A conversation with Jon Bartel

 

    We spoke with Jon Bartel about having too much energy and clearheadedness, the intellectual connections between J.R.R. Tolkien and the Bible, why he hates meeting new parents and a bizarre tale from his youth.

    At the rate we’re going, World War IV will be fought entirely between the most tenacious of the remaining plankton and several squadrons of swimming cockroaches.


    We asked Jon to describe these historical and future events like he would to a child, or someone completely ignorant of history.

    The Founding of Civilization


    I’ll let you know if that ever happens.

    American Revolution


    Harvey Weinstein in a tricorn hat, and the girls on the casting couch are Algonquin but the Shareholders keep wanting to swing with that shit so Harvey turns off the phones. Freedom.

    American Civil War


    The dress is blue. No, it’s gray.

    World War II


    The Germans, for some reason, hated paying like 600 dollars for a loaf of bread after losing WW1. This was the result of Woody Wilson getting backed into a corner by a bunch of European leaders at Versailles, who showed the political foresight of a drunken frat kid. We should have helped rebuild Germany, but instead we just left it to stew in nationalism until shit got out of hand. Then we were like, “Oh cool, this is how we can end the Great Depression!” So we built a bunch of tanks and planes and ships and guns and now Tom Hanks has a reason to live.

    Korean War


    See above, but in the snow.

    Roswell UFO Incident


    One time, I was in New Mexico and I stopped at a McDonalds and got some McNuggets and a Collective Soul CD. Then, I sat and ate at a baseball field. Under the bleachers were like 400 .09mm shells. Must have been a hell of a game.

    Vietnam War


    Basically, proxy war. It’s like Biggie and Tupac wanted to beef but they couldn’t because of nukes so they got U2 to fight Mumford and Sons, and then it turned out that both bands were actually kind of into the Pogues, so Biggie and Tupac decided to wait it out in hopes that there would eventually be a civil war in Syria.

    World War III


    Trump finally tweets a pic of Kim Jong Un’s weird-looking penis and all hell breaks loose. Later, we find out it was actually a pic of Trump’s vestigial tail, but it’s too late because of nuclear winter. Upside: no more global warming.

    World War IV


    At the rate we’re going, this will be fought entirely between the most tenacious of the remaining plankton and several squadrons of swimming cockroaches. The prize? A mid-Atlantic atoll made entirely of cigarette butts and the sodden remains of Little Debbie treats.

    For the first time in two decades, I feel completely clear and focused. I think I’m wearing people out right now. I have too much energy, too many words to say.

    1

    Morgan Enos

    A lot of people I know who write songs or play in bands have succumbed to inconsistency or indecision instead of putting in the work to succeed, but not you. Countless bands where I grew up have folded, but I can’t think of a single time you haven’t been writing songs or playing, under one moniker or another. What drives you to keep singing and writing, even when there isn’t a whole lot of encouragement in our home county in California?

    Jon Bartel

    I think these days, it’s almost a conscious decision to keep going that I make on a consistent basis. I realized a couple of things about myself a while back.

    Realization one: I can pretty much do whatever I put my mind to, at least to the point of decent mediocrity, and music happens to be one of the things I feel like I do better than a lot of other stuff I’ve tried, so I basically just keep telling myself that I can write a better song, pen a better lyric, find a new chord progression, book another show, book another tour, start another band, make another record, etc. etc. and then I fucking do it. I’ve had to learn to track my own productivity, too — not like keeping charts or stats or something, but just keeping tabs on what makes me work well or not and then trying to nurture the positive habits and minimize the negative. As antithetical as it sounds to the whole “music” lifestyle, I’ve stopped smoking weed and almost entirely quit drinking over the past six months. For the first time in two decades, I feel completely clear and focused. Too focused, actually… I think I’m wearing people out right now. I have too much energy, too many words to say.

    Realization two: The more you practice, the better you get. This is, of course, relative to where you start, but I really believe that if I just keep doing this shit with my full attention and consciousness year-in and year-out, I’ll keep moving forward. You know, like shooting a billion free throws or something. So really I try to keep these two ideas in the foreground whenever I look at the infinitesimal little throne of junk wood I’ve banged together out here in California after a couple of decades of eroding fret wire and sometimes I think I can see a little bit of gold right there where my ass has worn away the seat cushion. It could also just be that I spilled mustard at lunch, though. I’ll have to look closer later.

