NO ALTERNATIVE: “…And That’s A Wrap!”

The last time I updated my blog, we had yet to begin production on “No Alternative.” Perhaps it’s a testament to the all-consuming nature of production that you have not heard from me since! I am therefore extremely pleased to write that we’ve finished principal photography and the film is in the proverbial “can.”

On the set of “No Alternative.” Photograph by Joshua Sarner.

It want to reiterate that I would not have been able to get this far without the help and support of everyone who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Because of the strength of the Indiegogo campaign and your stalwart support of the cause, this project has gained the attention of magazine, newspaper and television outlets around the country. It also attracted the interest of investors who also believed in the film — both in its message, and in its commercial viability.

I can honestly say that everyone involved in the filming, from the actors to each and every crew member, was emotionally connected to the material and brought their A-Games to the set:

It was an absolute pleasure to work amidst such a passionate and talented group of people. The leads, Michaela Cavazos and Conor Proft, impressed me more and more each passing day. They were outstanding as Bridget and Thomas Harrison and I can’t wait for viewers to see just how outstanding their performances are on screen. I was also thrilled to work with veteran actors, Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and Harry Hamlin (“Mad Men”), who played the Harrison parents. I can’t thank them enough for their passion, generosity and faith in me as their director. Coming-of-age movies about families are hard to make in Hollywood, but I truly feel this movie was meant to be made — it was a near-impossible task, but everyone’s contributions made it possible. And it was not only monetary contributions: people donated their time, their 90’s era vehicles, their wardrobe, their food, their houses (as locations and for lodging), their instruments, their band logos and music, among many, many other valuable goods and services. My hometown, the City of Yonkers, could not have been more accommodating throughout the process — it has always bee a dream of mine to shoot this film there. This project was about as grassroots as it gets; and you know what, each and every step of it was invigorating!

Left to right: Conor Proft, Kathryn Erbe, William Dickerson, Harry Hamlin, Michaela Cavazos.

I’m extremely excited to be heading into the next phase of the film: the editing phase. We have a wonderful editor, Natasha Bedu, who has spent a lot of her time recently cutting the Emmy Award-winning series “Intervention” on A&E. Natasha couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team, and I’m thrilled to have her on board!

As we venture into post-production, our fiscal sponsor, From the Heart Productions, has encouraged us to continue raising money for this final, and crucial, part of the process. Those looking for end-of-the-year tax deductions, all contributions remain fully tax-deductible. Please share the project, if you haven’t done so already, and consider adding to your contribution if you feel compelled to do so — we’ve already done so much with a relatively small amount of money (by Hollywood’s standards), a little bit more will assure we get the best post-production sound and color correction we can swing. Here is a link to our current campaign:

https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm

Thank you so much for your support! I wish you all the best this holiday season!!

 

An Inside Look Into the Making of “No Alternative”

I’m thrilled to announce that Film Slate Magazine will be publishing a series of real time updates on the pre-production, production and post-production of my film, “No Alternative.”

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“No Alternative” is a personal film that, these days, is near impossible to get made in Hollywood. I’ve written a great deal about how the decline of the middle space of filmmaking has essentially mirrored the decline of the middle class in this country—the chasm between the one percent of filmmaking—tent-pole blockbusters—and the ninety-nine percent—indie films, which have been relegated to shrinking microbudget levels—has never been greater, or more stark.

I’ve directed a few features and never really considered crowdfunding as an option, but Hollywood’s rather myopic focus on the “biggest” and “broadest” has led indie filmmakers like me to welcome such an avenue—we’ve always had to beg, borrow and steal, but such an ethos has never been more germane to independent filmmaking as it is right now. Inspired by my sister’s real-life struggles with mental illness, “No Alternative” couldn’t be more personal to me, and therefore it made for a good project to attempt to crowdfund. Through my research, I’ve found that people are more likely to contribute to a person with a personal story, with a cause, than to simply a story itself.

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We raised over $50,000 through Indiegogo and continue to raise funds through our non-profit sponsor, From The Heart Productions here: https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm. The campaign attracted a lot of attention and drew support from a great deal of people, including Amazon Studio’s own Ted Hope. We’ve been able to raise eighty-five percent of our budget from outside investors who were also drawn to the project and its accompanying crowdfunding campaign. It’s important to remember that crowdfunding campaigns are not only about raising money, they’re also about establishing, and subsequently building, your base. This base includes supporters, fans and potential business partners like investors, producers and keys of departments. The crowdfunding page for your film serves as its “go-to” hub for people interested in it. The best part of it is: if they like what they see and hear, they can be a part of making the movie a reality!

