Non-Fiction Uncategorized


Or: How to Love Music When Nobody’s Listening

One night in 2013 or so, I was playing at a restaurant that was world-renowned for its food. It had been featured on food TV shows, which I had not watched, but people drove from all over the country to eat at this place. 

It was in a rough part of town, but people still came. The prices were reasonable; the food was uniquely satisfying. 

But the restaurant was not world-renowned for its live music, and for good reason; nobody was going there for the music. I played there for three hours, tucked into a corner by the entrance. The PA piped my playing into the dining room, and to most diners, I was pure wallpaper. 

grayscale photo of a wet stomach
Finding images for this was really hard, but I feel like you need images to keep reading. Here’s someone’s stomach. Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

On many nights, people would look at me dumbfounded when leaving, saying something to the effect of:

“Oh, that was live music? I thought it was the radio.”

This was an incredible compliment, and I’ll explain why a bit later. But at the time, it was the most grievous insult I could imagine. 

I played there regularly for a couple of years.

Each time, I would become more jaded. Nobody gave a damn about the music. Very few people clapped, or even acknowledged me, even when they were standing right next to me.

I felt like a little kid, pushed into the corner to do his talent show while the adults concentrated on truly great things: fine food, good company. There was no reason for me to be there, except that I needed the money ($50, plus tips, which were unpredictable) and the food. 

funky skull graffiti on locked roll down black door
Again, this photo has nothing to do with the content. But is there anything more punk rock than going the wrong way? Photo by Willo M. on

Performers were allotted one dish from the regular menu. Every time I played, I got a steak, which was the best thing there. I would take it home and split it with my partner; it was usually the only great meal we’d have that month. 

The final time I played at this place, I stumbled up to the bar after three hours of performance. My voice was raw and my fingers hurt, and I was particularly annoyed at the night’s crowd. I’d made about $10 in tips, and I had to get up early the next morning. I ordered the steak. 

“That’s not for you,” the bartender said. “Order something else.” 

“I always get that.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “We can do sandwiches, no entrees.” 

I felt like a little kid again. I angrily ordered something else and resolved to never play the joint again. 

Around that time, my musical life had pulled back.

I was in a band, brotherfather, but we’d put each other in various types of creative headlocks, and no new music was happening. I believe that the Chimps were starting, but we were in early days. And most disturbingly, to me: I hadn’t written a new song in over a year. 

This was new to me. As a teenager, I wrote a new song every week. My output had gradually slowed down, but I was always writing; at one point, to restart myself creatively, I wrote a song a day for an entire month (only two or three of the songs were any good, but who’s counting?). 

When I sat down with a guitar, nothing happened. I’d just start drinking and put the guitar down. Eventually, I stopped picking it up. 

cheerful woman with guitar in black and white
A photogenic woman who is happy to be playing an A chord, badly. Photo by Alina Rossoshanska on

My only truly fulfilling musical outlet was my semi-regular gig at John Brown’s in Marion, Illinois. Even that was becoming endangered; one night, I texted John to set up a date. This is paraphrasing his response, which I’m sure was less harsh but no less direct:

No. You’ve been jaded lately, man. You’re not making it about the music. 

That was the first time I’d been called out. John is one of the greatest friends I’ve made through music, and I value his opinion implicitly. And he was done with me — I was playing like an asshole. 

The worst part was that I wasn’t sure whether I cared.

I was checked out. Why should I care about playing music if the crowd never cared? Why not just sit at home and watch the latest Netflix 7-part documentary about a white girl who disappeared? 

Around that time, I went to an open mic in St. Louis and purposely bombed. I made fun of the Arch, the Blues, and the Cardinals. By the end, two guys wanted to fight me. I was just trying to feel something, anything, and to get any reaction from the crowd. I got the reaction, but I came in angry and left angry. Nothing changed.

I would love to tell you that I snapped out of it, several months later.

I did not. My band remained creatively deadlocked, and I started playing with the Chimps; our shows gained a steady audience, and I wrote a couple new songs. 

But I was still angry at certain crowds, and angry at myself when my music didn’t come out the way that it sounded in my head. I was unwilling to do any work to align my art with my actions; I’d already done the work. It was the audience’s fault for not recognizing the time and effort that I’d already spent. 

young man with greasepaint on face on street
Matt Basler. Photo by vikesh zen on

There were moments that started to shake off my rust. The most profound was just prior to a Chimps show, where Jesse Irwin pulled us in for a pre-game huddle. We were nervous; he was nervous. 

“There are people in that audience tonight who dream about being able to get up in front of people and sing,” he said. “There are people who would pay anything to be able to do this. And we get to do it.” 

Becoming un-jaded is a process, and no single moment shakes you out of it.

Recovery depends on the people you surround yourself with, to a great extent.

I am grateful that I’ve surrounded myself with great people. This is kind of becoming a name-drop piece, but I’ll drop a few more — Chris Turnbaugh and Dustin Sholtes, my bandmates in brotherfather (now otherfather), have a consistently wonderful worldview when it comes to music. My Chimps bandmates also lifted me up.

But it’s easy to slip back into the ether of jealousy and resentment. When my friend Nathan died, I was right back to square one. 

We grew up together and we were college roommates. The man was the greatest musician I have ever played with, and I have played, consistently, with great musicians. He was a true genius, and he’d been that way since he was a kid. 

Nathan is not pictured above; the embed pulled that image in, and I don’t know who these guys are. Maybe they played on Nathan’s record, Catch? Anyway, if you hover over that photo, you’ll get Play controls for Nathan’s album.

He took his own life for a plethora of personal reasons, but also for no reason at all. 

He wasn’t jaded about music, in my experience, but music didn’t save him. I’ve written songs about him, but he will never hear them. We played a memorial show for him, but he was not there. 

Eventually, you have to sit down with your art and ask it serious questions. What am I even doing? How much money do I spend on this bullshit? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy? 

Who is this for? 

My friend, Dana Anderson, struggled with these questions.

