There was a span of time when I was nineteen where I was rather depressed. Seemingly everything around me was changing—friends splintering different ways, aimlessness of my job and direction of my life and schooling—and I didn’t handle it particularly well. I slept a lot, withdrew from just about everyone, and generally just went through the motions day-in day-out with the energy of a tranquilized cow. But during the beginning of this span of time I tried to surround myself with people and places. I hung out with co-workers after clocking out and hung out with people I went to school with but what I eventually discovered was the age-old cliché that being in a room with people is sometimes the loneliest place to be. What I found to be helpful was, counterintuitively, to be completely alone, to go straight home after work and smoke pot in my room after midnight and listen to music and to sometimes play Madden ’96 and NHL ’95 on Super Nintendo (okay, more than sometimes).
I’ve always been a lightweight when it comes to weed so I never had to smoke much to get high. I’d sit in my room high and listen to music and play games, or paint or draw, or flip through some oversized Andy Warhol or photography books, or make mixed tapes (I had two 6-disc CD players, dual cassette deck, an equalizer, and a mixer). The albums that I listened to the most during this time were Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads by Talking Heads, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, all four Velvet Underground studio albums, Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, and MTV Unplugged by 10,000 Maniacs.
Sometimes, I’d go to the record store and scour the used CD section and one day I found the 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged disc for I’m guessing $2.50 and I think I grabbed it for two reasons: money burned through my wallet when I was inside record stores, and I think I just filed it away for a future listen. I was never really a big fan of them but I figured what the hell. The disc probably gathered dust for about a year and then one day I was looking for something to play while I was painting and I threw it in, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. It’s a good balance of their hit singles and the best of their deep cuts (with an instant classic cover of “Because the Night” too), and also the recording quality is great which is a good thing to have with a live album. There was something very comforting about Natalie Merchant’s voice while I was in my room alone; her short story style of songwriting and her everywoman kind of voice found me at the right time. This disc just sat on an unused shelf until it was played nearly every day. There’s a timing with art sometimes.
You would think that as a college-aged guy smoking weed alone in his room that I would’ve had some thoughts or insights about Jack Kerouac, but he never really appealed to me. I got what he was doing and I get why people dig him but he was never my cup of tea—kind of like how Bob Dylan isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. Natalie Merchant, for nearly four minutes every time I hear this song, makes me care about Jack Kerouac and his orbit of people. One of my favorite lyrics from “Hey Jack Kerouac,” because it’s just a great simile, is when Merchant sings the following about William S. Burroughs (or Bill Cannastra, I’m not 100% sure): “Billy, what a saint they made you/You’re just like Mary down in Mexico on All Soul’s Day.” This song is all about build-up, as it starts right into the melody from the get-go with a kind adult contemporary version of a stomp and its skating organ weaving in and out the whole time and ends with Merchant singing “What a tear-stained shock of the world/You’ve gone away without saying/Saying goodbye.” “What a tear-stained” is sung softly and pauses before the rest of the lyrics are sung with sustained away-way’s and stretched out say-ay-ay-ay-ay-ings. The way these lyrics are sung isn’t fundamentally arresting or an example of technical perfection because that’s not who Natalie Merchant is. She doesn’t wow you with virtuosity; instead, she gets you to into these little worlds and stories in her own way. All those years ago, sitting in my room, all her words and the music it was set to made sense to me. This performance turned out to be the band’s swan song. Merchant left the band shortly before its release. The album has sad songs about cruel injustices and broken love followed up with up some happier numbers that nonetheless feel cloaked in doubt. This album was a goodbye—a safe goodbye, but one nonetheless. It fit perfectly with where I was at the time as a background soundtrack to trying to figure out where to go and what to do to get out of my depressive rut. I still listen to this album every now and then. “Hey Jack Kerouac” is still one of my favorite live songs to listen to. When I listen to the album as I have gotten older I can’t help but laugh a little when I think of sitting in my room because the me of then had no idea that that time back then was pretty easy all things considered, but I suppose we all feel like things are never going to get better and some art, in whatever form, helps pull us out of our heads even in little increments.