt Cobain’s desperately cutting screams sliced into my heart. My mouth fell open again. I thought of the frantic twisted scribbling I used to cover a sketch I didn’t want people to see. That swirling mass was animated inside my chest. No idea what the song was about, but it was exactly how I felt. When no one could understand what I was trying to say; when I was fixed in a plastic school chair; when I couldn’t tell you where I wanted to be, but I didn’t want to be where I was–this song was all of that condensed into a searing sonic event. As soon as the song finished, I asked for it to be replayed.
I procured my own copy of Nevermind. It took me forever to get through the album, constantly rewinding to relisten to songs, frequently pulling out the cassette with magnetic tape spewing from the top, the result of constantly being spun back and forth. I became much more proficient using a pencil to spin the small holes to respool each reel than I did using it to write cursive. While spinning the precious plastic rectangle, I’d read the white lettering of the track listing and try to determine whether I like the A or B side better. Hard to choose. I loved all their pretty songs.
I wasn't a prime age for Nirvana, but I was primed for obsession when the MTV Unplugged performance was recorded. With the stage ominously decorated with funeral-like white flowers and candles, the band closed an acoustic set with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The song proceeds in a mournful, rolling manner, strumming the same four chords throughout. Kurt sings with a soulful depth, a subdued tone. Until the end. Until the final bars where he screeches through the closing words, the same words he opened with, but now with a scraping anguish. There is a moment. A moment in the final vocal notes where Kurt interrupts his wailing words, his guttural screams that plead and beg with a short pause. A breath. His hard blue eyes cut open and look out, looking past every member of the crowd, connecting with not a single person in the room. I connect with that moment more than most every pair of eyes I’ve ever looked into. Being in a room full of people, completely alone.
I was only ten years old when Kurt Cobain died. After trying to kill himself with an overdose of heroin, he shot himself with a shotgun. I never did heroin not because I didn’t want it to ruin me like it did him, but because I knew that I was already like him. What he had inside, what he brought out for his music, lived inside of me. I don’t think at ten I really knew what heroin was. I don’t know if I really know what suicide is now. But I knew it was tragic that he went out alone and there were no new songs.
I was thirteen when I started to drink. It seemed innocent enough at the time, slipping a few drinks away from my parents’ liquor cabinet with a friend. I wasn’t a natural drinker, my throat burned and I could barely hold it down. I had to work at it, so I did. For a long time, it was fun. High school parties, college parties, house parties. I smoked a little weed, then a lot. Ate mushrooms, then acid. Took ecstasy, then cocaine. All sorts of prescription drugs. I smoked blunts and listened to Biggie; dropped psychedelics and listened to Pink Floyd while watching the Wizard of Oz; popped ecstasy and went to raves to see DJ Venom and Bad Boy Bill; snorted cocaine and got really excited for the first bits of songs, then impatiently skipped to the next track. But I knew. I knew where the drugs would end for me. So I stopped.
Of course, I still drank. Everyone drinks. Alcohol is a featured partner for every adult activity. Any event you go to will have the perfect pairing with an alcoholic drink. Thing is, I stopped liking events. I didn’t like drinking with amateurs, people who get tipsy off a couple drinks and then drink water. I didn’t like the look of drinking pros, people who shake in the morning and hold dark circles under their eyes. So I drank alone.
During my time of solo drinking, Amy Winehouse released Back to Black. Amy was a sensation in the UK with her debut Frank but had little presence in the US after that first release. I read about Amy before Back to Black was released and downloaded her music. I was enamored. Her voice was textured, moving adeptly through soft phrasing and then booming with a deep resonant authority, only to cut through with a precise crack at just the right moment. Backed by a traditional big band, her albums mixed jazz arrangements with contemporary lyrics and discursive innuendo. Range is something a lot of musicians and artists talk about, but only Amy would be equally compelling singing alongside Tony Bennett on one track and Ghostface Killer on the next.
She was like me. By the time I found out about Amy, her problems with drugs and alcohol were already very public. She was hounded by the infamous British tabloids. Yet the music she produced was sublime. In that way, she was completely unlike me.
