The Invisible Composer Finds His Way to the ‘Heart of the Arts’
Commentary by Andy Pope
Anyone who knows me well will tell you I am unusually protective of my right to compose music. I often perceive external forces to be inhibiting my efforts. In reality, of course, my obstacles toward writing music are entirely internal.
But this was not always the case.
There was a time in my life when my identity as a composer appeared to be threatened on practically all sides. Because I was homeless at the time, my composing of music was visible. When you’re homeless, everything you do is visible. Even when you sleep, you are visible.
Unless I was lucky enough to afford a hotel room for the evening, I had no place where I could quietly write music in solitude. So let’s just say I was under observation.
There were two types of people observing me: those who were inside, and those who were outside. In general, I received strong reactions to my visible composing. The reactions varied according to which camp they came from.
People who lived inside would see me in a cafe writing music with my laptop and music notation software. When they observed the persistence and frequency of my visible composing, they would often draw this conclusion:
“That’s your whole problem right there! You’re spending all your time writing music, when you should be availing yourself of social services!”
While their readjustment of my priorities was disturbing enough, a far more dangerous response stemmed from what I felt was a false perception. They would see me writing music manically — staying up all night in a doughnut shop for example — and assume I was having some kind of mental health breakdown.
While such people may be keenly aware of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, they probably are not cognizant of the many positive usages of manic and depressive states. I am grateful for my bipolar condition, because it provides different moods that inform my art.
Unfortunately, when the condition is medicated, I lose my innate capacity to create my work according to my God-given, mercurial mind.
This is why I’m glad I’m inside now, and alone. When manic, I can become effusive in my enthusiasm for my project. When I’m alone, that level of enthusiasm is acceptable — to me. When I’m not alone, my observers may object.
“Would you like me to drive you to Herrick?” asked the Lutheran pastor, after I had gushed at her in long flowery flurries of self-admiration.
Herrick being the local psych ward, I freaked at the suggestion. For I knew that once I got inside the psych ward, two very disturbing things would happen:
First, my laptop would be confiscated, since it could conceivably be “used as a weapon” — should I decide I wanted to knock someone over the head. There went the music notation software, and the project along with it.
Next, the shoelaces of my running shoes would be confiscated, since those, too, could be “used as a weapon” — should I decide I wanted to strangle somebody. There went my long distance running.
There were no open windows at the psych ward, and they didn’t let you out for air. But I guess this was supposed to be a place that would help me. (Believe me, I preferred homelessness.)
While reactions from those who lived indoors were alarming enough, people who were outside posed a bigger threat in general. Many could not even tell I was trying to write music, and would often shout at me to quiet down or go away. But others, though they may have respected my musicianship, saw my laptop as a possible acquisition.
“How much you want for the top?” asked Drew, as he approached me smiling inside the McDonald’s. (“Top” being street slang for “laptop.”)
I looked at the young man and replied: “It’s not for sale at the moment. I need to finish the project first.”
“Is the project ever finished?” he joked.
“Maybe not,” I conceded. “In any case, it’s not for sale.”
A while later, Drew and his partner approached me at the spot where I flew my sign and asked if I wanted to buy some drugs.
“No, I’m not interested,” I said.
“Will you at least look at them?” his partner asked. (This was asked because he knew that often when an addict sees their drug of choice, their resolve to abstain is weakened.)
“No I’m sorry, not now. I gotta go.”
As I packed up to leave, I heard them crying out toward me in complaint. I sensed they were offended. No doubt, I had been quite rude. But I didn’t want to interact with these two young thugs. So I kept going.
I kept sensing I was not in the clear. I broke into a jog. I ran down side streets. Why did I feel I was being followed? I didn’t think they would take my rudeness lying down.
About a mile into the residential district, I slowed to a walk. Stopping at a drop box where people would leave unwanted clothes, I bent down to see what I could find.
Then I heard footsteps.
I looked up, and suddenly found myself hurled to the ground by the force of a heavy metallic object — a gun. Two guns! Then I was on the ground as I felt their guns beating down upon me.
As the guns hit my head, the threats accompanied them.
“I’m gonna kill you b—h, you are dead! I’m gonna kill you, m———r!”
I remember the words I shouted: “Guys, guys! It doesn’t have to be this way. Take everything I have — take the laptop — but please — spare my life!”
At that, they took everything, including the laptop, and ran. I got up and Drew was looking back at me, looking like he was ready to fire if I made one wrong move.
