That Kid On Your Left

I don’t create much music these days. I’m more than happy to hand this type of thing off to the young folks, to the kids who used to play tag in the hallways at the music studios and churches we worked in. I’m pretty burnt out on the church music scene and there simply are no bands here at all other than the young white kids playing rock at the hole-in-the-wall clubs downtown. I now view studio work as an unbearable chore. I lost all of my master tapes—2-inch, 1-inch, half-tracks and 4-track master cassettes—in a storage locker accident, so what’s left of those years is now mainly on MiniDisc, which is quickly going the way of the 8-track, and DAT (who actually has a DAT machine anymore?). When you’re twenty, you never think much about legacy, but when you’re fifty you become keenly aware of every heartbeat. Time is no longer unlimited and everybody’s keeping score. I thought it best to archive some of this material wherever I can before it’s all gone forever. As I mentioned in the intro, the material has no real commercial value, only sentimental value to those who took part or those who remember the story of us. Of course, someone else will have to come along and write how the story ends; I believe only Moses was able to credibly write about his own death.

Youth brings with it the luxury of time. I suppose if I had any advice to pass on it would be to not waste any of it. Time is like pure gold. Wasting too much of yourself chasing after some woman or some man or slavishly following in the footsteps of some religious or political leader is an utter waste of who you are. The most depressing thing in life, for me, is encountering people who have nothing to say. No dreams, no ambition, no art. These are God-endowed qualities we all have. Most of us invest those qualities in someone else, in our jobs, in our churches. Somewhere, in some corner of your life, there really should be a place where you’re creating something, building something, that belongs to you. Like the music posted here, you may be the only person who fully appreciates or finds value in whatever you’re doing, but it’s a little something that makes you smile, that brings you joy. And you built it, you wrote it, you created it.

Revisiting this essay series, I’m reminded that, in the history of my life, other than my mother and grandmother, no one has ever done a single thing to make my dreams come true. No one has ever built me a website or bought me a bunch of musical gear or invested themselves in any meaningful way in a vision I had. Frankly, no one has ever even asked what my dreams are. Here I am seeing page after page of me knocking myself out, investing myself in the hopes and dreams of others. Most all of those people are long gone now or are ghosts like Nadia.

For me, it's always been the uphill slog of investment and resolve, while I have repeatedly volunteered, time and again, to pull all-nighters and go broke working myself to death to help someone else achieve their goal. This is my little insanity: seeing the potential in others and desiring to help them achieve it. It reminds me of my nephew Phillip who, at age four, would hold the door for his brother Joshua as they entered or left a building, while, if Joshua passed first, he would routinely allow the door to slam in Phillip's face. He wasn't being mean, it just never occurred to him to hold the door. "That's your brother," I told him, pointing to Phillip, reminding 6-year old Josh that, yes, he has a brother. "It's that kid on your left."

I'm usually the kid holding the door and, just as often, the kid who has the door smack him in the melon. All of which sounds like whining, but I'm trying to make a point: we, all of us humans, are all brothers. We should all hold the door for each other, for that kid on the left. I never considered any of my investment in others to be in vain, and I don't begrudge those I've helped who never seem to look back. It is what it is, and we are all, individually, wired the way we are wired.

Man Up

In the fall of 1999, I was in the process of cleaning out my basement, and wondered long and hard about dumping the many boxes of cassettes: old demos, 4-track masters, alternate mixes and alternate takes, etc. I'm probably the only person on the planet who could fully appreciate what most of that stuff was. Okay, maybe Derek Burch could, but I digress. Maybe if I'd become Paul McCartney, or at least, Rod Temperton— maybe then these dusty old boxes of tapes would have a greater meaning.

Be a man! my pride demanded, and into the trash they went. More than a hundred cassettes, little pieces of me that no longer fit or, somehow, no longer mattered. Then I found the Ampex 456 seven-inch reels of mixes from Stop! Nita Marshal's demo, and Pandora's Box, the last Hollis Stone demo. There were also rehearsal tapes, crudely "restored," of New Witness II with Dinky Bingham and Qabid Hakim. 

In they went. Enough already. Why hold onto this stuff. Then, on my way to the curb with the garbage, out of the corner of my eye I glanced at the audio rack, where I remembered I had a CD burner and a DAT machine. For long moments, I glanced back and forth between the garbage, and the digital recorders. The garbage, the digital recorders. And, I thought, maybe, before I destroyed these tapes, I'd transfer them to a medium that would preserve them forever. Create the Hollis Stone Box Set, essentially, for an audience of about twelve, and send them out as Christmas gifts to the old gang (or, as many of them as I could find).