    2

    Without naming names, how would you describe your feelings about the United States political system right now? Specifically, what corrective measure might we have to make steady this perilously leaky boat? Can it even happen?

    Oh, Christ. This is such a can of worms. It’s a can of those worms from Tremors! My feelings are mostly horror and despair, to be honest. I’ve spent enough time reading about and teaching politics that I feel pretty confident in saying that regardless of how bad most of us think things are, they are only going to get worse. It’s really hard to get rid of a president via impeachment, and I think the GOP still honestly believes there’s some gravy left on the train somewhere even though so far every car has been filled with cyanide.

    But I do think the next election will change things, I hope. The political is malleable, though. Other things are less so. The environment is on its way out in a serious fucking way. If we don’t figure out how to save our oceans, forests and streams and how to distribute resources fairly, we’re gonna have far bigger problems than who sits in the iron oval office or who said whatever on Twittergram this morning about Honey Fubu and Bob Dorker pizza-death Benghazi-mail or some shit. I dunno. Bernie Sanders was born of a virgin or something, so there’s that.

    Sometimes I look into a crowd from the stage and this is all I see and then the earth sort of spins away into the galaxy and into the universe and eternity and I realize I’m going to die and it’s fine. It’s awesome.

    3

    Has any great work of literature in the last 1,000 years irrevocably changed your perception? Can you explain where you were in life when you read it and how your understanding of it has changed? This can be on the basis of a single quote or thought, too.

    This is a rough one for a guy who moonlights as an English professor. I think I’d have to say that I’d split it between two works — Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings.

    Swift was a master satirist whose work is yet unrivaled in my mind. We have our own versions of satire, and they are fine, entertaining, educational. But the single finest creation of Swift, I think, is the creature he calls the Yahoo. These are basically just humans as Swift sees humans — hopelessly servile yet mutinous, savage yet tribal, and above all covered in a stink that once smelled cannot be un-smelled. Of course, they are also a sympathetic character, because we are all them. But Gulliver is seduced by the sanctimonious “wisdom” of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horses who see themselves as the rational perfection of evolution and are basically just a bunch of slave-owning dicks. So when he finally makes it back to England, all he can do is hide in his room so as to avoid the stench of humanity, who prowl the filthy streets of civilization clawing and groping like lewd, incisor-bared boney bags concerned only with Mammon and rapine. Sometimes I look into a crowd from the stage and this is all I see and then the earth sort of spins away into the galaxy and into the universe and eternity and I realize I’m going to die and it’s fine. It’s awesome.

    As for The Lord of the Rings, that work soothes the anguish I feel over being a Yahoo myself. In Middle Earth, characters exist in a moral framework that is wonderfully devoid of some higher power concerned with the punitive. Good and evil are done out of choice, not out of some pre-ordained order of the world. Good things wither, evil is raised, and the white tree may or may not blossom again. I was always in awe of Aragorn, who is so complex, but when I was young it always bothered me that he became king at the end. I hated that his language changes in the final chapters — really, it starts in the paths of the dead, his speech and bearing becoming suddenly more grandiose. The 11-year-old literary critic in me saw it as inconsistent with the Strider of the Fellowship, or even with the Elessar of Arwen’s desire.

    Now, as an adult and as someone who really tries to see the world as it is before seeing it how I wish it was, I think that Tolkien understood humanity at a sort of Shakespearean level — Aragorn was a man. That is all. Capable of great feats, great arrogance, and ultimately doomed to death like us all. Same with Boromir, Isildur, Denethor, Eomer, Grima and Smeagol. The Lord of the Rings is the story of humanity finally told outside the confines of the spiritual. In your previous question, you asked what we can do to right the sinking ship. I think we all need to read The Lord of the Rings and then stand atop the gate of the Hornburg heedless of the darts of the enemy, looking for hope with the coming of the dawn.

    4

    I wasn’t raised with a ton of sensitivity to mental health, so only now, at 25, have I started to slowly come to terms with my own OCD and anxiety disorder. My gut instinct is to swat such thoughts away and dismiss them, so it’s a long unlearning process! Are you an anxious human being day-to-day, and if so, are your anxieties connected to specific situations or just a weird haze in the air?

