“You should probably get a flight home,” read the text. It was 7pm in London and too late for a last minute return flight to Boston. I was going to have to sleep with this. It had been a difficult year — remember how many people were done with 2019? We thought it couldn’t get worse. And then this message. Someone back home that I loved dearly hit rock bottom and needed to be hospitalized. I hadn’t seen it coming. I should say, I had seen something, but didn’t expect it to lead to this. Back in my hotel I tried to keep the weight off my chest. It was in the center, like an accusing finger on my sternum. And it was borderless, threatening to collapse the whole room into rubble along with the rest of London.
Once back in Boston a complicated and frustrating treatment journey exacerbated my guilt, anger and confusion. Getting someone to the emergency room is relatively simple. But identifying the next best treatment option is complex. Even though there are many options, they are not necessarily available and they often have opaque criteria for admission. The entire situation was beginning to break me too.
When we initially moved into our home, my wife found a piano on FreeCycle which is kind of like the Internet’s Island of Misfit Toys. This piano was nearly 40 years old and had somehow embodied the Doppler Effect. Even though neither the piano nor I moved, the notes it produced clearly did. One morning after all this mess began I woke up with a chord progression in my head and went immediately to the Doppler piano to work it out. The chords sounded…. right. And by right, I mean completely broken and impossibly a-harmonic and drifting. They sounded just like I felt.
I had been working on some lyrics for several years about war. Why not? It works for Hollywood films. They started with:
Back to back world war champs / It’s an awkward teenage dance…
I never could get them to go anywhere. In my mind they matched some kind of cow punk shanty that I wasn’t going to record. But on this day that I started playing broken chords I tried them again and they actually fit. I sang them over and over to get a feel:
Back to back world war champs / It’s an awkward teenage dance / Where did all the architects go? / They’re feeling up Mies van de Rohe
The chords were right, but the words weren’t. They were too sarcastic for the feelings I had. Rather than cutting them I just treated them like a first verse and kept writing:
War is on its way / Pop the cherries and champagne / Invite the bankers and the CIA / Who will win for your pain?
OK, this was hardly less sarcastic, but it did fit the mood better. I didn’t know it at the time, but these lyrics, which later became a song called, Improvised Explosive Denied, would set the stage for a new record. In fact, that first line became the name of the EP. I was feeling every dreadful word of it. It wasn’t just my personal situation that was weighing me down. It was all the accumulated circumstances of the year. Every day came with a barrage of relentless misdirections and injustices. In this particular moment—Thanksgiving weekend—I was thinking about the one year anniversary of EJ Bradford’s death, a Black man in Birmingham who protected mall shoppers from an active shooter on Thanksgiving in 2018. The police saw him with a pistol and shot him dead. They assumed he was the killer because he was Black with a gun. Then my mind jumped to Sandra Bland’s arrest and suspicious death earlier in the year. And then Botham Jean being shot in his own apartment in Dallas.
There was also another recent mass shooting on my mind—racially motivated—in El Paso that August. I could see a clean line from the white supremacist march in Charlottesville to the synagogue murders in Pittsburgh to this. And everyone just seemed to be moving on, like these events were as normal as sunrise.
Meanwhile, we were in week 13 of the NFL season and there was still controversy over whether or not players should kneel during the National Anthem to build awareness of these continuing racial atrocities.
The next line just flowed:
A black knight takes a knee / And false outrage spills from the king / It doesn’t mean anything
I hear the red ones are for blood / The white ones chosen by God / We tore the stars from the sky / A dark blue emptiness inside
I had to name it. Nationalism is ugly no matter what color you put in front of it, and this instance is particularly ugly. To claim that Black athletes and their supporters were disrespectful to America because they were challenging all of us to live up to our ideals was racism, not patriotism. All men were not being treated as equals. Everyone was not getting to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Not EJ Bradford, Sandra Bland, nor Botham Jean. (And not George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake nor Daniel Prude now. This is a crisis!)
The song took a turn. I started naming the feelings pressing into my ribcage:
Fragile, millennial, burned out, strung out… improvised explosive denied
Boom. I hadn’t seen the bomb on the road side. It was only clear in the aftermath. For a year—no, for two years—maybe it had been 10 or 20 years—or perhaps my whole life, I had ignored and become numb to these aggressions. Call it a coping strategy if you want. And call writing this song a new one. I hadn’t noticed the masses around me struggling under this weight. I hadn’t noticed the accumulated burdens of my friends and loved ones. I hadn’t truly noticed the pain of Black Americans. I hadn’t noticed my own.
This song is a bottled-up breakdown filled with sorrow and anger. I debated whether or not to share it initially because it felt so personal. But in the end I think songs often connect best when the writer is vulnerable. That December I decided to share it during one of the hospital visits. We all sat silently as the demo played. No one moved until the track ended with my exasperated slamming of the keylid. “I think that is the best song you’ve ever written,” someone said. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I do know it’s one of the truest ones I’ve ever put to music.