Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Swan Lake) Talks Playing a Private Show for a Dying Fan

On moving past discomfort with the idea of fandom.

This is a bit of writing on a concert I played, in my basement, a few years back, for a fan and his two sons.

This is a bit of writing on the idea of fans, and why many musicians are uncomfortable with the topic.

This is a bit of writing on the death of a fan.


A few years ago I received, via email, a request for a concert: would I consider driving over the Cascade Mountains, through the Snake River Canyon, and into a small city in northern Idaho, setting up with my band in a private home and playing a short concert for a family? The premise was special, or out of the ordinary: someone was sick, mortally ill, at what seemed like the end, or close to it, and the man in question was a fan of my band, and he had never, not once in his life, seen us play.

The request was accompanied by a generous offer of money.

Flattered and overwhelmed by a flood of sincere emotion, of gratitude at even being asked, at being considered “important” in relation to the end of a life, I declined for practical reasons: I had no band at the time. And I cannot operate a vehicle. And I was working full-time. Also: it sounded intense. A part of me did not want to deal with some other grief, especially as I was still swallowing the granite cluster of my father’s passing.

But I couldn’t shake a deep sense of the hand of God in all of this. I have no proof whatsoever that the hand of God was somehow pushing me to play this concert; I do not even really believe in God, to be honest, not the God who sends all sorts of kind, un-hurtful people to some fiery netherworld for never swearing fealty. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was cosmologically important, in a small but precise sense, and I butted up hard against an unshakeable thought: I could offer a little something to someone to ease a passing. And this would be easy to do: outside of the transport, all I really had to do was plug in my guitar and sing 10 songs.

I was also worried that if I said no, a flat NO, a straight-up “no thanks,” I would receive some kind of cosmic punishment.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the man in question, the man who had the cancer in his stomach, was not young, nor even middle-aged: he was old! Almost 60 — he was almost 60. I had that feeling that I was teetering, stumbling around on the floating plane of a grief-parallel.

So I proposed a counteroffer: I offered to host the man and his sons, and bring them down into my basement studio, where all my books are, a comfortable environment, and I could play for them. They could order pizza and that would be renumeration enough. And they could even sleep at our house. And I would play for free!

I was kind of proud of myself, I guess, for it is my intuition that many of my peers would not have invited strangers into their home and played for them for free. “See,” I thought to myself, “you haven’t turned into such a horrible person.”

In retrospect, I was looking for a salve for my own pain. There are many selfless acts in the world; this was not one of them.


The guys showed up. Two sons and their dad. They were a little nervous, but endearingly so. We ate some pizza, the boys had a few glasses of wine. So did the dad. It was suitably glum and miserable outside. The fireplace in my living room crackled. We talked about ourselves. We didn’t really talk about the cancer in his stomach. I talked a bit about the cancer in my departed dad. The fire crackled again, and then again, and again-again.

Then it was time to go downstairs and play for the three of them and Melanie, my wife. I set up by the window and they sat by the door. I ran my vocals through a delay pedal, and occasionally I stepped on its activation button, widening and expanding the sound, pushing it out of the small and tight confines of my basement.

I was glad to sing and strum. Melanie enjoyed it too. I believe she remarked that she was reminded that night that I am a singer of considerable power, that I have a talent for conveying and crystallizing, through song, very specific feelings in the listener.

I was happy to hear that I was able to remind her of that!

I am paraphrasing her words.

The dad rocked back and forth. He held his wine in happiness. I played “Claxxon’s Lament,” a song that, due to my detestable habit of connecting all the extramusical events in my life to my music, is now a bit intertwined with my old man’s passing. Perhaps I include these side-stories because I want you all to know that, within all of that knotty nonsense, there is something going on, some real reflection or record of my life.

Before I started, I looked at the boys, who were a few glasses in at this point, huddled around their old man, and I said something about the cosmos, or love, or the way that love and memory can reside together in a son’s or daughter’s heart. It didn’t come out so smooth. I talked about time, the gift of time: some are born without parents; some know their parents as vague outlines, blurry trees seen through an amber glass; some can recall only their parents’ voices; some knew them for 10 years, some for 15; some knew them well, for many years, only to lose them to a ditch or an icy patch or the carelessness of another driver; some knew them well, only to lose them to suicide. So a mortal diagnosis comes with its own blessings, I explained, for it allows us focused, meaning-charged time in which we are able to say goodbye.

I think there were a few tears.

After the music we sat around the fireplace for another hour. I talked about my desire to flee music, that it was a kind of poisonous addiction to its practitioners, that the economics of it all was such a drag and a drain, and the sense that in keepin’ on I might be doing a disservice to my own collection of songs, an idea, now discarded, that had gripped me for a while: that every time you repeat yourself — and repeat yourself you must — you turn the original into the facsimile. I am not so self-aware that I realized that I was complaining about little things, that I was whining about petty trivialities to a man who was swimming in the last months of his life. But now that I am writing this I feel unbearably ashamed at my solipsistic monologue.

Still: it all came spewing out.

The man, the fan, the one who has now left the world, as you likely guessed from the title of this piece, looked at me with an expression of anger.

“But you cannot quit.”

“You must go on for your fans,” he said.

That word: “fan.” That word makes me so uncomfortable. I wonder about my generation of musicians; we seem unable to accept a simple compliment. I’d rather have someone lob a pint glass at my face then be complimented on my work. I don’t know why. There are reasons.

