Parts I & II
This past May marks three years since I left professional music: the only life I had known, in one way or another, since high school. I’m no celebrity, but a musician is certainly what I had been known as for roughly a decade. The decision to leave was a labored one. Music, being such a visceral endeavor, gives and takes a lot from a person. We’re led to believe that musicians live a carefree life of artistry, sex, drugs, and not much else. There’s some of those things, but the professional musician’s life is far from the free-love dreamscape that it’s made out to be in popular culture; it’s also far from financially stable. I’ve told this story orally in one form or another, but I’ve never gone into much detail. My leaving was a rather heavy ordeal for me. But, it’s high time I got this story down.
As I said, I had been performing music semi-professionally since high school. I was turned onto the School of Rock, the real one, by a friend in my junior year. The School of Rock’s program is such that students get a weekly 45-minute lesson and three-hour ensemble with other kids, working towards some sort of stage show. That was my first taste of playing live, and in blissful ignorance I fell in love with it. Shortly thereafter I had my own band, Captain Chris and the Manta Rays, a classic rock cover band named after myself and Ray, my friend, bandmate, and fellow School of Rock student. Despite having the best band name in the world, the decision came through to change the name to simply Manta.We had some relatively interesting albeit anachronistic and derivative original songs. That band eventually changed drummers and took the name of our new drummer’s previous band, Hart Attack. That band went through lineup changes, I tried my hand at songwriting, and once again the band name changed to its final form, Me Overseas.
That band enjoyed a small amount of local success and a (very) modest local following, but nothing meaty enough to get a big head about – at least not for me. Me Overseas had a show on the books for August 2010: a support slot opening for I Am the Avalanche, a Long Island punk band with a cult following, for whom our producer, Brett Romnes, played the drums. As we continued to write songs for our debut album and rehearse for the show, we found ourselves in a bit of a slump. Some dark, sucking force at the center of our little group of artists had begun to swallow us whole. And so, the decision to bring someone in to speak to us came down from the band’s manager and financier: our drummer’s dad. That’s not a recipe for disaster or a conflict of interest, right?
Pardon a short digression, but at the time I joined the band Hart Attack (cute spelling, huh?), the drummer was one of the most ill-behaved children I’ve ever met – screaming at his mother, calling her “cunt,” hitting people, all kinds of delightful performances of that nature. I was already shocked by his behavior, but there was one particular instance that I still think about to this very day. My other bandmates and I arrived at our drummer’s house one evening for practice to find the house deeply entrenched in a hostage situation. Our drummer’s mother was screaming upstairs for her son to give something back, and we newcomers stood in horror. The drummer’s dad approached the band deliberately and said, “Your drummer is going to jail.” Well then, is that so? He returned shortly thereafter with a printed itemized accounting of what we, his son’s teenage bandmates, would owe him. Apparently, our drummer had stolen his father’s hidden stash of cash from his bedroom and was refusing to give it back. This was hilarious to us and remains so. It’s not funny to steal from your parents, but it’s funny that he had the gall to do it. It’s worth noting that our drummer’s father told us we each owed him thousands of dollars, of which we had none. At some point during the negotiations, our drummer’s mother snuck into her son’s room and recovered the cash, things deescalated shockingly quick, and we practiced. The situation was never brought up again – end of digression.
So, Me Overseas needed a pep talk, and so our manager daddy brought in Jimmy Gnecco, singer/songwriter and leader of the band Ours. We already knew of and respected Jimmy, and little did I know I would join his band some years later. After Jimmy’s rousing talk, the band decided to break up, with the I Am the Avalanche show being our last. We as individuals had such divergent styles and visions, it was best to go our separate ways. We played our last show in August 2010, and I didn’t play in a band again until 2012 when I joined Ours.
Joining Ours felt like a dream come true. My playing style has always been quite dark, and so joining a band like Ours couldn’t have been a better match. At the time, I was teaching at the School of Rock, but was feeling a bit sad and useless without a band. That changed quickly. A drunken jam at an office holiday party led Jimmy to formally invite me to join a few months later. I joined the band, we played some out of state shows right away, shot a music video in Toronto within the first month or so, and toured for all of June and July that summer. I couldn’t have been happier, I was doing exactly what I knew I should be doing. Though a guitar player by nature, I was asked to play bass primarily.
We recorded an album the following winter, I played bass on half of it, with Jimmy playing the rest of it. I have/had creativity out the ass, but my playing was rather inconsistent and so getting me to play a full song entailed a great deal of studio magic and editing to get it in time. I was ashamed, I felt like a fraud, but my ideas were solid and made it to the record. We toured the following summer as well for two months, and when we returned we set about writing the follow up record which was to be a sequel of sorts. We started writing that record in 2013, and a record came out in 2018, a year after I left the band. That entire time was spent writing and working the songs to death every morning until late in the evening. I loved that part of it all, dreaming things up – it was the playing part that would expose me for the sloppy fraud of a musician that I was.