I’ve been open and honest not only about my personal connection to the material, but also about the filmmaking process itself. I’ve written a book on microbudget filmmaking and plan to put my experience and theories on the subject to the test on this film, and I will be keeping a journal of sorts of the process and publishing it in Film Slate Magazine over these next few months as we make “No Alternative.” Stay tuned!

NO ALTERNATIVE: To Be Continued…

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It has been an incredibly rewarding, and equally exhausting, few months. I launched my first crowdfunding effort for “No Alternative” on Indiegogo, which succeeded in raising over $50,000 for the project. While it missed the mark of my goal, this is a big chunk of the budget that will, no doubt, help the film get off the ground.

I have so many people to thank for their stalwart support. People I went to school with—every school I’ve ever attended: grammar school, high school, college, graduate school—were there for me. My filmmaking mentors in those schools, like Steve Vineberg, Ed Isser, D.C. Fontana and Jim McBride, all threw into the pot. People who I’ve known all my life, people who I’ve only met once or twice, came to my aid. There were total strangers, who took time out of their days to watch the crowdfunding video and read up on the project, that contributed, some of whom contributed very large sums. There was even some celebrity love from the likes of Greg Poehler (“You, Me, Her”), Cassidy Freeman (“Longmire,” “Smallville”) and Kimmy Robertson (“Twin Peaks”). Perhaps most inspiring was a donation from the head of film production at Amazon Studios, Ted Hope, a renowned producer and studio head who prides himself on supporting indie film and director-driven, personal movies.

Ted Hope - No Alternative - Tweet

The campaign for “No Alternative” struck a nerve, as evidenced by our 500+ backers, features in publications like Filmmaker Magazine, Film Slate Magazine, Indiewire and Moviemaker, and the countless messages I’ve received from people affected by mental illness on a daily basis.

As many of you know, the character of  Bri Da B in “No Alternative” is inspired by my sister, Briana, who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the ways she was able to cope with it was through rapping. When the character of Bridget becomes Bri Da B, that transformation into someone else helps lessen her pain. “No Alternative” has always been a love letter to my sister, a plea for her survival. That’s why I wrote the novel that the film is based on. I wish I could tell you that plea was successful. But, unfortunately, I can’t. The majority of my sister’s life was a battle fought against her mental illness, drug addiction and suicidal behavior. A battle she ultimately succumbed to.

While she may have lost her battle, I’m hopeful we can win the war—and after talking to so many other sufferers out there throughout this process, I’m confident we can. The issue of mental illness must, and will, be destigmatized and “No Alternative” is just one step in that direction.

I also must thank From The Heart Productions, who sponsored us as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that supports films that contribute to society. Each donation pledged to “No Alternative” not only helps our film, but also helps other socially conscious films get made. From The Heart has encouraged us to continue raising money for “No Alternative,” and is hosting an extension of our crowdfunding campaign on Network For Good.

What we’ve raised thus far will help us through pre-production and lead us into production. But, we aren’t quite done. This second campaign through From The Heart is meant to build on the momentum we’ve gained and get us through production and into post-production. Remember: EVERY DOLLAR COUNTS. The more we can raise, the higher quality we can achieve—whether it means we can pay for one or two extra crew members, secure an additional day of shooting, or be able to afford the rights to the perfect 90s soundtrack—quite literally, each and every cent matters.

The link to the new campaign is here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

The spirit of “No Alternative” is DIY—do-it-yourself, punk rock, an ethos I truly believe in. But I can’t make this movie alone—I need your help to make it. Please share, contribute and help us continue to build on this momentum into production! In doing so, we can keep the very important conversation about ending the stigma of mental illness alive. I am extremely grateful for the support thus far. Thank you so very much.

All Writing Should Be Eulogies

I’m the go-to guy in my family for eulogies. Someone dies, I’m you’re man. In one respect, this may seem flattering, if not comforting; in every other respect, it’s quite the opposite.

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I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to my sister while she was on life support. She had stopped breathing and was without oxygen to her brain for approximately 40 minutes before the fire department eventually broke down the door and paramedics got a ripple of a pulse back in her.

She was pronounced brain dead. She was going to die. In many respects, she already was.

I sat next to her the day before we were to take her off the breathing machine and the drugs that were stimulating her heart with my laptop open. My parents asked me to write the eulogy, and of course, I would; I was expecting to—Briana would have wanted me to, that I know, without a doubt—but I wasn’t expecting to write it with her in the room. She was still alive, technically, and I began writing her eulogy. I never dreamed that I would be doing such a thing. I had to ask my father “Do I refer to her in the past or present tense?” Again, a question I never thought I would have to ask in a million years. When I say I was writing, what I mean is I stared. Unable to bring myself to start writing, I stared at that blank page for longer than I’ve ever stared at any other before or since.

