Sunday, January 20, 2019


A Reflection on 15 Years of Sobriety

This month will mark 15 years since my last drink. It's hard to believe and even harder to talk about out loud. After all this time, I now have distinct groups of friends who have never known me as anything but sober and whole batch of friends who, for some reason, have stuck around despite the sobriety. Newer friends occasionally ask why I don't drink out of curiosity. Older friends lovingly recall the times I boiled vodka at a Christmas party, got tossed in a bush, or sang "Happy Birthday" one-by-one to the first 100 attendees at a party. Most times I defer on the details as the story isn't nearly as interesting as it should be. I never missed work – I was born with that curse – but I certainly operated at 80% of my capacity many days and regret the times alcohol facilitated acerbic or mean-spirited conversation, especially among people I love or respect.

Here's the story: Just about 16 years ago now, Peggy's mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer; it still feels like yesterday in many regards. As a family, we decided to collectively dull the impending loss with a river of booze. Each weekend during the last three months of what turned into a life-altering experience for me, Peggy and I drove to and from Cleveland, back to our home in Chicago. I could still drive that route with my eyes closed all the way to the Tim Horton's just outside Toledo. As long as we were stationary, though, I found a reason to drink and tucked the justification behind the fog and sorrow with the rest of the crew.

After Peggy's mom passed away in mid-December of 2003, and after a decidedly dim and hazy set of holidays that followed, Peggy initiated a training routine to run a marathon in memory of her mom. She was quickly in great physical shape, I felt like a slug and a drag. Each morning as she trained along the cold lakefront path here in Chicago, I walked the empty, wide open park with our dog who scattered groups of seagulls back up into the overcast sky. It was, quite literally, cold reality.

I was haunted on those days by my rock-n-roll mentor's, Dan Zanes', song, "Cruel Cold Feeling," about his own struggles with alcohol:
I knew what I told her, "Those days are gone. I'll stop for one then be right home."
How do I stop these shaking hands, calm the nerves, mend the man?
To Dan's credit, and something I so admire about his writing, he managed to distill a whole 24-hour narrative into two lines, replete with the awful missing parts that fall on the cutting room floor in any good edit. Dan's a Grammy Award winner and, as I understand it, they don't hand those out unless you know what you're doin'.

Beyond that, though, I was also pursued at a deep, personal level – as I am to this day – by the essayist Wendell Berry's profound direction*:
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
More to the point, I wondered then: Was this how I was supposed to live in a manner meant to honor the people around me? And now, do I hold myself to this standard as a father as I try to help raise a young boy?

In those moments, facing an icy Lake Michigan, I found a whole new perspective. And, importantly, I found a way to push that perspective directly into motivation. I managed a day, then a week, then a month without alcohol, then quit smoking. Mend the man, just like the song says.

Like many creative types, I had long before convinced myself that alcohol was part of a successful operating system that produced good work – writing, music, coding, the same as now – and, to the extent that a hangover can produce an uneasy space for reflection and regret, I suppose that's somewhat true in the granular. But, overall, it's a falsehood. The truth is, on the other side, there's clarity and courtesy, and the chance to better support the journey of those around us.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Postscript. A number of books, records, and movies have been important to me along the way as context for the the drinking life and day-to-day sobriety. Here are my top three:

(1) Now out of print, Dan's CD "Cool Down Time" (referenced above) from the early 1990s is a masterpiece: the first half will knock the wind out of you; the second will remind you of the power of redemption.

(2) Mary Karr's excellent book "Lit" follows in the fine tradtion of memoirs from writers like Caroline Knapp ("Drinking: a Love Story", "Pack of Two") about navigating recovery.

(3) 1988's "Clean & Sober" features a Michael Keaton performance so real, so raw, so honest that you almost forget Morgan Freeman co-stars in the movie. It's written and shot perfectly; gritty and desperate from scene to scene as it showcases the logic that empowers addiction. Keaton's final speech in the movie comes on the heals of a plot turn that tries its best to break him fully. The speech, delivered at an AA meeting, feels like a friend talking directly to you.

* from Wendell Berry's "The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," 1973.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Deeper Blue

"I think we're making a late 1970s Emmylou Harris record here."

Here’s the story: Laurie's husband, Joe, passed away in April of 2015 and not too long after I picked up the phone to call Laurie. There had been a fair amount of news coverage surrounding Joe's death and, in particular, the path he chose to die with dignity, Laurie at his side. One picture in the newspaper featured Joe in bed, near death; for me, still hard to process. But the picture also showed Laurie, too, right next to Joe, singing him a song and playing the ukulele with a smile on her face. The picture represented everything I love – we all love – about Laurie and her songs: heartwarming, heartbreaking, tough as nails despite it all, defiantly joyful, and with you to the bitter end, no matter what. I said: "I can't shake that image, Laurie. What song were you singing to Joe?" She said, "Rocky, I think I need to make an album."

That began our three-year quest, of sorts, to make a record that would serve as a cathartic outlet for Laurie in this incredible time of transition and pain and, quite purposefully, draw in some of the most creative folks we knew. I had recently reconnected with an old pal, Mike Tittel (of New Sincerity Works) – easily one of my favorite musicians – who had started a recording studio at Fruit Hill, outside of Cincinnati. Mike was trying to convince me at the time – he still is, actually – to record a new album but I told him about Laurie and her story and we all agreed: Laurie's record was the priority. We cut the first tracks – me on electric guitar, Mike on drums, and Laurie on uke and electric piano in the Fall of 2015. Right away, we knew we had half-a-dozen really great takes. It was early in the process, but they had soul and felt like the framework for a really special record. I told Laurie: "I think we're making a late 1970s Emmylou Harris record here." We knew, even then, we were going to walk away with a truly classic-sounding LP. Much later, Mike looked at the cover and said: "I can't tell if it's June Carter Cash or Juliana Hatfield," which, of course, is the nicest thing anyone could have said about the type of record Laurie and I had hoped to make.

Those half dozen songs from the first session became the basis to bring in the second half of the band – Chris Allen on acoustic, Al Moss on pedal steel, and the legendary producer Don Dixon on bass. After juggling schedules, we eventually hauled the aforementioned dream team to Fruit Hill to get 'em on tape. To say it was an honor to have them work on this record is certainly an understatement. Chris and Laurie, of course, had years of experience playing as a duo across Ohio and have a sonic mind-meld that allowed Chris' acoustic guitar to drop right into the mix. Al Moss, one of a small group of Cleveland musicians who I consider my cosmic and musical brethren, not only added key melodies throughout, but also a few solos that left us all either applauding or stunned silent in the studio. And, what can I say about having Don play his Silvertone bass on this record? A dream come true. Above all, these guys played and sang on this record with such generosity and sense of purpose for Laurie that I still get a chill listening back now. A year and a half after Laurie had written: "It's gonna be alright," as a reminder to herself in a trying time, they sang it right back to her, in harmony, with such conviction that you just knew it had to be true. After the very last take, at midnight following a full day of recording, the skies opened up, and we dragged all of the gear back up the hill in the pouring rain, confirming the adage: "If you want a perfect storm, stand under the cloud."

We recorded the rest of the album – minus vocals – back at Laurie's house in Oxford so we could cut live baby-grand piano and Hammond A-100 in the music room Joe had built for Laurie years ago. John Kogge – Laurie's long-time partner in crime – stopped by and sang harmony on one of the album's most affecting songs, "Pauline," still a treat for me to hear. Laurie re-recorded her vocals with our new pal, the super-talented Mike Landis – who also mixed the record – at Fruit Hill until she had 'em perfect. A few months later, Landis finished up the mixes and it was off to be mastered. I shot the cover photo at the 3VERB studio here in Chicago.

It's still hard to believe we pulled it off. Along the way, we laughed, we cried, we made a pilgrimage to the now shuttered Hammond Organ factory in Chicago, discovered a jerk-chicken restaurant across the street from John Prine's childhood home, and celebrated each little rock 'n roll victory. I'm exceedingly proud of the final album and the way we did it. It's dedicated to Joe, of course; I know it honors his memory.

— Jon

Click here to buy the record. Click here for full liner notes/credits.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Great Social Media Campaigns Require Diligence and Joy

It's true for 3VERB that when one door closes, another opens wide. In 2018, we had the good fortune to meet and start working with the crew at MCA Golf in sunny Carlsbad, California. For MCA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi, there's a challenge to be present consistently across social media – that's part of what we're already working on for them – but also an advantage in the inherent quality of their products and respect they command from even the best players in the world. Shown here, a beauty shot of their TENSEI™ line of performance golf shafts completed at our 3VERB studio here in Chicago's Humboldt Park. Headed into the PGA Show, then quickly into the new season – can Spring get here soon enough? – we'll look to build on the reputation they've already established and extend the brand to new eyeballs and advocates, as well. We'll be sharp, on our toes, and ready deliver on the joy and beauty their products and team deserve.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.