Wormwood In Remembrance

14th of June, 2008. El Corazon club, Seattle.

This was Wormwood’s last performance. It was our very last song together.

Passages of Lesser Light crescendoed toward its finale of layered bass-pummels / percussion-thrashes / keyboard-smashes—and ended in an abrupt cessation of sound. On stage, in the instant of that sudden silence, I felt an indescribable emotion surge as I lifted my hands away from the keyboards. I realized with painful clarity: everything would be different from now on.

A tremendous and formative life’s-chapter had just come to a close.

* * *

Wormwood began in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997—in an era before smartphones and streaming music, in an age before GPS systems succeeded AAA Trip Tik maps. We were a team of new friends in our twenties, bound by creative collaboration. Our disparate specialties—punk, hardcore, black metal, goth—gelled into heavy-handed, oddly-timed, and unlikely songs. Our music-centered alliance was strengthened by humor, alcohol and cigarettes, and plans for the band’s future.

Over eleven years together, our support systems extended far beyond Lawrence city limits, corralling artists and writers and independent sound engineers, venue managers and underground record labels, and sister and brother bands from the Midwest, PNW, and across the world. But Wormwood was always a grassroots endeavor. Our friends were our first audiences. Our fans became our friends.

* * *

Primarily, Wormwood was a creative venture: we wrote music, designed album art and show flyers, made posters and stickers and T-shirts, and even built a webpage (from HTML-scratch!). But Wormwood was also business. Not a business, mind you. But it had a practical side that demanded attention.

The business of the band entailed buying music equipment, maintaining a van, paying for gas. It meant door money and drink tickets and guest lists and a cooler of beer in the green room. It meant paying rehearsal space rent—every month. It meant saving to afford DIY recordings and screenprinted shirts and flyer copies at Kinko’s.

Properly tended, Wormwood’s practical side ensured the best future for its creative output. We taught ourselves how to format images in Photoshop—we learned about rasterizing and color separation and optimized file size. Vinyl records required careful packaging; we saved bubble wrap and flat square boxes. Our music reached listeners near and far through mail order and record trades—from kids in small Midwest towns to European and Japanese record distros.

The early business of Wormwood meant making connections in a pre-social media age. We wrote letters and email messages back in those days (uphill both ways). Later we posted on MySpace. We also mailed out demos and promos and “press kits.” We even had a well-intended but ultimately neglected mailing list, which would be set out on the merch table during shows.

Ah, the merch table. Here’s where any band’s creative and business sides coalesce. Records, CDs, T-shirts, stickers, patches, even cassette tapes. Sharpies and masking tape and extra paper and little price signs and a lock box for cash and cash itself (in a hopeful variety, to make change). The merch table was sometimes a sore point: in the absence of a roadie, which one of us was going to sell merch after a performance? Bring that man—or woman—a drink!

* * *

From a personal standpoint, Wormwood had been my social center and ersatz family for well over a decade. What would happen next?

My husband and I had shared eleven years in the band together. It had been a grand-scale ongoing project that started long before marriage, long before kids. Would we find a new project together? Would we endure?

Being in Wormwood had also ensured persistent friendships with the amazing creative humans that were my bandmates. It meant a beer at the bar before band practice twice a week. It called for long bouts of creative collaboration, long hours in the studio, and long drives across the country in an old Chevy van with a hole in the back floor. In fact, Wormwood survived a move across the country (well, with four-fifths of its Kansas-era membership intact). Even when disagreements and tempers and sensitivities arose, there was always another rehearsal or another show that would usually smooth things over. Now, no more practice. No more shows. What did the future hold?

Wormwood was the common theme in my own internal creative life. It motivated and inspired art and writing. I catharsized my darkest nature through Wormwood. I thrived on the artistic redemption this provided. But what would redeem me now?

Wormwood did wonders for my anxiety and self-image. At first, I huddled trembling over my keyboards, hidden behind the bass amps at basement shows. But eventually, I would stand out front—hoping desperately I wouldn’t screw up Screwtape or pass out during Out Cold. Wormwood provided internal psychological leverage against my own social awkwardness: “Hey, why should I feel shy and unworthy? I’m in the band!”  (Sadly, it didn’t cure me—although a mid-40s life perspective does help a lot.)

For all my years in school, Wormwood was a learning experience that no college program could have provided. Tours especially opened my eyes and un-sheltered my thinking. Tours meant exposure to other bands, venues, artists, and music-supporting communities across the country and beyond. It meant seeing firsthand other lifestyles, subcultures, and means—from heartland rural USA to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver B.C., and more. Tours were often chaos barely constrained by good humor, but it all served to bring on new awareness. Setting up instruments in wet basements and oven-hot garages and crowded living rooms and oversized stages under over-bright lights—performing in bars and night clubs and VFW halls and back yards—playing for both the straightedge and the drunken, for the underage and their parents too, for vegan crust-punks and black-metal kids in face paint and Harley Davidson enthusiasts and female-fronted-folk-rockers—sleeping in the van, sleeping on sofas and floors, sleeping in the towering outdoors, simply not-sleeping—and eating free pre-show spaghetti and red sauce in towns all across America….

