Monday, January 29, 2007

Time to Shine

Where have I been? Well, I've been right here in Chicago, duking it out with the mid-winter weather and attending to all sorts of things... from playing Metro with BRB, to rehearsing with BRB, to preparing to record our new set of songs in the coming months, to getting things wrapped up with the "solo" material I've been working on with Jay and Darren, to attending yoga classes, to entertaining out of town guests, to writing... Yeah, there's been a lot of stuff going on.

Unfortunately, I've also been confronting a tragedy of the highest magnitude. 

Jeff Morrow, a former co-worker of mine at Village Music Store and friend of/contributor to Burn Rome Burn, passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 30.

Jeff worked at Village Music Store for, I believe, almost 8 years as a Sales Assistant, Assistant Manager, and Teacher. He left VMS a little over a year ago and fell off the face of the earth. Wouldn't answer his phone or return messages. I hadn't heard a word about him until we got a call from our "wo-manager" at VMS and the news that he had died on Monday, January 15, of complications relating to pneumonia.

We were shocked, although part of me always worried that something like this would happen to Jeff. 

As bright and funny a guy as he was, he always struck me as the kind of person who was wrestling with demons. Not that we all aren't, but... his seemed to overwhelm him at times. Jeff absolutely loved music. He was a human jukebox who could play almost any tune on the guitar. It was common for you to be discussing a song with him, and then hear him learning it later on that day, sitting at the front desk at VMS.

He loved Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, The Magnolia Electric Company, Hendrix, Elliot Smith, Rufus Wainwright... the list goes on and on. When he was on his game, VMS actually functioned at a fairly efficient level. And the store suffered when he suffered. And it hasn't been the same since he left. He was always good for a laugh or a dirty joke. He helped me out at our bigger shows by tuning my guitars backstage and running them to me on-stage. He loved being backstage and seeing how things worked and I always appreciated his help. He was always bringing people to our shows and really helped spread the word about the band.

My favorite memories of Jeff are hanging out at the store, just laughing and laughing over all the absurd things that happen there on a weekly basis. When you asked Jeff to do something, he did it. You could count on him to get your schedule the way you wanted it with very little trouble.

When the store's phone would ring, Jeff's standard line was a sarcastic "Now's my time to shine," which was almost always accompanied by him rubbing his hands together in mock anticipation of dealing with some incoherent parent or difficult customer.

So the Friday following his passing, I got off of work early and headed up to Aoife and Barret's. Barret was out of town on a gig, so Aoife, Doc, and I all went to the wake and funeral, which were being held up in the Portage Park neighborhood on the northwest side of the city.

All day I had been trying to prepare myself for the funeral but... nothing can get you ready for the experience of seeing a friend in a casket. Nothing. I realized that this was the 5th funeral I've gone to for someone my own age, dating back to junior high school. And all of them have been open-casket. 

The scene at the wake was one of absolute devastation. I met Jeff's mother, father, and brother, and although I didn't know them, they all hugged me and the wave of pain, of loss, of gratitude for our presence, washed over me. Aoife and I went up to the casket and each said our private prayers, I suppose.

Next to the casket stood all of Jeff's guitars, the very ones he would play at VMS. Nearby was a table of pictures, of memories... of Jeff playing his guitar with his father, of Jeff at his brother's wedding. Another VMS teacher, Mike, showed up for the funeral. We all sat in silent tears as a local minister delivered the eulogy. "In My Life" was the closing song.

Afterwards, we spent a little more time talking to his family. His father, in particular, was effusive and he broke down in tears as he asked us if one of us would write a song in Jeff's memory. What do you say to that? Other than "yes." That night, I slept for 12 hours. Which I never do. And felt like I could have slept for 16.

Since the funeral, I've given a lot of thought to Jeff and his passing. Our band rehearsals have been dominated by discussions of Jeff, the funeral, and the attendant sorrow. One of the things the minister talked about in his eulogy was the tendency to feel guilty when somebody in your life dies, especially somebody young and/or troubled. To feel like you could have done more to help that person. To feel a certain sense of responsibility.