In that moment, that blank page was my sister. On one hand, her life was taken from her at far too young an age; on the other hand, her life had been mercifully relieved of the burden of her demons. Both sides were ostensibly a blank page; both the beginning and the end, the end and the beginning. For me to write on this page, a page that was pure, that represented both life and death, seemed beyond the scope of my expertise. I felt ill-suited for such a task, a task that was unfair for me to undertake, but also a task unto which I was the only person suited.

I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway when he purportedly said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Every story has been told before. I recoil from the thought of how many people have sat next to a loved one who was dying—one who was unable to be helped no matter how much you wanted to and were willing to help. What hasn’t been told before is the way I, or you in this similar situation, experienced it. To be compelled to write about it is thoroughly human, because the act itself extends beyond us—and beyond the limitations of our expertise—and touches others. The act itself provides both a sense of solace and mutual mourning, which will ultimately provide a sense of hope and unified catharsis as the weight of the tragedy is redistributed to the shoulders of others.

It was once the consensus of the mainstream that the best kinds of art come from the worst kinds of tragedy. The idea of the tortured artist was accepted, and in some cases, the path considered noble. In recent years, this idea is considered unnecessary and pretentious. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, how can you possibly write about it? The answer is: you can’t. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake emotion. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, you haven’t been scarred by it, then you should enjoy the life that you have. I cannot enjoy my life the way I used to, because I am permanently scarred. However, art can help, art can manage, art can guide me to rediscovering how to live again, because learning to live again is exactly what needs to occur, or frankly suicide is as rational an option as any other.

Eventually, I began writing; and it was the best fucking writing I’ve ever done:

http://williamdickersonfilmmaker.com/eulogy-for-my-sister/

While it strains reality to label anything inside this tragedy as a gift, I believe that my sister, in this moment, was giving me a gift. In the ensuing weeks, I went through her things and came across a journal of hers, which she wrote while in a six-month inpatient rehabilitation program for drug addiction. There was quite a bit of writing, and the only mention of me in her journals was a single line that said: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her emotion into her art, as a way of leaking some hope through that din of despair. It wasn’t until several months later, as the grief was exponentially worsening and my productivity hit a standstill, that I thought that, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me, addressing me. Her words were staring back at me from the page: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.

Funeral

Hemingway wrote: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.” Living people die, characters do not—characters live on in the eternal mediums they’ve been brought to life within. Perhaps, paradoxically, writing good characters means writing about death, for death is the precipice upon which life precariously leans over, for to stare over that edge is the only way to truly experience life. This is why all writing should be eulogies. To understand death is to understand oneself, one’s fellow man, which is to say, man can never really be understood. Man is an unknown—to treat man as anything else but an unknown, is to ignore our monumental insignificance amidst the unfathomable scope of our universe.

What we can do, as writers, as filmmakers, as artists, is allow another person into the unfathomable existence of another—of one of Hemingway’s “characters.” To do so brings solace, a sense that we’re not alone in this collective struggle, and the act of doing exactly that is art’s sole, and often noble, purpose. To do so makes certain that others know they are not alone at the bedside of their dying kin; there are others there, too. There are others who know.

If Briana’s talent as an artist was her gift to me, then my film, “No Alternative,” will be my gift to her, and to those who both knew her and didn’t get the chance to know her. Bridget, aka Bri Da B, is the best character I’ve ever written, and that’s because I barely had to write it—it wrote itself; this role inhabits the soul of my sister.

Please help me bring this role to life; help me keep the flame of my sister’s life aglow. Check out the campaign to do just that here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

Suicide: The End, and the Beginning

I think a lot of people who say they don’t think about suicide, think about suicide.

I’m not saying they think about committing suicide, but the idea, the notion, the concept, is pervasive in our culture, and frankly, our DNA. It’s there, bubbling underneath the surface. As I write in the opening lines of my book, “No Alternative”:

Suicide is a universally human phenomenon. It’s what separates us from the animals, despite the fact that people shun it and cloak it in taboo. Animals do not commit suicide, at least that’s the common wisdom. It is this received wisdom that reveals something about our attitudes on the subject, as suicide is most always painted in the light of shame and pity, something we reserve for lesser beings than ourselves. In actuality, suicide is a refined and selfless act, usually a result of many thoughtful hours, days, months, or years of meticulous and steadfast preparation. Suicide is not thoughtless; it’s precisely the opposite.