    Oh my god. I’m a wreck, man. I’m in the middle of writing a new album that is basically dealing with the hellscape of anxiety I’ve somehow wandered into over the course of my thirties. I’ve found that writing about it is sort of confessional, and my anxiety for some reason needs to be spoken about, named, to be defeated, so in this sense playing music really helps me calm down but I’ve been waking up for the past couple years freaking out about things like how hearts beat when we sleep or whether if I overthink breathing I’ll forget how or whether I took too much Tylenol in college or whether my kids will turn out to hate me because I was too harsh at dinner when they wouldn’t stop talking for one shit-sake second.

    Also, I’ve been revisiting Christianity in a primal sort of way. I think Christ was pretty rad, if you take him out of the perverted context that he’s been stuffed into over the past couple hundred years and see him as he was in the actual Gospels. He was a revolutionary in a lot of ways, and I think he understood that to be human was to be a creature of choice, of good and bad decisions, and, most importantly for me, always capable of choosing a redemptive path. My anxiety manifests as deep, deep regret and shame and I think that to understand Christ is to understand a guy who was willing to listen and forgive and then challenge people to live in a way that showed gratitude for the grace they were given. Christ understood the Aragorn and the Yahoo in everyone he met, and I guess he is sort of the middle ground — noble, temptable, but ultimately generous and insanely self-aware.

    Again, for me, it comes back to an understanding that humanity can somehow can exist without this fear of the other foot falling, where we can just live by some basic principles: be kind, forgiving, gracious to each other, don’t take the ring from Frodo, etc. I don’t think my spiritual understandings are the only way to achieve peace, and I’m certainly not interested in anything having to do with American Evangelical culture, but I do enjoy singing these pretty exquisitely crafted hymns on Sundays with the priest at the local Anglican parish, and I’ve definitely found a lot of comfort in the idea that every day is a new opportunity to grow. I fuck up that opportunity on the daily, but at least I know it’s there. Don’t worry though, I’m leaving the musical chronicling of this type of journey to David Bazan.

    I stared out at the oil rigs with their orange and green lights looking like stars resting in the ocean. I wondered what time it was, if the night was ever going to end.

    5

    How would you describe your personality or demeanor to someone who has never met you? How have other members of your family or friend group directly or indirectly influenced your behavior?

    I’m kind of a dick, I guess. My wife has told me this multiple times. I’m trying to be kinder, more forgiving, but man, I can’t stand most people. That’s not really true, actually. When you get to know most people, they are OK. I can’t stand getting to know people, is the problem. This was the worst when we started having kids. Everybody wants to do the “meet new couples with babies and hang out” thing, but inevitably you end up having to drink shit beer while getting barfed on and talking about BBQs with some guy in a Tapout T-shirt while trying not to look at his wife’s boob. Don’t get me wrong, I think out-and-proud breastfeeding is great. Does this answer your question?

    As far as my musician personality goes, my dad told me a few months ago that I need to take myself more seriously on stage and stop making so much fun of my guitarist, Adam. Maybe he’s right. Then again, maybe Adam shouldn’t have bought that stupid huge amplifier in the middle of tour. I think most musicians kind of have a slightly different “self” onstage than off. I need to live in that devil-may-care body a little more onstage because being a musician is mostly a huge personal disappointment. The sound sucks, or there’s no crowd, or you play like shit or your songs are all just basically Barney the Dinosaur ripoffs when you really think about it, and that’s tough.

    I need to be able to hop down after the rough nights and be a little bit removed, as in, “That guy sucked tonight. Glad it wasn’t me up there!” Which is dumb maybe, and a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve definitely gotten better at separating individual shows from my overall sense of self-worth. But sometimes I can’t just shrug it and that’s when things get weird. One time, when I was in American Dirt, we sucked so bad that I just unplugged my guitar after the last song and walked a mile to my house. I just carried my Telecaster all the way home. Then I had to drive my other car back and get my amp.

    I always admire guys like Micah Schnabel, who is, hands down, the kindest goddamn person on this planet both onstage and off regardless of how the show is going. Maybe when he gets in the van he turns into Axl Rose, but I doubt it.

    6

    Can you describe your next practical or home renovation project in as much technical detail as possible, regardless of whether you’re talking to a layperson?

    I just bought this shitty drumkit and I’m in the process of making it look better and sound as nice as possible. I’ve done all but the rack tom. First, I’ll remove all the hardware — lugs, bolts, rims, heads, mounts, etc. and put all these in a drawer labeled “Rack Tom HDWR” so I don’t lose them. Then, I’ll carefully pull the old crappy black wrap off the shell and sand the bare wood — in this case, 6-ply maple. I’ll use 250-grit sandpaper. Then I’ll wipe it all down with a soft cloth a couple of times to remove the dust. I’ll open a can of charcoal blue wood stain and realize I don’t have anything to stir it with. I’ll shake the can gently and spill some.

