OTR, Take 47: Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse

Well if happiness won't come to me, hand me the nitrous gas

One aspect of ADHD that isn't often understood is how important routines are to those of us with it. We're led to believe that ADHD means that, like overactive little boys, we are unable to focus on anything, leaving us mercy to our passing whims. But that's not close to being right. Generally, ADHD involves a dysregulation of focus, not the inability to focus. This is why when I enter a period of hyperfocus, I can do more work in five hours than most people can do in a week: the intensity of focus is profound. The challenge is directing that focus.

Here are your Tidal and Spotify links to today's albums.

Routines are the bumpers we put in the gutters of our lives' bowling lanes. You may have noticed that I'm pretty good about getting out an On the Record every other Saturday. You may have also noticed that I issue a new episode of Sonder Union generally every other Monday (on the off week of OTR). I get into the routine of doing it and it just keeps happening. You don't get to 47 editions of a newsletter by happenstance – certainly not a longform newsletter like this one.

So routines help regulate my general dysregulation of focus, they keep me on track and each iteration deepens the neural groove of doing the thing.

When the routine is interrupted, though...I can get disoriented, testy, and unforgiving of myself. Two weeks ago, I sat down to write an OTR and instead called an audible, recording a short, unusual episode of Sonder Union and releasing that instead. I don't regret doing it, but it made my brain jump the tracks.

My calendar reminders were all off. Last weekend, I didn't write an OTR, because it wasn't the week for it, but then I didn't release an episode of Sonder Union I have locked and loaded because I was doing a LinkedIn Live on SAFEs and startup fundraising that Monday. For some reason, I felt like I couldn't or shouldn't do both the live event and an episode of the podcast.

In short, I've felt like Benjy from The Sound and Fury all week – irritated and frustrated because things weren't in their right place. So, at the risk of continuing my discombobulation, I'm giving you an even-for-me unusually navelgazing OTR today, an episode of Sonder Union on Monday, and then getting back to my calendar schedule – which means no OTR next week but another new Sonder Union episode on the 11th. These next two episodes are great and I'm looking forward to releasing them.

Before you go any further, please note that what follows discusses suicide. If that's not for you, you might want to skip the rest. Also, this is a bit heavy and I want to assure everyone that I'm doing just fine. Sometimes I write about heavy things.

Oh, you're acting all holy
Me, I'm just full of holes

I first heard Frightened Rabbit in 2008, probably in the first semester of my 3L year. I distinctly remember walking through Shadyside with my first adult dog of my own, Percy, listening to The Midnight Organ Fight. It was unlike anything I'd heard before. There's lots of music that's sad, that paints a pretty picture of heartbreak, that gives a gloss on the thing itself. The Midnight Organ Fight is the ugly crying version of the thing: raw, honest, unvarnished.

Wizard or dog? Nobody knows.

There's nobody quite like the Scottish to give life to that acerbic and hangdog aspect of life, is there? I hear different souls in the different English accents. In the English, I hear a sense of assertive command, as though they expect people to simply obey. If I want something musical or someone to read me a poem or work of literature, I'm going to find me someone with that Irish lilt. If I need to close a deal, I'm seeking out an American. If I want to drink and party (and I don't), I'm finding myself an Aussie. And, if I want to drink and ponder the endless misery and suffering of life, Scotland, here I come.

Is this reductive and simplistic? You know it. But there's an element of truth to it, and Scott Hutchinson, the songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist in Frightened Rabbit is exactly the kind of friend you want to ponder the absurdities of life with, to get lost in rueful and sometimes manic laughter alongside.

Inevitably, perhaps, he died by suicide in 2018. But I'm getting ahead of myself, again.

Just need a spine to dig into
A chest for the head and a hand for the holding

You might rightfully think that Frightened Rabbit were a dour, lifeless band given what I've said thus far – but you'd be very, very wrong. Isn't it always the case that the most vibrant lives are paired with the threat or promise of darkness?

