A Conversation with Charles Ellsworth
There’s An Evil That Lives In The Hearts Of All Men…
…and sometimes that evil bears its head early and often. Some people feel it. Some people see it. Some people breathe it. Some people dance with it. Some people rage against it. Some people sink beneath it. Some people die of it. Some people rise above it.
It doesn’t take much to look around the world and see that things are in dire straits. It is a haunting conundrum, when we look at our idols as having everything: money, fame, power, etc, and then all of a sudden they are found in a closet, or in a bathroom, or in some other quietly sad and lonely place. We, the left behind mass of fandom, are confused, scratching our heads, and wondering, why those who burn the brightest seem to hide the most darkness. Whether it is The Psychiatric Times or USAToday talking about the association between mental disorders and genius, or various blog articles discussing the link the between high intelligence and depression, long absent conversations about the nature of suicidal tendencies are becoming commonplace. CNN discussing the dark history of Vincent Van Gogh, PBS using Robin Williams to make the link between depression and creativity, and now with yet another loss of a 90s grunge icon with Chris Cornell – the facts are obvious and disturbing.
This is what has become known as The Curse of the Poet and was an issue that was heavily on my mind during my Conversation With D L Marble as well.
YOU CANNOT BE REPLACED…. if you need help, it is just a click away.
You can reference that article as it ended with this concept. It provides a sense of context as I went into my conversation with Charles Ellsworth.
“Before we go any further, click this link to go to CharlesEllsworthMusic.Com and BUY THE NEW ALBUM, Cesarea, RIGHT NOW. It is an absolutely phenomenal recording, produced right here in Arizona at Flying Blanket Records. This is hands down one of the best uses of ten bucks going right now. Hit the link and GET IT DONE !”
The reason that this darkness that lies within each of us matters is that it is a commonplace poetic emotion, but certainly not commonplace to talk about. I have a history with this artist that no other interviewer can claim: I was his high school English teacher. Twice. Charles was dealing with some fairly traumatic frustrations in terms of his living situation, and while I was reeling with the suicides of not only my step-father of twenty years, but also the suicide of a well-liked student. On top of that, divorce raised its monstrous visage, and I lost my son to visitations and child support payments. I hoped this unique proximity would also grant a level of candor not usually possible in a rock-n-roll music interview.
AMERICAN FOUNDATION FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION…. just reach out
Even years later, I have quite a bond with that first generation of students – the ones that were part of the first half of my career. (I taught for seven years.) Many of them are still my friends: a couple of them have developed into very close ones. I think an awful lot of the reason they have stayed in contact, and I with them, has to do with simply being human, studying literature and poetry, and feeling. To teach English well, you have to show that this stuff if real, that it has true, raw, emotions fueling it. It was a very hard time to be an English teacher. We all know personal stuff is supposed to stay home, and there is supposed be a line between the public self and the world of our own personal Hell. That however…. is not at all always possible. Sometimes things get so dark, that that cloud effects everything you do.
With No Recollection Of The Kid I Once Was…..
Charles was my student for Sophomore Honors and Junior College Prep English. I knew him when he got his driver’s license, and I taught him about The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. I made sure he understood all of the really, racist, dirty jokes Iago tells in Othello Act I. I read his personal narrative essay. I read his poetry. And although I cannot claim to know everything, or even the beginnings of everything, about his life, I knew enough about this kid that when I saw him out in the real world, making music, and achieving his dreams – I was inspired.
Charles was spending a lazy Sunday off from from his tour promoting the release of this third album, Cesarea, driving from Seattle to Portland. He had seen his good friend Tyler, (also a former student), had a couple days to rest, and he had done his laundry. Now, he was driving, which meant he had time to be nailed down and talk to his old English teacher, turned explorer, blogger: Ghost Writer. We were talking about this link between depression, sadness, tragedy, and the powerful artistic expression that often comes with it.
“It’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing,” Charles was saying, “What came first: the art or the depression? It came from a very early age, I think I was in fifth or sixth grade the first time I really contemplated the reality of suicide. Perhaps it was all of the severe family drama, perhaps it was puberty, but it was definitely sobering. But it was also at about this time that I discovered Led Zeppelin and wanting to learn how to play like Jimmy Page.”
