Basement Songs: Porcupine Tree, “Trains”
I could sense a presence at the foot of my bed; someone standing there, waiting for me to wake up. Raising my head, my eyes fought their way through the haze caused by the alcohol and turkey I’d consumed the night before. It was my brother-in-law, Seann, dressed in his motorcycle jacket and his backpack hanging over one shoulder. His mouth curled into the cocksure smile that never seemed to leave his face.
The night before, Thanksgiving, he’d joined us for a feast at my brother’s house. We hadn’t seen him in a while and it was a pleasure to catch up. All in attendance came from my sister-in-law’s side of the family and I always found it beautiful that Seann could effortlessly fit in with them. Just as they had welcomed Julie and me into their lives many years ago, they did the same with Seann. It helped that he was so personable and an interesting person to be around. If you asked him he could talk to you about just about anything.
It wasn’t always that way. When I first met Seann, as a cut, ten-year-old kid, in love with the Cleveland Indians and the game of baseball. He was also pretty nonverbal. Our conversations generally went something like this:
Me: “What’s up dude?”
Seann: “Hmm. Not much.”
Me: “Indians look pretty good. I really like the team they’ve put together, including that Lofton guy! I loved him!”
And that was about it. I was content with having this type of relationship seeing as I’d bonded with her other brother, Michael, over similar interests in music, movies and comics. Still, I hoped that someday Seann and I might connect, despite the fact that we lived in California and he reside in Northeast Ohio. Everything changed the day Seann took up drumming.
Having played drums throughout my entire adolescence and into college, I could finally relate to my young brother-in-law and really get to know him. To my great surprise, Seann didn’t just bang around on the drums, playing to the radio; he excelled at the instrument through discipline, hours of practice and a innate sense of rhythm. He found a way to express himself and it was awesome. As any drummer can tell you that it’s a joy to listen and watch a natural talent on the kit, and Seann was a true natural. We now spoke the same language. Instead of grunts and mumbles, Seann and I began having conversations about drum kits, tuning, cymbal brands, drumsticks and which drummers he admired the most.
I’ll admit that I took secret pleasure in being able to jam every time Julie and I went back to Cleveland, but Seann was always gracious and gave up the drum stool whenever I asked. There were occasions when he hung out to watch me play. I wager to say that he didn’t receive as much pleasure in watching me as I did when he was behind the drum kit.
When the time came for Seann to apply to colleges, I was intrigued that he was considering Bowling Green State University, my alma mater. He wanted to major in music and seeing as I’d spent four years roaming the halls of the music school, I felt that I could offer my two cents. We discussed BG’s excellent music program and the great campus atmosphere. I’m not sure if what I had to say had any sway in his decision, but Seann chose BG in the fall of 2000.
At Bowling Green, Sean transformed from a great drummer into well-rounded percussionist and musician. His studies introduced him to a variety of instruments that added richness to his skills. Additionally, he became interested in sound engineering and began thinking about a career as a sound designer for films. It was a marvel to watch the light of his spirit shine. This was no truer than when he returned from a trip to Ghana, Africa. An openness and a joy for life were bursting from him as he regaled the family with stories of his trip abroad. Africa fortified his soul and gave him a new purpose in life.
In 2005, Seann graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles. In Southern California he really came into his own. For a short time he slept on our couch and made daily treks over the mountain into Hollywood. It wasn’t long before he hooked up with some Ohio friends in that area and took up residence on their couch. Eventually he found a place in Venice, a city close to the beach and full of culture. With the two industries he wanted to succeed in all around him, Seann flourished. Moreover, the access to nature- oceans, forests, mountains- kept him in tune with his physical and spiritual sides. We began seeing less of him as his new life began taking off and he became busier, working as a sound designer and composer for a small production company, and recording and distributing his own music.
Still, he was never too busy to visit when we called. All it took was the pleading voice of my daughter on the other end of the phone and he was making a weekend trip to have home cooked dinner and catch up. Each year when it came time for the CF Great Strides walks, he never had to be reminded. In fact, he would ask when the walk was taking place so that he could program it into his calendar. I will never forget his dedication to the children, not just to my kids, who had the good fortune of seeing him regularly, but also to his nieces and nephews who lived on the other side of the country.
Whenever the two of us got together, I was eager to talk shop, whether it was film, music or baseball. I never would have given Avenged Sevenfold a chance if it wasn’t off of his recommendation, nor would I have been able to say that Thirty Seconds to Mars is not my thing. I never would have discovered Porcupine Tree, the British prog metal band with a cult following in America.
Last Christmas, as I scrolled through his iTunes, their album, In Absentia, popped up on the screen. “Those guys are great,” he told me, “you really should listen to them.” Intrigued, I copied the album to my iPod. Months later, while commuting to work, I fell in love with the record. The multiple time changes, the lush harmonies, the slick production- everything reminded me of my favorite Yes album from the 80’s, 90125. In particular, the second track, “Trains,” stuck its hooks into me and had me singing it for days. Because he was the only person I knew who’d ever heard of this band, I always associated the album with Seann.
It should come as no surprise that when Seann was killed in a motorcycle accident last December, I sought comfort in the music that made me feel closest to him. To numb the hours, days and weeks following his tragic death, to block out the screaming in my head and the hot tears of sorrow, I listened to “Trains” over and over again- on the train, in my office and before I went to bed ad forced myself to sleep. Sometimes it’s a great help, and others it’s just the noise to help me get through the grieving.
I am blessed to have known this man. As I said, he was a good uncle, a good friend and a brother to me. Was Seann perfect? No. But who is in their 20’s? He was still learning, growing, trying to figure out this world and how to make it a better place; trying to find his place in it. I’m so glad that he decided to spend Thanksgiving with us this year, to have him join us in the good food and company that the holiday symbolizes. The next morning, while Jacob slept in another room, and Julie was out shopping with my daughter, Seann stopped in my bedroom to say goodbye before riding off for the studio where he worked. It was the last time I ever saw him.
He stood at the end of my bed, dressed in his motorcycle jacket, his backpack hanging over one shoulder. His mouth curled into the cocksure smile that never seemed to leave his face. I craned my neck to look at him.
“S’up?” I asked.
“I’m taking off,” he replied.
“Tell Julie I said goodbye.”
“Hmm. Yeah. Sure.”
I fell back on to my pillow while Seann exited the house, walked across the driveway and started up his motorcycle, parked right outside the bedroom window. As I drifted back to sleep, I could hear his motorcycle drive down our street and fade off into the distance.