2016: A Year’s Worth of Memories (James Greer)
by Steven Spoerl
For the past three years, a series has run on this site called A Year’s Worth of Memories, which features a collection of some of the most fascinating artists, directors, and writers working within the confines of entertainment reflecting on the most meaningful items and/or moments they experienced throughout the past year. It’s a tremendous honor to be kicking off this year’s (slightly belated) edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories with a piece from James Greer (pictured above, center), who once left an editorial position at SPIN magazine to join Guided By Voices in time to record Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars.
His credits as a screenwriter include Max Keeble’s Big Move, Just My Luck, and The Spy Next Door. Greer also received acclaim for his novels Artificial Light and The Failure. Currently, Greer plays in an excellent project called DTCV (who I must thank again for their contribution to the A Step Forward compilation). Here, he reflects on the shell shock that accompanied a particularly disheartening discovery on tour. Enjoy.
We Have to Tell the Americans
In 2016 the weird turned pro in a big way. Famous people died, infamous people lied, and we (with an assist from Russia) elected a Twitter troll for president. Most people can’t wait to kick last year to the curb, and though I’m wary of confirmation bias, it does feel like we got an extra portion of suck with our rations, no matter what you like to eat. I’m using “eat” as a metaphor. I think.
My cluttered iCal tells me that lots of stuff happened to me, personally. Some of which I even remember. We toured Europe for the first time ever in February. We moved from Joshua Tree to Columbus, Ohio in March, and we’ve been on tour more or less perpetually since then, finishing up the year with a two month odyssey in Europe that I’m still processing in a secret enclave in the French alps. It’s not actually secret, just too boring to explain. DTCV’s bandleader Lola G.’s parents live here. She’s visiting them and I’m trying to catch up on the back log of writing deadlines I begged off for the last two months.
Touring puts you in a kind of extended fugue state, which gets more pronounced the longer you’re out. This effect is further compounded when you tour overseas; at length you (hopefully) establish some kind of equilibrium, but there’s a point, and it’s different for everyone, when you hit the wall, so to speak. When you just don’t want to go on, when you’re bone-tired of loading and unloading flight cases of gear up and down flights of stairs, and driving in strange countries — some of which require you to learn new driving habits, like in the U.K., where they make you drive on the wrong side of the road, or Italy, where the rule of law doesn’t apply to cars, apparently — and the most difficult part of every show: trying to park the goddamn van.
The further you are from home, both temporally and physically, the more dislocated you become from behavioral norms. Band interactions start to resemble the worst kind of reality TV. Not all the shows are great. Some objectively suck. Sometimes the whole thing seems like a waste of time and money and most importantly creative energy. It’s easy to lose sight of your original intent when you’re freezing in an anarchist squat in Switzerland staring down two more weeks of the same uphill slog. We crossed the alps four times on this tour — all of them: German, Swiss, Austrian, Italian, and French — so please forgive my overuse of climbing jargon. I have at leas thus far resisted saying “This tour had a lot of ups and downs.” Oops.
But I’d do it all again in a hot minute. The great and good shows far outnumbered the less-great and less-good ones, and it’s awe-inspiring to watch Lola every night play and sing her songs for over an hour with undiminished energy and enthusiasm and raw emotion. It’s an honor to play guitar in her band. I’ve had really good luck in the people I’ve played music with. In general, too, I’ve been incredibly lucky in the opportunities I’ve been given, and I daily thank whatever Druidic deity is responsible. I’m hoping it’s the moon. I like the moon.
For all the great and good things that happened during our odyssey — and for all the other great, good, less good, and bad (very bad) things that happened the rest of the year — one moment stands out not for its awfulness, per se, but because of the strange way the awfulness introduced itself. It’s hard to find another event in 2016 more dispiriting than the result of the presidential election, but it wasn’t the result so much as our disconnect from that result that affected me. We were six hours removed from Eastern time, and nine hours from the West Coast, so November 7 for us was just another show. We played with an excellent British band called Dead Rabbits in Hamburg at Hafenklang, a rock club in an old recording studio situated right on the river Elbe.
Of course the election was on our minds, but when we had left in late October to go to Europe we were as confident as anyone else (among our peer group, at least, which is part of the problem) that no way in hell would Collective America elect as president the dude German newspapers had taken to calling the “Horrorclown.” We’d all done our part. Our bass player Kyle and Dan our drummer were Ohio-based and had voted early. Lola is a French citizen and can’t vote. I’d tweeted some disparaging stuff about Trump. And voted, too, but as a California resident the tweets seemed more impactful.
When we finished the show, and later when we went to bed in the band apartment the club had given us and Dead Rabbits on the top floor of the club (it’s a big club), it was still early in the evening on the East Coast of the U.S. and polls had only just closed. Early results didn’t indicate the Clinton landslide we were expecting, but we weren’t worried. And we had to be in Amsterdam early the next day for soundcheck, a five hundred kilometer drive. So I went to sleep excited to wake up the next morning to find that we’d elected our first female president.
The Brits didn’t sleep. They stayed up drinking and talking and following the election results. They may have been less confident in the polls after what they’d just gone through with Brexit. Or maybe they were just less worn out than we were. I don’t remember the details very clearly. Dan may have stayed up with them a while. Kyle says he lay in bed awake for a while obsessively checking his phone, but eventually gave up and fell asleep. But I remember one thing very clearly: waking up much earlier than usual, like about five or six in the morning, to hear a fraught babble of hushed voices in the next room, where Dead Rabbits were bunked. “We have to tell the Americans,” I heard one of them say. But they didn’t have to tell the Americans, because in that moment I knew that the unthinkable had happened.
It didn’t seem real. Because a lot of things on tour start to seem unreal, or at least surreal, we incorporated the news about the Horrorclown into the general tour fugue. But it was deflating, no question. The next couple of shows were not great from a performance point of view. I took to renaming one of our songs “I Killed Donald Trump With My Big Fucking Dick,” a tribute to Sonic Youth’s maybe less civic-spirited “I Killed Christgau etc…” but then, I wasn’t trying to be funny (and I recognize the gag itself is in monumentally poor/problematic taste, but I wasn’t interested at the time in good taste or any kind of taste. I was just really fucking angry). It was a futile effort to offset the despair that knotted my gut when I heard the words “We have to tell the Americans” and is still there.
Everyone in Europe kept telling us it will be all right. In Italy they reminded us about Berlusconi, their own personal Horrorclown, and how they’d survived twenty years of him. The U.S. isn’t Italy, but maybe they’re right, maybe we will survive, but surviving isn’t really what I signed up for. I want to keep creating — writing books, playing guitar, working on films — without the looming threat of Armageddon or to Planned Parenthood. I suppose the looming threat of Armageddon or to Planned Parenthood has been there my whole life, but it’s never fun to see the leering visage of fascism made corporeal and, you know, in charge of our nuclear arsenal.
On the other hand, Lola’s plan to retreat from the world and live in a cabin in some remote forest just got a boost. I’ll gladly join her, should she make the leap. See? There’s always an upside.
— James Greer