In The Wilderness
This week Andrew McMahon released his second studio album with his solo project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness (AMITW). The record is called "Zombies on Broadway" and it is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I may or may not be listening to it as I write this. Fans of Andrew's work will find familiar ground in his melodic hooks coupled with lyrics born of a life well-examined. And while at times I found myself nodding and saying, "Yes, that sounds like classic Andrew," I was pleasantly surprised to hear him taking risks, pushing his sound to be different than it has been before. There are more tracks on this record; the beats are more complex; the sound is layered. It is not a Jack's Mannequin record by any means, and that is a good thing.
In light of the release of "Zombies on Broadway" I decided to write about a night in July of 2016: the night I went to see Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.
I suppose I ought to establish context, because good stories require context. The weekend prior to the Andrew McMahon concert had not exactly gone well. At that time I was dating a girl and I had gone to visit her. During that visit, we had one of "Those" conversations. You know exactly the type of conversation I'm talking about: the one that forms a pit in your stomach; that somehow plays in slow motion; and that is different every time but somehow you always seem to know the words. I am being intentional about not sharing the specifics of that conversation for two reasons. First, because even though I can be very candid on this blog, some things should remain private. And second, I don't think I actually need to say too much about it. If you've ever had a relationship end, you already have some idea of what was said.
When I returned home to Des Moines on Sunday, we officially were "on a break". As ideal as that was not, it seemed better than the alternatives at the time. So I spent a lot of that week - the week of the concert - taking inventory of my life. Here I was in the last year of my twenties. I was back in school at the time. My relationship was on the rocks. I was scrambling to finish grad school applications before fast approaching deadlines. Since getting out of the Navy in August of 2015, I felt as though I had not stopped moving. There was always something else to do. And in-between all of this, I was trying to find time to deal with my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a diagnosis I had received less than a year prior.
I had reached a point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
That was the week of AMITW. The show was at Wooly's here in Des Moines. I had planned to go with a musician friend of mine and his wife. However, several days prior to the show, he told me that it was sold out. I had purchased by ticket several weeks earlier, but he apparently had not. In essence, I was now faced with the possibility of going to a show alone. Now it is my understanding that this practice is not all that uncommon, like going to movies or dinner alone, both of which I have done. But this felt fundamentally different somehow.
Of course I had the most obvious and unoriginal of thoughts: going to a show by myself simply served to amplify the loneliness I was feeling at the time. You see, even though I had returned to Des Moines, I hadn't really come home yet. I had made it through a four year tour of active duty in the Navy that took me far, far from Iowa. But my journey didn't end when I came back to the Hawkeye State. I had traded in the islands of the Puget Sound, the deserts of the Middle East, and the snow covered mountains of Japan for a different sort of wilderness, one composed primarily of textbooks, lectures, chemical equations, flashcards, and frequent exams. If there wasn't a test or homework or studying to be done, there were trips to see the girlfriend or weekends full of work as a paramedic. Allow me to be very clear here: I am not saying these were bad things. In fact, that time is littered with good experiences; moments that I wouldn’t change for anything. There is not one second of that years in question that I would give back, because it all led me here. You see, sometimes it is necessary to head out into the wilderness.
When Andrew McMahon was writing the album that would become his first major project since Jack's Mannequin, he spent his weekdays at a secluded cabin in the mountains of California. The songs that were written in that isolation became the first self-titled album for Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, what has commercially been the biggest success in his long career. For the follow up album - the aforementioned "Zombies on Broadway" - he went a different way, leaving his native California to spend a year in New York City. The result is, as I have said, different than the first but equally as heartfelt and meaningful. Andrew came in from the wilderness.
That is the natural rhythm of life. Things start, then they end and a new thing starts.
My friends managed to snag last minute - I mean VERY last minute - tickets to the show, which I will now attempt to describe. It's been about six months since that fateful night, but I have been calling it the concert that changed my life. It's not until recently that I was able to articulate exactly how: it's the night I came in from the wilderness.
As the show began and Andrew crowd surfed to front of the house in a giant rubber duck - I promise, I'm not describing a dream I had - it seemed all of us there made a pact. I was talking to my friend who was there with me that night about this and he said, "Yeah, it's like there was something in the air." You can call it love or God or magic or whatever, but it was something. A non-spoken agreement between strangers to become friends and that for the next several hours, there was nothing but this room, these people, and these songs. Perhaps on another level, an understanding that we had better soak up as much of this experience as possible because this combination of people, on this night, singing and drinking and smiling and sweating in the dark, this would never happen again.
I left the show that night with a wholly different energy. An energy that told me so many things:
You are going to be okay.
You are exactly where you are supposed to be.
Remember, there is still awesome stuff in the world.
You love and are loved by people.
Do more stuff that makes you happy.
And perhaps most importantly: it’s time to come home.
Even though I had physically been back in Iowa for almost a full year at that time point, I mark that night in my mind as the night my journey home came to an end. The months that followed were tumultuous, but the best stories are always born in conflict. My relationship met its foreshadowed conclusion. I didn't get into grad school. I struggled with depression, as I have most of my adult life. And had I faced all of these things alone, in isolation, I am positive I would not be writing this essay. But I wasn’t alone. I had come home. So instead of lamenting my circumstances, I took jobs playing music. I wrapped up classes and started spending more time with friends and family. I am now writing and speaking more often. I’m doing the stuff that makes me happy.
The years I spent in the wilderness taught me a lot about myself. They taught me I can be disciplined and that I can do things I didn't think I was capable of doing. That I can make my weaknesses into strengths. They taught me that I can't live a life without music. It taught me that I have an actual, physical need to write, speak, and perform. And that I am much happier when I am putting things out into the world.
Like so many of us, I had to leave home to find it again. My time spent away – both physically and metaphorically – was not time wasted. In fact, I deem it time well spent. In truth, I am now able to remember fondly, perhaps even with a sense of pride. Some days it’s because of what I accomplished, others I’m just happy I made it through at all.
There are a few things that can happen when you spend time in the wilderness. You might catch that thing you were chasing, only to discover that it's not what you thought it would be. You might realize that left home for the wrong reasons. You might meet someone else, on a different journey, who changes the trajectory of your own. Your adventure could meet its own natural conclusion, as adventures are want to do. Or maybe you'll just get tired of being in the wild, on an island, lost in space, or whatever metaphor you like best.
I suppose it might sound hyperbolic to say that a concert changed my life. But it’s the truth. We saw often fail to recognize the significant moments of our lives when they are happening. However, even then I think I knew. As I collapsed into bed late after the show, knowing that tomorrow would likely do its best to knock me down again, I had a smile on my face. I had just experienced hundreds of people all singing together with one voice in testament to a fundamental truth. Like Andrew himself wrote in the song M.F.E.O, “We were made for each other.”
No matter the specifics of your journey, eventually it will be time to come home. And when you do, I hope you are met with a resounding, “You don’t have to do this alone.” Even if it’s just for one night with people you’ve never met. Because, believe me, once is enough to make a difference.
A great many things conspired to put me here writing these words to you all. And it all started the night I came in from the wilderness.