I’m writing this letter to you from the office/studio in the basement of our house in Silver Lake, where I have spent the greater part of the last four years. It’s nice in here. Small, with guitars on the wall and a big book shelf I built on the anniversary of my father’s birthday.
We’ve been telling you for a while that something big is coming so here it is: I’ve written a book, a memoir about my life, and we’ve made an hour-long concept record, which is the soundtrack to that book. Both are coming out in the same week next year, the book on May 5th and the record on May 8th. Both the book and the record are called Hollywood Park.
Allow me to explain. Four years ago, I told you we were taking some time off. My father had just died and I became very depressed. He was my best friend, so when he died it was as if a light had been extinguished, something like the beacon of a lighthouse in a storm which had always guided me towards safety, acceptance, quiet. It didn’t matter that he’d been in prison or been a heroin addict. What mattered was that he loved me. He was a good man and his goodness was easy to recognize and losing him was like losing that beacon in a storm. I’d been on the road for eight years, I was exhausted and, as it turned out, severely depressed. I hardly left the house for nearly nine months. I put on weight. I cried every day. I talked to him in my head, feeling like the world was an illusion, and beyond that illusion there was only memory.
Sitting in the confusion and bafflement his death created, I started writing songs again. Not with any particular destination in mind but just because I needed the music, the way I had always needed music. To understand myself or maybe to cope. Maybe so I could make a thing and then look at it, play it over and over again and be lost in it, which though the songs were very sad, was a great comfort, for reasons that are hard to explain. I forgot about all those dumb rules I learned about songwriting from the years in the music industry and music became my companion again, just as it had been before I started the band. It wasn’t anything I planned to ever put out.
Many of you know that before the band I’d been a writer, I’d been an on-air columnist for All Things Considered on NPR and published fiction in McSweeney’s and that I was in the midst of writing a novel when I wrote the songs for our first record. I just kept putting the novel down and playing my guitar instead. I turned down a residency at Yaddo writer’s colony to play our first gig. This time the opposite happened. While working on all these songs about my father’s death—my life as a child, his life before I was born—I set aside the music and began to write.
I’m not sure why except to say that when I started looking back, I remembered there was this little boy and this little boy had escaped a cult (called Synanon) with his older brother and his mother, who he hardly knew. You have to understand we’d been taken from our parents at six months old and placed into an orphanage in that cult. That is where my brother and I lived until I was nearly four and he was nearly seven, when the cult became violent and we had to escape early one morning. That little boy never knew what a “family” was because there was no one to ask. None of us did. We were told everyone in the cult was our parents, which of course meant no one was.
We escaped, we lived on the run for awhile, hiding indoors. We witnessed some horrific violence in Berkeley and eventually found ourselves in Salem, Oregon where we went to hide, living on government cheese and the rabbits we slaughtered for food. As a writer, it felt very important to give that little boy a voice, to present the magical thinking of children (at six years old were you sure you couldn’t fly?), the desperate quest we were on to put together a picture of the real world, the world outside the cult, which was emerging around us, a place with restaurants and cars, buses and big buildings and most of all, something called a “family,” something we never knew.
Like so many of the most breathless dreams of the sixties, it had all come crashing down, spectacularly so, in the case of Synanon with its devolution into mind control, child abuse, paranoia and violence. So it felt like we were growing up in the wreckage of something, in this case the failed dreams of the sixties, broke and hiding in some backwater place in the Oregon rain. “Thatasshole” Reagan (I was 12 before I knew his first name was “Ronald”) was president. We lost. Then we retreated. That was the feeling.
I knew we were different. Even then. I knew there was a thread that could be pulled around all the people I saw in the world—at truck stops or laundry mats, gas stations or diners, people raised by their own parents, people who lived in houses and ate dinner and talked about their days, people who celebrated Christmases and birthdays and didn’t spend days in fear of being discovered or stolen, offered up like sacrificial lambs to a political or social experiment they didn’t choose or understand—and I knew we were outside that thread. They were living together in “families” and we were living on the outside, rebels or survivors or fuckups or lunatics.
I’ve learned to hide this story over the years, to remove remnants of it from my speech, the story I told people about myself, because I hated the way people looked at me when I told it, like a wild dog off a leash.
