The Diagnosis: A Moment Suspended with Art Alexakis’s Sun Songs
“Hey,” he whispers. “This is ‘Sunshine Love Song.’”
I’ve been listening to this voice for so many years, I don’t remember a time before Art Alexakis was telling me stories through the songs he wrote and sang with his band Everclear. I’ve let him tell me bedtime stories in the form of Invisible Stars; I’ve let myself rage with “California King” and So Much for the Afterglow, and I’ve mourned with Songs From an American Movie, Part 1, which starts with a boy’s parents’ divorcing and follows his life through his own divorce. I learned that there was no such thing as a “junkie,” that we’re all just people, when he screamed, “Just another overdose!” in “Heroin Girl” when I was still a kid. No one, I thought, is ‘just’ an overdose.
But that’s not how we like to talk about that, is it? We like it better when we can say, “That’s why that person was bad. That’s why bad things happened to them.” The unspoken part of that sentence is all I can hear, though, because what they mean is, “That’s why the bad things won’t happen to me. I’m not doing bad things like drugs. Only junkies do drugs.”
There is no black and white in an Everclear song. I’ve been calling Art a singer/songwriter for years, and it drives people crazy. These people do not listen to Everclear. Try “Thrift Store Chair.” “Jackie Robinson.” “Good Witch of the North.” Or, oh God, please, try “Sunshine (That Acid Summer)”— I don’t know that there’s ever been a better song about longing for a time when the drugs were still fun, being grateful for being sober, and still wishing the other person made it out, too. And yes, he gets that much into a three-minute pop song. Always. He gets that much into one line— “I never thought our good time would turn into a lifestyle.”
But you don’t always get to choose your lifestyle, do you? Art chose his: he got sober. He still sings a hell of a song about not knowing how to deal with addiction or the “real world”— Black is the New Black is rife with conflict, even though it’s a very adult conflict. He’s not in “Summerland” anymore. So, he did it. He got out.
Then he was diagnosed with MS.
In January of 2016, I didn’t die. That doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but if you consider I had a brain stem stroke, that’s actually pretty impressive. I had been 31 for almost two weeks, and they had no idea what they were looking for: it’s a rare stroke, and most people who have it— well, there’s no time to catch it. I’ve learned things in the last couple years that make me hyper-aware that I’m lucky. I say that knowing I look like a cartoon character. Today I’m typing with a sprained wrist, six “figure eight” rings on my hands (permanent finger braces so my fingers don’t break when I do things like, you know, turn the steering wheel), a sprained ankle, a knee brace because I “can’t trust” the knee, and a permanent shoulder brace because it’s, as the surgeon said, “a total loss.”
“Like a car?” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. I hate it when they don’t laugh.
Winds up, the stroke was a symptom, not the problem itself. I have Ehler’s-Danlos Syndrome, a disorder characterized by hypermobility, dislocations and breaks, and a slow loss of mobility. It’s tied to some fun vascular problems for me, and one was a stroke. I take a veritable pharmacy of medication to keep the symptoms at bay.
Because I didn’t die, my best friend since childhood, Eryn, bought me tickets to see Everclear in a tiny club. She flew me up to Chicago to watch them play the 20th anniversary of So Much For the Afterglow— and she bought meet and greet passes. I don’t usually do those kinds of things because, honestly, I’ve spent so many years running festivals and seeing bands I know, that it seemed like a weird idea.
Until she told me. Then I was ecstatic. I loved Alexakis’s songwriting in a way I couldn’t fully explain to everyone else. It’s so direct— which, probably, is why songs like “I Will Buy You A New Life” and “Father of Mine” were so universal. Everyone can feel and understand those songs, whether they’ve been through a divorce or not. And Art was so kind. He even remembered (or did an amazing job pretending) that he’d done an interview with me years ago, my first big break. He’d been kind then, too. We talked about cosmic American music, John Prine and Gram Parsons, and I realized that’s the style he was following in— just really, really loud.
Later, he showed everyone who had the VIP tickets the tour bus. He had granola bars in there and made some comment about vegan living. I said, “That sounds awful,” because I’m not a good liar. He laughed and said, “You can only abuse a body for so long.” We all knew what that meant, so everyone chuckled, except me, because I have no decorum, so I laughed until I cried. I didn’t know we were both dealing with recent diagnoses that would change our lives: just mine. But I was grateful to him in that moment in ways I didn’t quite understand. Then one of the young— early 20s— women on the bus saw something on the table, stuck her finger in it, and went to bring her finger to her mouth or nose. Art and I both dove to prevent it and at the same time said, “Don’t eat that!”
He laughed and said, “How old is yours?” We talked about kids for a moment while, I’m sure, that girl was embarrassed, and then he said, “I’m going to call my wife before the show.”
The next time we saw him, he was in a full suit, because of course that’s how he plays. He was at work. Eryn had gotten us stage-side seats because I wouldn’t be able to stand. The lights fell, the backing vocals started, and Art screamed, “This is a song about Susan!”
For a minute, the cane, the illness, it drained out of me, and I was a teenager again.
So much for the afterglow.