We don’t want to turn into assholes is one of them.

But why are we so uncomfortable with fans if we are, by nature of our chosen profession or pastime, fans ourselves? The very idea that one could become a musician without first being deeply struck, being branded, altered, by another’s work: impossible. Psychotic.

Like the other night. Just two nights ago, I went to see Jennifer Castle play a concert. I went with a few fellow fans; two of them knew her. They introduced me, only because I was just standing there, not because I am important, and I politely shook her hand. I didn’t tell her how I really was a fan, or that her 2014 record Pink City is one of the best records of the past few years. I didn’t want to bother her or gush, I thought.

There were 50 people at her concert. It was a phenomenal performance, a confluence of will, talent, craft and something else. There was hate, even. She sang as if she could see the concentrated orb-tumor of all that plagues us, as if the walls of the performance space were translucent shower curtains and she was looking and singing straight into the tumorous sun of all that poisons us, and she was like, all defiantly, “I’m going to brace myself, and dig in, and sing this dark tumor into nonexistence, for I hate it.”

Of course, it did not work!

But we were still rattled and euphoric, the 50 of us who bore witness!

But only 50: and she still gave us such a concert!

I am worried now that she might have not been acutely aware of the point of it all, and that the sheer POINTLESSNESS of playing to 50 people might have tinted her own memory of her performance, and I curse myself now for not approaching her after the concert and expressing some embryonic version of these words here. I mean, if all 50 of us had expressed to her what we were surely feeling, beyond the near-meaningless patter of handclaps, then even the most cynical appraisal must have come up positive. When weighed against the flying from Toronto, the cost and the drudgery, the time spent away from home, all of the soul-sucking inconvenience, it is surely worth it to make an impact on 50 human beings!

So the hope in writing this is to encourage musicians to allow ourselves to express our fandom, to emerge from that veneer that seals in our admiration for fear of seeming like ordinary people and not singular, marked geniuses. I am writing this for a website that is ostensibly “criticism” but that, in practice, could probably be better divided up into “fans ’n haters”: I’m not an expert, not a critic, but both a fan and a straight-up hater of crappy music. That’s the demarcation point: a critic shouldn’t hate, nor should they coronate.


Dont hate

You can have that.

I have played many concerts to 50 people; it’s not my favourite number. I think thrice 50 works for me, economically speaking. But if 50 people come out, I am going to try and dig in and sing hate back towards that tumorous and demonic hate-sun on the horizon. And there will be claps, hopefully.

And if one fan, even one, dies from stomach cancer, I will be sad, because the absence of a coronation means simply that I am acutely aware of how many people like my music, and 50 turns to 49. And I am attracted to people who are attracted to my music; how could I not be?

So Brian, the fan, started talking about music and meaning and how music has meaning to people and that this is a great service and so on, but I just tuned him out because I don’t want to turn into an asshole. I am afraid of compliments, afraid of the corrupting potential of fans. But now that I am writing this, I also don’t really see what the big deal is — it’s not Lucifer urging Christ to jump, it won’t alter my DNA to accept that some people might like my music, and isn’t this also what I want? Do I not want to offer up something that at least suggests some shape of meaning in the slop of our lives? Don’t I want to create a brace or a bridge over the days of banality, to make something that might allow some vantage point, some temporary firm ground to help make sense of the muck? I mean, isn’t that what so much of the other music provides for me, some feeling of rising up, escaping that culture, that death-culture? And the only reason I hate the idea of pop music is that it celebrates the death-culture, the drowning in muck; a willful celebration of our demise, the sense that we would rather sink than give up even a little comfort. It deifies comfort, and it’s all so clichéd but also laid out right before us, an endless swamp, and we keep trudging on, up to our tits now. And occasionally I feel like I’m plucked out of it all because my eyes are closed and I’m not thinking about capitalism or colonialism or how I can’t live here anymore or how my own culture is a sham, that there is no alternative, that I am complicit, a bit player, sure, but a player nonetheless, and the more you think about the space you step in, the less space you have to step (see a book called The Transformation by Juliana Spahr). But not to know or to pretend not to know, it’s even worse, and my eyes are closed and I’m in the middle of an equilateral triangle of sound and there is singing and saxophone and wild, slashing electric guitar and electronic squiggle, and I am swaying and now floating and I believe that music does have some power over that tumorous and hateful orb.

And then, to return to this essay, the fan who has now died finished speaking, and I thought, “Yes, I must think about what my music means to people someday. I must accept it. It’s not such a big deal, it’s not a road to a chair placing my right ear next to Satan’s ego’s whisper, surely not. And this man is wise, full of wisdom. It’s something that comes to us at the end, I think; even the unwise get a smattering of it. And my God, he cared enough to drive from fucking Idaho to hear me sing, and for that I must thank him.” And thank him I did. And thank him I again do now, the fan that died, for pulling me back, because at times, often, our own fealty to our work is not enough. We need to be pulled back, to not flee, we need the kind and caring words of our fans to keep us from fleeing our practices.

And in the morning we woke up and they were gone. And they left 200 American dollars, going against my stated desire to receive no money, and a note that chastised me for even thinking of fleeing from music. At least I think the fan, the boys’ father, Brian, left a note, but like everything in this house, it got recycled and I can’t be sure that it ever actually existed in the first place.

Carey Mercer is a member of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake and Blackout Beach. You can follow him on Twitter here.