Adventures in Audioland

ron powersBack in the Friendly Confines (credit to Ernie Banks) of Castleton after completing work on the audiobook version of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. The project was accomplished at a beautiful, hilltop, state-of-the-art recording sound studio, Guilford Sound, in the woodsy Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. http://guilfordsound.com/ The owner is the innovative former rock drummer Dave Snyder.

ron powersFar from an easy job (imagine filibustering a bill for four and a half days, or being Chris Matthews), yet worth the throat-tearing effort on a number of levels.

The process put me back in touch with the book in a far more concentrated, analytical way even than the process of writing it, which was strung out over more than two years.

Also, it amounted to a good prep (I hope) for any interviews that might come my way.

Finally—a bit of inside baseball here—no more foolproof method exists for detecting flaws in one’s work than reading it aloud. And yes, dammit, I came across some passages that cried out for further attention–including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Ha-ha! a little writerly humor there!!
The process is highly physical. Reading aloud involves the entire body, even when one is sitting down. (I was often distracted by the vigorous circling motions of my own right hand as I read; and my creaking chair caused an unseemly number of re-takes.) The strain of it makes you aware of certain muscles in the throat that you seldom use to the point of stress. You become aware in part because, late in each day, you find that you cannot count on these flabby muscles to form the sounds you expect them to; they’re tired of it. Your mouth might be forming an “O,” but what comes out is a measly little “eeeee.” So you pause to go back and do it again, hoping to get there before the producer blares in your headphones, for about the eight hundred nineteenth time, “COULD YOU GO BACK AND DO THAT AGAIN?!”

A sip of water helps, but the price of sippage is seepage. Audible seepage. You must sit still for several seconds while the sip makes its way through your digestive system, every drip and gurgle of the journey dutifully recorded by the CIA surveillance-grade mic in front of your face, put there to ensure that no sound gets lost in the telephone-sized booth in which you are being held without bail.

You realize—horrors!—that the process does not stop when the workday ends. When at last you are ensconced in a booth in a local diner, reading the newspaper while spooning up the chili con carne, you come to a Twilight-Zone kind of realization: as you silently read the words on the page, you can hear yourself narrating them through your mind’s ear, in the same annoying singsong voice you have been spewing forth all day, as you involuntarily calibrate which syllables just ahead need theatrical stressing.

And here you thought showbiz was pretty.

What I liked best about the experience was the collaboration: with the very cool young sound engineer Matt Hall across the window in the Vermont studio (see photograph), and with an amazing blithe spirit and gifted producer named Bob Walter, who directed everything through our earphones from his own studio in Los Angeles. Bob immersed himself fully in the nuances of the book, and coaxed me gently into more fitting intonations at several points. The three of us were Very Professional and Serious in the early going, until we (inevitably) stumbled upon the realization that we were all born world-class wiseasses; at which point every “COULD YOU GO BACK AND—” break in the narration was filled by an interlude of wacky voices, improvised shtick, name-dropping and outrageous insults. Our antics kept the inevitable tension at a minimum and made the hard work go easier.

All of this in the service of an audiobook that I hope will convey my full measure of love for my beautiful sons, Dean and the late Kevin, and my passion for illuminating the great human tragedy of schizophrenia, the affliction that took over their lives yet did not manage to extinguish their soaring human spirits.

The audiobook is in post-production as I write. Plans are to integrate excerpts from the boys’ guitar performances as they coincide with elements of the narration.

ANNIE DON’T WAKE THE DAY

Dean and Kevin recorded this rollicking ballad in 2004. It is among the best of several pieces the two of them produced over that summer, a happy time for both of them, when Kevin visited his older brother in Dean’s Colorado Springs apartment. Kev’s schizophrenia had forced him to suspend his music education at the Berklee’s Music School in Boston, and the ensuing year would be his last. But this summer was filled with creative effort and close loving friendship between the two brothers.

Dean wrote and sings lead on “Annie Don’t Wake the Day.” He also created the visual montage that accompanies this song on YouTube. At about the 1:45 mark, the boys launch into blazing alternating guitar solos: Dean/Kevin/Dean/Kevin.

