The musicians I’ve been around, like most artsy people, tend toward more existentialist talk than non-artsy people but even they have their limits. And apparently I didn’t, I never got tired of this stuff. But I don’t think it was just existentialist talk that I did that tired people of me. Though I viewed myself as a crusading realist, my tendency to harp on the futility of our dreams—surprise—alienated me from half the bands I knew in the city.
“People trying to make it” I said make it with air quotes, “aren’t dealing in reality. I’m not saying that it can’t happen. I’m saying in order for us to continue we have to ignore the reality of the situation.”
“If we work hard enough and are good enough it’ll happen,” Steve Noblinsky, the guitar player for Thataways said as he lit up a hand-rolled Drum cigarette. We were in the dirty basement that was the “backstage” at Brownies, both our bands were playing later that night.
“Steve, that’s not the way it works.” I was looking down at the electronic tuner I had plugged into my guitar, plucking each string and twisting the tuning pegs, getting the lights to align in the middle. “You know how many great bands there are that never make it. Either they never even get signed, or they get signed then dropped, or the record tanks, or they try to make it by grinding it out on their own but you know how that goes. Come on, man.”
“Green, would you mind giving it a rest?” My low E finally in tune, I looked up at him. “You’re a fucking downer, man,” he said, slowly exhaling smoke toward the ceiling, his veneer of practiced nonchalance about to crack from my agitation. I took a strange pleasure in this, blasting people with harsh truisms as casually as they talk about a party they may or may not go to later that night. I was so desperate and afraid, how dare he not feel that way too?
“I don’t get you, Steve. I know you guys have been at this for years . . . and didn’t you go to like, Oberlin?”
“Right. I knew it was one of those places – so it’s not like you don’t have the tools to get a quote, real job. To give up any sort of security, you’ve got to really want this yet you sit here smoking your hand-rolled cigarettes like all is cool with the world.”
“Dude, I’m just relaxing before a show.” I suddenly felt awful, an aftershock I could count on following a dark pleasure. A large part of me never wanted to make anyone feel bad, as bad as I did, and I hated myself for being a buzz-kill, the role I often found myself in. I believed what I was saying but I knew no one wanted to hear it. Shit, I don’t even want to hear it. But for some reason – I do. I’m drawn to it.
“I know, I know . . . I just mean . . . I’m just wondering, are you really not worried about what’s going to happen? Or are you as anxious as me and this whole chilled-out thing you’ve got going on is a façade?” It’s as if I had no control. I’m like one step away from Tourette’s syndrome.
“Green,” he said and exhaled a long cloud. He paused for a moment then just laughed.
Looking at him I had a strange revelation: Noblinsky rolls Drums rather than just whipping out a Marlboro because he acts as if he has time. And people who have time aren’t anxious. But I guess the question is: are the Drums a prop to prove his chillitude or are they a natural extension of someone who already is chill? I felt I was always wondering this basic truth about people. Were everyone’s mannerisms and preferences and props genuine products of who they are or was it all simply who they wanted us to think they were? Or who they themselves wanted to think they were?
On some level I told myself that Steve and his ilk’s prevailing ethos—favoring optimism to realism, insouciance to exactitude, laidbackedness to intensity—was in fact just a front. That deep down they were like me. Perhaps I needed to believe this for my own sanity. But what became apparent once I was spending large amounts of time in the recording studio was that this wasn’t a mere persona for some of them, that actually, how they acted was a matter of philosophy; our differences went to the core.