We could start with the monastery. "Chicks dig it," Larry Gallagher insists. "Chicks just go crazy for monks."
The slaughterhouse is another option. "It's disgusting, but you get used to it," Larry says. "You just get numb after awhile, and you just expect to see heads, you know ..." He trails off.
McDonald's? Should we start with McDonald's?
"I was stoned one time up in Kodiak, Alaska, in a McDonald's," Larry recalls. "I was just sitting there stoned and thinking, 'Oh my God, what if I had to work at McDonald's? What would that experience be like?' It was so existentially horrifying, the idea of donning a stupid uniform."
This gave Larry the idea for a Details magazine article. Which led to a successful journalism career. Which led ("When I finished my contact with Details, and my contract with my girlfriend") to a Buddhist Zen monastery in Southern California. Which led to another girlfriend who drew up a contract so strong she lured Larry out of sexy monkhood and up to the Bay Area, where Larry makes his living via carpentry when he's not promoting An Endless Chain of Accidents, one of the greatest CDs of 2003, period, and certainly the best one you've never heard, or heard of, or probably both.
Behold Larry on the cover, dressed in a full-blown stupid McDonald's uniform, jaunty hat sliding off his head, with a cheeseburger in his hands and a barely concealed look of animalistic rage on his face.
The key track on Accidents, "Wimpy White Guys with Guitars," ruined my life.
And now, Larry and I sit in Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on an idle Monday night, where I succeed in ruining his.
That's where we'll start.
"Wimpy white guys with guitars/Choking up the coffee houses/Bringing down the bars/Restless as the ocean/Countless as the stars/Wimpy white guys with guitars."
That's the chorus, chirpily delivered by two wimpy white guys with guitars, Larry in the lead. The tune is both hilarious and unbelievably horrifying, describing a world overrun by ultra-amateur folk singers -- earnest dudes who compose earnestly awkward odes to ex-girlfriends, current girlfriends, dream girlfriends. Same chords, same wobbly voices, same rhymes (hole/soul, heart/apart, pants/dance).
The joke -- and the horrifying part -- lies in the knowledge that Larry is guilty too, and so are you, white boy. When you compose an achingly beautiful ode to your high school sweetheart on the eve of her wedding to your high school jock shithead archenemy, you're transforming a very personal, very painful experience into a song thrown on the pile of eight billion wimpy white-guy songs just like it. Only the names and details change. The unmitigating sheen of Suck remains.
That realization has ruined my life.
"What you feel is really real," Larry says. "The hard thing is really capturing it. It's like the Chinese menu: They take a picture of a plate of food that was really good sitting there at the table, but when you put the picture on the menu, it looks disgusting. So how do you take a thing that really is real, and put it into a song and still have that energy? The feelings of the least articulate people are just as deep in a sense and real as the feelings of the most articulate people. We kind of fetishize the feelings of the articulate people somewhat: We think that their pain is more beautiful, or this or that, but I don't know. It's just that some people can speak about it."
Some people can; everyone tries. Which is why we made plans to meet at the Freight & Salvage. The concept: Make Larry play an open mic among the fellow songwriters he playfully mocks. He agreed, on one condition: I had to play a wimpy-white-guy song too.
I took the bait.
"Democracy is scary," Larry notes. "When you have an open mic and you say, 'Hey, c'mon up and play your song,' you really open it up. It's like, 'Oh, man.'"
Oh, man, this could really be a disaster.
Larry Gallagher grew up in New York State, where he picked up sax, and then guitar. Somehow he lucked into an internship at Harper's, which led to a gig at Esquire, which led to the infamous Details series.
Concept: He spends about a month working at random jobs and chronicling his experiences. First came McDonald's. Then the slaughterhouse in Indiana, where he worked on a carcass conveyor belt, separating the small intestine from the colon and the stomach. He studied yoga in India and manned an Alaskan fishing boat.
And finally, the Zen monastery. First he spent a month writing about it. Then he returned and spent three years living it.
So with all those hours to meditate, what do you think about? "You hear all the shitty, crazy noise that's in your mind all the time that you don't want to listen to," Larry says. "I burned out on it before I got a chance to break through. But at least for a while, it was the most stunning, beautiful, powerful -- physically and psychologically -- experience I ever had in my life."
Then he met a woman.
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