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Memoire Music

When the Music is Over, Death is Worth Living

The improvisational music collective called Death Worth Living is at the heart of my life in Portland. I present this memoire covering a twenty year journey in music, with fourteen years in Portland, allowing the full interweaving of stories connecting dozens of musicians and artists that touched the DWL project.

Discovering Death Worth Living

After the Keep Portland Weird housewarming party, one night I can’t recall when, we were hanging out on the back porch and my mouth spouted out this phrase, “A death worth living,” and it rung a bell for me.

When you are looking for a new band name, you will clip phrases all day and hope they float. Sometimes I wonder if I mistook an album title for a band name.

Once I had the name, anyway, I could start booking gigs.

Rotture was a new club, meant to be a dirty dive bar on a grand scale, and the people behind that club were close knit with Danava’s scene. I kept riding what little after-burn I had going and got a show there.

I asked I Am the Arm to headline. They had gotten attention for having drummer Lauren K. Newman (R.I.P. 2019) in the band. Except that for Rotture forward, she wasn’t in the band. 

To open, I asked noise scene star Pulse Emitter, who, at the time, would perform drone sets on a single analog rack synthesizer. This solved the issue of stage space and timing.

More importantly, it gave DWL the middle slot, and when it comes to local showcases, you want the middle, because that is when everyone is still there. 

Rotture Jan 25 2007 Screen Printed Poster by Gary Menghini

Only thing left was to form a band. I have a way of putting the cart before the horse and still getting places.

One raining night in the fall, J Morales called me up to come out to his place to jam.

The barn was the place that this far out character named Shane lived, just on the edge of Portland, on the hillside of Newberry Road.

You had to drive down a steep driveway and lug your gear up a ladder, but once you settled in, it was a special place to chill and make music.

I got his number and asked him to be in the DWL band. Shane said yes to every gig he was asked to play. For him it was a catch phrase, “Yes!”

I remember when I first saw him. He always made an impression on people. He was this old and odd fellow regularly at Tugboat, a perfect little jazz bar with a very micro brewery. 

DB invited me there because Mark Kaylor, a drummer he knew through work at J&M Café, was doing an improv set. As Shane was using the trumpet for everything but its intended purpose, DB leaned to me pointing at Shane and asked, “Do you think that guy can play?”

“I really don’t know,” I said.

Soon thereafter I saw Shane again at Tugboat, only this time Justin’s ex-girlfriend was sitting at a table alone as well, so I sat down and caught up with her. Turned out she was dating Shane.

He was Portland’s last surviving true west coast beatnik-hippy. Shane came up in San Francisco in the late 60’s. He distributed acid at Grateful Dead shows before they were even called that. He has a thousand good stories.

Shane, Mark, and Jay were all friends before I met any of them. 

This kind of play was still new to me. It’s all about the sounds and the momentum, free fall, and what we did was so far from being about melody and structure that it felt like a new frontier. It always does, that’s the thing about improvisation.

The next day, I was on the phone with a girl that I had just met but was all jacked up about, telling her, “I decided to play music every day, no matter what. So when I got this invitation for last night, I took it.”

She was the drummer for Old Time Relijun, a band that I was a big fan of, especially for their live act. The records never captured the same energy. I would dance wildly at their shows. If you look at the band’s history, Germaine Baca on drums represents the prime of their career.

Germaine and I met at Rotture. It was Glass that invited her to sit down at our table. She gave me a glance and we exchanged numbers right there.

Our first date was a drive up to the lava tube caves. We found a cove somewhere that I think humans have been secretly fucking in for thousands of years. In total darkness inside a cold lava tube just spreading yourself on someone is really hot.

We hung out a little more in Portland before she had to go to Los Angeles. She was a wild party girl, well known for it, difficult to pin down and truly averse to commitment, however not intimacy. We could talk about anything, revealing ourselves freely.

Germaine was living in her van in Hollywood for the girl band reboot of Friends Forever, a truly anarch-glam-noise band based out of Colorado that would only play out of their van. In fact, Monte and DB brought me to one of their shows in Portland, years before Germaine was in the band. She was in the “Josh Taylor’s Friends Forever” reboot based in Los Angeles. This was a hot chick version of it. Using Germaine gave legitimacy to it, being a Colorado drummer.

I called Germaine just before coming through to visit my family in Arizona for the holidays.

