I don’t talk or write a lot about my dysfunctional “weirdness”. A lot of musicians are freaks, and by comparison to most, I’m a well-adjusted Joe with my feet firmly on the ground. But like most try-hard Joes, I struggle to appear normal and cool, trying my best to blend into a world that feels upside-down and alien to me. My parents’ generation approached oddness like a bad habit, with behaviors to practice and others to sculpt away. Only through corrective perseverance and patience could you grow blossom into, say, a well adjusted adult, preacher or a public speaker. It is only now, as an adult, that I’m learning what we thought was finicky eating was actually an allergy; a behavioral revelation connecting the dots, explaining how & why I loathe the things I loathe, and how & why I am drawn to the things I am drawn to.
For example, I have always had a hard time functioning around people, authorities, groups. My father and brother are charismatic charmers, but I have a hard time even chatting with family. It’s not a fear of embarrassment; I never thought I was “wrong” or that I’d be seen as “foolish”. It’s just that the world is full of politics, pecking orders and social opportunists jockeying to pull the wool over each other’s eyes. In some ways, social interaction feels more disheartening than TV commercials, which are at least straightforward and self-aware. Friends and colleagues seem to relate best when I explain my distaste for “gossip”. It’s not that I’m concerned that they’re gossiping about me; it’s that the behavior is ugly, and the last thing I want to be is around it, partake in it, or be part of it.
So I still struggle with talking, and I outright fall into a fetal position if I have to untangle some misunderstanding on the phone, where I can’t see people’s faces. When I’m left alone, I can flourish, so those environments where I can log in and start working around midnight, so the presentation is done by 8am the next morning… I am able to crush those expectations and impress a lot of people. They’ll say nice things. They’ll hint at me working there full time from 9 to 5. They’ll eventually find out how weird I am, and that I cannot possibly be around them. There’s always a fair amount of disappointment.
So I’ve always been a loner, professionally. I’ve owned it. I’ve figured out ways of making it work for me. AND I’ve still managed to pursue a lot of what I dreamed of as a kid, including building and sustaining Obol, designing the Dungeons & Dragons books and Magic products for Wizards of the Coast… just the best dream projects, and all on my own (late-night, freelance) terms. If that is not success, I don’t know what is. I was able to achieve these things despite my inability to carry on a normal conversation.
Plus, there are amusing advantages to being on the spectrum. For example, I am hyper-sensitive to lighting, colors (part of the reason I was drawn to design) and smells. I have always mimicked voices and sounds pretty well, a bizarre talent that had me thinking that I should go into show business as a kid. I’ve gotten visual images from music my whole life. That is to say: I see visuals — like a movie — in my head whenever a song “works” for me, including characters, narrative, etc. When the song doesn’t work for me, I don’t see anything, and I’m fatigued or even repulsed by the song as a result. As an adult, I am learning this is a symptom of Asperger’s syndrome, similar to how Travis Meeks (of “Days of the New”) talks about it:
“Part of Asperger’s is associating sound with vision, so I see what I hear. That’s how I write. That’s how I continue to write my records.”
It is fair to say that Travis is a hero of mine. I am drawn to the weird layers and changes in his music, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he is another visual musician.
I also hear songs in my dreams, sometimes the songs repeat once or twice before I wake up. And when I wake up, I grab my vocal recorder positioned by the bed, and try to record the song parts and details that I can remember, although they quickly fade out. Sometimes my attempt to groggily sing them is off key and that causes me grief trying to record that part accurately, and subsequent parts are lost. But I have to try. I try to get enough of it recorded so that I can build the song back into existence.
This is, partially, what Obol is all about: My friends Jun and Will are helping me make these dream songs exist. Since I feel the songs are “sent” to me — from God I guess, like I am supposed to share them with the world — the process of building them back with this band gives me a feeling of extreme achievement, beyond anything else professionally or socially. When I’m working on the songs, I feel like I am doing what I’m “supposed” to do.
Gender is an easy example of this. In the dream I am sitting in a Spanish cafe, and this song is playing that I like. The song is surprisingly heavy considering the surroundings, but I’m thrilled because I’m overseas and this song is great and the situation is weird. I notice the “push her away, push him away” part being repeated, and a person sitting across from me in the dream is asking me what it meant. At that moment, I realize that I am being interviewed, and this is, somehow, my song. Very exciting, and of course that excitement causes you to wake up. I remember in my groggy state, while stumbling around recording the “Push her away” bit, wondering what the fuck that meant. Since then, through hundreds of practices and performances, my conscious self has finished and refined the lyrics a bit, and the meaning is clear in my mind.
It is tough, however, when I don’t have full control over the way things evolve. Jun may want to change his guitar part. This is painful for me, obviously, as I try to steer the boat and preserve what was in the original dream. But I’m practical enough to know that I cannot control it. If I were to act up and throw a fit, I risk losing Jun, and then I don’t achieve my goals at all. So it is an inherently challenging and sometimes frustrating process, but it is important to me, so it is worth it.
As I occasionally meet with musicians, either for the keyboard role in Obol or some other purpose, I am gradually realizing how unusual the visual-music connection is, and how rare the music dreams are. I only learned recently that this is associated with “being on the spectrum” of autism. It is trendy to embrace such a label, I’ll admit, but it is also incredibly comforting and reassuring to know that I am not alone… that there’s a reason, a name for why I’m weird. And that’s pretty cool.