THE RIVER EAST OF HOME

Of all the music Dean and Kevin wrote and recorded together, this ballad is far and away my favorite. It is a quietly transfixing anthem of wayward drift and redemption. Dean composed it not long after his recovery from an addiction to alcohol that had taken hold of him after a terrifying car accident when he was 16, with him at the wheel. The boys recorded it at Dean’s apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’d invited his brother, by then afflicted with schizophrenia, to spend several months with him. Dean sings lead; Kev sings harmony and contributes the majestic solo midway through, which I describe below.

 

FROM CHAPTER 15 OF NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, “. . .something unexplainable. . .”

Dean’s self-willed recovery—reprieve is probably the better word—held benefits for his younger brother. Kevin was able to make it through his spring semester [at the Berklee School of Music] without another setback.  Dean invited him to spend the summer in Fort Collins, passing up the chance to return to his beloved Front Range for road-building work. He had rented an apartment on the first floor of a modest brown wood-frame house in a residential neighborhood not far from the university campus. Kevin gratefully accepted, bringing with him his Martin and amp, and the prescription drugs that were now a part of his daily obligations.

The two of them had a fine old time, the best time of their lives together. They played coffeehouses and bars around Fort Collins and along the winding mountain roads above the city. Sometimes Kevin set aside his guitar and backed Dean up on a borrowed drum-set, playing as though it were the only instrument he had ever touched. Dean wrote a new flurry of ballads, including the two best pieces of his life, and the brothers captured them all on the TEAC recorder that Dean had used for his earlier songs. When Honoree and I arrived for a mid-summer visit, the two were as eager to let us hear them as Kevin had been to play the Booby pieces for me in the Burlington airport two years earlier. They tugged us into Kevin’s room almost before we had set our bags down, and flipped on the TEAC.

We listened first to “Annie Don’t Wake the Day,” Dean’s madcap romp about a night on the town with a frolicsome, laughing girl who skips and dances through the revels, sits in briefly with a bar band, then whirls on, “back out on the street with the bright lights shinin’ away.” Dean sings lead vocals and alternates with Kevin in a jubilant guitar bridge, two solos apiece, the brothers driving hard, a pair of young tigers bursting loose from their cages.

“It’s been a long, crazy night, but don’t wake the day!”

That was for starters. The anthem that followed, the cathedral of notes and lyrics that meditate on loss and journey and hope, on redemption-through-letting-go, stopped our breathing and cupped us in its guileless majesty.

Its title was—is—will always be—“The River East of Home.” Dean wrote it and sang lead; Kevin, harmony. A bridge in the midst of the verses brings up Kevin’s guitar in a cascade of notes that seem to fall from a high place and gather for a moment in a pool before overflowing and dropping again, until they find resolution in the flowing melody at the base.

The opening image is of a figure on horseback, forging along a western mountain path until horse and rider fetch up “at some forgotten fountain.” The rider tries to push his filly on through. “But though it wasn’t wide/She buckled and she balked/She couldn’t see the other side.” The rider tells us of his years of roving between the wilds and mountains. Sometimes he’s on an Arizona highway, right down that center line. Sometimes, crossing water, he falls, and stays down “until I’m good and ready. When I can’t fight the current no more/You’ll find me in the eddy.”

 

But always, the chorus tells us, the rider is searching. Just as Yeats’s wanderer searches for the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun, the rider is on a quest for the elusive River East of Home. It sounds as though his quest will be eternal. But then, “One chipped and faded chapel shines up out of the valley.” The rider ventures through the doorway, because a voice, long forgotten, calls him. “I said my life’s been driftin.’ He said that there’s an answer. And if I just believe, this slender reed becomes an anchor.

“I let the river go.”

PLANS FOR THE BLOG

On Friday (February 3), Honoree, Dean and I will leave for a week’s midwinter getaway.

On our return on February 13, I will resume preparing blog entries that will alternate between topical developments and commentaries regarding mental health, brief excerpts from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (to be published on March 21) and videos/audios of Dean and Kevin performing their music.

I have asked my administrator to publish some of their songs in the coming week, to be refreshed every third or fourth day. I hope you enjoy them. In the meantime, I urge you to keep abreast of national political developments, particularly the ones that involve the future of mental healthcare policy. I welcome any suggestions you may have for coverage or commentary. You may leave them on this blog or on my personal Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012275493034

My best to everyone in the coming week!