    Then, I’ll apply the stain with a brush that is currently sitting on top on my sheep trailer which is painted to look like the American Flag if it were designed by a drunk child. As I apply the stain, I’ll pause to wipe the excess off with a soft rag, keeping the tint as even as possible. After it dries for two hours, I’ll sand the shell lightly to bring out the grain variation, wipe it clean, and apply varnish. Two coats, sanded in between. The next day, I will put all the hardware back on along with brand new heads, likely an Evans coated batter head and a clear, single ply Aquarian as the resonant. I’ll tune the bottom just about a minor 3rd above the top to start.

    Then, I’ll remember I don’t really play drums. I’ll probably also leave the can of stain out where the kids can spill it while playing basketball.

    One time, we sucked so bad that I just unplugged my guitar after the last song and walked a mile to my house. I just carried my Telecaster all the way home.

    7

    I feel as though pretty much anyone you talk to in this world is going to have a wealth of amazing stories, but sometimes we all have this one, primary anecdote we always tell, the craziest thing that ever happened to us, the story that keeps shifting and being bloated with exaggeration. Do you have one story about something that happened in your life that never fails to get a room shocked or laughing? If so, tell it, straight!

    Dude. Your funeral. Here we go.

    My buddy Jay and I were 18. College freshmen, in the worst sense. I had been drunk exactly once, and it had happened the weekend before — unless you count the chardonnay I used to steal from my dad’s pantry in high school, but I’d rather not — and Jay had yet to enjoy the wiles of alcohol. This made me the expert on college parties, I guess, and I was enjoying my salty status. Jay and I had a pretty competitive relationship even though we’d only known each other a few months, so he wasn’t stoked on being one-upped on the party front. So we decided that it was high time we evened the score.

    Earlier, I had come up with a plan that I thought would work nicely, and it did, at least the first part. I decided to find this guy named Elliot who I had met face down on the beach the weekend before during my virgin voyage into inebriation. Elliot was 21 and looked like a hermaphrodite with clothes on. He had a house in another town down the coast where it was rumored that people drank and had sex and did other things that shimmered with decadent glory. If anyone could be convinced to buy two underage idiots booze, it was this guy.

    Around 7:00, I went out back behind the dorm and had a cigarette in the bushes so that when I talked to Elliot I would smell cool. After my smoke, I wandered around campus for a while until I found him working on some lighting in the theater. He was wearing blue jean overalls with a rainbow-striped girls’ halter top. He had no shoes. His long hair was put up in a messy bun on top of his head and kept there with chopsticks that appeared to still have kung pow chicken on them. “Hey man,” I said, “You wanna find some whiskey and get fucked up? It’s Friday night, anyway.” Elliot looked at me skeptically, but I think the whiskey thing got him excited, so he said “Uh, sure.” I went and got Jay while Elliot finished the lighting, then we drove him to Vons and he bought a fifth of Jim Beam.

    “Look, where are we going to go drink this?” he asked. “Your house,” I answered, figuring he couldn’t argue since I was driving and he had already bought the whiskey. “Ok, but you have to stop and buy me some smokes man, that’s the deal.” Fair was fair, so I pulled over at the next gas station and bought two packs of Camels, one for him and one for me. Jay didn’t smoke, which made him way less cool. I smoked whenever I could, because I liked looking like James Dean or Cool Hand Luke, assuming either of them smoked. I knew the names, not the history.

    Half an hour later, we arrived at his house, overlooking the ocean from the Summerland hills.  The town stretched out below us like a string of half-working Christmas lights. Its quiet little doings had ended for the day, and now only the faint hum of the highway or the distant reveling of partygoers came in on the seaweed breeze. Elliot called some girls, and Jay and I decided to begin drinking as quickly as possible. Alcohol still mystified us — we had no concept of liquor proof or possible disaster. We found that the easiest way to drink was to pour the whiskey into our mouths, swallow, and repeat. In this manner, we finished off three quarters of the fifth in about an hour. “How do you feel?” I asked. Jay shook off the last shot and smiled with whiskey stained teeth.

