This excerpt is drawn from a journal that Joseph kept when he was just starting out in his career in music. It's a personal glimpse into the growth of an artist that was published in "Real World Notes: Issue 4" (1996) and "Musician" magazine (issue 223, June 1997).
A tale involving Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Dolly Parton...
(photos by Piotr Sikora)
My dreams, fears, and love live in my music. This is the story of how it's becoming my career. by joseph arthur
I lived in a ground floor room of an apartment house, top floor doubling as chambers for a couple of ladies working along the street called Ponce de Leon, a fiery vein pulling blood from the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. It was a point of isolation: my band disintegrated, no more band comaraderie, split from my girlfriend of three years. Essentially everything I had invested my energy into had dissolved. I was separate and fragile, like an egg rolling in awkward circles until it begins to crack.
In this case I cracked with Play and Record pressed down on my four-track. In the desperation of the days I couldn't be anything but honest in my work, too tired and lonely to try and protect myself. I was like a dam that had broken. I wrote and recorded ten songs that month, spending the days working on the music and nights working the door of a club. I was pure focus and drive to get what's inside out with as little fear as possible. I was obsessed, like some crazy butterfly collector of the soul, all day running around, waving my net in the sky - pinning in the night, each innocent creature that let me catch it. It was a time of wonderment and glory, discovery and trust. It was like puppy love with the muse.
A few friends expressed their concern at my strange behavior. They would come visit me in the middle of the day, in my room, the windows covered with old sleeping bags stapled to the wall to cut the view from the street, candles scattered and lit all over, and me brimming with enthusiasm over the last object of my insanity. I would force them to listen, then carefully analyze their every movement and facial expression, decide in foolish haste that they didn't love it enough, become offended, make them leave, and begin the whirlwind of mad music making again. Of couse they could have acted as if they had been touched by Jesus and it wouldn't have been enough. I was so sensitive, paranoid, and deeply involved with this music that I began alienating the people still close.
After the waters calmed I decided that the obvious conclusion of my labor was to make copies of these songs which were at once so dear and vile to me. The idea was to pass them to friends and musical acquaintances around town. I needed some feedback after living with this music day after day for what seemed like forever. I had lost all perspective. I really couldn't tell if something was great or embarassing. I did know that it was close to the bone and vulnerable and that it took a great deal of courage to deliver it to my world. But in spite of myself I passed it around town, like a fatal disease to the relationships I had with those who would receive it. The only cure was absolute approval of my efforts. Anything less - or, God forbid, criticism - and I would forever distance them. It was like passing out my heart to be rejected or embraced. There was no in-between: It never occurred to me that some may not even have listened to it, because in my three-pound universe it was the only thing going.
Months and months passed, and I started to calm down. I had gotten enough return. I was confident my direction was correct. Slowly I started becoming human again, meeting with other people and all. I got a job working at Clark Music, selling guitars and listening to southern youth interpret "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in one thousand and one different ways. I did my best, but I'm afraid I was the typical bitter music store employee, not cut out for helping budding punks try out a range of the latest fuzz boxes - or, worse, all the Stevie Ray Vaughans serenading me with their afternoon blues, which were closer to neon than indigo. (Karma payback for all the times I played the role of Lil' Louis Johnson at Akron Music.) Manager Ted said that I was the worst employee in Clark Music's history but never fired me. God bless him.
One day I left the music store in the typical head space of "I can't do this much longer," fantasizing over the criminal means by which I could put food on my table and in general deluding myself in whatever way was necessary to endure another day closer to oblivion. Once home I parked my bike in the bathroom and checked my messages: "Hi, ahh, Joseph. This is, ahh, Peter Gabriel. I got a copy of your tape from Harvey in New York. I've been listening to it a lot and think you write great songs. Ahh. I'm not at a number where you can reach me, so I'll try you back later, great stuff," click ...
I must have sat in that room listening to that message for an hour, reading meaning into each word, each pause, and each breath. Finally, in a state of shock, taking the mini-cassette with me, I went walking into the night alone, an ecstatic secret pushing my feet along. Seeming so dim and bleak the night before, the streets were now transformed into funky versions of the yellow brick road. The whores looked like angels and the bums like saints. I gave away all my spare change and put a smile on the face of all who passed me. I was lighting up the streets, all glow and wonder. It took me three days to get to sleep, and even then I was floating a foot off my mattress.
"Rock is mainly about beginnings, about youth and
uncertainty and growing through and out of them.
And asserting yourself way before you know what
the fuck you're doing."...........-Lester Bangs
The Night Peter Brought Lou Reed To See Me Play
This is my first meeting with Peter, felt like an audition. Half an hour before show time at the Fez in New York, Anna (Peter's daughter) informed me that her father was running late. He was picking up Lou. Lou, a family friend. Lou, coming with his DAT to record the show. Lou, a great source of inspiration. I became numb inside and anxious. My mouth was dry. I needed water. I needed air. I needed out. I wanted to go back to Clark Music, back to the safety of monotony.
I went into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Staring at myself in the mirror, slapping cold water on my face. I got on my knees to pray, slipping through time like in a dream. Everything became animated and exaggerated. I was excited and could see humor, as if the cosmos were playing a practical joke on me. I started giving myself a pep talk as only a mind as soaked in pop psychology as mine could: "You'll be fine. Just be yourself. Don't try too hard. It's all happening for a reason." Etcetera. None of which calmed my nerves. I was thoroughly wound up, all adrenaline, ambition, and doubt.
I saw Peter and Lou walk in. I quickly turned away to look as unassuming as possible. They were like photographs blown into flesh, interpretations of themselves, moving toward me. Their energy spread all over the room. Lou went to confer with the sound man, and I approached Peter with the grace of a duck on fire. "I imagined you a lot shorter," he said smiling wide. I wish I was, I thought, or even invisible, or small enough to fall through the cracks between the floorboards. But as we chatted through formalities I felt myself becoming bigger, swelling like infected skin, self-conscious as a zit you can't bring yourself to squeeze, just throbbing in the lulls of conversation.
Face to face with a man who represented the opportunity of my dreams, a man I so wanted to impress that I really stood no chance of being myself.
It was show time. We excused one another with shaking hands. I stepped onstage with my acoustic guitar and an army of butterflies going mad in my gut. I started my song, quickly leaving my body, walking around myself, over analyzing my movements, judging harshly the sounds and holding scorecards in front of my eyes blocking the view to my heart. Imagining what Lou and Peter were thinking, my mind wouldn't leave me alone. Forty-five minutes of cat and mouse with the rodents of my soul. It felt like failure, though audience reaction disagreed, a response that seemed, in my paranoia, very charitable.
After The Photos and Goodbyes
I found myself seated between Peter and Lou at a restaurant a block down from the Fez. Dolly Parton was seated in the booth next to us. I thought, if I was to interpret reality the way one does a dream, what would Dolly Parton symbolize? She stood and walked by. Peter stood up and addressed her. They chatted for a moment, with Lou, Annie, and Harvey giggling to my left. She continued to the powder room. Peter sat back down.
I got up, excusing myself, to discuss the absurdity of my life with myself in the bathroom. I looked at the mirror. My image was gone. Around the space my body typically occupied was a bright red glow; otherwise I was invisible. More cold water on my face, and an image slowly came into focus, like a Polaroid developing. It was an awkward shot, me smiling, innocent and wide, like the picture of a man walking into his surprise party.
(helen / @junkyard_h)