The Pacific Northwest is home to many unique eccentrics, but there was one character who, if you encountered him, you never forgot. He went by the name Symptomatic Nerve Gas, and no, this is not some kind of sub-par Vonnegut fiction. He was a real man, a Korean War vet, apparently, or Viet Nam, perhaps, or maybe not a vet at all, depending on who you believe — the narratives are mixed and told in different ways depending on when you met and talked to him.
I first encountered him on a city bus in Bellingham in the mid-80s. I was riding home, after putting my quarter in the fare box. This very solid looking middle-aged man came aboard, an army green duffel on his back, stuffed to the point of breaking. He dropped his bag to the ground and sat across from me on the sideways seats in the back of the bus. I'm sure I was reading, so paid him little mind.
Until the bus had left the station and I heard a little voice quietly say those three words, nasal, at the top of his baritone register:
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I ignored him. Why would you look at anybody talking to themselves on a quiet bus? You would hope that it was a momentary glitch and they'd go back to being quiet.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
Looking up, I saw his duffel had a manilla folder taped to it, and on the folder in black marker he had written those three words: "Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I looked around, and other people on the bus caught my eye. Yes, we said to each other in a glance. Yes, this guy is really breaking a social contract in a minor way. We are all witness to it.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
All the way home, every minute or so.
Apparently he travelled the Pacific Northwest, spreading his message. You can Google him and find reports from Bellingham to Eugene. Jack Cady wrote him as a character in his book Street, about a serial killer in Seattle. "People are first shocked into avoidance. Then, familiarity brings scorn, Symptomatic Nerve Gas has an important message, but no stage presence. He breaks no laws. People mistake him for a nut."
He must have liked something about Bellingham, because he spent quite a time there, over at least a few years.
Once, outside a punk show at this all-ages joint called the Vortex, where the bands would play 30 minute sets interspersed with 30 minutes of dance music, he held court.
He sat on a bench, and around him, punk teenage skaters sat on their boards while he explained what Symptomatic Nerve Gas was — a nerve agent made by the Vatican, spread in the candles they use in church. The Nazis also used it. A thick, messy, paranoid obsession ruled this man's mind, but he could talk about it in a disjointed dialog for hours on end. He was an evangelist, and his evangelism was based on trying to save the world from the evils of this horrid nightmare toxin.
I wonder if it was good for him, to have an audience like that, or if it fed his manic side? Was he a balloon that needed to let air out, or would talking about it ramp him up into unhealthy excitement?
Because I was not one to find mental illness ironic or funny — unlike some folks who encountered him in my group — I kept my distance. I found him unusual and therefore interesting, but also unnerving. I did write a song about him in my band at the time, which I'm glad there are no recordings of (that I know of). If I remember, it was just chanting the three words over and over again.
It was music that brought him to mind, after many years of not thinking after him. I was wondering about song loops, earworms, or snippets of music that get trapped in the head. What mechanism of the brain is there to reinforce this? Is it an evolutionary advantage, or a glitch in the operating system of humans that allows things to get stuck and amplified ad infinitum?
Likewise, go thoughts. One sign of being a progressive sort of person is not that you don't hear the horrible, racist, sexist intonation of default culture rattling around your memory pan, but that you know well enough not to squirt it out between the flaps of meat that make sound and language just because your brain thunk it. You know you are parroting the culture's response, and you know well enough that it is lies and you don't have to listen to that damaging bullshit.
But those little ghost whispers that want you to think something? Imagine if they were overwhelming. Imagine if you could never rid yourself of them. Imagine if they became your entire reality.
Last year, for our Thanksgiving essay, Paul Constant grappled with the election that pried free the last finger holding to sanity our world offered. 2016 relentlessly presented us with stark, impactful deaths, and one of those was of the death of being able to mostly ignore (if you are privileged enough) politics, unless you enjoyed not ignoring them. None have that luxury any more, and every day of this year has presented is a new battle, a new outrage. It's maddening, disheartening, and depressing.
And then, this rising moment overtook us. Like a wave bashing against the rocks as it gains purchase with the tide, women speaking out about their experiences with horrible men are starting to drown the old easy-to-toss-aside PR responses that led to no change. Men are being fired, quickly, and the apologies that once might have been directed towards the perpetrators for deigning to impute them are now rightfully turned towards towards women telling their stories.
This rising tide was buoyed by outrage that an admitted, gloating abuser, a confessed sexual predator and alleged rapist could take the highest office in the land, while the party that most espouses what they always called "values" has, at best, shrugged.
This is not a political essay at heart, but in thinking about Symptomatic Nerve Gas, I was reminded of the loops and ticks our president exhibits, his reoccurring nightmare cabinet of tinctures for soothing his confused, bloviating, leaking corpus of an id, his rancid corpulent ego, and his minuscule, weak, weepy, infantile superego.
He pulls out the same patterns over and again, throwing blame at people he beat, throwing credit to under-bed-monsters we thought had been swept out with the end-of-modernism trash at the close of the last century. His reactions to almost any event are starting to feel like a rubber reflex hammer on the kneecap, a hit and a jerk and he's talking the same lines he always does.
Trump has a bigger vocabulary than Symptomatic Nerve Gas did, but he's stuck in patterns just as pernicious. He's just surrounded by luxury and privilege, and protected by family.
I've been thankful lately for music. Music has played an important role in my life — it was the binder in nearly every one of my strongest friendships. To this day, knowing what music someone likes allows me to pull a quick Meyers-Briggs assessment — not to judge, mind you, but to understand them, to gain a quick bead on the type of soul that inhabits them.