Perhaps I think about suicide more than others—I wrote an entire novel on the theme, in an attempt to prevent others from succumbing to self-harm. My idol killed himself when I was 15 years old. His death was the reason I picked up a guitar, because I wanted to learn all of his songs, perhaps in an attempt to somehow keep his spirit alive. His suicide not only united many alienated teens in 1994, but it also led tragically to a number of copycat suicides. In retrospect, every song on his band’s album, “In Utero,” reads like a suicide note. We didn’t realize it before—we rarely do realize it before—it’s only after one commits suicide that everything that came before, that led up to it, seems so patently obvious.

KC-Hell

While my parents and I believe the overdose that led to my sister’s death was accidental in nature, she had attempted suicide several times in the past. Two of those times were, seemingly, in direct response to me.

I live in Los Angeles, California, though my family still resides in Yonkers, New York—as did my sister while she was alive. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is a constant need, and consequent demand, for attention. Pay attention to me! in its most severe incarnation. If the sufferer of BPD perceives a lack of attention, it often leads to a concentrated feeling of abandonment, which can then metastasize into rage and recklessness, or worse, self-hate and self-harm. I only get to visit New York about twice a year; so understandably, my parents spend a lot of time with me while I’m there. Two of those times, in attempts to redirect their attention back to her, my sister tried to kill herself.

When she did try to kill herself, she always managed to do a pretty good job. She put herself into a coma on more than one occasion. I was by her side one of those times. When she awoke, the drugs having been eliminated from her system, I asked her, “Why are you doing this?” In one of her most sober of moments, she looked up at me and said: “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Suicide is the thing; the goal; the beginning and the end; the next big thing; the be all, end all; the eye in the sky – it’s the Tylenol bottle with the 20 bonus pills, because swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol can kill you.

Suicide is an option; it’s an alternative; it’s aqua seafoam shame; it’s dead of a shotgun blast to the head.

Suicide is the lyric of a song; packaged inside a gold record.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spin the black circle.

While I might be able to rationalize that my sister is in a better place—that she is finally free from the terrible yoke of mental illness and addiction around her neck—it is still impossible to accept. I alluded to this in a letter I wrote to her while she was in one of her comas, and within inches of her death, a letter that I also included in my novel. Here is an excerpt:

Dear Briana,

The moment I’m writing this, you’re unconscious in the hospital, a stomach full of charcoal, and you’re on a ventilator because you cannot breathe. They say you might not make it. I don’t know what I’d do if you don’t, because I can’t bear to think about living in this world without you in it.

You’re my little sister, and big brothers are supposed to protect their little sisters. And I’m weeping right now because of how incredibly helpless I feel—I’m right next to you, but still a thousand miles away. It tears me apart to think that I somehow failed you as a brother. Out of anyone else on this planet, you’re the person that most resembles me; genetically, we have the same make-up. By killing yourself, you would be, literally, killing a part of me. For you to leave this Earth is an abstraction my mind simply cannot accept.

Right now, I’m hoping for one thing, that you will be able to read this letter. I can’t bear the thought that you might not be able to—that you might not make it. That can’t happen. I love you so much, Bri, more than anything, much more than myself. I might not have ever said those words, but I’m writing them right now.

If you need a reason to live, and all you need is one, here it is: I want you to live.

I’ll be with you forever, whether you know it or not.

Love,
William

BrianaAndWilliam-NoFilter-Web

One thing that I am grateful for is that my sister did awaken from that coma, and she did get to read that letter. In fact, she apparently read it often at times when feeling the siren call of suicide reach out to her.

It did give me some consolation, in my grieving—a grieving that will continue until I, myself, am in the ground—to know that Briana read how much I loved her. There are many people who, for one reason or another, never get to convey their personal feelings to those who they love most. Then it’s often too late. At least it wasn’t too late for me. Not that time.

However, regret looms, and it looms large and it looms heavy.

Regret is a theme that weaves its way into all of my work, and that’s because it’s a theme that weaves its way through my life. I would often avoid communicating with my sister—when she called, I wouldn’t answer; when she texted or messaged me, my responses would be terse and included the phrase, “I’m really busy.” My dime store psychoanalysis of my behavior might be that I wanted to keep my interactions with her brief and dispassionate, for fear of saying the wrong thing and potentially setting her off, something siblings are experts at doing.

What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and pick up that phone, or write an overly verbose and emotional response, but I can’t go back in time. I ignored my sister; I ignored her while pursuing my often quixotic attempts of getting my movies made out here in Hollywood. Putting my work ahead of my family is something that concerns me greatly; it concerns me, because I’m sure I’m guilty of it. If I regret anything, I want to use that regret for the good. I don’t want to ignore it, I want to reroute its impact on me. The truth is the regrets will never go away. I can use it in my writing, and my filmmaking—that I can do. Does this make me feel better? I think in a lot of ways it does; even though I know it won’t erase them. It exposes me to the pain of these regrets; it forces me to relive them, since ignoring things doesn’t make those things go away. Those things must be dealt with.