“It is an awkward time, an overwhelming time, as a teenager you are uncomfortable in your own skin, and you are being shepherded through this joke of an education system which is all about conforming and as far away as possible from actually thinking, and here you are, as a kid, and you notice it! You are left with a feeling of what is the point.”
SUICIDE AWARENESS VOICES OF EDUCATION…. know that there is always tomorrow
We spent some time talking about the people in the world that didn’t want to notice it. I told him about a time, probably about the same time he was in high school actually, that I was talking to one of my younger sisters about what I was teaching. Out of nowhere she told me, ‘Ryan, I would not like your classes.’ I was a bit shocked, I thought I was a pretty cool teacher after all. ‘You would make me think too much.’ I was even more shocked then, and in some ways I still am. I cannot imagine being someone who doesn’t want to see the man behind the curtain. But to some, that wizard gives their lives stability… even if it is a facade. Seeing this facade, and dissecting it, is the beauty of the artist, but that gift comes with a cost.
“It was 9/11. My whole world was in upheaval before it even had a chance to develop a real point of view, and we have been at war ever since. I am working on this song that says something like, ‘Heroes I’ve known… we’ve been in war, since I was thirteen years old’, and again, it is times like those, confronted with the reality of it… that you ask, what is the fucking point.”
One of my favorite movies from my younger years was Pump up the Volume, and although it was a different time, the words still resonate. Being a teenager sucks, but that is the point. Getting through it is the point.
And From A Seed A City Grew Into A Concrete Tomb With No Regard For You…
“So, for you, after everything, all the pain, all the loss, all the tragedy, how do we find the beauty”, I asked him. At the time I wasn’t thinking about American Beauty, but now, as I sit and type up the words, I am seeing the theme of that floating feather and the beauty of that completely messed up, ordinary life. I was also trying to figure out whether or not I could claim the inspiration from this line in the song because I am the guy who taught Charles, The Open Boat by Stephen Crane.
“Forced to look at the world focusing only on its flaws, one tends to embrace a glass-half-empty sort of approach. It scrutinizes all of this existence; it breaks it down into its basic fundamentals. And what we are left with, is that it is all meaningless. It is dark, and ridiculous, and infinitely pointless.
SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE…. someone will always listen
But it is also funny. The answer is to not take anything too seriously – like that boat some bastard pays three or four hundred bucks a month for that he might use eight or ten times a year… if he’s lucky. But now he’s a slave to that boat. That boat owns his whole damn life.”
“The bottom line is that life is a grand and cosmic joke; if you are not laughing it is the definition of cruel.”
It starts to seem infinitely ironic, and infinitely sad, but the point that he was making was clear. It was one that I have battled within myself as a critically thinking, artistic individual for years. When I taught Hamlet, I had an entire lecture day dedicated to discussing the Poet’s Curse, and I introduced it by talking about Machiavelli.
“A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”
If you are an idealist, you want the world to be what it ought to be, what it should be, what it could be – but never will be. This fuels a deep sense of grief (i.e. depression) about the state of the world and the human beings in it. It creates this Nietzschean universe, where the artist is forced to confront the reality of looking into the Abyss for too long.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you. ― Friedrich Nietzsche”
“For me, there are basically two approaches,” Charles continued. “When you live this focused life that scrutinizes every flaw, you look at the world in a constant series of should be’s. It is depressing as Hell, but when examined closely, as a whole, there has to be a way to find some sort of beauty in the chaos. So you are left with simple questions, questions that force a person to examine, evaluate, and value the now. I take inspiration in the now.”
Will You Look Back Regretting Your Past And Find This Is Where You Lost Your Stride…
“To me it becomes a matter of impression. Impression in the now. If people only see me this one time, and the world is this huge cosmic joke, there is no reason not to smile.”
A few weeks ago, I tuned-in to a Utah Radio Station out of Salt Lake City that was interviewing Charles, and he said that in this album he had tried to find more happiness, and perhaps not take himself too seriously. I followed up with that dialog, and asked for him to clarify that answer in relation to our conversation.
