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The Road Home

Former Richmonder Jack Carneal recounts his rock drummer days in “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives.”



There’s a long history of autobiographical books about touring in rock bands, but most tend to be about bands that were successful.

Fewer are about bands that followed their dreams, recorded great music, struggled to find their audience, and eventually called it quits and raised families.

An even smaller number are written with a descriptive clarity that could include lines such as these about a Lollapalooza stop in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s:

“The backstage area was an open field filled with backed-up raw sewage. Tampons and toilet paper floated in oily pools of waste, along with cigar-shaped turds. Picking from the trays of baked chicken and rice and mayonnaisey salads and shredded pork wraps were pneumatic young Eastern European girls in bikinis with too much foundation caking their faces. Mafiosi in cheap sharkskin suits and oversized sunglasses smoked cigars and leered at the girls’ fake breasts as they glistened like raw chicken.”

The above scene was written by Jack Carneal, 52, a Richmond native and Collegiate School grad who grew up in the “pre-gentrified Fan.” He earned a master’s degree in fiction writing at University of Virginia, where he met the talented singers Will and Ned Oldham and wound up playing drums with both in Palace music projects and the Anomoanon. That’s pronounced like “phenomenon.”

His funny new book, “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” takes its title from a Mekons song and reads like a coming-of-age novel and a meditation on the nature of memory. You’ll understand cranky rock drummers in a whole new way.

“I admit I thoroughly enjoyed writing it,” Carneal says, adding that nailing down the final draft was difficult. “Some anecdotes were too personal. I tried to discipline myself to have everything lean more toward the comic side than the serious or analytical.”

Carneal took a lot of journals with him during his touring days and the book started out from writing vivid scenes based on his memories.

“I did compare memories with bandmates and a lot said, ‘I don’t remember that happening that way,’ or some didn’t remember it all,” he says. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ For me, it really did become a meditation on the subjective nature of memory.”

The singer and actor, Will Oldham, due to his artistic success, is the sun around which the book revolves. He wrote the foreword, noting: “[Carneal's] memories are his own, certainly; I remember that the Tibetan Buddhist monks at the water park outside of Cincinnati wore orange Speedo bathing suits, where Jack recalls them swimming in their traditional red robes.”

Carneal was influenced by the exacting memoirs of Swedish writer Karl Ove Knausgård (“My Struggle”) and found it challenging writing about friends.

“They had become characters at one point and ceased being real people,” he explains. “So I was really conscious of going through, fleshing them out and treating them fairly. Will is a good example — he’s an incredibly powerful, charismatic guy who bore a big responsibility.”

Most audiences came out to hear Oldham’s mesmerizing, delicate warble float through his songs. But the book makes an argument for the skills, and patience, of his brother, Ned.

Carneal and Ned Oldham’s band, the Anomoanon, had critically acclaimed albums and once hoped to become the Band to Will Oldham’s Dylan. But the two never could break through. Many around them thought it was because of the highly unusual band name, people couldn't pronounce it, much less spell it, but they refused to change it.

“It was just pure cussedness,” he says, laughing. “Nobody could ever pronounce it or spell it. For some reason, we didn’t think that was important. Of course it was.”

Carneal’s writing career actually started at Style Weekly after college, where he wrote music reviews. He also worked at Plan 9 in Charlottesville, where he was present for the explosive, bloodless birth of the Dave Matthews Band and wrote a review for C’ville Weekly criticizing the band for not rocking hard enough.

“I felt bad, but a friend of his told me Dave agrees, they need to learn how to rock more,” Carneal recalls, laughing. “Their rise absolutely was meteoric. We sold his CDs exponentially by the day.”

There are many moments in the book set in Richmond and Charlottesville and readers will recognize band names and places, from Labradford to Kosmos 2000.

One story involves Carneal’s friend working at the Museum of the Confederacy downtown, when what appeared to be two homeless folks showed up early one morning, the man wearing sweatclothes, drawn hoody, and a towel, and the disheveled woman chain smoking.

“My friend was sweeping and told them to come back at 10 a.m., they had a problem with loiterers wanting to use the bathroom,” he says. “When he came back, he realized it was Bob Dylan. Dylan wanted to see the original lyrics to the song ‘Dixie,’ which he showed him. [Dylan] played a great version of it that night at the Mosque.”

Today Carneal lives with his family in Baltimore and teaches writing at Towson University. He doesn’t miss being in a band, he says, but does miss the camaraderie and recording albums. Luckily for fans, Carneal’s friend Ned Oldham will be there for their Richmond appearance, and along with guitarist Jordan Perry, the three plan to rock some old Anomoanon tunes at Babe’s, just like the old days.

“At the end of the day, I remain incredibly proud of the songs we wrote.”

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