The last time I spoke to him, it seemed to me that he’d answered them. He had quit drinking and written songs that were more complex than anything he’d written in years. They were very, very good — but also a lot darker than his earlier stuff, and that was saying something. 

Then, he killed himself. When you do that, you take all the pain that’s building up inside you and pass it along to everyone who loves you. You also mess up your art, in a lot of ways; now, every Dana song sounds like a warning sign. All of his magnificent poetry is colored by his last moments. 

Dana was frequently jaded. A lot of his bad energy rubbed off on me. But he was also the opposite, as is frequently the case with great artists. We’d play shows where he’d switch from his set of glorious originals to tried-and-true hokum like Wagon Wheel and Folsom Prison Blues. When the crowd was listening, he’d gradually switch back to his own stuff, and keep them on his side. Even if he wasn’t always successful, he knew how to work a crowd. 

On many nights, he understood that he was there for the audience, and that the inverse was not necessarily true. 

I went back and added this embed of a Dana Michael Anderson song. If you haven’t listened to him, please dig into his stuff.

When Dana died, I was playing at John Brown’s the next night.

We put a few of his songs into our set. The crowd did not know his story, but they threw themselves into his songs. 

That place consistently has the best audience in the world. They truly love the music, thanks to the owner and staff, who have cultivated that love. I often describe it as an oasis of music in Southern Illinois, a small-town joint that feels quite a bit bigger. 

They appreciated us that night. But I would bet that most people drove home thinking about how much they’d spent, or how the baseball game on the TVs had turned out. What they’d do tomorrow, what they had to do next week. The music was at the back of their minds, if it was there at all.

And I absolutely love that. 

Nobody needs to care about your music for it to mean something.

A few months ago, I went to see my friend Michael Ahlvers (Lefty Daytona) play a show in Alton with my newest musical friend, Troy Brenningmeyer. Here’s what Mike sounds like. 

As you might have gathered, Mike is tremendous. When I played with him for the first time, I remember thinking, this guy sings well, plays well, writes well, and he’s good looking. What the hell am I bringing to the table, again? 

Troy is a world-class musician. I was watching his music lessons on YouTube before I figured out that he was local, and I’m still shocked that I’m playing with him. He’s also a fundamentally kind person, and he’ll play shows if he likes the music — I often assume that great players will only play for a certain minimum amount of money, but that’s simply not true. They play music because they love playing.

At this show, there were a few people, but not many. Mike and Troy played like the room was packed. I played a few tunes and truly enjoyed myself. 

“I don’t care if people show up,” Mike told me, between sets. “It’s nice if they do, though.” 

Becoming unjaded is a journey, but there it is, distilled perfectly into a couple of sentences. If he’d said that to me five years ago, it would have rolled right past me. 

But that’s how you become an artist. That’s how you make something that truly matters. That’s the mindset that leads to songs like this: 

“Autumn Bird,” by Michael Ahlvers.

You can’t write like that when you’re jaded. You write like that when you love something deeply and you need to share it with the world.

Let me engage with those Big Questions that I mentioned earlier. 

What am I even doing? 

Playing music, you idiot. 

How much money do I spend on this bullshit? 

Money comes and goes, John. When you were right out of college, you spent a thousand bucks on a hot tub that you used for three months. You got your guitar second-hand from a Brazilian priest (true story) and it cost a lot less. Next question.

Wouldn’t it be better to just stop, and do something more productive with my time and energy?

Maybe, but what? I’m not building any houses for the houseless, and I’m not effecting any great social change. I am a songwriter, and more generally, a writer.

I am good at that. I have spent the time necessary to become good. And it’s vitally important for me.

And the biggest question: Who is this for? 

Me. I need to get my thoughts into the world, even if they just bounce off the walls and right back to me. If people listen, that’s tremendous. If the songs connect with them, that’s the greatest thing that can happen. I value every single one of those moments.

Here’s a recent one. I played in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I got the bartender to stop tending bar and come and listen. Every musician knows that’s a big compliment.

It was a great night. The crowd was tremendous and I connected with them in a way that made me profoundly satisfied.

But if I just play for myself and for the other people on stage with me, that’s almost just as good. In fact, it’s essential for making those other moments happen: If I focus on whether people like my music, there’s too much of my ego in this. It’s easy to become disappointed when they ignore a punchline or talk over a Big, Great Lyric. 

If I play for myself, I have one person to impress.

And if I have no expectations, I can have more gratitude when a show goes really well. Ironically, I have to play for myself to get rid of my ego as a performer. 

That extends to shows where I’m not the focus. Where I’m wallpaper. If someone says, “I thought you were the radio,” that means that they think I’m good enough to be on the radio. It also means that they were able to focus on the great food and company that made them drive out to a sketchy street in Dogtown. I did my job.

Music has infinite utility. That’s why venues pay musicians. It can help people make connections with the people around them (“say, this guy sucks shit, don’t you think?”), it can help people enjoy a meal, it can help set the mood in an art gallery. And most of the time, it’s in the background. Wallpaper. But it can be really good wallpaper.

And yes, occasionally, someone will hear a lyric or listen to a guitar solo and have a profound revelation that changes how they think about life. But if that happened every night, it’d be pretty goddamn exhausting. 

If you’re feeling jaded about art, I can tell you confidently that you’re thinking too much about it. Don’t play for those incredible moments of connection; play for yourself.

Art is the most important thing you do, other than maybe spending time with your family.

It’s rarely what pays you the most, and it’s often difficult to do consistently. But money isn’t a great measure of humanity, and “easy” stuff is often the most worthless.

When I meet people, I describe myself as a songwriter, not as a content writer (my day job) or anything else. It is the most interesting thing about me, regardless of whether I play well or not. It’s how I meet new people, and it’s how I stay engaged with the world.

This weekend, we celebrated Dana Anderson’s life. A dozen or so talented musicians played his stuff. The place was completely packed. Everyone was there for Dana’s music. 

