Discover more from Herb Sundays
Herb Sundays 91: Geoff Rickly
The singer, songwriter, and now novelist, takes us up, down, and back again.
“During the week, while I’m writing and liza is editing, we concentrate so much on people’s stories and words that we mostly listen to instrumental music in the background. So on Sundays we like to listen to records that unstick us from time, traveling from the 50s and 60s originals into modern reimaginings of classic forms, like Spiritualized, the Jesus and Mary Chain and PJ Harvey. Other tracks can be simpler, just a mood piece to accentuate the way the light seems to hang through the glass doors in our apartment at golden hour all day.” - GR
Geoff Rickly is the lead singer and songwriter of bands such as Thursday, United Nations, and No Devotion. He surprised many by releasing a novel this year called Someone Who Isn’t Me, published by the upstart Rose Books, which has an indie/DIY ethos themselves (order here). His book is autofiction done right, that is, as fiction and both as a memoir of his addiction and the drug experience that helped him break the cycle and get clean. Rickly is a good enough writer that you don’t have to have lived much of it yourself as a reader to get involved. We’ve all found ourselves twisted around the lampost of life, trying to decide where to start in untangling ourselves.
The book’s title and main conceit are clever as they play to this concept, as a person writing about themselves, thinly veiled but lucidly, which is also the addict's dilemma. I've not dealt with addiction via a doctor’s decision (though I have gotten a few other descriptions), but my feelings towards the topic have become altered in recent years, from someone else’s thing to now, with the number of friends and heroes who have shared their recovery stories, a very likely scenario for many of us, and not just for drugs and alcohol. It’s also any medical malady that fractures our reflection of the person we think we are, the one who we want to be, and the one who lies and cheats to stay alive, as the other reflections look on.
In an interview with his friend Daisy Alioto for Dirt Rickly recalls:
“I remember when I was really struggling with my own addiction, I told my mom “I don’t even know myself.” And she said, “Oh honey, none of us really know ourselves.” I think that is so true. It’s not that I “know myself” now… it’s just a matter of known unknowns.”
Now this is the part of Herb where I kiss the curator’s ass for all their achievements and their powerful influence on me. But not today. Rickly’s musical gifts are a huge deal to a lot of people, which I won’t cheapen trying to wiki my way through a bio that supposedly includes powerful lyricism, a special voice, and exciting self-harming stage antics (chipped teeth on microphones, broken extremities). I am not one of these people. Rickly has had no influence on me in this department, and not because I dislike his work, it’s because I don’t know it and the tasteworld his bands inhabit well enough to have an opinion. One day I will begin my quest through the Rickly oeuvre and will take all your well-meaning advice. Today is not that day.
Instead, I come to praise Rickly, the taste engine, the curator, the kind person I know, and now the writer. I first met Rickly in Greenpoint in the early ‘10s when he was running his Collect Records label and I was flattered that this guy who I knew was important to many was a Ghostly fan, and was now calmly listening to my ideas about Drip.fm (a previous project) with sincerity. It had been a few years and I was reminded of Rickly’s adroit fandom on the Nine Inch Nails episode of Yasi Salek’s (Herb 16) Bandsplain podcast early last year. Rickly’s ability to move through the NIN catalog with such precision and grace reminded me I needed to reach out and ask him about doing one of these.
Rickly is a great music fan and this Herb is shaping up to be one of my favorites of the year. The Sunday Chet Baker Jazz, the gut-punch riffs of Daughter, the big breaks on Crushed’s “Waterlily”, the 2-song HTRK epic (h/t Jonnine, Herb 30), and the glistening ambient outro, it all works. This is what Herb Sundays is made for.
Naturally one sees themselves or their life in any book they read, a form of relating. Rickly's story and the psychic and chemical quest to redeem himself brought back my own bouts with depression in the 2010s. While I'd been an avid therapy goer since my mid-20s and had already tried all the SSRIs and their compatriots, things seemed to back up, and deeper risks were needed to dislodge my thinking. It also made me think of the city as sort of a set piece you are forced to encounter when trying to play new roles. Or in Herb terms, a Mario Kart track your Ghost is still racing on.
Any city you’ve been in long enough offers a series of other lives, previous and potential, that roar and lap at your heels. It's not so much that it hurts to face these, it's that it shocks you how near all of these are, both geographically and emotionally. My former home of Greenpoint, like Rickly’s, is a grid of meaningful places and feelings and the long walks taken on the industrial borders were probably where Rickly often scored. The city changes and you change, not always in that order.
I love going back to visit a record store, sense the familiarity, and the youth it evokes. Sometimes it finds me at home, like when a brittle white dog hair reveals itself on the surface of my records. Without reducing its severity, Rickly’s addiction is relatable in that it’s something we all harbor, that either is manageable to some degree or that we fail to identify neatly or quickly. It’s also the guilt and regret that follow that thing. Depression isn’t that everything sucks, it’s that everything is nothing. You watch yourself from across the room. Rickly's gauntlet is not just his addiction but also the idea of addiction and the rock star and writerly clichés that abound. He's too smart to accept these tropes as facts, so he has to beat both the addiction and the aesthetic self-consciousness of it all, a contemporary debacle.
The other thing Rickly's story gets right I assume, is that it doesn't set up sobriety as a switch that is flung on, but something you can make a lunge for and hope to hang onto. The lengths that the character goes to are merely a "chance" to change. Following up, and keeping it up, is more than half the battle, which is why Twelve-step programs seem to be so effective, they bind you to the mission, by bonding you to others. But you’re never completely free, you must remain vigilant, as with anything. As Rickly’s protagonist reminds us:
“With all these worlds, all layered on top of each other, maybe the key to crossing between them is to be forever aware of the danger all around us.”