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I honestly don’t know if my grief is changing. And I shouldn’t use the word honestly because that implies that other things I’ve written aren’t honest. I’m trying to be honest. Somehow, though, this inevitably leads to me beating up on myself. It’s easy to blame, and feels good to blame, because it makes things black and white, and it’s easiest to blame myself. Because I’m still here, I can hold myself accountable—there’s no need to issue a warrant for my arrest, I can lock myself up whenever I see fit.

My sister is gone, and in many ways I grieved for her before she died. I was told on two occasions that she wouldn’t make it through the comas she put herself in, when she tried to take her own life. I was told to be prepared for the worst. I grieved then, even though she ended up surviving; I also knew that as each day passed, there was a distinct possibility that she would not be there. Every call I received from my parents, just seeing their names on my phone, filled me with dread. Were they calling to tell me something had happened to Briana? This was always the first thought in my mind.

When my parents call now, that thought is no longer there. While that knee-jerk dread is gone, I wish it were still there, because that would mean that Briana was still there.

Perhaps this film is my way of giving her the attention I should have given her before; the attention she deserved as my sister. Perhaps it will do some good for those thinking about committing suicide, to see how suicide affects a family in this story. That is certainly my hope. Perhaps this will help alleviate some of the regret that weighs me down, that shames me on almost a daily basis.

One thing goes without question: I will regret not making this film. There is “No Alternative” but to make it.

And I need your help to make this film a reality: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

“No Alternative” – The Crowdfunding Campaign

No Alternative - Indiegogo - Card -4

I launched my first crowdfunding campaign this week.

Crowdfunding is its own art form—an art form I’m no expert at, I’m sure—but indie film is at a point where grassroots funding is becoming more and more critical to sustaining its viability. It’s almost impossible to get Hollywood to fund something that’s not a thriller, or a horror movie, or a comic book movie—and they rarely ever fund coming-of-age films. The filmmaking community, and their audiences, have been left with tent-poles (studio movies made for 150 million and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far less than a million).

The middle class space of filmmaking has disappeared. This is something I’ve written a lot about for Indiewire over the past few months. I’m hoping we can rebuild this artistically important space, one movie at a time—and right now I’m attempting to fight the good fight with my new film: “No Alternative.”

The character of “Bri Da B” is inspired by my sister, who for most of her life suffered from mental illness. One of the ways she was able to cope and enjoy her life was through rapping. When the character of Bridget becomes “Bri Da B,” that transformation into someone else helps lessen the pain she is feeling in her life.

I have always thought of “No Alternative” as a love letter to my sister, a plea for her survival. That’s why I originally wrote the novel this film is based on. I wish I could tell you that plea was successful. But, I can’t. The majority of my sister’s life was a battle fought against borderline personality disorder, drug addiction and suicidal behavior. A battle she ultimately succumbed to on July 1, 2014.

While she may have lost her battle, I’m hopeful we can win the war—and we can do it in honor of her, and others who have suffered like she did. The issue of mental illness needs to be destigmatized and “No Alternative” seeks to do just that.

The campaign for “No Alternative” is officially being sponsored by From the Heart Productions, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that supports films that make a contribution to society. By contributing to this film, you are not only helping other socially conscious films get made, but your donation is also tax-deductible.

This campaign encompasses the entire process—from pre-production, to production to finishing the film in post. I encourage you to check it out on Indiegogo: http://igg.me/at/noalternative

There are some amazing perks/rewards for contributors. Here is a list of just some of them: Signed editions of my books, Parental Advisory “Bri Da B” official movie T-Shirts, filmmaking mentorships with both myself and my co-screenwriter, Dwight Moody, opportunities to be a part of the movie as featured extras, as a band, or having supporting characters named after you, and we’re even offering major “hero” props from my previous films like “Detour” and “Don’t Look Back.”

Please check out the campaign page for all the other cool rewards you can redeem when you make a contribution.

“No Alternative” probes the lives of rebellious kids who transition into adulthood via the distortion pedals of their lives in an era when the “Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll” ethos was amended to include “Suicide” in its phrase. Help destigmatize mental illness, addiction and suicide: there is no alternative.

Thank you so much for your support.

I SOLD MY JAG-STANG TO BUY A JAGUAR

But not any Jaguar, a scratch-specific replica of Kurt Cobain’s one-of-a-kind Fender Jaguar electric guitar he bought in a pawnshop in Los Angeles in 1991.