Suspending the Blog

To the followers of this blog:

Monday Evening — I am writing this just moments after I read the news that the president has fired the acting Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, in the aftermath of her announcement that she would not defend his executive order to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The consequences of this radical decision are playing out as I write these words.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/us/politics/trump-immigration-ban-memo.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

We are caught up in a severe and onrushing national crisis. This fact has become clear to me, as it has to millions of our fellow citizens. The crisis threatens our constitution; our historic system of governance with its checks, balances, and principles of justice; our economic stability along with that of all nations; our earned posture as a moral beacon to the world; and even our assumptions of insulation from abrupt and fissioning warfare, which most of us have grown accustomed to taking for granted.

The crisis carries enormous implications for the welfare of the mentally ill, which is the subject of this blog. Yet the velocity of civil destabilization has subsumed these implications into larger questions of national continuity, public safety, and cohesion in our communities.

I believe it is a moral imperative for each of us to turn our attention and our energies to the preservation of all that we hold sacred in the nation.

As the days roll on, it might be possible to discern and address critical challenges in the preservation of mental health-care under this administration. Conversely, it might be necessary for all Americans to place their particularized interests and agenda on hold, at least temporarily, and concentrate on monitoring (and trying to intervene in) an unprecedented threat, from within, to the very concept of “America.”

I hope and expect that soon, I will be able to join the leading activists and chroniclers of mental-health issues in framing these in the context of federal policy. As of the moment, there seems to be no coherent national policy–on this issue or any other. We are all conscripted into a mission we did not choose, a mission of witness and resistance.

Until–God and the fates willing–we consummate this reluctant mission in reclamation and redemption, this blog is suspended.

KEVIN PERFORMANCE VIDEO

Here is Kevin in an ensemble performance of “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” a part of a spring concert by Interlochen string musicians under the direction of John Wunsch. Kevin will take his chair immediately to the right of Mr. Wunsch, amidst a semicircle of some of the most talented guitarists and harpists in the country. He performs at least two guitar solos in this number (my recollection is hazy; another guitarist may have one solo, but Kevin’s unique buttery sound is ingrained in my memory). The last one shows him at full throttle!

This piece is beautifully arranged, probably by Mr. Wunsch. It begins sedately, but builds in complexity and intensity, and Kevin’s solos showcase his incredible finger speed. At the end, as the musicians stand to take their bows, Kev flashes his trademark lopsided grin, which I write about in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

So: please turn off all cell phones. No flash photography. Enjoy!

Advance Notice

From Booklist Online

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Powers shares his family’s struggles as two sons suffer from schizophrenia. Youngest son Kevin ends up committing suicide by hanging himself in the basement just before turning 21. Older son Dean remains under treatment for the disease. So much pain and loss, helplessness and frustration. Powers recalls the boys’ darkening moods, increasing opaqueness, and psychotic episodes. He points out a major obstacle to survival is anosognosia—a lack of insight into one’s condition, a faulty belief that nothing’s wrong with your mind. His very emotional memoir also covers some of the history, legislation, pharmacology, and science of schizophrenia. He reminds us how apathetic and cruel society can be when it comes to mental illness. Consider the colloquial nomenclature: loonies, lunatics, nutcases, psychos, wackos. He reviews the tsunami of miscalculations and mistakes in the 1960s that launched mental-health care on a terrible trajectory: the denouncing of psychiatry, dosing patients with new drugs to make them more docile, and releasing hundreds of thousands of mentally ill individuals from psychiatric hospitals and community-health centers. Presently, prisons are America’s biggest mental-health facilities. Powers grieves, “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Shame on us.

