Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80′s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

school days with steve albini. part one.

Back in January of 2007, almost two years before I did it, I was planning to start a blog. I wrote a few things, and one of them I thought I would make my first post was entitled, “Thank Steve Albini for This Blog,” a stupid title on multiple levels. What I wrote there was a few things for which I was grateful to Steve having taught me by word and deed.

I went to high school with Steve, and he was the most interesting and certainly one of the most talented people to walk the halls of Hellgate High School. In fact, Steve is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, and that would be true even if he’d been washing windows for the last thirty years. I saw him on a visit to Chicago in 1983, and I did not see or talk to him again until a friend reunion in August of this year.

At one point, at our Friday night party, I told Steve about the unpublished article I wrote. “Since I knew I was going to see you, I decided I would just tell what it said, by way of thanks.”

“For what?”

“That’s what I’m going to tell you.” I explained to him that there were four things I had learned, mostly by his example, that they had stayed with me, and he was the person I had to thank for them.

  1. Maybe you should try something new for a change.
  2. Motorcycles = broken body parts.
  3. Do it yourself, why don’t you.
  4. Share your talent and encourage others.

(In the article there were actually five, but the fifth was more or less an excuse to tell the John Lennon Story, which will have to come later, and it was not something I was thankful for.)

I was glad to be telling this to Steve. Many people help us to grow and change in various ways, and being able to thank someone for it, even when they seem like small things, I think is worthwhile. For his part, Steve Aged 50  was a little surprised I had some nice things to say about Steve Aged 17. Why is that? Well, remember that bit about Steve being the most interesting person, the most talented person? He was also the most hated person.

This was not an accident. In my freshman year, before I met him, I avidly read his columns in the Lance. He wrote music reviews and other articles, but my favorite was his humor column. He also did cartoons and illustrations. He did it a lot. In fact, he made me want to write for the paper. For that, I would have to take Journalism 1 my sophomore year, then I could be on staff my junior and senior years. In his writing Steve was funny, outrageous, and knew how to antagonize people. He also talked about stuff that was not mainstream in Missoula, Montana in 1978. Like punk rock.

Steve could make people mad, and did make people mad, but why did he make people mad? I couldn’t say it was his aim to do it. It was probably closer to the truth that he aimed to say what he pleased, and if that angered his readers, tough. And when it came to saying what he pleased, he was like no other person I had met. Wicked smart and verbally well-armed, he could perforate people or things he didn’t like with his words. But of course, that is one of the few defenses available to scrawny kids who act and draw and write and make music in a setting dominated by conformity to a teenstream culture that didn’t always value someone like Steve.

#1: Maybe you should try something new for a change.

Not caring what other people think was required of someone in a fierce struggle to find and be themselves as a teenager who does not and will not fit in. Pushing back on the pressures we were under to not be ourselves – or at least insisting on being able to explore the possibilities -  took some resolve, and sometimes there was anger or resentment lying beneath the surface. That may have been some of the appeal of punk rock: the ragged edge of anger over the pressure that bore down on young people: you can’t do this, you must do that, and stop complaining because there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead of the Boomers’ demand for a better world, many had the Gen-X resentment at the empty promise of one. Might as well blow off a little steam about it.

Another angle is looking around, like many teenagers, and finding plenty to be disgusted, dismayed and angry at. There was some of that for me. Maybe for Steve, too. I think it’s in his songs.

Of course nothing like this occurred to me at the time. On the contrary, I had been sleep-walking most of my life. And I was much more of a boomer in my general outlook – more hippie than punk – so I found Steve’s recommendation of punk rock hard to grasp. After I met him in the fall of 1979, I would rib him about it, as if he should be embarrassed to embrace and promote music – and the attitude that went with it – that was so far out of the mainstream, that people (like me) were so unlikely to accept.

Steve was annoyed but put up with my pestering. On the one hand, he managed to make me feel like a dork for having such narrow taste in music: I had grown up listening to the Beatles, Elton John and whoever else was played on MOR radio, and didn’t know about much else. I had read about punk rock, but I had never heard it – until I met Steve and the other friends I made on the Lance.

On the other hand, Steve did not just make me feel stupid, he made suggestions to me about music he thought I should listen to. My response was skeptical and dismissive at first. That changed after I had ignored his positive review of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, and subsequently heard it. After that, I realized I should reconsider blowing off Steve’s musical opinions. The fact that he put down music I liked (On CSN&Y: “They’re fat and old,” which I later realized he probably got from a line in Remote Control by The Clash.), didn’t mean he couldn’t point me to something great, which is exactly what Torpedoes was: freakin’ great.

From Steve’s notebook.

In December or January, Steve included in his song reviews two songs from The Clash’s London Calling. Around the Lance office he was talking up the album. I was skeptical until I heard the title track on a surprisingly eclectic AOR station. I remember today the very time and place that song came booming and screeching through the speakers in our living room.

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared – and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard all you boys and girls

The Clash interrupted my regular programming with a report of nuclear apocalypse, of the world ending with a whimper – a variation on the scenario that had visited me in nightmares since I was ten.

It blew my mind. Then I heard it again. Then Troy Deckert, the editor of the Lance, got the album, and I heard the whole thing. That changed everything. After that, I wanted to hear new things, and what a time for hearing new things that was! The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, The Pretenders, The Talking Heads, The Police – all putting out music that spun my head. Much of the real excitement I felt at this time in my life was the discovery of new and old music  that I never would have heard if it wasn’t for Steve, and later my other friends (Troy, Jeff Morgan, Matt Crowley, Mark Hayes), who stuck it in front of me.

How the combination of new friends, new music and drugs altered my path is more than I’ll go into here, and it wasn’t all helpful, but having my mind and ears and eyes opened to a wider world of music and ideas was a gift. It was Steve who first put his shoulder to the door and gave a good shove.

Next: Motorcycles and Music.

part two.   part three.   part four.