In the mid-1990’s, Jason Noble and I were sharing a house at 1207 East Broadway in Louisville, Kentucky. The whole time we lived there, some type of sewage backup – or something – was causing a painfully putrid odor to emanate from inside the mid-century steel cabinets under the kitchen sink.
THE BLUE HOUSE ON THE RIGHT
The house is just a few blocks from where Broadway begins in the Highlands. On summer days it was cooled by a monstrous, hideous, 100+ pound, industrial-strength air conditioner we received as a gift from Hilary Newton’s family. At night, when the windows were opened, the fresh air that came in was accompanied by the sounds of Dem Reggae Bon, or whatever band was on the patio stage at Phoenix Hill Tavern, “conveniently” located about 30 yards from the back door.
This little, blue, shotgun rental house quickly became a factory for creative projects, the side effect of which was laughing until we couldn’t stand up. But by the time we moved in, Jason had already had me in stitches for five or six years.
Jason and I had been in each other’s orbits in the late ’80s, but it wasn’t until early 1990 that we began to actually become friends.
When we started hanging out, he recalled later, “my only claim to fame was a few ’zines, the fact I had once vomited on a typewriter, and a 90-minute rap opus called Snug – thankfully unavailable to all music lovers.”
Snug was the first cassette tape that he and his fellow teenaged, white, suburban rappers produced under the name King G and the J Krew. As a side business for my record label, Slamdek, I ran a cassette duplication service. When the J Krew employed me to make their tapes, it was my first real exposure to working with Jason on a regular basis. It was trial by fire.
I had never really met people like him and Jeff Mueller before. Honestly, they were kind of difficult to tell apart in the early days of knowing them.
Jason and Jeff were the type of kids who adults would describe as “bouncing off the walls.” The proper number of cups of coffee versus the number of times one should bathe seemed to be reversed for them.
The way they joked with each other was so quick that you couldn’t tell if it just wasn’t funny or if you simply weren’t fast enough to get what they were talking about. It took quite a while before my stock thoughts of “what the…?” turned into an embrace of their madness.
Soon enough, Jason was off to art school in Baltimore and my doses of him began arriving in the form of hilarious and elaborately illustrated letters.
It was a comparatively slow, analog world we were living in then. Obviously before the future turned communication, art and music into drag-and-drop bits. Telephones were connected to the walls with wires, a mix tape took hours to assemble, and you had to wisely choose your long distance company because calling outside your city was expensive.
It was certainly long before I could type this on a train in Stockholm, Sweden, on a cassette-sized computer that can instantly play every song Jason and I ever recorded, which is also a telephone that’s connected to countless libraries of information, videos, news and commentary on any subject imaginable. At once it seems like a lifetime ago, yet as warm as last week.
Around the time Jason was coming back from college, my sister Greta shared an apartment in Deer Park with Robin Wallace. They had been high school classmates and had recently graduated into making music together in the bands Your Face and, later, Sister Shannon.
Greta and Robin were dating Joey Mudd and Jason Noble respectively. We were all friends in the same small circles. Joey was an alumnus of Cerebellum and soon a part of Crain. Jason was still bouncing off the walls.
It was on one night in this small apartment, packed with too many people, too much enthusiasm and too much caffeine that Joey berated Jason for being “about 110% loud.” This is quote I’ll never forget when I think of Jason.
Nothing in Jason’s life ever seemed to be done with an ordinary, reasonable level of energy. Jason Noble was always at full tilt in the direction of whatever it was he was doing.
When he drew something he used way too much ink. When he laughed at a picture of a monkey dressed up as a person – like the vintage calendar of them he had hanging on the kitchen wall – he visited every ridiculous detail in the photo. When he basked in the water glass scene from Jurassic Park, his enthusiasm betrayed the fact that he could see the big picture of the entire symphony of choreography that was taking place on screen. When he finally bought a house, it was a “compound.”
Most people know Jason for his music and it was also pushed to 110%.
When he had ideas for an important song, it would become an eleven-minute episodic journey. Most songs annoy or bore me within the first minute, but Jason and his collaborators could build the kind of song that, even if you had heard it a hundred times and you were late for work, you would still sit in your car out in the parking lot to hear it until the end. (Unless, of course, you were working at ear X-tacy – as Jason and I both did for several years – in that case you could put the record on in the store.)
Louisville musicians are infamous for their loud/quiet dynamics and the precision with which they switched between the two volumes. Jason’s bands explored this relentlessly, developing it with an organic personality that humanized it from its mechanical beginnings.
Whether bombastically with Rodan, elegantly with the Rachel’s or subtly with Per Mission – when he was loud you’d wonder how one person could make so much noise and when he was quiet you’d have to strain to hear him. Regardless, Jason’s bands always made the kind of music that you wanted to hug.
By the mid-’90s, when the two of us were looking for a house together, we had actually lived together before. In a house on Bardstown Road, shared with friends and lovers, we were just shouting distance from Zetti’s and the cheese loaf they regularly sold to dirty punk rockers.
However, the new new place we were seeking would grow to be our own 24-hour canvas.
I was excited about the prospect of living with someone who understood that creativity doesn’t follow regular business hours and that working on the same few details of a project for a week is not an absurd way to live. In fact, it’s the only way to live.
Before we found the blue house on Broadway, we looked at a number of other locations. I remember looking at an apartment one cool morning in Old Louisville. When leaving and shaking hands with the real estate agent, Jason said to him, “Okay, then. I just gotta run this by my parole officer and we’ll be in touch.” Exactly what the old guy wanted to hear.
Finding a freestanding house instead of an apartment was also important because it would offer a higher limit on the noise level.
The blue house turned out to be just what we were looking for. The other rental properties we looked at didn’t have the same rustic charm (“shitty disrepair”) of the Broadway house. That was important because it was inevitable that we’d make a mess.
