Shaking Off Psychic Strain: A Live Music Heals Essay by Martin Douglas

Music Heals
Martin Douglas
All Photos by Martin Douglas


I started going to shows on a regular basis in 2005. I dabbled in the practice beforehand, but the practice started in earnest when some friends bought me tickets to see Franz Ferdinand at the Paramount for my birthday, but none of them would go with me and told me to find someone to go with. Sometime before the show weeks later, I had a bitter falling out with my entire friend group over a flippant comment I made shortly after the first time I tried to end my own life. I ended up going with a buddy from my fashion retail job; a tall, handsome fellow who looked a lot like Kyle from Party Down. He and a few of his friends took me to a bar after – my 22nd birthday, the first time I had ever actually been inside a bar – and they all bought me drinks, their friends bought me drinks, strangers bought me drinks.

My tall blonde friend and I stopped by Jack in the Box on the way home; by this point, 1:30, 1:45 in the morning. I was nearing the end of a six-week stay with my parents, the first and only time I moved back in with them after moving out. Trying to kill myself had something to do with getting evicted from my reasonably priced Federal Way apartment. I quietly entered my parents' apartment and proceeded to vomit my chicken strips and curly fries into their sink. 

The next day, in the throes of a vicious hangover, I painted a good portion of the downstairs apartment my sister and I were going to share, getting the first month's rent knocked off if we agreed to take this long and noxious task. I came upstairs feeling legitimately like I was possessed by a very sick ghost. My mom gave me nausea pills and I slept for nearly six hours. 

Forgive me for meandering off-topic. The context feels appropriate for my 22-year-old self; no close friends, no social life to speak of really, a retail job wherein I was struggling to find my financial footing. I had been crumbling under the weight of my own depression – mostly culled from unchecked and unprocessed issues stemming from a hard childhood – for most of the year. The Franz Ferdinand gig opened up a sense of joy I had either lost or had been actively suppressing; not a single person on the floor's panorama wasn't pogo'ing when the Scottish quartet pulled out their ace, "Take Me Out." My blonde friend and I would eventually become friends and regular showmates.

In the span of that year we went to at least three TV on the Radio shows. One of them ended with the band inviting a woman who stood me up in high school on stage to dance during set closer "Wolf Like Me." I euphorically let everyone around me know the degree of separation.


My burgeoning obsession with live music led me to start going to shows by myself. During my enchanted year of no friends, I had began to learn the fine art of enjoying my own company – attending movies, restaurants, and long, late night drives by myself. It wouldn't take much for me to catch an early showing of some film and then treat myself to lunch in the bar of the Red Robin next door; the bartender would have a strawberry lemonade ready for me. At a Midlake show at The Crocodile in 2006 – back when it still had the beam in the middle of the viewing room and a small handful of tables gathered outside of it – a very nice person invited me to join them and their friends, just to hang out at the show. (The Seattle Freeze is real, but sometimes people here will surprise you.) I politely declined, a gesture I still regret nearly fifteen years later.

I was deep into making music; lo-fi, experimental, singer/songwriter fare that may have gotten me at least one cassette release if I had stuck with it.

Neumos was my regular spot of patronage by then, standing in that long line down the street which sometimes almost stretched to the IHOP to catch bands like Grizzly Bear and the National. The door staff and bartenders would come to learn my face and greet me warmly when they saw me; the latter would give me free and discounted drinks because I always tipped exorbitantly on my first drink. In the line for the Bloc Party show, of which I and frontman Kele Okereke were the only Black people in the building that night, the guy in front of me offered me a store-brand Pop-Tart. When I saw the National in 2006, four days after my 23rd birthday, I struck up a conversation with a woman; the kind of thing a Libra fantasizes about happening to them, a movie scene. Turned out she was 30 and wasn't really put off by me being so much younger than her. She let me buy her a drink at what was then called Moe Bar and later found me during the show. "Sorry if I seem a little distant; I'm supposed to be on a date. Here's my card. Email me sometime."

