It’s been about 12 years since ‘The Books’ began, and less than a year since we ended. Now that it’s over it’s time for me to jot down as much as I can about the project, the places it lived, and it’s odd life, before I forget it. As sad as I am that it’s over, it was an amazing thing to be a part of, and I’m grateful to everyone for their support and unbelievable kindness through the years. For those of you who are interested in the back-story, here it is… feel free to ask questions, I’ll try to answer them.
In order to revisit the beginning of ‘The Books’ I’ve got to summon some pretty worn memories. Like anyone, there have been so many phases and places I’ve been through since then, that my cursory memories of that time have become somewhat cartoonish. I think a great quality of music, like with smell, is it’s ability to conjure up deep-seated memories from the more unworn parts of the mind; places where the acidity of everyday thought has not melted and reformed them into oversimplified pictures. So I think the best place for me to start is by listening to the first track ‘The Books’ made (well before we had a name):
It’s been almost two years since I remastered this track and I haven’t listened to it again until now. And, once again, my memory of the sound of this track is flat compared to the re-experience. Something about the un-glossy crackle of the surface of sound that snaps me back into the feeling of those days in the spring of 2000, in ‘upstate Manhattan’. We lived at 30 Seaman Avenue, Apt. 4H, just north of 200th St (Dykman Ave) on the A. I was living with my girlfriend, Julie Wolfe, and I had only lived in the city for a short time, having recently moved down from North Adams, MA where I lived during college. Julie and I met at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center; she was (and still is) an ‘objects’ conservator, and I worked in the ‘analytical’ department, mostly doing microscope work and identifying pigments and binders in paintings, for the purpose of helping to restore them, or rooting out fakes.
I studied chemistry in school, with the original intention of having a career as a biochemist. When I realized that biochemistry, in practice, consisted of mixing one extremely dilute clear solution with another, I quickly hopped over to organic chemistry, which was more my speed with its colors and smells and occasional ether fires. I was drawn to organic chemistry also for the pictures: 3d diagrams of molecules smashing together extremely quickly in microscopic space in vast numbers. Which leads to my first (of many) digressions… (bear with me).
In 1996 I got a summer job in a lab that studied liquid crystals, a branch of materials science that studied compounds that are both ordered and fluid at the same time. A contradiction really… a rule breaking state of matter that had properties of both solid and liquid, the most famous application being the LCD (liquid crystal display) you’re likely looking at now. Mostly my job was synthesis… taking two molecules and intentionally making a third, then purifying the desired compound away from all the junk I created by accident (a necessary inefficiency in chemistry, as in life, is the unintended consequences). When we had a candidate for a material that would show liquid crystalline properties we would throw it under a polarized light microscope and heat it up until it melted. When most crystals melt they go totally dark under the microscope (like water), but liquid crystals do this:
That’s right! Fuckin’ amazingly beautiful! And the pattern moves and flows as the temperature changes. Which leads me to digression 2:
Art. What a stupid word. Sounds like a painful turd. When I was a kid I would try to paint like Bob Ross. It took me until my first year in college to realize that Art gets a lot more complicated when neurotic self-consciousness gets involved. Pretty becomes ugly and vice versa. Your mind becomes a battle ground for conflicting belief systems, and you tighten a tourniquet around the part of your spine that connects your brain to your body. Every thought becomes a high stakes experiment. Language becomes pure manipulation. Everything becomes relative. For or against. In parallel with my study of chemistry I took a lot of art classes at school. I always thought visually, and being in the studio alone at night was relaxing, so kept taking classes despite the impending existential nightmare. I remember going out to dinner with a teacher of mine, named Sheila Pepe. I attempted to take solace in chemistry. “There’s Truth in chemistry“, I would argue, “Chemistry is real, stuff is real. It‘s made of chemicals.” She would look at me, roll her eyes in a loving way, and say “Nick, chemistry is just another way of looking at things.” A chink in the armor. This feeling tore me up; that my view of science and it’s values were naïve, and my innocence was becoming a hindrance to my education. I think the biochemical term for this is ’denatured’. I was becoming denatured. Then digression number 3:
I got cancer. In the winter of 1997 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease… a relatively rare form of lymph cancer that was slow growing, but required immediate treatment. I was 22 at the time. I dropped out of school for the spring and moved back home to the Boston area to start radiation therapy to my neck and chest. This news made me numb and stupidly idealistic at first… I felt fine, and was actually in good shape at the time, so it all felt a little abstract, except it derailed me, narrative wise. I expected a straight shot through school into a lab job, but all of a sudden there was this time to sit and notice stuff. Given my shift in perspective on mortality, noticing stuff became somewhat of a consuming job. Then there was the radiation. Imagine the worst sunburn of your life on both the outside and inside of your body. That’s what it was like. Beyond that I lost my sense of taste. Eating candy, which I always enjoyed, became like chewing asprin. I couldn’t swallow anyway, so my attention shifted to walking, listening to music, and making stuff… mostly painting with an airbrush I bought leading up to the treatment. I was making terrible abstractions of the natural world, mostly, and listening to ’The Police’ box set and Primus.
It was the first time in my life (that I could remember) that I was not in school in March, April and May. In this liminal place, sitting on the side of the tracks as it were, noticing stuff was getting easier. Like listening to a bell ring to silence, it was not as if the bell was getting quieter, it was as if the background was getting louder and overwhelming the tone of the bell. Everything became brighter and more mysterious; ordinary things became strange and scary. The namable parts of things were overtaken by the phenomenon of them, everything having a history that was ultimately untraceable. As the fatigue from the radiation kicked in, those days sprawled into each other in a dreamlike way. My relationship to my body was interrupted in a way that made me look at myself like a specimen. I was disembodied. Again, denatured. Like a fried egg.
Going back to school that fall, I had what most people with a life-threatening illness have: an overdeveloped sense of urgency: as if life was running out and everything had to be done to the utmost. Since medical technology had given me a ‘second chance’ it somehow meant that I had to do something ’important’ and fast. I threw myself into a chemistry thesis, working long hours in the lab, trying to succeed at making a molecule that, it turns out, was quite difficult to make. I quickly became exhausted and frustrated and short on temper and friends. Things were already losing their brightness, dampened by my own designs for them. My chemistry professor pulled me aside one day and said that I was the type of scientist that would have been better off in the 1800’s when the frontier was more open, and being ’mad’ was still a useful trait for a scientist. I felt embarrassed by this, but I knew she was right. I was never going to be satisfied working under florescent lights, striving for research money, publications, tenure or any of the necessary trappings of being a modern scientist. I quit my chemistry thesis right then. Feeling defeated, I started spending all my time in the art building.
For my first project I shaved my entire body, divided it into sections and took Elmer’s glue casts of every square inch of skin. It was a trick I had learned as a boy, and somehow I had no choice but to take it to its logical extreme. All the peeling felt apt given my recent experience with radiation burns. In fact, I developed an obsession with peeling of all kinds. Removing the surface. Having tried and failed as a chemist completed what cancer had started, which was essentially a flipping of foreground and background. The periphery seemed a whole lot more enticing than the center. The great thing about innocence is that it gives you a place to rest. This place was gone, and still is gone. But Art, for all it’s stupidity and pretense, feels like a genuine frontier (at it’s best). A place where being restless is valuable.
It’s at this point I moved to North Adams, MA and lived on my own for the first time. I’ll continue the story from here, moving to NYC, meeting Paul, and making that first track in the next entry…
Thanks for reading,
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