Monday, January 14th, 2008
A musical suite was once composed for me. Only a handful of people are aware of its existence, and I’ve never played it for anyone I know. It strikes me as egotistical to mention it, let alone sit someone down and bid them, “Listen to my symphonic tribute!” Besides, it’s too painfully personal and evocative of the only relationship in my life in which a heart other than my own was broken—casting me firmly in that other, less sympathetic role.
I met Jay McHale in 1987, when I was 20 and working in my first career as a buyer for a retail music store. He was a sales representative for an independent distributor in Minneapolis.
Of the many sales reps I spoke with in those days, Jay was easily the worst at his job, with the actual selling of product taking a backseat to the joy he took in describing it. Where salespeople from other distributors might tag a performer as “Scottish folk rock,” Jay might liken the artist to a cross between Silly Wizard and the Triffids, with a short stack of pancakes on the side and a long weekend ahead—and if you happened to be unfamiliar with any of the bands he made reference to, no matter, he would in turn gleefully relate their capsule history, career highlights, and must-have albums—and because his enthusiasm was 100% infectious and 0% pretentious, one was never made to feel ignorant for having to ask.
Our “sales” calls grew increasingly longer and more frequent, and inevitably we began to swap personal information. It turned out he was 29, older than me by a decade—at a time in life when a 10-year age difference seemed significant. He was born in Racine, Wis., and had a degree in religion from the College of St. Thomas. He told me he had seriously considered the priesthood but never felt genuinely called to service. He was bonkers for the Twins, the Brewers, and baseball in general, immediately adopting my hometown Angels as yet another hard-luck team to root for. He was also a musician and composer who reflexively downplayed his talents.
We swapped phone numbers and took our epic conversations home from work.
You know where this is going, especially if you’ve ever heard me go on wistfully about the Man I Almost Married. Not having come out to myself until the ripe old age of 25, I was still years from that bit of self-awareness. Still, I had only dated a few guys in high school—and only one for a long enough stretch that my lack of physical affection toward him was notable. (And that particular high school boyfriend did note it—the word frigid may have been used.) I certainly had my reasons for not putting out, but like anyone, I longed for connection. Though I wouldn’t articulate it to myself at the time, in retrospect I can see why a long-distance relationship might have been particularly appealing to a lesbian in gestation.
But this isn’t really about me.
I first visited Minneapolis in early 1988. Jay would later write that I had “brought spring to Prospect Park,” and it was true that by the time I left, the bare trees and chill that greeted my arrival had given way to sunshine and new growth, all within the short span of a week and a half. It was a remarkable display to a Southern Californian unaccustomed to such showy seasonal shifts, but Jay was far more a force of nature than I. He took me to about a dozen of his favorite places my very first day there, including multiple record stores and music shops whose staffers seemed uniformly to adore him. I would see several of them later that night when Jay’s then-current band, a power-pop quintet deceptively named Twelve Angry Men, played First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry.
A perfect gentleman, he had arranged for me to stay while in town with his friends Michele and Gail, who lived just down the street from him. And when Jay and I took a side trip to Winnipeg, he asked for two beds at the hotel desk without consulting me. Maybe he was acting on some kind of psychic energy; maybe he was himself reluctant to get physical, whether because of his Catholic faith or his worries that my parents might think ill of a guy 10 years my senior bedding me. (On my departure my mother did make a crack about the possibility that I was flying 2,000 miles to meet up with an ax murderer, but she admirably withheld further judgment.)
While we were both certainly aware of the sexual tension, it never dominated our time together. As he confided in me at one point, a couple of his friends had told him that if after a year of long-distance flirtation we didn’t want to hop into bed together on first sight, something was deeply wrong; he told me he shrugged his shoulders in response and said that what we had was even better—and he meant it.
We sublimated sexual energy mostly through sharing music—and really, if you’re not having sex, aren’t there far worse ways to fill that space? When I heard a new album I loved, what excited me even more than the personal discovery was the idea of playing it for him. We sent packages back and forth, usually with recently discovered favorite CDs accompanied by a long letter and a few items we had come across since last we spoke or wrote that just reminded us of each other. I lived for UPS deliveries. Once I got a package full of fall leaves. And once I received two cassettes containing seven movements collectively called The Suite for TK. (While I had never much liked diminutives of my name, I liked that Jay called me “TK,” incorporating my middle initial, which stands simply for “Kay.”)
