The Graduate

Ceremony's frontman climbs the ladder of higher education.

A man named Scott Eckstein has been kind enough to keep a extensive log of my band Ceremony’s tour history. By his measure, we’ve played close to eight hundred shows since March 5, 2005–undertaken eleven US tours, handfuls of regional gigs, several European attempts and sporadic tours in Mexico, Japan, Australia. We’ve only had to cancel a string of Canadian dates in the early years due to an (my) outstanding warrant, and since survived a 10-year Canadian ban (nothing $3000 won’t fix) and missed one gig in Guadalajara after JD (the bass player) and I missed our flights.

Being in constant transit has done something peculiar to me. All those years spent driving in a van (so much driving) or waiting to get on an airplane has turned me into an anxious person. For the past twelve years, I’ve been so used to entering a new city, having completely new experiences each night, save playing “Kersed,” that the lifestyle I’ve adapted now, academia, has been hard to break in. I fell in love with those rooms we played and the people we met, repeatedly. It seems now that this assimilation for the ephemeral, this wavering uncertainty I’ve adapted, has broken me down.

At thirty-three, I see the grade in my face toughening, my hearing is getting soft. I’ve felt around darker corners, experienced a good portion of life’s cool punishments—what Michael Ryan called, “…the innumerable accidents of birth– / parentage, hometown, all the rest,” which seem to be coming in rapid succession, but it’s harder than ever to simply stay in one place. I feel adrift, only really alive in anticipation of coming attractions, so applying new brakes has been difficult. I’m not just changing a part, I’m changing my nature.

Three and a half ago, I decided to study English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. I was living in Ghosttown, on Martin Luther King, between 32nd and 33rd, a neighborhood in West Oakland known for serious activity. A high murder area, the ghosts of victims were said to inhabit the streets. In years prior, I had lived in similar areas of West Oakland. Once on 11th & Wood, my strongest memory from that times was watching a fire at a squat house across the street from my stoop. A woman with a pit bull chained to her pegleg came waddling up, asking to use my cell phone. The three of us sat and watched the thing burn.

Five days a week, I commuted on my eight-speed Univega up a three-and-a-half-mile incline into campus, which made for an estranged, polar experience. Bicycle wheels going loop loop, I was literally translated (carried across) from where I was robbed at gunpoint near Grocery Outlet, a baguette under my arm as though I were sauntering through Provence, to eating breakfast at the Faculty Club with Vikram Chandra.

After spending so much of my life touring in a band, college was a serious adjustment. I was surrounded by youngsters, me just hitting thirty, and they were all highly intelligent, many of them much more intelligent than your humble narrator. In my last semester, I’d see Joyce Carol Oates, who taught fiction, walking around campus and yell, “Joyce, you’re a legend!” or, “Joyce, where are you going, where have you been?” She’d bat an eye, or sort of laugh, and keep walking. I had encountered this punishing comedic device for most of my adult life going to shows, both in seeing bands and being the band. There was always the heckler: the dipshit whose only errand was to be heard. The poet, Robert Hass, got the same treatment, but was even more confused. Once, I yelled at him in the hallway of Wheeler, where he stood with his bicycle helmet still on after climbing three flights of stairs. I’d become the thing I didn’t care for. No one was paying attention to me anymore, so I acted out.

Hass and I met in his office hours during that last semester to talk about The L-Shaped Man Poems, a collection I wrote to accompany Ceremony’s most recent album, The L-Shaped Man, but not much came of it. In my last semester, I applied to Oates’ workshop, but was denied entry. A few of my exceptionally talented writer friends got in–James Payne, Alistair “The Defender of Mankind” Boone and John Lawson…as well as a few questionable peas, which irked me, so I sent JCO an email:

    Professor Oates,

    Hello, my name is Ross Farrar. I applied to your fiction workshop this coming semester and wanted to know why I didn’t make the cut? Any feedback about the story would be great. Thanks for your time.


JCO’s reply:

    Hello Ross. There were around 145 stories to get through, and I felt yours was a bit too fantastical, and not quite as strong as the others. I wish the best to you in the coming semester.


No big deal, right? A writer must expect rejections as part of the j.o.b. But I felt hosed. I started questioning my worth: What was I going to do after I graduated? Where was I going to live? Was I going to continue with academia, graduate school, a Ph.D—what gave? And: Was Ceremony going to put out another record? Did Matador still want us? Most people cycle through years in seasons, whereas musicians cycle through the conception, writing, and release of a record, and we had no plans to start a new cycle.

I had to think, so I set out for Skates and had a drink, watching little waves break on the bay. I called my mother, as I do when I feel like dying, and she ironed me out, as she does. Money was a real concern. The only way to get around loans (so near loathe) was to get into a funded, highly competitive MFA program. But if I was going to make a hit, why not within the top 50? In the end, I applied to seven poetry programs.

Deep into the long months of waiting for replies, Ceremony undertook a week of shows throughout the west coast of Australia. I’d been rejected by nearly every program, save Oregon and Syracuse. When I stepped off the plane, I checked my phone straightaway, and there stood Oregon’s reply: “We’re sorry to inform you…” I felt like I was in one of those scenes in a movie where a person is trapped in a tiny room where some voiceless, diabolical presence turns the switch on outside and the water quickly rises. I knew Ceremony could always play shows, but this wasn’t a life-sustaining career, especially with the partying and bodily damage which was bound to ensue.