“Depending on the interview, you aren’t always as free as you might be elsewhere.” We kind of laughed, as he knew that both of us also shared a similar religious history. “But the answer is that I tried to show a series of juxtapositions.” He backed up, thinking perhaps of a better angle to address the question.
“Look, I write sad bastard love songs, I know that, but I don’t want them to sound like sad bastard love songs. Take Dyre Straitz for instance, it is an upbeat, happy sounding song, but it is about infidelity. My heart got ripped out man, but I didn’t want the song to sound like it. It was my spin on showing the Cosmic Joke of it all.”
“It’s like all this awful stuff that is going on right now.” Charles took a deep breath, like he was trying to fight off a rant, before just succumbing to it, and allowing it to flourish and breathe. “It’s like when my friends ask me what I feel about Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter…”
And the debate coach in me rejoiced, because Charles was getting ready to take me down the rabbit hole, and I was more than ready for the ride!
Because The Devil’s Just A Man Like Any Other Guy He’s Working 9 – 5 Just To Save A Dime…
“When Black Lives Matter took off, it was trying to bring a sense of acute awareness to an issue. Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter: these are responses; they offer nothing of substance in themselves. So all those statements do is detract from the original intent, like a huge middle finger to the substance of the real movement.
“But it is possible to believe that, and still have a deep respect and care for law enforcement. It seems ridiculous to me that a person cannot have a deep care about the lives and well being of the men and women in uniform, but still expect them to be held responsible in full for their actions and lack of judgment.
“It doesn’t seem like these ideas are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t seem like there is anything other than policy and politics keeping people divided, so it doesn’t make any sense that more people are not furious over Philandro Castile. It doesn’t make any sense why the NRA is remaining silent.”
“Didn’t the Boston Massacre act as one of the major instigators leading towards the Revolution?” It actually surprised me when he stopped his passionate discussion of our current American Racial Crisis, to ask me a question.
“Yeah, it was certainly one of the factors.”
“And it only killed like five people! Now that happens daily, weekly, monthly, all the damn time, and people just turn the page or flip the channel. Why have we done absolutely nothing but watch it all escalate? A person can ask these questions. A person can scream out raging about why people are so complacent, and that same person can still respect the hell out of police officers.”
It is that infinite cruelty in the world that will either drive a person crazy with its callous apathy, or force them to see the beautiful, chaotic Cosmic Joke of it all. I was starting to understand where he was going with the example, and it made sense. It was this underlying layering of conflicting ideas, the facade of happiness and an upbeat tempo to disguise the workings of a critical mind, that Charles was referring to when he told the interviewer in Utah that he was exploring his happier side.
Sad Bastard Songs…. that don’t sound like Sad Bastard Songs… Indeed.
I’m Not Restless, I’m Just Weary And A Little Scared Of What’s To Come…
“I’m sure you’ve read this, but I just recently did, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?”
My heart skipped a few beats. A teacher knows, and it is that moment that a former student looks at you and says something completely unsolicited that could just as easily have come out of your soul that you swell with a pride that is very hard to describe. “Of course! I love that book,” I replied. BUY IT on AMAZON HERE. You will not regret it.
“I think in the end, with all of the ugliness, and all of the awful, tragic, horrible things that come at us… the answer to everything just becomes Simplicity and Quality, and the Beauty that comes from those things. It becomes a way of life, like I find myself cleaning out my van on tour, and it makes me feel a sense of peace.”
“Even in a world where police officers walk free for killing black men who have done nothing?” I asked.
“Yes, it gives us this vision of how it should be. How it could be in life, in society, in the everyday mechanics of quality. It seems like a good place to start.”
“So, in light of all of this philosophy, all of this dichotomy and irony, I have one more question for you.” Then talking, now writing, every time… looking into the Abyss of memory is just as black. I took a breath before continuing on. “Our lives have been rough, I know enough about yours to know it was not easy, and mine has certainly in many ways just felt like one tragic disaster after another. How do we move past these things, but still look at these things, be affected by these things, write about these things, but not allow ourselves to be defined by these things?”
There was a pause on the phone, just long enough to make me wonder if we had lost service, but then Charles answered. “I’m still figuring that out.”
“I’m glad that I had music,” he said, again second guessing his first series of thought in a response and choosing to change gears.