I always found the song “Rehab” too simplistic for her talents. While I similarly denied any need for treatment, the song was too choppy, too plain for her. That everyone embraced the cheekily rebellious drinking anthem without celebrating the depth of “What It Is?” or “Stronger Than Me” off Frank was an injustice, like people weren’t appreciating the depth of Amy. Back to Black held so much more weight than Mark Ronson’s pop produced tabloid fodder track. Amy wrote the whole album not only under the weight of pressing addiction, but a turbulent romance with a drug addled partner. She wrote of loss and grief and love and yearning, delivering impeccably. Listening to the album could only evoke a desperate desire for Amy to find a way to make it through the dark night, she needn’t worry about a partner.
I was not mourning the loss of a partner; I looked at my lonely glass of gin as both my trouble and savior. A drop out of a PhD program, I felt led astray by my own chosen path. Living with my parents and then subletting apartments, I started drinking gin because it was always the easiest to lift from liquor cabinets, people didn’t miss it like vodka or whiskey. Tonic water or vermouth had nothing for me, so I drank it straight. Listening to the dark brilliance of Back to Black alone with a gin-soaked mind, I wished some stroke of brilliance and talent would come to my life. But nothing came. Pour another glass. Throughout the album I found moments of hope in Amy’s soaring voice, but I’d go back– “Wake up Alone,” “Love is a Losing Game,” “Tears Dry on Their Own,” “Back to Black.” I blacked out every night.
I was just under a year sober when Amy Winehouse died; we were both 27. Reportedly, she stopped drinking for a few days and then went back in with the gloves off. She died from alcohol poisoning alone in a room of empty bottles.
The blog where I first read about her passing embedded a link to a video of Amy performing an acoustic version of “Valerie.” The frame shows a rail thin Amy with a disheveled black bun sitting offset her crown. Fidgeting in the chair, hands rub her legs, scratch at her arm. A few sweetly played chords and whatever is picking Amy’s body apart does nothing to the soul in her voice. She glides over the first verse and then climbs in altitude for the chorus. It’s just her and the guitar. Nails scratch, hands flail, but her voice remains. As the song comes to an end, she twirls her finger signaling for the guitar player to loop through the chord sequence one more time. She layers on a few refrains of the chorus and hits the last note with her eyes looking up towards the sky. I cry whenever I watch that performance. I never met her, but I miss her all the time. And it breaks my heart whenever I hear someone play “Rehab.”
In Boston area recovery meetings, the brain state of early sobriety is described as “mocus.” A mocus mind moves the body around, finding better locations, but is still sifting through the fog “why?” No clear answers. Not quite into focus. Mocus. I was very mocus when I first met Bill. Most of the recovery meetings I attended were at night, held after the workday where functioning people attended to their responsibilities. No such commitments encumbered me in early sobriety, so my mocused brain found too much time to spin during the day. Until I found Bill and the Lunchtime group. Meeting every day at 1:00 PM down the street from my apartment, the Lunchtime group gave me the achievable goal of hitting midday without a drink and rewarded me with the respite of companionship. Every day the group went to a coffee shop across the street after the meeting. All my sweatshirts were stained with the aromatics of hipster coffee blends as a result of my daily routine. In a café filled with college students, this motley crew of men and women, young and old, would barge in, grab a big table, and share stories of exploit, loss, and attempts to find a new way of living.
That’s how I came to have coffee with Bill every day. Bill was generous, often buying everyone in the group coffee, maybe purchasing a cookie for someone who looked like they needed an extra bit of love. Having no money at the time, I was only able to attend every day because Bill picked up all those overpriced artisanal cups. One day at the meeting, Bill mentioned something in passing that caught my ear, “you know, all those years in the music business…” I was anxious for the meeting end, to get across the street.
“So,” I started casually, “what exactly did you do in the music business?” I kept my expectations low, probably management or promotion.
“Well, I’ve done a lot of things, but I played bass in a band that had some success in the 60s and 70s. We had a deal, made a couple records, and did some touring.” Bill was humble.
Over many cups of coffee, I pried more out of him. Bill toured with the Allman Brothers, “they were a good group of guys;” he played early shows in Detroit with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, “Fights always broke out at the end of those shows;” he backed some of rock’s most legendary names, “I remember getting the call last minute because Chuck Berry needed a band, his skipped town before the show.” I once mentioned that I always drank like I was worried that the booze might run out, so I had to get my fill in before anyone else depleted the supply. He laughed, “Joe Cocker once said something like that to me right before he got on stage.” I marveled at the nonchalance with which my comment was compared to something that came from those legendary vocal cords. The opening acapella bars of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that brought on “The Wonder Years” echoed from my childhood.
