Beyond the Daniel Beard Bridge, Cincinnati disappears. Skyscrapers stretch high in the rearview mirror, and Kentucky’s electric green expanse begins to encroach on the car. It’s a humid day in early July—the twelfth of the month—and the Midwest is mired in gray skies that appear ready to fill the currently depleted sliver of the Ohio River beneath the bridge.
Upon entering Campbell County I begin to feel a bit nostalgic for this state I’ve never visited. I cycle through my iPod to find the Slint album Spiderland. The harmonic-driven opening of “Breadcrumb Trail” [MP3] is a warm, innocent introduction to one of the most lonesome and sorrowful albums ever recorded. As the song lurches forward with its intricate time signature changes, I am reminded of my brief conversations with former Slint bassist Todd Brashear, which occurred over the phone a few weeks ago. He told me that although he’d love to sit down and chat about Louisville and his musical past, his wife was pregnant, and her due date was either today or tomorrow. Nevertheless, I was told that if I wanted to I should stop by Wild and Woolly Video –where Todd works – to see if there was any chance he was available.
As I cut a path through Kentucky’s rolling hills, I am lost in thought. My journey is only two days old, and already, the scope of this project seems overwhelming.
The night before, in Cincinnati, I had been sitting alone in a Best Western Inn talking to the motel’s bartender, Rob. Major League Baseball’s annual Home Run Derby aired silently on a small television suspended above us. Bobby Abreu crushed pitch after pitch for long home runs. I think he set a record for most home runs ever in a derby, but there was no one else at the bar to see it. The small lounge was almost entirely empty, except for one table in a private room where three women were seated.
“For a big city, Cincinnati is pretty conservative,” Rob said as he wiped down the bar. “Most places close early.” Over several bottles of Rolling Rock, I had discovered that Rob was a student at Xavier University, and that he used to date a girl from Springfield, New Jersey. We spoke about the differences between Ohio and my home state, and as I finished my final beer he walked back to the table of women and returned with their bill.
“They’ve been here for three hours, and pretty much all they drank was water. That’s what I mean about this place being conservative.”
A girl named Lauren, or “Pumpkin” as Rob called her, soon joined us at the bar. Lauren worked as a hostess at the motel’s restaurant. She was very attractive. She had stick-straight, dark brown hair, and a slightly tanned kewpie face. She was tall, with a great figure. The two of them were dressed in identical uniforms: black dress pants, black shoes, and white collared shirts with vertical navy striping. She wore a big smile when she spoke. Her laugh was hearty and infectious.
As I stared up at the television, the co-workers made plans to play Taboo at a friend’s house. Rob looked over at me, turned to Lauren, and said, “Lauren, this is Evan. He’s a writer who is driving across the country to explore and write about the co-dependent nature of women in relationships.”
Lauren’s ears perked up and she immediately launched into a dissection of the male/female paradigm, imparting such important life lessons as, “It’s not what a man does for a woman that counts, it’s what he doesn’t do.” She talked about past boyfriends and how she would dump them if they didn’t do what she required of them.
“It might sound bitchy,” Rob explained, “But to level the playing field Lauren allows all her boyfriends to treat her like shit.”
Her jaw dropped, but then she smiled and laughed. She quickly changed the subject to her current boyfriend’s band: Alone At 3am.
“I know the name seems like it’s totally self-explanatory and ‘Emo’ but it’s not. It’s about the singer’s friend and how he killed himself one night at 3am.”
It certainly fit the definition of cheesy and ‘Emo,’ but I responded by saying “Oh, okay. So it’s a lot deeper than it seems on the surface.”
“Right! Exactly.” She took a sip from the half-full glass of white wine in front of her. She was satisfied with her explanation and my response. “I told myself I wasn’t going to drink this week, but I guess if we’re playing Taboo tonight I’ll have to,” she said. “One night off is enough.”
“You don’t drink that much,” Rob said.
“Well, I prefer Gray Goose to wine,” she said, swirling the liquid in her glass. “Give me three shots of vodka and I’m good to go.” I bit my tongue instead of asking what she meant by “good to go.”
A few minutes later Rob announced he was closing the bar. He totaled my tab and handed me two beers to take upstairs to my room.
When I arrive in Louisville my first stop is at Starbucks on Fourth Street, where I ask the cashier how to find Wild and Woolly. She points to a middle-aged man who I assume is the manager, and he gives me easy directions: Take Broadway until it Dead Ends, make a right hand turn, and follow it to Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s right across the street. The Street I’m looking for is called Bardstown Road. By the time I get there, I’m wrought with anxiety. I haven’t even thought of any questions I might ask Todd Brashear if he is available to speak to me. I park in the lot adjacent to Kentucky Fried Chicken and cross the street.