As an adult I've come to realize that music has its limits; truly horrible people can like the same music as you, and I have to fight my default asshole inner hipster who wants to burn it all down when someone I don't respect declares love for music I do. That petty inner voice, that smaller, but still audible, cultural default, nearly ruined music for me.
I also go see almost no live music anymore — after working in guitar stores and playing live in small clubs for years, something broke inside me. Maybe it was an appreciation and attachment to what music meant. Maybe it was disappointment that my naive hopes about a career in music didn't pan out.
I elevated music too high, I thought it was everything — and for some of my friends it still is — but I realized that music is for me but a layer on top of my emotional life, a processing and distraction, but not a political force. It is magical, but it is also thin and not meaningful past the emotions it gives you access to.
In short, I thought too much of it, and in reckoning that music is less than I thought, I lost faith. Where faith was lost is found disappointment and resentment, of a type that it has taken me many years to best.
Is this really a strong year for music, or have I reconnected with music in a new way? Hard to know, but whatever the case, I pulled together a Thanksgiving playlist here of songs I'm in love with. I am grateful to them, to the artists who make them, and to people who care to share this experience with me.
They share something else in common, too, but more on that later.
I've embedded the songs below with Spotify because that service allows embedding, but here are the full lists:
The playlist starts with women.
Brooklyn's Shilpa Ray's "Morning Terrors Nights of Dread" echoes a thing we all feel, wishing our mental health were in a better place. "It's weighing down on me," she sings. "I lock my head between my knees, I can't breathe." Hello, 2017!
The mysterious masked Leikeli47 turns the title of her song "Miss me" on its head, when you realize it's not about feeling the lack of someone, but an instruction: "Miss me with the bullshit."
The Regrettes are teenagers from Hollywood whose fearless feminism is punky and smooth as a teenage girl group, and whose harmonies and soaring stair-step melodies always make me smile in such a huge way.
Miya Folick, as all of us, is having trouble adjusting.
Actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg returns with a rhythmic loping piece that imagines a marriage run dark.
Lilly Hiatt, who obviously learned great lessons from her dad John, takes us back to the beginning of 2016, when everything seemed to start dumping, with her song "The Night David Bowie Died". "I wanted to call you on the night David Bowie died, but I just sat in my room and cried."
Canadian singer Gabrielle Shonk tells of a man (with that voice! My god, that voice) who deserves being called out for his bullshit. "You cheat and lie causing pain with no sense of regret."
The Paranoid Style is a band with super-intelligent lyrics, like Costello or Game Theory, and took their name from a famous Richard Hofstadter essay, here they turn male gaze into a Dedicated Glare about the intricacies and boredom of adult life.
Sylvia Black goes feminist witch, and torchy nightclub singer, with her meandering relaxed bass style (she was a studio musician, so has chops for weeks) and haunting vocals.
Moderate Rebels want to liberate. "Who's using power? And who cares? The dead and the living."
Kevin Morby is the first man on the mix. He obviously listened to a lot of Television, and the creamiest guitar tone is in his song "City Music".
LCD Soundsystem take on our modern world "The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold".
Dams of the West finds Vampire Weekend's drummer Chris Tomson accounting for his life. "I don't want to be perfect. I just want to fix the fixable things."
Kendrick Lamar looks at literal and figurative DNA, exploring black culture and history, as well as his own place inside that larger whole.
60's garage rockers Flamin' Groovies show that rock doesn't have to age, but are wondering if maybe we've reached the "End of the World".
I'm contractually obligated, being in the Pacific Northwest, to put a Guided by Voices song on this list. Thankfully, it's really good about how we lionize old music.
Chicago's Twin Peaks sing a song about picking up a guy at a bar who is drinking his breakup away.
Low Cut Connie want to start a revolution, of sorts, but it may just be a boogie-woogie one.
And finally, Portland's Kyle Craft has an amazing voice, a kind of twenty-first century locally-sourced Jeff Buckley, and this cut, from his next-year's Sub-Pop release, is sure to get some attention.
I learned a trick with music that saved me. It's to accept the song in the moment you are experiencing it. Let it unfold, as it is, and when it's gone, move on to the next song without holding too tight. Don't ascribe any meaning past the pleasure of the moment.
Except, that is, when a song gets stuck. And this is my confession: all the songs above in that playlist are ones that have, at one time or another, gotten stuck in my head this year. They are ones that have become earworms, that have informed my year at various points. They have been hard to shake.
None of them have infected me to such a degree that they become singular, the only thing I might listen to. Some, however, have spent weeks rattling around, cooing, singing at me, trying to inform me, but when I turn to find meaning, all I find is a sly melody or simple line.
Some find meaning in simple lines: prayers repeated, mantras chanted, songs sung over and again. A repetitive line may become an expression of an acute mental illness. In a different brain they may become simple metaphors to explain an overwhelmingly frightening world, whether they originate in that brain or on a television program designed to booth soothe and terrify simultaneously. Morning terrors nights of dread.
I think about Symptomatic Nerve Gas sleeping on the street on a cold night. I think about our president watching cable news and tweeting at 3:30am. I think about a young woman sitting with a guitar, trying new melodies and scribbling down lyric snippets until it becomes coheres into a song.
I think about what gets stuck in our heads and how we can unstick it. I'm thankful we have the opportunity to even try.