Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Larry Fulford has spent time on the mic as a comedian and behind the kit as a drummer. He’s a peach of a fellow and we asked him to reflect on a recent show he attended.
It was a Monday night, a night touring musicians dread even more than Sunday night, in Chicago, Cubs Country, during a Cubs game, in a city with a bar on every corner, a theater on every other corner, hundreds of ways to spend your money, and I was taking $8 to Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville, a smallish craft-everything bar just down the street from where the Cubbies were playing, to see Micah Schnabel (Two Cow Garage) perform a solo/acoustic set on the second-to-last night of his most recent tour.
A capable two-piece, acoustic singer/songwriter accompanied by an electric lead player, kicked things off. The sound was outstanding but the room itself was kind of stuffy, seated with table service and drinks I couldn’t afford.
Maybe fifteen people sat at the tables, kind of spread out, making their pricey drinks last and nibbling on food I was jealous of. Fifteen in a room that, according to a sign, held forty-seven. It felt more like a cafe than a dive bar or rock club, the kinds of places I was used to seeing Schnabel and Two Cow. But the sound was incredible, so I told myself to hold onto that.
From meager, midwestern beginnings as a simple alt-country outfit that was heavier than most, to a soaring, driving-with-the-top-down powerhouse walking a tightrope over a quarry of punk rock, to saying “Fuck it” and diving headfirst into that quarry but climbing up for air long enough to keep things interesting, I’ve been a fan of Two Cow Garage since I saw them play to an audience of maybe 12 as though it were an audience of 12,000 without a hint of bitterness.
Years later, on an unassuming Monday night in Chi-Town, Schnabel alone took the stage (or place on the floor where a stage might be someday) and, just as I’d seen him lead the charge in front of 12 as though we were 12,000, stepped up to the mic to do exactly what he had come here to do, regardless of outcome or interest.
Except this time, for the most part, he left the old songs on the records, save for maybe one Two Cow Garage track (“Let the Boys Be Girls”) and an I’m Dead, Serious bonus track (“How to Quit Smoking”). The rest of the set I was mostly unfamiliar with, with the exception of a couple songs I’d seen live clips of on YouTube.
And this new stuff, wherever it came from, whatever triggered it, was captivating in the most brutally honest, unafraid to make you uncomfortable, beautiful way.
There were lyrics about uncertainty, about questioning your own identity and the idea of identity, our collective reasons for doing things as simple as making small talk, existence, fear, the illusion of an “American dream,” domestic violence, child abuse, gun control, greed, starving, and finding hope in hopelessness.
Ya know, real cock-sure, glamorous rock ‘n’ roll shit.
Certain lines had me smiling, others had me staring, taking them in, sitting with them, asking myself questions like “How does this make me feel?” and thinking things like “Holy hell.” The imagery wasn’t always easy on the ears, but real art, the good stuff, isn’t always something you necessarily want to hear. But Schnabel’s words kept the room pindrop-worthy and landed as relatable, or at least easy to empathize with, because, subtly, ultimately, the theme of the night was We’re All Just People Here, Flawed and Fractured, Trying Our Fucking Best.
Afterwards, as though nothing had happened, Micah and I and some buddies shot the shit about nothing at all, came up with ideas for t-shirts we’re never going to make, pretended we were friends with Seal.
But something had happened. Something I was aware of even while it was happening. We’d all been temporarily whisked away to Greenwich Village or San Francisco in the ‘60s, when people gathered in rooms that wouldn’t hold more than maybe forty-seven people and turned their attention to someone who was singing or saying things as though he or she had been somewhere we’d never been, and maybe would never dare go, and had come back to us with pockets full of postcards.
It’s been said “the revolution will not be televised,” because it won’t be. Because it’s slow-going and all around us and happening all the time. And it’s not always big, with explosions, castle-storming, chaining ourselves to trees. Sometimes, more often than not, it’s very, very small and personal, like a butterfly a million miles away, flapping its wings.
I was born too late to sit in a smoky speakeasy and watch Lenny Bruce launch verbal cannonballs into the sails of hypocrisy, or Dylan boldly declare outright “the times, they are a-changin,’” but this show gave me what I imagine were similar chills.
The whole “being a musician” thing usually begins simple enough. You want to learn how to play guitar (or drums, or bass, or sing) because you don’t just listen to music, music speaks to you, and you want to know what it’s like to speak that language, even if at first all that sounds like is butchering “Come as You Are” (or “Enter Sandman,” or “I Wanna Be Sedated” or anything-Zeppelin) while your parents knock on the door and ask if you’ve finished your homework.
Your heroes are outcasts, outlaws, rebels who shirked real life in favor of climbing on stages, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, sweating and bleeding and leaving everything “real” behind for whatever reason; money, fame, chickz (or dudez), or purely because they felt they had nowhere else to go.
