Charlie Kaplan,
The TVD First Date

“My father died on November 29th, 2013, two months before I turned 25. My partner Emma and my birthdays are just two days apart—January 23rd and 25th—so the day between has most years been the date of a joint party. January 24th, 2014 was no exception. I had barely begun grieving. Still shocked and blinded by the seismic event that had befallen me. Still numb with denial each day when I woke up.”

“We decided to host it in the basement of a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called St. Mazie. That spot has a street-level floor where local groups play. Some nights you might hear gypsy jazz, some nights you might hear a jug band. But below is a low-cap subterranean basement space, maybe 50 heads total, with a bar and eight or ten tables. We chose it because it’s just small enough where with enough friends, you can turn it into a de-facto private party. A year into my first job and with no money to rent out a venue, this struck us as a pretty ingenious approach and we sprung the idea on our guest list to a lively response.

The night came and our people were filling the space up and claiming tables. I noticed one final four-top of three strangers remaining, working on closing out their bill, with an open seat. I decided to sit down with them to be polite. At the table were two women and a man, and they welcomed me in.

Back then I wandered stunned from place to place, sometimes totally numb, but periodically—and inevitably—crashing down to earth in realization of my wrecked present. It felt like that fleeting moment after you’re slapped in the face, before the sting sets in. I felt the lightness and levity of freefall. A month or less later I’d find myself in darkness after the daze wore off, but for that moment, this stupefaction, mixed with the buzz of a room full of friends and a few drinks, had me whirring, ready to stick a straw in a world disappearing down the drain.

The two women were friendly and garrulous, but the man—while not unfriendly—was taciturn, his face turned down focused on what I guessed was the check, but he scribbled too long to be signing or calculating a tip. I can’t remember much about what we talked about: I told them it was my birthday and hoped they stuck around to hang with us. They said they had to go, and as they stood up, their silent partner handed me the piece of paper he had been writing on—a cocktail napkin—and left with a smile.

I looked down and saw a simple drawing. It couldn’t have been more than 15 strokes, depicting a face, glasses, and a swoosh of hair. My stomach dropped. I couldn’t tell if it was of me or my dad.

At that point in my bereavement, I had already started dipping into the bargaining phase of grief, begging the universe to reverse its irreversible decision to take my dad from me. And it seemed, for a fleeting moment of suspended disbelief, that it had been granted. I knew, rationally, that this was a drawing of me, because I was the person sitting in front of that nameless, wordless basement bar portraitist. But I saw my father’s face in his hand, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this unsigned piece of art was a final visitation, a farewell transmission. It was like the artist saw both me, and the negative space within me. Below the drawing, he wrote: “Happy birthday, bro.”

I pinned it next to my bed where it stayed for the years when I descended into a deep, dispossessed depression. In that time I struggled to access my sense of joy, optimism, ambition, exuberance—so many of the properties that I liked about myself, that I felt were essentially me. It was as though not only my father had died, but something had died within me too; like I was disfigured by grief.

At that point in time I felt like even music didn’t move me like it used to, and yet I found myself wrapping myself up in Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Jon Hopkins’ Immunity almost every day. Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock offered me unique solace: I discovered that album before my father passed, but got a new vinyl pressing and spent time with it many afternoons. I sat in its wide-open field of naturalistic surrealism over and over, giving myself to its forty-three minutes like a guided meditation. That LP starts and ends with a long, low tape hiss, and each time it would come to a cease on my cheap Sony turntable I found myself clarified enough to quietly move about my day.

It turned out music could touch me. In fact, it could spell me from the sandbag on my heart. I started looking for my life’s absent emotional palette in the world and found it, in fits and glints, in the guitar that sat propped next to my bed under that cocktail napkin.

I picked it up and tried to write songs every day. Almost all of them were bad. Some reflected the dark place I was in. Some were like that birthday in the bar, choogling and rocking away the bombed-out facade of my real life. And some were escapist fantasies, songs that invoked radiance in an attempt to conjure that which was then lost to me.

These songs made me think of Bob Dylan in the early 1970s; George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; Kacey Musgraves’ psychedelic country; the Grateful Dead’s crackling live sound; Talk Talk’s holy presence. They felt warm, like the sound of a record. They stuck with me, moved my spirit when I played them alone in my room, made me feel closer to the realm I imagined my father was in.

In 2016, my friend Andrew Daly Frank (my old band split bills with his for years) asked what I was going to do next musically, and I realized the store of songs I’d built up was really an unmade discography. I went through all my old demos and organized them into potential albums, and saw something new beginning. It was that last set of songs, the ones that invoked luminousness to me, that seemed most right to work on first, to make a tribute to and elegy for the loss I endured. For over two years starting in 2018 Andrew and I turned those songs into the album I’m putting out on November 13th, Sunday.

I knew what the cover had to be. I had long since packed that cocktail napkin away from the sunshine and open air into a satchel I kept in my closet. I pulled it out to look at it: It was a little browned and faded now, its layers of paper loose. But its image still blazed its question at me. That question was the same one that animated the songs I wrote for this album: Am I still here? Is he?

I flattened it on the gatefold of Dylan’s Gospel, an album by a supergroup choir assembled by Lou Adler at the end of the ’60s called The Brothers and Sisters that included Merry Clayton, Edna Wright, and Gloria Jones. It’s highlight is its second song, a slow rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Spinning the album in my little apartment, looking at that napkin, now protected in a ziploc bag, and heard the lyrics for the first time again:

“They say every man needs protection
They say that every man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Somewhere so high above this wall”

A few days later, I sent that image to the photographer and designer Max Heimberger, who transformed it into the cover of my record.

The front cover is stark and simple: A black and white sketching of the visage, with my name and the album’s title scratched in my handwriting below. But the back cover gives the answer to the front’s question. It’s a picture of me, enshrouded in darkness, walking below a psychedelic sunset. It holds so many metaphors for me: My grief among the chaos of life; the color that exploded in response to mangling loss; the wonder to never be disabused of.

I’m pressing Sunday and I can’t wait for people to hear and have it. It chronicles my means of navigating the bleakest straits I’ve ever travelled in my life. It was my process, my way out. My greatest hope is that it can somehow help someone going through similar hardship, to help them feel less alone, to have some of that warmth. At the very least, it served this purpose for me. I saw my reflection, and I hope you do too.”
Charlie Kaplan

Charlie Kaplan’s debut solo release Sunday arrives in stores November 13, 2020—on vinyl.

Charlie Kaplan Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp
PHOTO: EMMA RACINE

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