Within weeks of moving in, our new nest was already stretched in a web of sound cables, amplifiers, Tascam multi-track recorders, guitars, beige Macintosh computers, Zip drives and scanners with SCSI interfaces, paper samples, Pantone books, tape, staples, notebooks and Sharpies. Name a mid-’90s tool for the production of music, Super 8 film editing or graphic design and you could probably trip over it in our house.
Seemingly overnight, the first album by Jason’s new band The Shipping News, Save Everything, was being recorded in that house, as was the Generation Rx album by my band, The Metroschifter.
The Broadway house was where Jason painstakingly perfected the ink and paper combinations for the Rachel’s magical album The Sea and the Bells. Revision after revision. That’s when he introduced me to Deepdene, his go-to typeface at the time. I still think of him every time I set words into it.
Jason began work on the first Per Mission record there, while I was interviewing people for K Composite Magazine and a short film about field hockey. A second house, two doors down at 1203, eventually became the home of Initial Records, a workshop in its own right where countless other projects were launched, including a split CD by both of our bands, Metroschifter and Shipping News, and their unique aluminum covers engraved with the band names by Chris Reinstatler. Our little blue house even played a cameo role in a 1999 episode of This American Life.
AND KNITTING AND KNITTING AND KNITTING
I feel like a great deal of the energy and creativity that was born and cultivated in those four rooms was fueled from an unlikely source (no, not the full tank of unleaded that I dispensed into my girlfriend Julie’s diesel Rabbit and then had to siphon out with Jason’s help).
If Jason and I had been sent a bill for each time we viewed or quoted a movie in the house, our tab for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure would have been through the roof. All our house guests were aware that there was no basement at the Alamo, that every night was a night “just like tonight… ten years ago,” and that every movie was “Great so far! Action-packed!”
Did we have any dreams? “Yeah, I’m all alone, rolling a big donut, and this snake wearing a vest…”
That movie infected our lives, our thought processes and humor.
One day while using the restroom in our house, I burst into laughter when I unexpectedly saw some of Jason’s artwork on the toilet paper package.
The package had a typical illustration of an “adorable” baby giggling atop clouds of soft, cottony toilet tissue. Jason had scrawled in Sharpie next to the baby’s face, “I’m so happy I could just shit!”
The whole time all of this fun stuff was happening in the house, that same nasty smell was coming out of the cabinets under the kitchen sink. So after multiple attempts over a number of months to locate the source and to disinfect and deodorize this perpetual spring of stank, Jason and I ultimately determined that the best solution was containment.
Equipped with plastic packing tape, we set forth to hermetically seal the steel cabinets in an attempt to prevent any further unpleasant wafting. Our operation was successful and the scented monster was subdued.
We always feared that we had only applied a temporary solution to a permanent problem and, in fact, perhaps the cabinets could explode at some point. It was always possible that the stench could seep through again. Jason was a huge fan of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park), so we never forgot his words, “Nature finds a way.”
Perhaps, by the day of this writing, the seal on the cabinets has been cracked. Perhaps the cabinets have even been removed completely. If either of those days has come to pass, a new homeowner or contractor has found more than just an unbearable odor inside. They found a time capsule. A very smelly time capsule.
Before sealing that reek away for someone else, Jason and I wrote a note to the next person who would breathe in its sweet goodness. We scrawled something to the effect of: sorry you had to find this, but this is what we did, and why, and the date, and our signatures. Further, we posed for a Polaroid of the operation which we also sealed inside the steel box for a later day.
Unfortunately, the last time I saw Jason was more than a year ago. I was in Louisville visiting from Sweden where I moved in 2009. We met for coffee in the sunshine of the patio at the Heine Brothers’ on Bardstown Road at Eastern Parkway. It was a crisp, bright, breezy day.
I remember him looking stronger than when I had seen him before. I remember thinking that if it were me in his place, my attitude and demeanor wouldn’t be anywhere near as positive and warm as his. But I imagine that part of Jason is what connected him to the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who observed in protest, “Life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territories and crashes through barriers. Painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, well… There it is.”
When you live far away from Louisville, it’s easy to believe that everything in Kentucky will be the same when you come back. It’s easy to think at least that everything will be okay.
The friends you’ve always had will always be there and the important people who make you who you are won’t disappear. You always leave everyone when you leave thinking “you will be safe.” When something dreadful does happen, you truly realize how much you’ve been missing.
Jason helped shape my ideals and my personality. In sadness, when I am tempted to think a part of me is now gone, I’m reminded of how much of myself I owe to my time with him. As long as I am here, his contributions to me will not be gone and my memories of him will be as embraceable as his music is in my ears right now.
Of course, Jason taught me about functional things that I use every day – printer’s plates, electronic pre-press, and techniques for massaging notes and silences into special little places.
But what crushes me the most are the things he showed me just by being himself. Sincerity, humility, generosity, and whatever the opposite of personal ambition is. These are things I really needed to learn. These are things you can learn only by seeing them exhibited by someone you admire and trust.
If you are as talented and recognized as Jason, it could be so easy to believe that you deserve the good fortune and opportunity that comes with that. You could expect it, take it for granted, or use it as a source of pride or validation. I never saw any hint that he entertained any of those things.
He was always excited about the opportunities and accomplishments his bands and projects were able to achieve, and he was gracious, but he seemed disinterested or even amused by recognition. He ways seemed like he wanted to just keep making music and share as much of that experience as possible with friends.
What’s the point in making wonderful things if you’re not sharing the experience with people you love? What’s the point in doing something serious and intense if you don’t have a common laughter in your heart with your collaborators? What’s the point in doing anything if you don’t push it as far as you possibly can to make it as wonderful and complete, as meaningful and memorable and as it can possibly be?