I’m sorry. I’ve made this about me. This is about Art’s new record, Sun Songs. I have a friend who often, once onstage, will joke about a song, “This is a song I wrote about you, and your unique experiences— this is about your life.” I don’t know if the audience gets why that’s so funny, but I love it. Because I’m about to talk about this record like it’s about me, but I know in my heart, my head, my guts, this is Art Alexakis’s record. He bled for this. He created something so beautiful and so perfect and so much more than anyone should expect out of any one record— and now, even though it’s completely unfair, I’ve made this ‘my’ record. And it’s Art’s.
Art’s ‘art’ has always been pretty universal, so I’ve never felt the need to say, “I know this isn’t about me.” But this record is different: you cannot read yourself into “The Hot Water Test,” and yet every morning while I “strap up” with the braces I don’t wear to sleep, I absolutely make it about me. Every morning. Because this is my new routine.
Sick people love routine. (Do they? I’m sick. I love routine. We’re all the same, right? This is a song about our lives, right?)
From the first whispered, “This is ‘Sunshine Love Song,’” I knew I would love the whole record. You can hear him breathe. You can hear pedals click on and off when he wants you to, and you can hear his fingers slide up and down the strings. He’s done the drums himself. This record is pure Art, and it’s got everything that makes his writing special: some retrospective stories (“California Blood”), love songs, songs about his daughters (“Sing Away” especially destroys me), and political songs about how much damage white people are doing in America right now (the appropriately titled “White People Scare Me,” which is a little more subtle than his single release a few years back, “Jesus Was a Democrat”).
But all those years ago when we talked about Gram Parsons and John Prine? I brought it up because one of my favorite Everclear songs, “Thrift Store Chair,” is about going to bed instead of fighting, but the narrator can’t sleep, so he “[goes downstairs], smoke[s] cigarettes in that thrift store chair you like/ [and] put[s] a John Prine record on.” When I listened to Art’s beautiful voice twist and turn with the acoustic guitar on Sun Songs, every note intentional, all I could think of was the man in the thrift store chair.
I’m not in a chair when I listen to this song at night, and I’m never on the edge of a fight. But since the record was released, I’ve listened to it every night after we turn out the light. I’m the man in the song. This is my ‘John Prine’ record. Because these are stories, and they’re someone else’s stories, but they are being told to me by a friendly voice.
Take the at least partially spoken-word “Orange,” which starts,
He met a punk rock girl at an Agent Orange show in Irvine in 1984
He was miles away from his home in Van Nuys
Where he was hungry all the time
He was always looking for more
They lived together in a duplex near the beach in Costa Mesa
Where they grilled outside every night
They watched a lot of cable TV and had a lot of sex
Under a Ronald Reagan nightlight
They moved to a house in Mission Viejo when their identical twins were two
She had her tattoos removed
He got a job in middle management
So he could tell someone what to do
When the chorus cuts in— “It all looks good when the sun is in your eyes/ It looks like orange is turning blue/ It all looks good on paper, til it catches on fire/ Seems like orange is turning blue”— it becomes obvious the synesthesia of the moment stands for so much more— the way the orange tip of a flame doesn’t burn as hot or as scary as the blue base. This is a song about the way something starts out alluring, dancing with bright possibility, but burns out at the bottom, hot, scarring. What an incredible metaphor.
And sure, the song is about three minutes long, so he can only get their entire breakup and both of their new relationships off the ground before he finishes the story (I’m kidding, that’s an amazing stretch of ground to cover: can you imagine telling a life story, much less two, which is what he’s doing, in three minutes?), but the whole time, we know there’s danger ahead— hell, even by the end of that first verse I know they’re in trouble, because she’s having her tattoos removed. They’re changing. It’s already happening. Those sweet memories of that Ronald Reagan nightlight? Those will be long forgotten by the end of the song. They’ll be telling their new partners and friends about how withholding the other was, how they never spent any time together, how it became all about the kids. You and I both know it: we’ve had friends or parents divorce. Maybe you’ve gone through one.
You don’t talk about the Ronald Reagan nightlight moments, and you try to forget the taste of that grilled chicken, the smell as it filters in your duplex while you turn the TV on and get ready to watch Saturday Night Live, the beach never too far, the waves lapping quietly under the laughter. Why would you? That’s the orange.
Art is so good at telling you about the exact second orange turns blue.
Don’t mistake this for a record of breakup songs: it’s not. It’s too big for that. In fact, if you’ve listened to an Everclear record all the way through, you know there’s never any one topic. I’ve heard people say he sings about drugs, and I actually heartily disagree: he has sung songs about people who have to deal with either their loved ones or their own addiction to drugs. That’s all he ever sings about: people. This record might be his best writing so far, and I have strong feelings for Slow Motion Daydream, Invisible Stars, Songs From an American Movie— you know, never mind. Let’s not compare. These are different records for different things.
Art wrote them for us. About our lives. About our personal experiences.