Wild and Woolly is a moderate-sized store with green painted walls and deep red carpeting. The perimeter is lined with videos and the center of the store is open except for a few display cases and a bin of used videos for sale.
I hang around the For Sale bin for a few minutes thinking about purchasing something, then I double back and look through the Psychotropic section to see what films fit under that heading. I glance through the section devoted to auteur directors, noting the canonic films by Cronenberg, Fellini, Kirasawa and others. They have an immense number of Kung Fu and Art-House films. There are two employees behind the counter in the rear of the room, watching an old movie on a flat screen display that hangs over the east wall of the building. One employee has a young, boyish face, and the other an older gentleman with a full beard. A customer strikes up the bearded man in conversation, and I think I definitely possibly recognize his voice from the phone. I walk over to him after the boyish kid disappears into the back room.
“Are you Todd?”
“No, I’m Eric.” My heart sinks.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Eric. Do you know if Todd is in today?”
“He was here before, but he might have left already. Hold on, I’ll go check.”
Eric rises from his seat and turns to enter the large room in the back of the building. From my vantage point the room appears to have nothing in it. As Eric reappears, he makes a b-line for a small hallway behind the counter, and I hear him ascend a flight of stairs. A few seconds later, he returns.
“I guess he went home for the day. His wife just had a kid, so…”
“Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone earlier and he mentioned that.” Unsure where our conversation is going, I ask that Eric leave my name for Todd, and say I’ll check back tomorrow.
I walk back to my car across the street and sit in the driver’s seat for a moment, trying to figure out how to kill a few hours. The sky has darkened, and the air is thick and sticky. It might rain. I start the car and drive around the city exploring and eventually settling at Fourth Street Live. I’ve recommended meeting here because it’s the only place I can find at the moment without getting lost.
Embarrassingly, I’ve spent the last week sending random messages on social networking sites to people in cities I’d be visiting asking for a free place to stay. A young girl named Beth was the only person who responded to my distress signal. She said she had just moved out of her apartment but the water and power would be working for three more days. I was welcome to stay there while in town. There would be nothing in the apartment, but it would be free. We’ve elected to meet at Fourth Street Live, a public setting where we can ensure the other person is not an Internet predator. When she enters the food court, I am sitting in a corner alone. I stand to greet her and we introduce ourselves. Beth is of average height. She is thin as a rail. She has wispy blonde hair that perpetually falls into her eyes—as if the hair is plotting against her, trying to blind her. Her constant attempts to fix her hair are in vain. Beth’s eyes are large and pale green, and her lips are thin.
She asks if I’m hungry and I say yes. When she asks where my car is parked, I reply that I have no idea—I parked a few hours ago and now I think I have lost it. She laughs, and offers me a ride. We walk down a back stairwell and brace ourselves as we open the emergency exit. We expect at any moment an alarm will begin to sound. Relieved by silence, we press on to her green Honda Civic, a two-door, manually operated vehicle with the front seats pushed much too close to the dashboard. I cram myself inside and we speed off.
She takes me to City Café for dinner. As we eat we chat about school. We speak about books and philosophy. She continually voices her amazement at the prospect of my trip, and I try to downplay the seriousness of it. I don’t have a book deal, I don’t exactly know who I will be able to interview, and my work might never see the light of day. She wonders about all of those miles driving alone. I tell her it is not so bad. I am comfortable in my car alone. The conversation soon shifts to music, and we begin debating whether Conor Oberst is a genius or a solipsistic dolt. She, the attractive young woman, of course takes the position that he is great, and I, the elitist snob and bitter male take the position that he is a worthless hack. I point to a painting above her right shoulder of a man’s head giving birth to the figure of another man; a swirling, unusual painting with no clear message. We joke about the deep meaning behind it. Beth leaves a hollowed out carcass of a burrito on her plate. She comments that she loves the beans, but not the shell or rice.
After dinner we drive back to Fourth Street. She parks her car on Liberty and I dash into a parking lot to find my car. It’s the wrong lot. I run into a second lot across the street and find my car. I pull up behind her and follow her down Eastern Parkway to her apartment, which is on a street called Chittenden. She shows me inside and gives me the grand tour, which lasts all of about thirty seconds. The place is as empty as she said it would be. While I drag my sleeping bag and clothes in from the car, she plops down in the living room—which is barren save for her Apple Powerbook and a plum-colored fleece blanket. We spend a few minutes comparing computers and iPods. She shows me a book she’s studying, the Large Book of Logos, and mentions she has homework to complete tonight. We make plans to meet after my interviews tomorrow, and then she departs for her mother’s house beyond the Ohio River in Indiana.
