Research Notes · 09/21/2018

Panic Years

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Daniel Difranco writes about Panic Years from Tailwinds Press.

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Panic Years is about a musician in his late 20s, who in a last effort to realize his dreams joins a touring indie band on the verge of breaking through. It was almost called “Waiting for the Miracle.” In some ways I still think that’s the better title.

Research for Panic Years began when I was 6 years old and saw Elvis playing guitar on TV. I started lessons that school year on a little black acoustic with a sunburst finish. The lessons were short-lived, but the portal to another world had been opened. Go cat, go.

Fast-forward and Cobain was dead. I was a sophomore in high school and traded off between Zeppelin riffs and putting on my sister’s dress and screaming Nirvana’s “Rape Me” in my bedroom to the amusement/confusion of my mother. My family was splitting up (again) and that portal was the channel my angry and angsty 14-year-old self needed. I started a band called Stoic, learning the word from a guitar magazine article about Eric Clapton. My friends naturally called us “Stoyk.” It was my first time partaking in the hallowed tradition of shitty band names.

Seven years slid by and I had a degree in music performance and was at the height of folly. I loved the instrument more than the song. Eddie Van Halen was 23 when he recorded “Eruption.” I took that as a personal challenge. I got what I deserved.

And then one day I found ten years had got behind me. I worked the cover band gig, taught, took lessons, sat out for a year due to a wrist surgery, worked in a studio, was a hired gun for bands no one has ever heard of or ever will. I went solo, duo, trio, started bands, joined others. I played country music. Took up acting. Fucking acting! Through this all the written word was with me — I was, after all, pretentious enough in high school to call my band Stoic. Not to mention I always carried around a copy of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat. I somehow had a secondary English education degree and was teaching music and English by day, and working the bar and writing by night. Dreams achieved: 0. Covering the walking cliché market in my small corner of the world: 1.

Tired of playing cover songs in school, I started, yet again, another band. Those People. It was almost an accident. We wrote good songs. We practiced our asses off. We made the smart decision of putting an ex-student, young, thin, helluva voice at the helm. We hit the scene and hustled with the ecstatic and grim determination of a man lost at sea who can see the darkening shore, but who is slowly drifting away, pulled out by the changing tide. We were close, but rock and roll doesn’t age well. No one really wants to see an unknown band of 30-somethings on-stage — no matter how good they are or how sexy their lead singer is.

Music had brought me to the brink again. That impossible horizon glimmering — the thing I was promised as a six year old strumming his first chord. The same feeling every musician has had at least once when they’ve somehow tapped into the mystery. The Siren — she’s a bastard and a liar.

It was during this fever dream of writing, recording, and gigging with Those People that I wrote Panic Years. I had just come home from a July spent touring the country with the great, but now disbanded group — wait for it — Panic Years. A week after being dropped off in the middle of the night and $1253 lighter, I traded in sleeping two to a bed and driving hours upon hours on end to the next gig for a classroom at Arcadia University with Joshua Isard guiding me towards an MFA.

The little I had written about music sparked an interest in him, a non-musician but huge music fan. A year into the program he encouraged me to write about the music scene’s unglamorous underbelly that very few get to experience, and that most aren’t even aware of. As I wrote the book, Those People was still very much alive and well in the operating theater. If I needed inspiration I could either pull from my past or wait for the next practice, gig, or weekend at the studio — the well was full.

Subconsciously I knew I was never going to make it. No matter how much the local rock and indie stations say they like your music, or what the trades say about your band, there was another step we weren’t ready (or foolish enough?) to take. Quitting our jobs and going full-time band wasn’t a realistic option. Only 19-year-old kids and millionaires (I’m looking at you The National) can afford the mistake. Our earth wasn’t flat — that impossible horizon moved with us.

But, I could write about it. A Second Act. Not the dream I had envisioned, but one I could realize.

Research for Panic Years began the day I sat on the edge of my bed and strummed my first chord and dreamt of the day my guitar would turn into a magic carpet and take me away. It concluded with a well-thought out road trip on Google Maps to places I’ve never been, or hadn’t in a long, long while — and maybe never will be again.

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Daniel DiFranco lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches English and music. He pets and says goodbye to his two cats every day before leaving for work. An alum of Temple University and of the Community College of Philadelphia, he also has an MFA from Arcadia University. In a former life he studied guitar and music performance. A full list of publications and other miscellany can be found at danieldifranco.com and @danieldifranco.