Halfway through an incredible performance of one of his songs (Bad Tattoo), I looked around the room. Well over half the people were talking. They were probably telling stories about Dana, or just talking about the long drive to Granite from wherever-the-hell they’re from. They were missing some of the best lyrics in his enormous catalog of genius songs, and that was perfectly fine. They were under no pressure to listen, and the fact that they were talking to their friends and family did not mean that they were grieving any less, or that they appreciated our friend any differently from those who were listening actively.

To my left, there was a couple holding onto each other, transfixed. They were silently mouthing every word, hugging one another during the choruses. 

I went back to the green room and got ready to sing.


Yelling Into the Abyss About Abortion

I am going to start writing stuff where I just scream a bunch of thoughts and make poop jokes. You know, lighthearted rambling. So, logically, I want to kick off by talking about abortion.

Specifically, I want to talk to my pro-life friends. Hey, how you doing? What have you been up to?

Me? Well, lately, I’ve been truly amazed at the artisanal craftsmanship of A.I.-generated art.

If you believe that life begins at conception, I will never try to talk you out of that. It is a sincere and deeply held belief. If you believe that it is a sin, I can’t argue with you — I certainly can’t speak for God.

But hopefully, I can explain how you can balance those views with what happened in Ohio last night. A red state. A state filled with people who believe what you believe, and no less sincerely than you.

Why should we care about Ohio, anyway?

Well, normally, we shouldn’t care about Ohio, but right now, it’s important.

Sure, Ohio isn’t perfect. It’s the state where a woman stabbed her boyfriend for eating all of her salsa (totally justifiable). It’s also where this guy tried to have sex with a van:

man accused of having sex with a van. it's a mugshot. His face looks bruised and he's sketchy as hell.

“Officers who questioned him said he appeared to be intoxicated.”

But besides that, Ohio is what you might call a good, Christian state. 73% of the population identifies as Christian, and they’re staunchly Republican: Trump beat Biden by about 8% in 2020.

And as we all know, Christians voted for Trump because of his sound moral character, a part of which was his opposition to abortion.

Two guys who have never, ever paid for an abortion.

So if you’re going to pass pro-life laws, Ohio seems to be your place. But it isn’t.

Last night, voters approved a constitutional amendment ensuring access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. And they passed it pretty resoundingly, too.

56.6% to 43.3% — you don’t get numbers like that in modern politics. To some pro-life folks, the result was shocking.

So if you’re on that side, you might feel like you just got home from a long shift, only to realize that your boyfriend ate every last bit of your On The Border Chunky Picante. Put down the knife; the Democrats didn’t do this alone.

In Ohio, about 20% of Republicans and 66% of independents supported abortion rights.

Why? According to exit polls, it’s because they’re deeply concerned about van-human hybrids.

If a van has a baby, what do you even call it? There’s no good portmanteau. It’s not as funny as a human cow or humonkey. It’s just an abomination that leaks oil all over the place, and that guy up there is clearly working on it. That is why he is smiling.

We need abortions for vans, if nothing else. And by the way, we also need AI models that can more accurately respond to the prompt, “minivan receiving surgical procedure.”

A.I.-generated painting of a minivan receiving surgery. It's not very good.

Okay, the real reason is that bodily autonomy is a cornerstone of our society.

Do not handwave this away. I know you’ve heard this before, and it’s probably not too compelling if you’ve listened to pastors and priests talk about dead babies for the last 30+ years of your life.

But I promise, we’ll get to the babies. For now, actually think about bodily autonomy for a minute.

This is how some people have remained pro-life while supporting, or at least acknowledging, the right to an abortion.

Bodily autonomy is not a biblical value; it is a social contract. It establishes that, in our nation, we own our bodies, even if the state can take everything else. We can be forced to work, forced to sit in a prison cell, or forced to die, but we will always control our own bodies.

We even extend that consideration to the worst people we have; you couldn’t force a mass murderer to be an organ donor, for example.

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, mass murderer, probably not an organ donor.

If you did force convicts to give up their kidneys, livers — hell, just a bit of bone marrow — it could save lives. You could structure a law so that it only took effect after the convict has died. The murderer loses nothing, and good people would live who would otherwise die.

Sounds great, right? Except that it would open up a thousand avenues for abuse and horror.

You’d quickly see judges giving harsher sentences, reasoning that the dregs of society would be better as meat-pools for the fine upstanding citizens of This Great Country.

And given that 44% (holy shit, really?! 44%?) of our prisoners are there for drug offenses, you’d have people losing their skin, literally, because they got caught with a bit of pot. That would probably lead to some interesting names for marijuana strains, but it certainly wouldn’t be good for society.

A.I. generated man holding marijuana

“Gimme that Organ-Oregano No-Rejection Purple Bart Simpson Kushy Cow,” or some dumb shit like that.

Bodily autonomy is so important, the government can’t even offer to buy it.

This is not a hypothetical. This year, Massachusetts proposed a program that would reduce prison sentences for prisoners who donate organs. You’re in jail for 20 years, but you can knock off a couple of months if you match with a bone marrow recipient. Reasonable, right?

Well, absolutely not. The plan was criticized, rightfully, as dystopian and dehumanizing. Once you’ve got people selling their bodies to get out of jail, you’re on the fast track to putting people in jail to get their organs, and that would be demonic.

More pertinently, the program violates our understanding of bodily autonomy. We believe that bodily autonomy is so important, it should not be the subject to societal or legal influences, period.

You control your body. Nobody else does. Nobody else can. It’s yours. There are many like it, but this one is yours.

We acknowledge the right to bodily autonomy for murderers; we even extend it to dead bodies.

You cannot even force a corpse to donate organs. They (or their family) must make that decision.

And while there’s a really reasonable argument that organ donation programs should be opt-out rather than opt-in, that’s not how we currently do it here. We’re an opt-in, first-person consent system. And even in European countries that have opt-out systems, in practice, they don’t work that way — the systems use family authorization, so families can override the presumption of consent.

But we’re talking about the U.S., so let’s leave Sweden out of it (as usual). Here’s how Donate Life Colorado describes our country’s resistance to opt-out donation:

Presumed consent is not in alignment with American legal principles: Generally, laws in our country are built heavily on the core concepts of individual rights and liberties. Presumed consent may be contrary to these fundamental legal principles.

– Donate Life Colorado (linked above)

Fundamental, they say. Legal, they say. Principles, they say. There were also some other words in there.

Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

You don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-choice.

You can still care about babies while respecting the importance of bodily autonomy. In fact, I think you should probably care about babies no matter what.

Yes. I said it: I’m pro-baby, even when they’re generated by A.I.

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Pro-life doesn’t mean anti-choice. That’s what Ohio told us last night. The people — who are, again, deeply religious, outside of the Salsa Slasher and the Minivan Molester — were confronted with a simple question. They answered that they value women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies.

That was the correct decision from a societal standpoint, full stop. You cannot force me to donate an organ, and you cannot force women to donate theirs to another being.

You can recognize that right without supporting abortion. It requires nuance, which Americans are terrible at. But if you’ve made it this far, I trust that you can understand that there’s a middle ground.

If you are against abortion, you can support adoption charities. You can support access to birth control, or welfare programs; if you don’t like those things, you can support mutual aid. Give people viable options and support them as they raise their children. Be pro-life.

I have many friends that do this. They are great people, and they put more energy into this than I’ve put into anything (including the energy I just spent trying to get DALL-E to create a photo of a mouse with human hands smoking a joint while tapdancing on the moon).

No, dammit, the MOUSE should HAVE human hands, and it should be ON the moon, and the joint needs to be IN his CUTE LITTLE MOUTH.

My friends have found a way to fight for what they believe within a shared society, which has ethical structures that conflict with their moral convictions. I want everyone to do that. Every Christian, Muslim, atheist, and theological noncognitivist out there.

So to be clear, if you are against abortion, I have a place for you at my table. Your belief does not make me love you any less or differently. I respect people with principles, even when I don’t share the same principles. That’s what a society is.

And last night, my “side” didn’t “win,” and your “side” didn’t “lose.” Democracy simply spoke. It said that fighting against bodily autonomy is the wrong path.


Non-Fiction Uncategorized

Goodbye, Dave Werner.

I am going to write a bunch of stories about my friend, Dave Werner, with the full knowledge that he would tell me to shut the fuck up. 

The year is 2010, or maybe 2011, and I am playing music with Fred Friction. We “practice” at his house every week, which usually means fumbling through tunes for an hour or so and then listening to music while shooting pool. 

“Dave Werner would like to invite you over to play some songs,” Fred says, or something to that effect. “I think you should do it.”

“Dave Werner? Fuck that guy.”

And that’s how I never met Dave Werner.

But here’s what really happened.

A few weeks earlier, I was at the Chippewa Chapel open mic night debuting a song. Dave, who I did not know well at the time, flagged me down at the bar.

“You look healthy,” Dave says.

“Thanks,” I said. There’s a long pause. I’m not sure how to take that comment.

“I mean, you clearly haven’t been missing too many meals,” he says, glancing down at my gut. 

And now, weeks later, he was inviting me over to play music — through a mutual friend. 

I think that Dave made barbecue chicken that night. I could be confusing that with another night because Dave made a lot of barbecue chicken. 

But he made some sort of food, and we awkwardly played songs for each other. Dave told me which songs he liked and which ones he didn’t care for. 

And when I left, I had agreed to play a show with at a venue called the Focal Point. I didn’t know why I agreed, except that it seemed too awkward to say no. 

The Griner Brothers Band’s album is on YouTube, and has great tracks from The Honorable Daves Werner and Hagerty.

That show went okay. The guitarist had feedback issues all night, which was common at the Focal Point. At the end of the night, the guitarist revealed that he had a pedal in his car that could have fixed the issue, but he didn’t feel like going to get it.

So that guitarist was out of the band, and I never saw him again.

We played a few other shows as Shovelbutt, a folk-rock quartet that was doomed from the start.

Eventually, the drummer, Matt, got into an argument with Dave and the band just kind of fell apart (I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I don’t think it had anything to do with music. I’m pretty sure they made up at some point).

Around this time, I start getting phone calls from Dave.

“Hey, Kraniac, I’ve got a new song. You up for recording it at your place on Saturday?”

I generally said yes, because Dave would give me $40 and a couple of Red Bulls. I’d throw up a few microphones and track him, occasionally adding keys or guitar or whatever else the tune needed. 

Most of those recordings went nowhere. Dave kept them to himself, sometimes passing the best songs to Fred Friction, who’d play them on his radio show. But one December, Dave left me a different kind of voicemail. 

“Hey, buddy, I’ve got an idea. Christmas Caroling. Call me back.”

Dave’s idea: Our friend Jesse Irwin had welcomed his first child that year. Dave, Fred Friction, and I would head to Jesse’s house dressed as three wise men, bringing gifts to anoint the child — a package of hot dogs (a stand-in for frankincense), Stag beer (gold), and Merb’s candy (myrrh). 

three grown men dressed like the three wise men from the bible, handing beer to a baby
We were not giving beer to the baby. I don’t think.

I didn’t know Jesse well at the time, but I went along with it. Jesse was delighted, of course.

I realized around this time — or maybe a few weeks later, when Dave brought me homemade cookies — that I had become friends with a gruff, sarcastic, 60-something window installer. It was a gradual process, and it had happened under my nose.

Dave Werner did not drink alcohol.

Dave the Family Man.

Not in the time I knew him. He told me why, once, and here, I’ll note that I’m recalling this from memory and some of the details may be wrong.

It was years earlier, after a birthday party for his daughter, Julia. He’d bought a case of beer for the occasion. He was aware that he was an alcoholic, so he made a deal with himself: He could drink the beers, but only after the party was over.

Minutes after the last guest left, his hands were shaking, and he sat down and pounded the beers, one after the other. When the case was empty, he made a different deal with himself: He would never drink again, but in exchange, if he was ever in a social situation that he thought was bullshit, he would leave immediately. Irish exit. 

