Josh Pearson’s releasing a fantastic new album early next year. This feature on him, which I wrote for Loose Lips Sink Ships in Summer 2004, was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written, but still perhaps the one I’m most proud of. One of the best parts of this job is finding subjects like Josh who move and haunt and challenge you so much. He’s also a genius.
[picture by Steve Gullick, another genius]
Simply the best band in the whole damned land…
…And Texas is the reason.
Josh T Pearson played guitar, sang, wrote music, because it was only then that he felt the fire of God within him once again, the presence that shadowed him throughout his childhood, until his 19th birthday. The sensation of absolute belief that cradled his father, a lay preacher, so tightly he’d have his family starve, if only to prove his solemn belief that his God would ultimately provide.
Josh pieced together his opus, The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads, in solitude, every word, note, wash of feedback carefully choreographed. He gathered two dear friends, passionately gifted musicians, and laid his sacred communication down on tape. They called themselves Lift To Experience, and took to the road, every night discovering new truths within their symphonic sprawl.
The feedback rose, fierce and tapering like a flame, Josh’s voice keening, close to holy, picking out an apocalyptic parable cross-pollinating Biblical and Old West mythologies. Gentle melodies shimmered in the air, the Leslie-speaker coating the guitar with a heat-haze, the cymbals struck so hard they sprayed the drummer’s own blood and sweat. The volume soaring, until it infested you, until it felt like you might suffocate without it, gospel ringing in every gap, a call for salvation, a call to arms. The Leslie spontaneously bursting aflame, as French boys crooned sweetly, we will be free, we will be free …
Tragedy struck. Bassist Josh ‘The Bear’ Browning’s wife died while the band were on tour; they took time off to mourn, to make sense of things. They reformed, briefly, but Josh sacked drummer Andy ‘The Boy’ Young the old-fashioned way, sending him a boot by mail (which The Boy later sold for $210.36 on eBay, along with Josh’s note which, Andy reported, read “I’m cutting you off. Your out of my life. I’m giving The Boy The Boot!”). This February, The Bear sold his MusicMan Stingray bass on eBay for $850.
Josh retreated from the world, from his music, from his hometown of Denton, TX. Rumours began to circulate amongst Lift’s dedicated fandom, of his exile to a shack in the desert somewhere, of his mental state, of the music within him yet captured on tape. Of whether he’d ever break his silence out there, amidst the sands and the winds, and try to channel that spirit one last time.
All that answered them was more silence, their questions amplified in the absence of a reply. Silence, save the solemn, fervent hum of an idling amplifier, its dust-laden husk cooling. The ghost within its heart dormant, but not dead.
Under the ‘X’ in Texas is where you’ll find me, it’s where I’ll be… Singing out the songs warning the world of the perils to come…
He was the whole reason we’d come to Texas.
Well, not the whole reason, what with Austin’s annual South By Southwest festival going down that same week in mid-March, 2004. But it was for Josh that we’d flown out four days before the festival began, with the intention of travelling to his new home in a small town called Tehuacana, pop. 312. But as the date of our arrival in Texas drew close, our plans to meet him evaporated, Josh increasingly isolated, remote. We hung with friends instead, explored Austin, and chalked the disappointment up to experience.
The first afternoon of the festival was a slow one. An itch of frustration within us, we quit Emo’s, a legendary punk venue with two rooms linked by a sunkissed courtyard, where Steve spotted a figure sat on his own, nursing a beer in the shadows. He was somehow skinnier, his hair and beard wilder, wirier, and he’d switched his bronze ‘Lone Star State’ belt buckle for one fashioned in the silhouette of a desert-brittle ox’s skull, but there was no mistaking Josh, staring idly, ghostly into space.
We stopped, considered approaching him. But he seemed calm in his solitude, his thoughts; perhaps this wasn’t the right moment to approach him. Secretly, I was partly relieved. The period Steve and I spent with Lift for a piece we wrote on them in Careless Talk Costs Lives was a memorable, one, but there was a darkness within Josh, an impenetrableness, that daunted me.
We snuck to a nearby bar for a few games of pool, anything to annihilate this slow, sullen afternoon, to bring on the night. But time was dragging, leaving us restless as before; we went wandering about Sixth Street and its characterful side avenues, Steve talking of the last time he spoke to Josh, after his solo show at The Spitz in London, December 2002. As Steve shot a roll of pictures down a corridor deep within the Spitz, Josh talked about Lift To Experience, about his mission to record three pieces with Lift To Experience, which he regarded like symphonies. He still had two left to complete.
