Mason Jennings: My Page (Tuning In, Dropping Out)
From the November 2009 issue of Relix
The day before I dropped out of high school there was an assembly in the auditorium to promote the talent show. They asked me to play. I decided to
play the song “Fuck School” by The Replacements. This was in Pittsburgh. So, I walked out onto the stage in front of 1,400 kids with my drummer and a bass player and launched into it. “Fuck school. Fuck school. Fuck my school.” I expected the place to go nuts. Nobody moved. One kid in the first row looked stoked—the rest of the faces were blank.
Then the principle unplugged the PA. The drums continued quietly for a second. Then I had to push my borrowed amp down the hallway back to the music room and nobody talked to me. The next day I didn’t come back. That was eleventh grade. I started going to the library instead. I read at least one book by every author on the classics wall. Everybody thought I was on drugs or drinking. I was sober. I always thought that stories are the most important thing we have as humans, so I wanted to know the stories. It’s a way of expanding your perspective and inhabiting other people’s lives.
I remember being in class beside a kid who would just sleep through class all day, his head on his backpack. I had straight Fs and was used to passing the stacks of tests over my head without taking one as they went around the room so this kid made sense to me. One day he woke up and I asked him why he was always asleep. He said he had a disease that was eating his knee bones and it hurt so bad that he was always on pain meds and that made him sleepy. He said he had no idea what was going on in class and hadn’t done any work in school for a long time. I asked him why he bothered to bring his book bag. He said it was full of philosophy books. I had no idea what a philosophy book was so he gave me Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. That changed my life. That and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
After that, I knew that there were other people who were thinking about different bigger questions in life just like I was—like, “Why are we here?” and “Is death the end?” It was simultaneously a huge relief and totally terrifying. It opened doors to hallways of inner worlds that I am still walking down.
That said, the next month I ended up in a mental hospital. That was intense. I wasn’t suicidal but I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly a safe person for myself to hang out with all day. I didn’t know that people would cut their wrists the long ways from elbow to hand along the veins but these kids all had scars like that. That whole scene seemed like a cop out. There were some really messed up kids in there, but for me, it seemed like the wrong spot. I got out of there as soon as I could. I have always loved life. Just maybe not the life everyone else loves. So, I headed to New Orleans on a train. Trains have always been a big part of my imagination. They are so sad. I remember one time when I was little I took a train to my grandparents’ house and my dad ran along the train until he slowly disappeared. So sad. They are so much like life. Slowly moving but unstoppable. So lonely and so full of people.
After New Orleans, I took the train to Minneapolis. I took all kinds of jobs (cooking, rolling burritos, waiting tables) and when I’d saved up $3,000, I made my first CD in my apartment on an old four-track reel-to-reel machine.
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