Sunday, May 20, 2012

To Be Young: Riding Shotgun with Joseph Sell

When I first met Joe Sell, he was intimidating as all hell.

He was a year older than me in school, sported long blond hair, had no curfew whatsoever, smoked cigarettes and cruised around in a beat-up old Cadillac. In short, he was mesmerizing.

On the other hand, I was an incredibly sheltered suburban "good kid" and wanted desperately to fully explore the freedom & semi-dangerous lifestyle he was already well-inhabiting. That's really why I was drawn to rock 'n' roll in the first place after all - larger-than-life personalities like Joe Sell.

The early days are slowly becoming a blur to me as I get older. Shows in basements, graduating to shows in clubs & eventually sold-out shows in, well, clubs still. At the time though, the rise felt meteoric. All my teenage fantasies of record labels flying us out to New York & national radio stations playing our songs were coming true. The five of us were experiencing our dreams together and I know Joe felt both as ecstatic & overwhelmed as I did.

Him and I didn't get close - really close anyway - until later. Those first years after Throwing the Game was released, we toured incessantly - one year we played something like 300 shows (Adam would know the exact number) - it was something only insane people would do. We were desperately trying to jump start an "under-performing-by-major-label-standards" album & took any tour - any routing - we could get ourselves booked on in an effort to win over crowds & make our name outside of Chicago. Everyday was an uphill battle, but it was also the most exciting time of our lives.

99% of our touring years were done the way most groups tour - with a van and trailer. While we were able to pamper ourselves with overnight hotel rooms at the Super 8 motel chain when possible (high-class accommodations surely) - those long, seemingly endless drives - trudging through snowstorms in the Dakotas, gunning it in heat-stricken dashes across the endless Southwest desert - that was all us - together and alone in a four-bench church van.

And it's there, in the smelly, claustrophobic confines of that white, steel tube on wheels, that I have perhaps my fondest memories of my old friend Joe.

He loved to drive the van. In fact, he was insistent on it. I still can't be sure if it was more of a calming activity for him, or if he just didn't want any of us nitwits (wisely) endangering his safety. Adam doesn't drive, Stubhy's a terrible driver (love you man) and I can't not speed, which made everyone on-edge every time I got behind the wheel. So, by default, Joe did the majority of the driving our entire touring career. That's a lot of mileage.

Every time we had a night drive, I hoped Joe was going to be behind the wheel. In fact, I'd time my "van naps" with his, so that when he woke up & took over the wheel, I could jump in shotgun to be by his side.

Why? Because sitting up front with him during these drives - cruising through this amazingly weird & mysterious country together - were magical moments for me. Especially at night.

We had three main records at night - Being There by Wilco, Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams & Faithless Street by Whiskeytown. People were always surprised to discover we didn't much care for ska or pop-punk as we got older.

"You say you want to play country, but you're in a punk-rock band."

Whiskeytown - "Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel"

Anyway, allow me to set the scene - The van is dead silent except for the hum of the engine. The only vehicle on some deserted country highway in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the guys have settled down from the post-show buzz and are laying down in their benches - calling their girls, sleeping off the free booze etc. The sky is full of stars more plentiful than we would ever see in Chicago - so bright they light up the entire horizon. The two of us - Joe at the wheel, me sitting in shotgun - listening to those same damn records - over & over - talking about...well, the things we always talked about I guess - music, shows, books, & girls.

My job was to entertain him, to keep him awake at 3AM while he's driving though the winding Colorado mountains and the endlessly unremarkable, landmark-free plains of the Midwest. It was a job I took very seriously. I'd make mix discs in our dressing room before our set for us to listen to that night, trying to get him into whatever new band I was into that week (he usually hated it). Joe abhorred "hipster" music & culture in general - I always felt like he was born in the wrong decade and would have fared far better in the 30's or 40's - simpler, gentler times. Less bullshit. I think he felt that way too - displaced.

Regardless, we'd pass the time however we could - texting girls in different time zones to see if they were still awake (making lewd requests if they were). Sharing awful, sugary truck stop snacks (he delighted in eating those gas-station hot dogs - mainly to disgust everyone else; he was no health nut). I'd even read to him - by flashlight as to not wake the other guys - passages from Hammer of the Gods, On the Road & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We'd get inspired by these debauchery-fueled tales and hatch plans to intensify the chaos level on tour. We'd often succeed.  

