I’ll paint you a little picture. There was this little neighborhood in Indianapolis called Broad Ripple. Today, it is a victim of its own success. What made it wonderful is all gone now. There used to be unusual restaurants, art galleries. You name it, it was there. There was plenty of parking, and it was free because it was then a low-rent, depressed area.
Now it’s a high-rent area with no art and all fancy bars, and 100% paid parking. Developers managed to build lots of apartments to capitalize on an arts district that no longer exists. But for a few brief years, Broad Ripple was a wonderful place.
Back in the late 80s, early 90s I was a struggling college student. I’m kind of an odd duck. I was an engineering student, but I liked arts. The dean told me that I was the only engineering major who took English electives. Engineers are supposed to be cold and analytical. I can be that way, but I like arts too. I like to use both sides of my brain. Call me crazy.
And I was being driven slowly crazy in those days. I consistently seemed to draw a 5:30-7 class. It was taught by the most boring person who ever lived. He was so boring that I learned to do an impression of him. I was good: I got requests to do the voice several times a week. Remember Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? This guy was a lot worse. I’m serious.
So I was always desperate to get out of this guy’s class. On Wednesdays, Carrie Newcomer used to play at the Broad Ripple Steak House. It’s now gone. I had to rush out of the 38th Street campus of IUPUI (now also gone) to make it in time. I was always in a huge hurry, and most of the time, stupid people would drive slowly in front of me and I would scream at them to move. In those days, my air conditioning didn’t work, so I always had my windows rolled down. One time, my friend Sam told me that he and my friend Joe could hear me coming a couple of blocks away.
And it was all to see Carrie Newcomer. Carrie is a small woman. I hate to call her frail or waif-like, because I know she eats, although she never eats meat (the irony of her playing at a steak house is not lost on me.) But you’d see Carrie trying to remove speakers from her car that were almost as big as she is. Her car wasn’t very big either, and it looked like her guitar, speakers and amp were just about as much as it would hold. Often we’d help Carrie set up, which got us more music time and helped her out, too.
It’s difficult to describe Carrie’s music. At times it has a yearning, soulful quality to it not unlike some early Cat Stevens. But Carrie writes about some of the most common things in the world: folding laundry, the length of her arms, facing hardships together. She writes songs that no one else would ever write. I love them. They just hit me in the right place.
Remember I said I’m kind of an odd duck? Well, I’m that way about music, too. You know Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of everything is junk? For me, 99% of music is not that great. (Except disco, which is 100% garbage.) A piece of music has to really speak to me before I give it a second listen.
But then there’s Carrie’s music. It strikes an emotional chord in me that I can’t explain. I heard it first at Indianapolis’ The Vogue, when her then-band was fronted by probably the worst opening act I’ve ever seen.
Is it something personal? No. I’ve known Carrie for 30 years, but not very well. I may see her 3-4 times a year and in all that time I’ve probably spoken fewer than 500 words to her. I’ve frankly spoken to her daughter a little more, but she was seven at the time I knew her and was drawing angels (she was quite good actually.)
I think what Carrie’s appeal to me is much more intangible. John Cleese speaks about creativity and “the open mode,” and despite the fact the Cleese is a renowned smartass, his commentary on the way the brain works is some of the most lucid I’ve ever heard.
For whatever reason, I find Carrie’s music extremely calming, and it puts me straight into Cleese’s “open mode,” the creative, visualizing part of my brain. I don’t know why. There are actually times that I need to hear a Carrie song two or three times before I actually hear it. The first couple of times, I’ve crawled into my brain and am having conversations with myself.
As squishy and touchy-feely as that sounds, it’s true. Now, remember, I’m not your average bear. I’ll sit and tell you that there’s not much difference mentally between solving a difficult math problem and doing art or creative work. It’s just that artists are taught that technology is too complex and scientists are taught that art is unstructured and worthless. Neither of these claims is true, but we believe them as facts for some reason.
I seem to have a particularly strong sense of creative visualization. I was once doing some work on a technical problem at my job, and I was stuck. Suddenly, on my way home, my creative brain had solved the problem: it was a calculus max/min problem and the definition of a derivative. My conscious brain was unable to do it, but my creative brain figured it out and was forcefully explaining it to my analytical brain. I was so consumed by this solution that I could literally see the graph before me. I had to pull the car off to the side of the road.
To this day, Glory-June Greiff will see me “zone out” occasionally and she’ll say I’m “doing calculus.” That may not be strictly true, but at those times I am tuned into my creative brain and visualizing a solution. It may even be me figuring out the order of my various work sites for that day, but I do get that glassy-eyed stare.
Carrie sometimes teaches classes on being creative. I sat in on one once. It was quite interesting. I remember telling her that I had always wanted to write novels even though I was in engineering school. I still remember what she said. “You can tell it to go away. You can do something else. But it still comes back. It still calls to you.” She was right.
So my relationship with Carrie’s music really got me creatively motivated, and in a way you wouldn’t suspect. At the time, I was finishing the third or fourth draft of a time travel novel that I’ve never been able to adequately call “done.” But I also worked on another project. I became fascinated with the idea that vampire stories were all about curses and evil, that they saw sex as a hot metaphor for disease transmission. I challenged myself to write a story that had completely un-erotic sex and a vampire we could root for.
Listening to Carrie’s music could immediately draw me straight into the creative world of my novels while also relaxing me. I was exercising that creative urge that she warned me would never go away. I would often write quite a bit after I got home those evenings.
So Carrie Newcomer, the most peaceful person I’ve ever known, a devout Quaker, inspired me to start a vampire novel. It’s true.
I am kinda weird.