He claimed that he chained himself to a radiator while shaking on the floor during the withdrawals. I’m not sure how much of that is a metaphor.

Dave kept both halves of that promise.

One summer, we were both invited to be members of the Focal Point’s board. At the first meeting, Dave heard something he didn’t like, so he got up and walked out. The woman who was speaking was in the middle of a sentence, and there were only about 10 people at the table.

Everyone stared as he left, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t. The door slammed shut, and nobody knew how to continue. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I quietly followed him (after excusing myself, of course).

We’d go to shows — comedy, music, open mics, whatever — and Dave would simply leave when he had enough. That might be 5 minutes into the show or in the middle of the second encore. Sometimes, he’d grumble something insulting on his way out. 

His attitude didn’t win him a lot of fans.

When I told a local artist that I played music with Dave Werner, I’d often get bad reactions:

“Well, you need to stop.”

“He told me I was too fat for my voice.”

“He told me none of my songs make sense.”

“He’s an asshole.”

To put it in charitable terms, Dave was committed to honesty. To put it less charitably, he seemed to have no filter whatsoever, and he’d tell people exactly what he thought about them at any time without considering the context of the situation. 

This didn’t change. There was no come-to-God moment where Dave suddenly started watching his behavior; if anything, his rough edges became rougher over time. 

The people close to him were not spared. Every one of Dave’s friends and family members has a story of how he would offend you in ways you’d never considered possible — then ask you why you were getting so upset.

But that’s only part of the story. Dave Werner might also arrange a Christmas Carol for your newborn daughter on a cold December night, or drop by your house unannounced so that you could take pictures with his new puppy, or  unsarcastically offer to take you on a picnic. 

All of these things happened, by the way.

Those are Dave’s work boots and pug.

And Dave’s commitment to honesty carried forward through every part of his life. Once, Jesse asked Dave about his work life: When he gave his clients a bid, what percentage of them approved it?

“100%,” Dave said.

Jesse was dumbfounded.

“That means you’re not charging enough, Dave.”

“Fuck! Well, that’s what it costs. I’ll make out alright.”

One night, I had a blockage in my sewer line.

I didn’t think I could afford a plumber, so I rented a sewer snake from the hardware store. 

I had no idea what I was doing, and after feeding about 40 feet of the snake into the line, I realized that I couldn’t get it out. I panicked. I couldn’t pay for a broken auger, and I didn’t know what I could do. I called Dave, but he didn’t pick up.

Hours later, I’d calmed down. I called a local plumber, who agreed to come out at 10 a.m. the next day for a flat rate. After I got off the phone with the plumber, Dave called, and I explained the situation to him.

The next morning, Dave was at my house before the plumber with a pair of knee pads, ready to help.

Dave’s kindness didn’t excuse his bad behavior, but frequently, it outweighed it.

I gave up trying to explain this to people who’d had bad experiences with him. 

But even when people had problems with Dave as a person, they usually saw the greatness of his art. Dave spoke in a rough, low baritone, and he was capable of singing in that range; he could also hit a high falsetto, which rang with a wide, perfect vibrato that he claimed he couldn’t control. 

When Jesse, Dave and I formed a band — the Chimps — we likened ourselves to the Traveling Wilburys of St. Louis. Dave was our Roy Orbison. I was happy to be Jeff Lynne (I’ll share Dave’s thoughts on ELO later). 

John and Jesse sit on a swingset eating bananas while Dave stands behind them.
We really leaned into the “Chimps eat bananas” thing.

Our first goal was to play at wineries for cash, but we dropped that quickly. We didn’t want to work out three-part harmonies to waste on drunk people who couldn’t care less. 

Instead, we’d play semi-annual shows at the Focal Point, which is a listening room. The Focal Point forces audiences to pay attention, so we had to come up with a setlist that rewarded that attention. 

Those first practices were electrifying. Jesse, who is by far the most engaging entertainer I’ve ever known, would grin broadly when Dave found a high harmony, or nod his head when he heard an excellent lyric. I’d noodle on the guitar, trying to pretend I was a lead guitarist, and Dave would grumble about how much better I sounded on the previous song.

We’d pitch songs at each other and get honest feedback. I think we all brought in fantastic material, but Dave was the showrunner, and he was also the least predictable. One week, he might bring in a fragile ballad about a waitress he’d fallen in love with decades ago; the next, he might sing about his mother’s farts, or who might find him if he died masturbating (“What If They Found Me Like This” went over remarkably well with the Focal Point crowd, by the way). 

But most of his songs were sad.

“Hagerty,” written for his late bandmate Dave Hagerty, contains a perfect stanza that sums up the unspoken wish of everyone who’s ever felt grief:

If Hagerty comes while we’re playing this song,
We’ll buy him a whiskey, and he’ll play along
And we’ll never mention the time he was gone
And we’ll sing and we’ll play ‘til the morning

My favorite is probably “Past It,” a tune about growing old and wondering what’s left. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and genuine. Some key lines:

I tried to find me a woman
My God, but they’re old and gray!
Maybe it’s time I put little David away.

And the chorus:

Cause it feels like a lifetime
I guess that’s just what it’s been
I don’t mind if I miss out on the next big thing.

As is true of the artist himself, Dave Werner’s songs were an acquired taste.

Unlike many St. Louis songwriters (present company included), he rarely wrote songs without at least one curveball, which might be a key change, a time signature change, an unexpected chord choice, or (most often) all three. 

He had strong opinions on everything, but especially music. He couldn’t stand any artists with “affected” voices — his term for folks like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan — with the exception of Tom Petty (and not the Jeff Lynne-produced Petty albums; Dave once noted that “everything Jeff Lynne touches just ends up sounding like fuckin’ ELO,” which is hard to argue with).

He also hated hip hop, which led to a heated discussion one night.

“Dave, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good rap songs,” I said.

“Bullshit! There’s one good song, and they keep remaking it.”

“I mean, that’s not true. The music changes every year, you’re just not listening to it.”

“Well, tell me what the good shit is, then, and I’ll listen to it.”