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Fender recently set about recreating Kurt’s guitar to the ding in their custom shop and rolling the product out on the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s seminal and billboard-busting album, “Nevermind.”  I admit, at first, I thought this idea was pretty lame and the antithesis of what Punk Rock preaches (if it indeed, as a movement, preaches anything at all).  Why would anyone pay a cool grand and a few hundred dollars in change for a guitar that looks like it’s been beat to hell and back?   Punk Rockers are supposed to beat their own guitars to hell and back; that’s the whole idea of DIY.  This manufactured good, this product, this exploitation – as some might view it – lead me to the subject of creativity.

I remember how much I fetishized this instrument when I was a teenager, around the time I first picked up a guitar, the catalyst for which was the music that was created on this specific instrument by the late Kurt Cobain.  It was such an unusual guitar that we couldn’t just buy the damn thing, so back then we had to figure out other ways to replicate it.  I bought a limited edition Fender Jazzmaster in 1995, which looks similar to the Jaguar, with its enormous floating tremelo and bizarre switches, and shared indie cred with bands like Sonic Youth and Hole.  My friend and lead guitarist in the grunge band I was in at the time bought a reissue Fender Jaguar and had it professionally altered to come as close to Cobain’s original as possible.

I dramatize this teenaged obsession of ours in my novel and upcoming film, “No Alternative,” as two of the characters scrutinize a Japanese reissue of the Fender Jaguar in their local Sam Ash Music store:

“Kurt had a ’65,” Connor says.  He then proceeds to describe the instrument in fetishistic detail and recite the history of Kurt Cobain’s relationship to it:

‘Same sunburst color and bowling-ball pickguard, but Kurt gutted the shit out of his.  Got rid of that bridge ‘cuz the strings popped out – it was supposed to be for surf music, like the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and Dick Dale and The Deltones, designed to sound like waves crashing.  It couldn’t handle the thrashing he was giving it, so he replaced it with a Tune-O-Matic.  The strings stay put better, much better.  He disconnected the on/off and phase switches.  Biggest change was ripping out the single-coil pick-ups and replacing them with humbuckers: a DiMarzio PAF in the neck and a Super Distortion in the bridge, until the In Utero tour when he replaced it with a black Duncan JB.’”

About one to two years after Kurt Cobain’s death, Fender put the Jag-Stang on the market, which is a guitar based on a Jaguar/Mustang hybrid that Kurt Cobain himself designed.  He did not get a chance to perfect his design before he died, but Fender went ahead and put out the version they had work-shopped.  I, naturally, went ahead and bought it.  It was fine, but seemed cookie-cutter, and lacking the perceived soul that I was hoping would come along with guitar.  I removed the stock pickups and bridge and replaced them with what Kurt had initially intended to be featured in the guitar.  It sounded good, but still…something was missing.

Jag-Stang

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, perhaps I would never find it – perhaps no guitar could live up to a myth.  I ended up putting the guitar aside for a number of years and took up the drums (I was, frankly, sick of the lack of discipline and general mediocrity of the succession of drummers we employed in my band, so I decided to learn how to play the drums myself).  It was a great decision; I was a much better drummer than guitarist.  Kurt Cobain was known to say he was a frustrated drummer – he pined for the adoration of John Lennon, but wished for the anonymity of Ringo Starr.  However, the love of the guitar still had its hold on me.  As it turns out, once this instrument gets you in its grasp, it never lets go.   So, when the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s breakthrough album passed by, and the sounds of Nirvana and their distorted instrumentations came whooshing back into my brain, so did the image of this guitar: the image presented by Fender’s replication of it.

Why did it take them this long to catch on?  Or perhaps I was just stuck in the past and I hadn’t moved on.  Or, the converse, the world hadn’t quite caught up to me and my predilections.  Until now.  The beautiful thing about Kurt’s guitar is its timelessness.  First of all, it was a 60’s guitar that he used in the 90’s, and now it was being sold again, the way Kurt’s looked and sounded, in 2012.  This guitar was “steampunk” before the term became recognizable by the mainstream of pop culture (incidentally, the term was originated around the very same time Nirvana originated as a band – it just didn’t become fashionable until recent years).  It’s classic in its sunburst, surf-guitar sense, but sci-fi in its overwhelming use of shiny metal, moving parts and knurled knobs.  It even has a 50’s Fender “spaghetti” logo that Fender claims was never used on a Jaguar, that its use on this specific guitar is a complete mystery.  How did it get there?  And it was apparently there when Cobain bought it.  It had mods that seemed to incorporate genuine Fender hardware, but again, there’s no record of a guitar like this ever being officially produced.  Cobain’s guitar tech, Earnie Bailey, seems to imply that Kurt liked to use cheap pawnshop guitars to protest against the obsession with gear that the guitarists of 80’s hairbands preoccupied themselves with.  If they had an obsession with effects pedals, Floyd Rose Tremelos and glittering guitar straps, Kurt had obsession with breaking that obsession to pieces (literally by breaking his guitar, and sometimes his amplifiers, to pieces at the conclusion of his shows).  But, the exception was this particular Jaguar.  Perhaps when Kurt bought it for $300 at some podunk shop in LA, he had intended to destroy it right along with his other guitars.  But something happened – something must have indeed happened, because he never did break it.  He babied it, in fact.  Some kind of biological fail-safe had kicked in.  There was something special about this guitar.  He couldn’t kill it; it wouldn’t let him.  It no doubt had its hold on him.

