The Death of an Artist

An Interview with Chance Casper (Part One)

“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper

chance guitar

Closing time.  Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors.  Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go.  They trudge out into the snow.  I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue.  The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh.  There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo.  Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see.  Chance Casper.

Dried blood coats his leathery fingers.  His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck.  He looks up and recognizes me.  His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show.  I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.

His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.

Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout.  While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum.  The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.

Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness.  It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated?  Was it even a worthwhile effort?  Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.

This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art.  Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal.  Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note.  In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B.  In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G.  Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper.  The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two.  This is Goodbye.

“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.

I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.

Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder.  “You think you can move?” Paul asks him.  “I need to get the barstool off the stage.  We’re closing.”

“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.

Paul shrugs.

“Well, can I have my paycheck?”

Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.

Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back.  “No.  This isn’t right.  This is only two hundred.  The deal was for five.”

“We only had thirty-two tonight.  You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”

“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!”  Chance stands and confronts the tired kid.  “Don’t you know who I am?”

Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.

“Look at me.  Fighting for pennies!”  He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.

We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone.  It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it.  But this is where Chance wanted to end it.  Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh.  Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.

The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness.  I’m prepared for a long night.  Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.

“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.

I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.

“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego.  “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”

He stops suddenly.  I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling.  I’m losing control of the interview.

He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar.  That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.”  His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.

I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.

“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to.  I’m not shittin’ you.  They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”

It’s true.  The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray.  Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push.  It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off.  This is scary.  Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are.  I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.

“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere.  Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers.  They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.”  He winks at me.  “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”

As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window.  His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.

“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says.  “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt.  Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.”  He gathers courage and pushes open the door.

(continued)

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Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.