    Some girl named Gwen showed up. I had never met her before. She was pale and skinny, with lashes like tarantula legs and lips that whispered rumors of sweaty sex that she would always be better at than you. I stumbled around the room for an hour casting glances at her fingers as they played with Elliot’s Kung Pow hair and smelling her slight perfume mixed with what I would later learn was the sweetish scent of bong water.  I decided that she must be either Elliot’s girl or nobody’s girl at all, I couldn’t tell which.  She talked to me once or twice, always in a hushed tone, with a little smile that could have been angelic or demonic, depending on — as I found out later — what you were paying her for. Eventually, she and Elliot disappeared up onto the roof with a bottle of something or other, and Jay and I were left to our own inebriated devices.

    We went out to the porch, where a series of party-scarred couches sat like old campaigners against the wall. Jay plopped down into a black and red love seat and waved his hand grandiosely. “Jon, boy, give me a fine cigarette, so that I may smoke it.” His hand continued to make the gesture after he had finished talking, and his mouth hung open like a trapdoor leading to a secret room of idiocy. I threw a cigarette at his face, and it bounced off. He picked it up and lit the wrong end. “You gave it to me backwards” he coughed, spewing out the acrid smoke of burning filter. I laughed and tossed another one at him, landing it in his mouth this time, filter end in. I lit my own and inhaled deeply, pausing to feel the smoke and the cool night air in my lungs. Jay, too, inhaled and then paused, feeling, I assumed, the same freedom and excitement as I did. But what happened next took me by complete surprise.

    Instead of slowly exhaling and saying something smashing like “Yes, Jon my boy, this is the life that we have craved and are now living with abandon,” his eyes closed and his cigarette dropped into his crotch. I laughed and told him he was going to burn his penis. He must have heard me, because he suddenly put it out by vomiting into his lap. Also, he immediately stopped breathing.  I stared at him in disbelief for a second, taking it all in. Then I stood awkwardly and began pounding him on the back yelling “Breathe, dipshit, breathe!”  He took in a long gasp, opened his big brown eyes, and puked on my shoes.

    All of this commotion brought Elliot and Gwen down from the roof. Gwen took one look at the situation, laughed maniacally, and left. Elliot started after her, but then thought better of it and came running back to me and Jay. “What should we do?” I asked. “He’s not really breathing much.” Elliot looked at me, then at Jay, and then at the swiftly disappearing tail lights of Gwen’s Honda. He sighed and lit a cigarette. “What should we do?” I asked again, this time with some real fear. Jay had slumped down motionlessly into his own vomit, with slender spider webs of mucus and stomach fluid trailing from his goatee down into the brown pool. “Had pasta salad for dinner, huh?” Elliot asked. “Yeah,” I replied. “Looks like he didn’t chew too well. What should we do?” Elliot pulled hard on his cigarette and threw it away.  Through his exhale, he said “You get him out to the garden, I’ll get some water for him, and some whiskey for us. What the fuck is wrong with him, hasn’t he ever been drunk before?” “No,” I said. Elliot gave me a look of dismay and disappeared into the house.

    I wasn’t quite sure what the logic of getting Jay to the garden was, but I was so drunk that I just pulled him off the love seat and dragged him down the porch steps into the driveway. He immediately started throwing up again, so I leaned him against a pickup truck and jumped out of the way. Elliot made it out just in time to catch him as he began to fall, supporting him with his body as he held a glass of water and the rest of the bottle of whiskey over his head for safekeeping. “Here,” he said, “Take this water and see if you can get him to drink it.” I tried to pour the water down Jay’s unconscious throat, but every time the liquid touched his tongue he vomited again, the last time back into the glass. I threw the glass in the direction of the porch and took the bottle from Elliot, trading him Jay’s limp body. I swigged and we traded back. Then I passed out.

    I hit the bumper of the pickup truck with my face on the way down, but the jolt of the fall woke me up just in time to watch Jay’s head bounce off the asphalt while making a sound not unlike a ripe watermelon being dropped off a roof. Instinctively, I felt my face for lacerations and realized that I couldn’t feel it at all. I began laughing. Jay lay motionless on his back for a second and then threw up in his own eyes. Elliot stared at us from above with disgust, took a long slow pull of bourbon and asked “Is Jay wearing slippers?”

