Last summer on this date, I was procrastinating in some way or another. Rather than get to work writing the history of K Records, I willfully entered into draining debates about our nation's debt ceiling.I also went to a lot of baseball games, which, if you know anything about the Seattle Mariners, you'll recognize as a very serious cry for help. And it was around this time that I built two bookshelves for my office. Both are dyed red and hang a foot from the ceiling in my office, a place normal people would never think to put a bookshelf.
In order to know exactly which books to put on those two small shelves, I emptied all of our large shelves and piled a lifetime of books on our living room floor. Then I sorted them, first by genre and then by author's last name. Then I methodically pulled out those I deemed "most influential." On one of the new shelves, the one immediately above my desk, I put the books about music that I love most. On the other, behind me, I put the books not about music that I love the most. I guess I thought their genius would cascade upon me.
The first draft of my manuscript was due on September 1, and I had done little writing. My interviews with the musicians, friends, and music industrialists who carried with them the story of K Records were mostly finished. A binder of transcription seven inches thick sat on my desk. If greatness were to arrive, I knew it was not going to come from above. It was going to come from that brick of inky leafs.
And it eventually did. Inspired by (the film version of) Stephen King's Misery, wherein the writer reserves the smoking of a single cigarette for the completion of his novel, I incorporated a similar carrot method, with a slight modification. When I finished a page, I would grant myself a smoke. Or when I needed to think my way through a thorny transition in what was becoming a very complex narrative, I would smoke two or three. A social smoker whose habit was waning, I became a solitary smoke stack, burning through a pack every day. It was disgusting. But it worked. As the brief, brilliant Seattle summer burned outside, I inhabited my office, burrowing into the story of a small, unlikely and tremendously influential group of artists from Olympia, Washington.
In the middle of August, my girlfriend and I had plans to attend a small music festival at a rustic resort on one of the San Juan Islands north of Seattle. But I had only finished half of the story. We went, but I stayed in our cabin. I wrote thousands of words about music each day, as she actually listened to the stuff. I smoked less, the smell of evergreens and the absence of the Internet pushing me instead. Each night I emerged in time to catch the evening's last act. After the show, friends would ask me where I had been all day. I would tell them. I was hitchhiking along I-5, north to Vancouver, where K Records co-founder Calvin Johnson would see hardcore band Black Flag for the first time. I was in Japan with Calvin and his band Beat Happening, dancing with Japanese schoolgirls during an impromptu classroom concert. I was on the Petersen family farm with a young Candice, the label's other co-founder, listening to strange rock 'n' roll coming from the Evergreen State College's radio station, KAOS, trying to imagine a different kind of life.
Telling these stories to friends and strangers, by the light of the moon, I found an eager and interested audience. I returned to Seattle determined to serve that audience. Two weeks later I was finished with my first draft. I had written a book. My first.
This summer, as I said, is different. I'm no longer living in a state of avoidance. I am healthier than I have been in my life, my pack-a-day creative habit a distant memory, never to be revisited.
Some things haven't changed. I still go to a lot of baseball games that end with the same disappointment they did last year. And I am still waiting. This time, though, I am not waiting to start writing. I am waiting for you to start reading.
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Mark Baumgarten is a Seattle-based music writer. He serves as Editor at Large for City Arts magazine, and his work has been featured in Willamette Week, the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, and Lost Cause magazine.
Books mentioned in this post
Mark Baumgarten is the author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music