With Jay I could talk about someday starting a record label or founding a music festival or living in a lighthouse, and he would respond as if my dreams were perfectly rational and attainable goals. (In fact, he would later start his own record label, Catacombs, and even help to found a music festival, so attainable is in the mind of the dreamer.) Our visits to each other invariably included side trips wherein we would drive off all half-cocked with no reservations and no clear destination, which led to a number of strange nights in the kinds of motels one ends up in after driving till 2 a.m. before deciding to look for vacancies. We found that span on the clock between a prudent bedtime and single digits to be the most fertile for appreciating a new album—perhaps one to which we had delayed our first listen in anticipation of just such a moment. On one of those night drives together we stumbled on the Northern Lights and it seemed as though Jay had arranged the spectacular display—like the sky, in a fit of modesty, had pulled a diaphanous shower curtain about itself—expressly for the enhancement of our listening party. It’s hard to talk about a guy like that without sounding wistfully idealistic or just sappy, but anyone who met Jay would concur that there was magic in him.
I say “was” because I learned this week of his death, which actually occurred five years ago. It was a heart attack, his second apparently. He was 44.
How did I not know about his death before Thursday last? We lost touch, I offer lamely. Even from the most important people in our lives, we drift. We don’t mean to, and if we knew that the last time we spoke with them was going to be the last time we’d speak with them, we’d certainly handle things differently. I last spoke with him, by phone, circa 2000. It was uncomfortable on both ends, and that’s all I feel at liberty to say.
Since I found out about his death, however tardily, I’ve been doing the kinds of things people do when a person important to them dies: reading through the many letters he sent, mourning his loss—both to me and to the universe—listening to some of the music he introduced me to, and kind of mentally assembling a virtual mix tape of music released since his death that I know he would have loved.
That’s no small feat, as his interests ranged far and wide. A memorial concert that was held in the spring following his death featured an array of Jay’s compositions in genres including pop, folk, jazz, Scandinavian music, and liturgical songs. He was instrumental in forming three local bands that I know of: the art-punk-jazz band 2i, the big band Steak Face, and the aforementioned power-pop force Twelve Angry Men. He played with countless other groups including the “celtodelic” Irish punk-folk band Boiled in Lead and the Violent Femmes, the latter of whom was appearing at First Avenue the weekend after Jay died and had reportedly asked him—via a phone message he never chanced to hear—to join them on stage.
I think the improbable tale behind the founding of Minneapolis’s Nordic Roots Festival provides a neat illustration of Jay’s catalytic properties: The story goes that in 1996 a Swedish folk label looking for U.S. representation sent a box of CDs to a Minneapolis distributor, where it sat around in a warehouse until a curious Jay McHale discovered the dusty, still-sealed box and took it home for a listen. He went characteristically nutty for what was inside and started playing favorites for his friends, among whom was a founder of the Rykodisc label, who in short order would found NorthSide, the only record label dedicated to Nordic folk in the United States. By 1999 NorthSide had attracted enough fan support to launch a festival dedicated to music from Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. Jay would serve until his death as an enthusiastic coordinator of the annual event—which still thrives, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. As he said in a 2001 article about the festival, “Whatever excites me, I put it on tape and pass it around. I love to toot the horn for something that’s underrated. Hedningarna’s [third album], Trä, was my Revolver. Hedningarna was a pivotal musical experience for someone who didn’t think there was anything new. This was what I was looking for.”
This all happened well after our relationship had ended, but as I read about it I thought, Well, of course, if anyone could parlay his enthusiasm for an orphaned box of CDs into a new record label and a festival dedicated to the music therein, that’s Jay.
It turns out I didn’t break his heart after all. I won’t let myself off the hook for hurting him, however unintentionally, but I need only read online remembrances of his life here and here and elsewhere to understand that his heart could never truly be broken. What he thought he saw in me was really just a reflection of his own soul, best summed when he wrote, “I believe you are driven by an inextinguishable love for all the ordinary and extraordinary things that life lets us bump into. To be able to see the sacred in the tiniest of things and to view the really big important stuff with the leavening of humor, optimism, and clear vision.”
Yeah, that’s Jay all right.
The road’s dark with the stars full on
And they’re above you just the same
Like an answered prayer in the sound-charged air
You will be there as the night will soften
Road ends, and without directions
We will drive it just the same.
—Josiah “Jay” McHale (August 22, 1958–October 16, 2002)