“Back in the young years, and the shit, and the sadness, and the trying to come to terms with why anything mattered at all…. music mattered. Music gave me a way to interpret those conflicting feelings, and try to deal with them and think about them, in a way that was outside of myself.”
Once again, I was reminded of another conversation with another wonderful artist, when I asked Jordan White of Jane ‘n the Jungle if there was a correlation between her best writing and her feelings of sadness. Once, years ago, my step-mother Sue asked me why it seemed that I wrote my best work when I was the most sad. I reiterated that question to Jordan in my very first article, (read it HERE).
In short she talked about how when people are happy, they do not necessarily have a set of deficiencies: at least not any that are making them unhappy. So in essence, they don’t need anything. When people are insecure, however: lost, depressed, lonely – these are the times they need the most from something outside of themselves. People look for validation. Writers look to write. Artists seek to create. That is the process…. using that creative curse to be able to process the painfully cruel and beautiful world that we see.
“My biological father went to prison when I was ten years old.” Charles said it matter-of-factly: not with shame or malice. “Once that happened, no matter what… I was the kid with a Dad in prison. Was I going to be like him? What makes me different? And I realized that we start to create our own prisons. I guess that, that and music, are the things that first let me start trying to claw back from that place.”
If people allow themselves to be defined by the horrors of their pasts – how can they ever escape that darkness? Am I who I am because of divorce and being raised in split homes? Am I who I am because my step-dad shot himself? Am I who I am because some mistakes never go away, and I lost my career? Am I who I am because between students, and close friends, I have seen more self-slaughter than most? Am I who I am because I am over 120,000 dollars in debt for a career that I cannot use? Am I who I am because President W. Bush changed the bankruptcy laws? Am I who I am because my younger brother committed a homicide… in January?
“How does one begin to put all of these tragedies into perspective, and think about them, juxtapose them with literature, write about them, and never be able to escape them… and not finding themselves questioning their own life…. like Hamlet…. To Be or Not To Be?”
“We start to realize that everything in our lives is about Intent, Goals, and Voluntarily Changing,” Charles continued after a moment of shock after I relayed the story of what happened with my younger brother to him. “You are not your brother, even though you have experienced rage, just like I am not my Father, even though I fuck up all of the time. There is no predetermined Fate that controls us and makes us who we become. At some point…. we have to take responsibility for our own existence.”
Again, I knew that he was right, as I had done the same thing. In January, it just seemed that life literally was just going to be one colossal tragedy after another until life just …. ended. Although my work was going well, it wasn’t teaching and it was never going to be. I had tried to build up interest in pursuing management, but the writing was on the wall there too. I don’t play the corporate game very well, death was absolutely everywhere, and now my brother was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. What was the freaking point?
“But”, as Charles, was saying, “once I did that, looked at the world in a way that put the responsibility of each of my days on me, and only me, I realized all good in my life, was because of me. All meaning in my life, was because of me. All the possibility in my life, was because of me. Not just all the crap and all the mistakes. I tried to capture that on this album.”
I instantly felt a connection with his motivations. “That is exactly how I am here, right now, interviewing you for a blog article and preparing for a book release at the end of September. Something in me broke in January. Something in me forced a questioning and a re-evaluating of everything I thought I wanted and knew, and I realized it was either now or never. I just literally had to Do It. And I did! I would never in a million years have imaged this reality six months ago as my sisters and I held each other as our world came crashing down…. again.”
In a world that is continually pounding us, just incessantly with the negative. In a world that forces the cathartic thought that if suicide can happen to all of these special people, than why do I, or any of us, have any cause to hope? In this world…. it is good to know that we have music…. and it is good to know that it is okay to feel. Poetry is indeed necessary.
In so many ways it was an amazing conversation. It was a conversation about the things in this world that really do freaking matter, and the ways that two artistic people, who have known each other for long enough to be able to talk about real shit in a very real way, have found to sift through all of the Black and find something there worth grasping, holding, and hoping for.
It was a conversation that needs to happen more often.
Charles will be playing Sunday at The Lost Leaf with some stellar friends. You can also click the image for the Facebook Event Link. This will be a great show, and is not one to be missed. We hope to see you there, come up and say hello!
Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends.