A conversation with Jon Crocker

 

    We spoke with Jon Crocker about studying atlases as a child, solving the primeval problem of belonging, finding purpose in the untouched Alaskan wilderness and reaching Zen transcendence in an American ghost town.

    I’d get fascinated by places and wonder what they were like. I’d imagine the people, the trees, the rain or the wind or the fog or the sun.


    We asked Jon what came to mind when considering these fundamental building blocks of reality.


    Small.


    Not as small.


    Positive.


    Neutral.


    …and his package.


    Dense.


    Now an official thing.


    Surf.

    1

    Morgan Enos

    It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to catch up — I made my way from California to New York and I understand you’ve been in Alaska for some time. To begin, could you summarize the events of the last several years against the landscape of Alaska, as it were? What surrounds you, and what’s been going on in your inner and family life?

    Jon Crocker

    This is our 8th year in Alaska… that’s kind of a long time. I don’t usually think about how long it’s been. I think most of our friends and family expected us to try it out and move back, but it feels very much like home. We’re way at the end of a long gravel road now with not really any immediate neighbors, so I guess I could say that Alaska surrounds us. We’ve messed with it a little — we built a cabin, some sheds, a barn, gardens and orchards and a trail to the berry patch, but it still feels wild enough. We just had our second child, another daughter, so things are pretty relaxed right now. I teach part-time in the local town and part-time online, so it’s flexible. We spend a lot of time outdoors, reading, making music and being stereotypically rugged. I wouldn’t want to let anyone down by not being rugged enough. We’re off-grid and everything.

    Inner life is still a struggle, but a different kind than before, and easier — now, I just struggle with how to spend my time. I’ve mostly solved the problems of loneliness, love, and belonging. It’s a good place to be.

    2

    That’s interesting, since everyone’s concept of being off-grid is kinda different. What have you gained from living in an isolated situation, and how has it helped to resolve those “inner life” problems you mentioned?

    We’re off-grid in the utilities sense — no electricity except for what we make ourselves, and we heat with wood and all that. My wife and I are both introverted, so the isolation works for us.

    The resolutions so far have been in each other. We had eerily similar childhoods in several ways. I always knew that my travels were only partly to do with touring. I definitely wanted to share music and all that, but part of it was travel out of habit — maybe a “running away from things” kind of issue? And running towards things as well, since I was always looking for some kind of niche, a place where everything felt right, and I thought that geography was the answer.

    I started studying atlases heavily when I was in 3rd grade. I’d get fascinated by places and wonder what they were like. I’d imagine the people, the trees, the rain or the wind or the fog or the sun, as if studying maps could reveal something magical about somewhere else. Then I went to find out for myself, and I did find a lot of amazing places — none perfect, but many that would do. And I found Meghan, we clicked, and those problems slowly went away. My family broke apart when I was four or five, so I’m pretty sure that’s the origin of the belonging/loneliness/love struggle, and music helped me get through a lot of that. I think most of my songs are about that in some way, that and breakups — my own personal music therapy.

    When we decided to get married, we just happened to come up here, partly because I accidentally bought some land through an eBay auction, but partly because we wanted more adventures and a fresh start. And we’ve been able to do things the way we want to do them: low-key, low-impact, and clean. It’s amazing — I grew up asthmatic and used to use my inhaler almost daily. Up here, it’s more like once every two or three months.

    3

    Before we continue, let’s touch on your very earliest childhood memory. What was going on, how old were you and where were you? Does this memory carry any significance in your life now?

    I’m not sure where to draw the line between impressions and memories. I have some impressions of being two or three in South Carolina. There was a little creek in the ditch at the back of our yard. There was a swing set somewhere and lots of green. There were carpeted steps inside the house and a closed door at the top. I remember my fourth birthday after moving to California. It was at the church. There were kids there, and they must have been my friends, but we’d just moved so I think they were more like… kids whose parents happened to go to the same church?

    And our house had a gate behind it that opened into a huge vacant lot with some kind of electrical plant fenced off in the center. We threw lots of rocks at things in that lot — that’d be my two older brothers and I. If there’s a recurring theme from my childhood, it’d be always being taken somewhere. Lots of traveling. That and being left to my own devices to throw rocks at things. It paid off, though — last fall, I threw a rock at a spruce grouse and killed it. We put it in a soup. I’ll be trying that again sometime.

    There were several situations in which people that befriended me insisted I go with them to a magical tree. It was never the same tree, but the fact that it kept happening is kind of weird.

    4

    I remember you’ve boasted one of the wildest travel resumes I’ve ever heard of, and in kind of bizarre ways. Specifically, I’m curious as to your experiences doing walking tours across regions of the United States. What was that like, physically and mentally? How far did you get, and how did you logistically make a walking tour happen?

    I only ended up doing a few partial walking tours. The big one I had planned went from a being a walking tour to a hitchhiking tour to a train tour to a driving once I got back to my car tour — I got tendonitis in both my Achilles after 100 miles. It was a good idea, though — I just chose a section of the east coast with enough big towns close enough together so I could realistically have a different show every night after a day’s walk. At the time, I was really tired of driving, so I kind of wanted to prove it was possible.

