Salvation Songs, part 7: The Fear

14 Apr

(They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 5 and 6.)


My life in music, abridged: oldies with my dad; then classic rock, a la the Beatles and the Stones; then terrible hair metal and power pop; then indie rock, with Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement; then punk, fuck yeah!, that lasted years and years, resulting in a deep hatred for music and a period of intense non-musicality; then soul music through my early twenties—I really believe that soul music saved me, redeemed me to the pleasures of the world somehow—and that brings me to 25, living in Atlanta, jobless, depressed, suddenly aware of the sub-strata of the unemployed, trying to make it as a writer, finding a job at a bookstore and eking out a living on 238 bucks a week. Two hundred of this went to bills. Twelve went to Friday night beer. That left me with 25 bucks to live on.

(You can read my lengthier autobiography in music here.)

The key to this period of my life was my consuming worry over money. I spent most of my time looking for freelance work. My writing suffered. I went on movie junkets. I reviewed films and books. I wrote little shitty pieces for two local papers. I ghostwrote a couple of books. I edited here and there. I had a safety net with my parents but I wanted to survive on my own. There was a trick to this living and writing and working thing that I wasn’t getting.

I suffered. I was nervous, jumpy, edgy and anxious. I had anxiety attacks. My big fear was getting assaulted in elevators. I white-knuckled late night walks around the neighborhood. I thought strangers were terrorists or murderers or thugs or weird sex perverts. It sounds weird now, but I was convinced that I was destined for a violent end. I had nightmares about severe beatings, with baseball bats and spiked clubs and even those old ball and chain maces from medieval times.

I broke my foot in a soccer game. I didn’t have money to go to the doctor, so I limped around with a deep purple smear across my swollen skin.

A long term relationship had recently ended, and I was upset about this, too.

I enrolled in a medical trial for a medicine for generalized anxiety. The trial was horrible. I had weird night sweats. I became convinced that the company was experimenting on me in some nefarious way (not helped by the padded elevator I had to take once a week to get to their offices).

Part of this was simply my being tuned in to the national mood. The U.S. was mobilizing to invade Iraq. Crisis was inescapable. Torture, the threat of nuclear war, instability in the middle east, weird rumblings of an impending food and water crisis, my broken foot and my inability to publish fiction and my recent breakup in my memory exists as a heady, self-pitying and viciously solipsistic stew.

The specter of failure seemed to hang over everything. I felt inside my skin there was a diamond hard, hateful little man, spewing bile into my thoughts. Behind everything, every wall and every ceiling and floor I imagined a viscous black tarry substance—the true material of the world.

In a word, I was fucked up. And young.


I was hungry, through. Hungry to write. Hungry to publish. Hungry to progress and evolve. I wrote a screenplay, titled “The Doctrine of Last Things.” A horror screenplay too damn long that manages to be more melancholy than scary, more pretentious than moving. I submitted it to Project Greenlight. I reviewed eight screenplays in the first round. My goal was to make it to the second round, a round of one thousand screenplays. I have to be as good as a thousand other screenwriters, I thought.

I was wrong.

Whereas I tried to be generous in my evaluations of the other screenplays—and except for one, they were horrible—but the reviewers of mine trashed me six ways from Sunday. Some said the characters were terrible but the dialogue was good. Others said the characters were interesting but the dialogue was miserable. To a person the reviewers thought the screenplay was dark, disturbing, depressing, unstructured, outlandish and just plain bad.

I spiraled. I internalized. I suffered.

I wrote short stories. Most of them bad. Two weren’t. “The Sound of Breaking Waves,” and “Infestation.” I submitted them both to a variety of publications. “Waves” was rejected. “Infestation” was accepted, to a new literary magazine, and with some enthusiasm. This was good news. I felt vindicated, excited, ready. I wrote three more stories. I even typed out a few poems.

Then the magazine folded before the first issue came out.

I published two ultra-short stories in a friend’s literary magazine, Honeydu. Both were fine, if a bit thin: “Good Neighbor Policy” and “Hypothetical.”


My roommates were my cousin, Keith, and a friend of his from kindergarten, Jonathan. We lived like college kids, up late and unpredictable, with makeshift furniture and a rotating cast of suspicious rakes, weirdoes, obsessives, failures, and drunks. Keith and I had family there, so we had sisters and cousins folded into the bizarre mix. We had a lot of fun. We watched movies. We wrote and performed plays. We had parties. Life seemed chaotic and extreme.

I had somehow fallen out of the mainstream upticking corporate-minded life of America, where you trade jobs to move upward, always upward, you do better than your parents who did better than their parents and you end up rich and contented just before the reaper takes you away. I existed in the stormy, moody, twilight world, with inverted principles. I wasn’t quite a radical, not yet, and I wasn’t a hippie or an addict. I drank, read and wrote.

I had no idea that I would remain in this countercultural sub-strata for years.

Keith, Jonathan and I made the mistake of moving into an apartment we couldn’t quite afford. Keith made his money in the testing world, writing, editing and tutoring for college preparatory materials. Jonathan was a bartender, a waiter, a bit of a good-natured, puckish hustler. I was a failed and failing writer and a bookstore clerk.

We listened to a lot of music.

I was still in the soul period. James Brown, The Temptations, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, the big names, but also The Sandpebbles and David Ruffin and Mary Wells and my appetite for soul music had been inexhaustible but in those dark days I was losing interest even in this.

Keith and Jonathan brought me new stuff. Jonathan was into two strands, really, electronic stuff—including Mates of State, who I still love, but also Muziq and Daft Punk and so on—and American roots music. He’s where I first heard The Jayhawks.

Keith liked hip hop and indie rock[1]. He brought The Postal Service into our house and we listened to it all the time. He also brought The Streets, and later Arcade Fire, Caribou, Vampire Weekend and Tokyo Police Club.

But one song not only encapsulates my whole two-year life in Atlanta, but also managed to liberate me from some of my (mostly self-inflicted) wounds.

“The Fear” by Mu-ziq.


The song is beautiful, simple, dreamy, a sort of precursor to the chillwave bands like Washed Out and Beach House[2]. The lyrics are repetitive, healing. The instrumentation is high-pitched. There’s a touch of the trashy European techno song here, only slowed down and beefed up with reassuring flourishes.

One morning I got up to walk my dog—my foot was healing but still damaged—and Jonathan and two of his friends Paul and Michael were all sitting on the front room couch, quietly contemplative, each with glassy eyes and a contented vibe. It was seven in the morning, chilly. I looked at them. They looked at me. “What’s up, fellas,” I said. They nodded. I sensed a late night, the tremors of which were sublimating into a soporific state, aided I’m sure by booze or something stronger. They sat, not talking. I fed Pepper and took her outside into the early morning sunshine. When I got back, Jonathan and Paul and Michael were gone. I got busy with the business of making breakfast.

I was alone in the house.

The sky was cloudless, cleansed with blue.

I hugged and petted Pepper.

I decided to let some of my worry and nonsense go.

I wouldn’t be miserable; I would no longer indulge in the fear.

And I flipped on the stereo to listen to this song. (And whenever I feel defeated or weary, I listen to it again.)



[1] He will, if he reads this, take umbrage to this description of his musical tastes.

[2] I love both of these bands.

One Response to “Salvation Songs, part 7: The Fear”

  1. Cathy Savory April 22, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    Keep writing, Ben!

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