By Gabe Liebowitz
You know those people who just don’t feel like they have the mental capacity to have successful relationships with friends and lovers? They’re so frustrated with their ineptitude of being able to connect with other human beings that they will often times completely abandon reality altogether and immerse themselves in a world that they understand a little better, whether it’s Dungeon and Dragons, civil war reenacting, baseball cards, or whatever the hell tickles their fancy? You know what I mean. Nerds.
I was a nerd. In fact, I still am a nerd. Sure, I may get a girl every now and then, but that’s just because I trick them by having a beard and being in a band. I had a problem connecting with people at a very early age due to a chronic case of eczema; a skin disease that made me a little difficult to look at to the untrained eye. Sometimes, I would avoid bathing for weeks since my skin’s contact with hot water was so excruciating. You can imagine how well this went over in 5th grade.
So, while other kids were starting to have girlfriends and going to dances and going roller blading, I was staying in and learning everything there was to know about The Muppets. I would spend my Friday nights on message boards arguing with homosexual 40-year-olds over what was better: The Muppet Show or the short-lived late ‘90s ABC series, Muppets Tonight! God damn, I read so much about the Muppets that even to this day, at age 23, I could tell you who did the voice of any given Fraggle and still have to fight off a reflex of looking at you like you’re an idiot for not knowing.
Well, as I started getting older and entered middle school, even I was beginning to realize that it was a little weird for a 13-year-old kid to be walking down the hall with a Gonzo doll and spending recess practicing his puppeteering skills with his bare hand under a tree by himself. Finally, after buying a used copy Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden, my obsessive tendencies shifted quite dramatically, and I quickly traded in my home-made anteater puppet for a pair of drumsticks.
Now, when you’re obsessed, you don’t rest easy until you feel like you’re well versed with anything and everything about your interest, and I quickly became an expert on the world of heavy metal. A basic understanding of Megadeth, Judas Priest, Queensryche and Helloween quickly branched off to elaborate views on all the many terrifying subgenres, including death metal, black metal, doom metal, and nordic viking metal. The weird thing was, I wasn’t really an angry kid. I wasn’t into getting into fights or slaughtering goats or anything like that. It was more like the feeling of wanting to see through something all the way.
My drum teacher lending me a copy of “Exit…Stage Left” by Rush did not help dispelling the cliche of a kid with social anxiety immersing himself with escapism lyrics about wizards, utopias and snow dogs. Soon I was bitten by the progressive rock bug and was quickly familiarized with the catalogues of the likes of Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. The new-found love of 15-minute songs and the introduction of marijuana in my life quickly found me playing drums with bands with names like the Hemogoblins, Insomnia and Voodoo Carousel. Sometimes there were 19 different time signatures in the same song. Sometimes we spent 20 minutes depicting a Spanish-American War battle scene in music form.
There was another year and a half of tirelessly exploring all of the nether-regions of progressive rock. By the time I was learning about Zeuhl, an obscure off-shoot genre based on a fake language pioneered by ’70s French jazz-fusion/opera outfit Magma, I was pretty fucking burnt out. At this point, I was around 17 years old. My interests in drums were dwindling and I was watching Wes Anderson instead of Willow.
Now, ever since I was 14, all of my actions and emotions were influenced by music, so it was fitting that it took an album to finally have me say, “Dude. You’re exhausted. Just be fucking depressed for a change, it’s cool.” This epiphany came way of Red House Painter’s first self-titled album. I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to buy it, but when I put it in the stereo for the first time, it absolutely fucking destroyed me. After spending years listening to music where lyrics were thrown in merely as a necessity over elaborate virtuosic arrangements, I was completely floored with what I was hearing. The music was stripped down and murky. The lyrics were straightforward and devastatingly honest. What can I say? It really knocked me on my ass.
Not too long after the Red House Painters record came into my life, I quit the drums and got an acoustic guitar. Hearing somebody who seemed just as morbidly depressed as I was, conveying his feelings so eloquently both literally and musically, made me come to terms with a lot of shit I had been trying to avoid all my life by way of puppets, songs about castles and 15-minute drum solos. This ended up being a super important year for me, as I began becoming familiar with records by Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley. It was really the first time that emotion took precedence over technique or instrumental prowess. The feeling of an overwhelming sense of honesty mingled with a perfectly executed atmosphere, this is what made creating music so appealing to me. It was the thought that you can actually create your own world and force people to walk inside your brain, even if it’s depressing or disgusting or perverted or whatever. This made songwriting an obsessive necessity in my life.
My musical interests will constantly shift. In college I was into proto punk. Then I got into country music. Now I’m really into the delta blues. But shit, I still sport a Dio T-shirt, and Close to the Edge by Yes is still one of my favorite records. But the moment I heard that Red House Painters record was the moment that music stopped being an escapism obsession and instead became an outlet for coming to terms with everything in my deranged, nerdy little mind.