    I still think walking is the best speed at which to live. I did semi-walking tours in Ireland and the UK — walking when I could, or plotting out interesting routes that would take me through places I wanted to see on the way to shows, sometimes in places with no bus or train service, so I wouldn’t have any choice but to walk. I gave my car to my little brother later that summer, hoping it would force me to keep trying, and I did keep playing shows all over the place using a variety of transport, but I never ended up doing a full walking tour.

    Being at the mercy of so many variables put me in some very interesting situations, and I ended up meeting a lot of amazing people, some who even became friends. There were several situations in which people that befriended me insisted I go with them to a magical tree. It was never the same tree; it was always in different places, but the fact that it kept happening is kind of weird. Somebody needs to research the prevalence of magical trees in the psyches of those that voluntarily approach strange bearded men. It can’t just be coincidence.

    5

    I’m going off my memory here and could be wrong, but I seem to remember a small pamphlet you once published about how to travel across the country or go on tour. One of my favorite things you said was to not be afraid of hitchhiking — “Most people are nice people, and not axe murderers.” Do you still have this optimistic view of human nature? I live in New York, where even professed friends seem kind of scared of each other and hang out about once a year.

    I do think that most people are genuinely good, especially as individuals. It’s in large groups that we really start to suck. And when we hate, it’s the groups we hate. Very few people are capable of hating somebody that they’re talking with face to face. If anything, I would say that it’s a matter of scale, and civilization has grown well beyond a scale that I can handle personally, and well beyond sustainability in general. So I might try to reach people on an individual level and hope that enough individuals can make a group change, at least in my preachier moments. Humans may lean toward kindness in general, but we’re also weak, prone to good intentions that don’t always translate to action.

    6

    From our long conversations years ago, I remember you told me about a special moment in which you were driving alone somewhere in the Midwest. You claimed you reached a sort of spiritual transcendence, or Zen sort of acceptance, during that drive. Can you fill me in on this memory, one I’m really interested in exploring?

    It was a perfect combination of elements. I was probably sleep-deprived — I always find things more beautiful when I’m sleep-deprived for some reason, and I get easily emotional.

    At the time, I was in love with a slightly older woman. It turned out she was actually married the entire time, and tour and being apart and all that was difficult for me. But before I left for tour, she gave me a little pocket-sized Tao Te Ching. I’d been reading it, and I’d been thinking a lot during drives in general. I’d also gotten a book on Zen from a bookstore venue in Maine — they paid me for the gig by giving me a bunch of used books. For a long time, I had no music in my car, no CD player or anything, so I’d entertain myself on long drives by playing harmonica, writing songs, singing, thinking, or picking up hitchhikers. And I’d just crossed the border from South Dakota to Nebraska, still thinking and all that, and I started driving through one of these Great Plains ghost towns — places that used to be populated before machines took over all of the farm work.

    It was probably early morning, but I don’t remember. It was chilly and the sky way dull grey — it must have been early spring or late fall. No snow; everything was kind of brown. I passed by an old cemetery, one that probably hadn’t been added to in decades, so I started thinking about the lives of the people buried there. Some of them came in covered wagons and all that. They came, they tried, they built, they loved, they failed, they succeeded, they laughed, they ate a whole lot of corn. Some died young and some didn’t. Some had big dreams that came true, some never tried, some had no dreams at all. It didn’t matter; they all lived their lives, and their lives were loaded with the things that typically fill up a life. And then they died. People mourned. Done. Simple. Admirable in its simplicity, I’d say.

    I couldn’t help but think of my family and my own mortality, and I just became inexplicably full. It took me by surprise and I started laughing hysterically. It was at that moment that I realized I didn’t have to do anything — I was just like all of the dead farmers in the cemetery. We were one and the same. All I needed to do was live, just like they’d done. There was no more pressure to fulfill anyone’s expectations; I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to. I could focus only on doing what makes me happy, or doing what I felt was right, but I sure as hell didn’t have to beat myself up trying to do anything else. It’s cliché, but I did feel like a huge weight had been lifted.

    I’d already known all of this — it wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought about before — but everything lined up to make that moment so special. It was the moment that I went from knowing it in my head to knowing it in the rest of me.

    7

    That’s really beautiful, and it makes me think of things we take from the generations before us. Can you name some specific ways your parents or other loved ones influenced your deepest tendencies — your vocal tics, the way you comport yourself, even the way you think? And, how far back do you have knowledge of your biological lineage?

    I think a lot like my father does — freakily focused and probably too logical at times. I get easily lost in my head.

    I think I got my mother’s compassion. She always had time or a little money for anyone in need, even to her own detriment. I remember hanging out with a lot of street musicians when I was with her, she busked sometimes, and we camped a lot — sometimes not by choice, so she always had a heart for anyone down on their luck. She once had been mentoring a lady that was just getting out of jail, and she let this lady stay in her trailer for a while when she wasn’t using it. I was with her when she came back and found the place trashed, junk all over the place, crack pipes on the table, things like that. And even after getting burned like that, she never stopped being a giver.

