Today, I got the sad news that my artist and poet friend Ktahdn passed away last week. If you don’t know how to say his name, don’t feel bad; hardly anyone ever got it right. Most of us just called him by his preferred nickname: “KT”. He was a softspoken, gentle guy who never had a harsh word to say about anyone, and he was always exploring different avenues for his creativity.
I met KT at an audiovisual presentation where he read original poems and short, reflective pieces about his favorite art form: building abstract sand sculptures on the beach. He displayed gorgeous photos of these ephemeral works and interspersed his readings with soothing yet evocative piano pieces by artists such as Philip Aaberg. The presentation was a hit with the storytelling group we were both part of, and he returned several times with follow-up presentations and lengthier pieces about all the work that went into his sand sculptures. For the past couple of years, he had delved into writing fantasy stories and taking part in various multimedia collaborations.
KT and I weren’t super close, but I enjoyed our conversations about art, sand, stones, and poetry. He recommended a few great books to me, including The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s a fascinating read.
It starts with observations about an apparently simple, ordinary stone on a beach, then quickly expands into a history of the universe that made such a stone possible: from the formation of the first stars where hydrogen was fused into heavier elements disbursed when those stars exploded, to the collision of the Mars-sized planet that struck Earth billions of years ago and resulted in the formation of our Moon. The book continues with a history of Earth where geologic dramas created different kinds of rocks, and how those rocks were distributed across the planet through continental drift, erosion, and other natural forces.
That’s how I will remember KT. He was a man who could look at something ordinary and see the extraordinary. He appreciated how even the smallest things most of us take for granted are the result of complex, elaborate histories, and he knew those histories would continue long into the future after those things had gone from our lives. Like his sand sculptures that stood as beautiful monuments until the tides rolled in and washed them away, everything exists in cycles of creation and destruction, which are really just two sides of the same coin: transformation.
The tides have taken KT away. But I will remember that even the smallest grain of sand returning to the ocean will become a part of something else, something with an intricate future that dwarfs even the history that brought it onto the beach in the first place.
I don’t think KT would want us to mourn his passing any more than he ever shed a tear for one of his sculptures. Instead, he would want us to return to the beach and, once again, create something beautiful. Whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience.
August 30 Update: After meeting with mutual friends last night to remember KT, it hit me that my first art adventure with him wasn’t in the storytelling group but many years earlier in a weekly gathering to musically explore the old trade routes known as the Silk Road. Following the path of the Silk Road from Europe to China, KT played music from the regions and talked a bit about the various cultures. I picked up several albums he sampled for us, though I would have liked to get them all.
While going through my music library, I also found an hour-long recording I made of one of his reading sessions. Click here to have a listen.
This weekend, I got the sad news that a friend of mine took her life. I don’t want to bare the details of her life, but she was struggling with some heavy shit. You’d probably never guess that if you casually hung out with her, because she was sassy and took great pleasure in putting obnoxious jerks in their place, and she was quite creative.
Despite her boisterous persona, she was often bullied, and I suspect her tough-girl attitude was a shield, a way to cope with how people can be so cruel to those who are different. She was transgender, and American society has become increasingly cruel in recent years toward people like her. But like all of the people in my life who fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum—from casual friends, colleagues, and clients, to people I have loved and artists I admire—she deserved none of the hate.
She didn’t deserve to be treated as less than a person or targeted by mean-spirited politicians and state legislatures who are passing laws to further marginalize a group that already has enough problems to deal with. Rates of clinical depression and suicide are significantly higher among trans people. It’s no wonder, given how much hate they must deal with just to get through their lives on a daily basis.
I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, and being a part of a marginalized group doesn’t make a person a saint. But what the fascist right-wing in America refuses to understand is that LGBT people are people—just like anyone else. They have feelings, and hopes, and dreams—just like anyone else. They aren’t trying to deprive anyone of a way of life, or bring America to its knees. They’re just trying to get through the day, and our country’s treating them like punching bags isn’t helping anyone except for groups that thrive on hate.
As I rapidly approach age 50, I’ve had the misfortune to see much of the social progress our nation has made become undone. I was born on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe Vs. Wade, and I never thought I would live to see it trashed. The only thing that gives me hope is when I see young people standing up for social progress and working for a future where simple human decency and respect is given to women, people of color, and all the people whose sexuality or gender orientation falls outside of our cultural norms.
Maybe it’s too late for America. I don’t know. But it is certainly too late for my friend.