“No, because you’re not going to like it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still good.”


Around that point, Jesse gently guided us back to the song that we were practicing, and I forgot about the exchange until the next morning when Dave left me a voicemail:

Hey, Kraniac. Just wanted to say…Snoop Dogg…”Gin and Juice”…that’s another good one. [Long pause] Okay, see you Thursday. Don’t eat. I’m making spaghetti.

When Dave sensed that he went too far, he’d try to correct it. His friends learned to deal with him when he was difficult and to call him out when he was being unreasonable. 

He was worth that effort, because I have never known a person with more kindness in their heart. I don’t think that Dave was rude because he hated the world; I think he was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as he thought it could be. 

For our final Chimps shows, we pulled out all of the stops.

A Valentine’s Day show featured a setlist packed with love songs — and a few depressing Dave songs about people dying, because hey, they were good songs. 

The Chimps decided to give the audience chocolate-covered bananas. That was going to be my job. About a week before the show, Dave asked how I was going to do it.

“I don’t know, probably cut up some bananas, put toothpicks in the slices, and stick them in chocolate.”

He scowled immediately.

“No, no, fucking no! If it’s not full bananas, it’s bullshit!”

So the day of the show, Dave spent the morning dipping full bananas into a tub of chocolate, then putting them on a clothesline to dry. The audience wouldn’t have cared if we half-assed those bananas — but Dave cared.

Dave presents a line of chocolate-covered bananas hanging on a clothesline in his house.

The show was a success.

We had added Katie Jones to our band, a violinist with a fantastic voice and tremendous songs. That changed our dynamic a bit, and with four singers, we had to work harder to get everything on our setlist up to speed. We also added strings to half of our set, and the string section couldn’t practice with us, so we had to play everything perfectly.

That final show — February 15, 2019 — probably should have been a disaster. A snowstorm hit St. Louis, cutting our audience significantly, and various minor mistakes were amplified by the new complexity of our setup. When we got offstage, I felt like we’d failed.

But listening back to the recordings from that night, we nailed it. And Dave had the brightest moments, including a cover of “Someday Jane,” which was written by Roland Norton, a local artist who’d died that year. 

Dave wasn’t a fan of all of Norton’s stuff, but Jesse insisted on playing him “Someday Jane” at one of our practices. By the end of the song, Dave had tears in his eyes. 

“I’m doing this one,” he said. 

His performance is tender, starting at the lowest part of Dave’s register; as the bridge crescendos, his voice rises up, his tremolo widening to cut through the strings and guitars before suddenly cutting back for the last verse:

I can’t promise the sun, the stars, or the moon
But I made up this name, and I made up this tune
And I make this promise: I will wait for you,
And I’ll finally find, Someday Jane

Playing that song, on that stage, was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. A half-dozen of the other greatest moments also happened that night.

Dave had health problems.

His hip and back pain often left him completely crippled and unable to work, and he’d take Percocet, valium, and whatever else he could get prescribed to struggle through his days. 

“I got an x-ray, finally,” Dave told me one day. “The doctor looked at it, and — I swear to God — turned to me and said, ‘You’re fucked.’”

Before his hip replacement, I took him to a doctor’s appointment. He struggled to sit, breathing heavily, and I grabbed the admittance form to help him fill it out.

“What is your pain goal?” I asked. 

Dave was quiet for a moment.

No pain,” he said. “What the fuck else would my pain goal be?”

“And how would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?”

“10! Who the fuck wouldn’t say 10?”

In that visit, he also compared the doctor to one of the villains from Hostel. The nurses loved him.

The hip pain was constant and debilitating, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the only problem. While we were in the early stages of preparing a show one year, Dave had a stroke. He recovered, but his voice acquired a raspiness — the falsetto was still there, but rougher now. It wasn’t perfect anymore.

Months later, we were at the studio, trying to record a follow-up to our debut album. Dave brought a rock number, which leaned into the changes in his voice. He barked out the lyrics over a distorted bassline, each word sounding like it could break him. It was incredible.

I’ve still got the tracks from those sessions, but we haven’t completed them. We will. I promised Dave a few months ago, and I’ll stick to that.

When someone you love has a stroke, or gets a hip replacement, or gets treatment for depression, there’s a tendency to assume that the problem is solved.

Otherwise, we’d be worrying all the time, right?

But over the pandemic, I worried about Dave. His history made him a prime target for COVID-19 — and for vaccine disinformation. Dave would follow conspiracy theories regularly, though he never landed squarely on one side of them. I did not expect him to get vaccinated, but he did; not because he believed in the vaccine, but because his family asked him to. His love outweighed his stubbornness, as it usually did.

That was a weight off my shoulders, and it gave me hope for another Chimps project. We’d grown distant from Dave during the lockdowns, and the isolation hadn’t made him any friendlier. 

A few months back, I called him on my way to work. I left a message asking how things were going. He didn’t call back for a few weeks. Then, one day, I had a voicemail waiting when I woke up.

“Hey, buddy. Got your message, just wanted to make sure my head was on straight before I called you back. We’re having a get-together for Julia’s birthday, wanted you to come. Invite Lucy. Tell her I’m making chicken. Call me. Alright.”

I called him and we talked for a bit, and I told him I’d be there. The party was a family gathering — I was the only person there who wasn’t part of the family, I believe. That might have been awkward, but it wasn’t. If the best thing you can do for a person is make them feel welcome, the Werner clan has that covered.

We ate and discussed the Chimps tracks we’d recorded years earlier and how we should finish them. I told Dave I’d get him a copy of the recordings, warning him that they were rough. 

Then, he nonchalantly announced to the table that he was going to dig up his dead dog and put the bones on display.

Again, this would have been awkward at any other table. They were used to this sort of thing, and we discussed — with remarkable scientific rigor — how long you’d have to wait after burying a dog to make sure that it was just bones when you dug it up.

I left after dessert, satisfied in every way. 

“Bye, Krane,” Dave said. “Don’t forget about those tracks.”

I thought about calling Dave this week, but I didn’t.