And the minister, quite correctly, said that while this is natural, it's not beneficial. To you. Or to the person who is gone. Really, the best way to celebrate somebody's life is to learn from their passing. And to take that lesson and apply it to the living. To your friends, to your family, to yourself...

So none of us saved Jeff from his fate. But could we possibly save someone else in our lives, someone else who has demons, someone else who is on the verge of breaking down? And even if we can't, shouldn't we treat every day, every night, every personal interaction like it could be our last? Shouldn't we value it that highly?

Because... as my dad has said: you never know when somebody you love could walk out of you life and never come back. On the way out of the funeral, I stopped to hug Jeff's mother one last time. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and grasped my hands as if they were the only thing keeping her upright. She said she thought the eulogy was beautiful, and she was especially struck by the minister's talk about looking forward, about celebrating Jeff's life, and about getting past the guilt of his passing.

I, paraphrasing (among others) Kanye West, said "We have to turn tragedy to triumph." She looked at me through her tears and without saying a word hugged me like a mother hugs a son.

So... To Jeff Morrow: Wherever you are, know that someone loves you and someone misses you. And someone will always remember you. And the world is a worse place without you. And the world has less beautiful music in it without you. And now, right now, is your time to shine. And I'll do my best to take a little bit of your light and use it to brighten the world, just like you used to.


Friday, January 12, 2007


The Arcade Fire is Illuminated... This much is clear. This Saturday, Metro, 9:00 pm. More news to follow, more stories to tell.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sock it to me

What is it about the New Year that makes it the cradle of expectant change? Actually, that's a stupid question with an obvious answer.

Still... I did feel unusually strong on the treadmill at the gym today after spending the last week of 2006 feeling run down and out of sorts... I guess I took this past weekend mostly off from working out (save a cold but fruitful 4 miles outdoors before the New Year hit its first post meridian) which might account for some of this perceived strength, but there was something a little bit more in my treadmill-regulated 5 mile rumble, an assertiveness in my approach that seemed new and unfamiliar... a certain level of control absent from my runs even at the top of my half-marathon training in September.

Boys and girls, that's the word of the year for 2007: Control. C-O-N-T-R-O-L. You heard it here first. Not "truthiness" or "wikiality" or even "Megamerican." No.

Control is the name of the game. (Is there a board game called Control? There should be. Somebody get on that.) Control, the more I think about it, is at the root of soooo many of life's twists and turns. At least, it's at the root of mine.

I've been hesitant to commit in detail to the blogosphere the things that have been going on in my life for the last 6 months or so explicitly, and really, for most of 2006. Mostly because... well, for all I like to write and sing things in public, I tend to be a very private person when it comes to feelings and personal behavior and tend to be purposefully vague when talking about the particulars of my emotional life. Right. Says the guy with the blog.

I tend to write lyrics, post them, and hope that people I know and love can connect the dots, and maybe a few people I don't know come along for the ride too... Anyway, I think I'm inching closer to being able to write about 2006 in detail, in prose... Life is, as I'm fond of quoting to impress people at parties, lived forwards and understood backwards.

So there's good chance 2007 will be about finally starting to really understand 2006, and I do believe this space will come in handy for that process. We'll see... This I do understand: There are things one can control, and there are things one can't. And it's way better to focus on the good things one can control. Difficult at times, because sometimes those good things one can control dwindle to a precious few, but... there's always something.

Regardless of how dark it is, how hopeless things seem, how senseless other people's behavior gets, there is always something you can take ownership of to create light, and love, and hope, and a flame, and let the world know that you're sick of taking shit, sick of feeling like the universe is ending, sick of being treated like dirt, sick of being taken advantage of... Control is like a box of chocolates...

No, that was life that was the box of chocolates. Maybe control is one of the chocolates in the box of life? Um... that didn't sound quite right, did it? Scratch that last line of thought. Control is like... well, it seems like you walk a delicate balance with it... let's leave it at that for now.

I have so many other thoughts, so many other pertinent ideas about it but... Let's just take it one day, one entry at a time. In all seriousness (I hate when people say that), here's to a New Year full of control (the good kind) and understanding.

And maybe a dirty word or two for good measure.

xo j