My high-school buddy Brian turned me on to Screaming Trees. I didn’t get them at first. They sounded unlike any of the hair-metal, teeny-bopper bands I was into in the mid-1980s, or the more straight-forward punk bands I was beginning to appreciate, such as Minor Threat. In hindsight, I realize that opening my ears to the Trees was the beginning of my love for genres such as garage, psychedelia, and a lot of what gets called shoegaze or stoner rock these days, and maybe even jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and music from around the world.
I caught the Trees in concert twice. On the Buzz Factory tour, they played the club Mississippi Nights on the waterfront in downtown St. Louis. I loved that album and still do, but hearing songs from it in-person blew me away. The sound quality of Trees albums was pretty bad in the early years, like they had been recorded on a wax cylinder or something. The songs were energetic, fun, and brilliant, but something got lost in the low-budget recordings. In concert, the Trees sounded MASSIVE.
At Mississippi Nights, guitarist and main songwriter Gary Lee Conner launched into one of his wah-pedal-drenched solos then apparently lost his mind. He rolled around on the stage with his SG, then tumbled off the elevated stage to land on the floor. He writhed on the floor and kept shredding. The guy was like a force of nature that fell into the crowd.
This venue was all-ages, with a rule that underage kids like me could be in the general area right in front of the stage, but not in the areas that served alcohol. It’s the same place I caught Nirvana and lots of other great acts when the so-called Seattle sound was on the cusp of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.
The all-ages venue meant my buddies Dan, Brian, Dave, Chris, Amy, and many more could rock the hell out and be right up in the action. I stood in a circle of teenagers who were absolutely stunned by Gary’s electric performance on the floor in front of us.
A few years later, when singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. By that point, I’d been learning to play guitar for a few years and was attempting to write and sing my own songs. To say The Winding Sheet influenced me is an understatement. It was everything I aspired to.
So in 2020, when I read Mark’s brutal memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, it came as a shock to me that he basically hated the Screaming Trees and hated his first album. That’s an oversimplification, so let me expand that thought.
Mark’s version of his life with the Trees begins with being blown away by the young Gary Lee Conner’s songwriting and demo recordings. It wasn’t until later that he came to feel the lyrics of the composer’s neo-psychedelic songs were hippy-dippy nonsense Mark just couldn’t feel. I think more mature adults would have realized they simply had creative differences and went their separate ways. But I say that now at age forty-nine, and I remember what my twenties were like.
In Mark’s recollections of early Trees tours, personality conflicts replaced their initial camaraderie. We’re talking about a bunch of kids here. If you pack a van with any group of guys barely into their twenties, you’ll get conflict. Hell, I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was that age would tell you I was an abrasive jerk. Creative? Absolutely. Easy to get along with? Fuck no. It’s just part of being young, artistic, broke, and stupid.
Mark was right about one thing about the early records: The sound quality was crap. It’s easy to understand his frustration with albums that changed the way I heard music, such as Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. (You can hear twenty-one of their best songs from this era in the collection, SST Years.) The Change Has Come EP is awesome—one of my all-time musical favorites—and almost captured the live intensity of the Trees’ sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Oblivion that the recordings started to sound as killer as the concerts.
The second time I caught the Trees in concert was at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit around the time Sweet Oblivion came out and the single Shadow of the Season was getting airplay on corporate alt-rock stations across the nation. They opened with Before We Arise from Uncle Anesthesia, an album produced by another of my musical heroes, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with a better recording budget and sound quality than previous albums.
But from the first dark, droning notes of the tune at St. Andrew’s, it was once again clear that no album had quite captured how HUGE the Trees sounded in concert. If I were to rank the top-ten sonic experiences of my life, that concert undoubtedly would be on the list. And I’ve been at shows from Swans, Crash Worship, and Kodo. The album version of Before We Arise is a pale shadow of what I experienced in Detroit. In that brilliant set, they also performed Julie Paradise, an awesome song that came close to capturing in the studio just how stellar the Trees sounded in concert.
In Mark’s memoir, he was notably happier with how Sweet Oblivion turned out, and also its successor, Dust. Besides improved sound quality, Mark felt the songs were more of something he could believe in—songs that more closely matched his personal vision of the music he wanted to create. Dust sounds amazing, and the first thing I did after buying it on cassette the day it came out and listening to it was listen to it three more times in a row. The raw, noisy solos of Gary Lee Conner’s youthful recordings had become melodic masterpieces, and the entire band sounded tighter, more focused, and more in control of the same youthful energy that made them one of my favorite bands in the first place.
But I warn you to proceed into Marks’ memoir with caution. Sing Backwards and Weep is one of the most crushing stories of misery I have ever read, only equaled perhaps byAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a tale of growing up in starvation, neglect, and dehumanizing poverty in twentieth-century Ireland. Sing Backwards and Weep includes graphic scenes of drug abuse and self-abuse, such as when Mark is simultaneously shooting heroin, choking himself, and smoking crack. It’s clear that he went way beyond partying and “getting high” for fun or inspiration. He had devolved into an extremely dark state of self-loathing where no one should ever venture.