In high school, I played bass and sang in a garage rock band. All the great players from the 60s and 70s were idols to me, both in music and lifestyle. I couldn’t handle playing and intoxication at the same time, so I bowed out of playing. That this Group Of Drunks I found myself getting coffee with contained a man who flew high with those mythical figures was enough motivation for me to lift my head out of the fog. More than a coincidence.
Bill still plays with the blues band he backed so many legends with. The four of them on their own are completely anonymous. Years back they recorded a bunch of instrumentals and Bill handed me a compact disc of the music. This was long after everyone collectively decided all music would be acquired digitally. It’s the only CD I have in my car.
I once asked him, “Why do you keep making music after all these years?”
“I don’t make music, I am a musician. It just flows through me.”
A few years ago, I bought an acoustic guitar. I hadn’t played the bass collecting dust in my room since I was too drunk to stay with my drummer performing at house parties in college. I’d long since ditched the booze but wasn’t exactly looking to rejoin the house party or even garage jamming scene. I just wanted to play and sing.
I was bad. I thought having played music in years past my skills would transfer over. They didn’t. Rather than jumping into complex rhythm and brushing up my scales for solos, I was relearning the open chords and rediscovering the beauty of simplicity in classic folk songs. Just as when I was a teenager tripping out over “Visions of Johanna,” Bob Dylan became my teacher. While I’d previously been enamored with his electric era, this time I went to the wooden roots of his first album, composed almost entirely of folk covers.
When I heard the opening lines to “House of the Rising Sun'', I thought what many popular prejudiced listeners think, “Oh his voice isn’t going to stack up in this song compared to The Animals’ version.” I was wrong. The song traces sources back to the 19th century, telling the grief and despair of a life ruined in a house of prostitution. Bob’s version first pierced into me when I realized he’d be singing from the perspective of a woman. The same five chords strummed on through many of the same lines I knew but was hearing anew. The raised voice warning a baby sister, the strumming speeding up, the hit of dark emphasis placed on New Orleans, the twang of plucked strings, the grinding voice as the narrator declares why they’re returning: to end their life. I lost the air in my throat. The Animals version is shit. Bob Dylan’s version hit my heart.
I played the recording for my wife. She was quiet as we listened. I brushed back a tear. She stood up and said, “It’s good.” and nonchalantly changed the subject. I blinked my eyes, trying to clear them. I hit stop on the player with my still shaking hands. The song brought me to the “jumping-off place.”
I often speak of the “jumping-off place” in front of recovery meetings. On the second page of the last chapter of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, a paragraph ends with, “Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.”
My jumping-off place came in a dingy Allston apartment drinking alone in front of my computer screen. On top of the slanted wooden floors sat days of empty bottles, mostly 40-ounce Steel Reserve and flasks of Thompson Whiskey. Every day, I woke up and quit drinking with firm resolution. Before I knew it, I was counting quarters saved for the laundry scattered about my room to buy just one more bottle. Just one more. I’d come out of a blackout in the afternoon and drink again through the night. I’d listen to music and drink.
Taking a long pull of whiskey, I no longer felt any burn, but easing release. Momentary release, then craving. I didn’t want to continue. I thought about how nice it would be for everything to stop. No more trips to the liquor store, no more hiding my eyes from passersby, no more laying out coins on the countertop. No more of it not because I stopped drinking, I clearly couldn’t do that, but because I stopped being, stopped living. I thought of my roommates finding my body, my parents having my funeral, all the people there crying. I wanted it to all stop, but I didn’t want all that. I didn’t want to be a burden. Didn’t want to bring them all sadness and shame. So I slugged down the bottle. I would have to keep living, and for that I wept. I sat alone and drank and cried.
I woke up on my mattress, sheets off to the side. I rolled my head over and looked down at the bottle. I remembered the night before, sitting there drunk, feeling bad for myself and crying. I still felt bad for myself, so I decided I would cry some more. I thought about the darkness and the end and the body and the funeral and…it got me nothing. I couldn’t cry. At the end, when I drank, all I could do was cry; when I wasn’t drinking, I wanted to cry, but couldn’t.
