eventual knowing

The Earth Below: 3 album cover illustrations

[ “the earth below” album cover illustration for terry champlin. pencil and ink on various papers with digital color and compositing, layered over the artist’s original autograph manuscripts. ]

terry never thought much of my romantic decisions. i guess really he didn’t think they were decisions at all.

“you don’t know anything about her,” he would insist, though the contention was never well-received. i was not a casual dater, even in college, and “her” was generally someone i had been sleeping beside, arguing with, reeling out and back in and/or clinging to desperately for months upon years. this assertion of my ignorance would have been unpalatably insulting, had it not been so empirically absurd.

but terry has cultivated a certain curmudgeonliness to cope with his daily exposure to the unfettered whimseys of well-funded youth, and my visible offense only inspired him to dig in his heels. “you don’t know anything about any of your friends,” he’d expand.

“okay,” i would concede, having learned that such debates were unwinnable. “so i feel like it needs a bridge before the third verse, but i’m not sure i have anything else to say.”

but terry is not one to accept such an easy victory. “you think you do, because everyone goes around announcing things about themselves. ‘i’m radical,’ or ‘i’m goth,’ or ‘i’m gay.’ but none of those choices costs anything. no one at vassar loses her employment for dating women, or can’t get an apartment. no one has to take his unusual piercings to an interview. decisions without prices, without consequences, aren’t meaningful decisions.”

earth below still - four guitars

[ “the earth below” video production still ]

you can be forgiven for wondering why any of this was of any concern to my guitar teacher. did he think i would devote more time to my scales if only i could be weaned off my romantic distractions? i assure you he did not.

terry was my “classical guitar instructor,” a sub-professorial kind of “hired gun” position he still holds at my alma mater, and as such had to appraise my well-meaning renditions of his solo guitar bach arrangements. but he was also, unofficially and invaluably, my songwriting mentor, subjected each week to a new poetic re-imagining of my almost comically unhealthy and yet tragically persistent relationships. it would be too much to ask of anyone to keep his advice focused solely on lyrical missteps, when they were merely parsings of more consequential and infinitely more obvious personal ones.

and yet. i don’t need to explain that, at 19, at 21, i was not eager to be told that my friends’ decisions, and mine by extension, were meaningless, that we had no discernible identities to speak of. or, more precisely, that our identities were only to speak of, and nothing more. muttering to myself, i hauled my beloved acoustic guitar back along the icy paths that led over the crick and up the hill to the big house where i lived with my four closest friends, and the bedroom i intermittently shared with the lady of song.

Eventual Spring album cover by Kenan Rubenstein

[ “eventual spring” album cover illustration ]

a decade later, i no longer share a residence with any of that house’s former residents; none of us even retire to the same city. (ever the devoted monogamist, i am in fact the last straggler still clinging to the eastern seaboard.) i see them each once every year or two, usually for a few days at a stretch (i try to coordinate visits with comics festivals). it’s not much time to catch up on what’s transpired in the interim, to try to understand their careers and get to know their spouses. i love them like long-lost siblings, but waitresses overhearing our conversations must surely assume we’re on our first in-person date.

“so wait,” i will ask, considering a peculiarly cryptographic job title, “what does that mean you actually, like… do?” meanwhile, my “date” is trying to conceal his or her confusion at the rent i pay for my drafty, vinyl-sided 4th-story walk-up. “it’s actually super cheap for my neighborhood,” i try to explain, “which is, in turn, relatively cheap for the city, mainly because it’s toxic and unreachable, thank god.”

we didn’t always have so little in common. but much of what we once shared, i realize, were decisions that had been made for us. our house, for example, was roughly identical, in both layout and expense, to all the houses around it. there was very little prioritization involved in the crafting of our budgets; we all lived in the same neighborhood and ate in the same dining hall and attended the school that would have us. no one had to choose between central air conditioning with a doorman or proximity to her friends, and no course of study required you stray farther from home than any other. no matter what field you pursued, you had a warm house, and plenty to eat, and killer health care. which meant no one had to decide whether he would try to spend his time doing something he cared about. there was literally nothing else to do.

My Mind was a Mirror album cover by Kenan Rubenstein

[ “my mind was a mirror” album cover illustration ]

my only college-era relationship that remains more or less unchanged is that with terry. he is still a benevolent pedagogue and a brilliant composer and an incorrigible grump. he still gives my work thoughtful attention that it does not particularly merit. he still seems to appraise me by my potential, when everyone else around has long since shifted to measuring my rather less impressive record of actual accomplishments.

unlike my other college friends, who i’m just now getting to know, terry remains the person with whom i became acquainted in my late teens. and to be sure, he has had to settle up with life for the choices he’s made. he’s devoted himself to making music, classical music at that, and not even the polytonal, unlistenably academic kind that lands you tenured professorships, but dramatic melodies rooted in various folk idioms, lush and lovely and utterly unprofitable. (he was the only person who ever warned me that the price of artistic integrity was a life of constant worry about money.) he and his wife write and perform together, and stay up well into the wee hours of each morning practicing. (terry, now in his 60’s, checks his e-mail once a day before going to sleep, and i often wake to messages time-stamped after 2 a.m.). they’ve gotten to do what they love, in the absence of significant commercial success, by devoting every available minute and dollar to it, minutes and dollars that most people eventually conclude are better spent making a family.

but terry makes music, and that’s a decision with costs, and consequences.

despite his practiced prickliness, terry frequently betrays an odd avuncular affection for the young people in his orbit. he spends unpaid days organizing concerts and coffeeshop evenings so they can show off for their friends and potential lovers. he tirelessly tends to their original compositions, leaving structure and meaning where once was only exuberance and self-indulgence. Earth Below - storyboard by Kenan Rubenstein and he worries about their priorities and choices, generously dispensing valuable advice and hard truths, despite the predictable ungratefulness of those of us not ready to hear them.

[ “the earth below” video storyboard illustration ]

perhaps because he does not have children of his own, or because he wants to see something come of all the time and wisdom he’s imparted, or maybe just because the price is right, terry’s students are often involved in his artistic endeavors. they are all over the three albums he has just released, tugging at nylon strings and blowing through reeds and even racking up engineering and production credits (even when this meant more experienced mixers and masterers had to be paid to tidy up youthful work).

terry champlin record release show flyer

though no match for terry’s compositions as a guitarist, i’m on the discs as well, if only in a more literal sense; i drew their cover illustrations (seen throughout this post), and designed the packaging and posters that sport them (below). i built a website to stream and sell terry’s music, and even got to direct a performance video for one of the more stirring vocal pieces (above; it was shot by joe victorine, and miss mandy bisesti made everyone lovely).

and i’ll be at the record release concert up in the hudson valley next weekend, because terry insists, against all reason, that his fanbase of aging classical connoisseurs will want my signature on their purchases, and to pick up some of my shitty self-published comics while they’re at it.

i know, it doesn’t seem likely. but terry’s been right about more preposterous things. we’ll see, i guess, and maybe i’ll see you there.

terry champlin cds