Taking A Personal DayPosted April 23rd, 2010 by Sean Williams
I’ve been producing this wonderful evening called “The Soundtrack Series here in Astoria for the last few months. Basically, one Thursday each month, we bring in some of the most creative writers, musicians and performers that we know, and we ask them to choose one piece of music and write 10 minutes on it.
It’s been amazing. Ehren Gresehover who writes for New York Magazine as well as a bunch of other things, did “To Be With You” by Mr. Big. Jamie Block , recording artist, did “Free To Be You And Me”. James Comtois did a piece on unwanted dance erections… It’s just been an amazing, amazing night, every single month.
Abe Goldfarb was meant to perform last night, but he got a gig hosting for some real money, so I stepped in to fill his shoes. I was reading with some real heavy weights, Kate Spencer, Kevin R. Free, and Tammy Oler, among others, so I was actually pretty anxious about it.
When you have an evening that you’re producing, and you end up both writing and performing… I mean, it’s pretty much on you. If it sucks, you really have nobody else to blame.
So, as I am taking a personal day today, I’m gonna post my piece. This is pretty long, and some of it only makes sense in context and performance (like the fact that many people were disappointed when they heard I was doing a Counting Crows because they were hoping I would rip on a bad pop song instead), and there are stars throughout that remind me to take a beat, because I tend to read really really fast… Anyway, here it is.
Let me get something out of the way very quickly. “Roll To Me” by Del Amitri is an unforgivable song, a sin against our fellow man, and as much as I might enjoy listening to it, and like singing along, it does to my heart what a dozen donuts does to my stomach. I find the protaganist of the piece to be almost comically loathsome, like a Bill Murray character, except he’s meant to be taken seriously. The lyric is, actually, “and I don’t think I have ever seen a soul so in despair/So if you’d like to talk the night through… guess who will be there!’ I can just see this guy on some girls bed, chin propped up on two hands, legs kicking up in the background, ready to gasp and laugh and gently touch her leg when appropriate, only to, every so often, reach down and surreptitiously adjust his erection. I hate this duplicitous piece of shit, and every note of this relentlessly happy song.
I’m sorry, it had to be said.
This has nothing to do with my piece tonight.
There is a scene in 500 Days of Summer, I movie I loathed almost as much as the Del Amitri song “Roll To Me”, where the main character is suffering from depression. You know this because he shows up at a liquor store in a bath robe and buys booze and junk food, and I believe he pays for it with change that he sidearms on to the counter.
My first thought was “this is not depression, this is a guy who wants everyone to think he’s depressed. And if you care enough to pick out a costume and a location, you aren’t actually depressed. You’re actually sorta having fun…”
My first marriage ended in a fiery crash at some point in 1998. The two of us had moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of pursuing acting careers, but I quickly began to sink under the knowledge that it wasn’t in the cards for me. I was becoming the guy who would stand in front of the camera with several other actors, point to the person on my left and say, “this guy is really good, you should use him.” I remember showing up for a commercial audition where they only filmed my neck as I loosened my tie. I was meant to be watching a car drive by, in awe. My time as a theater actor had not prepared me well for this moment.
My wife at the time was a fantastic looking sociopath, so Los Angeles worked out perfectly for her. Our marriage dissolved and I began to sink further and further into a legitimate depression. The scary thing about these black emotional abysses is that you won’t actually be able to dress up and let people know, you won’t be able to call for help, you spend every single calorie you’ve got trying to convince everyone that you’re okay.
There’s a line from this song, “Anna Begins”, this counting crows song, where the lyric says, “My friends assure me, it’s all or nothing, but… I’m not really worried. I am not overly concerned.” And that was largely what I attempted to tell my friends. “Nah, it’s fine. It’s good! Let’s get a drink!”
And I did. I went to the gym, I went to bars, I talked to girls, I talked to a ton of girls, I got drunk, I got a ton of drunk, I would get up, play tennis, go to auditions, go to bars, go to the gym, get drunk, eat a burrito, get drunk, go to the gym, get up… There was no order, no sense to it, time didn’t move in any direction, it just limped around the room, crashing into the dresser and sitting down in an old chair, holding up one hand, trying not to laugh. My days and nights stacked up, and in Los Angeles there’s no sense of time, no sense of season, no understanding that the birthdays that crash past you, one at a time, represent years, ages, time lost.