There are all sorts of reasons someone might start or join a band, but I think at the very core of every one is camaraderie. Whether you’re a misunderstood nerd with Rush posters all over your walls or a nerd-bullying jock dabbling in finding the only acoustic guitar at the house party to wow young ladies with Nickelback’s “Photograph,” there’s a sort of us-against-the-world feeling when you’re playing the role of rock star.
And I use “rock star” figuratively here to describe anyone who’s found a spotlight, be it at a dumpy coffee shop where someone blends drinks over your attempt at quivering out the tritest of trite lyrics about your last break-up, a garage with three friends who also happen to know “Say it Ain’t So,” or a lonely bedroom, sitting on the edge of a dirty mattress, strumming the ever-loving shit out of “Everlong.”
Myself? It couldn’t have been more about camaraderie if I’d known I was going to be writing this article one day and needed it to be. I became a drummer solely because my buddies in junior high were starting a band and needed a drummer, and back then, as now, there were no drummers to be found.
The thing about bands, and music in general, is over time it gets harder and harder to make time. People go off to college, get married, accept offers for “real” jobs, have babies, find Jesus, sometimes all of the above. The odds are stacked against you from the get-go. It’s as though every band is a camel that thinks it’s a tank, and life is a veritable desert covered in sand-colored landmines.
And, if your delicate endeavor does somehow beat the odds and sticks it out longer than, say, other high school garage bands in your graduating class, it’s almost inevitable that, eventually, the reason(s) you came together become filtered through reasons to continue to exist.
Why are we doing this? It’s clearly not the money. It’s not the fame. Chickz? Dudez? Expression? Sustainability? Legacy? Should we start dressing a little nicer onstage so, aesthetically, we look more like we’re in the same group? Where should each of us look in this photo? Did that make us look too depressed? How are we gonna pay for the next record? Why are we even bothering making a next record when we still have boxes of the old record? Do we know any mechanics in Des Moines?
It’s almost as though, to keep it going, you have to cling to some sort of goal, no matter how invented, farfetched, or out of reach, and start being concerned with things like marketing (blech), finding the right manager (blech!), and selling yourself (what in the actual fuck?!).
It’s a long way to the lower-middle if ya wanna rock ‘n’ roll.
Which is why it’s always inspiring when you come across a band or singer/songwriter (or, hell, painter, writer, comic, photographer, etc.) that refuses to be pigeonholed or let fashion and fleeting trends dictate the next thing that comes out of his or her hands and mouth, preferring rather to use their guitars, words, paintbrushes, and cameras as knives to cut out the bullshit and carve their own niche, searching for revelation, revolution, or simply a sigh of relief in the midst of a screaming world, where we all think we’re the centers of our own universes.
Those are the ones keeping the ball rolling. Those are the ones doing more than entertain. They’re fighting a good fight and an uphill battle blindfolded because, to them, it doesn’t matter if they never cross the finish line or get gunned down along the way.
They don’t do this simply because they want to anymore, they do it because they need to, because something in their brains or hearts or guts won’t let them set the tools of their trades down long enough to get a “real” job. There’s something burning inside and no extinguishing the flame. There is only breathing fire.
Some of these people have been at it for years and will be until their last gasps, when you can finally pry their reasons for existing from their cold, dead hands. They’ve missed loved ones’ birthdays, lost jobs, been evicted, had relationships crumble, and none of it has made them choose to slow down because there is. no. choice.
Micah Schnabel is one such “lifer” whose evolution I feel privileged to have had ringside seats for, and Two Cow Garage is one such band. And now, all these years later, when most groups at their level would be paralyzed with fear, carefully calculating what to say next, how to sound next, what to wear next, or deciding maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, Schnabel is all but dismissing the surface, choosing instead to turn himself inside out, more interested in what we as human beings might be trying to hide rather than how we as entertainers look under those precious lights.
And, in turn, he’s writing some of the most important songs of his generation, and the generation after, and probably the generation before, and probably generations to come.
I don’t know how else to describe it.
I could try to explain it better, like how it kind of reminds me of Salinger with a guitar or Dylan with a sense of humor, but to be fair to everyone I’m name-dropping, Micah included, I’ll stop at “important” and hope you see fit to check it out on your own when he comes to your town or commits it to plastic.
I’d like to think true artists aspire to reach a point where they’re comfortable baring their souls. Some manage to get over themselves and find a way to dig that deep. Even fewer will dig that deep, hit a gas line, stash of marked bills, lava, or worse and still throw enough caution to the wind to unearth it into a song, painting, book, joke, movie, etc.
Micah now goes beyond that. He hits the skeleton of his soul, chips it away and fires the pieces into space with a slingshot.
And now that he’s armed with these new songs and ideas, that run the gamut from friendly reminders to scathing satire, I’ve decided the only thing I enjoy more than listening to him myself is watching people hear him for the first time.
– Larry Fulford
Keep up with Larry on Twitter – @LarryFulford