Running Without the Devil

John and David Burdick, Christmas 1963.

I am John, but only because my brother had already claimed Paul. Three years older and in every way more sanguine and self-assured, David went and grabbed a self by the literal neck. I had to wait for one to come to me. We got matching untunable plastic cowboy-themed guitars one Christmas morning circa ’63, and the photographs are unambiguous: My big brother had already sold his soul at the crossroads without reservation, and – mind already on fire with outlaw and rebel mythologies – even seemed to understand it that way. He clutched that toy instrument with an ergonomic certainty and claim-staking chokehold that has yet to waver.

The cultural content of the guitar – ramping toward its apex, at the bloom of its meaning and allure in the late ’60s – flooded our house and took my brother away forever. In the ensuing 50-odd years, anything he has ever had to do that did not involve guitars and amplifiers (and there hasn’t really been all that much) has been an insult to him and treated as such.

In grade school, right before Christmas vacation, I was brought before the assistant principal to discuss my habit of aimless wandering. I had no answers. If I could replay that conversation today, I’d say, “Back off, lady, and watch me work,” for now I understand my mode. I have always experienced myself as a strangely stationary drifter, an itinerant thinker and talker, a man of an intellectually agitated and perambulatory inaction. My favorite thing – music – was taken, removed from the menu by my brother’s singular claim. At my second-favorite thing – sports – I had some facility, but lacked the body. So I tried on the selves that were assigned me at home and at school.


The one that came closest to sticking was “writer,” offered me by teachers and by parents already a little unnerved by the widening gap between apparent intelligence and performance (which, I have finally begun to understand, is where writers live). I had demonstrated a certain playful verbal and conceptual energy. I had plagiarized a couple of funny limericks during a sixth-grade Language Arts unit from Nantucket. So I was a writer: Yeah, that’s the ticket.

I rarely sat down to compose anything. I had no idea what being a writer entailed, and handwriting was physically painful for me. But for years, when I found myself in a social pinch, desperate for some kind of prestige and distinction, I would own “writer,” halfheartedly and with self-loathing over the lie. If anyone asked what I was working on, the jig was up. I plagiarized a Monty Python sketch and Glen Heroy nearly beat me up for it. That was my achievement to date.

It turns out that I can write my way out of a paper bag, but just. Throughout my life, I have, via non-commitment, passive resistance, decision aversity and a bunch of verbal lube, squirmed out of numerous paper bags, protecting my right to do the bare minimum while I waited for myself to wake up and do music. Music was the big dark lake in the middle of my soul, roughly in the shape of my brother, and I preserved and defended that sprawling emptiness like Muir, Burroughs and Greenpeace combined.

Ten years into an academic career, admitted into NYU’s Rhetoric and Composition program, I declined and quietly accepted the death of those prospects, the family business. Five or six years into a potentially lucrative career in the wordy end of the web world, I went part-time and quietly rode the boom down to the bust with about 100 other people. All but me popped right back up. Each time, it was music that bade me not to decide, not to proceed.

As everyone promised it would, this habit of stubborn indecision dropped me on the steps of my 40s, depressed and lost, overweight for the first time in my life and underachieving in a way that had completely lost its rakish charm. I felt no real identity, within or without, and no one was rushing in to lift me up.

And that is when music showed up. I laughed bitterly at its timing. It came on quietly at first: a few pickup shows as a bass player, one of which led to the modest beginnings of the Sweet Clementines – my first songwriting project in a decade, which led to numerous other bands and projects, hundreds of shows and recording sessions, some tours, a co-op label, a million new friends and a nice little semi-pro musical life for someone who didn’t see one coming. And finally, music and writing merged into this thing I do here.

So I finally found my way to the crossroads, desperate and on my knees as one is supposed to be when supplicating the Dark One, but the Devil had long since left and no deal was on the table. Music thus came to me without the Devil’s burning imperatives and (this is really important) without his blues licks as well.