More Than Music
excerpted from Brave the Night, a memoir-in-progress
by T. Jeremy Smith
Kentucky’s hot in mid-September. Surrounded by shelves of canned goods in an unfinished basement, I pinched and pulled at the front of my shirt. Six of us dodged duct work and one another as we loaded in, our concrete corner quickly reaching capacity.
An incense called Barack Obama lingered, a low-ceiling cloud, paper globes burning like cellar suns. It was an exaggerated version of what I saw every day. My world was a hazy fog, a puffy white mystery I had been slowly walking deeper and deeper into since I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease at age ten. I cracked open a beer and continued my preparations, fingers feeling for the port on my amp. Volume all the way to the left, reverb to the right.
I had given over much of my life to thinking about my eyes, my constant companion through good times and bad. It wasn’t a literal translation, referring to my sight loss as stepping further into the dark, but it was the metaphor I lived inside. Not tonight though, tonight was a celebration.
Guitars and amplifiers from across the decades lined walls adorned with moving blankets and discarded sleeping bags, there to suck up sound. XLR cables slithered toward microphones. Bright blue LED indicators announced that pedals were powered, eager to unleash some electrified magic. I picked up the butterscotch blonde Fender Telecaster I bought with 2016’s tax return, and felt the power Bruce Springsteen had made me believe in. I strummed, feeling the guitar’s body gently resonating against my own, the neck humming, vibrating like God’s tuning fork, energy barely contained. Travis banged one last time on the Ludwig drums I had played since I was a teenager. A twist of one tension rod and the drums were tuned.
“Somebody sit this on top of that wardrobe,” I said, handing my tablet computer out into thin air, not knowing who, if anyone would reach for it. Finally, Brad took the device and positioned it in a spot where I thought a single microphone might capture our collective racket, the night now simply referred to as “The Birthday Jam.”
“You guys ready?”
A G chord, a B minor, a D, and there it was, explosions. For the first time in my life, I cast the spell. In all the years I had played, roughly twenty-five, I had never experienced a band backing me up. I had always been the guy in the background—the drummer—maybe up on a drum riser so people could see my sweaty flailing, but now the show was mine. The spotlight was on me, and that responsibility came with new demands. You, the songwriter, cannot fuck up your own song. It is one of the few rules in rock n roll. If you are going to ask others to perform your art, then you better damn well know that art inside and out. I felt that responsibility acutely, an obligation to myself and others.
Pieces I wrote, where I led, my guitar, my voice—they grew and matured, approached their own adolescence. A driving bass line, drums thumping like the blood that is rhythm. Synthesizers added the lift, that crucial ascent as we climbed. And guitars. Guitars always tell you that this creation is something alive and free, something rendered from the core, a passion realized in loud, gritty waves that could never be mistaken for anything but pure emotion.
“Go Brad!” I shouted, my lips millimeters from my SM57. Rock ‘n roll’s historian, the SM57 is the microphone on every stage in every bar you’ve ever stepped foot in. And this cry is, of course, the universal sign for the lead guitar player to take a solo. Brad grabbed the neck of his 66 Fender Mustang and took flight. His whole body focusing Jedi power, the force rendered in note.
Sweat dripped from my forearm down onto the body of my guitar, waxy streaks to be brushed away the next time Bruce left his case. A Christening; as if finally this instrument had done what its creators meant for it to do. The thin light blue Aloha shirt I picked up in Maui a couple of years earlier clung to my back as I shouted, holding a note and pressing my abdominal muscles tight to extract every last bit of air. This was gospel; my version of what I had witnessed as a kid, as congregants of the African-American church next to my parents’ house raised their windows in the summer, hands clapping, body and soul lifted in praise. It was the most joyous work I had ever done.
I looked around our musical square, a twelve by twelve block of inspiration. I couldn’t see my friends. Most were within reach of my white cane, had I been packing that rather than my axe. But details were few. I couldn’t make the customary eye contact that signaled members of a band to move, to transition to bridge or chorus, but I had played drums with all those guys. They knew how I liked to drive. As Brad wailed, bending strings in what Eric has termed the electric rubber band style, I took stock, my mind frozen like Han Solo in carbonite.
I knew where everyone stood. Even if I couldn’t see their faces or the motion of arms and fingers, I could feel them. The conjuring of that musical charm crossed the spiritual void, bringing more than music to life in our dank performance hall.
Everyone in the room had left someone at home, everyone a father but me, nine kids between the five of them. That ever-present reminder, always materializing to point out what I did not have, came to me again, sitting directly in front of my blurry eyes so that it was all I could see. Creation was stolen from me, what was music—suddenly much more.