I was planning on having drinks with Jesse next week, so I figured I’d call Dave after that, and maybe we’d be enroute to another Chimps show. Possibly another Valentine’s Day special, if we could figure out a way to escalate the chocolate banana gag.

But Dave passed away on Friday. I’m still in shock, and I’ll be heartbroken for a good long while.

Dave was the gentlest and most honest person I’ve known. Often, we refer to people as “complicated.” Dave was not. He showed you exactly what you were getting from the moment he saw you, and that was incredibly refreshing. 

Do not try this at home: Dave supported his honesty with genuine kindness. He was loyal to close friends and family, even when he was skeptical of just about everything else. He would ignore hip pain to lay on some knee pads and pull a snake out of your drain, just to save you a few hundred bucks. He would dip bananas into chocolate for hours, just so the people who came to his show would feel like they got their money’s worth. He’d give you a sly smile when you said something funny and gently correct you if you said something bad about yourself — or call you out if you were fishing for compliments.

There is value in honesty, and Dave practiced it, more often for better than for worse. I loved him, and he was my friend. 

And along the way, he said some really funny shit.

Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorites, because I didn’t know where else to put them.

“The guy’s got one trick, he kills the fuckin’ kid in everything he writes.”

– On Stephen King.

“How dare you say that to me? I’m a friend of the queers!”

– On being accused of homophobia.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Gordon Ramsay.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Jay-Z.

“What are you talking about? We’ve seen you naked!”

– On me, when I refused to play a song because I hadn’t finished it.

“When they start talking about their kids, all of ‘em just suck. I can’t explain it.”

– On comedians.

“How come you get better looking, and I just look like an old ballsack?”

– To my mother.

“Fuck, I could get you a hundred of those.”

– After I told him that my new dog was a good dog.

“I got vaccinated, so shut up.”

– On getting vaccinated (unprompted).

“Hey, sorry for not calling you back, my head was in the oven for a few weeks.”

– On dealing with depression.

“I went over to a guy with a puppy, and started petting it and saying, ‘Aw, isn’t he so cute?,” and I was just thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

– On using antidepressants. 

“If we were any better, we’d be good.”

– On the Chimps.

“If it was any better, it’d be good.”

On my writing.

“Bah, I’ll shut up.”

At the end of any conversation.

I don’t exactly know how to end this. Dave always had the last word, so I might as well give it to him here. He wrote “Another Chance” for a friend of his who died of cancer, and was very proud that he got to sing it to the friend in the hospital. 

Funny standing here without you next to me,

Somewhere down the road, I hope we find that harmony.

Gather up the ones you love, and give them all a kiss

I only wish we all could have another chance at this.

– Dave Werner, “Another Chance”
Fiction Non-Fiction

The Escalator of Hate

Merry Christmas, everyone. I come from the future with a message of hope. Here’s the message:

“Fucking hell, fucking stop it, already.”

-People from the future, to you.

Okay, I know that doesn’t sound especially hopeful or Christmas-y — but in the future, this is about as nice as messages get. For the past 10 years, we’ve stayed on the Escalator of Anger, which, unlike a normal escalator, runs at a reasonable speed and never breaks down.

stairs dark station underground
This is the metaphor we’ll be using today. Photo by Pixabay on

Otherwise, it’s pretty similar to other escalators: It’s so commonplace that you don’t really think about how it works. It makes life easier. And, ultimately, it will tear your shoes apart if you’re not paying attention. 

The Escalator of Anger is everywhere, and because it’s convenient, most people use it — very few of us would take the stairs when given the option. 

I’m asking you to take the stairs.

We’ll call them the “stairs of love.”

Actually, never mind. We’ll just call them the stairs, because I don’t want to accidentally write a Michael Bolton song.

At an extremely basic level, most of you realize that you’re too angry right now. You understand that the world sucks and it’s starting to suck more and more, and you can probably point to “anger” and “hatred” as prime reasons for that sinking feeling you get when you read the news. Importantly, you believe that the other side has more responsibility to lower the temperature.

“Gosh,” you say, probably licking a lollipop or something, “why can’t people just be nicer to each other? Especially those assholes over there?

Well, for starters, it’s difficult. It’s unrewarding. It doesn’t give you results. You can think of a thousand reasons not to do it, and all of them are perfectly valid.

To go back to our strained metaphor, you know that you’d be slightly healthier if you took the stairs instead of the escalator. But really, how much healthier would you be? Would you suddenly turn into an Adonis or a Venus or a Third Greek God With Less Gender-Specificity once you reached the top? 

Of course not. You’d be the same schlubby mess. The escalator is easy, and it’s right there. You can even look at your phone while standing on it. So today, just this time, you’ll take the escalator. You’ll take the stairs tomorrow. 

And every once in a while, you do take the stairs. You feel the strain in your muscles with every step, and when you get to the top, you’re out of breath; you wonder what the hell you were thinking 20 or 30 seconds ago. Then, hopefully, you’ll feel a little better about yourself — but tomorrow, you’ll go back to the escalator, just this time. 

Being nicer to people isn’t easy. 

That’s why Jesus Christ talked about it so much; he implored people to love thy neighbor as thyself. Emphasis mine, but also his, cause, y’know, Jesus. Loving yourself is easy (I perfected it during puberty), but loving others as much as yourself — without conditions — takes a lot of work.

A similar imploration came from Siddhartha Guatama in the Metta Sutta, who told his followers:

“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world, above, below, and across, unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”

-The Buddha, but not the fat one.

I attended a Buddhist sangha for several years, but honestly, as a writer, I think Buddha could learn from Christ’s ability to edit Himself. Still, the message is practically identical.


An alien looking at Earth would find both of these commandments simplistic. Of course you must love other people, and of course you must be consistent. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might as well be “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Easy money.

As humans, we recognize that these ideas, while beautiful, are impractical, especially when sung over piano chords in an all-white room in New York, or by tone-deaf celebrities in a misguided PSA.

Great fuckin’ idea, Lennon. Gosh, why haven’t we just tried being peaceful? We should have just told the Nazis to chill out and played them a song about a walrus, you genius Beatle. 