The tapes gained a brief reprieve, and a new obsession began.

This was a project I thought I'd devote a few days, maybe a week to. When I was finally done, I had devoted more than a month to combing through various takes and various recordings, looking for the best ones to commit to digital eternity. I did, however, resist the temptation to drag the old 8 and 24-track masters out and head to Denver to remix things from scratch. I may do that, ultimately, in the coming year as March, 2002, marks the 20th (yikes) anniversary of The Story of Us, so a reissue is likely at hand. Also, I am, ultimately, not pleased with the brutal EQ settings I used on the box set; my studio monitors were out and I moronically mastered everything using headphones.

But, ratty EQ notwithstanding, the final product, a four-CD set of songs spanning thirteen years, was quite satisfying. And what a relief to no longer have to scramble around the house looking for tapes of this and that. It was all there, the good, the bad, and the worse. Everything but Preacher Man which, as I said, really was just that bad.

I wasn't quite ready for the incalculable nostalgic emotional punch of the work. I've spent a lot of time listening and remembering people and places. What the room smelled like when we recorded certain things. Inner City Sound, in Brooklyn, had a ratty elevator that many of us were certain we'd die in some day. Meeting The Ramones at Planet Studios. Mike Theodore playing Lester's snare hits over and over and over and over and over. The grimly serious John Parker hunched over the Fender Rhodes working out precision solo licks on the opening bars of Sorry To Say. Some Guy I didn't know (there was always Some Guy hanging around) giving me The Stupid Face (that's him in the too-tight chinos standing behind singer Pearl Bates, below). I love how people with no money and no talent love to show up at your sessions that you are paying for and where you are hard at work and give you The Stupid Face.

I remember the day Yanick walked into the studio. Busy with details, I said hello or something in passing while being totally struck by her beauty but pretending not to notice because my best friend, James, was struggling to capture her attention. I came out of the control room to discover the girl had, within seconds, effected a complete change of clothing. It was one of those magical moments where I actually stopped obsessing about the session and wondered, aloud, how she managed that. Which, of course, was when I was introduced to her twin, Florence. These two people became friends and then family, in a sense, and then family for real— this grace and miracle of irreducible proportions, some small piece of my otherwise tortured adolescence, the secret high school crush came to be sleeping by my side and planning her life with mine. Which, sadly, eventually led to the two friends eventually becoming just one friend and now no friends at all. But, wait as I blow the dust off this box of cassettes— there they are again, both of them, my friends. My secret crush, still here, and now with me always.

The band down at the pier. The twins at the cookie shop. Dexter's pre-Fonzie cool. Waking up Danil, our engineer, to start a session. Karen playfully distracting everyone to the point where I wanted to send her home. Tyrone (seated, above) who, for all we know, beamed up to the mothership. And everything else going on in my life over those years. Suddenly, this trash had become a precious set of memories. A visceral reflection of a life's journey from childhood to whatever I am now. At 19 (above), I had no idea at all that this gang of high schoolers in that tiny studio would come to represent (gasps audibly) the best years of my life.

The Journey

I am beginning my journey through my 50's, now. A great many friends tell me the 40's are actually the best years because you still have some of the vigor of your youth while also possessing a greater sense of clarity and perspective. 19 year-olds have precious little perspective on anything, but now, at 52, I can look back and see opportunities missed, mistakes made, and all the many choices, good and bad. I'm a smarter man now. A more patient man. A saner man, ruled less by his passion and more by his intellect. I've given myself permission to be me, which is an Oprah-ism for self-acceptance. As kids, as adolescents, we are constantly striving to become something, often without realizing or embracing the idea of who we already are. I've made peace with the man I already are. I've stopped raging at myself and blaming myself for not being "normal," because "normal" is, by and large, a lie; a horrible thing to inflict on people.

Hollis Stone will not be appearing anywhere ever again. Frankly, I no longer need him. Hopefully, this compilation will achieve a kind of closure. Like Streetwise, this compilation is being released to an audience of about twelve. Oh, I have lots of friends who want copies so they can kind of skip through the discs and giggle at me, but in terms of people who will cherish this compilation? Yeah, maybe a dozen. To those dozen folks, this was our story.

And we had the time of our lives.

Christopher J. Priest
October 2013 / December 2001