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Crossing the US for Music in 2013

United States Travel
by Jessica Novak Jan 3, 2013
On finding home, leaving home, and living for music.

I’m not from Syracuse. I was born and raised just a few hours south in rural northern New Jersey — where there’s less snow, less action, and more attitude. New Jersey was home, and undergrad at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was just a temporary stop in my wanderlust life. But it was Syracuse where I finally understood, as an adult, what it means to feel home.

I went to graduate school at Syracuse University in 2009 and completed a one-year arts journalism program with a concentration in popular music. I fell in love with the city as I worked at a bar downtown where I could escape the bubble of university life and get to know all the people of this blue-collar snowy city. They took me in as their own and showed me the world off of the hill that the college kids were missing — a world of music.

In less than a year after graduation, I scored my dream job: Music Editor of the Syracuse New Times, one of the oldest alternative weekly papers in the country.

The job was made for me.

Or perhaps, I made it for me.

There weren’t many rules, expectations, or even guidelines in place for the position. The paper, though it had primarily been a music rag for many years, had lost its touch when management neglected to fill the position after years of failed editors and tight budgets. It had been several years between the last and myself and he had left on sour terms. The music community had shunned the paper, feeling dejected by a publication that was supposed to support and cover the scene in a way the daily paper can’t, with more attitude, depth, and color — necessary components to any great music story.

I stepped in only vaguely aware of any of this. I didn’t know the history. I didn’t understand the pride of the community I’d be covering. I had heard stories of shows, venues, people, places, bands, and legends, but I had no concept of the intensity of the situation I was jumping into. All I knew was I went to graduate school with the ultimate goal of writing about music. And here I was — handed a position where I would get to write about music. The rest was just details I’d figure out along the way.

It didn’t take long for me to make waves.

My first story as music editor was about a Roosevelt Dean tribute show, in honor of the bluesman (Dean) who had passed away from cancer two years earlier. The third day on the job, I had a big burly bassist, Jim, crying in the interview — not because I made him. But because he could. Because he felt comfortable enough to let his guard down, to open up and to be real.

That became a theme of my employment.

The entire community opened up to me. Welcomed me. Slowly took me in and started reading and responding again. I had freelanced for the paper in the past and knew a few bands through those stories I had written, and they were the first to jump and shout their excitement. I took the advice of my editor and started reaching out to the movers and shakers in the scene. Colin Aberdeen, singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the best band in Syracuse, Los Blancos; Scott Sterling, music booker at infamous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que; Scott Dixon, music booker of the legendary Lost Horizon — I made the rounds. And people noticed.

I was embraced by the music community in a way that still amazes me as I sit back now. I was confirmed when I was included in a performance where local musicians recreated Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz (documenting the farewell concert of The Band). I wasn’t just given a ticket to review the show — I was asked to perform in it, as violinist on “Evangeline.” I hardly felt qualified to stand beside the musicians on stage who have been playing for longer than I’ve been alive, but the thought behind it, the symbolism of being taken in by that community, was a testament to what had been accomplished.

I had broken through a wall very characteristic of these tough Northern towns. Musicians weren’t trying to butter me up and venue owners weren’t trying to lure me with free tickets and VIP benefits. I had gained a mutual respect. I had been granted inclusion into the community, not just access to cover it. There’s love here — and it’s irreplaceable and unable to be duplicated. It’s unique.

Part of that stems from the nature of the Syracuse music scene. It’s rich, especially with the blues, but also varied. Hard core, bluegrass, jam bands, hip-hop, rock, and jazz all have their places here, and the musicians making the sounds have a stake in the community. I’ve seen Nashville, Austin, LA and understand the transplant mentality. Those music scenes are rich with talent that has come to reap the benefits, use the city to their advantage. Syracuse has been built up by musicians, venue owners, and bookers who carry the legacies of this place on their backs. Who put in the time and effort because they care. It’s out of love. It’s a place that holds talent and character on equal planes. The scene has its segmented pieces, but they all fit. Everyone has their place and everyone in the scene knows the etiquette.

I’m now a fixture, a piece, in that scene, and the whole community has reacted to the news of my going away. I’ll hit the road for three months on a journey that’s open to spontaneity — a trip across the country with only a few set destinations with a friend most call Boonville, and his dog, Bob Barker (seriously). We’ll do our best to see it all — from New York to California, to Colorado to Louisiana, and all the music in between. I’ve got the time, and I’ve got the means (more like the ability to take on debt), and I’ve got no handcuffs to hold me here other than the chains manifested by my own heart. I go with the intention of coming back and bringing new eyes with me. Like Steinbeck famously recognized — we’re all trying to get away from ‘Here’ and once plagued by the disease of endless wandering curiosity — always plagued. I’m a victim.

For the community, they’ve watched me grow and learn over these past two years with parental eyes, and helped me along. They’ve been reinvigorated to know that someone, with an outsider mind, could come in and appreciate what’s growing and breathing here in Syracuse. I’ve felt the arms of so many around me, gripping tight, because they don’t want me to leave, but also building me up — offering support and encouragement for the roads ahead. They are all curious to see what and who I’ll find.

As the departure date approaches, the fearless smile I’ve been wearing for the past few weeks has melted slightly — the unwanted result of reality settling in. What am I giving up as I leave? What will it be like when I return? Will I be forgotten? Will it be the same? Worse? Or better? Have I cut the work I’ve started here — the mission to change and brighten this gray place — short? Or have I given myself the opportunity to amplify it? Will people love me, in three months, as they do now? Will I want that love? And by the way, how the hell am I going to survive three months living out of a car with limited finances? Details.

I’ll miss people recognizing me and knowing my name. I’ll miss the smiles and warm emails and phone calls from bands and interview subjects after they get their moment in the spotlight. I’ll miss having control of the music section of the paper — where I had the power to decide who is worthy of a story, a cover, of the attention. I’ll miss late nights on weekdays where I’m out having a beer with Devon Allman or staying too long catching my favorite local band. I’ll actually miss being hungover at work. Now there’s something I never thought I’d say.

Most of all, I’ll miss the hugs, the sincere thank yours, the look in the musicians’ eyes when they see me out at their show because I want to be there. I’ll miss the pride and gratitude in their eyes. I’ll miss giving that gift — not just another in the crowd, but someone who can help them spread their gifts a little further. Someone who wants to help them.

I was always told to move to New York City by teachers, advisors, my role models, my parents, because I was “too big” for Syracuse. I don’t believe that’s true. I’m curious to see how this journey will prove or disprove that. I won’t just have my ears perked for exceptional music, I’ll have my sixth sense reeling to get a feel of the atmosphere, the character, the people, the camaraderie of every place I step foot. I’ll see a lot of the United States over the next three months. I’ll learn a tremendous amount about the country, its people, and about myself. I wonder how it will change my eyes, like a new pair of glasses, allowing me to see my home with refreshed perspective.

Regardless of where I go, I’ve got my heart planted in a place with a music community that will be difficult to rival. But curiosity, as usual, has gotten the best of me. I think it’s that curiosity that is the most critical component of a writer — the hunger to keep learning, seeing, knowing. I hope my own insatiable curiosity fuels this journey by helping me keep my eyes and mind open a little wider.

I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of the world in my little life, and I’ve come to recognize that the more one sees, the more one wants to see. As T.S. Eliot said: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Here’s to new people, places, and adventures — to rock n’ roll, rock n’ road, and to going away, just to come back home.

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