Also, tours often meant survival as the sole female among the guys. That experience could stand as a narrative all its own. Well, maybe some day.

* * *

Passages of Lesser Light‘s lyrics allude to the elusive nature of the past’s objective truth. “Memory is but a likeness that our minds arrange.” But the past is more elusive to some than others. I have a terrible memory for proper nouns and event sequences, and the more remote the memory, the worse this gets. But I rationalize that it’s because my memory is primarily emotional. I distinctly recall (and sorely miss) the excitement and exhilaration of creative collaboration. I clearly remember the escalating energy of Wormwood shows, and the sense of sheer joy in the studio during perfect playback of a newly-recorded song.

And I can never forget the drug-like high that results from entrancing an audience—from evoking animation and excitement and passion in others. 

I also clearly remember the advent of emotional dissonance. I recall irreconcilable differences rising within the band. The last song Wormwood wrote was Reversal of Fortune: it seemed to take forever, and where creative coalescence had once raised songs to their best possible form, Reversal sometimes seemed an exercise in grudging negotiation. Not that I don’t like the song; I do, and very much so. But its existence is a miracle, which says a lot about Wormwood’s health status toward the end.

The manifestation of Reversal of Fortune eponymously, prophetically accompanied the band’s collective decision to end. The difficulties we experienced with the song’s direction and scope serve as a metaphor for the band’s overall difficulties. Discussions rose and fell around the subject for weeks before it was settled. Not everyone happily agreed it was the best idea. But at last we formally ended the band.

Personally, I hate the end of something wonderful. But then again, I don’t like loose ends. I hate to say goodbye. But in the wake of unexpected finalities, I’ve regularly yearned for the chance to have said a proper goodbye.

I didn’t want to miss Wormwood’s end. I could not tolerate the thought of its quiet slink into the increasingly-obscured past, loose ends trailing. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate the intense creative, long-term challenge that was Wormwood. Better to formally end it and celebrate than to blink, distracted, and miss it.

Certainly, the days of giving everything over in the name of the band were over for me. And for me, that’s what Wormwood had always meant—devotion, obsession, catharsis, invocation. It was all no longer sustainable. And the effort and change required to somehow make it sustainable again—to force the emotional dissonance into submission, as if that were even possible—was not something I wanted as much as that which closure might permit: new creative pursuits, new personal endeavors. Re-learning survival in a non-Wormwood environment. Learning to thrive in a post-Wormwood age.

* * *

In Theodore Roethke’s The Dance of the One-legged Man, one haunting line of poetry captures the bittersweet essence of change: “Each thing’s an end of something else.” What nature of thing would emerge from the end of Wormwood? The era that would rise from that last, poignant instant on stage meant change in ways I could not predict nor remotely fathom at the time.

Passages of Lesser Light’s lyrics, first written in 2001, consider the inevitability of change: “Passages arrange, by nature, re-emergence.” I hadn’t read Roethke yet, but maybe his ghost was already haunting me? (I’ve heard that he frequented the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle’s U-District, which was just a few blocks from my tiny alley-level apartment back then…)

Re-reading Passage’s lyrics now prompts a new consideration. Occasionally one must re-choose life’s current trajectory by answering the question: Is this still where my heart is? When the answer is “Yes,” this reaffirms and strengthens the heart’s position. Stay on the path, maintain trajectory—until it comes time to ask the question again.

If a day comes when the answer is “No,” this is the first step on a new path, and into a new passage toward change. But it doesn’t mean the heart was never there.

The legacy of the Wormwood passage in my life—that wonderful, circuitous path—and all the energy that surrounded Wormwood—the friendships and collaborations and hopes and concerns and endeavors of that time—all of it had my heart. All that music you can still hear, the artwork you can still see, the words you can still read today—all of this has my heart. It is my heart, as it once was.

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Wormwood at El Corazon, Seattle. 14 June 2008. Photographer: Emily Hadley.

* * *

Links

Last song of Wormwood’s final performance, via Poetweek on YouTube:

Photographs from the night of the show, courtesy of Emily Hadley on Flickr:

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Posters for the final show:

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Artist: Zachary “EZ” Nelson

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House Show (Story Excerpt No. 6)

 

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In a room full of strangers, I’m alone. The surface of a red plastic cup flexes under pressure from my fingers, and beer inside sloshes subtly. I gauge my surroundings: student-ghetto kitchen, my back to the sink, sundry Goodwill pots and pans in the dry rack. I look around at the people in my vicinity, briefly tune in on peripheral coversations. I consider interrupting someone, introducing myself, maybe asking for directions to the restroom—something. But upon my chest presses the invisible, awkwardly-splayed hand of social anxiety. Nah, says the hand’s master, you’d better just stay put.