This time, I took a rideshare down from Portland. Nice dude, he kept a positive vibe, but he bumbled the ride. It was crazy. His serpentine belt blew out and he paid top dollar for immediate service. Before that, he spent two hours driving the wrong direction on I-5 while I slept.

Amazingly, we arrived in LA exactly on time for Germaine’s show on Melrose Avenue and Heliotrope.

She was eager to see me. It turned out there were tensions with the band. Not to mention she was alone in Los Angeles living in her van, granted in their driveway. I provided a protective element for her, although I seemed to only further drive this wedge between her and the band.

Germaine and I spent several days together, like a couple attached at the hip. We walked a hundred miles around the city, cruised up to Griffith Park, and watched a matinee of Borat, to name a few activities.

After those several days, she dropped me off at the Union Station and I headed for Tucson. On the train, I ran into this music synthesizer nerd with THC candies to share. I had a bottle of “two buck chuck” and we got toasted talking about music into the night.

After that, I had no weed, so my holidays were visited by a number of vivid dreams.

A symptom of chronic marijuana use is a dulling of dream activity. When you stop taking THC, your dreams reactivate quite possibly with some backlog.

Some of them were foreboding, like the fact that Germaine was about to dog me. 

Unfortunately, she did, snubbing me weeks later when I ran into her at Doug Fir. She didn’t even tell me she was in Portland. I was truly broken up by that. She used me in LA and now I was nobody to her. 

She called me to apologize, at some point. However, it was never good after that.

The other big dream that came true involved a big house in the forest on the hillside with winding muddy driveways, a white cargo van, and I was almost just using the van as an assistant to Greg of Danava who was addicted to heroin in the dream, and when I called him out I was tossed from the party at the house, cast off the hillside, with no van, on foot alone traversing the muddy trails.

The whole journey of that dream would be lost were it not for the true manifestations of it in real life. Everything about that dream came true over the course of the next decade.

That weird dream stuck with me, and in its wake, a desire was growing to have a music studio in the forest. Synchronicities began to lead me that way.

The big gig for DWL coming up was January 25, 2007, and it was time to buckle down on the band. I reached out far and wide from friends, to friends of friends, and Craigslist. I had already produced rehearsal by December that players could study.

Portland Mercury blurb week of 01-25-07

During the week of the event, I ran around dropping flyers. Stopping through The Tube, a punk chic blue backlit bar downtown, I ran into Greg and I joined his company. Nathan Carson was at the table, he wrote blurbs for Portland Mercury at the time.

He took my flyer, said he loved I Am the Arm and Pulse Emitter. I promised to deliver a super group and a unique performance. The very next day, the blurb was in the paper.

One of our last rehearsals before the show, I told Shane about my vision for a studio. I asked him to tell me if any rentals around there came up. He said, “Yes!”

Jay was moving out. Or he had already moved out.

Shane grifted brilliantly in that moment, arranging for me to drive him home so that he would show me the room on the farm. I took the bait.

We came rambling up the driveway late at night with my old Toyota pick up. The landlord Brian woke up from his sleep and stepped out onto his patio to learn what the hell was going on. Shane explained, Brian muttered something and let us be.

The farm had a main house with a smaller sheep barn, a detached carport with a bunkhouse above that. This room had been built for his two sons decades before. 

It was a small studio with angled ceilings, carpeting, insulation, and exposed wood rafters. This design could have been engineered with acoustics in mind, but it was only a coincidence. No street sounds to worry about either. It made for an excellent little music studio. Base rent was like $250 a month.

The room was heated by a wood stove plus an electric radiator. To cook I had counters for an electric hot plate, a microwave, and a mini refrigerator. By the garden, I would have to pump two gallons of water at a time and walk them up to the room. I would have access to all the facilities of the house which ran water like normal. It was best thought of as a detached bedroom.

I had to mill it over. Everyone I ran into had to hear me tell them about this opportunity.

Everyone encouraged it. It was best stated to me by someone in Jason’s band Not Yeti, “Even if the whole thing turns out to be a failure, you have to do it.”

Life at home was getting more difficult over time. My friends and roommates worked and lived at night, but I was a day guy. They were dirty, I was clean. I was kind of losing interest in rock bands, going deeper into jazz and experimental. I began to resent them, which is a fault of my own, as I knew what I was getting into.

So I moved ahead. First I had to meet with the landlord and give notice to my house.