The solo shows derived from a concept Simon Raymonde, former Cocteau Twin and nurturing owner of Bella Union, Lift’s record label, suggested to Josh as he was struggling with writing a second Lift album. Empty your mind of your masterplan for a bit, write some more throwaway stuff, some ‘pop’ songs. Josh responded by taking it upon himself to write a song a day for the project; he ended up writing easily more than seven songs. “And they were unbelievable, astonishing, genius songs,” added Gullick, with emphasis.
After the show, Josh told Steve he planned to record the songs quickly, for release as a solo album, to be titled Angels Vs Devils. Steve responded that the solo songs were more immediate, less ‘hard work’ than the Lift material, that they sounded more acceptable to the mainstream. Was there not a danger, he wondered aloud, that Josh’s more palatable solo material might overshadow the work of his beloved Lift To Experience?
“It seems like that sent him back to square one, where he was before Simon suggested the solo album,” sighed Steve. “A completely counter-productive statement on my part, and not one that was necessarily true. I loved the new songs, and was just thinking aloud. I’m desperate to hear those new songs again, and, in retrospect, fame for Josh could only help Lift To Experience.”
We were standing on Red River, just near Stubbs’ outdoor BBQ shack, the late-afternoon sun accenting the weathered walls of a striking abandoned warehouse. It’s ‘The Golden Hour’, said Steve, mysteriously, turning back towards Emo’s. “Just imagine, photographing Josh against this backdrop.”
The introductions were brief, and Josh seemed less surprised to see us than we might have expected, but he was glad to see us. In no hurry to get to the location, he gazed past us, into the sea of identikit Texan indie kids at the bar, rambling, with purpose, like we were the first people he’d spoken to in months who actually listened (he’d say as much later, that this afternoon was his first time back in Austin, amongst people, away from the monastic seclusion of his current life, in months).
“Francis Ford Coppola never meant to make the Godfather, he actually didn’t want to,” I remember him saying. “He thought the source material beneath him, but his career was suffering. He took a trashy novel and made a masterpiece out of it, somehow, and it gave him the power to make the movies he wanted to. I’ve been thinking a lot about that compromise, recently. I’m still not sure that compromise is a good thing, no matter the result.”
He’d been thinking a lot about film, about scoring soundtracks. “But only if the music has as much importance as the pictures,” he averred. He noted the emotional impact of music and movies, when they’re perfectly melded; when, after seeing the movie, you can’t exactly describe the sounds or the images themselves, but that the movie’s emotional impact is powerful. “Like when you meet someone,” he continued, “You can’t explain, in words, why they mean so much to you, but their resonance, their impact upon you, is vivid.”
He continued talking, of projects he’d been envisioning, of subjects he’d been thinking deeply about. He dropped in references to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s writings with not a jot of pretension, he spoke of the ambitions that still stirred within him, but there was a germ of defeat lingering within his words. As if, unlike before, when he pieced together the first Lift To Experience work, he now had an understanding of the wider world, the way it corrupts pure things, and how difficult it is to escape that taint.
The day was growing long and shadows were prowling, reclaiming the streets of Austin. We made for the warehouse before sundown, Josh stripping to his bare chest as Steve snapped roll after roll of film. Josh kept talking, eyes impassive to every shutterclick, of what had happened to him since last we saw him. He’d left left his home in Denton, for a shack in Tehuacana. For money, he now did odd jobs, like cleaning out toilets. He’d been purging himself of creature comforts, had even sold his television. “All I have now is my computer; every couple of weeks this kid I know drives over and we watch DVDs on it. I have something of a burgeoning DVD collection,” he laughed, drily. “I went to the store and the first movies I bought were Amelie and Moulin Rouge, both of which I’ve watched several times, and Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, which I haven’t watched yet. In fact, I think I only bought so the clerk at the checkout wouldn’t think I was a pussy.”
He reflected some more on his newfound toilet-cleaning vocation. “Is that what I have to do to get to my music?” he laughed, seriously. “Van Gogh, he wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest painter, but no one forgets the starving artist, living in poverty and anonymity, who sliced off his own ear. If I cut off my arm and it furthered my music, would that justify the means?” He pondered his own self-mythologisation a little more.
“What do you want, Josh?” asked Steve, loading another film in his camera.
“I want to save Africa,” he replied, part-serious, part joking, after a long pause.
“If you want to save Africa, you need to be as big as U2, or Coldplay.”