A pod of savvy conversationalists migrates toward the living room, and as they pass, I hear murmurs of “They’re about to start.” Excitement subsumes anxiety. Curiosity pushes the invisible hand aside. I move through the kitchen as if through a rite of passage, my sneakers sticking to the floor in spots. I grasp my beer cup like a talisman, red for luck.

Under the threshold’s arch, I stand at the edge of a crowd smooshed into a room-shaped mass. Generally everyone faces the fireplace wall, where a band has finished setting up within the tiny space allotted. Among layers of human shapes between me and the cold fireplace, I discern musicians strapped with guitars.

I weave through the crowd, navigating among erratically-gesticulating bodies, protecting my beer cup. I take root in front of the bass cabinet. Okay, it’s not ideal in terms of bleeding ears. But just behind the cabinet stands a set of sliding patio doors: my emergency escape route, beloved by the panic-prone in a room at max capacity.

The band tunes and warms. Strings strum discordantly, drums snare-snap and thump. More people crowd in, streaming from the front porch and other areas of the house, and soon the living room is packed with bodies. The kitchen holds the overflow, and people have closed me in on all sides. My chest tightens. But I work to I keep calm, keep my gaze trained on the patio doors, beyond which the darkness of the summer night spreads quiet, open, and empty. Meanwhile, within these walls, the humid air is alive with mingled scents—sweat, smoke, incense, marijuana, beer. My head spins as I breathe it all in.

Well, it could be worse.… I sip beer and concentrate on the band. The two burly dudes and petite girl in the band are drenched in sweat and cramped among their own equipment. They glance around at each other, then out at the room. The guitarist nods with finality, stares down at his hands, rocks on his feet in rhythm. The girl lowers her head, and long hair covers her eyes as she positions her bass guitar expectantly. The drummer lifts his sticks and clicks in time—one, two, three, four—

The room transforms. A wall of sound from the speakers electrifies the hot, damp human flesh and hair around me. Pummeling percussion draws us all in, mainlining us with a common pulse, a cyclical life-force-electrical lift and shudder. People begin to move: heads thrown forward and back, arms crowd-risen and topped by thrusting fists and devil’s-horns. Torsos rock rhythmically in place—though unable to gain additional space in the crowd, they’re unwilling to be still. Cannot be still. Guitar chords emphasize the overwhelming beat with spine-thrilling harmonics. The bass guitar’s colossal sound shudders through my body, vibrations entering through my feet and shoulders. Each note grabs and shakes my insides: overpowering, inexorable, utterly possessing.

It’s all so loud, I can’t hear myself breathe. Can’t hear myself think. I sink into the music, seep into it, close my eyes, clasp the red cup to my heart. Mathy hardcore mixed with dissonant metal riffs—this is not a style I listen to, or even normally like. But the unfamiliarity of the music only facilitates its total conquest. The dual song-screams of the guitarists resonate with primordial urgency. All thoughts of past and future fade, clobbered back into the subconscious’ dark corners, defeated by the animal present—destroyed by the percussive and clamorous here-and-now, as insisted upon by every fiber in my being, and by all joy of matter in the room….

Songs melt into one another, vaguely punctuated by passages of wailing feedback and cries from the crowd. Or is it all one eternal song? Time passes. Time morphs. Time ceases to mean anything more than the rhythm surrounding me. That rhythm transforms—speeds up, slows down, counts odd syncopations, ceases for brief passages of silence that carry their own crucial beat. Feedback screams and sustains. Chords change, melodies manipulate, sounds invoke emotions like demons from the heart. Sweat pours from the faces and arms of the musicians in front of me, but their concentration is uninhibited. The energy with which they have charged the room cycles back upon them, an electric loop. Empowered, they continue to play with violence and emotion despite the heat and the crowd. Invigorated, the crowd continues to thrive and pulse and writhe in time.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise screeches to a halt. Mid-song, a guitar string springs from its formerly taut and tortured position on the instrument. It wavers in the air desperately at the tuning end of the fretboard, as if struggling to free itself. The guitarist looks to his bandmates questioningly—should he change the string, or abort the mission? The drummer shakes his head and holds one stick up, sweat flying from his brow and running into his eyes. At this weary gesture, the other band members raise their hands in farewell, then yank the instrument cords from their amplifiers.

People around me shove and shout and scream for more. Vitalized, I yell too, hands raised. But it’s no use: the band is finished. The crowd continues to fester and swoon with the last vestiges of shared energy.

Anxiety dispelled, I gaze at the teeming horde around me now with newfound affection. I finish the rest of my beer, warm and flat. The red cup is empty and my thirst is slaked.