Ode: Music was my home

Nov 2, 2017

I hope others will be reminded of who they are, and to know that if they have forgotten, they can go home again.

Credit Ally Karsyn

In the fall of 1993, I was entering my sophomore year of high school, and I had no interest in any of the things that small-town boys were supposed to do. Football, keggers in cornfields, getting laid or getting into fights.

I gave up basketball for a bass guitar. My new uniform was a well-worn, purple and pink tie-dye Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. It was a pretty lonely time.

The previous summer was like the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. It was filled with a relapse into alcoholism, care groups at a recovery center, depression and driver’s ed. Incapacitating fear and sadness ruled my life.

Like the years before, I had hoped that this time, going back to school, I would get it right.

On the first day of my sophomore year, I got wind of a new kid in town. All I knew was that he was from New York; he had a five o’clock shadow; and he played guitar. By this time, I’d watched “Jimi Hendrix: Live at Monterey” and “Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same” hundreds of times on VHS tape. I was obsessed, but no one else in my class seemed to share my enthusiasm for these famous rockers.

I was that quiet, loner kid that had a hard time connecting with anyone. I don’t remember the details of our first meeting, but I’m pretty sure it was in the band room. We hit it off right away. Nate was—and still is—affable, quirky and talented with one twisted sense of humor. He changed my life.

After a couple weeks of complaining to Nate about the difficulty learning the six-string guitar, he made an artful observation. “You’ve got big hands,” he said. “You should play bass.” So, I unpacked the gigantic, four-string Gibson Grabber and set to work. I fell deeply in love with the big, warm sound of the bass. I practiced six to eight hours a day and jammed with Nate as often as I could.

We would make weekend trips to Flood Music and admire our dream guitars. In the summer, we set up our amps in his barn to jam and introduced each other to new music. He encouraged me to no end when all I had was self-doubt.

Eventually, I became convinced that this is what I was supposed to do.

Music was where I belonged.

Finally, I seemed to be doing something right. I had something to fill the hole in my soul that I had tried to fill with drinking. It gave me purpose and joy.

My marathon jam sessions caught the attention of Tim, who went to my high school. He found me at the family-owned grocery store, where I worked, and asked if I wanted to be in a band. This was music to my ears.

He worked with the singer at Burger King, and they needed a bass player. Tim had heard me practicing in my room. He lived two houses down. (I don’t know how my parents tolerated all of the noise I was making, but I’m grateful that they did.)

I called the singer and set up an audition. That led me to the smelliest, dankest basement I’d ever been in. About six guys lived in the house. They had Iron Maiden posters all over the walls. All I knew from Tim and the singer was that they played hard rock.

I hardly knew any of the songs, but I faked my way through. I assured them that I could learn anything. So, there I was—in a smelly basement—playing Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Guns N’ Roses, Warrant and Kiss.

I hated everything they played, but it didn’t matter. I was in a band. We had two gigs. One at a kegger in Schleswig, Iowa. The other, opening for a bunch of country music bands at the South Sioux Eagles Club, where I played with a broken thumb.

After that band broke up, I joined another one that had actual gigs lined up and plans for recording original music. One of our first shows was at a place in Omaha called the Ranch Bowl. Some of my favorite bands had played here. I was playing on the same stage as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Jesus Lizard and the list could go on and on.

It was loud. We sounded great. And there wasn’t anyone there. On a Monday night in Omaha, an unknown rock band from Sioux City wasn’t much of a draw. But that didn’t matter to me. Playing to an empty room was a rite of passage. I’d made it.  

I continued to bounce from band to band for the next 20 years. There was ‘80s butt-rock and ‘90s alternative; hardcore, punk and ska; jazz, blues, country and classic rock; and even a little bit of three-piece instrumental fusion.

Along the way, I met people who were as varied and different as the music I played.

I was no longer the weirdest person in the room. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about the things I cared about. And they wanted me around.

Music was my home.

I kept gigging and doing the band thing. But after a while, I got tired of the same old thing—being part of a cover band, playing in bars, giving up nights and weekends. I wasn’t that 17-year-old kid anymore who was happy to be a part of a band, any band that would take me—even if it meant playing hard rock cover songs in a smelly basement.

I was in my 30’s. I had a wife and a daughter. My priorities needed adjusting.

So a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to be a part of a successful local band that promised good gigs and good money, I said no. They sounded great, and they played my kind of music. But it was another cover band. I missed playing for the sake of making something new.

I did a last-minute, fill-in gig with a country band when my youngest daughter was only a few months old. After that, I was done.

I abandoned my bass guitar.

It had been with me for two decades through jam sessions and open mic nights; through break-ups, layoffs and addiction; through dating my now wife, getting married and celebrating the births of our two daughters.

In all those years, I had been in 20 bands, recorded two albums, wrote songs I’m not necessarily proud of and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at high school sporting events until the boosters had enough.

I also played in the pit orchestra for West High School’s production of “Cats.” I taught bass guitar at a local music store for a couple years. And I once drove four and half hours to play for 12 people and make 11 bucks.

All of these experiences and years of practice had brought me to a moment that outshines them all, and made all the hard work worth it.

Last fall, the Chicago Cubs were in Game 6 of the World Series. My 6-year-old daughter and I were home alone. I dug out my bass. She got out her tambourine, castanets, maracas and kazoo. She made up the words on the spot. I laid down a groove. And we penned classics like “I Need Donuts (In my Life)” and “Who Wants to Eat a Dirty Macaroon?”

Making music never felt so good. And that’s something I’ll never forget.

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Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.

Our next show is Friday, December 1 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Jessica Zepeda, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Holiday Joy & Mayhem.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.