Josh laughed, and then stared across the road, to a powder blue 1950s Chevy parked in the shade with a clutch of jocks sat inside, laughing and pointing at him. Steve readied to take another roll of shots, Josh resting against the wall, pulling his sinewy arms into a majestic Jesus Christ pose, singing ZZ Top’s ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ in exaggerated Texan twang, before walking forward, in the direction of the car, stopping before a signpost on the warehouse’s forecourt.
Grabbing it, he tensed every muscle in his slender arms, lips disappearing within his wild beard, staring at the car and the jocks, before hoisting his body off the ground, and turning it 90 degrees, so, for a few seconds at least, he was holding his body perfectly parallel to the gravelly floor, until his face turned beet-red and sweat beaded his forehead. At that, he snapped gracefully out of the pose, ran a hand through his thicket of hair, and suggested we go find a bar.
Demons take flight in the dark of the Texan night
Things get a little hazier from hereon in. We wended along to a dark, smoky bar, alive with non-SXSW Austin traffic, bereft of tourists and hipsters. I lugged Gullick’s camera gear, gratefully, for now I could pose as merely Steve’s assistant, and not a journalist. Josh already seemed to view me with some suspicion, giving me the benefit of the doubt because I was Steve’s buddy.
I remember this old Avengers comic, neurotic arrowsmith Hawkeye bemoaning that, hanging out with Captain America, Hawk always felt like a “piker” by comparison. In the best way, that’s sometimes how I feel working with Steve; bands love him, trust him almost instantly, partly because of his reputation but mostly just because of who he is – his charisma, his honesty, his love of music. Josh, a private and enigmatic man, trusted Steve implicitly, and it took work to achieve a similar level of conversational ease, even though our informal conversation was no interview. But, as we discussed the Careless Talk piece, he warmed and softened.
We discussed music now, Josh’s music. When he spoke, he seemed defeated, deflated; Lift To Experience might’ve set parts of Europe aflame (literally, in Paris), but in America they didn’t even have a record deal. What is it they say, about prophets being unrecognised in their homeland? Only Josh didn’t talk like a prophet now; as the moments passed, he seemed disconnected, out of synch with his muse. The desert isolation, far from focussing his artistic vision, had blinded him to what he had already achieved.
“Do you realise, just how many people want to hear new music from you, and just how desperately?” I asked.
“No. Why would I?” he replied, no trace of bitterness in his voice, but no sense of the effect his music has had on his fans either.
He said that the closest he’d got to making music lately was attending informal guitar circles in the small town where he was staying, where locals toting battered acoustics and washboard basses would sit and play Hank Williams tunes. He hadn’t played at these circles yet; he preferred to sit in and simply reel at the emotional impact held by the words to ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’.
However, that was set to change later that night, he explained. Some friends were holding a party after all the shows finished that night, a few blocks out of town, and Josh was scheduled to play a short set there.
We sing these songs because we have to, not because we want to
I left Steve and Josh at the bar to go see Oranger across town, agreeing to meet up later. I ricocheted across Austin all night, sating my noise-hunger; minutes after The Bronx detonated at Emo’s, I oozed outside with the rest of the sweaty mosh, to where I’d agreed to meet Josh and Steve. They weren’t there, and I cursed myself for not getting directions to the party, but then bumped into Josh, striding along Sixth Street and up Red River. I shouted and ran after him; at first, he didn’t seem to recognise me, but when I mentioned Steve and the party, he brightened slightly, and told me to tag along.
We met his sister, Shoshana, waiting for her boyfriend to finish loading up gear from the venue he’d just played, so he could drive us to the show. Josh seemed nervous, agitated. He bitched about forgetting how to play his songs, bitched about getting there too late, hassled Shoshana’s boyfriend every mile of the journey to the dingy, party-damaged house on the wrong side of town. Upon entry, Josh disappeared into the mass of early twenty- and thirty-something hipsters swarming about the tiny house. In a claustrophobic nook to one side, The Mona Jane, an intense Denton quartet who flared like embers of Sonic Youth and Joy Division, set up their gear. Opposite them sat Steve, clutching his cameras and looking spooked.
The night wore on, a succession of like-minded groups – dyed-black of hair, indie of countenance – pounding away on the shitty equipment, bruised noise barely-contained by the chipped and decaying walls. By the crimson-light of the coloured bulbs ‘illuminating’ the room, we could see Josh standing in the wings, pale and anxious.