I also needed to get through that Rotture show. I had been working on a piece that I called “Frantic Walls” with an ensemble, but we lacked drums. I developed directions and a few repeating phrases. These minimal phrases are improvised over by the other players until I abandon them and we go together into abrupt shifts in mood. It was meant to represent the existential dilemma involved with the breaking point where you may find God, or catharsis, and unity.

Frantic Walls visual score with clumsy notation
“Frantic Walls” recorded live at Rotture 01-25-07

Zac Nelson was being flown out by I Am the Arm because they were investing in him to be their drummer. When I learned this, considering he was friends with everyone in my band, I poached him. It was an easy gig, he just had to improvise over the piece.

The personnel in the end was Zac on drums, myself on piano, Tony and Joe on guitar, Steven Shane Schneider on alto sax and Jason Schmidt on clarinet, Ezra Reece on viola (RIP 2022), Evelyn Weston and Melissa Hawley on voice. With nine performers on stage and unusual instrumentation, it was a spectacle.

Ironically, it was one of those nights that went so well and smooth that nothing particularly memorable strikes me. Everyone got along, we had a strong turnout for a weeknight, there was a bit of money, we kept the party going at the salad house, and life was good.

Soon I would move onto the farm, but gradually I would learn just how closely that decision would unfold like the dream.

Near-Death Accidents

There were only a few remaining months in my community college career, the change of location may have strained the commute, but the trade was peace, sobriety on demand, and deep sleep every night.

Work-trade kept my out of pocket rent below $200, and I volunteered to clear out his overgrown garden in trade for designated grow space. With good soil, well water, and free sheep manure, it was easy to make a garden thrive.

Shane and I would incorporate my studies into music. 

He loved rolling spliffs. So many hours of him standing above his dresser, perfecting the consistency of flower to tobacco, telling stories at the same time. I’d wait fifteen minutes for a spliff.

VHS tapes in the college library played just fine in Shane’s TV/VCR combo, and it was bonus content for subjects that I was studying, like archaeology and jazz documentaries. Then we would jam and repeat the cycle.

Adam Keller made a short art documentary about our farm life, in 2008, and it provided a good illustration of the kind of antics we were up to, but it is very limited in terms of what it actually reveals about us and the farm life.

Short doc by Adam Keller about myself and Shane

Studying got easier as I had the ability to control my party time. Mostly, I continued to study at or around school, and I learned to divide my time, as I had ten miles to drive in, long shuttle commutes between campuses. The best classes are in Sylvania, in the deep southwest.

With Tony and Joe, we had formed a trifecta. Joe had a project called Zecki Am Sun, Tony had Rainbow and the Kittens, I had DWL, and we all backed each other in our bands.

Joe entered my life concurrent to Zac Nelson’s September 2006 KBOO appearance on Night of the Living Tongue, the audio of which I released on CD-R. It was a big band called the Full Moon Love Gang, for one night only, because it was a full moon that night.

I remember Joe coming over to buy mushrooms and he said I looked familiar, but that was something he was finding when he met people that would have a larger role in his life. I noticed that too, but he felt it deeper than I had before. It’s not a bad barometer. When I fail to read it, I tend to let the wrong people in my life.

The first show after Rotture for DWL was a trio with Tony and Joe. It was small, it was quiet. If people wanted a spectacle, I failed them. In retrospect, any kind of light or video show would have been the difference for the band.

“Sun Freckled Space Sloths” 4-Track Recording with Tony and Joe

The kind of camaraderie that we had, Joe, Tony, and myself is difficult to find.

I took to the farm life like I had always been. Of course, I had a lot to learn, but I dove right in.

I didn’t work a job. I hustled a few bucks here and there and collected student loans. Mostly, I was excited about music and gardening, and survived on like $600 a month. There was a landline in the room and a weak wireless signal from the house. Life was simple and cheap.

There is a detail worth mentioning in this narrative. I survived a life-threatening accident only days before moving onto the farm.

I got into a bicycle accident on Hawthorne Blvd, Super Bowl Sunday of 2007. I had a shoulder bag full of books, and I was riding to Tiny’s Cafe on 12th Avenue.

Hawthorne Boulevard is an actual mountain slope of Mount Tabor. I was rolling downhill and had already picked up momentum on my oversized steel Raleigh touring bike as I approached SE 23rd. 