My issue is quite common, you’d be surprised how many records are pieced together to accommodate a sub-par musician. In the 60’s and 70’s, you simply had to be great to play on a record – now, anyone can do it. Hell, even Lil Wayne clawed spasmodically at the guitar on his records. But, at some point we began recording again. We recorded dozens of songs, some which would be on one record, the rest would fit onto the next. It was a monumental but exciting endeavor.
Somewhere in there, probably around 2015 or so, I quit teaching at the School of Rock and moved into a studio Jimmy owned on the day after Christmas. It was there that I lived until I left the band in May of 2017. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I know, famous last words. We were making two massive records and we needed to work around the clock. We worked constantly, and as it went on, I began to dread playing. In rehearsals, I knew my playing wasn’t what it should’ve been, and our bandleader’s face said as much. Then there was the recording, for which my part was an uphill struggle with atrophied legs. It no longer felt like art, it felt like torture. I can honestly say that not a single note I played was where it should’ve been; they all needed correction. I would be way ahead for one note, then way behind for the next – a mess, not what you want for your bass, one of the most solid instruments in the band. Jimmy brought me in for the life I brought to playing, which I certainly do. I put my whole being into it, and that really shows. I have passion, of that there can be no doubt. But passion and consistency are different, and I think Jimmy realized that rather quickly.
I never feared being kicked out of the band, but I did have a crushing feeling of letting everyone down with every note I played. Even improvising and taking some sort of sonic journey together became weighed down by my feeling that I was playing poorly and falling apart, all while trying to be creative, focused, and free. What was once my passion became fraught with dread and anxiety. I would actually make a case for songs to have a longer introduction so I didn’t have to come in with my bass as soon. The longer I sit out, I thought, the better the song will sound.
I got into drinking quite a bit. I feel like I drank from the end of 2015 until May of 2017 steadily. I slowed down a bit when I quit the band, but not as quickly as one would hope. I drank so much whiskey, so much tequila, and so much red wine over that time that it became what I looked forward to. It wasn’t to drown my sorrows, it was so I and everyone else would be loose, and playing music could follow suit. A drunken jam was different, there was less pressure. Being in the studio while drinking just felt more artistic and free-spirited. I loved it. I always had a cocktail in my hand. One particularly raucous drunken jam live on stage resulted in me trashing one of my favorite guitars, an all-black ES-355 with a Bigsby. I smashed that poor guitar every which way, and I loved it – the guitar was irredeemably damaged.
I began to experiment more with my look. I had already lost approximately sixty pounds during my second summer tour with the band. I’m six feet tall, and when I joined the band I weighed 200+ pounds. I wasn’t that overweight, but I wasn’t in good shape either. My eating habits – White Castle and Taco Bell in bed – were atrocious. But once I lost weight, arguably too much because I had family concerned that I was on heroin or had AIDS, I set my sights on my look. At the suggestion of a bandmate, I began to mess around with eyeliner, eye shadow, glitter, and girl’s clothes. It wasn’t drag, it was just tighter jeans and shirts. By the time I left the band in 2017, I wore eyeliner and glittery eye shadow every day. My fingernails and toenails were coated in various polishes. I didn’t even know why anymore. I was keeping up a version of myself that I had manufactured for the band. There’s nothing wrong with a man doing any of those things, but I had lost the thread of why I even started.
I’m naturally effeminate already, but I had a drag-lite thing going for me. I stuck with it because it was something I was doing for the band, and a bandmate had a thing for more feminine boys. This was all a huge mistake. I had changed who I was completely.
I rarely saw my family because I felt to spend too much time away from the band would invite my loyalty into question. To make up for my sloppy playing, I wanted to at least be an indispensable creative asset and team member. And so, all the while missing my family, I was immersed in a world that was swallowing me whole.
I had been toying with the idea of leaving for a while, but could never make the first move. I had manufactured a situation in my mind where the band couldn’t stand to be around me. And so, one Friday night while drunk and feeling low, I texted some of my bandmates to apologize for being annoying or overbearing, and said that I would make amends. For my band, these texts were totally unbidden. They had no idea what I was talking about, but I was struggling to keep all my plates spinning. I couldn’t be this character I created, I couldn’t stand playing, I couldn’t stand the disappointed looks – I was crushed under my own rubble. The morning after I sent that text, a Saturday, I began getting dressed. Once ready, I went down into the studio where Jimmy was working on a song that we had been agonizing over for months. The song had been rearranged so many times that it was hard to remember where we started, its quality had become dubious. I sat on the couch and watched him, feeling completely overwrought. I hated the music and myself, I couldn’t see the light anymore. Everything was slipping through my fingers, and I had to get out before the darkness swallowed me whole. And so, I quietly went upstairs, packed up my clothes, grabbed my guitar, and loaded it all in my car. I passed the guitarist, Static, who continues to be a beacon of love and support to this day, on his way in and my (literal and figurative) way out. I greeted him pleasantly, chatted a bit, waited for him to become settled inside the building, and drove away. About a block down the road, I pulled over and burst into tears. I had finally done it. I texted Jimmy a frantic series of nervous utterances that sounded like the ravings of a broken man, which they were. What follows is the actual text which I drafted and saved in my phone’s notes where it remains to this day:
“Hey. I’ve got to go. I’m not well and I can’t really handle this at the present time. I’m not going to get musically better until I’m okay – and frankly I’m a train wreck right now. I’m only hurting the band. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll call you in a couple of days when I’m able to actually articulate this to you. You’ve changed my life, but right now I’m fucking lost and I need to go. This is killing me, but I know for my own wellbeing that I need to go. I love all of you so god damn much – this kills me. This has been the greatest thing I’ve done in my life, but I’m a kid and you need someone experienced and on their shit. I’ll talk to you in a few days. I owe you an explanation (and so much more).”