We took a long, steep descent into Wollongong, where I became increasingly dehydrated from all the boozing and a mix of over-the-counter codeine and pingaz (an Australian party drug) and crying (bummer love), and the rest of the trip pretty much went the same. When in the throes of such pain, one can’t help think about a futureless existence. At that point, I believed my shot at higher education was gone and that I’d have to find something else (god knew what) and I’d be back in Ghosttown in a matter of days, still dressed in summer clothes.

Coming home was a real bedlam scene. I caught a Greyhound to Los Angeles to try and bridge the gulf in my romantic relationship, but only widened it. On April 12, my heart snapped, so I took a red-eye bus back to Oakland, arrived at six am, slept for an hour, and woke to a missed call from a “315” number. I’d been in such emotional turmoil that I had forgotten the 12th was when I was to hear back from Syracuse. I called back immediately and through my dream-confusion came the voice of my savior: Hello, Ross, this is Brooks Haxton at Syracuse University. We’d like to make you an offer for this coming year’s MFA candidacy….

So I did the Molly Bloom, “…and yes I said yes I will yes.” The heat of the summer swelled. I graduated from Berkeley, and the party continued. Ceremony undertook another string of shows throughout the West Coast and into the south, ending in none other than Vegas. I was set to fly to Syracuse after we finished the gig that night. The weather was pink and orange, heat within the mid-70s, in a district of the city known for the arts and a funky liquor store down the way that felt like something out of Endless Summer. Before we played, Jake and I sat on the bumper of the van and listened to Lou Reed’s “Temporary Thing,” as in “it’s just a…” Adieu, adieu.

The transition from California to Upstate New York proved stark, especially in terrain and color: from flat concrete to hilly, green everything. Everyone has a lawn and they must be maintained in the summer. Everyone has a driveway that needs snow to be shoveled in the terribly cold winters. Each day, I pass the Westcott Community Center where Ceremony played on August 21, 2008 with Another Breathe, End of a Year, Knuckle Dragger, and Like Wolves. I strongly remember crossing the street to head into Grabby’s Mini Mart for a beer, not thinking I’d ever live two minutes away. One block from my house is a little shanty where David Foster Wallace spent a year on Infinite Jest. Lou Reed’s old apartment is a few blocks up. Mary Karr used to have Delmore Schwartz’s desk, and all of the faculty personally mourned the loss of Denis Johnson. I still walk by the community center most days. I still purchase the same Genesee lager for ninety-two cents (a dollar, plus tax) from Grabby’s.

Mary Karr told a story about George Saunders in our forms class the other day. They were outside (maybe in a jungle) and George had a beetle crawling up his shirtsleeve. Mary screamed out, “George! You have a giant bug on you!”

He replied, “Well, it’s gotta be somewhere.” It’s been so surreal to occupy rooms with the people I grew up reading, hearing stories of their friends and loved ones, whom I also looked up to. It seems unfair, or as if I don’t deserve it, but I did what I could to get here, I suppose.

I’m in my second year now, and things are heating up. Each cohort is working towards a thesis, looking to the next idea, but we’re here now, punks today. From my thesis, I’m dishing from a body of work that addresses the self directly: issues of identity, performance, self-naming, etc. In the title poem, I address a certain paradise—Ross’s paradise—but not in the way one would expect: “& God willing, my ‘ultimate reality’ was a paradise where I’d never / have to love myself, crumbling under one roof.” My relationship with said paradise is complicated. I’ve never understood this idea of loving-thyself. I’m constantly with Ross, which honestly makes me sick and tired of Ross most days. When you scramble the eggs every morning, when you wear the same tired old sneakers, your heart begins to wear, too. Escape is what I want most sometimes. My escape was playing in Ceremony. Each time the music started was like blackout—I couldn’t tell you what happened from beginning to end on any given date. Like dreams, there may be pieces, flashing, but the forward motion will never relent–bursts of light–so much sound.

Regardless of who you are, you want something, then you want the opposite. You purchase the ten-dollar green drink in the morning then the fifteen-dollar cocktail at night. You sign up for a month of yoga and an indefinite amount of Netflix. You want to be touched, then alone–oh no.

Faced with the question of what’s most important to me, I look to hold onto less. I don’t know what’s ahead for Ceremony. I’d like to keep playing, write more music, share it with everyone (the great pleasure of making art), but it’s not just my choice. There are four other people in the band, each doing different things and trying to figure out what to be. We’ll be playing a string of East Coast shows with Nothing towards the end of December, with two consecutive nights at Saint Vitus for the finale and one benefit show in Petaluma, California for Northern California Fire Relief, but that might be it for a while. Otherwise, I’ll continue to submit to journals, work towards greater publications, and hope the world’s jaw slackens a bit.

Ross Farrar is the lead vocalist of Ceremony, a rock ‘n roll band from Rohnert Park, California. He currently lives in Syracuse, NY. where he is pursing an MFA in poetry at Syracuse University.