When she leaves, I walk silently between rooms. I open a bottle of Snake Dog IPA, put a bottle of water and a can of Diet Coke in the fridge [IMG] and sit outside rolling cigarettes and talking on the phone to friends back in New Jersey. It has been drizzling for a few hours now, and the damp air smells sweet. I look at the clock on my phone and realize just how long this day has been.
The following morning I take what might be the coldest shower I’ve ever experienced. It appears Beth’s hot water has been turned off already. It doesn’t help that during the night I awoke and lowered the air conditioning. Now I am shaking like a wet dog—trying to wrestle myself free from the bitter cold that is enveloping me. I dress in jeans, a t-shirt, and a blue hooded sweatshirt. I stuff my backpack with all the items I will need for the day: tape recorder, cassettes, batteries, notepads, wallet, phone, and various papers on which I’ve scrawled directions or addresses. My first order of business today is to drive to Highland Coffee on Fourth Street to meet Stephen George, music editor for the Louisville Eccentric Observer, which is—in my opinion—the better of Louisville’s two alt-weekly papers. The other news magazine, Velocity, was created by the Louisville Courrier-Journal to rival LEO.
The LEO office is across the street from a coffee shop, so Stephen and I plan to meet at the shop at one o’clock. I show up early (even after losing my sense of direction along the way) and order a latte as I wait for someone I will not recognize to arrive. Like any journalist worth his salt, I again have zero questions prepared for Stephen. I scribble some ideas on the Rhodia notepad I always keep in my pocket. I drink my latte and browse this week’s LEO, searching for an article he has written. In this issue he’s reviewed one album and the new Nick Horner book. He writes with a lot of emotion. He writes well.
As I continue profiling the costumers who enter from the street, I peg my target. The man is preternaturally thin and wearing a red, well-worn Dick Tracy 10,000 shirt and blue jeans; his upper arms are tattooed. He holds a fresh copy of Don Delillo’s White Noise. The cashier smiles and greets him by saying, “Hi, Stephen George,” but I already know it is him.
After he places his order and receives his drink, he quickly surveys the room before asking me if I am Evan. After shaking hands he beats me to asking the first question. He wants to know about my book—“in detail.” I explain the premise and he listens intently, and we begin talking about the prospect of putting together something of this magnitude.
“Have you ever written anything this long?” He asks.
“Absolutely not,” I answer. “Not even close. I mean, if at the end of my voyage it doesn’t fit together, I guess I’ll try to shop each interview separately. I think the longest journalistic piece I’ve ever written was a couple thousand words.”
I turn my response into an opportunity to inquire about how he came to work for the Observer. He mentions that when he started freelancing after college, at the age of 21, he got a hit on an exposé into the coal-mining industry in western Kentucky. At the time, he had been submitting articles to both LEO and a glossy east-end magazine that was for a higher-brow readership. When he approached LEO about bringing them the coal-mining story, they told him to write five- or six-thousand words. When he returned with a completed article in hand, the staff figured, “he’s capable,” and offered him a full-time position. It was only a matter of time before he ascended to the position of music editor.
As I soon learn, Stephen wasn’t always interested in writing. At a young age—like many of us in this modern era—Stephen was mainly interested in pursuing music as a career. Despite verbalizing this dream to friends and family countless times, his mother saw a different future for her son. At the age of fifteen, one of his extended family members approached Stephen at a family function and asked what he was doing for the summer in the way of getting a job. Stephen answered her by stating that he wasn’t looking for a summer job, he was going to play music all the time, constantly, and that was it. His mother then turned to the woman, and told her that Stephen would someday be a music writer. Stephen, not believing this to be anywhere near truth at the time, now smiles and admits, “Mother knows best.”
The first band Stephen joined was The National Acrobat. They are remembered as an important group in the history of Louisville’s independent music scene. The National Acrobat recorded four EPs and toured around the country, playing roughly 175 shows. They made trips up the East Coast, played the Midwest and the West. But then, with a publishing deal on the table and a European tour in the works, the drummer unexpectedly left the band, and the remaining members were forced to abandon the project and look elsewhere for opportunities to make music. Stephen went on to play in a band called The Slow Suicide for a brief period, and eventually joined Irina, which is still active today [MP3]. Stephen was also an original member of LORDS, but he has since left the group, which also remains active. He has also recorded with JK McKnight, and a few other local bands.
