To Feel Alive. Music is the Essence Rare.

The former Trip Shakespeare frontman reflects on his lifelong love of music.

There have been times in my life when I have felt dead inside. Not just numb, but more like incapable of living, like a robot, or a mechanical part in a larger machine whose purpose I didn’t even know.

When I was a kid, I blamed that feeling on the suburbs. I would lie around in my basement bedroom thinking that my life was pre-programmed. To me, a suburban street with its houses arranged in a row was just a storage shelf. It was a place where adults of my parents’ age could place themselves and bide their time as they waited to pass. And I suspected that I was heading on that same trajectory, fated to work some drab job and then return to a street like this for the final phase.

When I was 16 I worked at a restaurant near my house called Sambo’s. It was like a nightmare version of Denny’s. I called myself “Sambotron 9.” I called my coworkers “waitrons.” Waitresses rolled their eyes at me. But I knew I couldn’t be the only kid feeling this way, like an expendable part. When the band Devo came along I felt like they were singing directly to me. Yes, I am that drone. I am that robot boy.

When you think about it, one of the most powerful stories ever is that core plot of Pinnochio. I’m not talking about the messed up aspects of the movie — the nightmare warnings about turning into a donkey, or your nose growing if you don’t behave. I’m talking about the raw power of Pinnochio’s main dilemma. He was a mechanical child and he wanted to be real. He wanted to live, to really and truly be alive. 

As I wandered through my adolescence a separate thread began to develop in my world. It was music. Like everyone else, I’d grown up immersed in the sound of the Beatles. So when it came time to pick an instrument for the elementary school wind band I went with only Beatles instrument available. I became a drummer, and drumming became my path to life.

On this planet decent drummers are always in short supply. And if you can play a little bit, bands will draw you in. By the time I was 20 I’d been drumming in bars for years and I had seen a lot of groups. To be honest, most of them were terrible. And speaking of the things that make me feel dead inside, there’s almost nothing more powerfully demoralizing than a loud, brightly-illuminated not-very-good band pouring itself into your head. The crushing power of bad music would be a great subject for some future article. But what I want to talk about right now is the power of good music to make you know what it is to live.

You never know who’s going to be in attendance when sacred things happen to you. It won’t always be your mom, or your priest, or your future wife. Like I said, I had seen a lot of bands by the time I was 20. I had watched them, fascinated, like a teen scientist. But until that point I had never watched them while drinking beer. One night when I was 20, beer opened the door for me. On the other side of the door I didn’t find a teacher or an angel. I found a bar band called the Del Fuegos and they took me to the top. Being drunk, watching this hilarious band, rocking out made me feel totally alive. I was yelling and dancing. That was when I knew I had to be a musician forever. I wanted to be a part of that moment over and over. I wanted to do that for people.

Of course the power of music to take us to the highest height is just inexplicable. Why does it work? No one knows. But to me what makes it doubly weird — and even more impossible to understand — is the way music can channel almost any emotion as a roadway to this same place of joy. 

So when a metal band rocks out in some ridiculous over the top way, like in this video of “Rainbow in the Dark” by Dio, it’s fucking comical, and I have to laugh. But the feeling it gives me is just beyond. And then an amazing performance like “Maybe” by the Chantels makes me so deeply sad. And that feels equally wonderful. How can that be possible? And when Whitney Houston tells me she will always love me, that’s such a beautiful thing for her to say. And it makes sense that it feels fantastic to hear that from her. But then when Levi Stubbs is explaining how sad he is about his losses, it’s just a heartbreaking tragedy. And for some weird reason that feels equally great. 

It’s all so contradictory. It seems like we just want to feel something. Almost anything. And we want to feel it to the full, heart-wrenching extent. I can’t begin to understand it. All I know is that it’s wonderful to feel anything so deeply that you just know you’re alive. Because to feel alive, that is the essence rare. 

(Photo Credit: Paul Irmiter)

It’s been 22 years since the last solo release by Trip Shakespeare founder Matt Wilson. His fearless falsetto and emotive songwriting made him a strong driving force for that legendary Minneapolis band-but the group he currently fronts, Matt Wilson & His Orchestra, trades Trip’s psychedelia for a variety of strings (especially harp), some handheld percussion, and a lot more introspection. It might actually be the perfect album for the current cocooned state of American life: cozy, soothing, and extremely internal.

(Photo Credit: Paul Irmiter)