Of fucking course I emailed her. She was good-looking and seven years older than me. She never emailed me back though.

The first time I saw the Mountain Goats, I had met a couple and we hung together for most of the night, making an acquaintance with a 40-something-year-old woman who lived in an artist loft. She grabbed my ass gratuitously, our bodies grazing the foot of the stage, and she could probably sanitize a coffee table with all the alcohol on her breath. I never saw that couple again, but I would find myself in some state of avoidance of this woman at every Mountain Goats show I would go to for the next few years.

By the next Mountain Goats show, I had befriended a married couple from Vancouver on Myspace – exactly my type of people: artsy, kind, and tattooed – who would make the drive down from Canada to catch John Darnielle and crew and make a weekend out of seeing the band two times over the span of two or three days. We would eventually develop a plan to book rooms at the Belltown Ramada Inn (so I wouldn't have to drive back to Tacoma) and amusedly watch infomercials until 3:30 in the morning. 

I took them to their first happy hour, they took me to my first vegan breakfast diner, they helped me successfully avoid the handsy drunk woman I always ran into, and one of them took a picture of me grinning from ear to ear with Ben Gibbard, who was standing backstage before he surprised the crowd and sang "Palmcorder Yajna" with the band. If you dig deep enough, you can probably find that photo of me somewhere on the internet.

My married friends would eventually get divorced and the person who I was better friends with would eventually move back to her hometown, Montreal. We're still social media friends, only at the sort of distance not having seen each other in nearly 13 years would provide.

These fun anecdotes of spending three nights a week driving up and down I-5 to go to shows – the long drives home, all the people I would meet and never see again or see many times after – are a way to distract from the fact that I was dying inside back then. I powered through the decay of my daytime life, hating myself for all I had been through like every bit of it was my fault, for those moments of nightlife, for the power of guitars stinging my eardrums and bass mule-kicking my chest. For being the slender stranger in someone else's story, shaking off the drain hose of soul depletion in the background of someone's shaky, homemade concert video. For filling the empty hole inside with volume and melody. For actually getting to enjoy my life.


I have a love-hate relationship with social media and dating sites. If you follow me on my various platforms – especially Twitter – you'll find me complaining about how it has negatively impacted society every so often. The false objectivity of opinion about everything from prison reform to pineapple on pizza. How people are so chained to their opinions that few discussions framed as "discourse" actually achieves the objective of discourse. The cowardice. How people say things to you, to me, to others, they would never say to your face. The widespread need for immediate approval and validation. The instant, microwave expectations and snap judgements we put on the people we date and the ones they put on us. I could write one of my trademark sprawling essays about how much these platforms annoys me, but I digress. It has also provided me with an easy way to connect me with like-minded souls all over the world. Friends, lovers, colleagues, and contemporaries. My last two long-term relationships (including the one I am in now) began on Tinder. A woman who I now view as extended family began knowing me on an OkCupid date at her favorite Bubble Tea spot. I've met people on Tumblr whom I still count as among my best friends to this very day.

It started with going to shows with a married couple I met on Myspace. And it graduated to going to shows with girlfriends and flings I met on Tumblr, whether they flew here from the East Coast or I flew into Bloomington, taking them to the then-newly renovated Crocodile or them taking me to some house show that got broken up by the cops. Friends flying in from San Francisco and meeting me at the Oh Sees show, me getting left at my first Oh Sees show in Portland by a fling who already had a boyfriend, my longtime friend from Australia and I nearly getting crushed into the sea of bodies at an Oh Sees gig sponsored by Sailor Jerry rum. A crowd surfer kicked me in the face on the latter night.

Love it or hate it, the social media portals I have been on since the mid-2000's helped me emerge from a shell I didn't know I was hiding in. I found myself to be a well-liked, affable member of several disparate groups of friends, a star in many different constellations, a show buddy for anyone with a plane ticket and anyone willing to put me up for a few days while I carried mine.

