There’s a lot to say about the recent passing of David Bowie. Maybe at some point I’ll untangle my thoughts enough to say something about that towering musical giant. But someone else who had just as much of an impact on me as an artist passed away not twenty four hours before Bowie did. This is about him.
As someone who’s been interviewed a few times over the years, I’ve never been a big fan of the question, “What are your favourite bands?” For me it’s up there with, “Do you have Air Miles?” and, “Can I mow your lawn with a toothpick for fifty bucks?” in the pantheon of annoying nothingness.
If I wanted to be flippant, my answer would be, “How many days worth of free time do you have lined up?” Because I love a lot of music, and it’s difficult to quantify it in terms of what speaks to me the loudest. What I want to listen to and why I want to listen to it changes all the time. I don’t want to pancake my taste in music into something easy to digest and reproduce on command.
But if you held a squirt gun loaded with liquefied liver to my head and forced me to play the favourites game, one band near the top of the list would be Idaho. Jeff Martin (not the Tea Party guy) has made a lot of music over the years that’s gone a lot of different places, sometimes with others, sometimes alone, and he’s never done anything that’s failed to grab me. I don’t think there’s one Idaho song that doesn’t do something for me. That’s pretty rare.
Early Idaho is a world away from the music Jeff makes now. These days his albums sound like a series of perfect soundtracks to kaleidoscopic independent films that are projected onto your brain while you listen.
Year After Year and the Palms EP, meanwhile, are full of intense, wounded-sounding music. This stuff was labelled “slowcore” at the time. I’m not sure that quite fits. I don’t know if any label fits.
I read a review once for one of the early Idaho albums in which the writer cautioned, “Don’t listen if you’re depressed.” I’ve always felt it was the other way around. For my money, there isn’t much music out there that’s a better blanket when you feel defeated and angry with the world. They might move slowly, but there’s real fire and life in those songs. They refuse to curl up in a ball and admit defeat. They give you a place to wallow for a while, and then they hand you a length of rope to pull yourself out of there.
There’s a message board on the Idaho website I used to frequent. It’s still there. I still pop in once in a while, though not as often as I’d like to.
John Berry, who co-founded Idaho with Jeff and played drums and some beautiful, evocative lead guitar on Year After Year and Palms, is the guy wearing glasses in that picture up there. He was around quite a bit in the run-up to 2005’s The Lone Gunman, acting in more of a managerial capacity by then, fielding people’s questions on the message board.
I didn’t have PayPal at the time. I wanted to know if I could send him a money order to pay for the album. So I emailed him.
We struck up a dialogue. He ended up sending me more than just the new Idaho album, and I sent him some of the music I was making at the time. Re-reading those emails from eleven years ago, what strikes me now is how angry I was. Not at him, but at everything. I couldn’t pay people in my own city to listen to my music. I kept trying to connect with other musicians only to get ignored or slapped away. Nothing I did made any difference. I didn’t know the right people, I wasn’t cool enough to pay attention to, and that was the end of it.
It was pretty demoralizing. I didn’t see it at the time, but the bitterness that grew out of all that coloured everything I wrote.
He had no real reason to acknowledge me beyond giving me an amount and an address to send the money order to. But John kept talking to me. He was always kind, witty, and full of good humour. A little later, we became Facebook friends when Facebook became a thing in our lives.
When I posted something here a few years back about retiring from making music (an April Fools’ day joke I was sure no one would be fooled by — I thought the “essay by Bono” bit on the fake greatest hits album cover was a dead giveaway), he popped up to tell me I better not stop making music. And he said some really kind things about a song I sent him at a time when I was about as depressed as I’ve ever been. I could tell he meant it. He had no idea how much that meant — to have someone like him, one of the architects of some music that’s been important to me, offer encouragement and take the time to let me know he really liked what I was doing.
I always figured we’d end up meeting face-to-face someday for a jaws-of-life handshake and some laughs. That’s not going to happen now. Learning he’d passed away in his sleep came as a bit of a shock. I was aware of some of his health problems, but I thought he’d find a way to beat them, the same way it seemed he’d managed to beat or hold at bay everything else that tried to pull him under. I didn’t know him on an intimate personal level, so I don’t know much about the demons that dogged him, but he was never anything but a positive force in my life. It seems wrong that he wouldn’t be here anymore.
These days I know a lot of good people and have some actual support for the music I’m making, even if I’ve done my best to keep it a small-scale, low-level thing (one person’s “shooting yourself in the foot” is another person’s “holding onto sanity and weeding out the stupid crap”). But I’ve never forgotten the way John put in the effort to connect with me at a time when so few people bothered, and the way he kept that connection alive.
I still can’t believe he did this — when he sent me The Lone Gunman, he also burned me a CD of a soundboard recording of a live show and tacked on a few demos. There were a lot of songs I knew in there, and then there were about half a dozen things I’d never heard anywhere. Pieces of an Idaho album that never quite happened, from a time when he was playing guitar with Jeff again for a while. I listened to those songs again when I found out he was gone and was knocked out all over again by what he played on them. He had a way of cutting to the heart of a song with a few well-placed notes that generated more power and emotional depth than any flashy solo ever would have.
There are things about the way I play electric guitar now — the “ambient” stuff, when I’m not playing straight chords — that likely wouldn’t exist in my musical vocabulary if I’d never heard what John did on the fret board way back when. I arrive at it in a different way than he did, because most of the time I don’t play at a high enough volume to generate any actual feedback. Still, I like to think there’s a little bit of John Berry in there every time I do something with distortion and volume swells that straddles the line between dissonance and melody, slicing open the belly of a song without making it bleed out all over the place.
I’ll miss him.