    After Elliot and I smoked two more cigarettes, Jay had quit vomiting, although he was still unconscious. So we stripped his clothes off, slippers and all, hosed him down and dressed him in the clothes that Elliot was wearing.  We carried him into the house and laid him out on the couch with a blanket and a trashcan. Elliot got dressed and gave me a vomit-free T-shirt to wear. “So,” he said, “Let’s go outside and let him sleep it off. He’ll be okay in the morning.” I mumbled my consent, as I was now so drunk that my teeth were numb. I had no idea how much alcohol one had to drink in order to die, but I had a feeling Jay had gotten close.

    I began to worry about myself, so followed Elliot out to the couches again, sat down and began pounding various body parts to see if they still felt pain. Nothing. I lit a cigarette to see if I could taste it. Nothing. I was on the verge of burning my arm with the cigarette when Elliot said, “If you’re going to play with that instead of smoking it, you should give it to me.” I looked at him with a sudden wonder and asked “How is it that you’re not drunk at all, or anything?” “I’m drunk,” he replied, “Just not stupid. So, you going to throw up too, or what?” “No, I don’t think so,” I said, hoping that I was telling the truth.

    I felt as if the entire world was spinning at the speed that I have been told it really is spinning.  I thought about that for a minute or two, but it freaked me out and I pushed it out of my head. I tried to think about Gwen instead, and instantly felt bad. “Sorry Gwen left,” I blurted. Elliot looked at me like he was sorry too, only more, and maybe angry as well. Then he laughed and said “You fucking freshmen, I should have known you couldn’t hold your liquor. If Jay dies on me I’m going to kill you, I swear to Christ.” Almost as an afterthought, I looked up at the sky and asked “do you think that God is?” I gave him the finger and stumbled inside. “Fine, go to bed,” Elliot called after me. “Just leave your smokes ‘cause I’m out.”

    I fell asleep on the couch instantly and slept for what must have been the better part of two hours. When I woke, I found myself alone in the backyard vomiting on my bare feet. I got scared all of a sudden, and instinctively called out “Elliot! Elliot!” as I suddenly flashed back to being sick as a child and calling for my mother in the middle of the night.  The only difference now was that I was nearly an adult and Elliot was not my mom. Nor was he amused when he came running out of the house in his boxer shorts a few seconds later. “What the fuck!” he yelled. “I don’t know, sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up, um, I had to puke,” I mumbled, now wishing I could puke until I died to escape the embarrassment of having just thrown up a perfectly good half bottle of whiskey, having done it on my own feet, and having called out so thinly for help.

    “Look.” I pointed my bile soaked finger out toward the ocean. “You can see the oil rigs from here.” I threw up again, a long retching pull from the bottom of my gut. “Yeah,” muttered Elliot. “It’s a blessing from God to live in such a beautiful place. I’m going to get you water and then I’m going back to bed.” He sidestepped my pool of dinner and drinks and walked into the kitchen. I turned on the hose and washed off my hands and feet. Elliot reappeared. “Here’s some water. Drink it, then give some to Jay. He just threw up again on the couch. I’m done.” He turned to go back in and then stopped. “You ok now?” “Yeah, I think so.” I turned off the hose. “Sorry we made such a mess.” “That’s ok, just go take care of Jay and go to bed. It happens to the best of us.”

    I stared out at the oil rigs with their orange and green lights looking like stars resting in the ocean. I wondered what time it was, if the night was ever going to end, and if Elliot would ever hang out with me again. After I was sure I wasn’t going to throw up anymore I went inside, cleaned the newest puke out of Jay’s hair and beard with a dishtowel and fell asleep.

    When I awoke, the sun was streaming in through the living room windows. Jay was still asleep with a trail of drying bile crusted on his cheek. I could hear the shower running, and after a couple of minutes Elliot emerged from the bathroom drying his hair. “Hey,” he yawned, “How do you feel?” I said I felt drunk and stumbled into the kitchen to take a long drink from the tap. “Wake up Jay, we have to go soon.” Elliot pulled on a T-shirt. “My friend Cassie is coming over and we have to go up to school to meet my art class. We’re going to the Getty today.” I looked at the clock on the stove. 7:15. I walked over to the couch and shook Jay’s shoulder. “Wake up man, we have to go.”