— Tony Miksanek

TO MY FRIENDS WHO FOLLOW THIS BLOG

Beginning in a few days, I will be posting, on this blog, some audio and, later, video tracks of my late son Kevin in performance. These will showcase his more mature work–if “mature” is the right word to describe a gifted young musician who, in the fog of schizophrenia, took his life a week before his 21st birthday in 2005. I’ve published a few pieces before this, but they feature Kev mostly as an early adolescent, sometimes in duets with his older brother Dean–who also was struck by schizophrenia, but who is stabilized at age 35.

kevin-powers-guitar
Kevin’s hands

I have mixed feelings about offering up these audios and videos. From a personal standpoint, it is still difficult for my wife Honoree and me to hear Kevin’s music sixteen years after he left us. Until this past weekend, I had not been able to bring myself to look at the videos–recorded mostly at the Interlochen Academy for the Arts, where he spent his prep years–since his death. Last week I finally braced myself, dug the cassettes out of storage, and brought them to a technician in nearby Rutland for transfer to the MP4 format, which enables editing and sending the material to my blog administrator. On Saturday, notified that the transfer was ready for viewing, I returned to the studio. I made myself stand beside the technician and watch the monitor screen as it shifted from blue to footage of the Interlochen jazz ensemble, with a T-shirted Kevin pumping out one of his glorious solos. I held it together. At this writing, Honoree has not viewed the tapes, but she has signaled her determination to do so.

The second reason for my mixed feelings is related to the first. This blog is followed by many parents who have lost children of their own to the awful scourge of schizophrenia. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that many of these good, bereaved people will experience the pain of recovered memory as they watch. For this, I am genuinely sorry.

Yet my reason for posting these sounds and images of Kevin has nothing to do with indulging my own sorrow, nor of activating anyone else’s. It certainly has nothing to do with promoting Kevin as somehow more deserving of attention than the countless other young victims of brain disorders. Quite the opposite: my goal is to celebrate the tremendous joyful life-force that was Kevin–and, by extension, the equally precious, and unique life-forces within all his brothers and sisters who have been taken or diminished by serious mental illness.

Every parent or other surviving relative of a mental-illness casualty harbors rich memories of a child in the full exuberance of his or her life–a time of hopes and dreams unlimited, until the unthinkable occurred.

Kevin was nothing if not generous and humble–he was “notorious” for giving up his own solo time to fellow musicians who yearned for a little spotlight. He would have held these young people in his big-handed embrace. He would have insisted, correctly, that each one of their lives was as precious and filled with potential as his own. He would have insisted on consecrating his music to all the beautiful young souls who seldom if ever enjoyed the pleasure of a “solo,” yet enriched the earth around them, each in his or her own way.

So, please: if you can, enjoy Kevin’s music in the same celebratory spirit that he played it: the spirit of life, and laughter, and friendship, and of giving up a solo to a friend every now and then.

DEAN ON CAPRI

This is one of my favorite photographs of Dean. I took it during our visit to Italy in 2008, three years after Kevin’s death. Honoree had dreamed of a family visit to Italy for years, and we finally made it–but not in time for our younger son to enjoy the splendors of the country with us. Dean was 27 then, still devastated by the loss of his brother–perhaps more than we realized–but still resilient, even as the “prodromal” phase of his own affliction with schizophrenia was advancing. I made this photo through the window of a cafe beside a harbor on Capri, where Honoree and I were having a light lunch. Dean, who was still capable of joy and discovery, had decided to take his notebook and pen outside, where he positioned himself on the rocks by the water, in the sunshine, and channeled his inspiration into his journal.

Dean was then two years from his own psychotic break, triggered by romantic loss, but really the inevitable result of several years of accumulating stress, including his beloved brother’s suicide. As of today, Dean is still fighting gallantly to regain the equilibrium he maintained on that sunlit vacation. He lives in the warm embrace of our household in Vermont. My account of his saga–described in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE–is a testament to all the unknown battles being waged by victims of this horrible scourge who still can muster the mental resources, and the deep wells of character, to carry on their daily struggle for a meaningful life.

I admire Dean and his late brother more than anyone I have ever known or known about–including heroes of politics, war, literature, or any other field of endeavor. I know that many thousands of young men and women struggle as ardently as my sons, in anonymity, away from public recognition and perhaps scorned and feared by the strangers who encounter them. My book, besides being a journey of inquiry into the long history of mental illness, is meant to be an affirmation of Dean’s and Kevin and their brave brothers and sisters

I never glanced into the journal entries that Dean created in the exhilaration of that sunlit day on Capri. He didn’t volunteer to show us what he’d written, and Honoree and I respected his boundaries, and did not ask.

But I know that the words Dean set down are irradiated with his loving ardency and eloquence. Maybe someday I will look.