Could you live with yourself after having a kid and finding out that kid was going to go blind, just like you? I couldn’t. The thought laid on me like a house collapsed.
At 27, I lay on an operating table. Fully awake, I stare up into bright lights conscious of the life altering change that is coming. Two nurses move around the room, performing their familiar dance. One tries to put me at ease with conversation while the other pulls the sheet back to shave my balls.
“So how many kids do you have?”
They were obviously surprised. Most seemingly healthy 27-year-old men do not volunteer for a vasectomy. But most 27-year-old men aren’t counting down the days, waiting for a shadow to permanently consume them.
There was never a definite answer when we asked, when the wife of my youth and I asked. My eye doctor in North Carolina said we should just do what we wanted and see what happens. He had the best intentions, but only one thought ever came to mind when someone suggested the possibility of a kid coming from me.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Could you live with yourself after having a kid and finding out that kid was going to go blind, just like you? I couldn’t. The thought laid on me like a house collapsed. The notion felt like signing a kid up for torture camp. Not just a weeklong adventure in frustration and alienation, but a lifelong process of disappointment and loss. I could not do it. I would not do it. Even if the chance was ten percent, it was too high. I knew all I would ever feel was guilt if I set a kid up for the hardships I had experienced.
I could not tolerate the image of teaching my son or daughter to use a cane or helping them to explain their disability to kindergarten classmates. At 27, I couldn’t do it myself. How could I expect anyone else to? The wife and I talked about it, in whatever doomed method we had for communicating. Together, we decided that adoption was a reasonable solution for us. We knew the numbers, the glut of kids in foster care. We knew there were agencies for both domestic and international adoption. I thought we had reached a consensus, but time changes things and few sounds are as persistent as the ticking of a biological clock.
The cooing of some tiny infant swaddled in her arms must have rung in her ears as we progressed toward divorce. She wanted a baby. She wanted to carry a baby, to feel it grow inside her and know it was brought forth from her own substance. There could be no substitute.
I pleaded with her in the final days, tugging on any, all heartstrings that might still connect us. Fair or unfair, I was fighting for my very survival.
“We were going to adopt a little girl. Doesn’t that matter to you anymore?”
But She was gone. I was pissing into the breeze, feet taking root as it blew back on me. The choice to have a vasectomy had been mine all along. She just did what she always did. She let me win. She did not argue what she truly believed. She just gave in, trailed along beside me holding on to whatever thin cord of logic or desire I held in my hand. I can’t blame her, but I can see how her dishonesty and my need to control and shape a world I could manage were complementary in the most destructive way. I laid the dynamite all around, and we lit the match together.
Fifteen years after my vasectomy, the world was a very different place, and genetic science had leapt into what must have seemed like science fiction to my grandparents. Where for years there had been no explanation for my blurring vision, now there was the knowledge of a defective gene. My nemesis, the microscopic villain in the comic book of my life, was called ABCA4. A recessive trait, I took the bullet both my brother and sister had dodged. My parents were carriers. They couldn’t know that, but their pairing made this thing possible. It made me possible. If you recall your high school biology, assuming you weren’t roasting marshmallows over a Bunsen burner like me, that meant the trait was dominant in me, and more likely to be passed to a child. The choice to have a vasectomy felt justified. It didn’t feel anything like a victory though.
Now in my forties, the time for kids, for having or adopting kids had passed. Maybe, heavy emphasis on the maybe, someone would come along, a woman with a kid whose life I might be a part of. But I wasn’t holding my breath anymore. I was already blue in the face, lungs ready to burst. My fatherless nephew had entered into the teenage vortex, and my ability to influence his life had sloughed away with each new inch he grew. The tiny boy who followed me around, watching my pain as I moved into the house on not-so-cheery Cherry Road after my divorce, was now six foot three. Not he, nor the adults around him could hear the messages I tried to convey, all my concerns. Now was the time for hoping, hoping he would make a few good decisions and land on a path that did not take him somewhere he didn’t want to go. The realization marked an end. Something I thought I wanted, something I thought I could have been good at was gone. Another one of life’s opportunities had eluded me, slipping through my fingers like so many grains of sand. I could never close my hands tight enough to catch them all.
College had given me a chance to know kids, summer camps and mentoring programs, hours spent at play. I avoided the perils of parenthood, shitty diapers and knock-down, drag-out fights with smart-mouthed teenagers, the nightmares that prompt honest parents to wonder why. But I saw clearly the joy of existing in the presence of little beings new to the world.
