The day after the fire, as it was for many, the boundaries of chaotic concern and fearful apprehension began to dissolve into grief for me. At first I found myself making panicked deals with the universe, as we do in the worst of times. I promised it could take back all my positive experiences and it could extinguish all my music if only they could be alive. This is a powerless wish for the unimaginable to be revoked. Then I felt anger and existential injustice that people with their degree of benevolence and creativity should be removed when we need them more than ever in these dark days. I was selfishly angry that I couldn’t have more time with them in the future, something I took for granted as inevitable. I was also hateful of a universe which denies these truly wonderful people the gift of being, especially since they did it so gracefully, intelligently, and passionately while remaining humble. I wished the Ghost Ship was a vessel of remote possibilities but instead its name was too accurate, too painful an analogy for this magnitude of loss.
Grief is not an elegant process, but I’m thankful for the many intimate reflections posted about our friends which have allowed me access to a range of feelings and thoughts beyond my own. The way we share gratitude, both for those with us and those who are not, is essential to our highest nature of nurturing. I’m especially thankful to Elizabeth for going through this with me on the other side of the globe. In the midst of everything this weekend she remembered this article about mourning and the concept of “comfort in, dumping out”. Comfort going in, towards the direction of the innermost circle of those affected by loss, while emotional dumping going out, towards those who are further from the most acute pain and are able to offer a more supportive role. I’ve thought about it often these past days. It’s a lovely concept but not one that we have time to think about before being thrust into such deep waters of grief. In a big community of people, like the Bay Area music scene, which is so complexly interconnected in regularly surprising ways, these circles may be blurry if visible at all. It speaks to the compassionate character of the individuals and the community itself that so many of us instinctively radiate comfort and deep gratitude for the lives of our lost friends while sharing personal anecdotes and an openness to be emotionally supportive of those in the most need. Seeing this has helped me cope much better, especially as I struggle with the added barrier of being so physically far from friends dealing with the immense impact of this past weekend.
How can we encapsulate and constellate all that these friends are into an endless book, let alone a few sentences? Here are a few personal points that bubble up in my mind.
Amanda was one of those people who you instantly become friends with. It helped that we were a part of the north east transplant crew who shared a dry sarcastic humor and an appreciation for the music driven culture of our current home city. Always with a warm smile, she welcomed me with a “Hey buddy!” and a hug upon us seeing each other. I can easily recall her thoughtfulness and the way her caring tone of voice revealed a sympathy for any struggle big or small. I’m thankful that her keen photographic vision has captured so many of our common experiences, solidifying memories into a form I can revisit at will. When not behind the camera, she shared the frame with so many friends, lighting up the moment with her saturated enthusiasm. It always made her a little bit more vivid. That and her love of powerclashing patterns and themed leggings. All these things, and especially her deeply joyful laugh echo loudly in my mind. I consider her a part of my San Francisco family, sharing hundreds of dance floors and generally spending our time together enjoying the company of good friends in great locations. I’m glad we got to float on the Belden River one last time this summer, soaking in the sun, sounds, and exulted state of life. Her companionship was comfortable and familial while also being cause for admiration and celebration. She will be furiously missed by so many.
I remember the time when I ran into Johnny at a Devo show a few years back with Shanna. Afterwards we all went to a bar nearby and had a great sprawling conversation with lots of laughs and serious music talk. I realized that not only was a he a really good and genuine person with an immediately engaging personality, he was also a full range music geek like me. We bonded over our shared love of so many genres and also of playing 45’s on 33, the slowness richening everything. We rarely saw each other outside of music events until this year but I remember another moment of reciprocal respect we had in which we spoke about how proximity can be a barrier for what would otherwise be flourishing friendships. I lived and worked in the Richmond district of San Francisco while he was in Oakland and neither of us explored each other’s areas other than for shows or parties at night. We lamented not hanging out more or working on music together before I decided to leave San Francisco, but assumed some long distance collaborations were on the horizon. Since our deepest communion was through music I was happy that he took over my position at Green Apple Books as music buyer when I decided to leave after 15 years. He told me a few times that it was his dream job so he was ecstatic when he was offered the position. He quickly made friends with everyone there, as he did so naturally with a unique social charisma. I can think of few people with the kind of eclectic taste and passionately curious nature that allow for the breadth and depth of knowledge that he enjoyed expanding and sharing every day. We had a month of overlap in which I was supposed to train him before leaving but it quickly became apparent that other than procedural stuff he had this down, no problem. He greeted me most mornings with an exaggerated, “Good morning sunshine!” We spent the days sharing favorite tunes on the speakers and talking about all things from social justice and the politics of music scenes to non-monogamy and his choice to take the permanent trip to Mars if he had the chance. He spoke about being a bridge between many worlds but in particular between old schoolers like me and the younger kids that were just getting exposed to the underground electronic sounds in the Bay Area. I had deep admiration for his ethics and life approach in general, rarely a preacher, but always a leader and ally allowing vulnerability to be the strength of union. Johnny and I had a similar sense of the absurd in our humor and a no-pulled-punches approach to real talk which I found to be a holy recipe for healthy authenticity in a multifarious existence. The expressiveness of his face consistently had me cracking up. Not just the insane “photo smile” but the eye brow gestures that had more punctuation than many of the books surrounding us. All these things don’t add up to a fraction of the deep groove that was Johnny, but they run through my mind, combining with all the shared stories to underline how lucky we all were to have him in our lives for the time that we did. We still have his music.
I had only recently begun to get to know Chelsea in a deeper way through conversations about the evolution of music genres, the need for eclecticism, and the hope for a new golden age of inter-pollinating, genre blurring electronic sounds. We talked about collaboration even after leaving SF and I looked forward to it, especially since several of our common friends were surprised we hadn’t already. Again I took for granted a future in which further interactions were possible. One of my final gigs in the city was for her weekly called Run the Length of your Wildness, an event which crystallized her musical values into a night with purpose. Her productions were always on point and I was happy that she was beginning to see wider appreciation and recognition from an ever growing audience. Another creative beacon of which we now only have memories to guide us.
Many more lost in the fire I had met briefly or knew of through the admiration of mutual friends. It is clear that the event was filled with deeply creative loving people. How do we begin to reconcile this loss? It’s a difficult and paradoxical meditation to feel blessed in the face of such tragedy but ultimately this is where I’d like to find myself when recognizing the enormous personal contribution that Amanda, Johnny, Chelsea, and others made to our lives. We will miss them with a painful gravity but we should strive to reflect their quality of character and hold them up as examples of impassioned living, while remembering everything that made them complex human beings flung in and out of this world, just as we are. Gratitude for their presence and for your presence in my life is how I get through this.