NOTE: I wrote this over a year ago in response to a letter I had received from my friend and former teacher. I was going through a tough time mentally, Jim a tough time musically. I now "speak" with him regularly via the internet. As I tread water in Florida, I'm drawn back to something comfortable; the music of Book of Kills. It feels like home.
-Andrew Neckowitz, 11/17/99
See, I finally have something to say. After several years, my mind has come full circle. I've flirted with BOK tapes the past few years, but my heart hasn't fully been in it. What can I say? I guess I just lost touch with the music. With Jim.
I've spent my years since high school searching daily for heaven (paradise, whatever) and finding nothing but real life. And every time I come back to Harrisonburg, Virginia, I ask Tom, the owner of Town and Campus Records, if James Shelley has put anything new out. And generally the answer is a solemn "no." I understand. I guess I know Jim personally. Whether he realizes it or not, he helped me. Enormously. When I was feeling alone, and just plain fucked up, I could talk to him. And when I didn't have time to see him, his music helped to remind me that we're all fucked up ("We're all mad here; I'm mad, You're mad...").
And so I left for college, Jim moved, and I haven't spoken to him much since. I think about him whenever I'm home. I drive by The Little Grill, and remember moshing to the heavy songs. And getting affected deeply by the rough (but so beautiful, not to sound trite)
version of "Heaven." And the disturbing "Little Boy Lost."
I bought a live Hendrix album today. "Little Wing" is the first song. It's a song that has always affected me. Hendrix sings the verses, then he shuts up and plays for a while, captures you with the guitar. Then Jimi sums up my dreams and desires in one simple line: "Fly high, little wing." I hope Jim Shelley can hear that still. I hope he knows that there are those of us out here who will never forget him. He has affected us all.
Like I was saying, though, I went away to school. Harrisonburg became my second home, Blacksburg my first. I'm not sure if I kept Jim's number. I hope so. I saw him last summer. We talked in Wal-Mart about him taking his children fishing. I realized then that as two people, we are miles apart. I guess that bothered me at first. Someone I admired so much as my teacher in high school was so different and seemed so hard for me to talk to. Because what was there to talk about? Gerunds? Dangling modifiers? His bands had all fallen flat. No one else had his dedication. Nor his love, his inherent and unbelievable love for the music.
I wonder what his students think of him. I wonder if he still sends out [his newsletter] "Notes From Underground." I didn't know Jim that well outside of school. I thought I did. I thought of him as my friend. But in truth, he was my teacher. Not just in the sense that he taught me English and Creative Writing. I felt like I had lost a friend, because I had nothing to say to him once I went away to Virginia Tech. But tonight I have something to say.
Jim is everyone's friend who he can be a friend to. In that sense, he will always be mine. I might not know every day what's happening in his life, but I will always have something that he has given me; knowledge.
I saw how much it hurt him when a new formation of BOK didn't work out. I read his letters and noted the sarcasm and defensiveness he used to control his excitement when a new version of the band became a possibility. He even thanked me once on the inside cover of one of his tapes. I think it was me, anyway. Among the usual names was one extra: "Andy." I wonder if he realizes what that meant to me. Still means to me.
Hey, I have something to say. This man, who has led twice the life I have both in years and otherwise, showed me that life is about being real. It's not about what "they" think (since "everybody's got a fucking opinion") or what we read in books, it's about living. Jim does not have a big record contract. He is a home taper. But I think he sometimes overlooks one very important point: the music business is about entertainment. And while Jim wants to, and does, entertain, his music is mostly about being real. And the couple hundred copies he sells of each album mean more to those who buy them than any over-produced, corporate garbage that we all ingest and dispose of daily.
Jim seems distraught when I talk to him now. He seems depressed that things aren't going the way he might have dared dream. But he taught me that living and doing what you desire are the most important things in life. Maybe, if nothing else, he can learn from me that his philosophy is damn right. Who needs a**holes trying to sell music to the masses, when Rockingham County has a fucking-a musical genius to appreciate?
Hey, I've got something to say. It took me three years to realize that Jim is a real person. And while I guess I don't know him very well, he taught me a lot. And I hope he realizes that. I hope he keeps making music, and I hope he is happy. I hope he never fades away like so many a rock star. And I hope I can find his damn phone number, because it's been entirely too long since he and I have spoken.