Long story short, there went the laptop. In fact, there went the project – almost.
I had to have four laptops stolen in Berkeley and one in Oakland before I wised up. The streets were no place to have a laptop, especially now that I was a known target.
But since I still needed to finish the project, I wrote music without my laptop, flagrantly singing and playing air guitars and drums on my pants legs until I got it all done.
In such manner, I completed the score to my musical “Eden in Babylon,” which I felt inspired to write in order to paint a picture of youth homelessness in urban America.
After that, I got inside.
So what do I have to complain about today? Every now and then, someone suggests I shouldn’t be so feverish in my passion towards my music. Every so often, they express concern about my mental health.
When this happens, I am triggered and irked. People have this crazy notion that if you’re bipolar, and you’re having a manic episode, you’re supposed to postpone your entire creative fire and lie on a couch for a month.
But for me, the entire purpose of a manic episode is to create a work of art. Arguably, George Friedrich Handel was having a manic episode when he wrote the entire Messiah in 24 days. Had he “taken care of himself” and laid on the couch for that month, the world would not have the Hallelujah Chorus.
That I found a place to live in Moscow, Idaho, very soon after the musical score was ready is amazing enough, considering I had spent over a decade dealing with the streets. But the situations that brought me up to Moscow in the first place are little short of miraculous.
You see, I was born in Moscow. My dad was teaching ROTC at the university, and I only lived here for the first 15 months of my life. When I was homeless, I prayed daily that God would remove me from the midst of street criminals, and place me among artists, writers, musicians and “people more like me.”
On a lark, I took a one-way to Moscow and walked through the city gates, where the words are written: “Welcome to Moscow: Heart of the Arts.”
In short order, I walked into the One World Cafe, where suddenly I found myself hanging around artists, writers, musicians and people more like me.
There is a God, and he does answer prayers. This was a dramatic answer to my fervent prayer to be rid of twelve years of homelessness. God provided a place for me in the city of my birth, 63 years after the fact.
So I sat down in the One World, cranked up my new laptop and scored all the music I had written while playing drums on my pants legs and guitars in the air of the city of Berkeley, California.
Seven weeks later, I was done. Now — to write the script.
Author’s Disclaimer: In no way is this article intended to dissuade people with severe cases of Bipolar Disorder from taking their meds. The author’s doctors have generally reported his case to be very mild, and most agree he need not be treated for it, beyond getting sufficient food, rest and moderate exercise.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of “Eden in Babylon,” a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.
Thank you for sharing this story with us Andy
You’re welcome, Tracy. I don’t generally engage Disqus commentary, but am going to take this opportunity to post an addendum to my column.
As most of you know, EDEN IN BABYLON was recently under development at a local theatre company, where we held a successful workshop that empowered me to refine the piece.
As it turns out, however, they would only want to produce the musical if I were to continue to work for them Mon-Fri in another capacity. Though this was not my original understanding, I have accepted it.
Though I enjoyed the 22 miles of cycling when the weather was good — and I enjoyed our passing each other on our bicycles, smiling and waving — the weather was not always good, and much time and money was consumed in transportation.
The time and energy I put into this commitment for seven months caused great damage to my personal and social relationships, including my relationship with my daughter, and — most importantly — my relationship with Jesus Christ.
While I am thankful that a group of professional musical theatre people have believed in me, it is essential I seek the first the kingdom of God — and His righteousness, from here on in. (Matthew 6:33) Unfortunately, for seven months I made the unexpected hope of a production of my musical more important than Jesus Christ. And I suffered as a result.
EDEN IN BABYLON is essentially up for grabs at this time. It behooves me to promote its production. However, if and when it is produced in the future, my hope is that the producers will let me to send them the materials, and watch my life’s dream come true — from a distance.
I’m turning 70 this month, and aging is on my mind. EDEN IN BABYLON will be produced when it’s meant to be—before or after my death. But I sense it will be produced at some time in the future—something just tells me that.
I do want to thank you Tracy and all the nice brilliant people whom I have met at FaVs, for your ongoing love and support. I’ll return to my writing now (though I suppose this comment was a column in and of itself!)
Blessings to all –
I enjoyed seeing you on the trail too Andy!
Your commitment to Eden in Babylon is inspiring. I know it will land somewhere my friend. Keep trying!
Happy early birthday 🙂
Wonderful weather we’re having lately! You may see me on the trail again soon, my friend. Thanks for everything, Tracy :).