Sure, we had cell phones then, but you couldn't surf the web with any reasonable speed and we had to wait until we got to the hotel to check our Myspace (!) pages. For hours & hours at a time, we'd just have laughs, late-night confessions, the occasional scandalous text message (which we always shared with each other - sorry girls) and Jeff Tweedy's gravelly voice soothing us as we cruised through the night...together and alone...trying to stay awake until the next adventure...

We roomed together in California when both Throwing the Game and Commitment were being recorded. It essentially just came down to the fact that our personalities were similar enough that we wouldn't kill each other during the stressful, but often mundane recording process. During the first record, we both vowed to abstain from...self-pleasure until our guitar & drum tracks were done, so that the "pent-up aggression" & "rawness" made it onto the tape. It was a ludicrous idea, but it made sense at the time. He caved first. Said he lasted about a week-and-a-half, but he was probably lying.

During Commitment, we were older, less wide-eyed & a bit more cynical. While the other guys tracked their parts, we'd spend days in our darkened Redondo Beach apartment, watching the DVD extras of all of the Lord of the Rings movies, anxious to get back on tour, in the van, on the road.

Joe, with his fair skin and limited tolerance of SoCal douchebaggery, wasn't much for the beach scene. So I stayed with him at our place, watching featurettes about the costume direction for Hobbits. Neither of us minded.

When his mood served him right, Joe could make me (or anyone really) feel like the center of the universe. During the best times, we were like Butch & Sundance - pillaging & plundering together, leaving entire cities charred & destroyed in our wake. We roomed together on the road too and therefore managed to forge a comfortability with each other that still confounds me today.

Private phone calls to home always within earshot, "friends" staying overnight in our hotel room, coordinating bathroom times etc. Privacy goes out the window when you are literally together 24 hours a day.

Wake up, van ride, club, eat, show, party, hotel, sleep, repeat.

I even shaved his chest once in Jersey one summer when it was like 105 degrees out - with my electric razor. Oddly enough, it didn't seem that that odd at the time.

But, just as easily as those blood-brother moments took place, a switch would seemingly flip without warning and he could hold you firmly at arms length. The warmness would suddenly leave his eyes and he had the ability to make me feel like a spurned lover like that. While I built up my own defense to it over the years, it always hurt - in fact it stung like a slap across the face. When he was occasionally cruel to his girlfriends over the years, I would secretly sympathize with them - because I knew how they likely felt.

The later, more recent years are harder for me to describe, partly because we were less & less a daily part of each other's lives. On the road in 2007, the band had a now-infamous meltdown at a truck-stop in Texas and it was the last tour we were ever to do. Things were never quite the same for Joe and I - we went from spending every-waking-minute together to seeing each other once, twice a month.

During our hiatus, I went back to school, got married, got a day job, had kids - the normal things that most people end up doing. Joe, for his part, never did what one was supposed to do. He was a contrarian to the bone - he'd always root for the underdog and wasn't afraid to take the unpopular stance. He never wavered on his beliefs, but he never shoved them down anybody's throat either. Not many people can say that they are genuinely free - liberated and unburdened by societal norms.

Joe Sell could say that. He was truly a free man.

In a lot of ways, Joe Sell was the epitome of the underdog. He was always fighting uphill - to pay the rent, to keep his car running etc. The rest of us would joke about how we'd need to reach him by carrier pigeon for band practice since his cell phone was turned-off every other week. He'd leave his suitcase at some girl's house on the road, forget it and just hit the salvation army in the next town with nary a concern. Things like clothes, bills, material possessions - these things just weren't important to Joe like they are to you and I.

It was confounding to us, but it was an essential part of his charm.  In a consumer-obsessed culture like ours is, Joe shunned all of it - he favored a book and some Hank Williams on the radio. Nobody else was like him that I had ever met. Nobody.

Listen - there's going to be things said - on message boards, in the papers - some of it true and some of it not. Firstly, I think there are unavoidably difficult, painful lessons to be learned from this - about the nature of addiction and about what a pervasive, cruel disease it can be. I have vacillated between incredible grief, guilt & anger all week long. It's something I don't fully understand yet, but I'm trying. Friend's have been incredibly comforting this week. Many thanks to all of you.

Just as important though, I hope that everyone continues to take time to learn more about each other's unique experiences and encounters with Joe Sell. These stories, over time, form a mosaic that illustrate and define a man's life once he's gone.

From what I've seen already this week, there are literally thousands of stories people have about Joe Sell - funny, crazy, sweet & bizarre stories- and together they form the narrative of a talented, gentle, flawed & beautiful young man.

A man that I'm only beginning to comprehend how much I'm going to miss.

A man who's loss has made the world a quieter, less-brilliant place.