Reading that book broke my heart. There was one of my rock’n’roll heroes who had made so much music that was meaningful to me and influenced my musical development, but he spent those decades miserable and, by his own admission, being a horrible person.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that Courtney Love, wife of one of Mark’s best friends, Kurt Cobain, helped get him into rehab. Mark maintained his sobriety until his death this year in 2022. Along the way, he recorded brilliant solo albums and contributed to great recordings by his friends in Queens of the Stone Age. My favorite Lanegan solo albums are Blues Funeral and Bubblegum, but they are all worth a listen.
I don’t think a cause of his death has yet been released, but Mark almost died of COVID-19 a couple years ago and published a book about it, and the disease is known to cause lasting health problems even if you are lucky enough to survive.
Recently, Gary Lee Conner released a video of a solo performance of his song Low Life, which never appeared on a Trees album until Last Words: The Final Recordings, after the band had broken up. It is basically the Trees’ next full album, and I enjoy hearing Gary belt this one out. It reminds me of the rebellious joy I found in early Trees recordings and their concerts, and that despite whatever internal conflicts the band struggled though, their music has been rocking my world for more than three decades.
Gary Lee Conner has released several albums under his own name. They hearken back to the psychedelic garage vibe of early Trees, and I love them. Ether Trippers, The Microdot Gnome, and Unicorn Curry are like what early Trees albums would have been if they had a bigger recording budget.
Another member of the Screaming Trees, drummer Barrett Martin, has released a number of albums that go beyond rock into a more jazz-influenced and world-music vein. Trading with the Enemy by Tuatara showcases his drumming in a band whose influences span cultures across the globe.
More recently, The Barrett Martin Group has expanded this global influence on albums such as Scattered Diamonds.
The many musical guests on Scattered Diamonds include an amazing Iraqi oud player named Rahim Al Haj, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a solo concert in Phoenix about a decade ago. My saxophone player and I chatted with him at length after the incredible performance.
Rahim was a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and he has since released many incredible albums of oud music. My favorite is When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, a collection of taqsims based on Arabic musical modes, sort of like Indian raga where soloists perform within a limited collection of notes and basic melodic ideas, but have the freedom to improvise.
So much of my love for music can be traced back to Screaming Trees and related projects. From garage rock to jazz fusion, from psychedelia to musical cultures around the world, the Trees are at the nexus of many things I love.
I don’t think those kids from Washington were on a mission to change the world. But they sure as hell rocked mine.
One night, around sixteen years ago in Phoenix, I was walking home from a local bar called Shady’s, which was a nice place to meet friendly people and strike up casual conversations or a game of pool on the single bar-box table by the booths. Shady’s also had a cute fireplace filled with candles, a fun jukebox with loads of alt-rock, and a cozy outdoor patio for smokers. The bar had closed, and I had more than a few pints in me, but the house my girlfriend and I were renting at the time was only a leisurely twenty- or thirty-minute walk away.
I was just north of Los Olivos Park when I encountered a kittycat wandering the suburban streets. She was quite talkative but seemed to be in good health: no apparent injuries, no visible infestations or wounds, a shiny coat, and a friendly, perky attitude. I pet her for a bit and chatted with her, assuming she was someone’s cat who had gotten outside and was exploring the hood. Then I said good-bye.
She followed me.
Normally, I would have waved her off and told her to go home, but I was feeling super relaxed, and she was cute. So, I just talked to her as we went on our merry way. I figured any cat who meowed to the high heavens like she was doing must be hungry, and my girlfriend and I had plenty of cat food at home. (We had two male cats at the time.)
The house was on the corner of the rather busy 32nd Street, and as I approached home, the cat wandered into the middle of the street. I admonished her with thoughtful, drunken guidance such as, “What the fuck are you doing, kitty?! Get the hell out of the street!” She didn’t seem to care.
That turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing about what a reckless, rowdy hell-beast was following me. Eventually, I made it home, and the cat was right behind me. I went inside and got a bowl and some food for her, accidentally waking up my girlfriend who was like, “What are you doing?”
When I told her a kitten had followed me home and I was going to feed it, she was totally on board. The cat continued to meow at the top of her lungs until she shoved her face in the food bowl and chowed down. We all hung out for a bit until kitty seemed to have eaten her fill. I went inside and went to bed.