Still, the first thing that popped in my head when I heard about Fender’s recent venture (particularly after I heard the price tag) was: lame.

It had the stink of buying a jacket in the department store that has safety pins integrated into the garment as a means of conveying a “punk rock” aesthetic; when, in all likelihood, the origins of safety pins in one’s clothes arose from the need to keep an article of clothing together while it was falling apart and the owner could not afford to replace it.  It had the stink of punk rock by JC Penney.  Same goes for brand new clothes with patches already affixed to the pre-ripped knees of jeans – the gall of some brands charging over $100 for such thing (and don’t get me started on paint-splattered dungarees).

There seemed no way around it: this guitar was lame.  But then I happened upon Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, walked inside and decided to take a look around.  And there it was.  And it was in my reach.  I knew it was in my reach because I could reach out and pick it up and place it on my lap and strum it.  The pictures I saw online did not do it justice: this thing looks amazing in person.  It had it.  It had what I had been looking for.  It had soul.  Every little crack Cobain had in the lacquer of his guitar was recreated on this guitar.  There were even holes in the headstock leftover from were Cobain removed his original tuners and replaced them with Gotoh versions.  They left the holes!  They’re selling a guitar with holes and cracks in it!  WTF?!  There was a ridiculous attention to detail.  The beauty of it is that it’s an exact replica; what Kurt’s guitar looked like the last time he played it, looked just like this.  And in addition to the aesthetics, you can play it, and not just ogle at it as though it’s some museum piece.  It’s functional, and pretty damn close to being art.  The aging on the instrument appears to be completely organic and not machine manufactured.  Each piece of metal has been oxidized and left in various stages of rust.  There even appears to be what looks like earwax in the crevices of the Super Distortion pickup in the bridge.  A whole lot of love, and apparently someone’s earwax, went into making this guitar, and honoring Cobain’s go-to musical apparatus.

kurt-reading-jaguar

But, as I was being seduced, I still had to remind myself: this was a fake.

This was, and still is, the guitar of my dreams.  It is arguably the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place.  I had a Jag-Stang, which was also a knockoff of a presumed original, so the way I looked at it was that I might as well sell this one and procure the better knockoff.  There was something in me that still had to have this guitar.  Even after selling the Jag-Stang, which itself has become a rare piece of equipment, the Jaguar was unfortunately still a bit out of my price range.  However, it occurred to me, what better guitar to buy used?  No one in his or her right mind can tell if it’s been used or not: it was made to look like it’s been used since 1960.  So I bought a used one, which was apparently in “mint” condition, whatever that means with respect to this instrument.  What normally would turn off a guitar buyer, namely cracks, blemishes and earwax in its electronics, turned me on immensely.  There was part of me that wanted to pick up where Kurt left off back in 1994, when I held a guitar in my hands for the first time.  I had begun my music-playing career by learning Nirvana songs (technically, they’re some of the easiest songs to learn and make for great material for the beginner guitarist) and my musicianship evolved from there.  I had put the guitar down for a long time, replaced it with drums, and as I hold this guitar now I am back to square one, back to the place that got me interested in the limitless sky of the sonic world.  It is already marked, marked by the man who so indelibly marked me.  And just as I had once thought, delusionally so, that I might assume the mantle and run with the torch of grunge to the top of the charts, I’m now left with the guitar that started it all, alone in my living room, hooked up to my Orange practice amp and RAT distortion pedal, strumming the opening chords to “Lithium,” the first song I ever learned to play on guitar.  But this time I’m not concerned with form, with style, with copying others before me – I’m letting the pick scrape against the pickguard, I’m nicking the headstock against the wall, I’m making the established buckle rash worse with my own belt.  I’ve bought a used guitar, a guitar that was used by my idol, which I plan to use and play just as hard, so that I may at some point later in life pass it down to someone else who will then be able to subtract the wear and tear he receives it with from Kurt Cobain’s wear, and be able to see the face of me marked into it.

