Real World wants me to write a note or paragraph about its significance to me but the truth is, I could write a book on it. At least the start of a book, because in many ways the life I’ve lived for going on twenty years started there. I have magical (and I’m not using that word lightly) memories of it. Also some heartbreaking (also not used lightly) ones. The heartbreaking ones are not specifically about Real World as much as just my dreaded experience of the music business. So let’s start with the magical ones, or some of them.
I met Joe Strummer there. In hindsight, he was like a rock & roll angel.
That’s advice I haven’t always followed, advice I’m still trying to live up to. This was in the mid-nineties and I was 25 and really green, fresh-off-the-boat green. A nerd. I smoked my first spliff with him there. I didn’t understand the concept of hash sprinkled on tobacco. Where I’m from (America), we smoke pure weed. Take a toke and pass it. He rolled this huge thing that I had no idea what it was and didn’t have the gumption to ask but after he (I thought rudely, at the time) hit it way more than the one time he passed it to me. I smoked it without hesitation, emulating the number of tokes he took and got virtually no buzz from it. It was more of a communal cigarette than the deeply psychedelic smoke excursions we participated in in Ohio. Pure weed is better, but I digress.
Hell, even Johnny Depp was there with Kate Moss…
I remember hanging out on the lawn in the sun right outside the studio, taking it all in and doing my best to act like I belonged there when Peter came up to me and said, “Me and Karl are working on a track upstairs and would like you to help us out on it.”… I said nervously, “Sure, you want me to play bass?” (In my mind, I was a bass player, at that time only having been singing and writing songs for a few short years.) He said, “No, I was thinking you could write lyrics and sing.”… And this in a nutshell explains the magic of Real World and Peter Gabriel for me. He saw something in me before I saw it in myself. If Joe was rock & roll angel, Peter was like a rock & roll father. He more than gave me my start; he gave me my confidence. He believed in me when no one else did and the world he brought me into was in fact real, tho at the time it seemed like it was anything but.
The funny thing about enthusiasm and belief is that they spread.
The first producer I worked with at Real World was John Leckie. This was after Recording Week, after everyone had left. I stayed because really that week changed me. I didn’t really belong anywhere else anymore. Secret doors had opened and I found myself born into unbelievable rooms, namely a room where my art and my music was being taken seriously by serious people. The funny thing about enthusiasm and belief is that they spread. And tho belief is never really total because in this world, what can we really be sure of? But it’s amazing how fast someone else’s belief can grow in you, especially if that person is a living legend.
Also, the laws of the jungle kick in. I wasn’t exaggerating the dire existence I had before this moment and I also was exaggerating it’s life-threatening effect. So not only was this a musical dream come true, a dream I had never dreamed, it was my ticket to a better life. And it’s not as tho I started with no belief. I thought I was good, but just not that good. Or more accurately, deep down I knew I belonged, but I was young and deeply insecure, like most of us are when we are young. So anyway, the week after Recording Week, my belief had grown exponentially and my act of faking like I belonged was becoming more believable, even to me. Others take you seriously and you start taking yourself that way until you actually become something worthy of that attention. Real World helped me grow from minute one and on many different levels. With growth comes growing pains and people there, including Peter, had to accept the swings of my damaged personality and accept them they miraculously did. Not that I was all bad. I could tell I was somehow breathing more light into the place, if for no other reason than their own good karma for helping a potentially talented kid in need. And I’m good for a laugh, at the very least.
One day I asked John if he even felt the effects when he smoked these things. He nodded affirmatively with a smile and I said impatiently, “Well, I don’t. Let’s go down to the kitchen; I have an idea.”.
So we took a break from this “Papa” song and went down there. It was night and we were in the kitchen alone.
I took a pan and a half-stick of butter and lit the flame on the stove until the butter began to bubble. Adjusting the flame to low, I put the rest of my hash in the butter and watched as it melted into a brown goo. The whole kitchen smelled like a Bob Marley fairytale (my audacity astounds me but hey, I was young).
I proceeded to take a piece of bread and rip it in two, lathering on a healthy heap of said brown goo onto each piece, handing John one and without hesitation, we both inhaled my awful creation. Returning to work on the track upstairs, it wasn’t long before things got weird. A ghost flew by. A voice scattered into moths in my brain. The song was stunning and moving and we turned it up loud and speakers both burst into flames. Neither of us moved. The fire wasn’t real but it burned bright and soon I said to John, “I think I need to go to bed.” I overshot the need to get stoned.
Fully hallucinating, I closed my eyes in one those great rooms they have there and the next time I opened them, it was 6 PM the following evening. I shot up out of my bed and darted to the studio, still with the minimum-wage mentality that I might have lost my job due to extreme lateness (our normal start time was noon). When I got there, John was there and I began apologizing profusely until he stopped me, saying he just got here himself and we began to laugh and laugh a lot.
After a few days, my session with John and Ben was over. The label wanted to review the tracks and see if we should keep going with John as producer. I still had nowhere to really be and Real World was introduced to me as a kind of utopian village. It’s hard to believe, but in some way I kind of assumed I could just keep staying there. I don’t really know what was going thru my head, but it wasn’t until the studio manager Owen or someone else told me that I couldn’t actually stay there, reminding me that it was, in fact, a commercial institution that I finally left but I didn’t go back to New York or Atlanta. From there, I went to a new friend’s place in South London. I had just met this friend, Graham, the week before. Graham had crashed the Real World Recording Week, piggy-backing off of the Glastonbury Festival as Joe Strummer had. Some people from that festival had heard about what was happening at Real World and made it their destination after the festival, to keep the festival spirit growing and going, to bring it with them.
Graham and I were fast friends. I had followed a cute girl into the studio. She asked me to play on something and then suddenly there was Graham and he was an instant brother, instant best friend. We remain close to this day and have gone on countless tours together.
When Real World told me firmly but nicely that I had to go, Graham was my first call…. “Come stay with us,” he said… “We have a couch with your name on it.” I jumped at the chance. He even picked me up at the train station. I was lost in London but that’s where the adventure of my adult life really began.