I shift our conversation to his writing, and the kinds of reviews and articles that their Arts and Entertainment section runs. I mention that I’ve read on the Internet about the negative response to his Slint reunion show article. He says that while attending the show, he was put off not only by members of the crowd quieting one another whenever someone spoke between songs, but also by the fact that the band played like “robots”—they should have performed as if the songs meant something to them, other than making little-to-no physical movements at all. After his article was published, Slint guitarist Dave Pajo [MP3] responded to by sending an e-mail chastising Stephen. In spite of Pajo’s wondering how Stephen has managed to make a career of writing, after the article’s publication Stephen received as much praise as he did scorn for the piece.
I ask if Stephen would call the music scene in Louisville diverse. I clarify by saying that, since I’m not from the area, my ideas about the local movement have been formed only by what music I’ve heard or read about, so perhaps outsiders have the impression that the entire city consists of artists with a similar aesthetic. Since he’s grown up here, Stephen has immersed himself in the artistic movement, and is able to rattle off a plethora of bands that have helped create an even wider spectrum of musical talent. From this point on, Stephen is sure to continually stress the diversity of the bands in Louisville. While artists may have stylistic differences, it’s not uncommon for musicians from different backgrounds to show up on one another’s recordings, or at concerts. He cites how the front-man of local act VHS or Beta took time to play steel guitar on a record by a local folk musician. When a number of Louisville’s musicians played at South by Southwest in Austin in 2005, a look of confusion and surprise passed over the crowd as that very same folk musician, in a t-shirt, jeans and sporting a ratty beard, called out into the audience for his leather-clad, indie-rocker friend to join him on a number.
Stephen places My Morning Jacket in an entirely different category. About them, he says, “They’re a band that goes against the grain of what most other Louisville bands sound like, and yet at the same time they are currently seeing their popularity swell well beyond the scope of any other band from the city.”
The picture of Louisville put forth by Stephen—as a haven for independent musicians, as well as fine artists and writers—is nothing short of miraculous. In great detail, he goes into the seemingly limitless number of bands currently residing in town, and their extreme diversity. He and his friends refer to Louisville as “the Golden Handcuffs,” because the cost of living is so cheap, and also because it takes almost no effort to become a part of the artistic movement here. These two factors enable musicians to thrive without having to worry about paying the exorbitant rent and other expensive bills that comes with living in larger metropolitan cities. In Louisville, more of their assets and time can be put towards constructive activities.
Aside from the diversity and breadth of different artists in Louisville, Stephen spends a good deal of time talking local pride. He says that one of the most amazing things about living in Louisville is the amount of love and respect people have for their city. Despite it being relatively small in size, the citizens have the mentality that they exist in a sprawling metropolis that is comparable to towns like Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle. He forewarned me that when I meet with JK McKnight, he would likely be wearing a shirt that in some way promotes the city. According to Stephen, there is an air that permeates this place comprised of adulation, respect, and a deep sense of zeal for all things Louisville. I tell how I’ve noticed only local artists’ works on display in eateries and coffee shops. He states that Louisville has for some time now been considered a hotbed of fine arts, and that local artists are far more popular than any local musicians. Louisville, quite simply, is a place where the artistic community thrives, the competition is healthy, and it’s remarkably easy to become involved in the scene.
Stephen says he has a staff meeting at two-thirty, but he wants to go across the street to give me a tour of the LEO offices and find some back-issues that might be of interest to me. We enter through the front door, into the business department’s section of the office, which Stephen admits he knows absolutely nothing about. We stop by the graphic designer’s desk and Stephen introduces me, giving a brief synopsis of what I am doing in town. The paper’s editor walks out of his office and Stephen introduces me to him. The editor and I speak briefly, and he offers some advice about noting the diversity of sounds. He talks about how a common misconception is that most innovations in jazz are attributed to places like New Orleans or Nashville, but that in reality, historians believe that jug music (made by holding a jug of moonshine with the pinky finger and then blowing over the bottle-neck) which had roots in Louisville as well as Birmingham, was a precursor to Dixieland jazz.
After uncovering some back issues for me, Stephen sends me on my way. We shake hands and promise to keep in touch. With that, I exit the LEO offices and find myself seated at a fountain further down Fourth Street across from Theater Square Marketplace. I remain here for a few minutes and talk on the phone with Molly in Los Angeles. When we hang up, I make my way to the parking garage towards my car and call Tim Furnish. He still hasn’t returned my call from the night before. He answers, sounding mildly out-of-it, and states that he thought he had called me back. He invites me over to his home for a chat, and gives me directions to the house.