As one of the characters, Megan, says in my book, “Nothing’s ‘original’ anymore.  I mean, think about it.  Everything gets recycled.  But, I guess, really, it’s what you recycle it into that matters.”  It’s not about creating something new; it’s about using what resources are available to you and putting your stamp on it.  The idea, the lyric, the melody is always the same, but it’s the way you present it, write it, and sing or play it, that is what makes it unique.  We are all influenced by others, whether we admit to it or not, that’s human nature.  However, it’s only when you are able to acknowledge that influence as a tool, and not an end in itself, that you are able to climb to the next level of creativity.  Don’t ever forget your influences, because they are what we need to recognize our ability and take the next step – they are the ground upon which our creativity walks.  Just be sure not to stand too long in one place, because the ground is always changing, and we got to keep on moving.


The “idea” is always the same, but what is 100% unique is the way your eyes, and ears, see, and hear, it.  It’s your personal perspective, your angle, of the idea that you must strive to share with the world.  It doesn’t matter if you’re generating that idea via the replica of Kurt Cobain’s guitar, or via a guitar that you built yourself, it’s the sound waves you generate from it that matters.  If it’s the former, there will likely be some punk with safety pins in his jacket criticizing you for the lameness of your tool.  But the kind of person to make that the primary source of his criticism, and not the execution of the idea – in this case the music its producing – is probably the kind of person who stuck those safety pins in his jacket not because it was falling part.  The nature of creativity lies in the making of something old into something new by making it your own.

For more info on “No Alternative” click here: http://igg.me/at/noalternative

NO ALTERNATIVE: “The Clarity of Regret”

NoAlternative-TitleI just completed my book tour.  It was a great success, and also a heck of a lot of fun.  I’m grateful to those bloggers who hosted my book and to Kriss and Kai of The Finishing Fairies for organizing the endeavor.

NoAlternative-FrontCover-Web

On the tour, I released an exclusive clip from a reading I did at Stories Books and Cafe in Echo Park.  Here it is:

The promotional campaign for this book has been grassroots.  Perhaps in line with the spirit of the characters in the novel, the concept behind writing this book, and consequently marketing it, is the “DIY” mindset.  If there is a core ingredient to punk rock, if there is an ideal to aspire to in said art form, it is the collective embrace of the do-it-yourself spirit, culture and lifestyle.  Just like the indie bands of the early 90’s, before there were social networks and paid advertisements on facebook and twitter, it was all about word-of-mouth.  So, if you’ve heard of “No Alternative,” and you dig what it’s about, please spread the word.

Here is the excerpt from the novel that I read in the above clip:

This break-up was the bittersweet kind, as if there is any other kind, but a kind nonetheless, and this kind fell into a specific subset of the bittersweet break-up, one that is typical among teenagers who have professed their love for one another, exchanged sterling silver rings, broken heart pendants, leather jackets, punk rock mix tapes. It’s falling head-over-Converses in love at an age when we’re still growing, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but more than just growing, expanding at breakneck speed, finding ourselves at a pace that is downright alarming and which will never be duplicated for the rest of our lives. It’s guaranteed that no love will last, but this teenaged love feels like heroin in the brutal rush of its power, its ability to commandeer the body and the mind and its ability to make you feel like a steaming pile of shit when it comes to its crashing end. It’s not that teenaged love is more powerful than any of the other types of love we experience throughout our lives, it’s just that we will never feel that way again, never feel that rush of addiction, the certainty that we have found our proper place in the universe and we feel that way precisely because we haven’t completed our physical and mental maturation. That’s what makes it unique. That’s what makes it addicting. That’s what makes it so enervating when it starts and so heartbreaking when it ends. And it always ends. And when it does, what was once there, what was once perfect, becomes irretrievable –

It’s lost forever.

Jeremy and Leslie were on the beach, kissing tenderly and gently, the way a couple that is not brand new starts to do at some point before they stop kissing altogether, kissing for what was soon to be the last time. It was the fact that they knew it was going to be the last time that made the kissing even more tender, as though there were memories tied up in it, as though there were regrets, not of times gone by but of times that would never be. He could feel her face, their cheeks grazing against each other’s, their tears mixing together, and he remembered how he licked them off his lips, tasting them. He tasted the salt; it was like he dipped his tongue into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. As Jeremy sat in his dank little holding cell in Bronxville, it was like the break-up was happening to him all over again, like he was replaying the events in his mind with Technicolor clarity, not the cheap rewinding and replaying of a VHS tape, but the hyper-clarity of a laserdisc, right down to the depiction of the blood dripping into the sand after she left. It was as High Definition as hi-def could get back then. Before there was Blu-ray and plasma televisions, there was the clarity of regret.

Thanks for reading.

You can find the book on Amazon, in Paperback and in Kindle: www.amazon.com/noalternative

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache