(This is from a spelling I performed on my 50th birthday and part of a roleplaying game called “Secret: A Little Game about Magic,” which will be the last RPG I ever publish.)
Thursday November 15, 2018
Spent all day listening to different versions of the Sloop John B. All day.
The Kingston Trio version invokes the original language of Nassau. “Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” Every song a sailor sings is about going home.
When I first heard Brian Wilson’s poppy, happy, melancholy chimes and perfect chorus, I thought the music undermined the lyrics. It wants me to feel happy, but sad. But then I learned more about Wilson, and it made sense.
His depression. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. And I hear the song differently now. Just a little knowledge, and my whole impression changes.
When one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, brought the song to Wilson, he originally rejected it. “I don’t like folk music.” But Jardine changed the chord structure to better fit a Beach Boys song and re-presented it. He left the studio, and the next morning, Wilson phoned him to come back in. He had re-arranged and recorded the song in less than 24 hours. That kind of obsession only comes coupled with a crippling depression that makes a man never want to leave his home. When the Barenaked Ladies sing “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did,” that’s the Brian Wilson they’re singing about.
I listen now and I hear the boppy music and the melancholy lyrics and it feels like the song was his own Voice of Depression thrown at a mixing board.
When I was a boy, my depression was a ghost hovering over my shoulder, constantly reminding me of ways to kill myself.
“You could do it now. Just jump off the bridge.”
“You could do it now. Just swerve the car into traffic.”
“You could do it now. Eat all the pills in the medicine cabinet.”
And the only time I felt good was in the shower. Just standing under hot water pelting my naked body. That made me feel good. I felt warm and safe. I’d take fifteen minute showers. Thirty minute showers. Just standing there in the hot water. My thoughts would turn to anything other than suicide. In fact, hurting myself was never an option in that place. My best ideas come from standing in the shower, just thinking.
Making music must have been the same way for Wilson. Imagine him, sitting behind the mixing board, focused on the harmonies and chord changes, his mind completely devoted to his work. Thoughts of razors and pills and traffic long gone, kept away behind the locked studio door.
When he says, “Why don’t you let me go home?” I know exactly which voice he’s talking to.
Twenty-four hours. And he made a song that people still sing. Almost as if he had no choice in the matter. As if it was protecting him from something.
I’m only thirteen years old when I find Call of Cthulhu in the Spencer’s Gifts. Walking in with ten dollars from mowing lawns, I planned on spending that money at the arcade next door, but I stopped here first. The people at Spencer’s Gifts have no idea what it is and have marked it down to ten bucks. They don’t even charge me tax for it. “Just take it, kid.”
I have no idea what this thing is. But I know the names “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu.” But it’s a game, too? Like Monopoly or Clue.
I open the box. The sweet smell of freshly printed paper rushes up to greet me. I have my first roleplaying game. Within 24 hours, I have friends over to try it.
I don’t need thirty minute showers anymore. I have something else. I can tell stories.
More than thirty years later, I’m running Pendragon for my friends. The game begins with Uther becoming the King of England and ends with Arthur being taken away to Avalon. It’s a long haul. Sometimes as long as two years of real time.
Six months into the game, my friend Rob writes this:
And I remember why I run games. I love movies. Nobody can say that about movies. I love books. Nobody can say that about books. Nobody can say that about plays or comics or television shows.
RPGs are a unique medium that has unique effects on the audience. Performs a unique kind of magic. Alchemy. The art of telling the story that transforms the audience and the artist.
Greg Stafford wrote about this in Runequest. In his world of Glorantha, you can accompany a shaman into the Hero Realm and undergo an adventure, reliving a hero’s experience in his eyes, walking in his footsteps. Returning to the world, you are transformed by the experience. Whether he knew it or not—and I like to think he did—Greg made a roleplaying game about the roleplaying game experience: the Game Master helps you enter the world of heroes and gods, where you walk in a hero’s footsteps, seeing through her eyes, and then return to the world, transformed by the experience. By taking you on that journey, the shaman, or the GM, also cannot help but be transformed.
A true magic trick indeed.
And now, all of that rushes up into my head, all at once. A full throttle firehose blast of information. Sailing on the Sloop John B with Cthulhu off the starboard side and Greg in his captain’s hat just smiles and says, “We’ve got this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you home.”