Setting Lennon aside: The greatest spiritual guides consistently spoke of love — not romantic love, but love towards all others, without conditions, without exceptions — because they were human, and they understood the difficulties of living in the material world.

man inside vehicle
“Get over. GET OVER.” Photo by on

They were not immune to them. If the Buddha was alive today and a person cut him off in traffic, his first thought wouldn’t be “go in peace,” it’d be something like, “motherfucker doesn’t know how lanes work.”

The thing that we have to practice is immediately tamping down that first impulse and allowing the better expressions of our humanity to take over. 

And for consistency’s sake, that applies to anti-vaxxers. 

Weren’t expecting that, were you?

I’m writing this under the assumption that most readers (all 20 of you, according to my website’s analytic tools) are vaccinated. I have seen many of you express antipathy towards anti-vaxxers for being selfish and willfully ignorant. I’ve expressed that antipathy, too.

man in pink dress shirt
This photo is auto-titled “man in pink shirt,” but I think it should be “GODDAMN GRANDMA GET THE SHOT.”
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

There’s something to be said for the intentional application of antipathy, and I’m already bloviating, so I’ll say it: You certainly don’t have to accept the positions of someone who’s hurting society and endangering your loved ones (and to be clear, that’s what they’re doing). But you can’t get through to them by mocking them, and when you’re dunking on them at every opportunity, you lose the high ground.

There’s a subreddit I’ve followed for a while called /r/hermancainaward (I’m not linking it here). In this community, people post pictures of folks that they know who were rabidly anti-vax who eventually got COVID and got sick. Many of them have died.

I look at the posts, and part of me wants to join in the celebration of the death of another Part Of The Problem. Occasionally, there’s a post from someone who says that the subreddit convinced them to get vaccinated. That’s a good thing.

But I just can’t get behind the concept. These dead people aren’t Herman Cain — who had plenty of access to the resources he needed to do better, and who continues to deny the impact of COVID-19 from the grave via Twitter.


But look, these people aren’t that guy. They’re neighbors, friends, and family members. Sometimes, their posts allude to their interests: bowling, football, TV shows. Sometimes, all of that information is cut out, but the person’s profile picture shows them smiling with their daughters, sons, or spouses.

People are multifaceted. If you can’t love part of them, find some other part to love. 

“But what about Herman Cain himself? What about Hitler?

Oh, man, I didn’t think you were going there. You’re really coming into this hot, Person From The Past.

Okay. Well, Hitler did some nice things, too. Yes, he actually did; he financially supported his sister when she was extremely ill, an act of selfless love that is undeniably, objectively human. 

And then, y’know, he annexed the Sudetenland, and then became the most enduring symbol of hate in history. Fuck Hitler, obviously.

Fuck this guy.

And I’m sorry, but your neighbor with the Trump flag isn’t Hitler. Not yet. Mine regularly brings me vegetables, and Hitler never brings me vegetables.

My neighbor and I have argued a bit about politics and I don’t back down from my positions, but I still let her dog out when she’s working late, and she still asks how our herb garden is doing. In my experience with her, she’s a good person.

You can be consistent with your beliefs while still extending empathy and love to the people you disagree with. When their views start affecting others, this becomes difficult, and at a certain point, there’s a line; if your geriatric neighbor heads to the local trailer park to terrorize immigrants with his AR-15, the fact that he helped you build a canoe shouldn’t stop you from telling him to fuck right off.

Most of the people that frustrate us aren’t at that point yet. No, really. I know you feel that they’re irredeemable — they’re not.

People who oppose vaccinations can change their minds. People who hoist the Trump flag might change their opinions when they realize that their antifa neighbor is helping the community more than they are. 

“But what if it doesn’t work? What if being empathetic does nothing?”

That’s a possibility, I suppose, but if empathy is ineffective, I don’t like our odds. If people can’t change, we must kill everyone who has passed the point of irredeemability. 

I’m totally serious. If they’re hurting people, we don’t want them in society, and we have an ethical obligation to eliminate them. We must gather guns and go into the street and kill them, or at the very least, put them into prisons.

I’m not going to do that. Sounds pretty Hitler-y.

And anyway, I think that history does show that a practical application of empathy can be extremely powerful. Governments tend to fall when they stop helping their people; cultures disintegrate when they become self-obsessed. Empathy is fundamental to us for a reason.

I could be wrong. Maybe, on a macro scale, empathy isn’t important. All I know is that the people who study this stuff believe that the United States has an empathy deficit, and things aren’t great in your time (or here in the future, for that matter). Maybe it’s worth a shot. Might as well try it.

Now, on an individual level, I am more confident in the benefits.

I believe in empathy. When I have successfully applied it, I have seen things improve. Gradually, I think I’ve become a (slightly) better person. I’ve convinced a couple of folks to get vaccinated (and if you’re reading this on the other side of the fence, please, deeply consider your biases and read this). I have a fine relationship with my neighbor, and I’ve successfully convinced her to stop calling our Guatemalan friend “my favorite Mexican.”

Practically, you won’t notice the gains right away, so temper your expectations. After all, you’re just taking the stairs.

woman in red dress climbing the stairs
Pexels didn’t have anything for “love stairs” that wasn’t porn. Photo by Sasha Kim on

You might see more results by joining a local mutual aid organization or taking the day off work to help someone prepare their resume, or setting up a food drive, or spending your Christmas money on a friend’s medical bills. 

You can’t do that type of stuff every day, but you can take the stairs. 

Today — in the future — we’re all near the top of the escalator. None of us are paying attention, and we’ve all lost our shoes. There’s a lot of pushing and quite a bit of fighting.

I don’t know what’s at the top, but I know it isn’t good. The escalator runs in one direction, and I imagine we’re going to struggle with each other trying to find a way back down. 

You’re not at the bottom, but you’re not anywhere close to the top.

So please, please: Do whatever you can to get back down to the ground.

– With love, the Surprisingly Talkative Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come.

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