In October of 2010, I was getting ready to submit my recently finished third novel Badge to agents. This process involves writing a query letter, and it’s important to have a good one. I busied myself writing the best query letter possible, and I took a draft of it to my writing group for critique. The last paragraph of the letter read as follows:
My second novel, Ghost Notes, released on my own imprint in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. My work has appeared in The Writer and Writers’ Journal, and I am also a contributing writer at The Nervous Breakdown. In the 1990s, I was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments, a band that sold over 400,000 units worldwide, had a hit single (“Banditos”), and wrote and recorded the theme song for the Fox television series King of the Hill. I live with my wife, artist Raquel Edwards, in Portland, Oregon.
“Really?” Colleen said.
I knew what she was talking about. I’d been in this writing group for over a year, and I’d never mentioned the Refreshments. As far as they knew, I was a musician pushing 40 writing a novel about a musician pushing 40, and that was about it. “You mean the Refreshments part, right?” I said.
“Yes, the Refreshments part,” Karen Karbo, the group leader, said. Her eyes had a glow–that glow. “That’s really you?”
I wouldn’t blame anyone for being surprised. In the 13 years since the band’s demise, I’ve managed to scoot a fair distance away from the rock and roll tree. I’m probably more like your daddy than Puff Daddy.
Or more like Philip Roth than David Lee Roth.
Or more like the guy who lubes your axil than Axl.
I proceeded to tell my group about some of the band’s exploits, like the time we were on Conan O’Brien (Conan came up to me afterward, shook my hand and said, “Sorry you couldn’t be on Letterman”). The room was filled with wonder, disbelief. Someone asked Karen to get her laptop to see what Google had to say about this.
Later that night, the link to the O’Brien clip was unearthed, and emailed, and by the next morning everyone was congratulating me. There’s a funny moment in the clip where I do a kind of duck walk, and many wanted me to repeat the move at workshop the next week.
So why all the secrecy? Why didn’t I tell the people in my writing group I was in this band called the Refreshments?
The easy answer is that I thought they wouldn’t care. We spent our time talking about how to make our writing better, or which Jane Austen novel is the best, or the coming ebook revolution. These were topics that interested me. Mentioning the band seemed an unnecessary diversion.
But that would be a lie. I know most people have at least a little interest in this kind of thing. (One person in the group accused me of “holding out” on them.) The truth is I don’t like to talk about my life in the band. Bringing it up always sounds like some kind of pick-up line. I picture a weedy guy, drink in hand, eyebrow cocked, creeping over to some unsuspecting soul and saying, “You know, I was once in a very famous rock band. We were called the Refreshments. Have you heard of us?” This wouldn’t impress me, so I don’t know why it would impress anyone else.
In another way, my reticence is a kind of self-protection. I’d be embarrassed to tell you some of the most provocative things that happened while I was in the band. As rock stories go, they barely register on any self-respecting frat boy’s scale of Friday night revelry. I could rehash some Refreshments lore that’s at least half embellished, but why? I’ve spent 14 years mining that material for a different kind of story. I’ll probably spend another 14 years doing the same. This gets me fewer “whoa, dude”s then I might come by otherwise, but I guess I can live without them.
If I’ve learned anything since the band’s break-up, it’s that people want to retain their rock and roll fantasies, their unfettered narratives of drinking and rocking and debauchery, especially if they’ve never had them. My stories could violate your stories. “Why be a rock star if you’re not gonna party like one?” Good point. Maybe that’s why I’m not, and never was.
Despite all this, I’m proud of my Refreshments life. The band created fun, compelling music that made thousands of people freak out, including me. We had hit singles and toured the country. We have one ditty so ubiquitous that, if you turn on your TV right now, I bet you’ll find it playing somewhere. The band became the third part of the Tempe music trinity that also includes the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop, my two favorite bands in the world. What’s not to be proud of? If I have any kind of relationship with anyone for any length of time, I want to tell them about it.
So, I’ve developed a policy about mentioning my rock and roll past to folks: I wait a year. After a year, people know me, know who I am, sense what I’m about, and the Refreshments stuff is more colorful aside than main narrative. That’s what I’m comfortable with, so that’s what I do. Think of it as my variation on not kissing on the first date.
A year ago today, I posted my first TNB article. That means it’s time to let my Refreshments light shine at TNB. It’s not like it was a big secret, but it’s official now. I was in the Refreshments, and we were kind of a big deal. Hit me with your best Refreshments question, or just ask me my favorite Jane Austen novel. I’ll try to remain impartial.