Dawn came without Josh picking up his guitar or taking the microphone. We passed Simon Raymonde in the corridor on our way out; as good a friend as Josh could wish for, as concerned and sympathetic a Label owner as you could imagine, Simon just seemed just gutted. In the bottle-strewn front lawn of the house, Josh stood talking to friends; we walked over to say goodbye.
“You’re not playing then?” asked Steve softly, a kind, laconic grin on his face.
“No,” he sighed; he seemed tired. Steve began making plans to hook up with Josh later that week, but Josh behaved confused, like he couldn’t understand why we’d want to stay in touch with him after that night’s wild goose chase. Like he couldn’t understand that we might’ve travelled thousands of miles to see him. There was something so sad and vulnerable in his voice then, and I doubt the spirit he so craves, so misses, ever seemed quite so distant as then.
It was 7am. We’d been awake for somewhere in the region of 24 hours, were miles from the apartment, and had to traverse a neighbourhood of Austin legendarily fond of the local strain of Black Tar Heroin before we could even hope to find a taxicab. We found ourselves slumped in a narrow naugahyde booth at the IHOP on Cesar Chavez, staring at a long journey home, a shrinking timeslot for shuteye before that afternoon’s rock’n’roll began, and several of the least-appetising sausages I’d ever been served.
The preceding day seemed potent, surreal, ridiculous. As the sky brightened to a dark turquoise, we tried to make sense of it all, of the mysterious, contradictory character we’d spent so much time with, and what the future might hold for him. Had he known, all along, that he wouldn’t play a note that night? Did he truly believe that nobody cared about his band, that nobody mourned the absence of Lift To Experience?
The questions were left unanswered that breakfast, and by further encounters with Josh that week. He loves The Icarus Line, we can confirm. He loves whiskey. Otherwise, he’s still a compelling enigma.
Simon Raymonde has spent the months since SXSW like the ones before the festival: waiting, ever-hopeful, for the delivery of Angels Vs Devils. Recently, his faith began to wane, but Josh got back in touch, said he had sorted out a number of the demons that were holding him back from his work, and that he would be in touch soon. Simon believes he will be, and still believes that a Josh Pearson album, another Lift To Experience album, are all probabilities, and will be majestic.
“You’re lucky to have such a ‘problem’ as Josh to deal with,” I said to him on the phone just before we went to press, sensing in his words that night a joy in working with Josh, in putting out his records, that far outspans any frustrations recent events may have engendered. There are also signals that the estranged members of the band are willing to work with Josh in the future, that the flashpoints in those relationships are surmountable.
As for who Josh is, I can’t say I know any better now than before we flew to Texas. The story of his life, of his music, is compelling, and near-fantastical. His myth has all of the ingredients, the portent, and the poetry of any of rock’n’roll’s legends, the mysterious singer-songwriter with the fiery preacher father, his complex relationship with God, the seething epic visions, so finely realised. But the way in which Josh is conscious of his own mythology, his persona – he couldn’t not be, given some of his pronouncements – and his enduring blindness to what Lift To Experience have wrought, is a perplexing and perhaps insoluble riddle. Just as his alter-ego in The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads couldn’t seem to decide whether he were Jesus or John Wayne.
Daily, Raymonde is assailed by e-mails asking after Lift’s Sphinx-like frontman, and the possibility of further Lift recordings. But while he forwards every enquiry to that little shack out in Tehuacana, he says Josh’s lack of belief in himself seems intransigent. But still, he remains hopeful.
That raw, cool Spring dawn in Texas, surrounded by the transient denizens of the Austin night, Steve and I pulled the day before apart, trying to make sense of it all. Had Josh wanted us to find him? Had he ever intended to actually play that show at the house-party, or had it been another ruse, another chapter in the growing tome of fables surrounding the man (ask Simon about the night Josh ended up in a police cell, if ever you see him), a legend that is slowly but surely growing into something Josh’s talent might suffocate behind.
Certainly, Raymonde says, the idea of clicking onto allmusic.com twenty years from now and finding an entry for Josh T Pearson, the mysterious frontman who delivered a masterful debut album with his band Lift To Experience before disappearing forever into the Texas sands, doesn’t terrify him. Josh still has the music within him, he says, and Simon’s experiences with the Cocteau Twins mean he is more than familiar with the mercurial way of many artistic talents.
But still the void remains, and it’s hard not to imagine that, with every passing year, Josh will find himself drifting further and further away from his music. It’s time he returned to his unfinished symphonies, and painted his legend in sound, not pregnant silence. For his demons to take flight, in this darkest of Texan nights.
(c) Stevie Chick 2004