The driver of a large pick up truck did not see me coming and he abruptly turned left. I squeezed the brake lever hard snapping a weak cable and roared ahead broad siding her. My book-laden shoulder bag swung in a counter motion to the impact pulling my shoulder one side while the other took the impact as I turned into the truck.

Landing on my feet, I flung off the backpack, dragged my things to the curb, and sat down at the cafe steps. There was a coffee pump and mugs in front of the cafe. I gave myself a coffee and rolled a cigarette. I was in shock. People started to approach me.

The woman driving the truck was in shock. She pulled over, talked with me, turned out to be driving a vehicle insured by a first nation tribe, and she was very apologetic. She drove me home.

In a state of shock, you do not recognize the pain that will soon be associated with your injury. It was not until that night that I felt I should go to the emergency room. Thankfully, indeed nothing had broken, but the trauma was severe enough to warrant a rehabilitation process.

I would take some vicodin, dozens of chiropractic appointments, massage, and a little physical therapy at the end. The whole process was facilitated by my auto insurance policy. I just had to do a little bit of negotiation. I hired and promptly fired a lawyer when I realized he wouldn’t do anything my parents couldn’t help me with, as they were insurance professionals.

One month after this accident, I got in another accident. I was driving my truck through an intersection with no stop signs when I struck another truck to my left. The rule of thumb is to give right-of-way to the right hand, so when we struck each other, he was considered at fault. No injuries, but the truck was totaled.

They valued the truck twice over what I originally paid for it. I bought a 1996 Subaru Legacy wagon and pocketed several hundred bucks plus the sale of the truck.

These disruptions were fortunate enough. I had extra cash for a minute, and I didn’t let the injury stop anything. It really wasn’t a bad injury for a student to deal with.

Bicycle riding stopped for a couple of months while treatment of the injury took effect. I think I sold my leftover vicodin to Shane. 

Someone at the salad house had a Trek mountain bike that they were willing to sell for almost nothing. I had it tuned up.

On February 27, we had a gig at Valentine’s for Joe’s friends in Sacramento, Daniel and Michael aka Pregnant and Woman Year. The show was a flop. 

They had zero draw in Portland and virtually nobody came out to see us, except for one lovely young woman that talked with me for a bit about mixing experimental music with pop, something we all felt we were doing. We exchanged emails before the man handler in her life grabbed her to bounce to another show.

Something about her presence was special because pretty girls come and go but I never forgot Natalie Mering. We never made it to each other’s shows but we followed each other on Facebook and swirled in the same music circles. In 2019, her project Weyes Blood exploded.

The best opportunities in life do not linger.

Joe was already planning us a little tour to the Sacramento area. He promised he could deliver the community there. He was correct.

Only a month later, we got in the Subaru and rode down for three shows, two of which were in Sacramento and the other Davis, a nearby college town.

This tour was placed in between my final two quarters during spring break, in late March. 

The night before the whole thing, I picked up Joe at his house and drove him to the barn for a pre-tour jam with Shane.

We found the man in rough shape. His arm was purple, swelled, stiff, and in need of immediate attention, but he didn’t want the attention.

The story is absurd. He was routinely feeding the llamas through an open area in the floor without guard rails. He did it a thousand times, but finally he stepped into the opening. It was about an eight foot drop. His arm was caught on the way down and the rest of his body took a shock. The man had already been through some injuries, he was almost 60.

Shane was determined to go ahead with the tour. He already had vicodin. He just doubled down. We smoked hella weed.

Joe crashed in the barn. In the morning, we got out as fast as we could.

We stopped at this old gas station in the middle of Oregon. It still had the old fashioned pumps in front of the shop. We were approached by a local backwoodsman. He wanted to smoke some weed and sell us some mushrooms.

I felt indifferent to the idea but Joe and Shane were on the same wavelength about this. Had it been me, I would have kept moving, as we had a long way to go, and we never would have learned about the shrooms.

We got the shrooms. Later at a grocery store, I got nutmeg per Shane’s orders.

We stopped again at a casino, even just to listen to the sound of it, as if we had all the time in the world. Joe picked a slot machine and made us envision winning. He won $15 instantly. Then pushed it down to $10.50 before we said stop.

It is a long way from Portland to Sacramento. The show was in progress when we arrived at Luna Cafe. Joe and I unloaded the gear to the stage while Shane procured hot water and honey. Nutmeg is an MOA inhibitor and pairs with mushrooms.