I hung on to the idea that I was still listening to popular music as proof that I wasn’t old. Those years weren’t bad, Fastball and Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin and Sixpence None The Richer… and stuff like “Tubthumping” and “Never Be Your Woman” by White Town were all great. Even the pop crap was “Wannabe” by Spice Girls and “Mmmmbop” By Hanson. It wasn’t a bad time, musically. And I held on, dancing in bars, dancing at house parties, cornering gorgeous girls and making them insecure, recognizing the girl from The Blair Witch project at my gym, seeing Ed Norton and Jenna Elfman at the bar across the street from the Scientology Celebrity Center. I WASN’T DEPRESSED! I GOT DRUNK WITH DHARMA! I PLAYED BASKETBALL WITH GEORGE CLOONEY (WHEN I WAS AN EXTRA ON ‘THAT SEVENTIES SHOW’) I WAS FINE!
Had she left in August? October? Over Memorial Day? I stopped even remembering, and I found myself telling my story like a guy who lost a dream job some years ago, like an old actor talking about the time he played Hamlet. When I would talk to people who didn’t know me, and because I was an actor in Los Angeles and not famous, there were very few people who knew me, the story was always, “I just moved out here a little while ago” and “we’re having a trial separation” even though it was quickly becoming years for both of these things.
I had a kind of mania about it, a ferocious scrambling attempt to keep moving forward. I was running out of money, running out of youth and running out of chances to escape my twenties free of STDs. I had a few weeks-long relationships, mostly because I liked to have sex with my friends and that always ends up being a confusing thing later when you look at each other and say, “you’re a reasonable person, and the genital co-rubbing is certainly nice, but if we were caught on a desert island, it would only be a matter of time before I either ate you, or I begged you to eat me…”
Then I started dating a girl named Jordana. Our friends called her Jordi, but her family and those close to her called her “Dana”. Of course, I called her “Jordi”. Dana was a little familiar. Clearly, although she was decent and reasonable, this was another thing where I ended up sleeping with one of my friends and pretty soon we’d just all be standing in a room, rocking back and forth on our heels, hands in pockets, and she and I would just nod and say, “Hookay, that was… Listen, I’ll call you and we should totally grab a movie. Y’know, with, like, everyone…”
This song is full of money quotes. He repeats, several times, “But I’m not gonna bend. I’m not gonna break, and I’m not gonna worry about it anymore…” Jordana was very cool, and even seemed to have some flexibility about the possible crushed soul that was hidden just beneath this devil-may-care douchebag I had invented. There was a certain amount of drinking I had to do to forget my marriage, and then a certain amount more to forget myself, and I remember being blind, on the verge of passing out, having said nothing about anything and Jordana looked at me with real kindness and just said, “I’m sorry you feel like you have to do this.”
My money was gone. My ex-wife had taken everything in the divorce, mostly because I didn’t want anything, and I was running out of stuff to sell. I made some money doing extra work and picking up editing jobs here and there, but the same kind of manic denial that had my emotional state constantly in the black was not going to work with something as binary as a checking account, and I knew I had to figure it out. My dad had some money, and I was pretty sure he would help me out. Actually, I was sure he *wouldn’t* help me out, but I was starting to run out of options. Liquor in LA isn’t cheap.
So I grabbed my stack of CDs and started to make the horrible journey up Interstate 5, from LA to Napa Valley, where my dad lived in a mansion on the mountain behind the Coppolla Winery. If you haven’t seen Interstate 5… Let me put it this way. It goes the same place that the 1 goes, right from LA to San Francisco, except the 1 is right on the water and is a two lane highway with switchbacks and horror cliff dropoffs that you have to drive 20 miles per hour on – it literally adds three or four hours to a five hour drive, and yet, every time I drove up there, I thought long and hard about which way to go. The 5 is straight through the most apocalyptic desert imaginable, straight through a giant expanse of bombing ranges. The area is literally the only war-torn 200 miles in all of the United States.