    Jay opened his eyes halfway and yawned. He sat up. “What the fuck, where are we?” “We’re still at Elliot’s, but we have to go, so get cleaned up.” Jay stood shakily and walked to the table where the unopened 2-liter of coke that we had bought as a chaser still sat. He opened it with a groan and drained half of it. Elliot walked out again. “Hello Jay,” he said nonchalantly. “I threw your jeans in the washer, you can get them from me later. Cassie will be here soon, so get ready to go. We’re going to take you back up to campus.” Jay went to the bathroom and closed the door. A second later, he screamed and came running out. “What the hell am I wearing, where are my clothes?”  “I told you, I’m washing them.” Elliot looked at him grumpily. “You can wear my clothes home.” Jay stared down at the overalls still laced with bits of regurgitated food and fingered the strap of the rainbow halter top cutting into his shoulder.  “Uh, ok, thanks,” he said lamely and went back into the bathroom. “Dude, you look awesome!” I called after him.

    Five minutes later, an orange VW van pulled into the driveway and Elliot herded us out into the chilly morning. Elliot’s friend Cassie was dressed nicely in a pretty skirt with her hair pulled back from her angular face. I had never met her and I felt embarrassed about the way I looked, but I didn’t hold a candle to Jay, who shuffled out in his pukey slippers and Elliot costume, holding the now empty 2-liter bottle. He squinted at Cassie, raised a pale, shaking hand in greeting, and let his gaze fall to the ground. “Hey” he exclaimed with groggy joy, “there’s my shirt!”  There, still in the shadow of the eves, lay his soggy black t-shirt.  Without another word he picked it up and climbed into the van. Elliot gave Cassie an apologetic look and took the front seat. I sat next to Jay in the back, buckled in, and we drove away.

    The VW must have received an overhaul at some point, because it sported wooden floors and nice plush seats. I listened to the conversation in the front seat and gathered that they were taking a van-load of people to the Getty museum in Los Angeles for the day. They also mentioned a party later that evening, and I wondered (insanely) if Elliot would invite me to go. There was, mercifully, no mention of why two anonymous freshmen who reeked of vomit and looked like total shit were hitching a ride back to campus. Jay and I sat quietly in the back, just wanting to get home so that we could go to bed. It looked like the end was finally approaching as we wound our way up the twisting roads from Summerland to Montecito.

    We were nearly there when I heard a weird burping noise and turned to see Jay looking even more like death warmed over than he already did. He stared at me in silent desperation for a moment and then unleashed a river of stomach acid and Coca-Cola all over the floor of the van. Elliot turned around in his seat like a road trip dad at the end of his short rope and said “Fuck, how is he still throwing up?” “Well, he drank that whole two-liter before we left,” I said, “and the road is even making me feel sick.” “Wow, even you?” Elliot spat back. “Do something, for shit’s sake!” As Jay began to retch again, I grabbed his shirt and stuffed it into his mouth. Soda foamed out around it and streamed down my hand. It felt hot and bubbly.

    By this time we were approaching the art building at the bottom of campus, and as we pulled into the lot I could see about ten people waiting on the steps. As soon as the engine turned off, Elliot sprang out and threw the back door open. “Ok, just get out, I’ll clean it up,” he growled. Jay looked at the floor, which was now two inches deep in stomach slop, and began mumbling “I’m sorry, really sorry, shit, here I’ve got it, sorry…” He dropped to his knees and began trying to soak up the lake with his saturated T-shirt. Elliot grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him out. “Look, just take him home. I’ll deal with this, you just get him home.” Cassie just stood there laughing nervously and trying not to attract attention, but people were beginning to wander over. I looked at Elliot. “OK, sorry man, I’ll just take Jay home now, and, uh, have fun today. Oh yeah, call me about that party tonight, I might come.” Elliot looked at me with a mixture of amazement and confusion.  “No, you won’t.”

    The truth hurt, and I felt ashamed, but there was nothing I could do, so I grabbed Jay by the overalls and hauled him up. “C’mon man, let’s get out of here.” Jay nodded, waved goodbye to all concerned and walked over to the bushes. I thought he had to puke again, but instead he hurled his shirt into the underbrush, raised his arms and proclaimed “There, let it rot.”

    We skirted the still-sleeping lower campus dormitories and took the back stairs up to the cafeteria. It was still before eight o’clock on a Saturday, so we knew we had a decent chance of getting back to our room without running into anyone. Halfway there, we heard someone coming along the path towards us. The path ran through a grove of trees, so we couldn’t see who it was until they were within ten feet of us. There was nothing to do but keep going though, so we walked around the corner and almost ran into our friend Katerina. Katerina was so cool on her own that she didn’t have to drink or smoke or do anything bad at all, so she didn’t. She must have been exercising or something to be out at such an ungodly hour on a Saturday.