We sat in the car for a few minutes and drank down the tea. About fifteen minutes later, we were starting the performance, and the shrooms were just kicking in. A classic moment caught on tape, I pointed out Shane’s arm and everyone gasped in unison, “Holy shit!”

“Luna’s Broken Arm” DWL Live at Luna Cafe March 2007

Impressive that Shane could play drums with two arms and hold down a groove in that condition, not just injured but fucked up on opioids, weed, and mushrooms, at age 60.

Joe’s set up included a Tascam 4-track and these Indian pop tapes, electric guitar, and effects. I believe my only instrument was the ARP Odyssey, reverb, and maybe some percussion.

From that point forward, over the next few days, Joe and I were relieved from Shane care. He was a lucky man. He had all the young hipster artist darlings taking care for him. They got ice. They held his arm. They massaged him. This they did out of natural instinct.

After the first night, we had the Delta of Venus in Davis where we opened for this garage rock band Monotonix from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Our set was raucous. Not even as rhythmic as the previous night, but forceful like a punk band. We went in high energy. It was also psychedelic as usual. They liked it.

We all ended up crashing at the same house together that night, where the dude who ran the show lived.

The next night we had a basement show in Sacramento. We were scheduled to open for I Am the Arm, again in Sacramento, at Fool’s Foundation the next day. Boyd disinvited us when he learned we had just played three other shows in the area. Although I don’t think it was necessary, because everyone enjoyed having us around, his concept of professionalism was correct, you aren’t supposed to play more than one venue in a market in a given week.

Following this tour, I just had another quarter, less than three months of study to accomplish my Associate of Arts Degree — the most comprehensive program they offered. It was frankly exciting. The coursework only got better and I gave it my total priority for the last stretch.

Graduated in the spring of 2007 on Dean’s List picking up an Asian Studies Focus Award — I was in the first ever round of recipients for that ongoing program.

It felt like resolving my screw up in high school. My parents flew out for it, living in my bunkhouse while I stayed in the barn with Shane. I showed them KBOO, they met my weird friends, they saw my real life and respected it.

I was so smitten with Sacramento, however, that I organized a kind of residency there for the summer. The idea was to form a DWL band from local players and work toward one big show.

The Sacramento Experiment

Indigenous talent in Sacramento in 2007 was explosive but unknown. Fame was their second dream. Their first dream was shredding. That’s just how it was. Very few of them really broke through the mainstream, but I saw indie record deals being cut for these guys all day.

I arranged players in Sacramento, including Zac, Daniel, and Michael, to join Death Worth Living as members, workshop a set locally and bring it to 21 Grand in Oakland, one of the premiere avant-garde west coast venues.

There was this academic itch that I was foolishly scratching by trying to use these players to revive “Frantic Walls,” granted that a lot of people felt it was our strongest set, so it seemed like a good idea to do it. I grabbed Chenelle Gris to fulfill the vocal part.

After rough attempts to go through Frantic Walls or build jams with intentional themes, after playing awkward shows with poorly rehearsed ideas, ahead of the big Oakland show, Zac insisted that we set aside all ideas and just meet up with a case of beer at Fools Foundation with our instruments.

Putting our last initials together we had a band name: ONBST. Zac read that as “On B Street,” fitting nicely into Sacramento’s flat navigable grid, even though we didn’t do anything on B Street.

“ON B ST” recorded at Fool’s Foundation
Practicing Haley’s art studio. Myself left, Daniel middle, Joe right.

In retrospect, if we had focused on finding our vibe as an improvisational group first while recording it, I would have had a much more productive residency, and an album to publish.

I was more interested in the image. I strutted around that town like an art star. I found myself chasing chicks and hurting feelings. Sacramento was a smaller scene than Portland so I quickly knew everybody.

In the first few days everyone was like, “Why don’t you move here?” By the end, too much drama had ensued and we all had a sense of relief that this residency was ending.

The S & 22nd house, where I stayed, had a huge role in that scene. It was a show house and a social layover to everyone, people just dropped by all day. We scheduled several rehearsals. For one reason or another, they went poorly.

Someone — I forget who — aptly pointed out over coffee at the Naked Lounge that my band had a lot of big egos (and good players) so I should expect some clashing.

Our finale show was with a Weasel Walter quartet and Jacob Felix Heule. I got Zac’s band Whose Your Favorite Son God, but it was too rock for that audience.