    My first stepdad was pure kindness. He taught me a lot about nature. If anything, I took more from him than from anyone. He died when I was 18 and it was a time of great change in my life in general. I reclused myself for about six months or so. I still went to classes and worked, but the rest of the time I just thought and thought until I got to a point where I was at peace with it. I wanted to honor him by being so selfless — he’d been in the peace corps, a fireman, a park ranger, always serving but not in a way that he didn’t also get tremendous personal enjoyment from what he did. I liked that. I wanted to emulate that, which is why I pursued music so heavily, and why I ended up becoming a teacher as well. He’d turned me onto Vonnegut, Ed Abbey, the Marx Brothers, Harold and Maude, all kinds of great stuff. It helped me through adolescence.

    I know I’m a lot like a lot of people in my family, and I have learned a fair bit in a genealogical sense, but I never knew enough extended family to know how they are part of me. I know my paternal grandpa played a lot of guitar and sang, but I never met him. People say I’m a lot like him. My maternal grandpa was a preacher. I may not have the same beliefs, but I can definitely be preachy. That’s the main weakness in my writing. Maybe I can’t help it? Maybe I was destined to be a strummer and singer telling people how they should live, and doing it without a whole lot of subtlety. Has the gene for pedantry been isolated yet?

    We kill each other and build monuments and make music and write poetry and weep and procreate and vote and all based on shared definitions of things that don’t really exist. It’s madness.

    8

    As I think of questions to ask you, I’m listening to your songs “Genesis” and “Exodus” from your self-titled record. Obviously, the choice of those titles are rich with metaphorical meaning, but what do you think of religious or sacred texts? Are there any that you live by, and what do you think of the idea of singular truth versus “picking and choosing” beliefs?

    Those song titles were chosen in a less metaphorical way. They’re kind of literally about a Genesis and an Exodus, but not the Biblical ones, and I thought it would be really clever for the first two songs of the album to have those titles. Maybe that’s even sacrilegious to some? I was a fundamentalist for a while when I was younger, and I know there are people that would think I’m horrible for using those as song titles. I don’t align myself with any specific -ism these days… I haven’t for a long while.

    Sacred texts can be a great place to start. My personal beliefs include a lot of things that overlap with various religions on a philosophical level, and that’s nice, but I’m not sure that it makes me identify with one or the other. It’s more of a matter of independently coming to some of the same conclusions — in a sense, that makes it all the more powerful. I believe strongly in the importance of compassion, but it’s really because of my own thoughts and experiences.

    Something that drove me from the church was a lack of compassion in my congregation. Their actions didn’t match their supposed beliefs, and I think a big factor in that is that many only “believed” it because it was in the book, not because they’d examined the idea and decided for themselves if it was right or wrong. It wasn’t truly theirs. That made it easy to ignore when it suited them. So instead of picking and choosing, I’d like to think it’s more about growing your own beliefs.

    9

    Totally. But just to play devil’s advocate here, wouldn’t growing your own beliefs also lend itself to that idea of forming your own truth? Sometimes I’m worried that some of humanity is almost doomed to that, just coming up with their own version of what’s going on until they all meet the same end. My thoughts are kind of bleak these days.

    Humanity has been doing that all along. I made a blog post once about the “meaning of it all.” I decided it comes down to nouns.

    They can and should be easy to define. We have no trouble agreeing on most things. A chair is a chair. And places — New York is New York. And people — I am me, you are you. It’s the ideas that we can’t agree on. What is love? My definition will never be exactly the same as anyone else’s. What is truth? And so on. We spend a great deal of energy trying to get others to agree with our definitions of an abstraction. Some people are so good at it that it becomes a religion or a political party. This is where power comes from: getting people to agree with our definition of something that really doesn’t even exist in a physical sense. What is freedom? What is equality? What is God?

    And we kill each other and build monuments and make music and write poetry and weep and procreate and vote and all based on shared definitions of things that don’t really exist. It’s madness, and you and I are probably doing it right now without even realizing it. When we let others define abstractions for us, we give them power over our happiness by way of shaping our expectations. But if we accept that there is no single definition of any abstraction (and we know this is true; there are as many definitions as there are people), then we also must accept that we can define these things however we want.

    So I’d rather trust my own definition of love. I’d rather trust my own definition of justice, especially not ones given to me by a politician or pundit that might profit from getting me to agree with his or hers. The same goes with my definition of God or truth or beauty or anything else. I’m not going to give that power away easily, especially not to someone that wants to profit from it. I can’t think of anything more empowering than forming our own truth, since truth is a human construct to begin with, and we can probably improve on most definitions currently floating around out there.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 110
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: January 16, 2018
    Total questions: 8 + 7
    Word count: 3408
    Reading time: Ten minutes
    Hyperlinks: 6
    Imagery: 8

    Metadata


    Physics: 8
    Conclusion: Independent
    Simplicity: Admirable
    Exodus: Literal
    Definition: Nonsingular
    Belief: Overlapped
    Theme: Recurring
    Prevalence: Trees

    Relation


    About the subject


    Jon Crocker is a singer, songwriter, recording artist and storyteller living in Alaska.

    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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