Somewhere between Burlington and Denver, Asheville and Brooklyn. In a Between the Rainbow bus, the disco van, and the drum circle. Beyond the hula hooping sistas and the guy with the didgeridoo. Just past the hemp jewelry, the h3tty crystal wraps, the miracle seekers, the dreadies with the ice cold sammies and kind veggie burritos, you might find intrepid writer J.J. Colagrande. He’s been on the road for a long time and he’s taken his experiences on Phish tours, at the music festies, and in the vibrant culture and community that goes along with it into his first novel, Headz.
Headz is a rambling, ambling read – told through the point of view of different characters – “Heads” themselves from all over the country. Their collective paths all leading to Soldier Field for “Oracledang” — and what’s “Oracledang,” you ask? Why, it’s only the biggest festie of them all.
It’s no coincidence that Soldier Field was the site of the last Grateful Dead concert in 1995. During that shitty, yet bittersweet summer, a legion of people who had followed the psychedelic stalwarts suddenly realized that the road ended there. A lot of them turned their nomadic compasses towards the traveling carnival that was Phish and the rest of the bands on that bleary “jam” horizon, but othersÂ found and founded new scenes – indie, hip hop, turntablism, whatever.
What makes the festival scene thrive and vibe isn’t that neo-hippy devotionism, it’s not that longing to connect with a rose-colored view of the sixties that our parents (grandparents) and media have dangled in front of us. While the music industry continues to pump out manufactured musical product and suffers amid middling sales, the draw of the music festival is irresistible for someone who wants something real, a feeling that you don’t get peeling the plastic wrap off a CD bought at some box store or downloaded into a portable device. They want illumination and transcendence and that sense of community, but enough of my yakkin’ – Thelonius Horowitz says it better –
“Getting down on the get down. I hate having to explain it. The music’s all sorts of sorts of music too. Don’t make me put a label on it. Besides, music festivals are so much more than the music. It’s the journey it takes getting to the music fest. It’s the parking lot outside the music fest. The parking lot is like a Mecca, the ends to a pilgrimage. It’s our holy place, our Zion, our home. Rainbow style, son. By the time we get inside the music festival our heads are in a different place. It’s the couple of hours in the parking lot that really matter. That’s where the real story lies. I totally hate having to explain it, even to Teflon. It’s like you’re on the bus or you’re off the bus, but no matter what, this thing is continuing, whether you like it or not…”
J.J. Colagrande himself sends me emails from the road.
“I’m in Denver,” he writes, “lurking around the VIP tent, dropping off books on tables, sneak attack style. (I’m a firm believer a book will find a person when the person is ready to find the book)…It’s funny how the Universe delivers.“
“Here’s the thing. It could be argued that a hip hop act, or a rock act, defies the jamband mentality of a festie, but on the contrary, their presence stand as a testament to its evolution. Music festivals have opened up to all genres, possibly helping to bridge what could be defined as America’s culture wars. There have always been too many labels, genres, cliques, and crews. Hip-hop, hippie jamband, electronica, rock, reggae, indie, punk, ska. The one thing all these cliques have in common is an independent spirit. This spirit represents the soul of the festival. It carries tens of thousands of people half way around the country. The organizers are well aware of this spirit when they choose their bands. I’d like to think they are aware that this is evolution, and not just a means to draw more people. For I really believe that music can bring people together, and the more different the people, the more we realize that we are all the same people, and that’s evolution.“
I had the chance to send J.J. a few questions by email and we also collaborated on a mix of tunes. I would much rather have had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk at length about tour stories, favorite shows, set lists, mix tapes, all over cold Magic Hat Number Nines – that apricot perfumed ale that was the hallmark of the closing stretch of my life-changing road trip last summer and is also pictured on the cover of the Headz.
How long did it take you to write Headz?
The composition of Headz took me five years, working four to six hours a day, pretty much every day. Sometimes I wrote for 12 hours in a single day. I would eat, of course, and take my dog Irie out for walks, or swim or ride bike to the beach for a break, but mainly life was all about Headz. And then it took two more years to find a publisher. So, all in all, seven years.
Talk a little bit about your creative process.
On one hand, I see writing as this mystical, spiritual process where you let go, surrendering to a force that allows you to open up to these divine energies that move through you as if you were an oracle. Some call this the muse. I’ve heard Joanne Kyger (a great writer and ex-wife of Gary Snyder, another great writer) call it the flow. It’s a cool part of the creative process, whatever you call it, because you do indeed become disconnected from time and space as you immerse yourself in the world you create, and it does flow. Now, on the other hand, I also see writing as a craft. This means that there is no process other than a strict regimented disciplined work ethic. Writing is a constant act of re-writing and revision, and therefore it is merely work. And hard work at that!!
What was harder to do? Starting the book or ending it?
The book was harder to start because I have a lot of characters and my challenge was to keep them moving forward towards the show, Oracledang, and not get sidetracked in their respective histories and dramas. The majority of my revision was spent on that laborious task.
What are you working on now?
I’m teaching six classes this fall. Four at Miami Dade College, and two at Barry University. I’m also promoting, marketing, and distributing Headz all by little old self, so most of my creative energy is going to that, but I do have a collection of stories ready to publish, and an outline for another novel. I may even write a sequel to Headz because there is room, and more story to tell. My goal is to sell a couple of thousand copies of Headz, then go to NYC and say look what I did, look what I have, there is an interest in this culture and world, now take it off my hands so I can go back to the creative stuff. But, it’s all good. Writing, like life, has always been about the journey, not the destination; that is actually a major theme of the novel .
Talk a little bit about each character.
Thelonious Horowitz is a cross between the Beastie Boys and Holden Caulfield. He speaks in a colloquial NYC hip- hop tongue. He’s musically talentedÂ cocky, popular, bipolar, and the story’s central character, more by necessity than my personal authorial choice.
Teflon Jones is one of Thelonious’s best friends, and he’s called Teflon cuz nothing sticks to him. He’s as smooth as butter. I love Teflon.
KC McGovern is a beautiful young writer who believes in dreaming, no matter what. I, as the author, personally have a crush on her.
Kurtis is this dreadie trickster from Miami, also a good friend of Thelonious from seeing shows together over the years.
Geri (I named her after Jerry Garcia) is Kurtis’s girlfriend and a sewing diva. Geri can create amazing crafts with a needle.
Sky Tyler is a tree-hugging, save-the-world activist from San Francisco who sort of falls in with a bad crowd.
Melody Rain is Sky’s girlfriend, and also Thelonious’s ex. She has a dark side that is ugly as fuck, if you explore it.
Keith Lipsiznowaz is a bumbling yoga instructor from SF who is as grounded as can be, except in the face of love, where he becomes a bit of an emotional invalid.
Shore Morris is the older, more seasoned veteran of the scene. He serves as a conveyor of information, and a positive role model, although he is a bit of an Anarchist. (I named him after George Bernard Shaw and William Morris, two influential Socialists in the U.K. during the 1890’s).
Thanks, J.J. Anything else you’d like to add?
There is one more thing I’d like to emphasize, and that is the website, headzthenovel.com. The website is a full-feature addendum to the book, complete with 100 extra pages of text, and soon to be released features. I plan to record some of Thelonious’s music, as well as create Myspace and Facebook accounts for two or three of the fictional characters. I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing, but my intuition says the website is a key to doing something that hasn’t been done in literature, and that’s a very exciting thing…