One of the first concerts Audra and I went to when we started dating was a Frightened Rabbit show at Mr. Small's. (It's a real venue: a church converted into a righteous concert venue, a vaulted room put at last to good use.) We were still in the phase where she wanted to do things with me simply because I'd be there, so I was able to get her to go to shows that I probably couldn't get her to go to now. I'm not sure she'd be as excited to go to the Hey Mercedes! reunion tour now, although she found it highly amusing to see a bunch of late 30s dudes get so excited about a band she'd never heard of.

Anyway, Audra joined me at Smalls to see Scott and the boys in July 2016. I think it was July 24th, but I can't be bothered to check, and you don't care, so. I'd seen Frightened Rabbit seven or eight times before, so I knew what we were in for. Audra had played some tracks from The Midnight Organ Fight and The Winter of Mixed Drinks and she was game, though not prepared.

In an age of high-end recording studios on your laptop, it can be hard to discern whether a band is actually any good by listening to recordings. Then there's the reality that recorded music and live music are two different art forms. However you parse it, there's little that prepares you for how astonishing Frightened Rabbit were live.

Part of the show, perhaps, was the feint of a bunch of slightly overweight normal-looking blokes just walking onto stage as if they'd gotten a bit lost. Scott raised his hand in greeting and absentmindedly looked around for his guitar, before picking it up and opening the set with "Get Out." There, standing where the pulpit would have been 100 years ago, he spat out the first verse:

I'm in the arch of a church
Between her thumb and her forefinger
I'm a worshiper
A zealot king, cursed, a devotee
Of the heady golden dance she does
She's an uncut drug
Find the vein and pulse
Chased it and for a minute
I was floating dead above myself

And there we were, Audra and me, under the arch of a church, falling in love, at the intersection of the sacred and the profane, watching a band so good they made you forget that their lead singer was telling you exactly what terrible things were coming for him – and for us.

There's a funeral in your eyes and a drunk priest at your side

Love the invocation of the holy books here, and bringing it back down to human, pedestrian scale.

Pedestrian Verse is Frabbit's (as they are lovingly known) fourth album, released in early 2013. One of Scott's great themes was the pretension of the sacred and the elevation of the profane. You can see that just in the title of the record and the cover art. There's also a bit of a wink with the title: there is nothing pedestrian about Hutch's writing. His words are some of the tightest and most beautifully written I have ever come across. He's probably one of my three or four favorite lyricists.

It's telling, how a person approaches songwriting. Another of my favorite lyricists, Matt Berninger of The National, is a natural foil for Hutch. (Incidentally, they were good friends and the bands toured together – one of the best shows I've ever seen.) Where Matt's stories are oblique and full of symbols, tangential observations, and a sort of gestalt painting of scenes, Scott's lyrics are embodied and right there, often uncomfortably so. Frightened Rabbit's songs are filled to brimming with body parts, religious imagery, expertly detailed scenes of post-coital desperation.

There's no escape. That's the point. Here's a story you will almost certainly recognize yourself in, and good luck facing the truth you just learned about yourself.

I'm trapped in a collapsing building

One of my overriding concerns, an obsessive and repeated thought is the messy puzzle we inevitably leave for our loved ones. I wonder whether leaving a record of our thoughts, experiences, felt moments, hopes, dreams, and fears helps or burdens these people left behind. Scott Hutchinson's work, in hindsight, looks like the papering of an inexorable end. A fact of nature. But I wonder if those who loved him, who still love him, listen to his work and think, "Godammit, he was warning us this whole time, asking desperately for help. Could we have done more?" (There's a song on Big Red Machine's newest album titled "Hutch" that asks these questions.)

The opening salvo in my novel, Pennhollow, is a journal entry from one of the main characters. It's written 55 years after the events of the book. I think it's an apt way to conclude this OTR. A promise to all of you. Or a threat, depending on how you want to parse it.

I speak now more to the dead than to the living. It’s inevitable, if you live long enough. The dead haunt you and the living never come around. Very well.

One of these days I will get around to haunting you, too.

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