I’ve told that story from a church podium in front of two hundred people; I’ve told it standing on the cheap linoleum of worn-out neighborhood health centers; I’ve told it in front of shaking, fidgeting halfway house audiences. It’s easy for me to tell now. It’s easy because I’ve done it so many times, but also because it was the catalyst for me getting sober, finding recovery, reclaiming my life. I found meetings, a sponsor, the steps, a spiritual awakening. It’s a nice canned story to have: starts low, ends high. After twelve years, I’ve told it so much it doesn’t have much impact for me anymore, doesn’t make me feel much.
“House of the Rising Sun'' was a story I felt. The chords were easy to learn. It was the first song I could perform. There’s a difference between playing a song and performing a song: putting in emotion, feeling, character. Sitting on my back porch, I start singing low, strumming soft. I pick up the volume “tell my baby sister,” my voice cracks “one foot on the platform,” belt out “the other foot on the train,” bring it back down “going back to New Orleans.” When I reach the point of declaration “to end,” the intended suicide “my life,” tears push behind my eyes, my voice breaks, I push on, I slow down. I go to the jumping-off place, feel it, and step back, “and me oh god I’m one”, the final strums ring out. I walk back inside with a shiver, hands tremble. My wife looks up from her drawing, “Nice job, baby.” then she looks right back down, not knowing where I’ve been.
Dave Van Ronk got there first. He was able to reach my wife. I played her a recording of “Dink’s Song,” named after the woman who was first recorded singing the song in 1909. Dink was a sharecropper in Texas lamenting the loss of her lover. Some versions are titled “Fare the Well” after the chorus refrain. The opening chords are a simple back and forth, G to E minor, played softly, no rush. Dave’s voice enters with a tenderness, a touch higher than his normal gruff. There is a longing to his voice, reaching out for what’s not quite there. Dave’s rendition of “Dink’s Song” develops from his soft opening vocals and humble guitar playing toward emphatic vocal flourishes of strength in the pain of loss. Despite the song's somber notes, it’s impossible to hear it and not be carried away by the sweetness of sentiment, the longing for love, a hope for a better time.
When I played the recording for my wife, she sat quiet, head down. As the song ended, Dave humming a few final notes as the guitar fades, she sniffled and lifted her head up. “It made me cry!”
“Do you like it?”
“Of course. I love it.”
I needed to learn the song. The chords were easy, four simple open chords; the vocals were hard, perhaps a stretch too far. I read an interview with Dave where he claimed he’d been sick during the recording and his scratchy throat somehow opened an octave, giving him a nasally falsetto. My natural tenor had no such affordance. I just played the song. I sang it. Over and over. Found a way to pluck the high strings to accent points I couldn’t emphasize on my own. Stopped my strumming to feature the points where I was strong. Worked my way to performing the song.
Practicing on my living room couch, I played the song through, eyes squeezed shut, going down the river, flying alone. When I finished the last chord, hitting my final stum, I opened my eyes. My wife came over, tears streaming down her cheeks and kissed me, “I love you, baby.” I performed the song, and she could feel it. We were there together.
Walking my dogs on a cool fall morning, I shove my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. Seya, my younger dog, pulls out ahead with enthusiasm for the next thing; Doori, my older dog, moves slowly, sniffing every long-standing tree and bush; I anchor the two of them in the middle, trying to enjoy my morning music playing through earbuds. Dolly Parton “Jolene” comes on. I nod my head to the precise picking of the guitar, Dolly’s voice opens with her rival’s name repeated, aching and pleading. Slide guitars enter to accent the end of the chorus perfectly. My throat gets that enlarged feeling, holding some pain. My eyes well up. The song is sad, but so beautiful.
I’ve loved music my whole life, but only in the last few years has it so readily brought me to tears. The purity of Joni Mitchell, the earnestness of Johnny Cash, the truth of Tupac, the intensity of Rage Against the Machine–they’ve all brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes I expect it, sometimes it comes by surprise. Sometimes I can tell you why, sometimes I can’t. I’m always grateful when it happens. I’m grateful because I’m open to it all. After being bottled up for so many years, I’m no longer lonesome, and for that I could cry.
Nathan Gagnon is a writer living with his wife and two dogs in Providence, RI. He is currently an MFA candidate at Emerson College. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @kairosnate
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.