I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.
I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.
There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.
I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.
I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?
I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.
All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.
The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.
I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):
“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”
And it went through me like a bullet.
I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.
Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”
I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.
For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.
I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.
All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.
Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.
Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.
Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.
And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:
That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.
My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.
I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.
Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.
He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.
I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.
There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.
To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.
I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.