And with that, I drove home. Over the next few weeks, I was raw – an open wound, a husk. I had removed my own keystone and fallen to pieces. It took months and years to put those pieces back together and find out who I really was. I knew myself as this over-the-top character I cooked up for the band. It was me, but it was so far from who I really was.
In the months leading up to my departure, I started getting into more unconventional music. While Jimmy was very much inspired by Michael Jackson and other classic dance music, I wasn’t that way. Michael Jackson was never really something I was all that into. Sure, I enjoyed it on occasion, but I thought it was all so silly. The music was silly to me, and the words were even sillier. Strangely, to finally admit that I don’t enjoy Michael Jackson’s music all that much is a relief. I also thought a lot of 80’s dance music, which Jimmy and company loved, sounded hilarious – fun, but hilarious. In fact, when such a song was referenced in writing one of our own songs, I had to pretend to like it and that the instruments didn’t sound like toys.
When I discovered both Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and a band called Swans, my world expanded. Music could be such a journey, it doesn’t have to pander to traditional formulas. Nick Cave writes such brilliant lyrics and is relatively unbound by the confines of a rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme, to me, is biggest reason why so many songs are pseudo-meaningful bits of nothing. Rock lyrics, dance lyrics – so much nonsense. Jimmy was/is a unique writer, but the stuff I liked was going a new direction. Trying to cull a following and make songs that’ll catch on is one thing, but it’s certainly not the best way to make art. Nick Cave drove me back towards writing: my own writing, and the writing of others – as did Josh Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty. I couldn’t believe such brilliant and inventive language could fit into songs. And Swans, they showed me what sound could do. An experimental band by label, Swans make conventional music look like a child’s coloring book. Their cacophonous sound takes its time to develop and gives a terrifying cathartic payoff after some twenty minutes of building tension. In short, music was more than I had known it to be. A veil had been lifted and I found myself in a band that wasn’t making music I liked anymore. Perhaps this was due to the constant reworking of songs to the point of obscurity, but I couldn’t find the thread anymore.
And so, at the time of leaving the band, there were many things in play: my tastes changed, I hated playing, I felt inadequate, and I lost myself. My supports had fallen, and I lay on the floor a mess of parts.
It wasn’t until I decided to finish college that I began to find who I was without all the smoke and mirrors, all the glitter and eyeliner. I was smart, I am smart. I love writing, I love stories. I have things to say, I’m a skeptic, I’m a thinker – not much gets past me. I have a mean wit and a mind that’s always going. All of those things were obscured by the character I created in the band. I enrolled at Rutgers Newark and began working towards a degree in journalism in January 2018. There, it felt like home. My thoughts were appreciated, my work ethic was celebrated, and my writing was rewarded and praised. I had forgotten what it was like to make something and have people enjoy it without having to chop it to pieces. I don’t fault Jimmy, I was a mess of a musician – that’s not the ideal bandmate. I’m a great creative partner, willing to brave new directions, but as a solid musician, I’m on shaky ground.
In May 2020, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Rutgers Newark and won, by unanimous decision, the university’s Journalism Excellence Award. Albeit, I did all of this from my laptop while in quarantine, but damn it all to hell, I did it. I graduated. The irony isn’t lost on me though: I fell apart, quit music, soul searched, went back to school, and graduated only to be confined indoors by a pandemic. The hilarity is overwhelming; I get my shit together and the world falls apart.
I’ve never explained all of this to anyone. Here and there I’ve explained bits of it, but never pulled back the curtain entirely. Roughly two years after quitting, I started to actually enjoy playing music again. I wanted to play guitar again, to wanted to be creative and make sounds. It was rewarding at last, and untainted by bitter disappointment. I loved music again – talking about it, listening, and playing. I dusted off my record player and began to get back into the appreciation of music without any of the weight it used to carry. I don’t expect to ever play music again professionally. That, to me, would ruin a good thing. And though some people don’t understand it when I say it, I truly don’t miss being in Ours. I miss the people, but not the band. Touring was fun, but the shows were not. I’ve played such remarkable places – Webster Hall, The Fonda in Los Angeles, and The Roxy – but I don’t have any fond memories of being on those stages. How could I enjoy it when I was so busy failing?
I found a way to reconcile it all, a way to be writer and keep my passion for music without it being my life. Being a musician is not an easy life; there’s virtually no money in it, you do it because you love it, and if you’re lucky, it won’t swallow the light behind your eyes.
It swallowed my light, but I got it back, and now it’s all mine.