My favorite song, is “The Hot Water Test.” It’s named after an archaic way to diagnose MS that isn’t used anymore. It’s an incredibly painful procedure in which the person suspected of having multiple sclerosis is submerged in hot water to see if their neurological symptoms worsen. It’s also the single he leads with, because Art always leads with his chin. This is the most personal song on the record in some ways— though in others, I can’t imagine writing “Sing Away”’s lines “I wonder if they knew their words would make you want to take your own life… / Why didn’t you talk to me? Why didn’t you say you were afraid?/ Didn’t you know my job in life was to keep you safe?/ Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t wake me like you used to do?/ I was in my room, twenty feet away/ I didn’t know you were so broken, I wonder if you knew…” about a child: in fact, I’m actually crying in my office just re-typing it. I shake every time I hear him say, “I was in my room, twenty feet away.” Can any parent get through that line? Can anyone?— but “The Hot Water Test” is about his own medical problems, and as someone who is currently learning how to write about being sick, I can say it’s a skill unlike anything else.
My doctors told me that I had a disease
I will slowly fall apart until there’s nothing left that looks like me
I smiled at people as I walked to my car to call my wife
I told her everything the doctors had said, then we both began to cry
She said, “Easy can be hard to do, life can be ugly or beautiful and new
It’s up to me, and it’s up to you.”
She said, “Heaven isn’t hard to see— it looks like life with our family
In this house that we call home. I will never leave you.”
I guess it’s good I went ahead and started crying on “Sing Away,” because this song doesn’t exactly make me feel like stopping. I think it’s cathartic, mostly. It’s good to hear someone say the words ‘easy can be hard to do.’ I sometimes juggle things for five minutes wondering how I’m going to carry the things I need for class with my cane. But there are a lot of things that are true of every degenerative disorder or disease in this song, and it’s hard to hear him say, “I am afraid I will never be the man that I used to be” and think of anything but how I’m afraid of being a different person, too. I’ve been afraid for years. And worse, things are always changing. I’m sure they are for him, too. After all, he says there are “things that get harder every day.”
Things get harder every day. That’s just something I learned a few years ago. Sometimes I lie about that to my friends and family. Sometimes I lie to myself. It’s easier than thinking about what that means. Because the truth? He’s right about heaven— I’ve got a beautiful life with my family, and my husband Andy? He said that over and over in those first days, weeks, months: I will never leave you. I will never leave you alone.
Art says, “I wanna feel safe until they put me in the water and the truth comes out,” and “I’m teaching myself a new way to live my life.” The thing is, as often as he talks about dangerous lifestyles— even in this record, a character is defined as “dangerous” in “California Blood”— the real danger is that all of us could fall apart at any minute, isn’t it? That the human body is designed to fail, that it’s weak. So when he says, “I wanna go in my own way,” well, don’t we all? But those of us who know we don’t get to make that choice— I think we think about it more.
I needed a song where I could say out loud, “I want to go in my own way.” I think I needed to sing along, “Easy can be hard to do.” The Hold Steady talks a lot about how our “sing along songs” become sacramental (and hey, sometimes they talk about St. Joe Strummer, so they seem to have a pretty good handle on what’s sacred), and I feel like that when I hear “The Hot Water Test.” It is certainly closer to religion than the churches I’ve ever been inside. Because if a church is supposed to make you feel like you aren’t alone and to give you enough motivation to go out in the world and do good for others, well, then Sun Songs is part of the Apocrypha, because every single song either reminds me of the humanity of everyone around me or it helps me feel less alone without allowing me to sink into self pity. After all: it can be beautiful and true. It’s up to me. It’s up to you.
I want to talk to you about every song on this record. Andy already let me: we listened and I narrated why each song was important, the lines drawn between the Everclear songs like “Your Arizona Room” to the new “Arizona Star,” the way he changes the narrator and tone about racial inequity in Everclear’s “Jackie Robinson” to the menacing and brilliant “White People Scare Me,” where he inverts stereotypes and then “feels like he needs some shame real bad… [and] walk[s] into a Trump rally” to find “there were angry white people everywhere/ Looking just like [him].” I want to tell you why “Sunshine Love Song” is one of the sweetest songs I’ve ever heard, because the words are great, but the longing— it’s so deep and so sincere in his voice, it’s almost like you’re in love with whoever he is singing to, as well. (Recently, I had a student say that we define ourselves by what we long for, and she’s right: that means Art is defined by his deep well of love for his family. Can you send a more beautiful message?)
But maybe I’m over-complicating things. Sometimes easy is hard because I make it hard. Because I could have just written you a straight review of this beautiful record, which is stunning top to bottom. I have plenty of material from interviews he’s given about his own grappling with the MS diagnosis, the recording of the record, how he played all the instruments (which, with tremors, I know is hard— I have tremors, too, and I am a horrible guitarist. I wish those two things were connected, but I wasn’t any better before the tremors kicked in).
I wanted, though, to write a love letter. This record deserves that much. Art let us see inside the scary parts of his life as a man, as a father, as a husband, and as an American. The problem? I needed that look into his world, because someone who has always been a hero to me just shared that my fears and insecurities are things, he’s fought his way through, himself.
Thanks, Art. Going into winter, I’m going to need a sunshine love song.