I was able to book Weasel Walter because he knew Greg from Chicago. They are both improvisers with a taste for both free jazz and metal.

In that gallery setting, surrounded by sophisticated players — rumors of Henry Kaiser in the audience — we didn’t retain that ONBST edge, and I think it just all came off awkwardly.

Had it not been for Zac intervening and demanding a purely free jam session, we might not have had any cohesion at all. We survived it.

Very little money was paid out that night, or for the other two gigs for that matter. I got twenty bucks, forty bucks, here and there, so maybe the right thing was to give everyone ten bucks, but I was supporting myself — I remember buying Daniel a pack of cigarettes. I used my EBT card to buy groceries and make meals for the house. I did dishes and shit. A bunch of starving artists, we were. I earned my gas money home by transporting this big trunk to Oregon for someone off Craigslist, no questions asked.

Joe got a good deal because he sold his truck and I moved him down with my Subaru. We might have split gas but that’s one cheap move.

Sadly Joe wanted to live in Sacramento. The departure of Joe was a big deal. That trifecta with Tony was broken. I kept on playing with Tony’s projects but a shift had already gotten underway, as life on the farm and the influence of Shane was changing everything about my social life and the music I wanted to play.

Remarkably soon after Joe moved back to Sacramento, this guy named Joey Hyland showed up in Portland from Sacramento, moving in with Tony. I joked with Joe that he had replaced himself, an alien, with a cyborg: Joe-E.

When Joey moved to Portland, he was interested in a different kind of project, something less about shred and more about head. We shared the idea of improvisational music with structure.

Nothing was wrong per se in trying to make DWL into something like this, but we were pushing the river. There was cognitive dissonance. I still accepted Shane as core to DWL. He was an old guy that literally plays instruments upside down. I resolved that issue simply by never expecting him to memorize a part. Like a mascot, he was permitted to roam free.

I turned to Joey, the new guy, because he reinforced this bias toward structure that I was attached to. He was a steady player, like a metronome, and his communication was direct.

I set myself up a birthday party at the barn in October 2007, just two months after my Sac gigs. A new duo of Michael Saalman and Jon Bafus called Afternoon Brother drove up for the gig. I had Rollerball and Ghost to Falco headlining.

Zac Nelson wasn’t working out as the long distance drummer for I Am the Arm, so by this time Justin was drumming for them. Joey wanted Justin and Boyd in the band, at least for the barn show.

We had rehearsals. There were tensions here and there — Shane was never into it — Justin and I historically struggled to work together on music, but we all liked each other and cooperated to accomplish the set in practice.

But it never happened.

To my memory of it, there were psychedelics floating around the party, I believe acid was in the mix. I know I had a taste of shrooms. People were handing me beers and joints all night. When time came for our set, nobody turned up but me.

Michael grabbed me by the arm and said, “Let’s shred.” He jumped on his bandmate’s drum kit and we put 100% of our energy into it as a duo. I played the electric piano. Out of the crowd emerged Jason Schmidt with his electrified clarinet. He jumped in as an honorary DWL guy and it became a trio.

We fully exhausted our load in maybe 15 minutes. I turned to Michael and he dropped his drumsticks like a microphone. That was that.

The DWL band that rehearsed didn’t play. The set we worked on: Dead on Arrival.

Everyone was pissed with me. I was high as fuck and they were more so. That’s why they didn’t set up their gear and lost track of time. All I did was fill time with Michael, and it was probably for the best.

After that show, I admitted to Shane that my approach to the band was flawed. I had to start from scratch. Death Worth Living needed a time out.

Joey, who actually lived with Tony for a while, moved to the State of Washington, and we haven’t heard from him for many years. He was a cyborg after all.

The Year at Portland State

Some time just at the end of summer, I received my insurance settlement for the bicycle accident in the winter. Something like $8,000 arrived as a check in the mail. I picked up a hustle here and there, gardened, worked on the farm, and continued to act poor. It was just at the end of summer, ahead of the fall term at Portland State University.

I first enrolled like a typical music student, but I was so self-conscious in theory class because most students did this in high school, were ten years younger, and I was behind, I was embarrassed and dropped out of the class.

Rather than take the appropriate sequences toward a music performance degree, I went all over the map. I joined the percussion section for the first year wind symphony and the jazz combo led by Daryl Grant playing piano. I took computer music composition, film scoring, anything but the correct sequence to earn the degree. 