My first trip specifically to see live music was a trip to Los Angeles to catch the final date of Pavement's 2010 reunion tour with Sonic Youth and No Age opening, a bill seemingly conjured up in my wildest dreams. The original plan was to go with an old friend; she once worked at the MAC counter at the fashion retail job I had left but packed up and left for Hawaii. She ended up not being able to make it, so I gave the ticket to another friend I had made on Tumblr. I had a close friend who was born and raised in L.A. (we're still tight to this day) and he went too even though out of those bands he only liked No Age. He and I were supposed to go to a secret friends and family No Age show at the Smell – anyone reading this who knew Martin Douglas circa 2010 will immediately recognize how much of a holy pilgrimage this was – but someone spilled the beans and Hollywood Bowl threatened to kick them off the show if they went through with it. I told Randy Randall that No Age was my favorite band and he hugged me.

Travel marked this period of my life, and for some reason people always wanted to go to shows with me whenever I hit their town. By this point, I had stopped making music and started diving deeper into writing. I started a photography series using disposable cameras a handful of years before it actually became a thing. That week in L.A., I also went to the Eagle Rock Music Festival and saw Flying Lotus bring out Thundercat on the Low End Theory stage – and during that set, I saw a dude get knocked out with one punch directly behind me. This was the weekend before my first byline for Pitchfork was published. The next summer, I fell in love with Chicago, cashing in my free VIP pass to attend the Pitchfork Music Festival. I stayed with two of my closest friends – friends for whom I would be traveling back to Chicago for regularly, including as a groomsman for their 2014 wedding – that week and the week of Pitchfork Music Festival the next year, both of those August weeks among the very best times I've ever had in my near four decades on this rock.

I had managed to successfully bury the self-hatred I was carrying around, but it wouldn't be long before those feelings started swelling back up again.


It was through one of my Chicago friends where I started forming a legitimate social circle back home, regularly attending shows with either one or both of my friends who lived in the thick of Capitol Hill. We hung out for the first time at Pizza Fest 2012 and hit it off immediately to the point where I visited them frequently, whether to hit up shows together or to meet them for dinner or a quick drink before splitting off with separate evening plans. One friend was a musician and the other was a writer who often ended up finding herself dating musicians, even well after the end of this relationship. (The latter is another person whose friendship has lasted the years and address changes; we make it a point to speak on the phone at least once a month even with our busy schedules.) To this day she might be the only friend I have (not employed by KEXP) who likes Wimps as much as I do.

At the time, dabbling in music journalism freelancing was mostly just a way for me to make some beer money and get into shows for free. I'm a naturally ambitious person so I wanted to succeed and be recognized for my talent, but it wasn't until years later where I would make an honest go of a full-fledged career in writing about music. I had this notion that I was on borrowed time back then, this idea that I had lived way longer than I expected to and was nearing the end of existence in this life. I was ready for the next one. A life where I didn't get punched in the face as a child by my parent; a life where I didn't bounce around relatives feeling like I was a burden instead of getting the emotional support I desperately craved; a life where I was a regular kid instead of a ferry for other people's projections about my biological mom.

In this concept of borrowed time, I still made friends and met musicians and had lunch with publicists and drank myself through happy hour with bands and fought with other publicists through emails and got in trouble for "leaking" songs to Tumblr and got passed over for features and stood at the door of venues with my dick in my hand because someone forgot to put me on the list and introduced myself to people who had their automatic replies set to "I know who you are" while they shook my hand. I interviewed artists over the phone and via email and coffee shops and in the Neumos balcony area. Musicians who I borderline idolized came up to me and asked if so-and-so at Pitchfork had a personal vendetta against me because of the scathing and specifically personal nature of certain negative reviews.

My body was desperately searching for a way out of this hatred I had for myself, even in the midst of making a name for myself in a field I stumbled into. I was going through an agonizing breakup with a young woman I was planning to move to Austin for. I felt maybe all these things were happening to me because I was unworthy of love. I canceled plans to go by myself to a show in order to take a handful of pills, even though I had asked for weeks to have the night off from my graveyard shift stocking job at the supermarket near my house. Someone called the police and an officer I knew from that job made a welfare check. I ended up deciding, during an 18-hour stay at a mental health facility in Kirkland where I wasn't allowed to listen to music, that something had to change. That maybe my life was worth salvaging and living out.

