2015: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Kelly Johnson)

Geronimo!

As I’ve previously stated in the introductory paragraph for Ben Grigg’s entry into this year’s edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories, Geronimo! meant a lot to me. They played the first showcase I ever threw for this site and they’ve been unbelievably kind to me through the time I’ve known them. It was incredibly difficult to see them go but it’s been comforting to watch their other projects develop in the aftermath of their dissolution. Guitarist/vocalist Kelly Johnson’s release as Hung Toys, Lurid, was an unexpected 2015 highlight and saw Johnson embrace his fieriest sensibilities. Here, he takes a look at the history of Geronimo!, what that time meant to him, and what he learned about himself through their existence. It’s an oddly moving piece that gives me hope for what Johnson’s future has in store. Read it below and remember that if you surround yourself with the right people, you’ve already managed to succeed more than most people will ever realize.

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I Ate the Best Burger of My Life

I was reticent to write a piece for Steven’s blog because I was worried it would come off as too self-involved. Or that I’d force a misguided, self-righteous message into my story in an effort to offer some sage advice to his readers. It’s hard to say if these fears came from my disenchantment of social media and its “I’m-eating-the-best-burger-of-my-life-right-now” types of oversharing, or if they came out of a genuine place of insecurity about my personal views in this enormous world.

Last year saw countless important issues come to a head: violence against blacks, women’s rights, transgender rights, Trump politics, Pizza Rat. I recognize my position as a white-privileged male and a lot of my experiences are trivial when compared to all of the people on this planet less fortunate than me.

But Steven is a person whose enthusiasm and passion for music I admire. He’s on the good side of things in the fight of life. He’s a sincere and thoughtful person, and I was flattered that he wanted to include me in this collection of personal anecdotes. Also, I remembered how rewarded I was the last time that I stepped out of my comfort zone: I got to play loud rock music in a band called Geronimo!

Geronimo! (yes, we made the unsound decision early on to stay devoted to the exclamation point) was a band that Ben Grigg (keyboard/bass), Matt Schwerin (drums) and I (guitar/vocals) started way back at the end of 2007. Last year, we played our final show on Saturday, March 28.

Geronimo! was not a big band. We didn’t make money or sell albums. Ben and I worked for months and months trying to book a solid 2-3 weeks of tour per year. We worked really hard to make records that we were proud of, but realistically, weren’t breaking any new ground. I am an OK singer at best and understand just about zero music theory. For the first five years of the band, we struggled to find an identity within our sound and to have the confidence to perform the songs we composed. So once it ended, what had we accomplished? 2015 was a year for me to reflect on that.

In hindsight, I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2007 to become a successful rock musician. Quit my job as a proofreader at the local phone book company (seriously look up how many companies called ‘A+ Plumbing’ there are trying to get that primo first spot in the phone book) and moved to the big city. It wasn’t an overtly conscious decision to “be a rock star.” But looking back, yeah. That’s kinda the reason I did it. My subconscious plan to stardom didn’t extend beyond “form a band, start touring, make money, and repeat.” But I had moved to Chicago to try and play music, and that was a success for me.

Inherent in that plan is the idea that, yeah, I’m going to work towards becoming a musician in a rock band and that will sustain me for the rest of my life. My job as a dog walker was utilitarian for taking time off to tour. It’s difficult to tour much more than a couple of weeks out of the year when you aren’t a band drawing crowds in other cities, but we still did it.

We recorded our first couple of EPs ourselves with the help of a couple of generous friends. We burned CDs and hand-made artwork to try and make a few bucks on tour and get our van to the next show. At best we would break even, but we were doing it. We were playing shows out of town, meeting new people and seeing new places. That was a success for me.

After 4 years or so, we were able to make friends with some folks out east in Exploding in Sound Records. Musicians and fans making, what we felt, music that was similar in scope and approach. Dan and Dave were amazing enough to give us a chance and put out our last 3 releases. We got to meet and play with bands we were genuinely fans of (and are still fans of to this day). We still weren’t making money, but this too was a success for me.

After it all ended, we didn’t become rock stars. I didn’t get remotely close to quitting my job in order to become a rock musician. I think we all ended up with about 300 bucks after splitting our “band fund” when all was said and done. I’m guessing we were the least (if not THE least) lucrative band for EIS records.

But it was the best time of my life. The one thing I absolutely learned is that, in the end, YOU get to define your own fucking success. There are no standards in life but the ones that you create. I want to stress this point because I know there are a lot of musicians who were like me in the various circles I met over the years. Dissatisfied with where there musical vision was taking them. Disillusioned after not receiving the positive feedback you’d imagined for something that you’ve worked so hard to create.

In my mind, if you’ve started a band, you’re a success. If you write a song, you’re a success. If you play your songs in front of people that are willing to listen, you’re a success. If you record your own music and another person hears your creation, you’re a success. The fact that you’ve made the decision to try; to construct something that didn’t exist before, means you’ve succeeded in some capacity.

There’s a pure gratification in that if you don’t let arbitrary, outside standards get in the way.

I look back on my years in a touring rock band with great satisfaction. I’m a fortunate person to exist in this world and play rock music. Through that experience, I also learned a million ways to be dissatisfied with your life. But there are also a million ways to be satisfied if you take the time and look. I got to play in a loud rock band called Geronimo! and it was definitely the best burger of my life.

-Kelly Johnson