I had the Counting Crows album on. It was among the CDs that weren’t lost, and the only radio in that part of California is Right Wing Talk, or Right Wing Christian, so I was fumbling through CDs. I kept shaking my head and bouncing in my seat to “Mister *JONES* and me, tell each other FAIRY TALES as we stare at the beautiful women…” and I’m wondering how early my dad will break out the high end red wine, which was his particular brand of alcoholism, and I’m doing the math of how much he’ll lend me and how long that’ll last and how long that will keep me in drink, and I’m half thinking about my birthday coming up in a few months, when I’ll turn thirty, and for some reason I kept thinking about my sister and my grandmother and I keep seeing them laughing at my jokes, and I keep seeing their eyes crinkle up at the corners, their blue eyes laughing at something I’ve just said, and the CD rolls along and this song, this song comes on, and I hear “my friends assure me, it’s all or nothing, but I’m not really worried. I am not overly concerned…”
And then I hear her voice saying “I’m sorry you feel like you have to do this.”
I mean, it’s the desert, and it’s hard, it’s really hard to maintain that sense, that tightrope walk, that cobweb tightrope walk that is easy to balance on when you’re buttressed on all sides by bar stools and ex-strippers and the palpable sense of desperation in every person you meet, so of course, here in the desert it’s gonna be harder to convince myself that the shaky douchebag, the womanizer, the dramatic sarcastic is actually a giant protective tortoise shell I’ve been carrying around. But something is cracking inside my head. I don’t want a drink, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t want a drink, I don’t want to drink at all, anymore, I just want my dangling feet to touch ground, but I’ve been flapping my arms so hard for so long that I’ve half-convinced myself that I’m actually flying and I’ve had to forget what the ground even *feels* like.
If you don’t know the song, Adam Duritz uses an old trick, the modal shift. My mom, the composer, was once told, “if you want a hit, write it in 3/4, put the verses in minor and the chorus in major”. This is exactly what the band has done in Anna Begins, and I had enjoyed the trick so much that I hadn’t really noticed what they were saying. It was only at that moment, in the car, in the desert, that I realized the verses, in minor, were all lies, “I’m not really worried, I am not overly concerned” and the chorus, in major, was where he saw this woman for the first time, not as a context for his life, but as the promise of something better. Suddenly in the car, I heard
“her kindness falls like rain. It washes me away. And Anna begins to change my mind. And every time she sneezes, I believe it’s love, and Oh Lord. I’m not ready for this sort of thing.”
I could tell you that there was a magical oasis in the middle of the desert, a small landing pad that had two gas stations and a Jack-In-The-Box. I could tell you it was a miracle, if you knew nothing about California, but I would be lying. Californians need to stop at gas stations like Whales need to surface, there are no areas of California that *don’t* have available fuel. And where there’s gas, there’s fast food. It’s a given.
I pulled off the road, not knowing what I was gonna do. I was in a part of California that didn’t support Sprint (otherwise known as “Almost All Of California”) but I’m pretty sure I was pulling off the road to eat something, or to get gas, or just to try and stop crying. But I couldn’t eat, my car was full, and some distance away from the rest of the garbage was a lone payphone, sitting under a tree, probably the only organic shade for 20 miles.
It wasn’t until I was walking to the phone that I realized I was calling Jordana. In New York. And I realized that it wasn’t my sister’s blue eyes, or my grandma’s, it was hers. And I knew that those eyes were already part of my family, that she had already become something that I couldn’t make a decision about, whether I was ready for it or not. And I realized that, when I heard the song, when I heard him sing “she’s talking in her sleep, it’s keeping me awake, and Anna begins to toss and turn. And every word is nonsense, but I understand”… I wasn’t hearing “and Anna Begins”, I was hearing “And… Dana begins…”
She listened to me, and she said, “go back to LA. Don’t go to your father. Buy a ticket to New York. Come here. It’s gonna be fine. It’s all gonna be fine. Come home.”