This all happened the night before I left for the weekend on a solo trip up to Flagstaff with my acoustic guitar in search of some nature inspiration for new compositions. I had a great weekend and was happy with many of the ideas I came up with while jamming in scenic areas such as Midgely Bridge. I eventually recorded the songs Midgely Bridge and Tadpoles based on that trip.
But when I came home, I discovered the lost kittycat had, in the span of a few short days, moved into our attic, been coaxed out by my girlfriend and one of her friends, and was now living in the house! Despite being well-fed, she still meowed as loudly as an air-raid siren, and my girlfriend had named her Piper—due to having quite a set of pipes on her.
I was, at first, unhappy about adding a third cat to our household, but what could I say about it? It was my drunk ass who picked her up in the streets in the first place!
So, Piper joined our feline family and proceeded to raise almighty hell. Don’t get me wrong: Piper was an absolutely adorable kitty who loved to snuggle and cuddle and play. But she was also apparently unaware of her mortality and her volume. Sometimes I had to shut her in one of the bedrooms for my own sanity when she would not be quiet, and sometimes she created absolute chaos with zero regard for her own safety.
I think if Piper had been born human, she would have been a stunt woman and put the illustrious Zoë Bell to shame. One of her more memorable stunts in recent years was jumping on a dinner table to attack a cooked turkey. She didn’t land on the table. She landed in a bowl of mashed potatoes, freaked out, grabbed a huge portion of turkey, and launched her potato-covered self off the table to feast on her prize.
Other times, she would just go into total destruction mode and maul a piece of art or furniture. But it was hard to stay mad at Piper for long, because she was just trying to have fun, and she was so damn cute. She was, in her own way, a little hell-raising anarchist with a punk-rock attitude, but she was also incredibly loving and apparently unaware of the damage she inflicted. Piper wasn’t trying to be a bad kitty; she just had a rowdy fire that could not be quenched.
Piper Kitty passed away last week. In her final days, she refused to take food or water and was quite disoriented. But she took a sedative that calmed her down, and she died comfortably cradled in the arms of the woman who loved her and adopted her.
I don’t believe in the afterlife, but if there was one, Piper would be there right now tearing the ever-loving shit out of it and raising all kinds of unholy hell. Then she would act like nothing had ever happened and come looking for a snuggle. And who could resist?
Big hugs and cuddles go out to the cat who followed me home one night and screamed her way into our hearts. Long may she run.
My father died two years ago today, after a long bout with cancer that spread from his spleen to eventually his brain and his whole body. Dad and I did not agree on most things, and my teens were times of conflict, to put it mildly. But in my twenties, we were able to put most of that behind us and just hang out.
Dad never understood my love for playing guitar until I was in my thirties. Then one day, he started sending me emails asking about mandolins—and I’m an easy target for anyone and everyone who has questions about music theory and stringed instruments. I don’t know exactly what turned him on to the mandolin, but soon he got into guitar. Our relationship reached a turning point after he got his first guitar and told me, “Now I get why you were into this.”
All I could say was, “It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?”
By then, we were separated by great geographical distance. But when I would visit, Dad stocked the refrigerator with beer and tuned up his growing collection of guitars, and we would play together for hours. I would show him a few techniques and answer his theory questions, and we played from charts he had for country and worship music he liked.
By the time I got into my forties, Dad’s arthritis made it increasingly difficult for him to play. But he still loved buying guitars, and trading them in later for other models, and getting on Internet forums to discuss gear, and trying new types of strings. He often performed at his church, accompanying his impressively deep bass voice with his ever-growing arsenal of acoustic guitars.
It was a massive about-face from his discouraging attitude toward my love of something which, for twenty years, had basically defined my entire life: playing the guitar. He eventually told me why he was so antagonistic toward my interest, and the reason is probably too personal to blog about. The important point is this: he eventually changed his tune.
Perhaps my fondest memories of Dad are the ones we created over a 12-pack of beer and 12 vibrating strings, jamming in unison. He never got to the level he wanted to with the instrument, but he kept trying and learning and improving. At the age of 44, I can tell you that journey never ends. One day, you pick up the axe, and something changes inside you. You’re never the same afterwards.
Leo was my big fluffy snuggle buddy for many years. He forgave me for trying to shave him with my electric hair trimmers. I forgave him for stealing my bacon right off the kitchen counter. Leo’s favorite comic book was the Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil. He liked that best because he loved spending three or four solid days on the couch with me while I read the entire TPB collection cover to cover. Leo was a big kitty under all that fluff. He didn’t mind my throwing an arm over him like a big orange teddy bear to fall asleep with him.
Leo was not well the last year of his life. We knew he was living on borrowed time, but he loved to cuddle until the end. Leo died Thursday afternoon. I’m glad I got to share fourteen years on this planet with him. Leo, my boy. I miss you already.