    “Hey guys,” she said. “What are you doing up?” We just stared at her for a second as the look on her face changed from surprised to disgusted. “You guys smell like shit. Have you been drinking?” “No,” said Jay. “Yes,” I said, “and now we just want to go to bed.” “If I were you, I would want to take a shower… for a year.”  She smiled and showed her pointy teeth. “Yeah, thanks Kat, we’ll see you later,” I mumbled.  She gave us a wide berth and jogged down the path back the way we had come.

    We lived at the very top of campus. I say “top” because the school was built on the side of one of the coastal mountains that sloped down to the town and then into the ocean. The trek was tiring on a normal day, and this morning it was everything we could do to force our dehydrated bodies to make the ascent. However, we gained our dorm parking lot without further incident, but I decided it would be better if Jay went around to the back door instead of walking through the halls. “OK man, you go around, and I’ll go through the hall and meet you there to open it. If I see anybody, it should be OK because at least I’m not entirely soaked in vomit.” Jay looked at me, nodded in agreement and wandered off into the brush that bordered the dorm where it sat at the top of the hill.

    I climbed the steps up to the big plate glass doors that lead into the foyer, groaned them and stepped into the warm half darkness. As I turned the last corner before the stairwell, I heard voices. Instantly, a door opened and out came a tall, well-dressed man, a thin, birdlike woman, and a well-endowed blonde girl who couldn’t have been more than 17. Behind them trailed the official student tour guide.

    I blinked for a second as the reality of the situation set in. The prospective student’s family stopped and gawked at me as I walked straight at them. No one spoke a word as I brushed past, little flecks of bile like dandruff in my beard. I felt like a hero as I stared at their wide eyes and shrinking nostrils. I got past them, flung the stairwell door open and shouted “Welcome to Westermount!”

    Forty five minutes later Jay arrived at the back door, covered in mud and bleeding from numerous scratches on his hands and face. “Where the fuck have you been?” I whispered. He looked at me through the sticks hanging from his disheveled hair. “I fell,” he spat, and pushed past me. I followed him to our room where we both crawled into bed and lay breathing shallowly in the safe dark. Somewhere in the room, sheets rustled and our third roommate, Artie, who never did anything against the rules, leaned out of his bunk. “Where did you guys go?” “Hell,” came Jay’s whisper. “We went to Hell.”

    I think this story pretty much sums up the bulk of my anxiety over whether I’m actually an okay person.

    8

    On that note, can you describe what you’ve done so far today, perhaps by the hour? And in general what are your plans for the rest of your life?

    I woke up at 7 a.m., which is late for me, actually, since my kids usually have to be at school before I get to work at 8. Today, I had the day off and I’ve been sick with this stupid cold. I made breakfast — eggs and toast — and then spent some time working on band stuff, social media bullshit, etc. Then I basically locked myself in my studio and alternated between grading papers — I’m an English professor, as I mentioned before — and playing the drums, which is my new hobby. I’m pretty terrible right now. Then I went to the store and bought my kids some new cap guns and some doughnuts because I’m a good dad. I finished it off with a couple ice cold LaCroix cans and a win for the Dodgers in Game One of the World Series.

    The rest of my life? My plan right now is to keep writing songs and keep pushing toward spreading my music out as wide as I can. I used to really want a major label record deal and all that but now I think I’d probably just be stoked to make a record and tour a modest bit every year and keep raising my kids. It sure would be nice to have some financial, booking and distribution support, but so far I’ve been able to do most of that myself. Nobody gets to be the Rolling Stones anymore anyway. I also have my own studio where I’ve been recording local bands for the past couple of years, and I want to continue to do that. I love engineering and mixing. Also I might run for mayor. I guess that depends on how easy it is to permanently delete my Facebook history.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 89
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: December 14, 2017
    Total questions: 8 + 9
    Word count: 7371
    Reading time: Twenty-seven minutes
    Hyperlinks: 5

    Metadata


    Anecdotes: 1
    Treats: Sodden
    Humanity: Aragorn
    Also humanity: Yahoo
    Civilization: Pending
    Pogues: Agreed upon
    World wars: 4

    Relation


    About the subject


    Jon Bartel leads the band The Creston Line and operates Northwall Studios. He lives in Atascadero, California.

    About the curator


    Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.


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