Kids were grounding. You could sit with them on the beach, content amidst rolling waves, your entire purpose a safe distance from the chaotic blue abyss. But my beach was clean and clear, one long expanse of sandy coastline and palm trees dancing in the breeze. Forces beyond my control had shipwrecked me alone on barren shores. I made a choice at 27, if you can call it that. I did not regret the choice. I simply had to live with that decision and continue making the most of a situation I did not volunteer for. That was the only real choice I ever had.
As the guys and I rounded one final musical corner, I drew the night’s rock n roll revelry to a close, cherishing that final squall. I loved to scream. I loved to signal a musical transition with some wordless sound, a cry of pain or joy, some inexplicable expression that had meaning but lived outside description. I loved it almost more than the words I wrote, and I waited with carnal anticipation for my chance to call out something primitive, the animal unleashed.
My earliest songs were what you might expect, heart break tunes born of loss. I did them in a Waylon Jennings style, simple country songs with elementary guitar chords and rock n roll attitude. It was a starting point, but one I quickly moved away from as I started to develop my own voice as a songwriter and performer.
I would always be the sore thumb, the turd in the punch bowl. My music had to represent that brand of strange. In a strictly musical sense, there was infinite room to improve as a player. But the real goal was in finding that voice, what was my own true manifestation. Not what my friends were doing, not what the scene around me was doing. The search was for something divine. That source would be genuine, pure. My job was to clear the path, to cut away all obstructions. I didn’t know where I was headed. I couldn’t see the journey’s end. The one thing I knew was that to get there, I had to growl.
Two months after The Birthday Jam, Brad, Travis, Eric and I gathered to record one of the songs we had rehearsed on that night of celebration. We listened to the recording, two hours and twenty minutes of jamming and drinking, loose songs with a shit ton of trash talk, incoherent babble, and routine stops for refills and cigarette breaks. It gave us a rough guide for recording, a road map for creating. Verse – chorus – bridge, the shape of rock ‘n’ roll.
When it came time, Eric and Brad stood beside me, amplifiers in position, mic’d up and ready to record. Travis was on drums, stationed in a neighboring room for good microphone isolation.
“You boys ready?” I asked.
“Let’s do it.”
“1, 2, uh 1, 2, 3, 4,” I said into my mike, just before unleashing a fury of high-volume belting.
Music was my religion. In all its jagged edges, I found that same spirit I could remember booming from the church next door; ten-year-old little me standing in my parents’ yard in my Sunday best. At ten, my sight was already blurring. Enough had been said—adult whisperings over me and around me, that I was afraid. A dark specter loomed. Just beginning my journey, I listened to the voices next door, imbibing the magic that was possible. Where I was raw and confused, the tortured souls next door remained joyous, present with glory. Music gave focus. Music took an unrefined element pulled from the earth and made something from it. Among the people making my kind of music, I found my kin, my clan. They might not welcome me, fold me into the fellowship, but they were just as confused as I was, and I took solace in that. As I practiced and played and evolved as a musician, a truth formed. Harness that electricity to unleash your power and arrive somewhere unimaginable. Amps blasting, your voice cutting through the dark, a catalyst of magic in your hands, Rock ‘n roll was the uncharted territory where I too could stake a claim. It belonged to the recluse. It was meant for the angry and oppressed, a place to scream and be heard. Here, the misfits could feel less alone. For me, and many others, it lit up the dark.
“You can’t runaway from what sticks to you. Follow them crumbs every one’s a clue. Get your head up above the water. Find a little something that starts to matter… to you!”
Art lived. It breathed. It bestowed something on the world with every tiny gesture. What voice I could muster and scream into the night, that would be my contribution. No matter how few people ever heard my art, bringing it into the world was an act of compassion. It took humanity a step further from our worst instincts. And that was always worth the time and dedication. My commitment to me was that whatever I created, it would be mine, born of me, my experience, my blood, my spirit. That’s what I had to value, me. Music, words, and a willingness to be on display, to perform and demonstrate the abilities of a blind man could be my own reason to believe. They had to be. My creation: art, connection, the universal bonds of humanity, love. Love, love, love. Let that be what I conjure. Light cast to you from here in the dark.
A graduate of Berea College, T. Jeremy Smith worked for several years with a non-profit organization serving the Appalachian region. Diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease at age 10, Smith has written about his journey from sight loss to mental health professional with all the mini pitfalls in between. “More Than Music” is an excerpt from that memoir-in-progress, Brave the Night.