This is strange, because I was totally focused on the requirements of the Associates Degree and wasted not a single credit dollar. At PSU I racked up debt for fun.

Doug Haning became my private piano instructor for cash. No credits but he helped. I had a private percussion instructor for credits also. I spent at least eight hours a day studying or practicing music on campus.

I dropped from A’s and B’s, to B’s and C’s. I tried, but it was hard. I made it hard by making my own program, essentially.

The basement of Smith Hall had a food cooperative cafe called Food For Thought. It was a huge space. They had a pot of coffee on the honor system, with just one cup for one buck. I abused it rarely. 

I spent lots of my time there. One day, I began improvising on the old piano they had in the corner sometimes. It took guts. Just sit down and jam. I was doing that at Proper Eats as well.

My like-minded peers in the school emerged quickly, some I knew before, some I just met. We all had ties in the experimental scene: Brandon Conway, Branic Howard, Scott Stobbe, and Peter Bryant especially. Most academic musicians are pretty normal for the artist class.

I would run into Branic a lot through the corridors, holding the same mug from the cafe all the time, refilling it day after day, traversing three halls to Food For Thought. Branic is the younger brother-in-law of Monte from Danava. I remembered meeting him as a teenager, myself just 22.

Branic had me open for Thollem McDonas in his rehearsal space in the fall of 2008, and we collaborated on some recordings that I only recently put out on Bandcamp.

This event was also the only time that I ever conducted a composition. It was for saxophone quartet, with Doug Haning on baritone, Pete Bryant on tenor, Ben Kates on alto, and Jef Leighton Brown on soprano. People said I should keep doing that kind of work. My attention however is like the wind.

Saxophone Quartet Recording at Boxlift Studio

Pete organically entered my life as we kept running into each other at the cafe or on a shuttle from PCC. We didn’t hang out much. Now we shared the music program. He was a good candidate for DWL. He had a rock band that was falling apart and was looking for something different.

With university studies occupying my time and energy, it was a good solution only to jam freely with my friends. Death Worth Living gradually turned away from structure.

It was interesting because I discovered that the master class jazz students were using a totally different structure, with images and moods rather than notated melodies and chords, like the bebop tradition sustained well through the 80’s.

That is what “Frantic Walls” was. I arranged tonal centers, motifs, and dynamics, using non-traditional notation and imagery.

It is funny, you can be advanced in concept but rudimentary in technique at the same time.

Every day, I ran arpeggios through the 12 tonal centers, practiced reading, notation, and pitch perception. It was a constant grind catching up with students that began with symphonies in the 7th Grade. I just wanted to rock, but I was learning just how much these classical players can shred trying to catch up with them.

Straight improvisation became the metric for my abilities as a musician. I was beginning to find it easier to spontaneously build structure with players.

Shane and I started playing at the St. Johns cafe and market called Proper Eats. After one time as Pink Floyd, we went with name Dilletantric Duo.

Somehwere along the line Ryan Stuewe and Dana Valatka started jamming with Shane and Myself. We had a few random shows in early 2008. Dana moved on but Ryan stuck around.

One constant throughout this phase became Pete. However, our rapport and practice regimen made him optional. All I really needed for him was to show up with his sax, but if he didn’t, we still jammed. He often rode his bike to gigs. For him, it was the easiest project ever to be involved with.

Jean-Paul Jenkins was Shane’s best friend, I would say. Shane and JP have played music together for uncountable hours. He also played with Dana in other projects, like CEXFUCX.

I remember JP was in a fuck-all-them mood to where he wasn’t playing or organizing any shows during early 2008. It is understandable, I went through that phase later. The scene can be a real cold bitch.

JP lived in an apartment about ten blocks from KBOO. It was a dive, but their landlord was City Bikes, and his rent was under $200. We smoked weed, listened, played, and talked about music all day. He naturally became the third pillar to DWL.

I made this band as easy as possible on people after the whole mess of trying to structure bands into unique one-off performances. Good players with freedom make for a good set.

To kick off an improvisation, it starts with one sound. If a second player is there, you begin to compete for dynamics and harmony. When you add a third player, you can split duties across harmony, rhythm, and melody. These are the pillars of music.

JP played a vintage Yamaha synth for the bass instrument. Shane continued to focus on percussion. I had a vintage Roland organ and the ARP synth. This became the core band for the rest of its years.

To Be Continued…

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