It was in this place — this rainy, lonely, confusing place on the other side of the mountains — that I first heard music I loved and first read the books which kept me company. It was in them that a whole other world was revealed to me, a faraway place with wonderful people who thought beautiful things and they put those things into songs and books. They were my companions, they showed me something, they taught me and inspired me, opened my eyes and gave me comfort on dark nights.
And when I got older, after years of work trying my best to break free from my past, I decided I wanted to be one of these people who sang those songs and I wanted to write one of those books.
To put everything into it like a vessel, a container where I could place the forces that had shaped my life, good and bad—in this case, the escape and the violence, the tragedy of the cult, the orphanage, the loneliness, the anger and fear and blood on the driveway in front of our house in Berkeley, the severed heads of the rabbits we slaughtered for food in Oregon, the idea of my father as this faraway ghost on some highway a thousand miles from the Salem rain. But also put the beauty, the hope, the strength we found, my father’s easy laugh, my brother’s grit and charm, my step mom Bonnie’s big heart and big family who accepted me as their own, the perseverance and laughter and tears, and, most importantly, the people who are no longer here, all the ways in which we changed, we grew, we fell and broke apart, we put ourselves back together through fierce effort, we got up and kept trying.
When I played the songs for the band, the songs I never planned to release, we decided we should make these songs into our next record and it would be the soundtrack to the book I was writing. And we made a pact, together, that we would be a kind of brotherhood (Anna had already told me she was moving on and as you know, I was sad about that but of course proud of her for pursuing her own dreams). The brotherhood had one objective: to make something we loved. Just four guys who love rock and roll making a rock and roll record that we were proud of. It was a big undertaking, a story start to finish with string symphonies and horns, loud guitars and quiet harmonies, children’s choirs and gospel singers, whispers and shouts, silent moments and the feeling like the last night on Earth. Forget the market. Forget the arcane, bullshit rules about songwriting that major labels had been pressing on us for years, and just fucking play. For the joy of it, the feeling like we were making something new, something which inspired us and contained everything we loved about music.
The record is based solely on scenes from the book. And for me, over time, it too became a quiet place I could return to, a place where I could visit the people I lost, the people I could no longer talk to because they weren’t alive anymore.
And something about doing all of that — putting all of this into one place — became, like magic, a way of talking to that little boy, making him feel less alone in this confusing world where he grew up. Because what he didn’t know is that all of you were on the other side of that conversation he was beginning to have—that glimpse of the beautiful, faraway world he saw the first time he ever opened a book.
see you on the road —
You can pre-order an advance copy of HOLLYWOOD PARK — HERE.
PS – There will be an 11 city book tour. Tickets include a copy of the book, entrance to the reading (and conversation!), and a question and answer session. Info and ticket links below.
PPS – There is more to come. This is only the beginning.
MIKEL SOLO BOOK TOUR:
Fri May 1 – Los Angeles, CA – West Hollywood Library – BUY TIX
Sat May 2 – San Francisco, CA – First Unitarian Society – BUY TIX
Mon May 4 – Brooklyn, NY – St. Joseph’s College – BUY TIX
Tue May 5 – New York, NY – The Strand – BUY TIX
Wed May 6 – Washington, DC – GW Betts– BUY TIX
Thu May 7 – Providence, RI – Columbus Theatre – BUY TIX
Fri May 8 – Boston, MA – City Space – BUY TIX
Sat May 9 – Austin, TX – Book People – BUY TIX
Mon May 11 – Chicago, IL – Everybody’s Coffee: Wilson’s Abbey – BUY TIX
Tue May 12 – Denver, CO – Tattered Cover – BUY TIX
Mon May 18 – Seattle, WA – Town Hall – BUY TIX
BAND TOUR DATES
Tue Mar 31 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey – SOLD OUT
Wed Apr 1 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey – SOLD OUT
Thu Apr 2 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey – SOLD OUT
Sat Apr 4 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey – SOLD OUT
Tue Apr 7 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom – SOLD OUT
Wed Apr 8 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom – SOLD OUT
Thu Apr 9 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom – SOLD OUT
Fri Apr 10 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom – SOLD OUT