The ride home from the Eastside cost $110 and I was billed nearly $1800 for my daylong stay.


To be honest with you, I lost the desire to see live music for a while. Aside from Sub Pop's Silver Jubilee in Georgetown and taking my friend to see Parquet Courts and Naomi Punk at Neumos – a warm summer walk from her place – my days weren't awash with the rush of live music.

Two weeks shy of a year after my final suicide attempt, my mom passed away suddenly. Not the biological mom who beat the piss out of me as a child, but my dad's second wife, who was more of a mom to me than my biological mom would ever be. Grief overtook me, and instead of the thrill of communion, loud instruments clanging, and beats pumping through speakers as big as me, I stayed at home and listened to records, steaming vegetables into a stupor. My dad was suffering the worst, so I tried to spend more time with him and help whenever I could until some of the reasons we were never really all that close started cropping up again and I began to stay home. That's the subject for another personal essay. Sixteen months after my mom passed, he was murdered. I stayed home and isolated myself for a while, but realized it was unsustainable if I wanted to refrain from killing myself, so I started going to shows and traveling again. 

I went on a road trip to Montana with my friends that summer, and that fall (with a small portion of the insurance money I was paid when my dad was killed), I took a writing assignment which was really just an excuse for me to do something I had wanted to do for several years: Fly to Memphis and attend Gonerfest. Along with my friend who was a Gonerfest attendee several years running – another I made in my years of doing what I do online – I had another of the best weeks of my life. We saw two dozen bands in three days, ate Gus' Fried Chicken and Payne's BBQ, cleaned glitter out of our hair after Ty Segall smashed an acoustic guitar filled with glitter at the end of his Ty Rex set, talked a lot about pro wrestling, and gushed over Jessica Hopper's The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. I told the members of Nots they were my new favorite band, and proudly wore the shirt I bought from them even though it was a size too small.

It took me a while to fully reabsorb myself in the throes of live music again; I had to get all of the grieving and healing and processing childhood trauma out of my system before fully becoming the person I've always wanted to be. In those many months, The catharsis of letting go while being baptized by loud music was one of many ways to cope instead of merely an escape from the stuff that was haunting me. At that point, much of my time in music venues was spent working as much as playing, but even though work can be fucking such hard work a lot of the time, it's not lost on me that I have one of the best jobs in the world.

Conceptualizing the sacred, communal practice of music – live and otherwise – is spiritually fulfilling work, among the most spiritually fulfilling work I've ever done, and smiling in a circle of friends, acquaintances, or strangers in the midst of witnessing it is an opportunity to take stock in feeling alive, in being alive. Most of the writing I've done about live music for this site, about Upstream and Treefort and CHBP, isn't necessarily about live music so much as they are about the living being done around live music. It's an approach that has made the most sense to me after having had so much life lived on beer-soaked floors, pressed up against the lip of a stage, and in line for the bathroom. The heart-filling feelings of one of your favorite musicians wishing you a happy birthday from the stage, or slow dancing with a stranger, or sharing a drink with someone you'll never see again or will see many times after, or simply the nod being shared with a fellow showgoer after a killer performance are feelings that are rarely replicated anywhere else in life. 

As we've been sitting around with that feeling for almost an entire year, I can't help but think how unfathomable such a life was before March 2020. There is no possible way we could have imagined our lives without live music. It's a canyon inside I'm sure we're all feeling, especially those of us for whom live music formed a community or provided some solace or filled a huge goddamn void. Which is to say, most people existing in the world who have ever been party to a live performance. One day soon we will experience that feeling again, when we're hugging our friends in the middle of a crowd with our ears close to bleeding, embracing the euphoria live music brings us, embracing its life force.

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